“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – the Story of a School Reunion

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If you’re a depressive, like me, there are loads of things you can do about it.  You can drink the blues away, only for them to come back in spades.  You can mope and feel sorry for yourself, only to make the blues turn ‘orange’.  You can feel that life’s not worth living, only to realise you’re not brave enough to take it away.  Or, you can say it is worth living, let’s look on the bright side of it and let’s be pro-active…

You can join a gym and conjure the magic of endorphins.  You can apply for jobs and tell those in a position to engage that you are there and you’re not going away and you’re interesting and yes, engaging.  You can look at things that are so easily taken for granted – your home if you’re lucky to have one, your talents if you’re blessed, and your nearest and dearest if you pause to consider you’re so much richer for having them.

Or, you can have a school reunion…

Since last September a beautiful woman and I (with the help of a few other special people) have been meeting, discussing, debating, planning and staying awake at night thinking about how nice it would be to meet those we schooled with 38 years ago.  How great it would be to get as many of them as possible in the same room, to see how they’ve done, how they now roll, and indeed how they now look.

So allow me to indulge and embroider the back-story, which for me and this story is vital – it provided some salient and profound “station stops” on my travels both geographical and psychological.  Loyal readers will know that last year was spent for the most part living on the Ottermobile, travelling (or often breaking down in) various parts of the UK.  I enjoyed and endured highs (seeing beautiful scenery and meeting wonderful people to write about) and lows (running out of tobacco and being attacked by a couple of hooded knob-heads).  But during that time a beautiful woman contacted me via Linkedin and we ‘chatted’ a while, not least about our school days together, and one day she suggested it might be a good idea to have a reunion.

So I said yes let’s chat more and gave her my number.  Some weeks later I was heading for North Wales and arranged to call in on her in Cheshire, where I took her out to dinner.  As we drank wine and reminisced, I mentioned the time I asked her out at school and she said “no” and that was the story of my life.  But anyway we of course stayed in touch and the issue of reuniting with our peers, ignited some weeks before, was now beginning to burn.

In the months to follow, with the aforementioned “committee” and social media playing their part, the fire burned ever more brightly and, last Saturday night, 60 or so of us convened for the Nantwich & Acton Grammar School Class of 1980 Reunion.  And what a night!

I realise that many of you readers are not NAGS Alumus but I want to describe some of what happened because for me as a writer it was fascinating, for me as a person it was enormously significant.  Of course there was music and food and lots of booze in a room crammed with people, but the room was also crammed with a great deal of laughter, reminiscence, wit and bantering exchanges of story, and above all love.  The buzz was incredible and the  energy amazing, proving that for those of us in our fifties there is still life, still action, and still the ability to behave like kids.  Inevitably some of us might’ve been nervous at first, or even scared, but these negative emotions soon gave way to joie de vive as we danced the night away and finished up linking arms and belting out Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  And inevitably, as with every party, there had to be someone whose role in life is to be the class idiot or drunken dad-dancer or dubious town-crier…

For me as a writer I prefer to hide behind a script, but for me as a person I felt bound to say a few words, such was my enthusiasm and drunkenness and propensity to make a bloody fool of myself.  But it was all genuine, all meant, and all-important to say what I truly believed.  Yes I probably spoke too long, more than probably repeated myself, quite possibly tried to be funny and more than definitely slurred my words.  But more than definitely they were genuine.

Talking of which, there has been an entertaining and heartfelt aftermath on social media and to illustrate the point I’d like to borrow the words of one of my school-friends, which I think beautifully sum up how I and many other people now feel…

So here we are. It’s Monday night and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Saturday night. I was scared at first, but then overwhelmed to see everyone, then [I felt] euphoria. Mandy, Mark, Kay and Dave…thank you for a fantastic night, you have no idea how much you have touched me. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough…. you found me when I didn’t know I even existed. So many wonderful people to meet again. I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to speak to you all. I regret not spending more time with those that I did. 48 hours on and I have an overwhelming melancholia because for now I can’t see you all, crazy to learn after 38 years that I miss all of you so much. All that I ask is that we see each other sooner rather than later and that life treats you all well until we next meet. There is a big hole in my life that you all fill and I didn’t realise it until now. I wish you all only the best of life and hope to see you again very soon – D.

I am touched by D’s words, and even more touched to glean that in all the aftermath there are ongoing stories and sub-plots in development, stories and sub-plots that began nearly forty years ago and will unravel for years to come.

As I say, school reunions and the descriptions of such are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I needed to post this because it was such a massive deal to me after such a difficult year and it was great to see that so many people looked so well, behaved so well and have clearly done so well, and that being 54 doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, nothing left to say and nothing left to do.

So thank you for indulging me because it really did me the world of good.  The year has started well, I’ve been pro-active, I’ve joined the gym, my career does look like it’s being rekindled.  But that isn’t all the story, because I have a confession to make, a sub-plot to bring to the surface…

I had an ulterior motive in giving my number to the beautiful woman, because I wanted to ask her out again.  And this time, after 38 years, the answer was “yes”, and that’s the greatest and happiest reunion of all.  Because this is a story not just about nostalgia, or about celebrating and looking on the bright side of life, it’s actually a tender and profound love-story.

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Merry Eczema & A Happy New Year

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It was three degrees on the Ottermobile last night, so with me and three beautiful women it was a tight squeeze.  If that were true, I wouldn’t have been much use to them; with temperatures like this your willy tends to disappear.  But I shouldn’t joke.  In fact I don’t feel very much like joking, I’m just aware that some of my writings of late have been downbeat and I want really to entertain.

Yet the truth is that this experience is becoming nigh-on unbearable, and I’m feeling very angry on behalf of myself and those even less fortunate.  I admit it, in the Summer months I was happy on the road, in beautiful weather and even more beautiful surroundings, soaking up the exercise and the stories, and not envying in the slightest those stuck in offices and putting up with the petty politics of back-stabbing.

Now, as we head into the festive season and more importantly towards my 54th birthday, and with the temperatures plummeting, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching.  In other words, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life and what the hell it’s done to me.  Incidentally, am I alone in marvelling at the speed with which this year has passed us by?

Anyway, in the days around the corner when we’re supposed to be offering goodwill, I’ll be thinking less of myself and more of those I love and those I’ve met on these geographical endeavours, some of whom are unfortunate enough to be less fortunate than me.

Loyal readers will remember James, the homeless young chef to whom I offered a night’s sleep in my Ottermobile to save him temporarily from the streets, and I fed him and we played Ludo and he said he wouldn’t be coming on to me in the night lest I was worried, because I was far too past it.  I’ll be thinking of him and wondering if he managed at last to find some work, a home and a decent boyfriend of his own age with whom to share it.

Then the down-at-heel guy in Redcar who also lived on a campervan and had a bogie on his nose that fell dangerously close to my sandwiches which I’d kindly offered to share.  He was just like me (only less handsome) and I felt for him, and I’ll be hoping he’s made some hay since that red hot Summer’s day at the seaside when chips were down.

And the gypsy who lives on the motorways, to whom I gave food, tobacco and a ride to the next services and went ridiculously out of my way – a gesture of goodwill that dearly cost me in diesel and mechanical lifespan.  I’ll be thinking of him and hoping he’ll keep warm in his tent come the chill, or he’s made enough money to get him back across the Channel to find work in friendlier climes.

And Craig the youth from Newcastle who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night.  I’ll be wondering if his lass still married him after that, and if they’ll be spending their first Christmas together in their nice warm home, possibly with a turkey and a bun in the oven.

And last but by no means least I’ll be sparing a thought for Steve in Saltburn, whose wife Tracy kept calling him a useless twat because he forgot the Ambre Solaire and she was worried the sun would exacerbate her eczema (or “exma” as she termed it).  He’d just lost his mother and their trip from Birmingham was supposed to be convalescence, but the sadness in his eyes was obvious, not just because of his bereavement but because he was married to Tracy, and because this was a toxic, flaky and inflammatory relationship that would take more than 100g of Betnovate to smooth things over.

I’ll be hoping he has a merry “Exma” and I’ll be hoping even more that he’s managed to get rid of that fat-arsed, irritable woman.  Because his story touched me most, touched me even more than that of the homeless men and women I’ve met, because I know what it’s like to lose a dear mother and I know how much one needs support through difficult times.  But given that many homeless people are homeless because of a broken-down relationship, I truly hope that if Steve does do what he confided, and leaves Tracy, he manages to keep his job, his home and his kids.

And then there’s me, who suffers from eczema himself but doesn’t make a song and dance about it because there are worse and more dangerous afflictions, such as depression.

But I’ll be trying not to let that get to me as I look towards a new year with someone I love and fresh hope.  I’ll be remembering all those who’ve helped me through difficult times and I’ll be remembering I’m still blessed with talents and the contortionists, like the dog, won’t win.  The contortionists, by the way, will be remembered too, and I’ll be hoping the poor rich bastards don’t lose too many nights’ sleep because of what they’ve done to me.

I turn 54 in the next couple of weeks and I think it’s time to face up to the fact that living in a van at my age in these temperatures will ultimately kill me.  I’ve lived in this thing now for 200 days and I always said it would be 365, yet I don’t look on this as failure.  I believe I’ve recounted many tales in this diary that are proof that what I’ve done has been successfully lucrative if not in the financial sense then definitely in the literary sense.  I firmly believe I’ve collected so much great material for my writings and met some great friends, and rekindled many old friendships too.  I firmly believe I’m a better writer.

In the coming days it’ll be cards I’m writing, but while I’ll know exactly where to send them, I wonder where people will send theirs when I’ve no address to address them to?  I like receiving cards, especially birthday ones, and that’s something I do make a song and dance about – I often joke to my kids that it’s important I reach double-figures.  Sadly, I can’t see that happening this year so I want to do something different and ask simply and politely that instead of buying me a card, would you please make a small donation to Shelter?

Anyway, while I’ll be offering goodwill at this time, because that is my wont, and while I’ll be doing a bit more soul-searching, I’ll also be doing some praying.  Some of my friends will be incredulous but it’s true.  I’ll be praying for all those I’ve mentioned and many more who’re homeless or unfortunate, and I’ll be praying for a brighter future for me, because I know it’s possible and I know it’s just around the corner.  I’ll also be praying that these frosty mornings don’t flare up my eczema!

But if there is a god, I should remember a god is for life not just for Christmas.

“Television’s Hal Owen” – A Grave Tale from a Homeless Writer

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Alas, poor Yorick…

I think I got out of the wrong side of my sleeping bag this morning because this court jester is feeling pretty angry.  However, as it’s Halloween let’s channel that anger and turn it into mirth in writing an account of the horror of depression and homelessness.

In previous diary entries I’ve recorded my thoughts on how employers don’t get depression (to clarify, that means they don’t understand it rather than suffer from it) and to revisit and illustrate that theme I’d like to tell a real-life story…

… Some time ago I had a boss whom I’ll call Hal Owen.  How best to describe him?  Let’s say he was so narcissistic he probably invented the selfie, and so far up his own arse he could take a photo of his bowel.

Anyway I’d been down with the dog and needed time off, a lengthy spell to boot, and my employers were admittedly pretty understanding in then allowing me a phased return to work.  We were in a story conference discussing some tale about frozen pipes that caused a house to flood, and to draw from experience (which is what writers should do) I described a visit to a restaurant whose pipes had burst, meaning the pumps couldn’t serve beer and the bain maries were dry.  To flesh out the story I explained that I’d been so down that my friends had taken me out for a meal to cheer me up.

“Bloody hell!” said Hal, “he’s supposed to be off sick and he’s out gallivanting!”

“Not gallivanting,” I countered, “eating.”

That’s what I said, but what I wanted to say was “Even those with mental illness need to eat, you ignorant, vainglorious prick.”

What stopped me from saying it?  Politeness?  Intelligence?  Job preservation?  Probably a bit of all three, but if it was job preservation I regret not saying it, because in the end I lost my job anyway so it wouldn’t really have made a difference.

… It’s memories like this that make me either boiling with anger or send me into paroxysms of laughter, because the sickest joke of all is that Hal is still working, costing the company tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, sitting at his warm desk and going home to his nice cosy house to don his carpet slippers, put his feet up and chuckle to himself at how easy is his life.

In comparison, I’m sleeping in a mummy bag, waking up for a pee at 3am and dithering uncontrollably, living on £4 a day and waiting for the phone not to ring in answer to applications for jobs I’m over-qualified to do, which I could do with my eyes closed yet those in power shut their ears to my pleas, and my home is a tin can called the Ottermobile which can’t be mobile at all because it needs unaffordable diesel to make its wheels turn round.

I repeat that this will induce either fury or laughter, so because I’m naturally more inclined to the latter, I am not asking for sympathy, I tell the story merely to illustrate a point.  But more importantly on a wider scale, my aim is to posit the lack of awareness that certain persons like Hal Owen in high-up places demonstrate, yet those same people like Hal Owen are prospering merrily and blissfully.  How do they do it?  How do they get there?  Well for a kick-off it’s not always about talent or experience, it’s often pure luck, or that their young faces fit, or that they have an innately impressive art and aptitude for networking.

It pains me at times to see this happening, where those untroubled by talent get on whereas others who’re brimming with it, don’t.  A few nights ago a party of us travelled to North Wales to watch a production of The Wyrd Sisters, a vibrant, witty and brilliant story from the Pratchett muse, vibrantly, wittily and brilliantly directed by an old friend of mine called Martin, who has more ‘life experience’ and more talent in his little finger than a good many I’ve worked with down the years have in their entire bodies.  Unlike me, Martin isn’t bitter, but unlike me, he’s housed and gainfully-employed elsewhere.  But I mention him only because if I had the power to do so I’d hire people like him in my line of work and replace some of the mulch that’s unquestioningly allowed to blow along the windy corridors of power.

In those unnecessarily long, arduous and probably illegal days of dreaming up stories for the nation’s favourite soap for example, people like Hal might offer very little guidance, opinion, experience or even ideas for story and say “Pick the bones out of that,” and expect people like me to weave their magic and turn paucity of idea into rich story pickings for the audience.  Like making a silk purse out of a pig’s ear or, as I prefer to say, turning a pile of shit into the greatest story ever told.  Forgive my own vaingloriousness here, but that very often happened for me because I had magic to weave.  And I still have that magic – while my belly might be empty of food, it’s a fiery cauldron of ideas that bubble and gurgle and fuel my soul.

So to be true to my loved-ones who urge me to see the positives, and to be bent on rekindling the fire beneath the cauldron, I will end this tale with an upbeat message:  as long as he has his talent and self-belief, a writer won’t be homeless for ever.  His career might be dead but it will rise from the other side and laugh like a court jester in the face of ignorance.  Pick the bones out of that, Hal.

Keeping Warm this Winter (“For here am I sitting in my tin can…”)

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As the temperature plummeted, last night was the most uncomfortable yet aboard the Ottermobile.  I woke up with icicles hanging from my nose and more than probably elsewhere too.  I’m not one to moan about the weather but it was fucking freezing and I realised it could be time for sleeping bag No2 (pictured above).

I paid a lot of money for this and it’s been stowed unslept-in beneath my passenger seat along with my tools, my gun and my hopes and dreams.  The other bag, which cost about twenty quid from Argos, has served me well through the summer, but last night I noted that I could see through it; just a tissue-thin sheet of cotton between me and my leaky roof.

So as I woke at 4am to pee (and snap off the icicles) I started pondering the imminent winter months and what it’ll be like living them in my tin can.  And shuddered.

Then later in the morning my phone rang; it was a London number and I hoped it’d be work in the offing, but I could hear the background hubbub and quickly clocked that it was a call-centre.

“Good morning am I speaking to Mr Bickerstaffe and how are you today sir?”

“Cold,” I said, bluntly.

“My name’s Cindy (let’s call her that) from Acme Energy (let’s call it that) and I’m calling with an offer to reduce your energy bills.”

“Ah,” I said, “I should tell you that I’m homeless so if it’s offers to reduce my energy bills I shouldn’t waste your time.”

“No problem,” she replied, “Goodbye.”

Now really I should’ve left it at that, but found myself saying “Wait a minute, don’t hang up!  What do you mean “no problem”?  I consider homelessness to be a massive problem, especially as I’m the one freezing his cock off in a van!”

But she’d gone.  Again I should’ve left it there, but it put me in a bad mood as I thought of her in a warm office and going home to a nice fish n chip supper beside the fire.  And shuddered.

Tonight I’m heading south to Stoke (if the Ottermobile will make it) where I’ll meet my son, some old mates and watch the game tomorrow.  It’ll be my first visit to the Bet365 Stadium for three years and I’m looking forward to it, courtesy of my good pal Rog Malkin who’s helping me out with a couple of freebie tickets.  Tomorrow night will be the 150th of my nomadic project and worthy of celebration, or put another way, commiseration.

But it’ll be nice to spend it in a place I love on the day of a Stoke victory, whatever the weather and whether it’s cold or not.

In the coming days I’ll be looking after my friend Gary’s dogs and teaching them new tricks, and I’ll get in the garden doing odd jobs in order to repay his kindness while he and his wife Janet are away.  It’s a big house and a considerable plot the likes of which I dream of, and for a week I’ll be laird.  I’ll still sleep in the tin can though, so they can rest in the sunshine assured that I won’t be venturing upstairs and rooting through their knicker drawers.

This reminds me of an electrician I used to know who confessed that when alone in a house this was his thing.  I’d asked him to have a look at wiring my loft so I could light it and board it out.  But when he told me his pernicious tale I decided I’d risk electrocution and do the job myself.  And shuddered.

No, I’ll be sleeping on the Ottermobile inside my special expensive bag, thinking of James and other homeless folk I’ve met on my travels, who’re less fortunate even than me.  And I’ll be hoping the winter isn’t too inclement or I can find some work to take me off the streets.

Until that day it’s Jobseekers’ Allowance and the kindness of friends and loved-ones and the odd few quid I can make on the side.  To that end I’ll wrap this post up with two questions: 1) when will someone make an offer for my long-lost priceless Lowry painting?  And 2) is there a market for used sleeping bags on Ebay?

“Stress” – A Story about Eczema, Life and Death

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“I didn’t fucking leave it behind on fucking purpose!”

This is what I woke to on my second day in Saltburn.  A family row involving a man, a woman, his mum, her sister and two screaming babies.

“You’re a fucking dozy sod at times, Steve!”

“Give it a rest, Tracy!  For the last time I didn’t leave it behind on fucking purpose!” Steve stressed, not for the last time.

I could only wonder what it was he’d fucking left behind not on fucking purpose.  His manners?  His short fuse?  One of their babies?  His life?  It turned out to be her sun cream which he’d forgotten to ‘factor’ into their plans.

“You know the sun brings me out in eximmer!” Tracy proclaimed.

Feeling sorry for this beleaguered and balding man of Midlands extraction, I wound down the window and asked if I could help.

“She’s stressed out bless her,” he grumbled, “we’ve had a run of bad luck like.”

“I have some spare sun cream if it’s any good to you,” I said.

“Great tar,” he said, “Here Trace, answer to all your prayers this bloke.”  But she was too busy muttering to her sister about what a gormless twat she’d married, and how the babies’ buggies were fucking impossible to unfold because they were fucking second-hand and fucking knackered.

“A run of bad luck?” I said, “Does she call eczema and forgetting her sun cream a run of bad luck?  Then again if you’ve got dry skin I suppose you don’t want sunburn in Saltburn.”

But the joke fell flat because he added, “I’ve just lost me father.”

I was going to quip that he should go to Missing Persons but reined myself in and said I was sorry for his bereavement.

“Cancer,” he said, “He’d been poorly for ages but you can never prepare for a kick in the bollocks.  This trip’s supposed to give me a bit of a break.  We’re here for three days like.”

“Good idea,” I said, “to help cope with grief.  Bit of sun and quality time with your family.”

“In principal,” he replied, “but we’ve only just got here and she’s getting on me tits.”

Anyway I got chatting to Steve about what it’s like to lose a parent, explaining I’d been there twice.  As he empathised in his lugubrious way he reminded me of an old mate, also from Birmingham, who could have the world at his feet yet complain about it tripping him up.  But lurking somewhere within Steve’s misery was a sense of humour and we finished up having a bit of a laugh, and he even proposed meeting up for a pint that night once he’d got the babies down.  Somewhat doubtful, I agreed, suggesting The Marine across the road.

“Steve!” Tracy snapped, “Are you going to help with this fucking pushchair or not!?”

And with a roll of his eyes my hapless new friend rejoined his family, telling me he’d see me later and thanking me for the sun cream.

“Good bloke you are mate.”

It was really a snatched conversation, but as I took a long clifftop walk, gazing down on the calming sea and Saltburn’s sands, I thought about eczema, life, death, and how unwittingly rich such characters are.  Steve wouldn’t show up for that pint, he would spend time with his family and I think that would be best; in his grief he needed them more than a complete stranger and nomad.  Except that what really made me chuckle is that I felt so sorry for him and his run of bad luck.  Not because he’d lost his father, more because he was married to fucking Tracy.

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“What to Cook What not to Cook”

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I’m feeling very happy today, even despite my growing unkempt white hair and increasing resemblance to Andy Warhol.  I’m happy not least because the number of my followers has risen, so here’s to my “fifteen minutes of fame” in cyberspace.  But really I want to talk about survival, and more specifically survival and diet off-grid.  Yesterday I dipped my toe into romantic fiction in terms of dinner a deux.  I enjoyed getting my feet wet and soaked up the readers’ response, but it got me thinking about how, or more pertinently, what I’ve been eating in order to survive life on the road.

But first I’ll set the table as it were; I’d travelled north from Staithes to Saltburn, where I planned to stealth-camp for at least two nights and catch up on the football.  Ah football, not palatable to everybody but essential to my diet – that beautiful game played by twenty-two professionals and watched by millions of expert consumers and critics.  When I arrived on the prom I was lucky enough to get a place, free of charge, with a fantastic view and a stone’s throw from a pub showing Sky Sports.

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Saltburn Funicular Railway

Saltburn is a lovely little place and I liked the town and the charming way it doesn’t pretend.  In general the people were friendly and well-heeled, and I enjoyed listening to their kind of Geordie-cum-Teesside accent – “the Saltburn Vernacular” if you pardon the pun.  I took a ride on the famous railway, reading up on its history and hydraulic mechanism, then a long walk down the clean sands towards Marske while hoping to make a valuable discovery or find a lucky stripy stone.  But it was a Saturday and I’d worked up a thirst for beer and football, so I trekked back to The Marine pub on the prom.  I had a really nice time there, got talking to the locals (stories to follow in later posts) and drank good beer while watching Stoke beat Arsenal.  What more could a man want, except for a good dinner?  So, what to cook what not to cook (mmm… might work that up into a pitch for ITV)?

I prefer to eat as much fresh food as possible and avoid tins.  But this isn’t always practical or indeed affordable, so I always have a stock of tins, along with dry noodles, rice and pasta.  When I embarked on this journey all those months ago, my friend Kim put together a hamper for me, and I suggested Heinz Big Soups, which I remembered from childhood as living up to their name or “doing what they said on the tin.”

I’m sorry to say though, that today I’m somewhat disappointed; what used to be chunky pieces of chicken and veg are now etiolated morsels of not much… except in a bigger tin.  “Go big or go hungry,” runs the slogan, well frankly I’d rather the latter, or more likely reach for the dry noodles.

As I say, I do as much cooking from fresh as possible and get my five a day, and while I’m no Gordon Ramsay (thank God, the man always looks like he forgot to put the turkey in) I like to think I do OK.  Especially with curries, which are my signature dishes as I learned a while back how to do them properly.  Like my life I like them spicy, so I try to make sure the rack is full.  If not, however, or if I’m stealth-camping somewhere not conducive to a four-ring gas operation, I fall back on a tin.  Which leads me to a valuable discovery I did make…

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This is going to read like a bare-faced plug for the brand but I couldn’t give a shit.  I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, and with Asda’s Chicken Jalfrezi I find it “suits the palate of the consummate curry lover.”  “At just £1 and enough to serve two, its authentic blend of spices in a rich sauce containing bigger-than-bitesize chunks of chicken, it’s a canful of nutritious value that’ll keep you going all day.”  I should add “not in the toilet sense.”

To make a serious point, even when you’re hard-up, on the road and off the grid, you need to eat as well as possible, and you have to stay strong lest you’re attacked by a couple of fuckwits on Tyneside.  In short, you have to survive.  A camp of vanners marches on its stomach, as it were.  But to make a purely cynical point, if Asda are happy to sponsor this advert for its Chicken Jalfrezi, I’m happy to give it its fifteen minutes of fame or else “go hungry”.

Anyway, if I survive this day I will write up the collection of stories I found in The Marine.  One or two of them are delicious.

“When Mystery Came to Dinner”

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The Harbour at Dawn – Staithes

In life there are only two greater satisfactions than cooking a meal for a lady: 1) her enjoying it and 2) her surviving it.

This is a story I dreamed up after visiting Kay and Adam in Sandsend.  Loyal readers will remember my stay with Stuart and Rachel some days ago.  Kay is Rachel’s sister and I promised I’d drop in.

After pulling up at the Hart Inn and a swift pint, I knocked on their door and tentatively introduced myself, knowing that Kay might remember me from school but Adam wouldn’t know me from… well, Adam.  She came to the door and greeted me with a paint brush in her hand, which would remain there throughout the entire conversation.  She was decorating their lovely little cottage near the sea, while he was preparing a meal.  They invited me in but I could see it was a bad time, and I didn’t want a drink as I was driving and I didn’t need food as I’d already eaten, which is not to say that the meal Adam was preparing didn’t look mouth-watering.

Anyway the point of this in terms of my story is that here was a picture of domestic bliss as this lovely couple described their own travels via campervan and their love of Scotland, which of course was my intended destination.  Adam spoke expansively of the west coast, of the beautiful village of Ullapool and of otters cracking crabs there on the rocks.  He pointed to glorious un-Photoshopped pictures on the fridge and they spoke optimistically of their plans for further travel.  Later, Kay would put her brush down and they would eat their meal together and talk, drink wine and laugh, and wonder who the fuck was that mystery bearded stranger who just dropped in!

In leaving this wedge of happy domesticity behind, I lost myself in thought as the Ottermobile coughed, wheezed and farted up the coast.  And on finding a place in Mickleby to stealth-camp, I mused about my lonely diet recently and thought I should do a dinner a deux, like Adam did.  Coq au van, if you will.  Only thing was, who would come to eat it with me?

***

Next morning I’m up early and driving to Staithes, planning a romantic meal and calling at a supermarket for provisions: chicken, veg and a Chateauneuf du Pape.  I’ve no idea if Chateauneuf du Pape is any good, but it sounds posh and I like saying it.  I am only the connoisseur of under-a-fiver plonk.

Loneliness in all its forms is sent for us to combat, and when I was a kid I battled mine with the reinforcement of imaginary friends, some of whom let me down, most of whom cheered me up.  So today I’m thinking who I could invite.  Trawling through recent memory, I consider Bet Lynch in Bridlington, the lady in Annan who bemoaned the town council, Ann the fair maiden in Scarborough perhaps…?  The list is endless but it doesn’t matter because she isn’t there in the physical sense.  Whoever it is, together we can do anything we want: we can eat, drink, be merry, we can chat, laugh, sing songs, make love, find a cure for cancer, achieve world peace… it doesn’t matter because she’s only there in the imaginary sense.  So anyway whoever she is, I will call her Mystery.

So I’m in Staithes, in a rural spot up the steep hill from the harbour, and Mystery arrives just in time for me to serve up.  I’m nervous as I always am when preparing a meal for a lady.  To use all four rings on my little campervan stove is no mean feat and I hope it’s no mean feast either.

She is dressed in black, she is slim and beautiful with the smile of an angel.  Her talk is lyrical, accompanied by bangles, and her hair is tied back to show ears adorned with dripping silver.  Maybe she’s nervous too, though she doesn’t seem so.  I pour the Chateauneuf du Pape and we chink plastic glasses as I disclaimer the culinary fare.  But she puts her hand on mine and with that toothy smile she says “Something smells good,” and I laugh to myself (see The A to Z of Soap Opera Cliches).

After some more small-talk about the weather and how nice it is to beach-comb etc etc., it’s time to eat.  The plastic crockery is hardly conducive to romance, or maybe it is, but anyway she compliments me on the taste.  I’m embarrassed.  I’ve never been comfortable with compliments, it’s something I hate about myself.  Such discomfort goes hand-in-hand with paranoia – if someone compliments my work I know in the next breath they’ll be slagging me off to the boss.  Or is that really paranoia?

But I digress.  Suffice it to say the meal goes down a treat.  Mystery eats every last plastic-forked morsel, as between each morsel she tells me about her life.  And between each morsel I watch and listen; her life story is fascinating and I know I’ll put it in my book.  Her face is fascinating too.  She offers to wash the plastic but I decline.  “I’ll do it in the morning,” I say, hoping that the “I” would be “we”, and suggest instead going for a walk.  There are beaches to comb.

In Robin Hood’s Bay I finally take her hand in order to help negotiate some rocks.  I don’t think she really needs help, but the ruse has worked because we remain hand-in-hand for the rest of the walk, talking constantly and laughing.  She finds a stripy stone and picks it up to clean and keep.  I ask if that’s significant and she says no, she just likes stripy stones, as we reach a quiet cove to rest.

I’ll spare the detail of our consummation except to say I realise to my relief that I can still do it (see Appleby, Caffeine and Shagging) and it is wonderful…

Then hand-in-hand, this time with silence speaking volumes, we return to the Ottermobile to finish the Chateauneuf du Pape, which turns out with some miraculous stroke of luck to be her favourite.  I hope we’ll crack another bottle, she’ll stay the night, be the first woman to do so, but she tells me she can’t, she has to get back.  Though I want to, I don’t ask why or to whom.  Yet we talk for ages more.  I tell her about my life as a solo nomad, we sing, we enjoy being silly, till finally we kiss goodnight and my mystery diner disappears, leaving me deep in reflection as I wash my plastic plate.

So that is my romantic dinner for two and there is my wedge of domestic bliss.  Wonderful yet ephemeral?  Who can tell?  I hope she’ll come back, but if she doesn’t, at least I know that when I have my imagination I will always need two plates.

The end.