Life in instalments

Instalments are a way of life. Who has a mortgage? Who is paying off a loan? How are the credit card repayments going? Do you use the direct debit TV licence payments? When you see something that you want, do you immediately explore the different ways of having it?

I first knew this as Hire-Purchase.4b-teresa-cleary-masons-receipt-for-pram-page-2-495x644

It’s a vague memory but I know it was common. There would be a payment book, a bit like a savings pass book. Your regular payments would be recorded as you watched your balance gradually reduce. Is this when the rot started? Many people classify us as a must have society.screen-shot-2014-12-10-at-3-28-12-pm

We venture into these agreements with the knowledge that the road of repayments will eventually end. But what about people who cannot keep up the payments? Their life may quickly become a mess.tumblr_mbhnhrzjug1rcccvao1_500

They may blame the pressure of modern life or the slippery practices of the provider. Now whilst I shudder at my brief encounters with debt and hardship, this post is not about the great quagmire of financial liabilities.

The instalments I want to talk about relate to doing things; I’m sure there are parallels with the financial side. Let’s start with my wheelchairs and scooter. They get their power in instalments. If I didn’t charge them up regularly my life would become a mess.Woman stuck to the floor

My house would become a mess. I would become a mess. Imagine how many times I’d fall over; eek!

The more recent instalments I am becoming aware of relate to doing the more extraordinary things. Some years ago, when I was capable of getting up and down off the floor and could walk a bit, I decided to fit a phone extension into my bedroom. This was not possible to do in an hour like I may have expected in the eighties and a lot of the nineties so I had to plan the whole operation.

Stage 1. Buy the stuff.

Stage 2. Plan the route of the cable.

Stage 3… yawn.

It took six hours to complete. I could have asked a friend. I have good friends who are always willing to help but I wanted the satisfaction of doing it myself.diy-bad

I was particularly pleased with the tacking of the cable to the skirting board and the drilling of the hole in the wall. No loose wires to trip over. As you may be aware, there are wiring nightmares in all households. Buckingham Palace I believe.

The most evident is the myriad of cables which build up behind the television.374-cables

They lie there like a nest of mischievous vipers. You can spend hours tidying them up with cable ties and junction boxes but when you’re out of earshot they will hiss their hissy giggle as they break away to wrap around each other. When you go to admire your handy work some two hours later, your smugness changes to despair as you look at the aftermath of a snake orgy. Most of them are black and shiny; some sort of faux leather fetish?

The phone extension may have been the minor accomplishment of a minor task but at least it showed me the way ahead for doing things for myself. Back then, I was able to plan and sequence everything in my head. That’s impossible to do now. If I wake up and decide to do some sorting out and cleaning, I get horribly confused. I fly off at tangents beginning other jobs before remembering the original one. There is no point in getting downhearted about this however. It means that in the confusion I’ll have achieved more than I set out to do. All right it took four times longer but look at what I’ve done! (Stands up and attempts a pirouette in an Angelina Ballerina style before realising I can’t actually do it and tumble to the floor like a centre forward.) angelina_ballerina

Last week when I was up against the wall, the housework wasn’t going to do itself. Yes, I’m getting old. I’m talking about housework. Sleep and rest were the priority so each day had to be planned. Feed the cat. Rest. Make tea. Rest. Stare at the uncleaned surfaces in the kitchen. Rest. Clean one of the surfaces. Rest. How tedious. But like hire-purchase, the instalments eventually end.

Then you buy something else; or in this case I just make more mess. Even the card has to be recycled in stages. How tedious. The washing? How tedious. This is the price of independence.

At the end of the Christmas term in 1995, I went on a bit of a bender.Julie had had a 'tad' too much to drink!

After finishing school, I went to a birthday do on the Friday night which lasted until Saturday morning. My mate Stash was with me the so next day we had a bit of a lunchtime session.

In between the lunchtime and going on on the town I completely sorted out the house before preening myself for the big pub crawl.

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I am a domestic god.

It was a bit of a girly night out and we ended up in Da Vinci’s. What happened when we all climbed into a cab? I said: “A lot of my pupils gave me wine for Christmas. Anyone fancy a nightcap?” Stash was asleep but my three lady friends nodded. After all, the price of drink in Da Vinci’s was a bit outrageous so we had to catch up. The impromptu party broke up just before day break. That’s all I remember.

The next morning-and it was morning, I had to clear up all the wine soaked tea mugs. I collected a few of those in my teaching career. I can see some people cringing at the thought of wine in mugs. It was necessary, believe me.

Was the Sunday a day of rest? We went to the pub at lunch time and ended up back at my mate Steve’s house. He was the one responsible for the Friday party so I’m assuming there were some left-over goodies.

So was Monday a day of rest? No it was a day of penance.positive-punishment

The weather was freezing and I had to drive down to Brighton to get my brand new Ford Ka taxed. I had to park some distance away and fight my way through one of those Eastern winds, fresh from the heart of Siberia. Yet I did it.

It was a true lost weekend. I suppose each episode of that epic time was an instalment in its own right. Maybe times like the eighties were an instalment of my life. I often joke that I spent that particular decade in a drunken haze. It’s not actually true. I did almost everything I ever wanted to do in the eighties.

Now as I sit here on my comfortable sofa, I’m wondering how many instalments I need to get to the pit.

Stand up. (Not easy.)

Get into the wheelchair. (Unsteadily, trying not to set off my Lifeline alarm.)

Put things away. (To avoid a cry of despair in the morning.)

I’m also hoping that despite the mundane nature of today’s subject matter, you’ve actually reached the end of my post. Thank-you for reading.       

The occasional feast

Dieting is relentless. It can become a hard fought mundane affair with regular inflections of unadulterated guilt: “But I nibbled a crust yesterday and I feel enormous. Did I dream waking up and hitting the bacon butties? I’m sure I’ve had two slices of carrot too many. If I write it all down will I discover too much? On Tuesday in desperation I began chewing the leg of the table; is wood fattening?”

But every once in a while, I get the urge to go large. So last night my old friends Sarah and Richard came round for a Moroccan feast. I’ve know Sarah for thirty six years (say it quickly) and Richard for twelve. In fact both of his sons have been taught by me. There’s a lot of family history there. Obviously my circumstances rule out any quick bish bash bosh arm waving garlic slamming pan drumming heroics a la Jamie Oliver.

He is a clever chef who understands food and how to make money out of it. Back in the Brit-Pop days he slid down his banister straight onto his scooter whilst opening the front door with his feet and bursting onto the street wearing his parka. He would then charge into artisan suppliers hailing a cheeky Essex boy’s greeting as he snatched the biggest salami with his teeth and pounded out the door on all fours howling like a banshee.

Then he’d be standing of the seat of his Vespa tossing a pan with his customary rotary style swerving in and out of the automobile boulders, moving as fast as an ice-age glacier on the pitted streets of London.

In one smooth mellifluous movement, young Jammy would slip effortlessly back into the rider’s seat applying the brakes for the approaching red light. As he paused twisting the revs he’d look at the camera and say “Easy Tiger.” As he left the deli, the cheery shop keeper would offer a happy wave knowing that other over-sincere wannabee foodies would be breaking his door down for over-priced organic illusion. “Why’s my carrot wrinkled and floppy?” “Oh it’s natural guv. It’s a mature carrot. They increase in flavour with age. That’ll be four pound seventy-seven for the two.” Customer, satisfied with achieving an acceptable level of cheeky banter will leave as happy as a dog with two carrots.

Having said that, Jamie’s web site is packed with brilliant ideas. It’s easy to follow and shows a simple approach with stunning results.

That was not my approach. Mine was far more sedentary.

 1. Wheel myself around the kitchen with note book and pen.

2. Inspect stocks.

3. Note anything that can be Moroccanised.

4. Sit down on the sofa and write a menu.

5. Click Tesco online with a cup of tea in hand.

My week in a notebook:

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crossword anagrams-very important.20161126_142330

And the menu?

Nibbles of olives and haloumi seared tastefully with appropriate griddle stripes.

Maneesh, an Arabic flatbread covered in seeds and dried herbs with Baba Ganoush, a dip of roast aubergine, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. The second dip was yoghurt with cucumber, mint, coriander and chopped tomatoes. Oh, I also put some chopped sun-dried tomatoes in there.

Ah the image of sun-dried tomatoes; an Italian village street sloping down towards the vineyard. A host of ripe succulent blood red tomatoes hanging on a trellis in the heat of the Tuscan sun. Terracotta roof tiles and whitewashed cottage walls. The Italian matriarch turning them with the help of her beautiful dark sultry daughter. Grand papa sitting on the outside bench finishing his pre-lunch cigarette, looking hopefully down the road for the return of his son and two lusty red-blooded grandsons back from their early morning hunt.

Oh wait a minute. They’re made in a factory using a lot of science.

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And mine were dried in my oven. Either way, sun-dried tomatoes are tasty things. I always dry mine with a touch of garlic and cumin; a perfect Moroccan combination.

We ate all the bread. That was a big compliment. Next in line was a lamb tagine which had been cooking for eight hours in the slow cooker. It’s always worth getting some Ras al Hanout. This is a potent blend of typical North African spices. One sniff and you know it means business. In a very crafty move, I had prepared the paste on the Wednesday and left it sealed in the fridge. (The ingredients of the paste are on one of the above pages of the great notebook.)

On Thursday I made the bread and the dips. Today’s efforts were putting the stew on, making carrots with mint and coriander, a bit of bulgar wheat and making apple and fig filo parcels smothered in sesame seeds.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. I couldn’t find the bulgar wheat or the sesame seeds. This was a perfect case of molehills becoming mountains. What would an able bodied person do? Stand up to the cupboards removing every item whilst swearing profusely before said ingredients were found?

Perhaps. I had to use stealth. I opened all the cupboards, high and low and rolled back to get a good view. I switched on my phone torch. I looked for opportunities. Ten minutes later they were sitting in front of the microwave. All right, I had to get out of the chair and grope blindly on the top shelf risking fatal injury but I did manage it.

So it was a bit of bish bash bosh but in a gentle slow motion:

Bishhhhhhhh baaasssshhhhhh booooooossssssshhhhhhh.

The main BBB was in the eating of it. Do I feel guilty? I’m telling myself no. But I’ve been a bit under the weather lately. The fatigue has had me going on about walls and the art of getting over them.

Today I felt better. I think it’s because I paced the whole exercise. In fact, the next time I do it, it’ll be far more slick. Slick but slow.

Thank-you for reading.

Giving in to the wall

In the Concise Oxford Dictionary “wall” has a myriad of definitions from a barrier of bricks to a defensive line in football. There appears to be no reference to its emotive nature and its common usage as a psychological metaphor.

Molly looked up at the wall. Today it seemed enormous. Although she knew quite well that this monstrous barrier to her happiness and freedom never magically changed its size, its appearance altered. In the cold cruel light of morning, it seemed solid and impenetrable. When it was raining the angry clouds above darkened the stone rendering it grim and unforgiving. Even in the gentle glowing light of a summer’s day, Molly felt intimidated by its sheer mass. This was a barrier of fear-a symbol of pain, suffering and restricted freedom. Once the insides of this imposing monument had been observed, it was generally accepted one would never view it from the outside again. Molly however-gentle little Molly with the pleasant smile and forgiving nature, had other ideas.”

From “The Long Summer.”

In Kent and Sussex where I live, I’ve seen some beautiful walls. Rusty ageing brick, setting a rustic irregular pattern alongside a country road.wall

In one house, I had a lovely old wall in the garden. Next door’s apple tree stretched its branches out over to my side giving me an annual abundance of fresh green apples. My two cats, Doris and Gladys saw the wall as part of their adventure playground.

But I’ve found walls of a different nature. When I say found, these walls were encountered by me running full tilt into them. When I finally gained my Open University degree in 1985, I applied straight away to do a primary level PGCE at Christ College in Liverpool.

Five years previously, I’d had a chat with the head of department who promised I’d be welcomed with open arms for the course. But in that time a wall had been built. They were my first choice college but I was rejected instantly.rejection

Later that academic year, I was actually given an interview by Bretton Hall near Wakefield. On a hot day in June I set out full of hope and drove the seventy five point eight miles to the college. It was the biggest farce I have ever experienced. They even mocked me for thinking I could actually seriously consider becoming a teacher.

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The wall of prejudice. They were at pains to point out that my history was too chequered to be appropriate for teaching. But I’d lived. And I was ready to go charging into a new career with knowledge, experience and vigour.

Later that year I had a similar experience in an interview at Didsbury. This wall was not expected. Why should these smug condescending academics, wallowing in the nebula of educational theory doubt my sincerity?no_admittance_sign

I knew children. I knew how to talk to children and relate to their emotions and needs. Fortunately, the town where I taught the piano lost three of its piano teachers so I cleaned up. I met even more beautiful exciting little people. There was no wall on any side then.

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I love this old picture of my favourite piano teaching town.

When the numbers dipped I decided to try and climb the wall again. I had an interview at Leeds University for a secondary music PGCE. So I fired up Dennis the Flying Custard (my Fiat 128 estate) and climbed the wall of the Pennines to find an open path at Leeds.fiat-128-estate-06

I am forever grateful to David Dawson for his faith and support. But when one wall goes another appears. I was in trouble.

To cut a long story short, the spectre of multiple sclerosis was beginning to loom over my optimistic enthusiastic aura. It became a worry. I knew what it was. Like a secret demon it would laugh at me from the corner of the room.136k253d

If I even thought about the satisfaction of finally achieving my new profession, it would sit there in the back of my mind pouring out irony and avarice.

It was a greedy beast. It wanted to dominate me. I’ve always been ready to compete but I’ve never been over competitive. I didn’t like being fouled and held back in sports. I believed in fair play. But this beast was not playing fair. It had no idea about all the work and worry I’d put into a new career. It had found a hole and it wasn’t going to let go.

Then the wall grew a base. The base was an increasing gradient. It was never a gentle gradient.geraldmurphy39

I had a little bit of a chance but as time passed it was becoming more vertical. Then came the deep breath moments. At first I was quite able to walk o the station and get the train. I was earning decent money and had a rip-roaring mark 1 Escort Mexico.ford-escort-mexico-1

A beautiful fast noisy piece of rebel. I even took it down to the south of France. Wherever I parked it, little crowds of gaping young men would gather round and point. Hot sun, windows open and carefree times.

The very next year I was diagnosed with MS. But the day to day walls were relatively low. My deep breath moments came with long journeys and late nights. By the time I’d had my house with the walled garden and apple tree, the walls were higher.

My two brothers ran junior football teams. Like them, I was a football fanatic. But I could no longer run. The only other male teacher at the primary school was secretly hoping I could take the reins of the football team. I knew how to do it. It was a chance to show my brothers. But between me and that football pitch was a massive wall. I was surrounded by a forest of walls.725150

All I could do was teach a bit in PE.

Instead they had to make do with me playing the piano in assembly, taking the choir and writing annual year six musicals. People knew I had limitations. I was worried about being exposed as a fraud.greencard-300x299

As the years went on, I had to admit to my life surrounded by walls. I did feel alone. One of the sweetest moments was when Barbara, a teacher on the edge of retirement was due to get a hip replacement.

“It gets quite painful,” she would say “but then I think of Steve and how he gets up every morning and still leads the charge with smiles and encouragement.”

I felt less alone. I felt heroic. I was being appreciated and supported. But when the work wall came, I had to submit to its might.

Now I have other walls. A lot of people have their walls so I’m not that special or different. Oh hang on, I am. (Chuckles to himself.)

Thank-you for reading.

Mountains and molehills

“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill!” It’s a familiar comment. It can infer a multitude of things: Don’t be a drama queen. It’s easier than you think. You’re such a pessimist. In fact it is a pessimistic sentiment in its own right. I can hear the pragmatists saying “It’s all relative.” There’s nothing wrong with that, especially as now my molehills are genuine mountains.

When I was thirteen, I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my short life. Mr Gordon, a geography teacher at school, organised a coach trip to North Wales. We were going to climb Tryfan.tryfan-1

I had no idea what to expect. I recognised Bettys y Coed but after that, going down the Nant Ffrancome Pass on a grey rainy day in May, blew my mind to smithereens.

I went on holiday with my family to Conwy when I was only five years old. We stayed in a rickety little caravan on the A55. But opposite us was a mini-mountain.untitled

My dad called it the little big horn because I said it was a mountain on a mountain. It left an impression. On the fifth day of our holiday we ascended to its modest summit. I could see the coast before me. We’d been to the beach a couple of times but I was drawn to the hills. For a boy of five, living on a council estate in Fazakerly this was amazing.fazakerleycouncilhousesaerial-ba08079

I had the same feeling at thirteen on the way to Tryfan. The coach stopped and we piled out. “You’re going to get wet,” said Mr Gordon. I just loved the way the grey rock gave off a silvery sheen in the spring rain. It was fine rain. A gentle mist of damp wispy  warmth falling all around us. There was no wind.   There was no noise. I’d never heard silence before.

Then we began our quest. Originally I’d imagined a slightly extended hilly walk along a well defined path as in going up our local hill at home. Thurstaston Hill is a beautiful sandstone outcrop where you can see both the Mersey and the Dee.2585541_1b7de2f9

After twenty minutes I was saturated and bruised. The gradient of the hill had already left me exhausted. Mr Gordon was smiling. He knew we were being tested. But none of us were going to give up. I was driven on by elegance of the surroundings. These shining rocks were drawing me into their quiet powerful majesty. I had never been so exhausted. But on we went. I was looking forward to the scramble as opposed to the battle up the severe plane. Above me were stepping stones merging with the cloud. The thought of being in a cloud was magical. It was magical. As we stepped up the slippery slate we were in our own world.

At the top I looked at the two Tryfan monoliths, Adam and Eve. Around us was the white coating of the world we only ever dreamt about.

From the ground clouds look like a ceiling of fluff. I would lie back on the grass seeing the little balls go racing by, imagining that I could be riding them to somewhere like the land of the faraway tree. (Enid Blyton)

cloudsBut to be within the comfort of a cosy damp cocoon was a unique experience. It was a bit like a gentle sauna. I began to think of my family and friends. Had they ever been in a cloud before? It was a special moment. By the time we had  slipped and skidded our way down (mostly on our arses), the cloud had cleared and we could see our achievement. I never use the word awesome lightly but it was awesome.

We had other trips to mountains in all weathers and every time I felt empowered. In 1979 I had a car and would do the 160 mile round trip to Snowdonia as often as I could. My favourite was Snowdon itself. Winter, Summer Autumn and Spring; I was all over it.

One trip I remember well was on January the third 1981. At the time I was cycling everywhere (no car) so I went with my mate Eddie Kelly. He was always up for an adventure. After crossing the first ridge I saw the cloud swirling around the summit. It is at this time when the music of Where Eagles Dare begins to float around my head. Just like the castle on the mountain your heart misses a beat.

As we crept higher up the Pyg Track, the wind began to gather. But it didn’t feel cold. I was too hot from the walking. At the monolith which signals the last push up the train line the wind was screaming. The cloud raced around trying to enshroud me in its turbulent blanket. I knew Eddie was behind me but I couldn’t see him. At the top was the ghostly presence of the rail terminal. Everything was grey. It was a lonely place.ap_2005_0334

A panting Eddie came up behind me. Obviously I was fitter through all the cycling I was doing. I never realised how steep the last part was until I took the train up there. I looked down to the Crossways and the Monolith thinking “how on earth?”

These are brillant memories: Tryfan, Arenig Fawr, The Glyders, Moelwynn Mawr and Snowdon twenty two times. Once I could see Blackpool Tower from its lofty summit. Another time we climbed it and my mate Tony passed a joint around. I even took a young lady there on a first date. I think I’ve experienced every single type of weather on that Grand Old Lady. Every time has been different. On the way down I’d sit down and take in the views from Llyn Glaslyn, the upper lake.

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This was the very last time I managed to get to the lake. October 1993.

On quiet days when the cloud was skirting the surrounding peaks of the horse shoe my mind would turn to Norse Mythology and the Hall of the Mountain King.

Hailstones are the worst. It’s like someone is shooting you in the face with air gun pellets.

And now? My mountains are rather mundane. Getting through the day without falling. Cooking good food. Going out on my scooter. Oh yes, that’s a mountain. I have to unfold the outdoor portable wheelchair, use my walking stick on the joystick to guide it out of the front door (a masterpiece of manoeuvre) leaving my indoor chair by the door in order to scoot down to the parking bay and fire up the Tramper. But the Tramper goes fast. It’s like coming down that mountain with my dad on our bottoms.

Now I live in East Sussex. It’s a beautiful county.ashdownforest10big

But I look at the walkers wandering around the downs and think: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Thank-you for reading.

Tattoos and urgency

Here are two very different words. A tattoo can be a military display or a piece of permanent body art. An additional definition, as I’ve just looked it up, is a drum or bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters. When I was ten the army planted themselves in our local park. They were showing of a lot of their equipment to the public. Being next to a real tank was pretty exciting.valentine_tank_mk3_desert

At the weekend there was a proper tattoo. It was fantastic. I only have vague memories but it was a chain of spectacular events with mock battles, motorcycles and the usual marching band. They even landed a helicopter in front of us. For a brief time, as it came down and took off again, I was confronted with the strangling roar of its thumping engine and the resulting maelstrom from the blades as it sent volleys of grass and mud into and around us. I was roaring with delight.westlandscoutah1_1

How about the word urgency? Pressing, driving. The Concise Oxford gives us a simple definition. But the human response to the word is a multi faceted complex affair. It can send fear and panic screaming around your body. It might mean sweaty palms, mental stress or being out of breath. Urgency is something we would never choose.

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It comes about as an outcome of one or many events. Some of it may be our own fault. When I was a piano teacher, I had three cases of urgency a year. A lot of my pupils liked to do exams. This involved me collecting the fees and writing their names on a form. I would then have to buy a stamp from the post office and place it in the post box outside.

If ever I was guilty of that lovely Cornish term “directly” (that’s like manjana but without the urgency), it would be relating to the act of getting the damn thing in the post box before the cut off date. After an enormous sigh of relief I would go on my knees before the great red pillar and pledge an oath for it to never be like that again.

eiir_pillar_boxI’m sure there were two knee-shaped dents in the pavement from the countless times I’d made that promise. Most people just assumed I was drunk or off my head on some mind altering chemical. It was always on a Saturday just before the post office closed and the final collection was to be taken.

Perhaps the biggest culprit of creating urgency is time. This is where the same old platitudes run off our tongue: There aren’t enough hours in the day. Everyone wants it yesterday. People need to be more flexible. Life is too short to be organised. Obviously I was a firm adherent of the final statement. I’m still the same with form filling.

Let’s called it the Macca challenge. It could become a TV show called “The Great British Put Off.”

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You know how the programmes always have the serious slightly lowered tones of a jobsworth narrator, fuelling the drama with short earnest statements: Will Steve get to the post box on time? Then there was a problem; his pen ran out. With a cheque only half written, time was running out. He was parked in the car. Not a pen to be seen. Does he scrabble through the loose sheets of music and old cassette cases of the car floor or race into the post office to buy a new pen and finish it from a standing position?

Now if you are familiar with the symptoms of MS, you’ll know where I’m going with this urgency business. It’s something everyone is familiar with the world over; not just those poor souls blighted with some form of chronic illness. Shall we shout it together? Prepare yourselves. You need to inject a sense of panic and sincerity into your voice. Perhaps a little dance might help. Can you river dance? Even better. Here we go; one, two, three: “I NEED THE TOILET!”

20110705182853929_0003I’m very familiar with this urgency. It often involves gouging great holes and scrapes in the door frame as I frantically steer my lumbering wheelchair towards the the sanctuary of the bathroom. Now to bring the two words together. Despite all my past bewilderment at the sanity of those people strutting around with painted arms or tiny butterflies in naughty little places, I decided that I was going to get a tattoo. A tattoo virgin at the age of sixty. My daughter is called Rose, I used to grow roses when I was younger and so my tattoo would be a rose. It was at 3.30 in the afternoon and would take an hour and a half. Adding on the fifteen minutes travel time either side, that was two hours away from an accessible toilet. I’ll spare you the details but provisions have to be made. Then I have to deal with anxiety; my biggest problem with urgency. All the time I was having a conversation with the jolly little bearded gnome-like man who was scoring me with his needles, I had the background anxiety. I wasn’t in my wheelchair and yes there was a door which said toilet. But the studio was tiny. I can’t do tiny.

On good days I leave a trail of devastation.

article-2685376-1f7f315a00000578-156_964x627On bad days the devastation includes falling over as my feet get in a tangle. I need space. If only every public loo was like the one at Cherwell Valley Service Area on the M40. Well it’s good news. There was no urgency. And my tattoo is sitting proudly on my arm.

15078637_10154064242633133_8800785784659463125_n But every day is a challenge. It has to be a masterpiece of timing. No longer can I just think hold on. It’s that thirty second warning. Like Corporal Jones says “Don’t panic.”722496-dad-039-s-army

Thank-you for reading.

The legend of 8620

The first time I went to Chester Zoo I just wandered off into the abyss of legs and feet glancing at the big eyes of the captive beasts.

Children shouted and parents pointed. I had no idea where I was and I didn’t care. It was a sunny day and I was in a wonderful place. Somewhere by the sea-lions my parents caught up with me. They looked red. Dad was panting because smoking and running about in a crowded area like a headless chicken do not go well together.

He gave up soon after. Which brings me to Mum.

Two months into the giving up, I saw my mum and Auntie Agnes lighting up in the living room of 10 Berwyn Road. (My Auntie’s house.)  “I’m telling,” I squealed in disappointment. The ensuing admonishment was instant and rapier-like.

I felt disappointed. For the next twenty plus years, I awoke every morning to the faint smell of cigarette smoke drifting through the house from the back yard all the way up to the front bedroom. I felt the same way as I did in Auntie’s living room. I wanted her to stop. She knew it. She knew my dad knew but it wasn’t enough. The big shock came in 2000 when she’d been rushed into hospital after my dad found her crawling on her knees in the back yard gasping. She still had a fag on.

Yet despite the scare  my dad still had to seize her little sticks of comfort and pleasure and crush them during one of her late night yard visits.

I don’t know if she ever smoked after that. It pales into insignificance with what was to come next.

My mum developed dementia. To see the person who had brought you up and gave everything for you turning into a stranger is the saddest thing I have ever known.

“And do you know who this is?” asked the doctor pointing at me. “I think his name begins with S,” she replied. How do you control the anger and frustration? It was darkness. This darkness lasted another two years. That’s two years of confusion and hurt. I turned up at the house once to find one of their wedding pictures torn in half. She was denying their years together. Dad was recovering from his second stroke. He had no chance. When she left us in October of 2005, it was a feeling of being cheated.

In an ideal world, Mum would have nodded in agreement at everything Dad said, expanded on it and then made sure he was looked after and loved just like it had always been. But it never happened. The end was desperate. My mum assumed she was no longer loved and died in a hospital bed all alone. Of course she knows the truth now. In the far reaches of her tortured mind, she also knew then. But Mum was a serial carer. She was dedicated to her three boys and my dad Joe.

Every Monday she would come home from work and get the boat and bus up to my Nan’s in Fazakerly. The cottage pie she’d made in the morning and lunch time was always simmering away deliciously in the oven.

We’d sit on the sofa and watch a western with my dad. It could have been High Chaparral or Hondo Lane. Boys’ bonding time. Now you know the relief you feel when you hear the front door open and close? Mum was home and we’d ask her all sorts of questions about everything. It was the family at the end of the day, back together again.

As we grew older the westerns stopped but we still had the cottage pie and the sense of togetherness at the end of the day. Mum wasn’t always the last one in but it was still the sense of getting through the first day of the week and being a family, laughing and joking about the day’s events with tea, coffee, sarcasm and love.

Now the 8620 business; in 1977, my parents finally had a phone installed. It stood proud on the top of the electric cupboard. It was creamy white and made that satisfying whirr as you dialled a number. “8620?” would be the greeting my mum gave to our callers. It was said in a questioning tone with my mum’s unmistakable articulation. It was a mixture of hope and dread.

One of the first calls they had to take was regarding my car accident somewhere near Delamere Forest. Just over a year later there was a call about my younger brother’s accident. But after that Mum’s answer was beginning to become a popular routine. Friends began to do their own version of her famous greeting. The accuracy of such impersonations varied wildly. Some would make her sound like Dot from Eastenders whilst some verged on he positively aggressive. Mum was never aggressive but that was the price of legend.

Of course, my impersonation was the best. (What else would I say?) If anyone was calling for me, there was a good chance that I was out. “When will he be back?” the little voice would ask. “Oh I don’t know,” Mum would reply. “He never says.” There would be a hint of pride in my mother’s voice. She loved all three of us getting on and doing things.

Mum would often be seen chatting to neighbours in the road about what the three of us were up to. I’m not sure if she ever realised that Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells were two different places but that was part of the charm. Every year between 1995 and 2002, both my parents would spend a week down South with me. It was an adventure for all of us. Mum and Dad were delighted to meet my friends. My dear mother would find stories and anecdotes to make any son cringe. I smiled and bought another round. I cannot possibly write down all that my mum meant to me. But to so many others she was the voice of 8620 and she had spent her whole life grafting for the good of the family. She would often get in from work after we’d come home from school. Then she’d get straight into the role of the domestic goddess.  She never asked us to do anything other than nip down the road for some milk.

The dementia seemed so unfair. It was unfair on her. Those last two years were an enormous burden on my father and elder brother. I could go on about our Tom and the way we could wind each other up but during that time he took on the mantle of the true eldest son. He wasn’t prodigal, just supportive.

The end was sad; sad for those lost years when someone is still with us but they’re losing the reality of their history. The last time I saw my mum alive was in a hospital bed. She was deep inside an incident from her past. She didn’t recognise me. Thank-you for reading.

PJs

I have often read on the various forums I frequent that many people will have a pj and duvet day. Well today was a pj day. I woke up on the sofa at around 7.30 this morning and finally scrambled into my pit. When I emerged at about 11.45, I just had to do it. It was cold outside so it was time to stay warm.

I found the biggest and scruffiest t-shirt.2013-mens-t-shirt-scruffy-cocoa

When I eventually found some pyjama bottoms, I realised that I was not a pj person. I tend to collapse in whatever is still hanging on to me. It reminds me of my elder brother’s stag night. After the night’s misdemeanours three of us decided to take a route home through a building site. Now I’m cutting a long story short here, but I ended up covered in builder’s mud.

I woke up the next morning in my filthy attire. I think I had the sense to take my shoes off. My poor mother never mentioned it. She duly washed my bed sheets and clothes without a word of admonishment. Although I did actually have to spend the next night in my mud laden bed. So I never mentioned that.

Today, therefore, I rocked up in my tattiest best, sat myself on the sofa wrapped in a blanket with a huge mug of tea ready for the day’s action: Three football matches. My Sunday sloth was interrupted only by visits to the kettle and the statutory toilet stops. When I say I was rocking my stripey pyjama bottoms, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say I was wetting my pyjama bottoms? (I didn’t!) Definitely MS humour there. But we are a highly trained species. We know when to go and what precautions to take.

Back to the football. When Liverpool scored their second goal I switched off the TV. I hate Liverpool. I love the city but I am a true Evertonian. It’s in my blood therefore I hate Liverpool. All those schooldays and workdays of sniping about shallow victories, listening to those red monkeys proclaim their dominance of human kind. For a time it seemed they were invincible.

Oh spare me sweet Lord of the pains of constant defeat and humiliation. Promise me that one day the sad belittled blue half of Merseyside will rise once more in glory to vanquish the false gods of Anfield.

After turning off the box I was drawn to the kitchen. There were 500 grams of turkey mince screaming for attention. I checked the sell-by date. It said 5th November. What’s one day between me and the cat? I mixed the mince with onions, garlic, paprika, tomato puree and the remains of the carrot and swede mash from yesterday. I love paprika; its a very good friend of white meat. Then it came to me. Whilst gently hand mixing the soft meat and its friends a song burst into my head.

“Paprika, I’ve just met a spice called paprika.

And suddenly I find that not all food is bland you seeeee

Say it loud and there’s music sighing.

Say it soft and it’s almost like frying.”

We are safe. I will not give up the day job. Now sometime in the distant past, the ubiquitous hairy bikers did a series on diet food. They made a Cornish pastie with pizza dough instead of pastry. The bell went ding. My machine has a forty five minute pizza dough setting. So I made the dough and wrapped it round the turkey.

As it cooked I had to sort of watch it as I had no idea what I was doing. But after 35 minutes on 160 fan, it looked ready. The second part of my song burst into life. It involved a slightly strangled screaming exclamation as I tried to handle the hot pasties. It was not pretty but at last it was rhythmic. By this time I was watching Leicester City lose to West Brom. There were three pasties. In fact here they are.20161106_171944-2

It was as though I’d made them for the three bears. I started with the baby portion. Oh yes! What I’d actually created was a turkey burger baked in a bun.

For those of you who’ve not yet discovered the delights of the bread machine, I say get one or at least dig the one out of the cupboard that’s sitting there all neglected along with the fondue set. I can manage it very well one-handed. I bought mine fifteen years ago after proclaiming the pappiness of manufactured bread.

There is a local bakery in Crowborough but they charge the earth and you cannot leave that shop with just one item. It’s often referred to as “Fat Boys”. I knew I could do better for my health so reader, I bought it.

As for Paul Hollywood; my scouse accent, steely blue eyes and bread making skills are equal to his. (That might be a lie, cue Hollywood saying in his Wallasey drawl; “That claim’s over-baked”) I knew of the family but they were in a different part of Wallasey. We had the bakers at the bottom of the road. My mum used to wax lyrical about his tin loaf.

I sat staring at the mummy bear portion. When you’re on a diet and guarding your intake of calories and carbohydrates, one tends to eye any form of bread with unholy avarice. There was not too much bread and it wasn’t slathered in the devil’s own butter. The turkey mince was already low fat….. Go!

I ate half of mummy bear’s. Before I could ponder any more it was wrapped and beginning a new life in the freezer. My word. What a delight. It was so simple. It would have been ideal with a warm carrot salad with a splash of olive oil and lemon and a sprinkling of fresh coriander. There could have also been a yoghurt, feta and mint dip. But I am on a diet.

I ended up collapsed on the sofa listening to our national treasure, David Attenborough. Soon I will report about my love of carrots. Steel yourselves. Thank-you for reading.