Little Pal

Noodling around, trying and failing to do some writing this morning, I was distracted by a rattling, buzzing sound. Eventually, focus blown, I went to investigate.

Continue reading Little Pal

Lockdown Lifestyle And Grooming

About eighteen months ago, I stopped washing my hair. OK, let’s walk that statement back slightly—I stopped using any sort of soap or shampoo. Instead, I made do with a daily swoosh under the shower, trusting the old saw about the natural oils in the scalp balancing things out.

Continue reading Lockdown Lifestyle And Grooming

Lunch During Lockdown (or yes, godsdammit, it’s soup again)

A level of routine is, as any fule kno, essential to getting through the long haul at home without going completely cuckoo-lala crazy. As a gentleman of a furloughed persuasion, I am led in that routine by TLC, who works from home and therefore finds her days filled with meaning and purpose (and endless Teams sessions and slow-loading document uploads and all the other pitfalls and nightmares surrounding the transition to domiciled employment).

Therefore, no lollygagging in bed. As TLC showers, I am making tea. As she breakfasts, I shower. A brace of coffees as she hits the network. Then I leave her to it, and start considering the next big event of the day—lunch.

Continue reading Lunch During Lockdown (or yes, godsdammit, it’s soup again)

Sparks

The tap on the door is a regular occurance now. It always brings a little something that lightens the day. A veg box delivery from Vegivores or Geo Cafe. Beer from Loddon, cheese and beer from The Grumpy Goat. Maybe something for TLC’s craft room (she’s playing around with the Cricut she had for her birthday and coming up with wonderful results).

Yesterday, a delivery of herb plants put a smile on my face. Barbeque rosemary, French tarragon, parsley, oregano, sorrel. Planting them in the herb tower I bought last year will be a gentle treat for the weekend. Little sparks of flavour for the summer round the corner.

I have to keep thinking in terms of week versus weekend. Tracking the days, building new routines now I’m furloughed. TLC is working from home, so I’m led by her example. I make tea while she showers, maybe sneaking an extra ten minutes under the covers whle she dresses. An Aeropress coffee each before she hits the desk. Man, I’d forgotten about the simple joys of grinding beans, stirring and watching mindfully as the crema blooms in the brewing chamber. The rush of the good stuff into a favourite mug, hot and rich and fragrant. Another little spark to start the motor of the day.

I’m trying to watch less TV right now. It’s hard enough to steer clear of bad news. The Situation (as TLC and I have taken to stentorially pronounce it) gets into everything as it is. I make one exception–my 10am date with Matt Tebbutt and Jack Monroe for Daily Kitchen Live. As cooking shows go, this is a delight. Even seperated by video link, Jack and Matt have a bright and easy chemistry and are clearly learning loads from each other. It’s educational, entertaining, speaking to the everyday lives of the nation at the moment more truly and precisely than any other show on the air. And you get to learn about the joys of bottled lemon juice or how to make quick and easy pizza. A spark of foodie pleasure. I’m making this tonight.

With time on my hands, there’s room to get back to the projects that went on the shelf earlier in the year. The writing that faded away after Nanowrimo. The half-done short stories. And ever more, my happy place, WROB. It’s an indulgence, sure, and I’m very aware that I am a middle-aged male with time on his hands honking on about his Spotify recommendations. No-one needs to hear that, and frankly I’m not that bothered if they do or not. It feels good and right to me. It’s a spark that shines more brightly with every moment I put into it.

There’s a new edition up where I share the spotlight with my mysterious pal DJ Unknown on the angular joys of Aphex Twin, if you’re interested.

As far as music goes, I’ve been powered by Spotify for as long as I can remember now. Paired with a trio (that’s not mathematically or grammatically possible but I think we’re all beyond that now) of Sonos speakers, we have tunes on tap all through the house. Playlisting is easy and keeps songs rolling all through the day. I do, however, find myself relying on old favourites more often–musical comfort blankets, if you will. Bruce Springsteen, for example, is a constant cue-up these days. We even streamed his 2009 Hyde Park gig through Youtube last week. Three and a bit hours of sheer entertainment.

A new/old find is an album of covers by another old favourite, Matthew Sweet, whose power-pop stylings have long resonated in this household, and his wife.

Yeah, okay, CLANG. Sounds reductive if not downright sexist of me, but I’m holding back for dramatic effect. Come on, give me this one.

The spawny so-and-so is married to Susanna Hoffs. Yes, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. Yes, the Susanna Hoffs who did that side-eye in the video for walk Like An Egyptian and wore that mini-dress in the Eternal Flame video and rocks a black Rickenbacker like no-one else and hey well LOOK–

Proper badass. Power-pop royalty in her own right is what I’m saying, which makes the Sweet/Hoffs pairing all the more special.

Aaanyway, Susanna and Matthew have released a long series of cover versions, and the best of them are complied onto Under The Covers, a cracking set of tunery. Their harmonies are gorgeous throughout. There’s nothing particularly challenging here, but it’s a spark for the soul as far as I’m concerned.

While I’m on Recommendation Road, it would be remiss of me not to mention the podcast run by an X&HTeam-mate and fellow Trekkie, Keith Eyles. Let’s See What’s Out There follows the recently-finished Star Trek: Picard, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. You may too, if you’re that way inclined.

Keith and co-host Pete are knowledgable and enthusiastic without indulging in the aggressive geekery that can leak into these sort of exercises. It’s going to some interesting places now season 1 is complete. There is a danger that I may crop up on an episode at some point. Fair warning will be given so you can retreat to a safe distance. Check out an ep featuring another Team-mate, Graham Williams, below. You may find it sparks an interest.

It’s the end of my first week in furlough. There is dark talk of decorating and shelf-building in my near future. For now, I’m enjoying this quiet time, feeling my mind slowly returning to a place where the sparks can fly freely. I hope you’re all finding bright points in the day too, however and wherever you can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important things to do. Take it away, boys…

Proof Of Life

Easter Monday. Cooler than the weekend, when we spent most of our time dozing in the sun with a book each. A sharp-edged breeze swirls the candy-floss blossom from next door’s apple tree up into the air. Baby pink against a cloudless blue. We move some tubs and planters around, repot a thyme, do some watering. I trim some of the thyme to put into a tray-bake of vegetables later.

Outside, All Hallows Road is empty. The Easter traffic that’s usual for the home of one of Reading’s major cemeteries during a national holiday is non-existent. The boneyard gates are closed and chained. No fresh flowers on Grandma’s grave. The irony of a shuttered cemetery in the midst of of a global pandemic is almost parody. The blackest of comedies.

We’ve seen little of the mass gatherings that have social media fussbudgets in a conniption. We haven’t been near a park in weeks. But then, we’re lucky to have a garden to flop in when the sun comes out. If I was stuck in a flat with no easy access to green, it’s very likely I’d be heading to the river every day, risking the scolding. For what it’s worth, everyone we’ve seen on our perambulations have been very careful about staying away from each other. Smiles, waves and nods seem to be the norm. People are gentle with each other, as best they can at least.

As an introvert, this whole social distancing lark has come easy. I get on well without needing to socialise. My problem is that I find webcam chats almost as exhausting as the actual face-to-face stuff. If anything, the extra energy you have to put into a Zoom or Skype call to be noticed and heard wrings me out even more quickly than a normal meeting would. I make the effort with group chat though, as much for the other people on the call as myself. It is, as the old BT commercial put it, good to talk.

I’m even calling the parents once a week. Yes, I am a saint. Good of you to notice.

The creativity of the community in isolation has been incredibly inspiring. Art has been pouring out of us in every form imaginable, from drawing and painting to textiles to music to short films and photography. A remarkable and unprecedented flood of joyfulness.

You notice I didn’t mention writing. That’s a sore point. While many of us have lifted the banner of creativity to stave off the black dog, I have stalled. This is frustrating and worrying. I’ve always laboured under the delusion that whatever else happens, I can always write. Now, at the point where I actually have the time to settle down and get some serious word count down, the urge to do so is hiding wide-eyed under the stairs, refusing to come out no matter how much I shake the bag of Dreamies.

Excuses? I have a few. I mean, check the title of the blog. For one, I’ve actually been at work. Part of a skeleton crew that’s taken our usual twenty staff down by seventy-five percent. There’s much less to do, but more than enough for one person. That ends as of tomorrow, when I go onto a rotating furlough pattern. Maybe then the evening brain-fog will lift. Who knows, I might even be able to lure the muse out from her hiding place.

Meanwhile there’s always dinner to be made. We’ve started using local suppliers and embracing their delivery options. Our first veg box from Caversham’s own Geo Cafe contained all manner of goodies and has me tearing up the weekly food plan in favour of something more aubergine-heavy. Loddon Brewery, up the road from us in Dunstan Green, sorted me out with a lovely selection of brews in time for the Easter break. Both have been friendly, chatty and a joy to do business with. We’ll drop an order to the brilliant Grumpy Goat for cheese (and yeah ok maybe some more beer) this week. With two Co-ops a ten minute walk away, we haven’t needed to go near a supermarket in weeks. That trend is probably going to continue after the restrictions finally lift, and we wander out blinking into the summer to finally get that haircut or pop to the pub.

Gods, I miss the pub.

It would be easy to make light of the situation and the last thing I want to do is minimise the struggles that millions of us are facing right now. Look, I am fully aware of how lucky I am. Money is going to be tight, sure. But we have no kids to educate and entertain while trying to hold down a strange home bound working day. We are, for the time being at least, secure. TLC and I, quiet homebodies as we are, are almost perfectly suited to the challenges that The Rony has set us. Even for us, there are broken sleep patterns, times of anxiety and inertia. Gods only know how the rest of you are coping. The fact that you are, and with good humour, creativity and determination, gives me hope for all of us.

Outside, late afternoon light dapples the rough end of the garden. Shadows play over the apple trees we planted a couple of years back, their branches thick with new buds. I’ll be out there tomorrow, doing battle with weeds and overgrown borders. Perhaps the muse will follow me out, green eyes glinting, tail held high. Perhaps she’ll drop an idea into my head that will send me running back indoors for a pen and paper.

Perhaps we are one day closer to the end of this, and the beginning of something new.

Living With Millie

The day always starts this way. I wake before my alarm buzzes on my wrist, and stumble half-blind to the bathroom. Sleepy as I am, I know to watch for a blurring shift in the darkness–a low, sleek shape that leaps out of the spare room and flings itself across the sill of the door. I click on the bathroom light and there she is, legs and belly in the air, paddling the air. I reach down to tickle the warm white fur on her tummy. This is the one time of the day when such liberties are permitted.

I have yet to tread or trip over her but it’s been a close-run thing sometimes, especially on dark winter mornings.

I often wonder if she’s trying to kill me. After my shower she’ll run in front of me as I head downstairs, either winding round my ankles or parking herself full-length on a step just below me. It’s all part of the process of hurrying me downstairs so she can get fed. Come on hooman, Millie wants grub. Keep up, don’t trip up.

You’d think she was half-starved. As I walk into the kitchen she’s already parked at the fridge, giving it a hard stare. If things are really desperate, she’ll resort to the dry food we always leave out for her. But as soon as the bowl of wet food goes down that’s forgotten about. She’ll actually let dry morsels drop out of her mouth as she head-butts the bowl.

Millicent Wickings. AKA Millie Moomin, Moomintroll, Trollface, Squirrel Pants, Squiggy-moo, Floofball, Fatbits and OH YOU HORROR. Provenance unknown, although I suspect there’s a fat chunk of Norwegian Forest Cat somewhere in her DNA. In the winter she develops a ruff that a Dutch merchant of the 1500s would be jealous of. In the spring she sheds it in knotted clumps and dreadlocks. She’s not a big unit by any means, but in cold weather her winter coat means she bulks up very pleasingly. I can never keep my hands off her, and I bear the scars as consequence.

Millie’s a tortie, with all the behavioural quirks that come with the multi-colours. Cute and sweet-natured one minute, a bug-eyed pouncing horror the next. She’s a hunter, regularly bringing in mice and occasional birds, which she’ll happily dismember in front of us. It’s a rare week where there isn’t a blob of half-chewed rodent at the bottom of the stairs or outside the bedroom door for when we wake. Yes, we get it, she’s just making sure we’re getting enough to eat, but couldn’t she bring in a pizza every once in a while?

I said provenance unknown. She’s a rescue, found on the pages of the Oxfordshire RSPCA. She was discovered in the Wendy house of a nursery school, along with a litter of kittens. The kits, wee scraps of ginger and black, were snapped up in moments. Poor mum, who had taken herself to scrag and bone to keep them alive, was ignored. She was, to be fair, a spiky presence, still wary, a survivor. A fighter.

We fell in love with her from first sight. It had been eighteen months since we’d put our beloved Bilbo in the ground, one of the more dreadful days of my life. It had taken us a while to recover. Eighteen quiet months. We tried to kid ourselves about how easy it was to go away without having to worry about how the resident would be fed. Neither of us believed it for a moment. A house without a cat is an empty place.

That pic.

TLC took the lead, quietly starting to browse the rescue sites when she felt ready, showing me her favourites. Once she found Millie, staring with bold attitude from the screen, we both knew. One visit to the cattery sealed the deal. She’d already bulked up a bit in care, but the attitude was there in spades. Head rubs accepted one minute, punished with a murder-mitten swipe the next. Didn’t matter. She had us. We loaded her into the car and brought her home.

The vet recommended keeping her in one room for a few days to acclimatise. Millie was unimpressed with this. Within two hours she’d shunted the back room door open and gone for an explore. Incurably curious, sure of herself, ready for adventure and a little trouble. From day one we knew what we were getting.

Day one, three hours in.

She has mellowed over time. A bit. Millie does laps now, to the point where it can be a struggle to budge her if you need the loo. She has a way of stretching out full length then somehow twisting in the middle so her feet are the wrong way round. It gets me every time she does it.

She is the mistress of her domain, but surprisingly tolerant to other cats, as long as they don’t take the piss. Hers is hers, but she’ll share to an extent. She does, however, take great pleasure in winding up next door’s psychotic collie. If he’s locked in she will prance around by their front window, making damn sure he’s clocked her. He will howl and bellow as if the world is ending. If he could break through that window he would, I’m certain.

She remains herself, however much she’s changed. Equal parts lovable and infuriating, our little sweetheart monster. She will wake us up by nibbling on our toes, or spoil a romantic night in by dragging in a mouse at just the wrong moment. And then she will curl up on your lap, fix those big eyes on you and rev up her purr-motor, and we’re lost. It’s Millie’s world, and we’re lucky to be a part of it.

A good example of The Millicent Twist.

Start-Up Sequence

05:00

I’m not really awake, but drifting in and out of consciousness. I’ve been in this state since probably half-four, perhaps a little earlier if old-man bladder hasn’t already forced me into a stumble to the loo. The alarm is set for 05:30, and as ever, I promise that I’ll stay in bed until it goes off.

05:26

Inevitably, I break that promise. I’m too awake to stay put now, so I zombie-walk into the shower. Thirty seconds after leaving the sweet embrace of the duvet, I’m upright and wet.

05:30

The alarm goes off. It’s a cheap Chinese activity tracker with a vibrate built in. It’s showerproof, but the touch-sensitive surface doesn’t react well to the pummelling of the shower head, and I can’t switch it off. Doesn’t matter, I’m awake now. I let the device burr at me and get soapy.

05:40

Dryish, dressed-ish. I’m often accused of looking like I dressed in the dark and well, that ain’t so far off the truth. I work in a place where contact with clients is minimal. Frankly as long as I turn up with a pair of jeans and a top on, no-one could care less.

Downstairs, harried all the way by Millie the cat, who has been dogging my heels since I hit the shower. In the dark it’s sometimes hard to see her and she has a habit of flinging herself full-length at the bathroom door, or twining around my ankles while I’m trying to negotiate the stairs. I swear, one of us will end up dead because of her antics.

Kettle on. Now for tea. I’m a coffee fiend at work, but the world doesn’t look right if I don’t start things off with a cuppa. Nothing fancy. PG in a mug, splash of cow-juice. While the brew stews I dole some wet food into Millie’s bowl. She goes in headfirst, slurping at the moggy-chow like she’s half-starved. Which, I can assure you, she is not.

05:45

A bit of quiet time. If I’m feeling virtuous, I’ll get a bit of writing done. This is a good time to work–with brain half-engaged some interesting things usually hit the page. In the depths of winter, though, inspiration can be tough to dredge up. It’s more likely that the newsfeeds and Twitter get a once-over while the tea gradually gets my cogs spinning.

06:03

The kettle goes back on. Tea for TLC. If I time it right, delivery of said hot beverage coincides with her phone alarm going off. I swipe it to snooze for her, and plant a kiss. She mumbles a sweetness back at me. She’ll be in the shower by the time I leave, so this is the only contact we have until the evening. We never skip this bit of the morning ritual. It would be honestly unthinkable.

06:10

A little more reading, perhaps give Millie a fuss if she’s in the mood. My eyes keep drifting back to the clock. My brain is beginning to turn over now, filling with the cruft of the work day ahead. Tasks to do, excuses and apologies to make. Crisis avoidance strategies. You know, the usual.

06:25

Boots on. The inevitable patting of pockets. Wallet, work-pass, phone, keys. Check checky check-check. Over time, my everyday carry has been stripped back to these essentials. Potentially, everything I need for a working day could go in a single pocket of my jeans. Less to think about means less to worry about.

06:27

I crack the airlock and step outside. It’s cold, dark and quiet. I wake the car with a click of the fob and slide into the driver’s seat. I slot the key and turn the car to power. My OnePlus gets plugged into a flying charge lead, and music starts. Either a Spotify playlist streamed from the phone (modern psychedelia, classic funk, maybe some Americana or rockabilly. No podcasts, no radio, no voices that aren’t singing) or a random pick from the USB stick hooked into the stereo. I sit, just for a second, and let the tunes wash over me. I breathe in, deeply, hold it for a count of five, let it out again. Then I turn the key one last click.

06:30.

Ignition.

Main engine start.

Once again into the wild blue yonder.

The Last Ride Of The White Buffalo

DATELINE: 22nd July 2018

Reading, Berkshire, UK

We were somewhere on Route 285, perhaps just outside Fairview, and I was deep into a fugue state. As I watched the browning landscape scud past the window to a soundtrack of 80’s goth-wave, the last three weeks swirled in my head, events sparking into focus for a moment, then popping away like a soap bubble. Continue reading The Last Ride Of The White Buffalo

Two Hours In New Mexico

DATELINE: July 17th, 2018

Somewhere on Route 285, skirting the Carson National Forest, NM

The storm had tracked us since Alamosa. As we slipped south past the border, it shouldered in, riding alongside like a good ole boy with bad teeth and a worse attitude. It was pretty darn clear it was looking to start something.

The tail end of our trip south had lost its shine. Hawkeye had struck again. His ‘slight detour’ to dip a toe into a different state took us in a loop around some of the more desolate and depressing sites New Mexico had to offer. Dead or dying farmland. Vast junkheaps piled high with the ransacked corpses of old trucks, the exoskeletons of ruined farmed equipment splaying out thorny limbs like gigantic fossilised insects.

Every building we passed was empty, windows boarded up or kicked in. Scattered stands of graying lumber stood like waiting funeral pyres. The gateway to a ranch that we could not see had deer antlers knotted over the uprights, ugly-white as a bad dental job in the frantic light that pulsed out from the heart of the storm. The gateway to another had a mannequin strung by its neck hanging from a cross post.

I hope it was a mannequin. In the shadow-carved light, it was so difficult to be certain.

The storm was still with us, effortlessly keeping up the pace. Every now and again it would fling out a handful of rain, just to keep our attention up. This wasn’t the clean, warm Colorado rain we had come to welcome. This was dirty, greasy stuff, oil-spill and septic run-off, smearing the bug-strike across the Buffalo’s windshield without ever letting it clear.

The storm grumbled, thick and heavy as the snort from a Harley’s drivetrain, a deep pulse shaking us about like beans in a can. Anytime now, the fucker would pounce. Just at the point where we were furthest from help, it would clench its bruise-dark fists and pound us into the blacktop.

We found a way west. Route 64. According to the map, heading into the heart of the Carson National Forest. Months without rain had turned the landscape into a patchwork of khaki and tan, like camouflage, as if New Mexico was trying to hide from itself. The thirsting ground would have gratefully accepted the punishment of the storm. It was too busy toying with us to care about opening up.

The leading edge of the cloud front mutated, or maybe it was our change of course that shifted our perception. It developed a snout, sharp as a shark’s tooth. An eye-shaped meniscus bulged into being. Colourless as bone at the inner edge, deepening to the flat grey of dead flesh towards the orbit. Within, where a flash of blue from the early evening sky would have given us a faint glimpse of hope, there was only darkness.

No. Not darkness. Lightning flickered in there, actinic forks and nets of light, gone before they’d really registered. A complex pulse of activity, like the workings of some vast, inhuman mind made visible, all the better to inspire dread.

We felt it, alright. Barreling down a desolate highway with a malevolent weather system at our shoulder, dread was a default. The radio had gone dead. There was no-one else on the roads. There was no sign of habitation. No lights in the houses we passed. No livestock in the fields. This was abandoned country, dead land. Tierra muerte.

For a while, we wondered if the apocalypse had already happened and we were just a little late to the party.

Finally, we hit Highway 84 at Tierra Amarilla and could start working north. The storm, bored now, tossed one last bucket of dirty water at us and turned away, sulking south. Its dark eye closed, its snout flattened. Just a weather front now. Whatever demon had possessed it for a while on a an evening in mid-July in the New Mexico hinterlands was gone. At Chama, just south of the border, civilization began to reassert itself. A petrol station open for business. Houses with lights on. A dog in a yard, barking joyfully as we span past.

We broke the Colorado border at Chromo and the sun cast aside the last of the cloud. We were bathed in red and gold dusk-light all the way home.

A day later we would visit a town best known for its resident cannibal and bounce a deer off the Buffalo’s rear offside.

But that’s a story for another campfire.