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Marginalised voices - a diatribe

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This is not the response expected from 4.4. It is a personal diatribe because a nerve has been struck. The course sub-heading is Marginalised Voices. We are asked to write a 250 word reflection. This is not it. Strictly speaking, what follows is not a straightforward response to that sub-heading. But it is my response to what I've read in Chapter 4 so far.

There is something liberating about the introduction to this block. For once, someone - in this case, Sally O'Reilly - is expressing things I've felt for a long time but have hesitated to express for myself, to write about - or even dare think about. I was brought up to believe that politicians did good things for the people who voted. In old age, I have come to understand that politicians do good things for themselves and only for the people who voted for them. That did not seem to be the case for a child steeped in the politics of the 1940s and 1950s. My parents were not activists but they were clear and determined in their views. Initially, I learned from them. Good political intentions do not now seem to be the case in the divisive politics of the 21st century, not in the decades 2010 and 2020.

We are now in a time of fake news, of warped and twisted half truths, deceptions, avoided questions, a time when a spokesperson for the president of the United States can present lies as 'alternative facts'. A time when so called 'celebrities' are famous for being infamous, having done nothing positive for humanity. A time when so called 'reality TV' broadcasts the artificial, the trivial and the patently unreal. 

A recently overheard conversation engaged two sides of an argument with passionately held beliefs about the individual being discussed. A name I was unfamiliar with was mentioned again and again. A life was passionately dissected and mulled over by both sides. I wondered who this person was, who could be so important to the world. The matter had been in all the papers. Once home, I did some internet research. I wanted to see who this person, this auspiciously important individual, was. It was a TV presenter who had appeared in a 'Love Island' programme, had become infamous and had been hounded by the press. Should I have been surprised? Not about being hounded by the gutter press. Recent court cases have not stopped the activities of the gutter press. The surprise was at the depth of feeling in the part of the protagonists in the overheard discussion; one participant in deep mourning for the individual, the other full of joy at the hounding. This much feeling, this much passion for a person who had done nothing to solve the problems of famine and drought, nothing to right the injustices of the world, nothing to cure, educate, heal or mend.

I've found ‘My name is my name' fascinating to read if disturbing. It paints a very broad picture. It is understandably a subjective picture. Chimene Suleyman says, 'When the border was put in place the official records of the island began'. That is very puzzling comment. I, too, have a personal and subjective point of view. I, too, have read literature, history. Shakespeare knew about this island. Records already existed. The crusaders left their mark on this island. There exist records of their time there. Visitors enjoy crusader buildings. On this island, Paul was scourged in Paphos. The records exist. Places can be visited. The New Testament has the record. Lazarus, miraculously raised from the dead became bishop on the island. The records are there in the island's history. The author's statement is too broad, too ill-defined. And therefore, for me, her viewpoint is suspect. There are Ottoman Empire records. There are the records of those who mined and smelted copper. There is Phoenician history and Venetian records. The ancient walls of Nicosia are Venetian. One sided is one thing, and too one sided is another. Understandable but inaccurate. There is blame to be apportioned, but not set wholly on one side

The neutral is allowed to ask why this piece has kindled such a strength of feeling in me. I am not a neutral because I am part of the history of the island. I join Max Boyce in saying 'I was there’, although unlike him I was not at a rugby football match. I was there in a time before partition. I was a pale and decidedly green serviceman while Britain was holding the reins of control and trying to keep the peace between warring factions. I was one of those taught a single command, the classic serviceman’s challenge, in three languages: HALT - STAMATA - DUR. I was one of those who carried a red card at all times: 'Instructions for Opening Fire'. It was never clear whether or not we had to allow time to re-read the card before opening fire. It never came to that, Yes, Britain had annexed control after the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Yes, Britain was trying to hold grimly onto the declining shreds of its own empire. Yes, thousands of foreigners like me, strolled the streets of Nicosia, of Larnaca, of Paphos, of Limassol, carrying antiquated firearms. My clumsy .303 rifle was date stamped 1937, the year of my birth. It had been the British serviceman's basic firearm during the First World War. It was only later that I was trained to use a revolver and carried that much more convenient and less-obvious weapon. And, yes, we looked anxiously over our shoulder to see who was following us, looked ahead to check if there was an ambush planned. And yes, at that time it was mainly Greek Cypriots that we pursued in their terrorist hiding places up the Troodos mountains, because they wanted Cyprus to be part of Greece, although Turkey was much, much closer. And yes, it was mainly Greek entrepreneurs that we dealt with. But we were writing records of a whole island, not a sadly divided one.

A subsequent friend, a Greek Cypriot national and a much respected colleague, has a different version of the partition story. A version where he and his family had to abandon their tranquil family home near the beautiful harbour of Kyrenia, in the face of invading armies from the Turkish mainland. I wonder if it was Mavro's house that Chimene Suleyman's family were allotted. There are two sides to every story and both need to be told fairly, and respected for that.

It is important in life that we each have a story to tell. It is important that the riches of our history, culture, traditions, beliefs is remembered. To go along with this we need balance, a truth, fact, not just opinions and subjective views. And certainly not fake news or 'alternative facts'. The world needs those who would join together through understanding, education, compromise, not those who seek to divide and build barriers.

Diatribe ends!

Ancient Geoff

Ex 5030468, Royal Air Force, Cyprus, 1957-58

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I don’t want to make anyone jealous, but…..

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Saturday, 14th November

I don’t want to make anyone jealous, but…..

Jeanie and I have just returned from a wonderful, magical Spanish evening at Baybrooks Restaurant. It has seemed to be a long day. I slept badly, went to sleep in the small hours and got up late. The rest of the working day, what was left of it, was spent topping and tailing my file for the submission of my first Open University assignment of the year. It is a fiddly business, because not only is there 2000 words of my own words, but there needs to be 500 words of commentary, explaining why I’ve written what I’ve written the way I’ve done it. I’ve had nightmares about that. Then, there is the bibliography, what I’ve read that has influenced what I’ve written. The detail of that takes a lot of time. Finally, I have to put the computer code in for two pieces on the student shared forum, one where I’ve contributed and one where I’ve commented on something another student has written. I finally saved the final version this evening and I hope to send it to my tutor tomorrow after having a final read through. I always have kittens about getting the detail right. Nearly always, after the event, I think, ‘I’ve forgotten to do that’, and this evening I’ve had just such a thought.

So, it has been good to go out tonight. It has been a splendid evening at Baybrooks. Here in Spain, you would think that we did Spanish all the time. Not so within the expatriate community. We could eat traditional German, Italian, French, Belgian, Swedish food every day. It is difficult to get past the bill boards advertising ‘Traditional English Full breakfast’, ‘Sunday roast with three veg,’ always served with Yorkshire pudding and stuffing whatever sort of meat it is, ‘Fish and Chips with mushy peas.’ So, tonight it has been a joy to be at Baybrooks. They have done a Spanish tasting menu and I am bloated as I come home. 

At Baybrooks, we always choose a bottle of their house white wine. It comes from Jumilla near us up in the hills. We have visited vineyards there, a winery and we’ve had a wine tasting at a Jumilla bodega. Baybrook’s white is light but with a distinct flavour on the palate. It has been a perfect complement for what we have eaten tonight. Spain has been home to many wonderful artists: Picasso, Jean Miro, Dali, Velazquez. A collection of artists - of perhaps it was a coven of kitchen wizards - were in residence tonight at Baybrooks. Thank goodness it was a tasting menu with suitable mouthsful of food. I was well and truly stuck by the time we reached the fourth course, although I managed to devour the sweet.

I’ve never seen a restaurant table setting with so much cutlery. The table groaned under the weight.  The appetiser was a delicately prepared salad, lots of contrasting ingredients with Rosquilletas (tiny, hard bread nibbles, grissini - but Spanish rather than Italian) with tomato puree and  aioli. If you haven’t had aioli, you have not yet lived a full life. Alioli is mayonnaise Spanish style with garlic. Next we moved on to the pinchos, small slices of bread roll, with fillings: Spanish ham and peppers; goats cheese with caramelised red onion; a very clever sausage selection all accompanied by a tiny cocktail glass of Salmorejo soup. 

The restaurant was a full as it could be under current regulations. The fish course came next. Spicy pil pil prawns in a tasty olive oil dressing, vinaigrette mussels with more delicately arranged salad, a small portion of cod with a slightly chillied tomato sauce to take the away the blandness and choritzo stuffed calamari. The Spanish do like their fish and they do like it in variety.

By the time the main course arrived, I was ready to call a halt. However, it was served, part of the total bill whether I ate it or not. It was again delicately and imaginatively presented, tender - and indeed, falling apart - Rioja Beef Cheek with perfectly cooked rice and roast Mediterranean vegetables. It was delicious but I was only able to eat part. The dog will enjoy my residue tomorrow. Strangely, having wilted at the main course, I was able to scoff the tiny portions of creme catala with its slightly crusty crust, the tarta de Santiago (Saint James Cake) and the turron (nougat) ice cream. To top it all, I was able to enjoy a small glass of local brandy, served Baybrook’s style, over a glass of hot water to warm the brandy.

Jeanie and I have a very boring topic of conversation. Most days, we look at each other and say, ‘Aren’t we lucky’. And we are. Eating out is only one of the features of our luck. Tomorrow, at 1.30, we have an appointment with a traditional English roast lunch. I hope my stomach can cope.

Don’t overeat! It is ever so easy. Stay safe. Stay careful.


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From Telephone Poles into the Maelstrom

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As my mind is currently a maelstrom of confused ideas and threads, I’ve written something which has come out of course material but which has not been asked for. ‘As usual,' BB might say. You will appreciate the purpose of the one italicised word very shortly. After Workshop feedback, I have no idea where I am going for TMA01.

Toby has written eloquently, mentioning a work about Bombay that we may have read, and a work on telephone poles. I have called this

From Telephone Poles into the Maelstrom

I always thought maelstrom was an old Norwegian Viking word. It deserves to be, as you may appreciate below. It is not of Scandinavian origin. Maelstrom is Dutch, identified as originating in the seventeen century.

There are multiple definitions: ‘a powerful whirlpool in the sea or a river’; ‘a situation or state of confused movement in violent turmoil’.

My reason for wanting it to be a Norwegian word is because the most powerful tidal current, ‘Saltstraumen Maelstrom’ lies in Arctic Norway. Vikings would have known it, even if they didn’t call it a maelstrom.

I’ve sailed past Charybdis. So did the Ancient Greeks and Romans. I suspect most ancient Mediterranean mariners did. Homer had two foes that he wrote about, Scylla on the rocks and Charybdis, the maelstrom. Glittering eyes would have been transfixed on both. My eyes were tight fixed asleep, sailing past the ancient torments, through the Messina Strait. Our 100,000 ton cruise liner made no deviations. Little problem with the currents. At least, not that we were aware of, as we ploughed on for Genoa.

My friend knew what a maelstrom was. Because her brain was wired up differently, life was a constant battle with the real and the unreal. Violent turmoil chartered her mental capacity.

Currently, Great Britain, the native country I have deserted, is in the midst of a maelstrom. In this case, nothing to do with the weather.  Nothing to do with geophysical conditions or unusual marine phenomena. Two polarities lurk in the midst of this maelstrom. One is self made.  Potentially, self inflicted. This is the chaos that is Brexit, and the fact that, no one, not even the most avid pro-brexiteer, has any idea how it will turn out, what leaving the whirlpool of decision and negotiation — not to say the divisions — will look like. At the other pole, even more urgent, perhaps, is a world-wide maelstrom where few dare predict the outcome. There are all-knowing and far-seeing idiots— who can see a way through. Science is yet to catch up with them. Covid might.

I love that word, maelstrom. It is a word well-worth caring for, savouring, worth rolling around the lips, the tongue, the mouth. It has the bouquet of a fine red wine, perhaps of the finest sherry from Jerez de la Frontera. There is music and poetry in just that one word. A juicy, rich mix of percussive consonants and sonorous vowels. In my ignorance, I thought Dutch was a harsh, guttural language. Clearly I have not listened sufficiently well, walking the streets of Amsterdam.

Dictionaries and clever lexicographers can identify word-use-frequency over time. Many people must like maelstrom as a word. Its word-use-graph has increased exponentially in the past one hundred years.

Many years ago - I have forgotten what it was to be a young man — as part of a degree course, I studied linguistics. Linguistics didn’t teach me about the beauty of  the word maelstrom. The word itself has such harsh, violent meanings, yet it is such a musically satisfying and gentle word to say. Onomatopoeia where are you now? Perhaps on the rocks, with Scylla in the Strait of Messina, heading for the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Asking for a whisky on the rocks would be a digression too far.

(To my friends on the forum, in the ever more bewildering naming of genres and sub-genres, define this one for me.)

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Geoff Cooper, Thursday, 19 Nov 2020, 00:06)
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I never asked Wil, if he was called after William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery agitator of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But then, Wilberforce is a common first name in his native Uganda. In my brief association with the population of Uganda, I have known two Wilberforces.

Wilberforce Okecho was a 200 metre runner, a Ugandan, a student at the college I attended and my friend. I’d never had a friend other than white people before. Wil was a novelty.

His proper full name was Wilberforce, but everyone called him Wil. Our college paths crossed reluctantly, trajectories coinciding only in whole year group lectures. He was in secondary education; I was in primary. We met occasionally, chatted briefly, respected each other, but didn’t socialise. Overall, Wil didn’t socialise. He couldn’t afford to socialise. However, he competed with the college athletics team, one of the earliest black men to do so. We were an all men college.

I enjoyed being occasionally in the company of this tall young man with his ready smile and willing manner. He was a year or two older than the rest of us. It had taken some effort from him, some time, to get to the point of qualifying for college. He revealed little of his background, except that he was from Uganda and was the product of a mission school. At that time, intercontinental travel was a rare and tedious commodity. As he couldn’t go home for Christmas, I invited him to my family home. I did check with my mother first. Dad wouldn’t have had an opinion.

My mother was the most open-minded of people. She instigated our international relationships through church connections. As an eight-or-nine-year-old, I had learned a great deal about international relationships when we hosted a German prisoner of war in our home soon after Father had arrived home from the RAF. Dad had been repairing aircraft, sending therm back to indiscriminately bomb Germany by night. I learned a great deal — including a smattering of the German language from the German prisoner of war, Walther Rehm from Ulm am Donau in Bavaria.

Wil came to stay with my family for Christmas. Dad smiled at this black man in his house. Very little ruffled Dad, except when the annual stock-taking was poor in the shop. Mum loved being a host. I was sure she would. She took to Wil like the Mother she was. Particularly, she was fascinated by the white palms of his hands. Wil smiled and pointed out that the soles of his feet were just as white. She chose not to check.

More importantly, Wil was prepared to reveal to us much more than I already knew about his life in Uganda. He had been educated by sitting in the back of the classroom where his nephews attended. Their father was a tribal chief and it was Wil’s job take them to school and return them home. Staying in the classroom for lessons until the end of school was a privilege. Then, the Christian monks of the religious school had taken Wil in hand and ultimately sponsored him to attend college in York like me. He was looking forward to educating poor village children on his return.

I think Wil enjoyed eating in our house, Mum was a good cook and dealt food in generous portions. We ate well. On Christmas Day, we ate with our neighbours from the upstairs flat. We lived in a vast, old Georgian house. I think formal Charlie from upstairs, conventional Audrey, his wife and their two sensitive little girls were rather surprised to be sitting at table with a black man. But Wil was gentle, always smiling, never controversial. He was particularly good with Ann who was spina bifida and just learning to walk at five years old. The atmosphere around the table was convivial and harmonious.

Wil and I went to church together, Normally I sang in the choir, but sat in the body of the church with him for communion. Our small rural town was very much tied to its aristocratic legacy. The castle dominated. The Duke was the main landowner and principle employer. He was also at that time, the only person allowed to read the lesson in church, apart from the priest. Outside church, it was not unusual to touch the forelock as the duke left, or for ladies to make a small curtsey. In church, although I was well known — significant years a choir-boy, subsequently signing tenor, confirmed in the church by the bishop — we were stared at. Only white people lived in our part of the world. No-one was impolite, but we were stared at and made to feel rather uncomfortable. Of course, in 1957, people down south were just beginning to get used to the Windrush generation and its descendants. We lived in the rugged, rural north, almost into Scotland. This was long before the arrival of the Chinese restaurant in town. There was no Pizza parlour, no curry house. The nearest my town had got to having a foreign invasion was Enrico and Lena at the ice-cream parlour, second generation British, born out of Italian extraction and Mr Siegle (locally known as Sea Gull) who ran the pork butcher’s shop and who had been quickly interned on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. 

On Boxing Day, Wil and I walked through town. He shivered. Spending time in Uganda many years later, in the heat, among the mosquitoes, and the sun-burnt patch on my head, I understood why he shivered. At least he had good sustaining food inside him rather than matoke. I hated the matoke I had when staying in the bungalow on the Mengo Hospital site. At least in England matoke wasn’t my staple diet. During Wil’s shivering episode, we came to the display window of the local newspaper where we stopped. Wil was interested in the photos on display, photos related to items in last week’s paper. In our small market town, most news had some connection or other with agriculture. Best beef steer at the market this week. A lamb born very early in the season.  Many photographs were of the Young Farmers Club, which in our town substituted for the Young Conservatives. It was here, that an acquaintance, a man I thought I respected, sidled up to me and muttered in my ear, ‘Why have you brought that black bastard to our town,' before quickly sidling away again. It was as well that he had sidled away again. I might not have hit him, although I felt like doing so. I would certainly have said something that I might later forget. As it had been a whisper, Wil heard nothing of what had been said. But he was acute enough to recognise antagonistic body language when he saw it.

It may have been that moment — a brief moment of insight and learning — which cemented in my mind a feeling for follow humans who were not privileged white like me or who were highly favoured within all peoples by having been born a British citizen.

That was not something I had felt serving in the RAF among Greeks, Turks, Iraqis, Bahrainis, Omanis or citizens of Aden. There had been something inculcated in me by my family’s relationship with a German prisoner of war in 1945 and 1956. A great deal had been taught by Walther Rehm, not only how to count in German, (only to ten, up to twenty came much later), not only to sing Silent Night in its native German but to begin to understand how he and my father could bond. Dad was recently back from the RAF where he had been mending broken bombers to sent them back to bomb Germany again. (1307 words)

It was something that welled up in me many, may years later when local children attending the school where I was headteacher, started calling the three children of an Ethiopian refugee family ‘Paki’. I failed miserably to get white pupils to understand why ‘Paki’ was an insult at so many levels. The pupils actually liked the Ethiopian children. ‘Paki’ carried no overtones of insult or hurt for them. The Ethiopians, two girls and a boy, soon showed their mettle by winning cross-country races for the school. It didn’t stop the ignorant and the ignorant innocents calling them ‘Paki’. Strange that the boy from the Pakistani run ‘Indian’ restaurant was not called Paki.

We tried as hard as possible to make Wil feel at home. It snowed that Christmas. Not on Christmas Day but before Wil and I went back to college. He was fascinated by the snow. He had never seen snow before. There were small Christmas presents. A life-long Christian, educated in a Christian mission school, attending a Church of England college, he wasn’t sure why everyone got gifts on 25th December. 

At conversation over meals, Wil told us about Uganda. About his uncle, a tribal chief, whose children had to be educated, about his duty to escort his uncle’s children to and from the mission school a few miles away. Once there, Wil was allowed to stay at the back of the classroom, although his family were paying no fees and he had no school uniform and no books. Ultimately the teacher-monks found sponsorship to send Wil to England to quality to be a teacher.

It was Wil who had deep political and economic discussion with my mother. He had concerns about the political situation in Uganda and concerns about who wielded power in what way. He worried about which foreign country was investing money in Uganda, gaining influence, a concern in particular about Chinese influence. Uganda and its neighbours had assets China was interested in and China was funding a railway to capitalise on those assets. He spoke about the wonderful new dam and hydro-electric power station being built in Jinja. It would provide electricity for all of Uganda and perhaps other countries. Today, there are four hydro-electric power stations across the White Nile leading from Lake Victoria. I had heard about the power station in Jinja. A school friend’s father had been a contracted engineer helping to build Natabaale Power Station at the Owen Falls dam.

Wil was impressed with the school I had attended, a school built on classic public school lines, battlemented quadrangle with Latin inscription carved on the stones of the walls. NISI DOMINUS AEDIFICAVERIT DOMUM, IN VANUM LABORAVERUNT QUI AEDIFICANT EAM.Unless the Lord build the house, they that labour, labour in vain, it read in English translation. Most of the boys who attended had no idea what the Latin meant. There was a chapel-like school hall with stained glass windows, a tiered lecture theatre, a school where years later I became deputy head. Wil may have been impressed. He was an impressive character.

Our trajectory through the rest of college days went in different directions. We studied different education sectors. We studied different subjects. We both passed end of course examinations. We were qualified teachers under the English education system. I began teaching on industrial Tyneside, among coal-mines and ship-yards, none of which survive today. He went back to Uganda.

We corresponded briefly. His letters told of his joy at being able to teach in his native Uganda, how he took the ferry across Lake Victoria to his school. Then his letters stopped. In a previous article where Wil was mentioned I wrote,

He had retuned to his uncle’s tribal area, near Lake Victoria. The family were Christians. Idi Amin ruled the country. Many Christians, including teachers, disappeared. Wil was a teacher.’

Years later, visiting Uganda, I tried to trace him without success. I would have liked to be his friend still.  (1983 words)

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I lost my wallet, my black leather wallet with the impression of a lion rampant on it. It was entirely my fault, but as I was mentally beating myself because of the guilt, I yelled at my wife. I needed help. She was trying to help. I shouted at her and frightened the dog.

The wallet is important because it contains all the elements of my Spanish life. It is a complicated folding wallet with several distinct parts. Opened up, the back part is big enough to take a few euro notes. Never very many. I’m not a rich man so it doesn’t bulge with big notes. I can’t afford them. Above all, I couldn’t afford to lose them. Once, I spied a 500 euro note in a friend’s wallet. I’d never seen a note like that before. I vaguely knew they existed.

When the wallet is opened, a double sided plastic window reveals on one side my Spanish residency card and on the other my Spanish driving licence. These are vital documents here in Spain. They say who I am and what I am. It is as well to have them in order when dealing with officials in a strange language.

I was once stopped at a police check-point, waved down by an illuminated baton. Winding down the window, I looked into the eyes of the young traffic policeman. Seeing that I was a harmless old man, and a foreigner to boot, he waved me on. Good thing he didn’t smell my breath. I’d been out for a meal at my favourite Italian restaurant and the bottle of light Frascati had slipped down easily with my beloved pasta Vodka. Perhaps the garlic masked the alcohol. These traffic policemen scare me, because of their symbolism. The icon that boldly decorates their vehicles is the fasces, the symbol adopted by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist era, an icon I associate with the Nazi Swastika. I was a child of the Second World War. Some images are burned on my mind. 

My driver’s licence gives me only two further years, before I need to re-take the aptitude and physical tests for a new one. The test is more or less routine, and therefore it terrifies me. It involves no road test if a licence is held already. Specific centres are licensed to conduct driving aptitude tests: vision, blood-pressure, reaction. As my cataracts have been removed, I can actually see what I am doing. My typically high blood pressure is pill-controlled these days. It is the rolling road machine and the tunnel test that bother me. The rolling road is a bit like a tired old gaming machine. The road image veers from side to side indiscriminately, a road-rumbling noise as it veers. Two handles control two places on the road. Off track, a warning buzzer sounds. The first time my wife and I took the test together, the man controlling the test said she did better than me. I’ve never been allowed to forget it. She got five years on her driving licence. I’ve taken the tunnel braking test twice and still don’t understand it. The moving car disappears into a tunnel and the person being tested has to judge when the car reappears by braking before it crashes. I always over anticipate but presumably pass.

My green residency card is another problem to me. Lost, it would have been an even greater problem. It states that as a citizen of the European Union, I have the right to live in Spain indefinitely. British, I am no longer a citizen of the European Union. A new residency permit needs to be applied for: a routine matter on production of the previous permit, a current passport, some complicated completed forms and a bank certificate confirming that the fee has been paid; not at all a routine matter if the previous residency permit is lost. Our visit to the foreigners residence police station is on Tuesday. The appointments have been extremely difficult to secure. A lost residency permit would have invoked cancelling those appointments.

In the past, I have lost bank cards. Residing in the black wallet is a goodly collection of bank cards. There are two for British banks. One of those banks has just informed me that because of Brexit, that card and its banking facility is being withdrawn. There are three different, activated, legitimate cards for my Spanish bank account. I am not sure why there are three, as they all refer to the one current account. I’m assured that each is necessary, as each refers to a different feature of the account.

Additionally, the wallet holds any number of very useful business cards, my car emergency breakdown card and my rather pretentious Poetry Society membership card, a membership which must be renewed imminently. Everything gone. Bereft of identity. Penniless in the absence of bank cards. Panic stricken. 

I had gone to the local garage to buy a new gas bottle. Our hot water system is gas fired but on our urbanisation (a Spanish term for community of dwellings) there is no mains gas. Periodically a new gas bottle is required. At the garage, I paid with a 20 euro note from the shiny black wallet. It is shiny from age and use, because it is me, rather than my wife, who does most of the paying-out in  our household. The new gas bottle is safely installed, despite a struggle with its weight. We have hot water.

Towards the end of the day, my wife graciously agreed to going to a nearby bar for a nightcap, exercising the dog at the same time. I had made supper. She had washed up, although I had washed and put away most of my cooking implements while cooking. By now, the sun had set behind the mountains. We have glorious mountain-silhouetted sunsets. Enough cash was left in the wallet for one drink each. But where was the wallet? The last I remembered, it had been used paying for the safely installed bottle of gas.

It was in none of the usual places. Frequently careless places. Not in my bag. Not on the dining room table. Not slipped down the side of the armchair where I had been sitting. Adrenaline began to flow. Panic set in. Coming downstairs from getting ready to go out — a colourful dress by Desigual, her favourite Spanish designer — my wife began talking about something routine and trivial. It was not me that shouted at her. It was my panic. How could she be concerned about something so trivial when my whole life was about to be turned upside down? It was a loud shout. The dog cowered and shot upstairs to hide.

In the dark, I went to search in the car. The wallet was not on the floor outside, although there was a wallet shaped leaf that needed to be kicked to make sure. Not in the boot where I had secured the gas bottle. Not on the driver’s seat. Not in the side-pocket. Not slipped down between seat and pocket. Nowhere to be found.

‘Let me try,’ my wife said. ‘Where are your car keys?’

I’m afraid I shouted again. Even more loudly. The dog had still not put in an appearance. I’m certain that the neighbours were now listening in to the row. The wallet was not on the driver’s seat. She did not find it in the side pocket, nor down between the seat and the side pocket. She too, kicked the leaf that looked like a wallet.

‘No good,’ she said. ‘I’ll go round the other side.’

I knew it was no good. I settled gloomily to the idea that the wallet was gone, and I was going to be faced with documentary complications. I knew there was no point in going to the passenger side. I hadn’t been there. Mentally, I complied the list of things I would need to do to recover my finances and identity. Worst of all, would be the cancellation of the police residency appointments that had been so hard to book. The night-cap drink that the bar didn’t matter any more. I could get miserably drunk at home.

‘Found it.’ 

A quiet voice came from the passenger side.

‘Found it?!’

‘Yes. I was sitting on it.’

After buying the gas bottle, I had put the wallet on the front passenger seat as I drove home. In my search, in the dark, I could not see it.

My wife set off for the bar by a circuitous route with the dog. I went directly there. Steve, the cheerful barman — the ever-cheerful barman, despite his recent 1500 euro fine for having no car insurance — heard my poured out tale of guilt and sorrow and regret and shouting and mental wife-beating. Not forgetting the dog-scaring. He heard the same tale when my wife arrived with the dog shortly later. The dog said nothing but allowed Steve to stroke her. They are familiar friends.

It was Steve that did the healing. He told my wife about my regret and my guilt, my anxiety about wrongly berating her.

She smiled sweetly. We sat outside. The stars shone in the clear night sky, Pisces huge and yellow to the North. In the distance Santa Pola lighthouse flashed its safety over the Mediterranean Sea.

As we sipped our comforting drinks, I was left to reflect on my guilt of old age, of panic and the joy of my wife’s good nature.

Thank you Steve. A big tip with the bill.

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Jeanie has a new car. Her previous one, a Ford Fiesta has served her well. It has been on a long-term, four year, contract rental with the local Ford garage. The email from the garage gave her three options: your contracted term is coming to an end; you may purchase the vehicle at a very reasonable price, you may extend the contract for a further period, there is a ‘get a new car’ option. She has a new car. At last she has a new car. It has been something of an ordeal.

The new car was ordered more than four months ago, plenty of time to get the matter sorted before the old car had to be returned to the garage. Delivery date was promised for the middle of September. She got the car on the second Monday of October. The promised delivery date kept being put back and back. 

‘The car is coming from Romania’.

Not being driven we hoped.

‘It is on a ship sailing through the Black Sea.’

A further delay.

‘It’s on the wrong ship.’

‘We don’t know where the ship has got to.’

During this time several visits had been paid to the Ford garage. A number of interviews with a very pleasant, business-like Alma. Vigorous, enthusiastic Alma and her wrist tattoo proclaiming ‘flying free’. The tattoo seemed absolutely appropriate. Alma was the personification of a free spirit. She knew her job. Selling cars. Jeanie knew her mind. A new Fiesta but automatic transmission this time. Alma soon changed Jeanie’s mind for her.

‘Let me show you the best bargain. Look at this Eco-Sport model.’

The shape didn’t fit Jeanie’s image. The colour was wrong. It was too big.

‘Have you considered the Puma. Come and see mine.’

Alma has a Ford Puma. The Ford Puma in the same configuration as Alma’s can do everything a girl dare dream of. And everything a boy could dream of.

The first meeting with Alma about the matter saw the new car ordered and financial details discussed. Because this was a new contract, a parcel of documents would have to be assembled and presented to the garage. Having gathered the parcel of documents together, a further visit saw them being handed over for copying: passport and driver’s licence to identify the new owner, bank details and copies of bank statements, receipts for local taxes, proof of income, evidence of legal right to reside in Spain as a foreigner, P60, proof of where the new owner lived. Spain loves its paperwork. And a bank transfer was signed in favour of the garage to secure the order.

The waiting began. The order was very carefully timed to coincide with the expiry of the previous deal when the old (four-year-old) Fiesta needed to be returned to the garage. Alma would confirm the actual delivery date in due course.

‘Meanwhile here is a Puma brochure. It is in Spanish but the illustrations are good.’

The glossy illustrations were very good. Inability to read the technical Spanish hindered understanding of the very clever potential of the new car. Jeanie knew the basic facts: Puma, white, SatNav, automatic.

Still the waiting went on. Photographs in the brochure were pored over.

‘Did you know there is a video camera at the back for when you are reversing?’

‘Just like my VW then.’

‘There are proximity sensors all-around.’

‘Just like my VW then.’

‘It can park itself. I wonder how that works?’

Jeanie and I have frequent inflamed discussion about parking, especially when doing the actual parking.

‘Just like my VW. Personally, I never use ParkPilot.’

‘There is a blind spot indicator in both wing mirrors, if someone’s close on either said.’

‘There’s nothing like that on the VW.’

I was beginning to get a bit sick of all the features her car was going to have. If it got delivered.

Another phone call from Alma.

‘I am so happy. All the paperwork is approved and your new car is ordered. We are sorry, there is a delay from the factory. Not this month but next month.’

‘But I have to return the Fiesta this month.’

‘Don’t worry. We don’t need the Fiesta. Keep it until your new car arrives. July keep an eye on your bank account. The finance department might take the 4900€s for it, the final purchase price payment.’

‘I’m happy to pay another month’s rental.’

‘No. The finance department may need the full amount.’

There were hurried discussions with the bank. That account never has more than a month’s housekeeping in it. Never more than three figures. In the end, the finance department did not attempt to collect the full final purchase payment.

Last Saturday, there was an unexpected call from Alma.

‘You car is here. We need to prepare it before delivery. Can you come on Monday?’

Of course my wife could come on Monday. Who could have refused? An appointment was made for noon. High noon! I was taken along to witness the new car gloat. Alma was busy. She was doing what she usually does: sell cars. Our appointed time slipped further and further away. Jeanie patrolled the lines of new and old cars on the garage forecourt. No sign of a new Puma in white.

Ultimately, after she had demonstrated two, second-hand cars to her prospective purchasers, Alma glided over to us. Actually, she clacked over to us because her elegant slightly raised shoes went tap, tap, tapping their way across the car showroom floor, echoing as they advanced. Idly, I wondered if Alma did Flamenco dancing. She had the figure and verve for it. This was Spain, after all.

‘I get your car, then we talk,’  Alma said. This was getting on for an hour after our appointed noon show-down.

Disappearing to the floor below ground floor, Alma reappeared driving a pristine new, white Ford Puma. It took only a short session sitting at her desk to hand over the keys and documents of the old car and receive the keys and documents of the new one.

‘Now,' said Alma. ‘I show’.

Given that Alma hails originally from Madrid, her English is good. Functional. Basic. Not idiomatic. She could not be mistaken for a grammar and syntax loving Englishwoman.

A lot was to be shown. Jeanie sat in the front driver’s seat so she could press buttons, turn keys, familiarise herself with handles and levers. Alma was in the front passenger seat. I was relegated to the back. Gradually, marriage is beginning to show me where I belong.

Alma’s showing took well over an hour as the toys and trinkets of the new car were demonstrated. The steering wheel is more complicated than the complicated steering wheel on my car. There was a lot for Jeanie to learn.

‘Here is cruise control. Here is proximity control. Here turn on the sensors or turn off. Here the telephone.’

Taking Jeanie’s mobile phone, flashing fingers across the dial, she quickly and expertly transferred all Jeanie’s contact numbers into the car’s prodigious memory.

‘I worked for Vodaphone before,’ she smiled. ‘Now ask the car to ring your husband.’

It did and informed Jeanie that it was doing it.

‘Here the radio. Tell me station to pre-tune.’

It was a radio station blaring pop-music. I requested Classic FM but it was not available. The pop-music was thankfully turned off.

‘Now we plan a route,' Alma announced. ‘We go where?’

‘Home,' I suggested.

‘No,' Alma said. ‘Somewhere exciting. We go Cartagena.’

I had thought home might have been quite exciting. It was well-past my lunch time. However, Cartagena was fine. A few buttons were pressed, the map popped up on the screen taking us to Cartagena. It is one of my favourite places in Spain, under an hour away on the motorway. You get close up to the ships in the harbour. There is a wonderful pedestrianised road with fabulously designed balconies. These days, I choose not to scramble over the steps and ledge of the glorious Roman amphitheatre. Cartagena is a busy, bustling, touristy place. Parking can be tricky. The Sat Nav almost identified a vacant parking spot.

‘Now. Driving modes. Four settings. Here economy, next sport, next slippery road and finally trail for a rough road.’

Jeanie wasn’t sure when she would use any engine mode other than economy.

The way to have a massage from the front seats was demonstrated. As was the special button to call emergency services in a road traffic crisis. The position of the steering wheel was adjusted for maximum comfort. Out of the car, the clever boot and boot cover was demonstrated.

‘Now. Drive,’ said Alma, standing to one side and smiling. I was allowed to take the front passenger seat. It was well on the way to three p.m. when we arrived at home. I was starving.

I am not the least bit jealous of my wife’s new car. But I would love a chance to drive it.

‘Not yet,’ she says.

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Sunday, 15 Nov 2020, 10:36

There is mourning in my household. Today I had a tree cut down It was a murder. I am ashamed.

In my lifetime, I have planted trees. At my former home in England, there is a splendid mature cherry tree which I planted fifty years ago when my children were young. In spring, it blooms magnificently, lighting up the garden. In autumn, it is an incessant pain, as its leaves litter the lawn. At various times it has held a rope ladder and a tree house. At its foot was a sand box where three children played and imagined their young lives away. In the same garden, I planted a small prostrate cedar bush which remained prostrate for three years before it suddenly became an erect cedar tree. Sadly, that had to be removed. Its position was appropriate for a prostrate shrub. Its position was entirely inappropriate for an erect cedar tree — despite its noble beauty. Wrong place; it had to be removed.

Now that I live in Spain, I love the date palms. Such a startling silhouette against a setting sun. Equally, I appreciate the sense of order in orange and lemon groves. I glory in the spreading figs and fields of grapes. Some ordered groves, like the local groves of pomegranates, fit the landscape. Other groves intrude. On a train journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, I was looking forward to a jungle setting. I got ordered groves. Ordered groves of palm oil trees have replaced the natural jungle. Commercial interests, the economy, triumph over the preservation of genuine ecological beauty. This is why Singapore in recent years has been burdened by smoke pollution. The burning-off of forests to enable money to be generated miles away from Singapore by producing palm oil for the Western world.Absorbing CO2, trees create man’s essential oxygen. Still the greedy cut and slash and burn to mine and farm. Meanwhile, amid rising temperatures the world fries. Life-giving afforestation recedes. Water retaining roots make way for growing cattle fodder. Especially it recedes in the Amazon and tropical Asia.

My wife tells me that we assassinated our tree. I disagree. Assassinate is the wrong word, redolent of a political act. We were not engaged in politics, but in an act of unfortunate practicality. No hired assassin was employed to do the deed. Phil, the hired hand, is a gardener, well-enough equipped to do the job mercifully and efficiently. Young enough to be sufficiently fit and guiltless to eat a meal with his family afterwards and to enjoy a drink or two with friends in the bar that evening.

Thank goodness for Phil and his skill, which assuaged my guilt. It was an efficient job. There were no wounded shrieks and agonising cries. The tree died quickly and mercifully. It was as old as my house is old, at least fifteen years, possibly a two-or-three year sapling when first planted, no more than in its twentieth year. Over those years, it had become mature, cascading blue-purple flowers in season, shedding mounds of needles across my drive, the public road and in the gardens of others at autumn leaf-fall. It characterised my house. My house was the one with the jacaranda tree in the drive.

The jacaranda tree had several sins which contributed towards its demise. Although bare in winter — denuded of leaf and flower — spring, summer and autumn saw a torrent of debris, not only on my terrace, but in public places which were the responsibility of others to clean and maintain. My heart ached for Tony in his daily task of cleaning and maintaining the public road, as he faced a virtual flower and needle waterfall. We joked about his Augean task but there was a heart of steel hidden in the jocularity.

However, making a mess was not the tree’s main offence. Whoever planted it, long before I owned the property, had positioned it very close to the edge of the drive, so that a car could get in and out. Planting a sapling there made sense at the time. Little forethought was shown. Trees grow, thank goodness, even if the foolish and greedy cut and don’t replace. The jacaranda in my drive, adjacent to the garden gate, was too close to the house wall.

The first sign of a problem was when the drive gates would not close and lock. Initially a small problem, marring one aspect of my domestic security arrangements. Initial exploration of the problem indicated that a gate pillar had moved. Living as we do, in a geo-unstable area (we have fairly frequent minor earthquakes), the matter was dismissed as the result of natural earth movements. Further study of a range of cracks and crevices however, confirmed that not only was the gate-post moving but also a section of wall was leaning at a dangerous angle. Because the wall had moved imperceptibly, day after day, week after week, the threat to the structure of the house had not been noticed. Now that it had been noticed, it was obvious and alarming. Like a triffid, the tree was taking over, roots digging into our foundations. Regrettably, lamentably, it had to go, Which is where Phil the gardener became Phil the executioner. Phil is always cheerful, smiling, whistling away despite the deadly nature of his work. Normally his work is murdering a few weeds, trimming a shrub, tidying up my small patches of garden. Now the jacaranda was tackled briskly and soon succumbed to Phil’s deadly skills.

It took a surprisingly short time for Phil and his assistant to removed the leaves and the twigs and small branches supporting them. And there the tree stood, naked, as though in its winter glory. When negotiating the price for the task, Phil asked if we had a log-burner. What was now left, was a prime candidate for a log burner. We have no log-burner. Phil may know someone who knows someone who has. At this stage, heavy-hearted, my wife and I left Phil to his task as we went to attend a different function.

We were not present at the last throes. On return, the only evidence of Phil’s work was a large plant pot in the wrong place. It had been moved to allow access to the chain saw and not replaced. A slight dusting of wood shavings remained on the drive concrete. The tree had gone, leaving only a dangerous tilting wall. No sign even of a tree stump.

We are not proud of the death of our friend. There is a small comfort. The leaves and twigs have gone into a re-cycling skip. It is our understanding that everything in the skip will be turned into compost to encourage other growth elsewhere. Phil assured us that the trunk and branches will be cut into suitable size for someone to use as winter fuel. In my wilder imagination, I see an aspiring artist woodworker lay claim to the dead bones of the tree and turning them into beautiful carvings. All may not be lost to humankind.

Meanwhile was are left with a wall that is tilting and a drive gate that will not close and lock. Work to be done remains and more money to be paid out. Paying a considerable sum each year in household insurance, I had hoped that we were covered. Not so. It is now a case of taking the most acceptable quotation for wall removal and re-building. 

Send for Lolli, an Icelander, who made such a good job of rebuilding the garden arbour.

(1271 words)

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Swimming against the flow the river trout’s way is a waste of energy. In the man-made world, energy is for consuming, conserving. Standing on the old bridge, through the clear, clear water, plenty of trout were seen, all swimming against the flow. Nose upstream. No energy saved here. Falling as rain or snow on the heather and bracken moors up in the hills, the water gathered in rivulets, streams joining one to the other, creating the river, the great slow flowing snake below the peaks. It was not always pure, the falling water,  containing soot from chimneys, pollutants from traffic, chemicals from factories. There were even radioactive particles from ill-managed processes hundreds of miles away. As it oozed its way through heather tangles, as it dripped off bracken leaves, as it seeped through centuries of peat, it was filtered, strained, purified. As it bubbled and gurgled over small waterfalls and rapids, it was infused with life-giving oxygen. 

Water, the clearest of the clear. On this historic bridge that was true. Narrow, battlemented bridge, with bays for pedestrians sheltering from passing traffic. Those on the bridge had seen mail-coaches, mounted soldiers trotting to face Napoleon, marching soldiers going to Flanders trenches, antiquated motor cars guided up the steep hill by a man with a red flag. Others had seen motor coaches and charabancs. The bridge had reverberated to the power of refrigerated fish lorries; Croan’s of Peterhead and Fraserburgh. Under the weight of combine harvesters vibrations threatened to topple its stone lion. Locals called it ‘The Lion Bridge’.

Through all that time, through all those ages, trout had fought and struggled to swim against the flow. Never swimming far. Swimming against the flow was not a journey, it was a tactic. Each had its own hunting ground. A ‘plop’ and another mayfly met its doom. This was the only time, a brief lapse of concentration, a moment at the peak of the hunter’s triumph, when digestion and the direction of flow took more of the trout’s attention. A quick flip of the tail, a wiggle of a dorsal fin, and correct orientation was regained.

Swimming upstream ensured a continuous flow of oxygenated water over gills. Trout survival. In this river, welly-booted kids discovered crayfish and marvelled at them. Under the bridge, at the shallow edges where the flow didn’t matter so much, skulking under stones, hidden among reeds, creatures much like mini-lobsters — in fresh water, not salt.

Further down, beyond the man-made waterfall, with its fish-ladder, trout still made sport, rising lazily to mayfly and grub on a warm summer’s evening, in the shadow of the hill, in the shadow of the imposing castle that guarded the bridge. Downstream to the next bridge, narrower still, newer and not as decorative — no lion, just a time-worn heraldic emblem. The bridge where no pedestrian pressed against non-existent safety bays. Merely an overgrown arch to pass under the road into the dense coppice, with only a hint of sky, cloud and sun above the tree canopy. The dense, dark coppice, damp and mysterious underfoot.

No more crayfish were to be found. No trout swam into the current here, trying to resist the flow.

The concrete and electricity began here. Here the thrumming of generators filled the air. Here were the settling tanks. The smell of human waste being purified was in the air, slight but pervasive. Effluent that poured from the concrete pipes had been filtered many times. Bacteria had digested much of the offensive human residue, no longer containing any noxious, unpleasant substances, nothing particularly poisonous. It ran clear, without oxygen. Not quite as clear as the clear, clear, pellucid water under the old bridge. It retained the air-staining smell. Where there had been oxygen, it had been filtered out. Not enough life-giving gas to ripple sustenance over trout gills. Polluted enough to ward off home-coming salmon at the mouth of the river. Below the sewage filtration plant which the authorities called a purification plant, below this point no energy was wasted. Trout headed upstream against the flow, beyond the sewage pipes, because there was no animal life, no oxygen. Reeds grew, algae flourished but nothing animal existed.

The big people lived here.


Two big people in particular. 

As far as John Good Citizen Mersp was concerned, no one else mattered. He was part of them, part of Fred and Mary King, who lived in a three bedroomed cottage, near the river, near the Lion Bridge that Fred walked over on his regular Sunday afternoon walk, where he sometimes paused to look at the trout hunting in the clear water below.

Newly released Good Citizen Mersp was ecstatic. There had been frequent releases before his. Now his turn had come. He might be only one of many, but this was his moment, his opportunity. In fact, he was only one of millions. It had been tightly packed, in the dark. He was still in the dark but after the release, he was swimming freely in a friendly and hospitable environment, like many millions of others. Ejected and ecstatic, his sense of purpose enriched, enlivened. Others were swimming in all different directions. Many did not have his sense of purpose. Many went with the flow: down, and out. John Good Citizen’s instinct was to go against the flow, to strive upwards, ever higher to achieve his goal, his ultimate destination. He was aware of Mary Good Intentions Mersp, swimming alongside him. She was strong and purposeful. She knew where she was headed. She was fit, healthy, full of determination, but this was his one and only opportunity to prove himself. She, too, had a sense of purpose. Like his. As he swam, he accelerated, drawing ahead, shouldering her aside. He was close now. Everything informed him that he had made it. He was energised. Electricity flowed as he buried his head. It was done. That was it. Job completed. Mission accomplished. The link established. The union made. Now, together they could divide. And divide and multiply. Their magic, that could create organs and limbs and flesh. All that was needed now was the tightness of the bond that barred all others. The security of his genes, his hormones, his DNA joining the egg.

It took some time for the big ones to realise. There had been many previous releases, sometimes calculated, sometimes spontaneous. So far nothing unusual had happened. A month passed as usual for Mary King. There were even other frequent releases after the happening. Only after the happening things which should have occurred did not occur. 

Sixty days later Mary King, the big she-one, laid her head on Fred’s knee after supper and said, ‘You do know what has happened don’t you?’ Fred disappointed her. He had not noticed. He tended not to think about these things. It was necessary to spell things out for him. 

‘The curse hasn’t visited for two months’, she said. ‘We are going to have a son.’ 

Fred was acute enough to know what the curse was, although he wasn’t sure exactly what happened. It was a very private issue and he preferred not to meddle. 

‘I’d like a girl,’ he said. ‘We’ll call her after my mother.’ 

‘Thank goodness its a boy,’ thought Mary. 

Fred’s mother was called Wilhemina Flower Catsup. 

‘No. I’m sure it is a boy and we will call him William Friedrich after my father.’ She had been tempted to say that the child’s name would be William Good Citizen King, but decided that was too unusual.


The Kings lived a rural existence. There were red squirrels in the garden, not invasive grey squirrels. Their few hens had to be carefully locked up at night for fear of marauding foxes. Once a deer had visited the garden at Sunday lunch time. Woodpeckers raided the food put out for smaller, quieter, gentler birds.

Beyond their garden, the road was quiet most of the year. At harvest time, combine harvesters could be a problem and tractors pulling great trailers full of golden corn plied their way from field to barn. On rare occasions, their country lane, their rural backwater became a diversionary route north for traffic from the main road. It was then that the windows of the cottage rattled with the vibration of traffic. Only ever in one direction. The southern diversion went by a different route. 

Nine months the happening, Mary said, ’Something’s going on.’ There was a tug at Fred’s heart.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘My tummy tightened,’ she said, ‘Its not indigestion and the baby isn’t kicking. I think it was a contraction.’

‘Do we need to go?’ he asked.

‘Not yet.’

At dawn, he rose for work, finding her in the kitchen, ironing a load of washing. Mainly his shirts. He liked to wear a fresh, clean shirt to work each day.

‘What on earth are you doing?’ he demanded.

‘Well. I couldn’t sleep. Usually the baby kicking relaxes me, sends me off to sleep because then I know things are fine, but the baby wasn’t kicking and every so often I could feel my tummy tightening when I wasn’t doing anything. I’m sure its the beginning of my contractions. This ironing needs to be done before I go in. Now, go to work. I’m OK. Nothing dramatic is happening. Ring me at lunch time to see how things are.’

Concentrating at work was hard. Several times he had to be brought back to reality from being lost in his own mind. Mistakes were made and noted. Normally his mistakes were rare. When lunch time came, it was a relief. He could phone home.

‘How are things?’

‘I’m fine. Don’t fuss. I got old Sister Brown to pop along and she says there’s plenty of time yet.’

Old Sister Brown’s cottage was just down the road. She had been the district nurse. Now long retired, villagers consulted her, rather than go seven miles to the nearest doctor. There was a time when she delivered all the babies for miles around, as well as medicating the chronically ill and the village hypochondriac.

‘She says I’m on the way. Early stages. No panic until my waters break. And I’ve finished the…’

There was a gasp at the other end of the phone and a silence.

‘What is it? What’s happening?’ he asked.

‘It’s OK. Don’t panic. Just a little contraction. No drama. Just woman stuff. Have you eaten your sandwiches yet?’

‘Not yet. They smell funny. What did you put in?’

‘Well, there’s your favourite cheese and some of that new pickle my mum made. Dad likes it, so I thought you would too. Go and have your lunch. I’ll get back to you if I need to.’

Walking down to the bridge to watch the trout, Fred King took his lunch box and the thermos of milky tea. The pickle was as good as his wife had predicted. It was his favourite crumbly Cheshire cheese. A crumb or two fell over the battlemented walls and trout rose to the bait. A flash and the next crumb was gone. These days very little traffic troubled the tranquillity. The castle continued to loom over the river but a modern two-lane by-pass had been built. Only rare traffic penetrated the small town. Heavy traffic whispered two miles distant down the river valley beyond the sewage works.

Her call came well into the afternoon session. 

‘My waters broke,’ she blurted. ‘Sister Brown’s popped round to help me change and tidy things up but she says I need to go.’

Mary King ‘needed to go’ because the doctors had called it an elderly pregnancy. That irritated, insulted. She was shocked. ‘Elderly’ in late thirties. She and Fred had been trying to make a baby ever since they had married in their twenties but it had been a long time waiting. The nearest specialist maternity unit was twenty-five miles away, down the new dual carriageway.

It took few minutes to get home, despite the unusually heavy traffic going the other way.

‘Must be an accident Northbound,’ Fred thought.

Five miles north of their village road end, a lorry had side-swiped a bus. Traffic police closed the Northbound carriageway. Vehicles were diverted through the village.

At home, Mary was ready and waiting. Sister Brown stood in his doorway. ‘I’ll lock up. Just get going,’ as she thrust his wife’s ‘ready for labour’ bag at him.

Little conversation occurred in the car as they drove against the flow, down their country lane to the dual carriageway. Both were anxious. Tension was in the air, especially as her contractions came ever more frequently and ever more strongly. 

‘Can you hurry?’ she pleaded as she saw vehicle after vehicle straddling the other side of the road Northbound. ‘Will that hold us up?’

‘No. Thank goodness we’re against the flow. We are Southbound.’

However, there was little or no flow. Traffic facing them was largely stationary. Richard Mather’s combine harvester had chosen that moment to break down, at the narrowest part of their country road, blocking the diverted traffic, but not them.

Strategically placed traffic police were at the end of their approach road. As Fred swung his battered old Skoda towards the southbound carriageway, he was waved down. 

‘Can’t stop,’ he gasped out. ‘Wife….Baby…Hosp…’

At that moment, Mary gave a great groan of despair, as one in the last stages of giving birth. He was surprised. She had not made so loud a noise previously, nor was there any such noise subsequently. She smiled happily at her deception. 

‘Follow me,’ said the policeman.

Keeping up with the powerful police BMW patrol car was difficult as it cut through the scant traffic going south. The warning blues and twos secured a pathway. The great double doors of the hospital were gained in record time.

Waiting nurses quickly surrounded Mary with blankets and wheeled her inside. Clutching the ‘ready for labour’ bag, he tried to follow the flow of nurses speeding his wife inside.

‘No, you don’t mate.’ A large and stern doorman stopped him, arms outspread. ‘You can’t leave that thing there. The car park is around the back. No excuses. Not even for doctors.’

To the car park around the back of the hospital was a long way.  Cruising around in the car park to find a parking space took a long time. Fumbling for the correct change for the parking meter took a long time. With no back door entry, walking to the front door took a long time. Finally, with the ‘ready for labour’ bag still in his grasp, he stood at his wife’s bed-side.

A baby was in her arms.

‘Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘Meet Good Citizen King’.

(2477  words)

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Every aspiring traveller, every wide-eyed stranger, needs an Abdul, a Wayan or a Karim. Having aspired towards knowing the world, having had eyes forced open,  each has been experienced. As one more-accustomed to the cost of a taxi ride in London, the rate for a long day’s taxi ride in Tunisia, in Penang or Bali is peanuts. The equivalent in local currency of about forty pounds sterling; a far better bargain than the collective coach trips sold by travel companies or hotels. Into the bargain, it means a guaranteed day of employment for Karim, Wayan or Abdul. Each may have limited English language, but each has a good knowledge of their own city, district, area.

Take Karim. We almost wished we hadn’t, but it was worth it in the end. In this case, we weren’t setting out to be tourists, not culture vultures. Karim´s working day mission was clearly established at the outset. 

‘Take us to Oued Zarga, to the military graveyard in Tunis where my uncle is buried.’ Although interested in military history, this was not a military history mission. A previous visit had been a mark of respect. This was a visit on a mission entrusted to me by my aunt, his widow. As her life ebbed away she talked of many things: family issues, joys and regrets brought on by her waning health. One of her greatest regrets was that she had missed the opportunity to visit her first husband’s grave. It had been her ambition to lay a poppy wreath there. There was no difficulty in promising to do that for her as she faded away.

So it was that Karim was employed, engaged, entrusted to take us to Oued Zarga where we would find the grave of Driver Albert Shaw, RASC. The destination was a couple of hours driving from the hotel. Previously the journey had been by local train to Tunis City and then on an irregularly timed local market bus complete with cages of live chickens to the small town, followed by fortuitous local train back, changing in Tunis City. Now, the option was to be driven by a local driver, preferring not to navigate through unfamiliar territory. It was at 8.30 a.m., after an early hotel breakfast, that Karim presented himself in the hotel foyer. A slim, wiry man, wreathed in smiles. The initial route planning conference didn’t take long. He didn’t need the proffered map. ‘Is good map. Not see before.’ It had been bought in England. All roads were in his head. He tapped his head vigorously. Heavily accented pidgin English affirmed that he knew ‘the cuts’. We hoped that mean that he knew the short-cuts. Glancing down at our only item of baggage — the specially commissioned poppy wreath — he asked where the picnic box was. We had no picnic box. He was disappointed in us. However, we had Tunisian dinars. We would eat out during the day. There was a momentary frown, then another smile. ‘I fix,' he said.

We could see why his taxi was battered and bruised when we set off. Of this type of taxi, hired with driver by the day, it was definitely the most decrepit we came across. At least there were no holes in the floor, like the one once hired for a mercifully short taxi-ride in Tunis City. There was a gleam in his eye as he started the engine of his Peugeot 200. Most Tunisian taxis are Peugeot 200s. To the unaccustomed listener’s ear, the engine sang. It had no opportunity to purr for Karim had a heavy foot and the engine roared. Pointed to sit in the front, as a previous visit had identified its landmarks, my fellow passenger settled into the back. Hanging from the rear view mirror was an object of some sort. It appeared to indicate a form of religious affiliation. It did not feel very Islamic. Karim stroked it affectionately and we set off.

It would be more accurate to say that we roared off, with considerable squealing of wheels on tarmac. Karim had set out his intentions and his driving style. As we bolted down the hotel approach road, it was clear that somewhere inside Karim´s psyche, there was another person: a racing driver; a Lewis Hamilton, a Michael Schumacher, a Sebastian Vettel. Nervous muted screams were coming from the back seat. Feet were firmly braced against the back of my seat.My fellow passenger is a much faster driver than I am, although much more cautious. She was not having a pleasurable experience.

Karim certainly knew the ‘cuts’, and, yes, they were short-cuts. Through and around the back of every village he could find, scattering hens, sheep and goats wherever they were to be found, and incidentally, avoiding frequent traffic police road-blocks. In time, in almost record time, we arrived at a small dusty town recognised from a previous visit. Parking the car, Karim turned with a grin saying, ‘You coffee. I fix lunch,' meaning that he would buy raw materials for lunch for all of us. Giving him a modest dinar note or two, we were directed to an outside table on the footpath. A brisk waiter served delicious coffee. It was only as we sipped coffee and took in our surroundings, that we noticed the men at adjacent tables smoking, the men at adjacent tables playing a board game and men at adjacent tables regarding us suspiciously with a degree of hostility. My wife felt a trifle uncomfortable. There were no women to be seen anywhere. We longed for Karim to return.

After a lengthy wait, he returned, paper bags and cardboard packages in hand. There was change. Lots of small coin change. ‘Is lunch. Is good Tunisian lunch.’ The thought did not inspire. Hoped said it wasn’t sheep’s eyes. Sheep’s eyes had been served at a banquet during a previous Tunisian visit. And sheep’s testicles. ‘Not far,' he said. He was right but it was clear he was going in the wrong direction. ‘No. Is good,' he insisted, swinging off the tarmac onto an unmade road. The profile of the landscape, the reservoir dam wall, the old French Roman Catholic Church long abandoned situated next to the cemetery was unrecognisable. When we came to a locked gate and the track petered out, he smiled at me and said, ‘Not good’. Mainly with hand signals, the fact was explained that we needed to cross the nearby railway track, drive up towards the dam and find the church. Realisation dawned. ‘Ah! L’eglise’. Most Tunisians have retained the Colonial French from former times. We were only a mile or so from our destination, but my landmark, the tower of the abandoned church had gone. In fact the church had gone, only some graffitied foundations left. Other building materials had been re-cycled in the building of the new settlement on the other side of the main road.

The Commonwealth cemetery marking the resting place of some of the dead of Operation Torch during the Second World War was as pristine as ever. No graffiti. No weeds. Carefully gravelled pathways. Information board clean and tidy. Perfectly clean gravestones which looked as if they could have been put there yesterday. No disrespect for the dead; the British, the Australians and the Indians who found their eternal rest there. Karim turned his back on us as we took the wreath and our prayers to Albert’s graveside. Karim had no wish to intrude on our memorial moment. Ours was the only poppy wreath. A special visit to the Royal British Legion poppy factory in Richmond on the outskirts of London had been made. Created  specifically to my deceased aunt’s order, we wondered how long it would last in that dry and dusty place, among the row after row of graves on parade.

As far as we were concerned, apart from lunch, that was it. Duty done. Honour satisfied. 

‘Lunch now, Karim?’ 

‘Soon. Very soon.’ 

Karim wasn’t finished with us. We weren’t sure what he was saying as he bundled us into his car. It sounded like ‘Thugs’. I offered my front seat to my wife. 

‘No fear. Not with him driving. I’m staying in the back with my eyes closed.’ 

Her eyes would have been better open to help absorb the bumps and cushion the jolts.

It turned out that he was taking us to a place of Tunisian cultural heritage, the Roman period settlement of Dougga. Very few Tunisian cent coins were required to enter the car park, where sitting on a low wall, Karim rapidly converted baguettes and a very smelly package of garlic sausage into lunch. There were tomatoes, cucumber and sweet peppers. Each baguette was liberally spread with harissa paste. ‘Harissa,’ Karim said proudly. ‘Is good. Very healthy.’ 

We needed the soft drinks he had bought. Harissa paste may be very healthy. It is also very mouth-tinglingly hot. From our seat on the wall as we ate, Karim pointed out the temple and its remaining pillars. One building he named as, ‘Men with women,' blushing as he glanced at my companion. Elsewhere across the valley, he indicated a semi-circle of cubicles, rather like swimming bath changing rooms, but without doors. He then held his stomach and mimed a squatting movement. He didn’t walk the ruins with us. As is common in Tunisia, notices are in a range of languages. We were able to read that the ‘men with women’ place had been the Roman brothel. The cubical’s complex where he had mimed squatting was the communal toilet. Things were learned that day we hadn’t expected to learn.

The journey hone was equally hair-tasing. There is no telling now many chickens were killed on the way. We did not stop. He may have been in a hurry for his evening meal. We may have lingered too long in Dougga. Perhaps he was aware that the hotel restaurant closed for service minutes after we arrived back. We got our evening meal.

Learning from Karim was not unique. A day with Abdul in Penang had been recommended by the delightful colonial style boarding house we stayed in.  We were told, ‘He will be outside at 9 a.m.’ After our healthy breakfast of melon, mango and dragon-fruit with local bread, we presented ourselves to Abdul. He was an entirely different kettle of fish. Significantly taller than me, kaftaned and turbaned with an extensive bushy beard, he made an imposing presence.

‘Abdul,' he presented himself, right hand against where his heart might have been and a discrete but not fawning bow. His car was different, too, Bigger. No bumps and bruises. Spotlessly clean, inside and out. ‘Please,' said Abdul, opening the back door for both of us. We were clearly to be kept in our place. Front of the car was for him not for his passengers. His copy of the Koran was tucked in the side pocket. 

‘You go where first?’ he asked. 

‘Abdul, you know your island far better than we do and we only have a few days to explore, Take us where you think we should go.’ 

‘Funicular and pagoda first, then decide,' he said.

Driving with Abdul was a pleasure. There were flashback memories of driving with Karim and his avoidance strategies at high speed. For a big man, Abdul was patience and good manners personified. Many pilgrims climbed the precipitous steps up to the pagoda, all bright paint and enamelled gold.  Abdul didn’t come with us. It wasn’t his religion but it was culturally important that we should see it. He was open-minded. The funicular was not far away. We rode up the steep track to the island-top view point, aware that a baboon rode with us on the outside.

Penang Island has an ideal climate for growth. Plenty of rain, plenty of sun, all the humid heat a gardener could want and many gardens to see. Abdul took us to the Tea Gardens refreshment rooms for our light lunch break. Afterwards, suitably equipped with the umbrellas they provided, we visited the Spice Gardens. While the morning had been fine and sunny, after lunch a fine warm rain persisted. Ideal for the Spice Gardens and its tricky hill-side pathways. The place was fascinating; so many plants grown and harvested for infusions and herbal remedies. We sampled many but chose not to sample what the staff termed, ‘the most expensive coffee in the world’. We had enjoyed seeing the small mongoose type creatures in their cages, although we regretted the cages. We declined the offered coffee, not because of its cost — it was very expensive had we chosen to buy — but because of its provenance. It appears that the mongoose like creatures were civet cats. They eat the raw coffee fruits as they ripen and fall from the bush. Unable to digest the coffee bean, it is defecated, collected, roasted and ground. It is said to have a very pleasant and distinctive flavour. The process is extremely tedious and labour intensive. Subsequently, we saw civet enhanced coffee on sale in Singapore at extremely inflated prices.

Our day with Abdul concluded with a tour around the holiday-beach side of the island, a passing look at fine hotels and an exploration of a Colonial period fortress. We returned to our boarding house after an examination of the old town, jutting out to sea, rising on a series of piles and wooden planks. It had been another fascinating day of learning. It is easy to see why Colonists were eager to hang on to places like Penang Island. It is equally easy to see why indigenous peoples were eager for the Colonials to leave.

Perhaps the most dramatic and memorable day spent with a taxi driver, was the one with Wayan in Bali. Wayan came at the hotel’s recommendation. He knew everywhere. He knew every one of importance and knew where European tourists liked to go. He took Australians there all the tine. The first Wayan-guided visit was to an open-air performance of Balinese dance. After paying at the door, we were hurried past two elegant women in Balinese dance costumes. Both were heavily weighed-down with make-up. The mental question arose, how long the make-up took. It was thick, precise and intense. Through the door, we were the last to arrive for the morning performance in the small open-air theatre. Among the guests already seated, I was surprised to see a small scattering of nuns. The performance, by both men and women, was very ritualistic. Women danced as gracefully and elegantly as one might expect. A series of traditional tales were enacted. Enough of the ritual was understood to follow the story-line. The bawdiness of the stories was both shocking and humorous. A long-held image of delicacy and joy of pure movement, instantly destroyed. The nuns laughed heartily.

Wayan then took his captive tourists to an art gallery. From a man actively painting in the hotel, a series of stylised Balinese paintings on which the oil had not yet dried had already been purchased. Wayan seemed disappointed that we bought nothing in the gallery. Much of the work available was monumental and we were travelling light. Perhaps Wayan would have secured a commission if we had bought. As it was, now approaching lunch-time, Wayan set course for a volcano side restaurant via the rice paddy-fields. The paddy fields were a spectacular sight, vivid green growth following the contours of the valley — climbing step by step across both sides of the valley. Many tourist photograph albums will have pictures of the phenomenon we saw.  How many witnessed, or even noticed the little old man, knee deep in mud, diligently pulling weeds from among the rice crop is another matter. 

The volcano side restaurant was a splendid and welcome establishment, perched on the edge of the crater, looking down on the growth of tropical jungle on the crater floor below. The volcano itself was disappointing, the meal fine. Little activity could be seen in the crater. A distant wisp of smoke in the clear air, a few miles away among the growth, and a delivery van trailing along a dirt track to some shanty houses. People cultivated cleared fields among the vigorous growth. Nothing too dramatic to see. Weeks later, when we were safely home, world news announced that the volcano had erupted, wiping out settlements and the crater side restaurant.

Finishing our meal on the restaurant’s open terrace, surveying the sight, Wayan came rushing in. ‘Look. Look. We go’. 

Intense black clouds were gathering on the other side of the crater. The wisp of smoke disappeared as a curtain of heavy rain crept closer. We were hurried to the car before the deluge hit. When it did, it was almost solid water. The road down from the crater, down into the valley, back past the paddy fields and into the city was now a torrent, a swiftly flowing river covering the tarmac road. Mopeds are a common mode of transport in Bali. Often whole-family mopeds carrying as many as five; father driving, mother on pillion with baby and two children standing on the platform in front of father. And possibly a family dog in the shopping basket in front. Now there were sou-wester clad moped riders, knee and ankle deep in water, riding up and down the torrent on both sides of the road. Just as suddenly as the rain had started, it stopped and the sun came out. Once in the one way system of the city, we were still surrounded by mopeds on both sides of the road going in both directions. Road protocols seem not to apply to mopeds. 

Wayan had promised us a Buddhist temple and the Monkey temple before returning to the hotel. Was there time for both? There was, if we didn’t linger too long. We squelched up a soggy path to the Buddhist temple where a solemn monk helped us on with the obligatory robe while we were on holy ground. Temple inspection complete, the Monkey temple wasn’t far.

A monkey temple can be a hazard. Monkeys are no respecters of humans, nor of humans’ notions of dignified and hygienic behaviour. Human food is monkey food if spied, as one or two unwary children found out when their treats disappeared. Items taken without request, without notice. Monkeys are far superior to humans when climbing. Most of the ruined buildings of the Monkey temple were tree-clad. There are no well-developed monkey notions of toilet hygiene. All paths were covered with monkey excrement. It was as well to look up, to avoid anything dropping unexpectedly from above, as well as to look down to avoid stepping on anything unpleasant on the footpath. Uni-directional binocular vision required. And the noise is appalling. Monkeys are well-developed conversationalists. At the top of their voices, shouting and screaming. While it had been a fascinating and stimulating day, we were glad to return to the car.

Having paid Wayan off, thanking him profusely, there was another surprise in store. Walking to our hotel room, on the lawn below the open walkway, adjacent to the expansive reception area, in full view of the restaurant, a tented bower was being prepared on the lawn. A tented bower festooned with ribbons, a dining table, two chairs and glorious displays of tropical flowers. Had there been a bed it might have been more accurately described as a boudoir. ‘There must be a wedding,' I said to my wife, ‘or at least a birthday party.’ ‘Hmmm,’ she replied. An unusually brief response from my wife. Normally she has a great deal to say. Shortly afterwards, washing and changing for dinner, the room telephone rang. A detached voice at the other end said, ‘Your reservation is ready now.’ The bower was for us, a special romantic occasion booked by my wife.

Day to day, I am not a regular taxi-rider. I look forward to the next taxi adventure.  

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Friday nights are becoming feast nights at Olivos at the La Finca Commercial Centre. This week was no exception. Recent weeks have seen a tour of Europe - with French, Italian, Polish, Greek and Belgian nights. Last Friday we crossed the Atlantic and dropped in on the Caribbean. Again the food was scrumptious.

The scene was set effectively with a Rum Punch cocktail on arrival. The cocktail stick with an exotic bird added to the vibe but Caribbean was already on the palate with the punch. Lots of vibes there.

The thing about an evening out with Cathy, the boss, is that everything hangs together on her themed nights. The menu sheet was alive with flags of the different Caribbean countries. The tables were adorned with hygienic and colourful paper table cloths to match the theme and even matching flowers at the table to emphasise what was to come.

So with a melodious steel band on the tape deck, the soup arrived. Potato soup may not sound too special - but Caribbean Potato soup with lime, coconute milk, sweet potato, ginger and kale is not only delicious in the mouth but also mind-bending - especially after the welcoming Rum Punch on arrival. The quantity in the bowl was just right for a first course. Not only was it full of exotic tastes, excitements and flavourings, but it was full of great nourishment and textures. A hit. A palpable hit.

The soup led to a great sense of expectancy regarding the next course. That was down as Grilled Shrimp Skewer. It should have been called the Intermediate Course of the Burning Mouth with Hot Peppers. The stated ingredients were butter, garlic and paprika grilled shrimp with avocado, lime and coriander sauce. It was a joy of tastes and textures with just a sufficient portion to satisfy and leave room for what was to follow. No-one chose to mention the slivers of hot chilli hiding away among the salsa. If you like to know what you´ve been eating, you may not care for hot chilli. For those who like a burning mouth and powerful tastes, there was just sufficient chilli to make it matter. By which time the sound system had got round to ´By the Rivers of Babylon´- but not my favourite Boney M version.

My Father hated salad. He would angily say to Mum,´Blooming rabbit food´. After the heat of the previous course, we were more than ready for a salad to cool the mouth down. In many ways, I take after my Dad. I hate salad. This one was perfect. It was smooth and crunchy, cool and sweet, yet a substantial course in its own right - black-eyed peas with kale, fresh orange and pineapple, shallots and garlic. A powerful combination and an inspiring far cry from a convential British bland summer salad.

In my culinary experience, I have never given a thought to chicken wings or to Jerk Chicken. Too much skin. Far too many little fragile bones. There are now two converts to Jerk Chicken Wings. Chicken itself is a favourite. A juicy drum-stick fine. Succulent breast with a tangy sauce even better. But chicken wings with all that skin and bunches of small bones? Olivos Jerk Chicken Wings with a dipping sauce were superb. We weren´t told what was in the dipping sauce - it seemed to be a spicy but cool yoghurt or sour cream concoction. It was the ideal companion to the crunchy, tangy jerk chicken.

My regular eating companion - my food dedicated wife - and I, were beginning to wilt under the torrent of textures, flavours, colours presented to us - but there remained two courses still to come. She chickened out of the next course. I soldiered on. Her coconut beef curry stew with Jamaican rice and peas went home to be enjoyed next day. I managed half of my beef stew, the meat melting in the mouth. I was replete.

There was a choice of dessert. Having rested, my wife managed to eat her Cuban baked rum battered banana with vanilla bean ice-cream, while I looked on enviously, sipping my coffee and brandy. My bananas went home along with her Beef Curry stew.

We have debated loud and long about which of the restaurant´s country feast nights has been best. My wife chose the Greek night, possibly because she was able to wear the elegant Greek dress trimmed with gold ribbon bought on a cruise to the Greek Islands that only comes out on special occasions. My choice was the Caribbean. I was able to wear a gaudy Caribbean shirt (bought locally) to enhance my enjoyment of a splendid evening. I loved the challenge of the wealth of tastes, textures and colours. All the staff - back in the kitchen and front of house - had worked together superbly efficiently to provide a well orchestrated treat for the customers.   

With a tip, to reflect the excellent service, we paid a very reasonable 75 euros for two with wine, water and my concluding coffee and brandy.

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Most people will know what a kitchen-sink drama is, even if they don’t recognise the term. Many watch regular episodes of kitchen-sink dramas and there even those who think they are real stories about real people. I’m finished with kitchen-sink drama. But as a student, I’m working on a kitchen table Masters degree.

It is not that I don’t have a desk. There is a perfectly adequate desk-space in my house. On the top floor. That in itself is a problem. I say, ‘perfectly adequate’, but its adequacy needs to be qualified by its imperfections. The desk-space is adequate. Once it was perfectly adequate. Today, it is shared with a large Apple computer monitor and a tiny Apple computer battery operated wireless key-board. I don’t use the main Apple equipment for my work. The Apple equipment - although very expensive - is hardly ever used. It was my wife’s investment for a different function before we moved to Spain. Next to that, its very large footprint sharing the desk-top space, there is an almost equally expensive Samsung laser printer that doesn’t work properly. The printer was purchased as an all knobs-and-knockers, black and white and colour device which printed double-sided. For some reason, it will photocopy in colour but not print in colour. Nor does the double-sided print feature work properly. In any case, this is not the printer which I use for my studies. Nor is the big Apple computer the tool I use when not writing things out long-hand.

On the right-hand side of the desk-space is a pile of documents. These documents are currently gathering dust, but they are very precious to me. They are not my documents. They are the source material for a future book. The documents are the evidence of a complicated life, frequently well-lived, sometimes lived in chaos. Ultimately, these documents will meld into my version of the life of my friend Rosalind. Rosalind died unnecessarily prematurely and most unexpectedly, of sepsis, after a routine operation that was initially successful before sepsis struck. She did not die of the bi-polar condition that blighted her brilliance. The documents will get the attention they deserve - but not just yet.

Beneath the desk-space, sits the music keyboard that does not work well, the keyboard that we were given and do not dare to throw-out, the keyboard that has been used once in the past twelve months. It sits in a position which carefully causes my feet to be cramped-up, trapped under the chair when I sit at the desk. It is accompanied under the desk by three boxes of my wife’s documents, an old, broken printer with fewer facilities than the printer on the desk surface itself and two music cases, each containing clarinets. My wife plays clarinet.

To access all these inconveniences, I have to laboriously climb two flights of marble steps. Laboriously, because the climb is a feature of my current physical condition and limitations. This relates mainly to my left knee. The left knee saga began when I was a young man, playing soccer on a rock-hard pitch in Cyprus. Trying to kick the ball powerfully, I managed to kick the ground powerfully instead, doing irreparable damage to my left knee for the rest of of my life. There has been an operation. The left knee does bend. However, it also locks-up unexpectedly and will bear neither weight nor pressure. Going upstairs requires a one-step-at-a-time effort, right leg up one marble step followed by the left dragged onto the same step without doing any real work, to be repeated as many times as I have marble steps.

The marble steps deserve explanation. I do not live in a mansion. I am not a wealthy man. Nor is my house a castle or mansion. The marbled steps were there when I bought the house.The knee has got worse since. I knew there were three floors to the house and two sets of marble steps. The marble is local to the area, very accessible and relatively cheap. All the houses in our complex have similar marble steps. Not all have three storeys. It takes considerable effort to get as far as the desk-space upstairs where the house WIFI doesn’t work. All my Open University materials are on the internet. I need working WIFI. Even when I get up to the office space, I often find that one knee or the other has stiffened up by the time I am due to come down and it is even more effort to descend again. If I get upstairs, I have to carry with me my precious iPad, the tool that I use more frequently than anything else.

So, in most cases when studying for this MA degree, I sit at the kitchen table. It does mean that my studies are shared with the salt and pepper, the olive oil and vinegar, all of which normally grace the kitchen table full-time. As an addict of sweet Chilli sauce, there is often a bottle of that on the table too.

Sitting at the table, I have a flat surface on which to set my iPad, or a flat surface at a sensible height for my note-pad. If I am reading, I do that from my electric reclining arm-chair but usually when not reclining. Reclining is reserved for siesta-time. Although I am a proficient touch-typist, I still find writing things out long-hand, then typing them up, helps the creative process. At least, I deceive myself that this is the case. Copy-typing something out serves as an initial proof-read/edit function which I think is positive. The point about a flat surface merits qualification. We live in an active geo-unstable area. Earthquakes are not uncommon. However, most earthquakes locally last only seconds and rather surprisingly, most appear to occur only at night. There was an earthquake two or three nights ago. The one previous to that I slept through. My note-book, my iPad, has not yet been rocked on the kitchen table by an earthquake.

Kitchen table activities are often shared with our dog. She is conditioned to believe (see Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell) that humans at the table mean tasty scraps for dogs rather than common or garden dog-food. She usually comes to check what I am doing at the table - but slinks away disappointedly from the pen if I am writing or shows no interest at all during the rapid ‘clack-clack’ of my fingers on iPad keys. It is here at the table that I connect best to the internet and the downstairs printer. The downstairs printer, a much cheaper Hewlett-Packard model than the expensive Samsung upstairs, works well in black and white, in colour, single sided or double sided as instructed. This is why my MA studies are kitchen-table based.

It should not be assumed that all is perfect and set fair for a good result from the kitchen table. Adjacent to the internet router is a large television set, fixed to the wall. I have limited interest in television. I rarely watch. I have no real interest in kitchen sink drama. I do watch BBC TV news most evenings on a daily basis. I feel the need to remain aware of what is happening in the BBC world, even if it is not always the world at large. Also, I enjoy sport on TV but there is so little of it on terrestrial channels these days. I refuse to subscribe into the pockets of billionaires who seek to promote their own greedy view of the world.

However, there are some television programmes which prove impossible to deny to my wife. She has a fascination for quiz programmes. On most occasions I do not even recognise the question let alone know the answer. She loves any programme to do with buying and selling property. She revels in ‘Tipping Point’ which I think is drivel. I live through what she watches. Thank goodness she does not like soaps or so called ‘reality’ TV which has little to do with real reality.

On the kitchen table until recently it would have been possible to find Alan Bennett, Stendhal and Cervantes along with loose papers and several working files. However, as we can now visit IKEA about an hour away, a new feature sits neatly under the kitchen window - an extensive book-shelf containing more working files than I thought I had, not yet complete note-books (complete ones are stored away elsewhere for posterity or the bonfire), along with Alan Bennett, Stendhal, Cervantes, quarterly Poetry Society reviews and a copy of Creative Writing (Neale).

Meanwhile, I sit and scribble at an unburdened kitchen table.

All the bookshelf requires now is a framed Open University Masters Degree certificate with my name on it. Perhaps next year.  

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To a school of fish, a flock of birds, a nest of vipers, I choose to add ‘a regret of old-age.’

There is absolutely no point — no practical point — in the inevitability of ageing. It is far better avoided. At all costs. Look at the world population: a significant proportion of people are old, despite the fact that recent trends suggest old age occurs later and later. I remember when my father retired at the age of sixty-five, he had already been old for at least five years. In life, he got perilously close to ninety.

See all these old people. They can be discovered world-wide. They get everywhere. No country, no culture, no tribe, no nation is unique in this. Look at them; weighed down with all the wisdom of the world, and frequently too frail to make use of it. Perceive and understand; how their knee-joints and hips creak and moan at the weight of all their accumulated faults and errors, life mistakes and the wearying of cell and sinew. Yet even in their hearts they retain unbounded joy at remembered triumphs and successes, and at the possibility of further triumphs and successes still to come.

The persistent trouble with old-age is that it gives individual the right length of service to enable them to catch up on all sorts of incurable conditions. The 30/40/50 year old diabetic can seem invincible, can appear to waltz through life maintaining work, house, family. As the condition progresses, more and more bits of life drop-off the score-board. Unless well-managed by the individual, diabetes progressively leads to kidney failure, circulation difficulties, damage to the retina and even in extreme cases but with increasing regularity, amputation. 

Therefore beware the young, the middle aged and the old-age deniers, diabetes can be measured and accounted for, while the loss of mind cannot. This is the greatest offence old-age commits. Mindlessness. Or mindfulness, obscured by a patina of old-age, hiding the memories held within inaccessible grey cells.

So, the elderly progress, (if it can be called progress), towards coping strategies. When one knee becomes an irritant, it remains possible to ascend stairs one step and one leg at a time. Watch this writer going up to bed. The subsequent strategy, ascending stairs when both knees go walkabout, remains to be invented. When knees, hips and back conspire together to make putting on socks difficult, it may be necessary for a third person to learn a new multi-tasking skill. The even greater problem is donning underpants/knickers/trousers, which may be why so many elderly can be seen wearing things like pyjamas and track-suits.

It is quite normal for slim young men to grow into quite corpulent older men and still try to wear the same sized-waist trousers the young man wore. Such self-deception can be discerned in the marks around the waist and the painful over-hang around the belt line. There was a time when sensible older men wore trousers several sizes too large with braces rather than belts. It is now understood what puzzled as a child. My former primary school headteacher, a gentle and affable, loving and caring individual always appeared to be wearing trousers that were very baggy at the waist. His heavy-weight braces were always very obvious, too.

There are messy bits to ageing, messy bits best not discussed in polite society, messy bits which are very personal to the individual. As long as one eats, drinks and has instincts such as desire, then there are consequences. Frequently messy consequences. A discreet veil is best drawn across the details.

The QED of all this, is that once born, each of us should avoid ageing for as long as possible. In so many instances, young people are impatient to grow up, go to the pub, learn to drive, be sexually active and fulfilled, be a social being, a parent, a labourer in the field of gainful employment. Be aware: being grown-up, mature, holding all the knowledge and experience of the world in your hand, is not always what it is cracked up to be.

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Keeping a Writer´s Notebook

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As Open University Creative Writing students, we are encouraged — almost commanded — to keep a writer’s notebook. I am the least organised, least disciplined of individuals, but try to be compliant. A notebook is a relatively cheap asset. There are plenty of pens in my house. There is now a multiplicity of notebooks where I live, and frequently I cannot tell one from the other. There are even notebooks with important items in them which I cannot find.

Early during A802 (the first module of the Creative Writing MA course) I took my enthusiastic and compliant notebook for a journey. Unusually, I was travelling solo. My wife was on a break in England. We live in Spain. I took a day off from household chores and study, to ride the coastal tramway from Alicante to Benidorm. Everything I saw and did, I noted in my writer’s notebook. I noted my several journeys. I had driven from home to Alicante airport where I parked the car and took the airport bus into the city. I had lunch within arm’s length of the tram station Luceros. I even noted my visit to a rather narrow, slightly grubby toilet. Especially, I made notes about my interesting journey from Luceros to Benidorm town. Being a public transport enthusiast, I was content. All my preparations, all my expectations were being realised. And I was making copious notes, which would help with my new-found study-interest, Creative Non-Fiction. There were splendid coastal vistas. We stopped briefly at Vila Joyosa, where the Valor chocolate factory is. I noted the crops, the rugged cliffs and precipitous valleys we crossed. I was glad when we reached the terminus. I was absolutely sure that I had more than sufficient material for a fascinating piece of CNF (Creative Non-Fiction) to fill a hole somewhere in my course.

Today, about to start A803, the second module of the MA course, the opening rubric reminds students that a writer’s notebook is an essential part of the writer’s life. I cannot find my copious notes of that journey. Having admitted that I am the least disciplined of would-be writers, I do keep a writer’s notebook — or rather, lots of them. My great problem is that normally I am not very good at making notes. I think, and work, in long-hand. Most of my notebooks contain new articles, new ideas, fresh stories, all written out in full. If I feel comfortable with what I have written, they are then typed up on the computer, a safe and secure copy kept. Frequently, notebooks are then put to one side, forgotten, neglected — and in the case of the Benidorm journey, misplaced.

All this is the result of my working modus operandi. I write quickly. Words pour out. Not necessarily well-disciplined words, but lots of them. They flow — sometimes stagger — onto the page. No one else could read my writing because it is a hasty scrawl, but once scrawled, I have the good fortune to be a fast touch typist. It is a skill I was taught in my youth, a skill for which I am eternally grateful. That skill, acquired when I was eighteen, has followed me through a subsequent sixty-three years of professional and leisure life. The next problem for someone as ill-disciplined as I, is editing and reviewing. Frequently when I re-read what I have written in haste, I regret it in leisure and reflection. I find the edit and review, the writer’s skill of putting the raw material through the refiner’s fire, painful. 

So, having been reminded of the need to keep a notebook — apparently all the best writers, including Hemingway do it, or have done it — my mind turned to the notes for the Benidorm journey. They have never been written up. The journey is fresh in my memory, but the detail is in the notebook, not in the fog of memory. Which notebook, of the many in my desk drawer, is the unanswered question. 

Having been glad to leave the tram and its uncomfortable hard plastic seat, I looked around for somewhere to be refreshed in the station. A search revealed nowhere suitable. Instinct said there would be somewhere appropriate just around the corner. Just before going just around the corner, I thought to check on the time of the return journey. I had a return ticket, and my car would be waiting at Alicante airport. As I bent to peer closer at the timetable displayed on the station wall, a sudden jolt almost knocked me to the ground. As I recovered my dazed senses, I looked to see who had attacked me, and perhaps more relevantly, why I was being attacked. Strange things can happen in Spain. A burly man, younger, fitter and stronger than me, was holding me upright and apologising profusely. He had been standing with his wife, buying tickets for a journey, had taken a step back and cannoned into me, accidentally. His wife, even more apologetic, thought I should sit down. A cup of coffee was more on my mind. Pulling myself together, and knowing the time of the next tram, I staggered around the corner, where there was a very nice coffee shop, well shaded and almost gloomy. Sitting there, I recovered what senses I have left in old age. My surroundings were a little tawdry but sufficient for me to rest, relax, feel the fading point of impact on my shoulder and realise that no apparent harm had been done.

No notes were taken on the return journey. It was a pretty journey with the sun setting over the sea. It was only looking into the setting sun, that I realised all was not well. A shadow was passing over my left eye. The impact had been on my left shoulder. This was the shoulder my French master had torn the muscles of, when we were playing field hockey for the school staff team against the pupils. Fred Weekes had been a big, big man. I suffered for many weeks as the muscles recovered. As headteacher, it wasn’t long before I promoted him. He was a good teacher, if a misguided hockey player. 

On the tram, when the shadow passed to another part of the left eye, looking to the horizon I could see a regular pattern of little dots floating about, rather like looking through the holes in a sheet of perforated zinc. I was glad to get back to the city. I was glad to get on the circular bus to the airport. I was even glad to point two inebriated Scotsmen towards the main railway station. Whether they ever managed to reach their ultimate destination is unclear. My car was safe and secure where I had left it. In the dark drive home, there was no sign of the shadow across my eye, nor of the spots and dots on the retina. They were obvious in the electric light of my living room. Next day, my splendid local doctor didn’t even look at my eye. I was convinced that there was a detached retina. The floating shadow was, if anything, even more obvious. The black spots seemed to have enlarged overnight. He pointed me in the direction of an eye-specialist at the local hospital next day. There were thousands in the waiting room. I put my slip of paper in the box, as instructed, and was called almost immediately. Apparently, my slip of paper said ‘urgencias’ - ‘emergency’. Summoned into the presence of the eye specialist and her pupil, I was impressed with how charming the one was and how pretty the other. Lights were shining, optician’s lights shining in my eyes. The pupil had been dilated and much was blurred. 

‘I fear that I have a detached retina, following a bump two days ago,’ I offered.

‘I will decide that,’ my charming oculist said. ‘See,’ to her pupil. ‘What do you see?’

They both spoke in English for my benefit. The pretty pupil wasn’t sure what she saw. A machine was adjusted. The specialist looked and pointed something out to her pupil.

‘Ah! Si,’ the pupil said and then gave a torrent of description in Spanish. Presumably she didn’t know all the English words for the diagnosis.

‘No, Mr Cooper. There is no detached retina, I am glad to say. You have a burst blood vessel in the back of your eye. It is that which is causing the shadow and the spots. They will all fade with time. Come back in two weeks.’

Although I hate hospitals, I was looking forward to seeing my charming eye-specialist again. This time my slip of paper was not marked ‘urgencias’. I was now ‘routine’. Again, there were many waiting in the waiting room. It took a long time to be called. The shadow was still there but much less distinct. Spots before my eyes were fewer and smaller. Called into the presence of the specialist, I was shocked to find a man sitting there. A quick examination of the back of the eye.

‘Is good. No return. Goodbye,' as he dismissed me.

There is still no sign of the notebook with the notes of the journey to Benidorm.

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Here we go!

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Here we go. A803-20 is on line and choices have to be made. Having focused and concentrated on CNF (Creative Non-Fiction) through A802, there wasn't a lot of decision-making to do. I hope that some of the writing that I have done during the lock-down and through the University vacation break will come in useful. There are many words there: 80,000 odd in 'Palimpsest 1937 - 1960', my 'growing-up' memoir; a similar number of words in 'Plague Diary', a still-to-be-edited version of the 100 postings to friends and family during the heavy Spanish lock-down from March 2020 and I continue to develop 'Finding Rosalind', my response to the unnecessary premature death of a friend with mental health complications. So, I ask myself where does a new character - a fiction character - born yesterday in a brand new (it had to be red in colour) exercise book - come into all this? Although I'm excited about getting to grips with A803, I am currently pre-occupied with Henry Absalom and his little red notebook. I should have some idea of what happens to him in the end. Many possibilities are swilling about in my head. I think his poor down-trodden wife will triumph, that he will lose control of his children, that he may even be murdered by the beautiful Miss Richards who is about to seduce him. Consider the female spider after mating. There is much worldly wiseness to consider. Perhaps that should be 'worldly foolishness' if he cannot withstand Miss Richards´s wiles. There will be a resolution of some sort, bless him and his controlling fixation. He and I are going to have a love/hate relationship. He who controls - as Henry does - will be controlled, but by whom? Ah! What power there is in the writer's grasp.

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My Giddy Aunt

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Saturday, 5 Sep 2020, 17:42

It was my Auntie Bessie who used to say that: My giddy aunt. I'm not sure which of my many aunts was the giddy one. Auntie Bessie also said 'Blarowast' instead of 'Blast' when she wanted to swear. I was never sure what the difference was between ´blarowast' and 'blast' other than a narrow upbringing suddenly widened by the Second World War and her nursing career.

However, I am surprising myself by saying 'My giddy aunt!'. The exclamation mark is there to be noticed. My surprised exclamation is because I have just discovered that I am a published author. Only in a very small way, perhaps. But a piece of my writing has arrived in the world of print and is broadcast world-wide on the internet.

Some time ago, during the major lock-down in Spain, I wrote a daily diary - a ´Plague Diary´, if you like - sending it to a circle of friends and family. One of the recipients contacted me regarding a book that she, her brother and others were drawing together, asking if any of my writing could be used. So there, published in a book, is one of my entries, among the many contributions, from many people, from all over the world.

A Kindle version of the book is available through Amazon. It is called ´From Love Comes Hope´, published under the editorship of my friend´s brother, Peter Lihou and Acclaimed Books, with authorship attributed to my friend, Maureen Moss herself and a range of others. Below is my entry from the book.....

'As this lock-down progresses, we become more aware of the small things of life. There is more space and time to do that, now that the hubbub of traffic has largely faded away, now that we are not bombarded by the noisy posturing of so called celebrities who have done nothing in the world except be briefly famous, frequently notorious, making a great deal of money as a result. It is interesting that even the rowdiest of newspapers have to focus on real news and not have to invent stories about pop-singers, soccer players and soap actors and actresses. Although I notice that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are not to be allowed to live their lives in peace. Yesterday, I took Tilly the dog out for a short walk. No car was seen. I saw one other person on the other side of the road. Things were noticed that in a busier world would just have been passed over. There are noticeably more birds around. That can’t be a bad thing. Because the world is quieter, bird-song is more noticeable. I’ve always loved the evening ‘about to roost’ song of blackbirds. Until yesterday, I’d never really heard it in Spain. Tiny spring flowers in a multitude of colours spring up on all the waste ground. Tilly ignores them but she does love to chew a juicy blade of grass. 

 As the pavements are deserted, they begin to take on a different life. Because there is less foot-fall, ants are beginning to predominate. Between paving stones, small heaps of grounding sand are appearing, the sand that the workmen have used to level and secure the paving. The ants are totally unaware of the virus and continue to create their complex underground palaces. They have always been there, on the waste-ground margins, in gardens, sometimes a nuisance in houses but now they begin to take over the territory that man would normally call his own. A sign perhaps that when humankind has morphed into some other form of existence, ants will still be there, then at the top of the food chain. 

The men who were building a new house just opposite our house are no longer working. At the bottom of what will be a new street of houses, a children’s play park has been built. In Spain, it is usual to put in infrastructure first, planned buildings afterwards. When I first bought a brand new house in England, the other houses on the small estate were completed long before the builder put in the finished access road. Here, the services are put in and details added like facilities for children before building is finished. Interestingly, not far away from us, a new facility, yet to be built, for the ‘Third Age’ - in other words, we oldies, an old folks home - has all its infrastructure including a children’s play area! The new play area near our house holds a fascination for Tilly. Perhaps she has seen a cat there some time and remembers. She stands at its entrance almost transfixed. It remains pristine. Roped-off. There are no children.Tilly is also fascinated by an occasional gecko. She would dearly love to catch one but they are far too nimble even for Tilly. 

In the middle of being aware of new things to see, balmy evenings are remembered, sitting on the terrace of the local hotel with a sundowner. The hotel’s position is superb, at the top of the hill leading out of the village and only a few hundred yards from our house. The land falls away from the hotel terrace, giving a full and totally clear view of the mountains. In winter, the setting sun fades behind the closest, small local mountain, to the left. As midsummer approaches, the sun gradually moves to the right until at the height of summer, it is setting behind a much higher and more distant mountain, bathing the terrace in a warm rosy glow. And under terms of lock-down, the hotel is closed and no one can enjoy this privileged view. Yesterday, during a day of glorious sunshine, I was wondering if it was approaching time for shorts, and possibly the abandoning of winter vests. Not yet. Today is overcast, although my BBC Weather forecast for this area says zero chance of rain. The time for shorts will come. Shortly. I see others wearing them. But I have always been a coward. 

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay ‘virtually’ close.

Geoff Cooper, 2020

Lihou, Peter. With Love, Comes Hope: Stories & Inspiration during the 2020 Pandemic (p. 230). Acclaimed Books Limited. Kindle Edition. 

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There was a room in my Grandmother’s house that was rarely used, except to pass through. It was necessary to pass through it from the living room to access the stairs to go to the upper floor. The upper floor had two bedrooms and a bathroom. Originally the house had possessed only an outside toilet. The bathroom was a later creation.

Grandma, my Father’s Mother, called it her ‘Best Room’ and just as a Sunday suit was kept for Sundays and special occasions, the ´best room´ was kept for best. The rest of the family called it ´The Sitting Room’, except that hardly anyone ever sat there. Our house, the house where Mum, Dad and I lived, was quite similar in size and layout. We had a sitting room that did get used regularly. I did my very reluctant piano practice there, and it was used for my other Grandmother to die in. She had months in bed there until her death in 1947. At least when she was there, I had no agonising piano practice to do, only the agonising knowledge of an agonising and impending death.

Granny Cooper’s ‘best room’ was a different matter. Apart from passing through it, I can only remember two occasions it was used. When the war was over in 1945, and when all the men had returned - Dad and Uncle Jack from the RAF, Les and Ted from the Army - and when Elsie was on holiday from her job in London and Ruthie had left the ATS - there was a big party. It must have been New Year. No food was allowed in Granny’s best room. That was all served and eaten at the table in the kitchen, men sitting down first, then the women and children afterwards. There wasn’t enough room for all to sit and eat at once. I remember Ruthie, standing back to the fire in the kitchen range, skirt hitched up, warming her backside. Older sister Renie was shocked and said so. Middle sister Elsie, a woman of the world just smiled. I'm not sure if eldest sister, Annie, noticed. She probably was busy with the twins who were difficult, or arguing with her coal miner husband. And Granny, being a peace-maker shushed everyone up. She liked no difference of opinion in her house.

It was only after the meal was over, the dishes washed and the kitchen table cleared, that the sherry bottle and the home-made ginger wine appeared and everyone moved into the best room. A deck of cards was produced and placed on the until-now-unused and well-polished mahogany dining table. The men got a small glass of sherry. So did Ruthie and Elsie, both of whom were women well versed in the ways of the world. Annie and Renie, the oldest of the sisters sipped a tiny glass full of ginger wine. Renie, strictest of strict Methodists winced as she sipped. Mum, a reformed Anglican, who had signed ´the pledge´, had ginger wine. There was ginger wine for Granny and a half glass of ginger wine diluted with water for the children. There were a lot of us children. Pre-war privations and the war itself had not restricted procreation. Nancy was there and her twin sisters. Drew had not yet been born, nor had Jennifer. Cousin Anne was there but not her yet-to-be-born sister Pauline. Cousin Raymond and his sister were there. And, of course, me.

All the dining chairs around the table were occupied and arm chairs and the settee drawn up. The adults played cards. I sat on the arm of a chair watching Mum play. I was surprised that she knew the rules because we never played cards at home, but she did know the rules and embarrassed no-one. Dad was careful to make sure no-one knew which cards he had. Mum cared less about who saw her hand. Most of the cards had numbers on. Numbers bored me. I preferred the ones with pictures on when they came out, especially the joker. Except that they picked the joker out, put it to one side and didn’t use it. That seemed to be a pity. The joker was much more interesting than the ace or the jack.

It was a gambling game, so Granny didn’t play, nor Renie. Granny’s long-dead husband had been a Methodist lay-preacher as well as a butcher. For Granny, gambling was a sin. The players gambled for match-sticks. Two boxes of normal sized matches had been divided up and a big box of smaller smokers’ Swan Vestas. Dad, Ted and Les smoked but never in the best room. Ruthie smoked, too, but no one was supposed to know that. Only ´fast´ women smoked. Mum and Dad did quite well for match-sticks but Ruthie had most. Ruthie´s husband Ted, who had driven an Army lorry in Africa and Italy, lost most of his match-sticks and began breaking in half the ones that he had left, so he could continue playing. We knew Ruthie would give him some of hers because they had been courting all through the war and had just got married.

I don’t remember how the party ended, but I do remember standing at the Bute Arms bus stop to catch the last bus home to our village. It was a brilliant star-lit night, very suitable for a frosty mid-winter. Mum knew the names of all the stars. She was a teacher and taught me their names. Now that I am old, I have forgotten them all, except for the Great Bear and how to find the Pole Star, should I be at sea and get lost. 

Years later, I spent time in Granny’s best room again. Mum was having a baby in 1951. It had been agreed that it would be best if I stayed at Granny’s house to be out of the way, and so that I could walk down the hill to my Grammar School. I wasn’t included in the agreement discussions. It mattered to Mum and Granny that I went to the Grammar School. No one else in the family went to the Grammar School, except my cousin Jean on the other side of the family. In any case, she lived about 60 miles away, went to a different Grammar School, so she didn’t really count in the story of The Room. More importantly, it mattered to me that I went to the Grammar School, because normally I travelled to school in a bus whose headboard read ´Scholars´. Not ´Pupils´, or ´School-bus’, or ‘School-Children’ but ‘Scholars’. If the bus conductor didn’t get the headboard roller just right, it sometimes read half ´Chopwell´or ‘High Spen’ and half ‘Scholars’ but that didn’t matter because it was the only bus that left from our bus stop and the only bus that went down to our school and we knew the driver.

I was glad to be a scholar, because I never felt that I was clever enough and being a scholar might teach me to be clever like Mum. Dad wasn’t clever in the same way. He was skilled. His customers at the shop liked him. He was popular with people at church and at his bowls club. But he wasn’t clever like Mum.

It had been agreed that I would stay with Granny and Auntie Renie while my sister got born. There were two problems. I was the agreement, but hadn't been part of the agreement through discussion, and my sister was a brother. A third problem was that I was totally miserable, possibly because I missed my Mum and partly because I was no longer in my school bus being a scholar. Despite the fact that Granny and Auntie Renie were as kind as kind could be.

It did mean that I got a lot of time in the best room. Because I hadn’t got a feel for the best room, because I’d only spent time there for a family gathering, I was uncomfortable there. It intimidated me. I was easily intimidated. I still am. There was no-one in that room to ask about homework if I was stuck. At home, Mum was always at hand and knew how to help me with an answer without telling me what the answer was. She always seem to know what to do to find out. My intimidation might just have been that I was home-sick. There were lovely comfortable arm-chairs in the sitting room and a big settee to sink into. You could stretch out on the chaise-longe under the window to watch the traffic go by on the main road. Care was needed there, in the chaise-longe, because it was old; the fabric was worn, precious and easily torn. In an alcove beyond the dining table and chairs, there was a writing bureau. The drawers were locked. I never found out what secrets were hidden there. I didn’t think Granny was the sort of person to have secrets. But there was a drop-down lid which made a good writing surface. The room also had a fine tiled fire-place — not at all like the fire place in the range in the kitchen in the next room. Although there was a coal-scuttle and fire irons, no fire was ever lit in that fire-place. I was allowed to switch on the electric fire if I was cold when in there. The fire-irons were as pristine as the day when they were bought at the local iron-monger's. Clean, shining, unused, part gleaming decorative brass. So gleaming that I hesitated to touch for fear of leaving finger-prints.

Penny Guisinger in ‘Creative Nonfiction’ Issue 60 says, ‘…we were all readers long before we became writers´. Granny and Auntie Renie didn’t contribute to that thought. They had no understanding that reading could be homework. For the duration of my stay, the ´best room’ became my after-evening-meal-homework sanctuary where I would not be interrupted by the outside world, although I frequently dreamily watched the passing traffic on the main road beyond. It was never recognised by my hostesses that reading could be homework. Settling into a comfortable armchair to read one or the other of my text-books, I would be told by someone just passing through, ‘You can use the writing bureau, you know´. There was no understanding that reading was homework and that by reading, I was developing writing and learning skills.

Granny and Renie were kind to me — but there was no meaningful conversation like there was at home. Mum was the intellectual. Dad was the one who knew what was going on in the world. I fed off them in a way I was unable to feed off Granny and Renie. It was a merciful release when Dad came to Granny’s house with the news that Mum and the new baby were home and I could return.

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A Long Time Later

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It is ages since I last wrote anything here. That's not because I haven't been writing. During the first 100 days of Spanish lockdown because of Covid I wrote a daily blog to a circle of about 40 people; family, friends, other OU students. All of those posts are now gathered together into my ´Plague Diary´- a document saved on my computer. I have also completed an initial version of my ´growing up´ memoir. That is now 80,000 words long starting with my birth in 1937 and going as far as the first year of my professional life in 1960. In fact, I've been writing so much, that I have burned out my beloved iPad. As a result, I have invested in a new laptop computer which I am enjoying a great deal, although there are irritating features due to my lack of computer/technology expertise. 

At present, the main problem is that I don't seem able to access the App Store. There are four pre-installed apps which announce that they need an update and when I ask for the update, the computer refuses to update saying that the apps were bought by an identity different to me. When I ask to install different apps - like my banking apps - the computer says they don't exist. There will be a solution somewhere, somehow.

However, I am enjoying the keyboard, despite the fact that it is a Spanish one with Ñ and Ç, ¿ as well as ? and ! as well as ¡. In fact, I am enjoying the keyboard so much that I am well on the way with my account of the chaotic life and premature death of my bi-polar friend. I am at the stage where I have written chapters reflecting on the documents I have relating to her life and chapters emptying my memory and my wife's memory of her but now need access to some key milestone dates. I hope that her sister will be able to provide information regarding those. At present, I am a little over 13,000 words.

One way or another, I have been spending a lot of money recently. The Open University has a further six thousand, six hundred and sixty pounds sterling of mine; my registration fee for a further year of study. This new computer cost one thousand four hundred euros. And, as my son was on holiday in Southern Spain with his wife and daughter, I travelled by train to see them. Train fares and two nights in a hotel added about four hundred euros to my spending. But it was worth it to see them.

My train journeys were interesting. It is the first time I'd been in an AVE train, the Spanish high speed train. Because there is no direct cross-country line from Alicante to south-western Spain, it was necessary to go via Madrid. The Alicante-Madrid leg was very fast, even with several intermediate stops. The train from Madrid to Jerez de la Frontera was long but given I was travelling in an Alvia Media Distancia train it was remarkably quick. I have no idea how fast the AVE was travelling as the display system was not working. However the Alvia display worked and there were frequent instances of 250 KPH. However, at no time were there refreshments of any sort on the train - a Covid precaution. Another Covid precaution, after my ticket was scanned and verified, I was handed two hand sanitising towelettes. I was disappointed in Atocha station. It is complicated and long-winded. I thought it would be impressive with facilities. There were facilities - many of them closed. I had read a great deal about the architecture of the old engine shed - which was impressive - but most of the facilities there were roped off because of the virus. Despite the rules and regulations resulting from the virus, I was surprised how many people were travelling. Trains were not packed, but there were few vacant seats. I am very fond of Alicante terminus station. It is spacious, clean and has ample facilities. The station at Jerez was interesting for the wall tiles and its facilities were good.

So, this is me winding myself up for A803. It promises to be more demanding than A802 and that was demanding enough. I have been notified that I am fully enrolled. The module web-site opens up first week in September and the course proper the first week in October. A first assignment is due in November. I hope that new life breathed into writing already done might suffice for some of the many assignments on this module.

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Reading aloud

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It has been a few days since I last wrote here. However, I’ve been blogging daily to my distribution group, ‘Friends, Family and Church’. It started at about twelve people and now it is 40. So many people have joined in, responded and re-blogged. 

     I’m having a lot of sleepless nights at the moment; not sure why, not anxious or nervous. However, last night’s sleepless night thoughts revolved around reading and reading aloud. When an idea gets into my head, I just can’t get it out of there. This is where my mind was last night.

     I’ve always enjoyed reading and reading aloud. As a child at primary school, my head teacher, Fred Elsey, taught me about reading aloud. I’m not sure whether or not I liked Fred but I certainly respected him. He had three messages about reading aloud. First, the reader is reading, not shouting, at the person on the last row at the back of the hall. He said that this was called projecting your voice, a skill practiced by all good actors. Second, the reader should hold anything at chest height, below chin level with the voice projected above the reading material, not into it.  Finally, he taught me to take my time. He would say, ‘If you come to a comma, pause and count one, a semi-colon count two, colon count three and a full stop count four. Then breathe.’ It was good advice. It stood me well when singing solo. Especially when trying to fill a theatre like the Theatre Royal in Newcastle or the Empire Theatre in Sunderland. Trying to sing to the back row of the Upper Circle or to the top of the Gods is a real challenge. And it was good advice when acting on the stage, knowing how to use the ‘empty spaces’ that Peter Brook wrote about.

     So, in a life of teaching, I’ve loved reading aloud to children. And I’ve loved hearing children read to me. Just occasionally when tired, I’ve dozed off listening to a child read. More recently, members of the writers’ club that I attend, have praised the clarity and quality of my voice when reading my work to them. I was taught to have an expressive voice. It has been one of my best assets in professional life. One fellow writer even said that my voice sounded like Alan Bennet’s. That’s very flattering. However, my accent is Tyneside not Yorkshire. These days, Jeanie, my wife, says I mutter. There are three factors in that possibility: one, Jeanie has a slight hearing loss and prefers not to wear her hearing aids, two, my muttering may be her selective hearing and three, my false teeth do not militate for clarity.

     Still, when I write, the words appear aloud in the silence of my mind. I think this is one reason why I write so rapidly. I can hear the phrases and sentences in my head as they appear on paper or on my computer screen. The ability to touch type is another element. Not a poet, I can hear and feel the rhythm and pulse of what I am writing.

Ancient Geoff

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Suddenly the Good News

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No. In this case, not the Gospel teaching about the life of Jesus Christ. I have just noticed, on my neighbour’s pergola, his vine has put forth a few tentative pale green leaves. It reminds me of Noah and the Ark. How glad he must have been to see the dove with green olive leaves in its beak. The not-so-good news, but nevertheless welcome, is that his vine tendrils will soon be invading my fence, threatening the little orange bush, the struggling lemon, the bird of paradise plant and the hibiscus. We cannot have everything in this world. I can live with his tendrils.

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The Unassuming Heroes

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I’m not a hero. However, many years ago, I was awarded the General Service Medal (GSM), because I served in a place of danger during my time in the Royal Air Force. I was never called upon to do anything particularly brave, although there were nervous times, nervous circumstances. The medal comes out twice a year, worn on my Royal Air Force blazer: Remembrance Day and Battle of Britain Day. It means a lot to me, if not to many others. Some day, one of my descendants will own it.

     There will come a time, after the current world wide crisis, that citizens will realise dawn still breaks, that there are still seasons of the year, that birds sing and flowers bloom. Beaches will still be tide washed. Everyone, throughout the world, will breathe a sigh of relief. Then, we may forget the unassuming heroes who have kept us - and the rest of the world - going. 

     Now, there is water in our taps. Electricity continues to surge into our houses. We can cook. We have shelter. Doctors, paramedics and nurses labour to care for us. Food supplies are still available. Vulnerable children and the children of key workers go to school, with teachers and headteachers at work. In caring about the vulnerable, in caring for the vulnerable, they make themselves vulnerable. These are the people in the current front line. These are those biting the bullet, standing by their guns. Society, even a much reduced society continues to roll along. Perhaps that should be ‘limp’ along.

     Afterwards, we may recall the names of Sir David Attenborough, of Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham and remember why we know them. Even Donald Trump might join the converted.

     In April, 1942 the island and people of Malta were awarded the George Cross, for fortitude through isolation and attack during the Second World War. When the current crisis is over - and with patience and discipline, that time will come - there will be awards. Rightly or wrongly, there will be awards for those deemed to be worthy of Officer of the British Empire (OBE) and Member of the British Empire (MBE), joining the ranks of senior civil servants, actors, pop stars and those with sporting prowess.

     When the dire threat of this virus has subsided, then may be the time to recognise those, who because of their responsibility and sense of duty, have put themselves at risk, continuing to serve the rest of society. Then, there should be a new order, automatically given to those who also serve. Not to those who over-shop, generating shortages for the genuine needy. Not for those who flee from their natural setting in their mobile homes trying to escape the virus and unwittingly, thoughtlessly taking it with them. 

     Not everyone can be ‘Sir’, ‘Lord’, ‘Lady’ or ‘Dame’. But it would be possible for those who have served on behalf of others through all this, to be awarded a token in acknowledgement, a medal to wear with pride and to pass down the generations, letters to put after their name, in thankfulness and remembrance. 

      It will take a more inspired, poetic mind than mine to suggest what those letters might be. I can suggest some limp ones, some more mundane: CO (Cared for Others); SF (Stood Fast); SV (Served the Vulnerable). Perhaps the Queen, isolating at Windsor has already thought of initiating this. Possibly Boris Johnson, earnestly addressing the public from number 10 Downing Street, is currently too busy to do so. But we shouldn’t forget. Under any circumstances.

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Lovely and reassuring here in Spain to have a long video call with my elder daughter and son-in-law today. They are both headteachers, now expecting to keep their schools open for key workers’ children and for vulnerable children. Weekends, too, and over what would have been the Easter holiday. Their elder daughter, Maisie, is in healthcare, so she is also in the midst of it. Their younger daughter is O level year, delighted to have no more German but also pleased at the idea of predicted results because hers have improved significantly as the school year has progressed. They seem very tired but remain cheerful and stalwart. Their main worry is that one or other of them becomes infected, then all must self isolate for the full period, which affects the work load and responsibility of others. Much more weighty decisions to make and responsibility to carry than I ever had in more than 40 years in teaching, headship and school inspecting.

     Our kind friend, Nicky, who normally runs the Bistro restaurant near us, has been shopping today. As she is younger than we are, she has brought us vegetable essentials, pausing only briefly at our back door. We were running a bit short of fresh vegetables, although frozen vegetables, meat, eggs and milk are still sufficient in the fridge and freezer.

     Jeanie my wife, prompted by Facebook, has just reminded me of the story of Noah and the Ark. He only took two of everything when he had his time of self-isolation: please remember that when shopping.

     I’m actually going to venture out this afternoon. In my car. Half a kilometre down the road to the recycling skips. Can’t let the waste paper bin overflow and there is plastic and glass to recycle. The communal food waste skips (no individual rubbish bins here in Spain) are still being emptied daily. Then half a kilometre back home. 

     I’m still keeping an eye on the Statista.com web-site which reports daily about the virus in many places in the world. Spain has become a more infected place than Iran (if Iran’s reporting is correct), putting this country one notch higher up the list. Our autonomous region, Valencia, remains well below the average incidence for Spanish regions - 18.4 (Valencia) against 38.0 (Spain average) - and very well below the worst affected region which has 147.0 (La Rioja) and 101 (Madrid itself).

     Stay safe everyone. Keep studying!

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Lock-down odd consequence

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Now here is an odd consequence of the lock-down in Spain. Because I can’t say to Jeanie, ‘Let’s go out for a meal’, - which we frequently do under normal circumstances - because I can’t take the dog down the road to the hotel bar for a drink, because I can’t get in my car and drive to the coast, I am so much better off financially. I have more in the bank than I normally have at this point in the month. I know that is not the case for people of working age here in Spain and for most of working age in the UK but I last went to the cash point 14 days ago - usually I visit the money machine twice weekly - yet I still have money in my wallet. The money I usually give to church on Sunday is remains in my pocket. Usually I give a small note to Peter, an illegal immigrant who is a regular worshipper at our church. I wonder how Peter and his family are getting on; Joy, Peter himself and Destiny, their toddler son. Our bills get paid. The luxuries do not happen.

     I’ve not been out of the house for three days now. Jeanie’s daughters think she should wrap me in bubble wrap. I’m not sure that I like the thought of trying to breathe through that. I would prefer cotton wool. It is softer and easier to breathe through. Jeanie is still venturing out several times a day to walk Tilly, the dog. Meeting no-one on most occasions. It is so quiet. We think two of the couples who have holiday apartments on this Urbanización have gone back to England today. Their cars are not there. We had seen them and now their places are locked up. Given the incidence of the virus here compared with UK, that may have been a good idea. Very few others are in residence. However, we feel as safe and secure as can be. I’ve been watching the incidence of Covid19 in the different regions of Spain. There is a very good statistical web-site with daily updates. Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque region are the worst affected in Spain. Here in the Valencian autonomous region, we are well down the pecking order, and well below the Spanish overall average for the condition. Not wishing the blight on anyone, long may our well below average position remain until the crisis passes.

     We were able to do a big shopping last week before the crisis broke, and so far, there is more than enough in fridge and freezer, although we are beginning to run out of fresh vegetables. Jeanie has a younger friend who will shop for us tomorrow. 

     We are trying to stay in touch with friends and members of the church congregation by telephone and Internet. Currently, everyone appears to be well. A relative of a friend who visited Barcelona from England has the virus but appears to be recovering well since return to UK. I’ve contacted all the members of what had been my church choir. No problems there at present. Jeanie, my wife and our church pastor, is preparing to put a Mothers’ Day virtual service on the church website for Sunday. I’m writing a meditation and intercessory prayer with a twin theme: Mothers’ Day and a reflection on the current crisis. I’m also recommending to church members, most of us in that delicate category, ‘Elderly vulnerable’, many of us with underlying health issues, that they may find Open University free short courses under Openlearn, a stimulus to stave off boredom. I did several before embarking on A802 and found that experience very valuable.

     I’ve heard from each of my three children. At present they, my grandchildren and partners are all well. My children are all key workers. They are facing much more complicated decisions and responsibilities than I ever faced in professional life. Sarah is head of a special school currently under emergency planning. She thinks that due to the delicate nature of her pupils, her school will stay open but under instruction from health services. My son, a primary school head, is expecting to keep his school open, even over weekends. Many of his pupils’ parents are key workers and he, of course, is a key worker himself. However, I’ve been able to monitor him and my granddaughter on Twitter. His school has a regular Twitter feed and today I’ve seen my granddaughter, Antonia Lily with friends in her year group enjoying an early Easter egg-hunt in the school yard. Rachel, in California is holed up with Joe and Sam but Grace in university in Los Angeles has chosen to stay in halls of residence for the time being. Rachel’s health centre place of work is within walking distance and that works well for her during the early part of this emergency.

     It does mean that I am able to focus a little more on course work. I was falling behind a bit. However, because Jeanie is not out of the house on choir, band and church duties, I am expected to respond to conversation rather more than usual!

Keep safe everyone,

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Block 3 CNF Workshop feedback

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I feel much happier about my Workshop feedback this time. What my readers have said, relates very closely to what I have written in ‘My Nearly Sister.’ Some of the praise for my writing has been quite fulsome. Being a coward, I like fulsome praise. One thing worried me: a comment ‘keep an eye on formatting’. I think I keep a close eye on formatting and I’m not sure what that comment related to. Some of the commenting was re-telling my tale back to me - in words and with emphases that I didn’t chose; occasionally there were attempts to re-write my tale and change its sense of direction. I was writing from my memory, factual stuff that is permanent and unchanging.

However, I think the three students that read my work have grasped nettles and got to the quick of things.

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020, 10:20

The injection site needs to be prepared before the needle goes in. A diabetic speaks, talking of using life saving insulin. Not a drug addict. There is sufficient insulin in the fridge to last over the immediate emergency but not enough rubbing alcohol to prepare the site. As a result, the local ghost town has been visited. There is a small pharmacy there.

Ghost town is not very far. Just across the road. Given Spain is in lock down, there is a surprising amount of traffic. At the pedestrian crossing, wait and watch. Not all drivers observe the crossing. The men building the house opposite are there. Six of them this morning. Two laying bricks, one with plans in his hand and three others having a discussion but not actually building anything. A tall house, but not tall enough to obscure the view of the mountains.

A woman in the clothes shop smiles at the dog as the diabetic and his wife walk by. Her shop is securely locked but she is still tidying her display of fashionable dresses, her racks of modish sweaters.

Two delivery vans still operate. Apparently delivering to closed businesses. Otherwise the place is deserted, except for dog walkers. Several of them. Dog walking is allowed. 

And the odd gossip monger.

There is a great deal of gossip.

‘Down in the village they are queuing at the butcher’s shop.’

‘Right down the Main Street and around the corner.’

‘And at the village pharmacy.’

The diabetic, his wife and the dog visit the little pharmacy, not the one down in the village where there is a queue. Someone is at the counter, so they wait outside. Only one customer inside at a time is allowed. The dog has to wait outside, anyway. In the window, along with the Father’s Day display, there is a notice ‘Perros No’ and a picture of a crossed out dog. Inside, the wife finds very little of use. The pharmacist offers an expensive alternative to rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol would have been preferred. It is what they are used to. The hospitals have it all.

What happens now to Spanish Father’s Day?

‘Madrid residents desert the city for the coast.’

This is the coast. Facebook had this piece of gossip first. Then the local paper.

‘Madrid man with Covid19 comes to his Murcia holiday home and visits local supermarket.’

Local newspapers publish parish pump news. This could be fake news.

Meanwhile on television, a film clip of the clogged motor way south from Madrid, city dwellers desperate to flee the plague, ready and able to spread it to some new site. The news goes on to report that the former president of Spain, his wife and the former mayor of Madrid are safe, having arrived with their security staff at his luxury villa in Marbella in the Deep South of Spain. On the same news programme, other city dwellers, remaining holed up in apartments, applauding from balconies to show their appreciation of health workers down below. 

‘You’re not allowed to use cash. Card only. Money spreads the virus. Bank cards can be disinfected. Wash your hands for twenty minutes.’

Or was it twenty seconds? The elderly are easily confused.

Our hands have never been so clean.

Frustrated by the lack of alcohol, the diabetic, his wife and dog visit the tiny supermarket that is allowed to stay open. The old man and the dog, weary from the walk, sit down on a chair outside the property next door to the supermarket. When it is open, this property is the Indian restaurant but given the current directive, it is securely shut up. Outside, two or three tables and sufficient chairs for customers who wish to drink and smoke. No smoking inside, of course. From next door, from the supermarket, out pops the assistant.

‘You’re not allowed to sit down there.’

No introduction. No pleasantries. No apology. No consideration for other. Just:

‘You’re not allowed to sit down there.’

Now, if the seat had belonged to the supermarket, it might have been reasonable. Almost. To the weary old man and his dog it was Iike a wounding thrust in the side. So he heaved himself up and propped his body into a corner of the railings until his wife had found what she wanted inside the shop. No ordinary bread. No milk. No tissues. No toilet roll. Washing up liquid available. A loaf of currant bread. 

If those tables and chairs are not to be used - by official directive - should they not be stacked away somewhere, instead of being left invitingly available.

‘Good job we did a big shop last week.’

The walk back home. Whatever else is happening in the world, dogs still need to be walked. Dogs are still interested in each other, even if owners are not supposed to mix and associate. The birds still sing. Because the world is quieter, the birds are even more noticeable. The flowers still bloom. So many tiny spring flowers star the waste ground, almost but not quite hiding the cigarette packets, the discarded tin cans and the broken shards of glass. Despite much of the world coming to a halt, ants are as busy as ever. Super-human strength moving burdens much larger than they are. No virus there, then.

Meanwhile on the building site, two men still build and four discuss plans.

‘Have we got enough coffee?’

‘Where did you leave the keys? You might have left them where I could find them.’

Despite the eerie calm, there is tension in the air.

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Virus lock-down

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Edited by Geoff Cooper, Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020, 10:21


Now this is odd. Spain - and much of the world - is in lock-down because of Covid19, the latest corona virus strain. Yesterday afternoon, Jeanie chaired an elders’ meeting at church to discuss response to a directive from the church authorities. Decision - church will be closed now until the beginning of April. It will be difficult to identify a week in my 82 years of life when I have not gone to church on Sunday, often more than once, often on more days than just Sunday. It will be a very strange experience to wake up tomorrow and know that there is no church. I’ve managed to find a suitable place of worship wherever I’ve travelled in the world: during my time in the Royal Air Force in Cyprus; attending St. John’s College, York; Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, even Tunisia; the United States of America, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand. And now, an empty space. We are an elderly congregation. Many of us are in that category said to be in more risk from the virus: the vulnerable elderly with underlying health conditions.

But it is not only an empty church space. Our choir rehearsals have been stopped and the concerts we were preparing for are cancelled. We have a message from our Spanish language teacher, ‘See you on the other side of the virus. No Monday lesson.’ Jeanie’s band practices are cancelled: she will not be out on Tuesdays and Fridays with her clarinet. I’ve not had confirmation that my writers’ circle meeting on Wednesday is cancelled but it must be, as all bars, restaurants have been ordered to close. And no public market in Almoradi today. Life is just one big empty space.

Knowing that bars, cafes and restaurants were being ordered to close by midnight last night, we decided to go out to one of our favourites, The Bistro, before it was too late. When we went, early, the place was deserted. By the time we had our main course, it was packed and beginning to consider turning people away, so many had the same, if rather belated, idea as us. In fact, because it was going to be a ‘special’ occasion, we decided to break our Lenten vow of no alcohol and have a bottle of wine with the meal. The wine was delicious, only serving to demonstrate what we had been missing. I’m sorry to say that I also had brandy with my coffee and then went to the Bistro Bar next door and had a gin and tonic.

Our friends who run the Bistro restaurant are despairing. The winter season has been very quiet. They have been operating very close to the margins, especially since they enlarged the premises. They’ve made a really good job of gearing up. Now they are ordered to close until April but also ordered to pay their staff as if they were still working. So, overheads still to meet, no restaurant income and staff wages to pay. That is a very bad balance sheet for them - and probably for other small businesses. Times are very hard.

It is really eerie. We have plans. Our life revolves around the daily, weekly, monthly diary. Now there is only an empty space. Our big luncheon group for Mother’s Day is now scuppered. Food shopping is a question of ‘buy what you can get’ without a great deal of choice. We have guests on Sunday and Thursday. Can we feed them? Will Easter, and all the preparations leading up to that, be a blank. Friends were supposed to go on holiday, on cruises. No break for them. Will the OU conference on 24th April still be on? Will any theatres be open? We have theatre tickets for 23rd and 25th April in London. Will we get to London? Where life is normally so clear, so certain, so organized and arranged, everything is now up in the air.

Complacency in retirement. What complacency? 

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