Ghosts

“How much?” Mum knew the tone of voice and the way I stretched Mum out to two syllables. It was my “can I borrow some money” tone. Sometimes, on dark moody afternoons when all is quiet and I’m sitting motionless in the strangled air, the voice will drift into my head. I will smile, grateful for the memory. I often dream of the old house in Wallasey. Mum and Dad are sitting on their chairs in the living room whilst I’m having some form of anxiety crisis around them. They never interfere. I wake up curious. Dreams are like that. But the vivid memory of Mum doing what she did best; not just lend me money, always gives me a smile. That’s her ghost.

I know it’s all in my own head but if someone has such a huge impact on your life, their spirit will linger on inside you.

On that beautiful bright warm October morning in 2005, I sat in the church stunned at what I was seeing. Inside that long slender, oh so familiar box was Mum. She was sleeping. Released from the indignity of dementia, she was to be celebrated and laid to rest. It was a powerful connection. I felt a deep sense of belonging. I couldn’t believe that the person who had brought me into the world, the person who had dedicated her life to me and my family had gone.

So when I think of my mum, it’s more than just a memory. For a very brief moment she is with me. Of course it was the same with my grand parents. Mum’s dad, Harold Hobson or Pop as we called him, had built a little world for himself in the back garden. It was his greenhouse. It smelled of tomatoes and paraffin. Above me hung two rows of vine. September was grape season. I couldn’t understand why people did not grow grapes. And not everyone had a greenhouse. Pop left us when I was ten years old.

Even when the greenhouse went four years later, I could still see him in there, singing his little nonsense songs: “Give me a nail and a nammer” “Our Stephen’s got a bunion and a face like a Spanish onion.” Sitting at the table in my nan’s house, I would catch a glimpse of his mischievous face. He loved playing little tricks on us. I can still see the toy garage he made for me out of orange boxes. It had such detail. I can more than see it; I can feel its smooth yellow paint and the feeling of my ear on the carpet as I looked through its doors into the dark interior.

I carried on going to visit my nan. I made an attempt to get the garden back to its former glory. My nan was a legend. I can’t say I had a special relationship with her because she had a special relationship with all her grandchildren.

In May 1980, she lost her fight for life. And despite all the setbacks of age she still loved life. Sometimes when I present myself with fried eggs, bacon and sausage, I see her at the famous table of 65 Harrismith. She’s talking about one of the neighbours. Then I see Uncle billy and his amusing little affectations. The last time I went to the house it had a huge extension. But I still saw Nan in the side garden. Both Mum and I were born in that house.

My dad’s mum, Nanny Mac lived with us for ever. Her last years were spent in the front room. She always had something to say. Some Sunday nights while she still slept upstairs, there would be a little gathering in her box room. My two brothers and I would find her on top form talking about the old days. She didn’t spare us. We had the truth. And the truth of her opinion.

The box room is now the shed. But when I look at its closed door, I can hear it all. “Do you want to come down now Nan?” I feel her delicate hand leaning on my right shoulder as we step carefully, one step at a time down the steep staircase; now too much of a mountain for me without the stair lift.

That’s the thing about the past. The older you get, the more you have and the more you can see how things change yet don’t change.

When I moved south, these memories intensified. Even though I’d started a new chapter, I was always reading the old book. Sometimes they merged. The north would come south. Mum and Dad visited many times. Some of my friends moved down as well. One of my firmest friendship was with the Shaw brothers. And there lies another ghost.

Kath Shaw or Auntie Kath was literally like another mum. The two never met but I often imagine them chatting for hours on end about their sons. We said goodbye to Auntie Kath in 2011. But I still hear her admonishing tones, exasperated at the indulgence of her sons and their friends. This mattered not a jot. We were all most welcome at the Shaw house. There was always tea, toast and Beryl’s chocolate crunch. And now when I pass by the side of Wallasey town hall, I can taste that chocolate crunch.

My last ghost is Bob. Albert Robert Wright, despite his many years down south he was a proud Yorkshireman. Between 1993 and 2003 Bob was my drinking pal. We would be seen in the bar of the Huntsman or the New Inn passing the time of day with earth changing issues and total nonsense. Bob had a full repertoire of one liners. And these are the things I still hear: Cash customer, room for a small one, Dick Turpin wore a mask, sack the juggler, a woman’s place is in the wrong…………. Underneath this brash machismo was a gentle generous man.

We had some times. Every Saturday and Sunday lunchtime we would be talking about the world and his brother with a pint before us. He was a brilliant brewer and once helped me make a barrel full of Young’s ordinary bitter. It was far from ordinary. My mum and dad came down the following week. After I’d dropped them off at Victoria Coach Station to go back home, I had a little notion of enjoying some when I arrived home. I pulled the tap and nothing came out. My dad had drunk it all.

 Every Christmas I hear him:

 “Condiments of the season.”

We miss him.

Thank-you for reading.

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Finally

Finally I went out. For only the second time this year, I screamed my way up to the supermarket, desperate for bread flour and yeast. The night time frost had transformed into a dull damp blanket of misery, coating the surfaces with a cold unwelcome layer of winter moisture. I heard it over the radio. Even from behind the security of closed heavy curtains, I heard the tyres ripping over the tarmac.

There was no place for sunshine this morning. Where had the brightness gone? img_4648

It was Tuesday when I decided to prepare for the outing. It was like another world then. There had been an endless succession of glorious sun kissed mornings. The dazzling skies offered a fillip of brightness to cheer the soul.

Father Jack needed charging. Yesterday he was revved up with copious energy. I’m sure I could hear him: “Drrrink, drrrink drrrink,” as the electricity coursed through his circuits.

Then this morning, despite the uninviting chorus of squelching tyres, I arose determined. In the days of work, before the beast had too much of a say in my routines, I would move silently every morning. I was like a well oiled machine. I was swift and focused, leaving the house at the same time every day. This morning I was that same man again.

Going up Whitehill Road, I weaved a subtle pattern dancing between the potholes and repair subsidence. The cars screamed past, determined to gain their precious seconds. Stony drivers with faces as grey as the clouds charged up the road on their morning commute. Perhaps I should have carried a sign:

“I’m terribly sorry for holding you up. I didn’t realise you were so important.”

 It wasn’t pretty but every pedestrian within talking distance received my cheery “Good morning”. The responses were mixed. From equally optimistic returns to stony glassy eyed silence. Most of them were happy. They were little flashes of sunshine in the heavy hearted dullness of the morning commute.

The supermarket was awash with the activity of the early morning routines. The floor manager scurried about directing his uniformed forces around the aisles. Waitrose, like every other supermarket, takes great delight in planting cumbersome temporary displays where one is most likely to run into them.

dynamo-display Like the hungry cat who stands in your way demanding attention, they loom around every corner. Yet despite such haphazard placements, I am yet to destroy a display.

Cat food, milk, bread flour, yeast and fruit; they filled my basket perched in the open compartment on the front of the Tramper. Oh, and I cannot go to a supermarket without picking up some treats.

img_4950The open front exaggerated my scooter’s length and power. Big Jack demands respect. It has the look of British post war design when cars looked solid and rotund, ready to take on the world at a practical fifty eight miles per hour.austin-somerset

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Father Jack resting in Bernie’s bay

Waiting outside for me was a nasty little wind just waiting to cut through me as I charged down the hill. I hadn’t noticed it on the way up. It was behind me. Or maybe it wasn’t there and had just emerged to dampen any feelings of smug satisfaction I’d gleaned from actually going out of the front door into the real world. At least the cars were smiling. The commute had ended. These people were outside by choice.

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The welcome front door

The best cup of tea is the one you earn. And it is best in the comfort of your own armchair. I looked at those fools posing with they’re huge plastic sealed cups of skinny latte, poncing about outside trying to look hippity hop hop in their voguish attire and garish accessories. I’m being unfair. Most of these people returned my happy hello.

Thank-you for reading.

Extremes

It’s another one of those words isn’t it? Can you go to extremes? Dare you try these extreme sports? Extreme heat? Extreme cold? Extreme courage, extreme patience or extreme extremities.

Can’t you just hear the macho voice over? In the top right hand corner of our mega smart TV screen, the figure in black appears. He’s sporting a chiselled jaw and three days growth. In the lens of his super size sun glasses you see a reflection of the alpine ridges. With a flourish of muscular pride he sets off down the mountain, slashing a course through the virgin powdered snow.off-piste-teaser

“Extreme fear, extreme height, can you take it?” The low gravel voice questions our very courage. Dare we watch? I’m fighting the yawns. It’s an advert for deodorant for pity’s sake. I despair at the time and money invested in such mundane frippery.

I just know that many of those involved would have been watching the preview in a darkened room whilst massaging their overblown egos or whatever other extreme part of their persona they like to manhandle. At the end of the screening, Antoine, the male model who stood pouting heroically at the top of the mountain before the stuntman was deployed, says: “Nice one guys.”

man-liking-himself-in-mirrorHe glances at his reflection in the blank screen. He checks his bouffant. “Now  I’m off to have sex with my number one fan,” he thinks.

 Oh such extremes of narcissistic vanity. By the way, every man is vain but you only catch some of them looking in the mirror. What extremes do I like? Geographical extremes. Even the modest ones.

When I was fourteen years old my parents bought me an LP for Christmas. It was an awesome LP: Side one was the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto. Then on side two was the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto. It was played a lot. But in the tradition of the LP player, I studied the cover as I listened. The cover photo was of Bardsey Sound. Bardsey Sound is at the very edge of the Llyn Peninsula of North Wales. It’s an extreme.hen-borth

For nine years I dreamed of going there to look over to the little island. I managed it in 1980. I wasn’t disappointed. I stood on the top of the cliff and breathed in the fresh sea air. The weather was perfect. There was no wind. The sun was blazing and the water was calm. The high blue sky sang with the azure of the glittering sea. This was only Wales and only the Irish Sea but it was inspiring. Before the days of steam and super fast car ferries, these waters would have been crossed by the power of nature and the skill of a navigator. It was open sea. The wind would have been fierce and the conditions mountainous. Did I refer to these extremities as modest?

I’ve been back several times. Once the North Westerly was so strong you could lean over the cliff. Of course I tried but I’m not that stupid. I did it several yards back from the edge. The sea looked angry. Under a turbulent grey sky I saw battles of current and angry foam. It was unforgiving. It was not comfortable with itself. The last time I was there, everything was cloaked in a cloud of mist. The sun was trying to break through leaving threads of golden light waving in the swirling grey of the smoky air. As I looked out to where I thought the island was little flutters of breeze pushed the fog into mini spirals. But it had nowhere to go. That day the mist won. Wales is mystical country. Even though Edward I managed to build his castles all over the place it has never been fully anglicised. Welsh is still widely spoken and the country breathes with its own history.

My favourite Welsh extreme is the top of Snowdon. Not only is it the highest point in Wales and England but it has some seriously extreme weather. from the wild winds of winter to the gentle sun kissed days of the summer, you can be certain that mother nature will offer.

snowdon-visit-wales-600x400The cloud and the wind is never far away. Only once when I’ve sat dreaming in the clouds of the summit has it ever cleared away. Slowly but surely it disappeared to reveal the majesty of our surroundings. The rest of the horseshoe ridge stood proud beside us. In the distance the coastal plain pointed to Anglesey looking far and mysterious.

dinorwic3Then the history floods back. At certain points of the various paths, you can look across the vale of Llanberis. On the other side are the remains of the old slate mines. Almost every slated house in the north west and beyond had once worn a little piece of Snowdonia. Further down is the electric mountain. Under its hard grey top is a hydro-electric power station. The pipes stretching between Snowdon’s upper and lower lake are the only visible clue. That is until it became a tourist attraction and the signs went up all over Llanberis.

In the south of wales is the other bit which sticks out. It includes the beautiful Gower Peninsula but my favourite part is St David’s.

It’s a tiny city with a large cathedral. It’s a calm remote sort of place. I imagined one of its more typical days playing victim to the persistent rain pouring in from the west.

st_davids01The cathedral itself had a monastic feel to it; not that I’m an expert on monasteries. I think it was more to do with its remoteness. Even within the city it was set apart. I thought it was special. My journeys to the north coast of Scotland and the southernmost tip of Spain have also taken me to extremes. These places all have reasons to be memorable. I think it’s the sense of adventure which appeals to me. I gaze out across the never-ending mass of sea wondering who’d gone before me, never to return.

hqdefaultWhat were their fears and hopes as the last trace of shoreline vanished into the heaving mass of ocean? Then I think back to the use of the word extreme by those ludicrous marketing people. What right have they to take ownership of this awesome word. Think of our explorers and conquerors of mountains and desert. They weren’t dropped off at their chosen destination by a helicopter piloted by some stubbly hunk in a flying suit. Some of these people never returned.

The last extreme I want to mention was not on the coast. Nor was it particularly high up. I was driving down to Spain on my own in 1994. See previous post “Are we nearly there?” for my account of the journey home. I’d just crossed the border through the Pyrenees. It was a rugged spectacular route but after passing through a long expensive tunnel, the landscape was as flat as a pancake. Buildings and people were sparse. It was dull.

Then up in the distance I could see a tall rocky formation looking very much like the back of a stegosaurus. It took ages to get close to it. Then I realised what it was. On my previous three visits to Catalonia, I’d seen all manner of day trips advertised to the monastery at Montserrat. I was now driving straight towards it and its famous statue of the Black Madonna. After the tedium of a straight flat road, I was beginning to get excited.

It was really just a beautiful building that had been milked in the extreme (note use of word) for commercial purposes. But it was really beautiful and when I stood over the abyss looking towards the coast and my destination of Loret de Mar I became flush with my sense of history.

barcelona-montserrat-mountain-spainYes it was commercial with a fair amount of the usual touristy tack but it gave people a living. And before the roads, the train and the cable car this must have been a cold stark existence for its residents. Another special place. Now my freedom is somewhat restricted by disability, my next adventures need a little more planning. But they will happen.

Thank-you for reading.

The harsh truth of life

One Friday night I was walking back home from the pub. It was 1980 and I didn’t have a care in the world. The devastation of a failed degree and subsequent disintegration of my dreams had given way to a new optimism. I’d found a new direction. I was taking my diploma on the piano and I was taking the opportunity to actually teach it. I was meeting new people of like mind and it was a welcome new income. But on that mild October night I felt a tingle in my legs. It was small but significant enough to be noticed. “Oh,” I thought.” Maybe I’m getting multiple sclerosis.”

I’d been made aware of the condition because one of my cello heroes, Jaqueline Du Pre had seen a brilliant career cut short by this evil condition.

I laughed it off. It was just pins and needles. But then in 1983, I had to see the doctor because I felt all numb down my left hand side. What was my response? Exercise more, push yourself and show the world you’re fit. The rest of the eighties were dotted with similar moments of frustration. I never had a definite answer.

My new direction was exciting however. In 1985 I graduated from the Open University. I was ready for my PGCE and a career in the classroom. Yes, it took another four years to get a place but I was empowered with a new zest for life. I cycled, I swam and I climbed mountains. Watch out teaching profession, here I come.

Then one night in November I was floored. I’d been to see Sam Brown live at Leeds University with my mate Bob. It was a brilliant concert. It was in the big hall but there were no seats.

“Why are my knees wobbly?” I thought. “Can I just please sit down?” For all of my teenage years and beyond, I’d stood up in military fashion at Goodison Park and countless away grounds. Why was I having trouble now? The following week I was taking the dog for a walk. I had to cut it short and backtrack. I flopped down on the sofa. I was worried.

That trivial thought from 1980 was coming back. I am a deep thinker and I could not see any other answer. I had MS. Was I was just about to embark on my chosen career with the great beast of chronic illness at my side? Was it ironic? No, it was tragic. I’d always carried a sense of twisted justice. For me, everything came with conditions. Every silver lining has a cloud. I’d been a good boy, I cared and I worried. I’d shown a bit of sledgehammer wit but I gave time to people. Why was this ruthless incessant bastard grabbing me by the buttocks and shaking me with all the humiliating inhuman symptoms of disability and its mental and physical consequences?

Feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy came to the forefront of my persona. Yes, I’d embarked on my teaching career; it was exciting and fun. But all the time I was going to be carrying the burden of disability. Oh how it crept. By 1995 I couldn’t  run any more. The following year my walking struggled after half a mile. The journey to work was still manageable. At half past five every morning, I would fire up my old faithful Fiesta and drive into central London. I loved the school.

In my third year there I was called for tests. One involved a two night stay in hospital for my CSF; that’s a lumbar puncture. It sounds basic but the anticipation was worse than the action. The hospital itself was  a miserable wretched place.

It was an old Victorian institution, forbidding and cold. It had imminent closure written all over it. I had a lot of time to stare at the grey blank walls of this ageing desperate ward. It was a quiet ward. Most of the others were like me, wondering and worried about the future. I lay on the bed, digesting this uneasy silence. I traced the outline of the ceiling. There were no fancy edgings or cornices. The plain high walls gave nothing to look forward to. I wondered about the pain, suffering and brutality these silent walls had seen. The floor was flat and cold. Old cast iron radiators stood sentry-like behind the lockers. They gurgled and shook, vainly trying to add some warmth to this place for “affected disorders.”

 The staff were rude and cynical. Only the doctor who carried out my procedure showed an appropriate professional level of care. He was young and over-worked. I was glad to be out of there.

I went straight back to school. I had the school Christmas production to organise. In truth I should have taken a week off but I didn’t. I came out of the hospital at one fifteen and I was back in school directing the production at two ten. I did it from the piano.

Now there’s another story. In 1980 I’d gained an LTCL. I could play anything. I could sight read most things. But over time my left hand has turned into a block of  over weight insignificant bit of body mass. In 1986 I was practising some Bach. It was the courante from the English Suite number six. There was a florid passage of rapid semi-quavers for both hands. Despite all my experience and practice I had no idea why I couldn’t nail it. I used to trust my left hand but now I found it stopping for no apparent reason.

The whole of my left hand side is like that now. I can’t play the piano any more. But I can listen and feel. I even sense the vibrations. I still love music. I know the language.

Some years ago I was featured in a Radio 3 phone in. I was telling them about a significant piece of music. That morning the consultant gave me the official diagnosis of MS. I was driving the eight miles to tell my good friend Steve. The sun was shining and on the radio I heard the prelude and fugue in A major by Shostakovitch. Music still ruled.

The physical impact of my condition has been huge. What I didn’t expect was the affect on my mental health. I had a propensity for becoming bitter and twisted. I felt such injustice. I was surrounded by fit able people. Some of these people were moaners. They would complain of their own fatigue and injustices. Some were just lazy. The idea of a winter’s day walk in the wind and rain was becoming a dream. Yet I knew people who would demonstrate enormous offence at getting their hair wet. At work I remained silent about my condition; until it was too obvious.

I’d had years of sleepless night worrying about letting people down. My predecessor had been forced to retire early through MS. I was understandably  reluctant to be open about my own problems.

“But you’ve proved so much already,” the head said to me. She took me off playground duty. School trips were a thing of the past.

I then started to open up to the rest of the staff. Then to the children and their parents. It didn’t matter. No-one thought any less of me. In fact there was a lot of encouragement. I was touched. Even in my last year when it was obvious I couldn’t go on, I was supported and encouraged by children and parents alike.

Unfortunately I was beginning to feel ostracised by some of my colleagues. Teaching was changing. The warm sense of community was disappearing under the burden of administration and expectation. Some seemed resentful of my privileged status. On the surface there were measures in place for constructive support between colleagues. But the spectre of accountability ruled by an over-detailed system of assessment and pupil tracking was growing more divisive by the day.

My older long term work mates were showing the strain. We still sympathised and supported but from long distance. My once busy lunchtimes were now being taken over by the pressing need to sit, eat and recover. The afternoons needed extra mental resilience. Yet it was difficult to even stand up, let alone take on the mantle of classroom leader and bravely tackle my way through worried and fractious children bringing their playground feuds back into the classroom with them.

 I managed twenty two years of teaching. Every day the dark shadow of disability crept into my conscience. At the end, it had stopped creeping. It was a permanent resident. I’m sure it followed me around pulling tongues and sticking its fingers up behind my back. Every so often I think I saw it in the mirror showing its obscene features just behind my left shoulder.

What do you do? All you can do is keep going. I now carry some sense of defiance. I’m surrounded by helpful technology,  helpful professionals and helpful friends. I have to think that progress is possible. Now matter how or why, I have to see hope in the future. I’m not going to live my life just picking up scraps.

Thank-you for reading.

Extract from The Ghost of Hartington Hall.

The next street was different again. The lively (drunken) city had gone. There were still many people around but they were of a different world. No-one was shouting. No-one was laughing. People were on the floor but they were not squirming about in drunken foolishness. Most of them looked close to death. It was not a long street and I could see its end up ahead. It was something to focus on as the darkening sky increased the sense of doom. I could hear every footstep as we hastened through this ghostly parade. I felt a tightening of the throat. Ice cold threads of perspiration were running down my forehead. Even though we were away from the riotous soldiers, I still felt uneasy. Everyone was watching us. Coming to the end of the road I saw the worst of everything. It was both pitiful and frightening. It made me question my own sense of compassion.

I became aware of a figure perched on a step up ahead to our right. My eyes had been focused on the light at the end of the street but as we came closer, I looked. It was a girl dressed in rags. I say rags because I saw no distinctive clothes on her-just a grey mess. She looked no older than my sister. She was holding a bundle of something close to her. By the time I had reached her, we were staring at each other. She was holding a baby-that bundle I saw was an actual baby.

Would she sell her baby to the old man with the crooked cart?” The thought was too real to be just a thought. “It must have happened. Mothers would sell their babies so they could feed themselves.” I was annoyed with myself for thinking about it. On television, I had seen a lot of starving malnourished children. There were loads of images splashed all over the news. Charities would advertise for donations showing the faces of poor hungry infants gently crying, whilst a soft voiced narrator pleaded with us:

What price is a child’s life?” They would ask. It was upsetting to see, but they were just pictures on a screen in the corner of the living room. It was easy to make them disappear with the push of a button. But there was no way I could make this image disappear. The only buttons I had were on my coat. I was going to have to walk past her-close enough for us to touch and smell each other. I was beginning to feel physically sick.

Mother and baby made no sound. She just looked at me. Here I was, in all my Georgian glory, worrying about nothing but myself, while she sat motionless, waiting. Her head turned to watch me go by. I had no idea what she was waiting for. I had no idea if that baby was alive. She seemed doomed to a fate of squalor and starvation. Yet I was there. I saw it but I just walked past. I had done nothing. I cannot describe my feelings of guilt. At school, I had gone out of my way to be kind to those I felt sorry for. But it was nothing. Ryan Green may be an insecure vulnerable young boy but there was no way he was going to starve to death on a street corner in London. His Lordship saw me looking but said nothing. He had been silent throughout this part of our walk.

Coast to coast

Road chronicles.

Well it wasn’t quite coast to coast. In the morning I left Tunbridge Wells at the usual ridiculous hour. But my friend Karen had woken up that morning on a school field trip in Dorset. So that counts as she was part of the intrepid trio, hell bent on defying the bank holiday weekend traffic on our regular adventure north. The three of us met up in North London by my first school, Winchmore Hill. It was a warm calm day. I’d already had dreams of slipping into the Orange Tree for a refreshing pint but they had to go on hold.

I feel sad for the M1 and the M6. The tarmac is grey and rutted with the traction of millions of vehicles. They charge along there, regardless of the history of these ground-breaking (literally) revolutionary roads. These two motorways have been instrumental in shaping modern society. The men who built them may now be deceased or advanced in age. I feel that I owe it to them to remember what they did. Can you imagine if we only had the A41 and the A5? As usual, there was a hunger stop at Newport Pagnel.

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Classic tacky chic.

The services were heaving. People were desperate. In the car park I saw a van that said “Drake’s Servicing. Aberdeen.” He or she had a long way to go. At least we were just aiming for Bolton. After clambering onto the M6 the usual jams began to drag us down to a crawl. Then we stopped; regularly. I can honestly say that despite never spending a night there, I know the West Midlands very well. I’ve sat behind the wheel staring at Fort Dunlop and the RAC control centre many times.

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I just know that the junction with the M5 is the biggest cause of the Friday night angst. Then, after an hour and a half of nose to tail, we had a little piece of peace.

My mate Gary’s parents live nearby. An hour of gentle tea and conversation made such a difference before the mad dash up to Bolton. It’s always re-assuring to meet people who are content and calm.

Bolton arrived just before nine fort-five. The only thing to do was find a pub. There is something about a busy motorway; the constant thrum, the grey mottled surface, the sense of insecurity and the antics of the occasional dickhead which gradually grinds away at the core of your soul. A pint of keg beer in an urban pub on a Friday Karaoke night becomes heaven.

Karen’s parents are warm friendly, life-loving practical people. I have vague memories of her younger brother arriving late and under the influence, laden with a feast of Indian takeaway. The early start the next day (or the same day if you want to be technical) ensured an empty motorway.

Once Glasgow had gone by we were in amongst the glory of rural Scotland. It’s only then you realise how big Loch Lomond is.

loch-lomond-and-the-trossachsFlashing between gaps in the hedgerows, you look down to a mass of blue water, dancing in the late spring sunlight. Sometimes we seemed on it and sometimes it appeared floating away in the distance. But for ages it was a loyal friend giving promise of riches yet to come. And they did come. The rich verdant foliage of the west coast bounced all around us in our little Fiesta crammed with the luxuries of makeshift camping.

This was not my first time in this part of the world. I’d visited Aberdeen in 1986. The journey was a long drive through the stark treeless mountains.

the-cairngorms-dalballochIt was moving and passionate. I thought of the wild winters that had savaged its brutal beauty.

Seven years later however I was being moved in different ways. It was a calm May morning when we reached the banks of Loch Ness. Like many of the famous sports and concert venues I’d visited, I’d seen pictures and read accounts. But to actually be there takes you higher. The loch was silky smooth. The road hugged its bank.

Ruins of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness, Drumnadrochit, ScotlandWe stopped for a while to take in its sheer size and beauty. Apart from the shuffle of passing cars it was silent. It was the stuff of legends. I thought of all it had generated. Years of debate and monster conjecture. But it hadn’t prepared me to be blown away by this silent giant. It was passive and strong, peaceful and stirring, misty yet colourful.

Inverness was the next stopping point. It was time to do the necessary stocking up at Safeways before holding our breath and venturing across the very north of this garden of delights. There were long straight roads, passing falling cliffs and sparkling seas. We had to stop to just breathe in the new air.

schotland6Fifty miles short of Durness we found the single track roads. On this stop start winding path the trees had finished to reveal cold combinations of shiny rock and dark rich moss. We were on the moon. Even with our slow speed the landscape was merging into a lumpy mess of rise and dip. It took two and a half hours to do those fifty miles.

We arrived at a small camping community. A fresh breeze was marauding in from the north. It was a cold. Fleece weather. At the edge of the site, I looked down to a beach of golden virgin sand.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIt was up there with all the exotic places I’d ever seen before; but it was cold. The beauty of this coast comes at a price. Then after a good hearty meal; we actually boiled the potatoes on a little gas ring in the back of my car, it was time to hit the bar.

The camp site was popular by dint of its extreme location. It was busy. We slipped into pub mode and at about eleven thirty I needed the loo. It was still light outside. That was so special.

But the night was windy. I lay in my tent with just a few millimetres of fabric between me and the elements. It was not soporific. I was tired but I wanted to walk along the beach in the half light and shout into the growing wind. It was calmer in the morning. We had a full breakfast. The breakfast was a huge compensation for a night of turbulence and torment. It made us heroes.

That afternoon we went to Tongue. It was along the coast and involved the most glorious causeway you are ever likely to see. It was not just how it looked but it spoke of times long gone when the country was untamed. Whether it is tamed now is open to debate.

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The demon weather with its punishing rain and secretive mist hides these places away for most of the year. But we saw it in its full powerful grey majesty.

By the time we arrived back at Durness the wind was rampant again. Where was my tent? The nice man from the camp site told us the whole drama. He’d rescued my little tent from scampering over the cliff and put it inside my mate’s big tent. Fortunately this camp site was prepared. It had a laundry with a few big tumble dryers.

So it was back down the coast. We needed proper beds. In amongst the anxiety of the drenched tents and the doubt of the encroaching evening the Scottish coast became sober and magnificent. It was at this time I decided the most expressive colour was grey. We came upon Ullapool. It offered us a hotel room and a friendly pub. But this was the most beautiful port I have ever seen. Along this tiny seafront the bright colours of the little upright cottages sneered defiantly at the deep looming skies.Ullapool Harbour by Steven Gourlay Photography Ltd

The next morning was a delight. We revisited Inverness and the great Loch. There was even time to go round the Dalwhinnie Distillery. Now Karen is not a fan of whisky. She gained great mileage from the fact that were being shown round a dormant distillery. It was actually closed for refurbishment. The mocking laughter echoed around the empty brewing room. That night we stayed on the Solway Firth. There was a big sky smiling on the carpet of silt and saltmarsh.

Caerlaverock-01.jpgIt was only three days. But can you see how much I’ve remembered? Epic journeys give epic memories.

Thank you for reading.

The paradise club

Last night I stepped into the sunshine of the Paradise Club. The sun blazed a brilliant white. This light let me see everything. I could see honesty and sincerity in the abundance of smiles. People came to me and asked me about my being. I spoke at length of the burdens and worries which once held me back. They had evaporated away into the brightness around me. I was free to laugh without the shackles of satire. The barriers had melted into the joy of my surroundings. Nothing was impossible.

I could move freely without the pain of anxiety. I wasn’t going to fall. I was as light as a feather. I became as generous as my friends. I gave time to listen and share their hopes and fears. I could wipe away tears and give strength to their wishes.

No-one spoke loudly but what they said travelled far. The merging of like minds and intentions was gathering strength. Minute by minute, our collective was growing. We were talking away hate and bitterness. Greed and naked ambition became too insignificant to matter. There was no leader. We were all leaders. The shadows of the past began to emerge. They were met with hindsight and honesty. Every day was a day to learn. I had the joy of a galloping horse feeling the bounce of my hooves across an open field. There were no barriers.

When I awoke this morning I was met with darkness. Where had my light gone? My dream had been euphoric. But now I was back in the morning. And back in my broken body and the uncertainty of a future reliant on an ever diminishing system of social care. Those I had met in the light of my dream were my carers. They cared for me; not the triplicate forms they were chained to. They wanted me to succeed.

But everyone can be like this. We have plenty of time. It only takes an instant to smile and listen. We can all demonstrate our reasons to trust ourselves and show the faith to triumph. Don’t discount or judge people. We can be cautious but open and trusting yet conscious. The collective effort is a long held dream of many. We can all work towards it.

Look at teams; not just the uniformed bodies kicking or hitting their ball around with angry feet and willowy sticks. Look at the co-ordinated efforts in the NHS and the emergency services. Look at their ground workers and their total dedication. Can’t we spread this to the rest of the world?

This morning I ached from the never ending effort of independent movement. My bones creaked as I threw myself into the wheelchair. Oh what a friend it is. Slowly, I cleared the aftermath of the previous night’s indulgence. It was a drink with my old friend. But I cleared it and prepared a day of contentment.

We’ve all been dealt with terrible blows. It’s a brutal life sometimes. But it’s a precious life. We can be like my dream. Let us create a team of trust and generosity. Let us eschew the shallow and embrace the warmth we all have within us.

Thank-you for reading.