Mission Creep

If I only learn one thing this year, it will be this:  in the mind of its author, a book is never perfect.

When I decided to serialize ‘Hallbury Summer’ in this blog through the Summer and Autumn, my plan was to break up the chapters of a book I had already written and published into shorter episodes. I anticipated a lighter workload than that which a completely new composition represented, enabling me to shift attention onto other things.

How wrong was I?

From the very first split of the very first chapter I was led by my compulsion to edit, altering tenses, swapping word order, re-jigging the paragraphs that, when I re-read them, no longer seemed smooth to me.  Minor things I thought would get better as the chopping down process progressed didn’t.  In fact, dear and tolerant readers, they got worse!

Now, as I spin Episode 23 into an MS Word document I find myself altering whole scenes.  I am weaving new material in and rejecting the old, to a point where I can no longer claim that the published version and the serialized version are the same book!  So when I promised at the beginning of this venture that you could take a shortcut if you wished by purchasing the Kindle book, I fear I may have (unintentionally) misled you.  There are changes; among other things, the ending will be different.

How different?  I don’t know yet!

And that’s the exciting thing, you see, because I’ve just seen the digital light.  Once upon a not-very-long-time-ago when your book went to print, that was all:  like the felled tree, the wood would no longer grow, only begin the business of dying.  The author would move on, leaving that small trail of forgotten titles rotting in his wake.

But now!  Ho, ho, now!   Now you can take it back almost at will, the book, you can return to it, breathe new life between its pages, and the story is the better for your being there, because you have brought it that much closer to perfection.  That’s what I’ve done with ‘Hallbury Summer’ – I’ve revitalised it:  in my mind at least I have raised it higher, and it is a better story thereby.

This is not to say the old book is bad – it’s not, or I don’t consider it so.  It’s different, reflecting a perspective of a few years ago, and redolent of my thinking then.  I will, however, replace its contents with the serialized version as soon as I have finished it here.

In the meantime, the original remains live on Kindle, linked here on your left if you wish to investgate!

 

 

 

A garden Universe

Earth Secrets

I steal an hour beside my garden table; hard wooden upright chair and book, watching sparrows to-and-fro from the dense forest of hedge to my left; that which I have named Leylandii Hotel.   Some have their bath-towels slung over one wing as they head for the bird-bath, some are involved in passionate discussion, others have beaks stuffed with detritus to embellish their comfortable beds.  Everything with wings is engaged in breeding  – the pleading of hungry children punctuates the silence warmly; an almost-melody only broken by paranoid blackbird fury.  He loudly insists the entire garden is his.  I’m sure the sparrows tease him mercilessly:  in their place I know I would.

A tiny fly, a fraction of an inch in length, settles upon the table and I half-notice it, absorbed as I am in my reading.  At taxiing speed it heads purposefully towards the table edge.  It clearly has a mission; a plan. It does not stop, or even pause, until it senses it has my attention.  Then it freezes, ready, I suppose, to fly.  Yet it does not.

Rightly, it does not.

In its tiny head is a clear objective, for one moment set aside.  Yet the look that has startled holds no malice – does it know?  A few seconds of wariness then it crawls on, leaving me, admiring, in its past.  It reaches the table edge and is gone.Insect

Immaculacy.  No other word could describe that slender thorax of iridescent blue, wings of powder-fine lace, the minute white dots behind those tiny cellular eyes or the sinuous dance of its feeling hands – fibre-thin antennae so fine as to be scarcely visible, but sentient nonetheless.  So neat, so faultless that I cannot help but marvel at the natural god whose creation this is.

I am struck dumb sometimes by the slow intelligence of those who claim to understand the relationship that exists between time and size in this great universe, who seem to dismiss the brevity of a tiny life as of no importance. Do we imagine this miniscule miracle of nature perceives its life to be any shorter than our own?  Do we think it sees its span to be a mere moment, or a full and rich lifetime?  In that same scale, how short are our own lives, and how much slower is the rhythm of the planets, the movement of the stars?

Within a head little more than microscopic to my eyes there lives a brain no greater or lesser than my own:  a mind capable of decision and scheme, aware of danger, equipped for its defence.  To say it is no more than a basic life-form, that it is there merely to breed and then die, is to acknowledge a state not dissimilar to my own:  for what else, when all’s said and done, is our function?   Yet I would not accept that as a full assessment of my life and its worth; and no more should I dismiss the life of that small creature.  For inside its head I am sure it worries, and thinks, and dreams just as I do.  The secrets of the earth and the keys to the universe may lie within that little brain.

And so it is, in that much greater mind above us, with the stars.

The dust can take you prisoner and the concrete will not dry. Chinese connectors hurt your eyes but only Ikea makes you cry.

There is a facet of the human psyche which manifests itself at a later point in life; which is peculiar to the married state and a symptom of a deeper malady that, if diagnosed early, can save considerable damage.

The facet whereof I speak is, of course, HIM

Home Improvement Mania.

HIM attacks most partnerships early in their relationship under the guise of nest building, but only after the matured progeny have been allowed to make their final escape and the ceremony of the Changing of the Locks has taken place does the full symptomatic array erupt.  That is when, unless the condition is shared equally by both partners, serious disruption is likely to occur, and arguments developed at this stage can be terminal.

The symptoms take many forms.  For some, a tendency to watch TV programs such250 as ‘Grand Designs’, or ‘A Home in the Country’ incessantly, (even the repeats), or noticeable growth in calls from salesmen offering triple glazing, solar panels etc.,  normally brought on by clandestine visits to websites.  For others, there may be sudden irrational statements.  Look out for ‘what this garden needs is an orangery’; or ‘why haven’t we got double doors like those?’

Then there are embarrassing theatrical displays when encountering marble worktops.  In advanced cases this may involve sufferers prostrating themselves upon the cold stone whilst possibly salivating.  Be sure to carry tissues.  Finally, sketched plans will start appearing, scattered about the house.  During latter stages these are found on everything, including toilet paper.

Treatment for the condition is never easy.  Early diagnosis might avoid extreme measures, such as Architectural Therapy, an intrusive procedure that affects a cure by the complete removal of Money.    It will normally work hand in hand with a second therapy which we will call Structural Alteration.   S.A. is administered by a Builder.   The key factor to both treatments is something called an Estimate.  It is this last – kill or cure – that will provide the shock which may instantly dispel symptoms, but can equally open the trapdoors to the mania’s darkest phase, Himus Gravis.

As Carer during the progress of this condition, you will need infinite patience and independent counseling.  You can, at least, rest reassured that your relationship is secure whilst your partner is undergoing treatment.  In his or her own interest, your partner will never suggest ‘things are just not working out’, if only because of the financial mess this would create.  Nor will intimacy be an issue:  you will not cease sleeping together, for example, because there will only be one habitable bedroom.

The danger period for the relationship is in the last days of recovery.  Be prepared for the Final Account, in which the Builder is allowed to give his imagination free reign.  Avoid looking at the Estimate and the Final Account at the same time.  Remember Estimates are only ever two-thirds true, and accept that your partner’s decision to remove those two extra walls will have had a financial impact.  Arguing is fruitless and will only cause distress.

If you are able to raise enough Money and have successfully returned to work, all you have to survive is the DIY test.  Your partner, buoyant and revitalized, will explain the reasons for this – old furniture and fittings no longer ‘work’ in their new environment.  Structural Alteration has made them dirty, or damaged them in some indescribable way.  You have to Remodel.

You will be introduced to Furniture Stockades, in which you are forced to walk around in circles looking at remodeling suggestions until you find the one closest to your needs.  These places rarely provide bathrooms.  Do not make the mistake of using the ones on display.

Choice of furniture will almost always be your partner’s.  Your advice will not be images (1)needed, although your plastic should always be available.  However, Remodeling does place you in the position of an assembly expert, and here your skills, or the lack of them, will be required.  Building from cardboard carton’d MDF (sometimes humorously referred to as ‘flat pack’) into a three dimensional piece of hideousness will require patience on a level never hitherto experienced.  The ‘instructions’ make helpful suggestions:

‘The leg in front of the back when inverted is so screwed’

or

‘Pieces A may be disassembled when aligned with piece X using fixing e’,

These are rarely of material use.  As long as you build something from the bits with no more than two pieces left over you will have achieved all that can reasonably be expected of you.

Lastly, of course, there is lighting.  In vain you may protest that a single fluorescent bulb in a pretty shade is pain enough, that a gloriously over-chromed array of little glowing orbs is an unnecessary expense.   In the end you will lose.

There is a factory somewhere which assembles light units such as the one you have so expensively purchased.  It is manned entirely by pixies.  It is managed by a psychopath.  No-one human could produce electrical terminals so minute they cannot be seen other than through a microscope, and no-one sane could ask you to connect those terminals single handed whilst supporting the full quarter-hundredweight of the unit in the other hand, on top of a ladder.  And then fix it to the ceiling using two bolts provided by Fairyland Inc., whilst your partner reads out to you:  “Pieces A may be disassembled when aligned with piece X using fixing e.”

It is then, at that precise moment, that the future of your relationship will be at its greatest jeopardy.

Early diagnosis of HIM is difficult.  References may be subtle, inferences heavily disguised.  If you are so observant that you notice a slight alteration of pace as you walk past a DIY store together, or the glazing over of the eyes at the sight of a house with grossly exaggerated windows, you may be able to step in quickly enough.

Insist upon taking up a new hobby.  Fishing is good.  It can get you out of the house in all weathers, and keep you out all day.  The rods may cost a little money, but be sure not to forget a set of good waterproofs:  so when you take the check book and your credit cards with you, you can keep them dry.

What about you?  Do you know or are you close to a poor, tragic sufferer from HIM?  Do you have any ideas for treatment?

Cathedral Close

Yellow Cathedral

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished article, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his determination, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread with an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

Firefly

Firefly 2Once there was a world of bright air and conversation; once there was a house, its rooms filled with laughter. There was a woman whose arms were soft and consolation swift; a melee of children, a barking of dogs, a cat that would lay across his knees, singing to him.

Once there was a bed where he might wile away hours in sleep and dreaming.   He no longer sleeps.  The mist that has closed upon his mind has drawn a veil across his memories – all are faded, all gone; wilted like the last rose until only the naked briar is left.  There is a cold wind in the briar.

Now there is just a chair and a room, and beyond it there is silence.  Through the watches of the night he sits nursing his pain as he has done for countless nights, contemplating the chasm beyond the walls.    Somewhere out in the ether sits a firefly of change, but it will not dance yet, not until a darkness deep enough to glorify its light has descended.  As dawn smolders into the flame of morning it withdraws once more, waiting.

He also waits, knowing (or is it hoping?) it is there.  Hoping it will come to him as it did the summer he died, five years ago.  When his heart gave notice, that warm green afternoon, it danced for him, and though he felt welcomed by its light, he could not follow where it led.  Jolted back to existence, he was prevented.

When he asked the man with shining skin and smiling stare why he should be made to stay the man spoke of a higher plateau where the hibiscus of his youth would grow again and the sweetness of forgotten scents, the smell of woman and the cry of wheeling rooks was eternal.  The open path where he walked once, that person said, was waiting, but he might only earn his place there through suffering.

Are you suffering, shining man?  Do you really know what suffering is?

The window curtains are grey with morning.  Soon ‘Twice Daily’ will come to draw them, to wash the humiliation from a body which although attached to him is no longer his.  There will be food and pills and she will leave.  For the hours until another night his rebellious heart will keep beating.    He will struggle to catch each fleeting breath, reaching within himself to tear out the gossamer strands that clog his lungs, his instinct for survival denying him the final rest his head cries out for. 

But oblivion will not come to him – not for another day, and then another, and so many more; while all the time the firefly hovers just beyond his grasp, patiently waiting.

#

Just recently a lady I knew well ceased to breathe.  I could not grieve for her passing because to me, to all of us who knew her, she died four years ago.   She died the night her heart surrendered.  She was eighty-two.

Once, upon what some would say was a less civilized time, she might have lingered a few hours, or perhaps a few days, then passed with her family around her.  Everyone would remember her for the light that shone from her before she was stricken, and the world would move on.   Once.

Instead, those who loved her cried for help.  Instead, she was revived.   Her chest was cut open, a pig’s valve was sewn into her heart and the tubes that had been clogged with the years of living were replaced.   Her body was returned to life, and life became her prison.

Did she live longer?  Certainly, yes.   Was the time valuable to her, an active, practical woman who loved to go out, to tend her garden, to keep house, to walk?   When she could no longer do any of these things, did she live longer?  

I cannot say that any but the very best of intentions brought her back from the precipice, or that we should not stand in awe of all that medical science has achieved and can do.  I would be wrong to question the motives of any who strove to save her and give her those few extra years; but I do wonder whether we fully understand a cliche we use too freely and too often:  ‘the quality of life’.

Somewhere along the way, in our ardor to progress, to make advances in medical science, something has gone wrong.  A balance has failed, we have tipped over an edge of reason into an abyss of our own creation.  It is time to step back and look again.

It is time to consider, since we now have power over life and death, how we should use it.