Homeless in Manchester – The Story of Paul and The Big Issue

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The beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre Building

After the meeting at the Royal Exchange we were due to meet my old friends Kim, Kelly, Karl and Wendy for drinks on Salford Quays.  As I left the building and its wonderful salubriousness (it’s one of my favourite theatre buildings) I was approached by a Big Issue seller.  I confess that in days gone by these were a bit of a pain in the arse – it seemed you couldn’t walk 100 yards without being accosted – but given my current plight, my views have radically changed.  So much so, that I really wanted to reach into my pocket but knew I couldn’t, so made my apology.

Neither surprisingly perhaps nor rudely, the seller glanced at my attire (I’d shaved and smartened for our meeting) and said it was fine, if I hadn’t got a few coppers I hadn’t got a few coppers.  But it broke my heart to know that what he was really thinking was “you lying bastard, that’s what they all say.”  So I felt bound to explain that I’d just been to an ‘interview’.

“I might not look it,” I said, “but I’m homeless too.”

“Right,” he said.

“No really,” I insisted, “I live in a van.”

“I live in a tent,” he said.

In lieu of money I rolled him a cigarette and asked for his story.  He was Paul, 45, born, bred and educated in Salford.  He left school with decent qualifications and decided to get a trade in the construction industry.  He was earning good money as a roofer when he met his future wife, so settled down, had three kids, a budgie, a labrador and was very happy.

He’d always played guitar and performed with a good few pub bands down the years, doing classic rock covers.  Being in bands always attracted the girls and perhaps inevitably he had an affair.  His wife found out and chucked him onto the street.  He had no family (his parents both died during the above story) so he dossed on various friends’ settees, yet still ticked along because he always had his work…

Until the day he lost his job.  He managed to get a few temporary contracts in the industry, but then they dried up during the period of austerity.  Feeling depressed, he became “a pain to live with” and increasingly found his friends were making excuses as to why he could no longer stay with them.  And so with little money, no home, fewer friends, his guitar sold and an alcohol dependency, he took to the streets.

As I listened to his tale and his means to exist (he buys the Big Issue for £1.25 a copy, sells for £2.50 and needed another eight quid to break even that day) I reflected on what a decent bloke he was, and recalled others I’ve met on my travels who were in the same place, and all bewildered at how quick and seemingly irreversible the downward spiral goes.

And I looked at my own plight, at my nice clothes bought in wealthier times, and realised how close I could be to being Paul.  And I thought about the riches of Manchester (a place that makes you want to feel successful) and its well-heeled buzz of office folk and business owners.  How ironic that the homeless should be here, unable to afford to drink in the posh bars yet hanging around them because there’s a slim chance of alms.

Then as I met with my friends I considered how lucky I am; I have a safety net in the kindness of people who love me, people who care, people who are friends.  Yes we too went to swanky bars in Media City, places where I’ve put hundreds of pounds over the bar in former times and hopefully will again.  But looking around at the rich clientele, I couldn’t help but think that if I scratched beneath the surface I could find something altogether different.  It’s quite possible that any of them could find themselves like me, relying on the State and on friends and loved-ones.  Or ultimately they could find themselves like Paul, who’s gone beyond relying on the State – he now relies on the kindness of strangers.  And in future when I walk the streets of Manchester or anywhere, I’ll be far more mindful not to be so judgemental.

 

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What’s it all about Alfie? (A Love Story)

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Two old goats for neighbours on my travels – or L to R Alfie, Me

Bimble (v) walk or travel at a leisurely pace

Thanks to my old school pal Fred Parker, who gave me this word in response to my question in Five Go Off to Stealth-camp.

The eponymous Alfie (AKA Roger Hinde) is the very old friend I referred to yesterday and the story of our reunion is as follows:  I was in Nantwich Library trying to sign on (a soap opera in itself) when I heard this voice proclaim, “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Bollocks,” I said to myself, then turned to see Alfie, looking no different from when I last saw him some ten years ago as he visited my apartment in Castlefield Manchester.  At the time I was Coronation Street Story Editor and his visit was a welcome break from the very long hours of creative toil.

Now, at the grand old age of 66 (same age as my brother Podge – they went to the Grammar School together) there was still the boundless energy and twinkle in his eye.  In his younger days when he was treading the boards he would’ve passed for a David Essex lookalike with his cheeky grin and Romany ruddiness.  “The years have treated you well Alfie,” I said mid-manhug.  But how wrong I was, as he soon went on to tell me he’d had cancer for five years and nearly died.

I’ll go deeper on this later but first I’ll describe the buoyant reunion of us two old goats as I invited him aboard the Ottermobile for a brew.  Because with Alfie you never get to finish a story – much like a soap opera.  As conversation fizzles, you’re energised and carried away on the tide of wit and keenness.  You try to compete with his joie de vivre and the stories it offers.  Your anecdotes are wittily interrupted by his, and the chat crackles into creative avenues you didn’t realise were on the A to Z.  In a nutshell you’re inspired.

One of our reminiscences was about “bimbling” through the English and Welsh countryside, normally via river or canal, a pursuit we followed often, and often with fishing tackle on our backs.  As I touched on yesterday, we once fished at the Tern Mouth of the River Severn, where he knew barbel liked to chew Spam.  I’d never seen a barbel before, let alone catch one, so imagine my surprise and delight when I pulled out this beautiful huge fish, before of course putting it unharmed back in the water.  But as always with these things there has to be a cloud, in the form of Alfie’s sulking because my barbel was bigger than the tiddler he reeled in!  He will of course dispute this claim.

Back in the day, and I’m talking twenty-odd years ago, along with other arty projects we formed a theatre company called Grand Junction with a view to touring a series of playlets about the history of Crewe’s railways.  But we got bogged down in all the politics of Equity and the Independent Theatre Council so the project was back-burnered.  Also my 18-month work in Rwanda impeded matters somewhat.  This was the selfish pursuit of a career that I’ve referred to earlier, which meant leaving friends behind… and ultimately the disintegration of my first marriage.

Anyway amid these and other unfinished yarns, he had coffee, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate from the Ottermobile larder; pretty much my weekly ration.  And I realised that despite his health scare he still had that ravenous appetite to eat seven more potatoes than a pig.  And he didn’t even bother to wash his cup, the fucker.  But I forgave him that omission as he described how close to death he’d been, which made crockery pale into insignificance.

But for me it also put things into perspective as he recounted that when it was “touch and go” he received many visitors genuinely offering help and favour, but then when he recovered these visits gradually abated – a story of fair-weather friends and their disappointment that Alfie didn’t die, that Alfie had this indomitable determination to pull through and prove to the bastards he wouldn’t shuffling off the coil without protest.  Hence I observed parallels between his story and mine, and the realisation of what’s really important, what life is really all about ie. its delivery of friends and loved-ones, which are more important through thick and thin than any politics or any wealth a career might afford.

Mine and Alfie’s bromance was a mini soap opera with its highs and lows.  We’d chew the fat, set the world to rights, deconstruct the arts of writing and acting and downright act the goat.  We’d fall out like lovers do, and rein each other in from our propensity to get carried away with an idea.  He’d be grumpy and truculent and I’d coax him into working that energy into script and performance.  I’d be down and he’d lift me with a well-timed pun or a “nosegay” of Pete and Dud or a snippet from Last of the Summer Wine.

And I’m happy that the bromance will now be rekindled.  We’ll probably write together again, free from the shackles of politics, unleashed from the need to please others.  We will have fresh adventures from the Ottermobile.  And we will undoubtedly bimble.  But above all, we will laugh and laugh.

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Old goats at the cricket – L to R, Compo, Clegg, Foggy, supporting cast

 

“Five Go Off to Stealth-Camp” – a teenage adventure story

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Shropshire Union Canal, Acton

Coddiwomple (v) To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination

This word was introduced to me by a loyal reader of these diaries, to whom I give thanks because a) I love to learn new words, b) it just about sums up my journeys over the past 120 days or so, and c) it’s the kind of old-fashioned-sounding word I would’ve used when I was small and reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.  These chimerical adventures hold special memories for me, not least Five Go Off in a Caravan, which stayed with me and I like to think inspired me to one day do what I am now doing ie. live and travel in a van.

But there must be another word that could equally encapsulate this new leg of my travels in which I meander at narrowboat-pace through the days of distant past, which has three-fold import – to fatten my novel, to banish the dog (there is no dog in this Famous Five story) and to rebuild my life.

To that end I’m co-organising a school reunion.  In 1974 I was lucky enough to pass my 11-plus so would spend the next five years stumbling adolescently and pimply through an education at Nantwich & Action Grammar School (I say lucky because I know I got at least one question wrong in the exam – Is France an island? to which I answered yes!)  No wonder I’ve got lost many times on this journey!

But in reacquainting with old school pals I’ve been amazed at how many memories flood back, and how the buzz and energy of the process have induced into me a thirst and hunger for life.  The other day, for example, I walked with my old friend Mandy along the Shropshire Union Canal.  It wasn’t coddiwompling – the destination was far from vague, it was with the specific aim of finding a place where forty years ago, aged 15, we camped.

To the right of the photo above was a coppice where we pitched the tent, or in truth a crude piece of canvas with no ground-sheet, with no food, no water, no washing facilities and indeed no common sense.  The Famous Five were me, Sid, Tarty, Bryn and Steeley – Mandy would arrive next morning in her long black coat, an apparition gliding along the towpath through the mist to bring some order to the flatulent, pubescent chaos.

We’d earlier been to a youth club in Nantwich, playing snooker on a bumpy table and drinking illicit cans of Skol.  I’m not sure when exactly the camping idea was mooted, or why I decided to go along, but mooted it was and decide I did.  And as we got fired up about it, voices must’ve been raised and overheard by the older boys… which I’ll come to later.

Anyway, given the paucity of our tackle, the inexperience of the aforementioned Five, and the lack of permission to camp, I suppose we were stealth-camping, long before it was even invented.  So we off-grid pioneers bedded down in the mud with the intention of sleeping, somewhat deluded given the grotesque game of Twister, the teenage ribaldry and the propensity to fart in each other’s faces.  I remember one in particular as Bryn bedded down with his head dangerously close to my arse, and I skilfully waited a few moments before letting one go; a yard-long rasping trumpet that lifted the roof.

“Fucking hell!” he shrieked, and that, in terms of sleep, was that.  Amid blame and counter-blame I was banished from the tent into the trees… where between bouts of laughter I made out at least three figures scurrying along the towpath opposite, and knew instinctively that these were the big boys from the youth club.  So I took my position behind an oak tree and listened for the fallout.

Sure enough, within moments I heard the plaintive cries of Steeley, the often picked-on member of the Five (probably because he was a ginger) as he was grabbed and carted, kicking and screaming, to the bridge.  Still shaking with laughter, I listened out as his final plea was ended with an almighty splash into the cut, before the three figures scurried gleefully back from whence they came.

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Steeley’s View from a Bridge

When I returned to the tent, all the fallout from my fart was forgotten; concern was now for Steeley and getting him dry and keeping him warm.  “Bastards!” he kept saying, “Why me?”  So we huddled together, guilty and fart-free, and waited for morning.

When Mandy came we hoped she’d have meat-paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer, but the cupboard was bare.  Why she came I always wanted to know (one day she might tell me she came for me) but we were grateful for a beautiful and friendly face and of course feminine concern for the sodden Famous Five.

I don’t apologise for indulging this, for coddiwompling through this memory, the point of which is to record an important slice of my life, a happy memory I look forward to sharing with the other four (if they’re still alive) when we do the Big Reunion.  But there’s an added significance for me, because the coppice is still there and the bridge has stood the test of time.  So pausing on there, forty years on, gazing at the very spot that we all huddled together, the Famous Five or Six, I felt young again, invigorated, thinking that while the memories might be vague at times, my destination’s becoming clearer, and happier.

I can only wonder what that word is that could best describe my journey right now.  But I do know this; a little bit of nostalgia can do me good, a tiny crumb of comfort from the fact that not everything changes can nourish my soul, and a flash of magic was what I needed.  But while I have one foot back on the grid there’s still the gypsy in my soul and he’ll travel as much as he can through his memories, telling stories about characters living or dead.  Thanks to Enid Blyton (in my view a storyteller unfairly sniffed at) and all the others down the years who inspired me to write, to fire my imagination, my story will go on.  Admittedly, five scruffy teenagers farting in each other’s faces isn’t the stuff of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog, but farting was our currency and the stuff of Acton legend, so not to be sniffed at either!

Homing Pigeons – the Story of Stockton Stan

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Pigeon’s eye view of Nantwich – the ‘eagle-eyed’ ornithologists will spot the pigeon on the chimney of the Railway Hotel

Heading south from Northumberland was a bumpy affair and I was worried that things would drop off, both the Ottermobile and me.  I’d ticked off Stockton, Yarm and other places within a day, speeding with white knuckles to get south before the diesel ran out or the van conked out.  I was tired and had nothing to eat bar a bar of chocolate in Yarm, so I pulled over in a little rural place called Over Silton for my last tin of crap soup and a night of stealth-camping.

Very early next morning I was woken by the crunching of stones on the lay-by and the sibilant sound of a car engine.  It isn’t always nice to know you’ve got company before the streets are aired, so I nervously twitched the curtains… to see a burly man of about sixty get out of his car.  At first I thought he might be a farmer come to tell me to fuck off his land, or shoot me, but then he opened his boot to reveal several baskets which he proceeded to take out and put on the ground.  With some relief I realised they were pigeons.

After making a call on his mobile he opened the first basket and clawed inside, grabbed a couple of the birds and gently chucked them into the air.  And this went on, two-by-two, until the basket was empty…  Knowing they were obviously homing pigeons, the irony struck me immediately, that here I too was heading home.  OK nobody was gently chucking me into the air, but still you get my drift.  So I struggled into my combats and boots and got out of the van to say hello.  Not to the pigeons, to the pigeon fancier.

“Did I wake thee up?” he said.

“No,” I lied.

“Right,” he said, knowing I lied.

“I was just making a brew,” I said, “Can I pour you one?”

“Coffee.  Milk two sugars.”

Anyway so I brewed up on my camp-stove and proffered his drink as he went about his avian business, and we talked.  His name was Stan and he was from Stockton-on-Tees, which I said was a lovely town and I’d enjoyed a pot of tea in one of its cafes, and the lady I bought a postcard from was very accommodating.

“They’re nice folk,” he said, “but my birds are better,” and went on to tell me that the birds he was releasing would be back up in Stockton within minutes.  Seeing them flap from his grasp and head purposely in that direction, I didn’t disbelieve him.  But what also struck me was the love and care he was giving to the creatures.  The initial thrust of his hand into the basket seemed brutal, but then he’d give each one a stroke and then release it with absolute tenderness and dexterity.

As an ornithologist myself I was fascinated, and learned that he was in a club and they went as far afield as France and Spain, from where his birds would find their way back to Stockton with absolutely no problem, come hail, rain or shine.  Sometimes in high winds they might go astray but would soon find their way back via landmarks.  And he released them in twos because they help each other out.  Any more than two there’s more chance of losing one.

Just as he said this, I saw a buzzard soaring above and asked if the birds would be scared of it or if that was one of the perils of his sport.

“Not the buzzard,” he said, “they feed mainly on carrion, dead rabbits, sheep, road-kill, rarely take live bait.  But your peregrine…”  At which point I stupidly mentioned the peregrine falcon was one of my favourite raptors.

“They’re bastards,” he said, “They’ve taken about twenty of my birds.  They’re breeding in the cliffs over yonder.  I wouldn’t let me birds go there.  It’d be suicide.”

“Fair enough,” I said, realising his love of the birds wasn’t just a sport, it certainly wasn’t a hobby (sorry for the avian pun) it was business.  He took it seriously, it was his livelihood; he bred them, he raced them, he showed them.  And why not?  They were beautiful creatures, beautiful and intelligent.

And it made me think about how we’re thinking of ripping up our wonderful countryside to build HS2 so we can be in London fifteen minutes quicker for an “important” meeting, yet one of these birds could get there in half the time with a message tied to its leg.  And then I got to thinking that perhaps instead of using trains we could use pigeons, and why we didn’t think of that before!  We could learn a lot from these birds, I thought.

I’m being deliberately silly, but there’s a serious side to the story.  Stan, or Stockton Stan as I’ll always remember him, was passionate about his birds, so passionate in fact that it cost him his marriage.

“You think more of your fuckin’ pigeons than me, she said,” he said.

“That’s tragic,” I said.

“Not really, she were right,” he said, “I fuckin’ hated her.”

“Ah,” I said.

“But I love these birds.  These birds never want for nowt except feedin’.  You give ’em seed, they love thee.  And they’ll always come back.  They’ll always find their way home.”  And with that, he let the last two birds go home and we said goodbye.

As he drove away and I went about my ablutions then resumed my journey south, I thought a lot about Stockton Stan.  There was a sadness in his eyes and I didn’t quite believe his bravado.  I sensed loneliness.  A passion yes, for his birds and his work, yet I wondered if like his birds he were really wishing his wife would come back too.  And rather than fucking hating her he fucking loved her, and fucking missed her.  And I got to thinking about the pigeons that work in twos, and asked myself as humans are we also better in twos?

“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.

Happy Endings – A Story in Three Parts

mark sunset

Image by Jayne Bickerton

Part One:

Depression manifests itself in many different ways, depending I suppose who you are and how you’re made up.  Because I do think it’s genealogical; I never got to meet my granddad, but if my mother’s tales were anything to go by, he was an alcoholic.  And though I think the word was never used in those days, depression was what he suffered and died from.  Depression is not easy to describe, but with your blessing I’ll attempt to do so, at least from my own perspective…

Like a human drama serial, this thing comes in episodes.  They’re not time-specific though, they can last for a day, a week, a month…  And each one finishes but you know there’ll be another instalment – as for when, you’re kept in suspense.  I’ve had many episodes in my life, and while they’re always similar in terms of the physical (because it is a physical illness) the mental side can vary – from hopelessness, apathy, despair to the far end of the spectrum, suicidal tendencies or even an attempt to “end it”.

Let me first take the physical side.  The body aches, it doesn’t want to get out of bed, it doesn’t want to be dressed, it refuses to exercise, it’s seized-up, it’s blown a gasket, it’s just conked out.  This I admit is a simplistic portrait, but to me it is that simple; your body has just packed up.

The mental side is far more complex and I repeat, varied.  This won’t make for merry reading but I offer two examples of either end of the spectrum I outlined above.

Part Two:

The first example is triggered by nothing in particular but it can trigger something life-threatening (see my previous diary entry).  You wake up with a strange feeling that the hours are going to be dark.  It takes a while to get up.  You run a bath.  It goes cold because you go back to bed.  You finally get up and let the water out, and you hate the waste of a commodity we in this country take for granted while others are gasping for it.  You run another bath.  But the tank is cold now.  You sit in the freezing water for ages.  Your mind goes orange, you’re feeling nothing except hopelessness… What are you doing here?  Why were you born?  Why have you made your life a mess?  Where are you going?  Why does nobody love you?  Of course you know that people do love you, but that’s how it feels.  It’s not as simple as just feeling sorry for yourself, which is why it’s irritating when people tell people like you to “cheer up” or “get a grip” or “pull yourself together.”  Because the hopelessness makes that impossible, the hopelessness is overpowering and oppressive to common sense.  Some people say it’s like being strait-jacketed and you know what they mean.  But to you it feels like someone’s poured sand in your ear, making your head too heavy to function, blocking the ability to think straight, to appreciate what’s good about your life and the world itself.  So you have to wait till you sleep on the right side and the sand runs out.  But when the days go by and there’s no sign of the sand on your pillow, only tears, the only way of coping is to drink, find some escape, and drink, and drink… and nearly burn yourself to death.

The second example is work-related.  You have a great job, demanding and tiring but great.  You’re doing well, riding high.  Then one morning it goes orange.  Again no particular trigger, just everything turning orange in your head and your body shutting down.  You try to soldier on but the more you do the less you get done.  It’s the curse of the strong – you’re a strong man but you’re losing control, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone like you.  It’s time to get help, you know it, from your loved-ones, from your boss, but to ask is to betray your weakness so instead you bottle it up, the dog is mauling you but you conceal the teeth-marks.  The reluctance to show weakness is compounded by the fear that nobody will understand, your boss won’t get it, and the very real fear of losing your job or being “managed out”.  The fear of your talents slipping away or being ignored.  So you neither turn to others nor help yourself, you do yourself no favours which means you turn to drink.  Before you know it you’re on a spiral that only goes downwards and the self-loathing kicks in, you hate yourself so much that the very idea that anybody can love you seems ludicrous, and life itself seems impossible too, so what choice do you have but to weigh up how to do it… a rope, a hose-pipe or walk into the sea?

Part Three:

But there is always another choice, and there’s always the fact you have a responsibility, to yourself and your loved-ones.  If you didn’t turn to them for help, you only have yourself to blame.  It seems incongruous but you’re in a privileged position to be in the abyss, but looking up at the sun or stars.  The sun warms your face, and the stars say you can fight, you can fight both your circumstances and your dog.  Your reason to live is right there.  Your loved-ones, the things in life that give you pleasure.

Your pleasure happens to be travel, so what better way to leave this thing behind?  It’s not running away, it’s running to something new.  It’s not displaying weakness it’s showing you’re in control again.  And finally, you’re not hopeless, you’re full of promise, full of joy and full of knowledge that the fucking dog is no better than you.  You are the master.  And now the master heads for the sun, on his merry way.