Mustn't let it fall

Rosie once told me a secret.

“I found a treasure at the rainbow’s end,” she said, looking a bit shifty, and checking no one was listening.

It was safe to talk; no one else in the hostel paid Rosie much attention, but it was a slow day and I felt the need for a chat, so I found myself sitting down with Rosie who could always find something to say. Today a little black cat was curled up in her lap, dreaming of whatever cats dream of, and keeping Rosie warm. It was pretty mangy and I didn’t feel quite strong enough to stroke it.

The weather had been fearsomely cold all week and even Rosie had been driven to the hostel at nights, although she and Horace still wandered outside all day, looking for news, or food, or miracles. Horace sometimes found some casual work, but Rosie was too dishevelled and smelt too bad for anyone to want her to stay around. On that day Horace had gone down to the docks to work in one of the warehouses still taking on labourers, and Rosie had stayed in the warm because there was macaroni cheese on the menu which was her favourite. She had taken three helpings, thinking none of us noticed, and was feeling pleased with her cunning. We didn’t mind her taking extra when there was enough, and we had plenty that day because the police had rounded up quite a few of our regulars the night before in order to bring their statistics up to the required level, so they were being fed at Her Majesty’s pleasure leaving us to catch up on the paperwork and find time to be sociable with the remaining regulars.

“What treasure?” I asked in a whisper.

“Can’t say,” Rosie muttered. “S’mine though ‘cos I found it.”

“Are you sure, Rosie?” I asked. I was beginning to suspect the use of the “found” part.

“Ain’t been touched since the old Queen’s day,” Rosie confirmed. “It were in the ditch.”

Then she put her finger to her lips and shushed loudly. A couple of the old fellas playing darts glanced across, then carried on their game.

“It’s a secret,” Rosie said, more forcefully. “Keep me safe it will from those buggers…”

“What will?” I asked, intrigued.

“Elf arrow,” she hissed. “Mustn’t let it fall.”

Then she turned her back on me, and pretended to go to sleep on the bench.

I asked Horace about it when he came in that night. He was tired from a long day for little money – not even minimum wage.

“What can you do?” he said. “But I got some fags.”

“You can’t smoke in here,” I told him, automatically. “Have you ever heard of an elf arrow?”

Horace was a well-read man, fallen on hard times. Perhaps they fell on him. He had chosen the traditional tramping life, but somehow had failed to recognise it as belonging to a previous generation. Inexplicably he survived.

“Flint arrow heads,” he replied promptly. “You find them lying about in fields where the farmer has ploughed them up to the surface.”

“Right,” I said. “Are they common then?”

“Probably,” said Horace. “I had one when I was a boy. Dropped it one day when I was messing about. ‘Sposed to be bad luck to lose it.”

He paused. “Just before I started out on the road.”

Rosie moved on the next day. The cat went with her. Horace said he thought she had gone up to Watford, but he didn’t elaborate. The police got tired of feeding our regulars and let them go with a warning, so we were busy again for the next few weeks.

Winter passed, as it usually does. I forgot about Rosie’s story until one spring day, after a thunderstorm, when I saw a rainbow against the sky over the East End. One of our regulars had been stabbed the night before, and I was coming back from the hospital, where there had been more paperwork and long depressing conversations with the police and social workers and probation officers.

I thought it would have been nice if he could find something to protect him at the end of the rainbow, but he had died anyway, and so all that was left to do was look at the colours fading as the rain blew away to the west.

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The glory that was Greece, the spendour that was Rome…

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it – or something like that.

The thing is, looking back at history I don’t really fancy visiting it much. I learned from it, and this is what I learned. I would like to have a look from a more remote position, but on the whole the poor record on human rights, overzealous patriarchy/religion and extremely limited health care options makes me suspect that unless I turned up as someone who was young, rich, male and white, things would not go well. You could say the same today, but then even more so. They would speak a different language – have you read Shakespeare? They would eat terrible food – Mrs Beeton! And their treatment of mouthy, liberal women would be unappealing.

The future then? Would I be able to obtain a fully functional personal jet pack? Or visit alien planets? Or live forever?

Again, as I watch the news (at least, the short bits without the Olympics in it) I am not convinced that I would be very pleased with what I might find. Either the world will have gone to hell in a handcart, although I think it unlikely as this has been routinely predicted for millennia by disgruntled senior citizens, or it will have evolved into something completely new and unfathomable and possibly more interesting, and I would be an amusing anachronism. Not very satisfying for my self-esteem, and let’s not forget this is all about me. I have embraced the use of remote controls, and computers and mobile phones and I’m getting bored with all that stuff. It just doesn’t interest me any more.

The thing is, you see, the thing is, I am comfortable in my own time, like my own skin. I speak the language and understand the local culture. It’s enough of a challenge following what my children try to tell me, or what on earth is bothering the aged parent (the young and the old are time machines themselves, showing us snatches of the past and glimpses of the futre), without multiplying that by 100 times, 1000 times, through an ill-advised trip to a foreign century. If I want to struggle to be understood or absorb a new culture I can go to wherever young people hang out, or to another part of this planet, here and now, without breaking the space-time continuum just to satisfy my curiosity / ego.

There’s seemingly not much adventure in this post. But I just feel there is so much to see and do and learn and discover today in this time, in this place, that gallivanting off somewhen else is just plain rude and ungrateful. We live in marvellous times. There’s a new mission on Mars, a possible cure for AIDS on the horizon, and beautiful, wondrous, amazing things to see and do and learn every single minute of every single day.

Go to another time? I haven’t got enough time for this one, thank you.

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On the way to Liverpool one day…

Did that really happen? The memory is still sweet…..

On my children’s lives this is no word of a lie!

A few years ago, let’s call it 2003, I was travelling on a Transpennine Express train towards Liverpool for a few days away sorting out a network issue in one of our offices. Let us not dwell on the kinds of network issues, they are not important. They were resolved.

However, if you can imagine such a thing, those were the days before universal mobile phone ownership. Quite a few people used them but a reasonable number did not. It was by no means certain that the person next to you would have such a device, and even if they did, that it would be charged up and able to get a signal, especially on a train chugging sedately westwards towards the Lancashire coast.

One of the advantages of this primeval existence was that on the whole train journeys did not involve listening to half a conversation about what someone did last night, what she said (and never what he said in reply), or indeed, nonchalantly scribbling down people’s credit card details because they inexplicably thought they were somewhere not, well, public.

Imagine the horror, if you can, of having a gentleman of the loud persuasion conversing incessantly between Leeds and Manchester to his accountant / bookie / whatever. In typical English fashion we all rolled our eyes at one another and grimaced and gurned to indicate that civilisation was probably not too far away (almost certainly due before we got to Manchester Oxford Road). And so it went on for what felt like hours but was probably no more than one.

As we travelled I doubt I was the only one to entertain withering comments I wanted to make to my fellow traveller; venomous remarks, dripping acid from every syllable, hoping the shock would produce a miraculous change of character and the recipient of my wisdom would overnight start a new career rescuing wounded puppies and kittens.

However it looked like the object of our collective ire was to be granted an opportunity to redeem himself in our eyes. A guard burst into the carriage shouting out to ask if anyone had a mobile phone because there was a medical emergency. We sneered to see the loud gentleman hastily conceal his.

“He’s got one!” said another man gleefully, pointing like the hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Fortunately the loud gentleman was more discreetly clad than Adam.)

The guard asked to use it; the loud gentleman indicated in the negative. The guard asked again and got quite physical about demanding he hand it over. In the end he wrestled it from the loud gentleman.

“That’s no use!” exclaimed the guard. “It’s a toy one!” And he rushed on in search of someone with a working phone.

The silence deepened. None of us laughed, but you will forgive us when I say we may have smirked. The loud gentleman found no further occasion to make a phone call for the rest of the journey. Just for this one time, we felt the barbarians had been held back.

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How to stop traffic

Dangerous situations: being held at knifepoint, being in labour with complications, crossing the road…of these three I think the road was the actually the worst.

Picture a suburban road in 1962, with semi-detached houses and neat front gardens. There are wooden double gates allowing the lucky owners space to park a car, should they own one. There are scarlet salvias in the bed edging the lawn and gladioli against the dividing wall. The sun is reflected from gleaming tiles at the front door.

Of course, I don’t know this is true, but it is how my house would look on a sunny summer’s day, and I suppose it was at least fairly dry and warm for the following to have happened.

Adults must have been busy elsewhere, because somehow the baby gave them the slip. She was too young to walk yet, so she crawled down the path in front of the house. The gates were wide open, and through them was an enticing new world ready to explore. She had tough knees, because she crawled across the pavement and straight into the road, and then started to cross that too. On the other side was a park with trees and grass. It looked more interesting than the pavement.

The first sign of a problem for her mother was the fact that the large red double decker bus had stopped in front of the house. The bus stop was down the road, so it was unlikely the bus would stop where it was unless something was wrong – a flat tyre or a medical emergency perhaps? Curiosity drove her to go out and have a look.

To her amazement she discovered her daughter sitting in the road in front of the bus, obviously concerned that she did not have the correct fare. The bus driver was a kindly soul who preferred not to run over passengers, actual or potential, so he had applied the brakes firmly when he noticed the small bundle ahead of him in a place where by rights a small bundle should not be.

This is why I continue to have a soft spot for bus drivers to this day, even the grumpy ones.

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Against all odds – Five Reasons to celebrate being English

When things go wrong in a country, that is often the time to think about why it is worth trying to put them right, So now is a good time to remember why it’s great to be English.

A nice cuppa

Article 1: Tea drinking. It might not be as sophisticated or gracious as in, say, Japan. No matter the occasion it can only be enhanced by a cup of tea. Ideally with a biscuit to dunk.

Article 2: Humour. Despite recent appearances to the contrary we actually have a great sense of humour. It is often quite dry. Unlike…

Article 3: The weather. There is lots of weather in England, much of it terrible, and most of it moist to some degree. That is why the humour has to be dry and the tea plentiful. It also is an important ice-breaker when meeting new people. Without the weather we would have only one other thing to talk about…

Article 4: The BBC. Television without adverts, who could resist? And look at what it produces: Dr Who, David Attenborough, Mastermind and Strictly Come Dancing. Not to mention Eastenders and Royal Weddings. If there were ever, say, riots, as a nation we would turn to the BBC to keep an eye on their progress. We don’t call the BBC “Auntie” for nothing.

Article 5: Manners. When you tread on my foot I will apologise. When I am waiting for something I wait in a queue. Even if I am the only person there. The English can form a queue of one person, it’s quite amazing.

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Waxing lyrical

If I were an inanimate object, what would I be?

Candle flame

I would be the thing that is alive without living, that meets the criteria of life such as moving, reproducing, growing, consuming. I would have meaning and be intimately involved in the lives of those around me.

I would be a candle, and I would be your most constant friend.

I would shine a light under the bed to chase away the monsters. I would beam over your shoulder as you read, lighting the words on the page and learning in your mind. I would comfort your soul as you meditated or prayed. I would burn steadfastly in your window to guide your lover home. I would watch your babe as she slept in my golden glow. I would keep a vigil over your sickbed. In the end I would melt away with you in your final resting place.

If love were a thing you could hold, it would be me. But beware because I can also burn.

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At least he was happy!

A child’s first touch with Death need not be too traumatic….

Scotch Night

My first experience with death occurred traditionally (I’m glad to say) with the death of my goldfish. As befits such a traumatic event, it was tinged with farce as well as tragedy.

In summary, my poor little fish was displaying symptoms of distress in its tank, swimming upside down and so on. For some strange reason it seemed to my parents that the best thing to do would be to call in our next-door neighbour for her sage advice.

Auntie May, the neighbour in question, was from Aberdeen and this made her advice very noteworthy indeed as far as i could tell. Naturally she had a good idea of how to help. I am completely serious here – she gave my fish whisky. From a teaspoon as it scudded along near the water surface.

The fish died anyway.

Perhaps if she had used a good single malt rather than a blend it might have had a better chance. It’s hard to know,

Far from warning me of the perils of the demon drink, all I learned from the experience was, as my grandmother remarked, that if you are going to go, you might as well go happy.

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Technology Junkie

Syringe

Plinky’s question today was about technology I couldn’t live without. I thought about that for a bit and came to a realisation, belatedly.

I live in a technological world.

From the moment of birth (emergency medical intervention gave me the chance of life) to this moment where I type on a laptop and transmit the words to …well, somewhere other people can read them….. every moment is supported by technology.

My food is kept fresh in a fridge. Without it I would have to shop daily or grow my own. My cooking is done on a device somewhat more advanced than an open fire. My house is heated with a system which can control the timing and levels of temperature for me. I travel in cars, trains and (rarely but easily) aeroplanes. The printing presses that produce the daily paper would be unrecognisable to the visionaries of Gutenberg. Antibiotics have reduced the mass killers of measles, diptheria and their like to pale shadows, a couple of days of inconvenience, no more.

And all of that before we consider the telephone and, eventually, the Internet.

I was once at a workshop where we were asked to consider the greatest scientific advance of the past 100 years. My own suggestion was the contraceptive pill; by giving people the means to control their fertility (while also developing medicine to extend life chances) we finally gained traction on our destiny, in the Western world at least, against the impetus of procreation.

So there is an awful lot of technology tied up with every facet of my existence, and virtually none of it feels optional.

It’s a slightly terrifying thought, and I am not sure I shall sleep easily as a result. Suddenly life seems precarious; to be confronted with my addiction to technology is disquieting and humbling.

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Eight legs are six too many

Daddy Long Legs

This is the time of year when Daddy Long Legs find their way into the house through invisible nooks and crannies.

I have a very early memory of a DLL landing in my bath tub. I had a bath full of white mountains formed by Matey bubble bath, and was making up stories about the people who lived in the hills and valleys, definitely including heroic dogs with barrels of life-saving drink round their necks. The next thing I knew, a monstrous creature was striding over the peaks more or less at eyeball level, clearly intent on devouring me. Deserting my imaginary mountain dwellers to their fate I took the only course of action open to me and screamed my lungs out. The sonic attack deterred the mighty beast not a whit, but it did attract my mother's attention and she raced in to save her precious offspring from the ravening jaws of the dread arachnid.

As I matured in years this particular response to large spiders seemed less dignified – and indeed now that my mother is 83 and smaller than me, I doubt it would be as effective.

I have therefore moved to option 2: the card and glass solution. You see, despite everything I wish the beasties no ill. I just prefer not to share my living space with them. It's something about the way they move. I'm afraid not of them, but of hurting them when I pick them up. The classic dilemma is this: if I hold them too tight, I get squished spider all over my hands; if I am too gentle I get panicked spider running up my sleeve and down my neck. Neither is a good outcome. Enter the card and glass.

I place the glass over the spider in an inverted position. Slide the card or paper underneath the glass, trapping the creature inside. Then transport the ensemble to the nearest door or window, lean out and remove the card. If the spider remains in the glass, leave the glass outside until the spider has gone. Simples!

Of course, I may have saved it from squishing merely to feed it to a bird, but Nature can be cruel like that. Circle of Life and so on. Even birds have to eat.

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Eight legs are six too many

Daddy Long Legs

This is the time of year when Daddy Long Legs find their way into the house through invisible nooks and crannies.

I have a very early memory of a DLL landing in my bath tub. I had a bath full of white mountains formed by Matey bubble bath, and was making up stories about the people who lived in the hills and valleys, definitely including heroic dogs with barrels of life-saving drink round their necks. The next thing I knew, a monstrous creature was striding over the peaks more or less at eyeball level, clearly intent on devouring me. Deserting my imaginary mountain dwellers to their fate I took the only course of action open to me and screamed my lungs out. The sonic attack deterred the mighty beast not a whit, but it did attract my mother’s attention and she raced in to save her precious offspring from the ravening jaws of the dread arachnid.

As I matured in years this particular response to large spiders seemed less dignified – and indeed now that my mother is 83 and smaller than me, I doubt it would be as effective.

I have therefore moved to option 2: the card and glass solution. You see, despite everything I wish the beasties no ill. I just prefer not to share my living space with them. It’s something about the way they move. I’m afraid not of them, but of hurting them when I pick them up. The classic dilemma is this: if I hold them too tight, I get squished spider all over my hands; if I am too gentle I get panicked spider running up my sleeve and down my neck. Neither is a good outcome. Enter the card and glass.

I place the glass over the spider in an inverted position. Slide the card or paper underneath the glass, trapping the creature inside. Then transport the ensemble to the nearest door or window, lean out and remove the card. If the spider remains in the glass, leave the glass outside until the spider has gone. Simples!

Of course, I may have saved it from squishing merely to feed it to a bird, but Nature can be cruel like that. Circle of Life and so on. Even birds have to eat.

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