Merely to Me

Merely at the end of July and there’s a clear whiff of Autumn moving in; here and thereabouts, in corners of the garden. It’s in the trees. It’s coming. The year as a mix-tape; the seasons on shuffle.
Rain is marching over from the Irish Sea – on a swift day’s outing, coast to coast, sponsored showers.
Our tomato plants are high, taking more canes than a catholic schoolboy. I make a halo of pale shelter for the flimsier blooms; the rescue pots saved from the garden centre’s ‘wasting’. “The worst part of my job,” the lady told me there, whilst marking another scrub of a shrub down to 50p for me. The worst part of my job – and I thought, well, in relative terms, that’s got to make for a pretty good gig.
I’m making space, meanwhile. Not so easy in the tiniest woodshop, but space to be able to wait for this rain. The dying of a past life. And growing into something that finally makes sense to me.

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The Fish Knives Box

We used to laugh about the affectation – the Beano-like, Victoria-Wood-ish joke of a family in possession of such finely-packaged airs and graces. Fish knives and fish forks. As if we’d ever sail further out than brought-in battered haddock or Saturday’s tin of salmon. Mum, in spite of her ambitions, did enjoy the joke.
A wedding present, 1961, to my parents from my paternal grandmother (not known for domestic flamboyance). An interesting canteen, velvet-lined inside in a frankly luxurious blue, and the lid with its pretty little ornate corner-clasps a spotted and organic riot of late-jazz design – which in close-crop could be mistaken for the folksy joyfulness of a Lisa Congdon watercolour. (Look her up, really.) Our growing-up surroundings were occasionally brightened by such lovely remnants as this; the last smoking wheezes of an age that had its visual shit together – before the cocksure mass-neutralities of our decades to come.

I can count on the prongs of a fish fork how many times the blue canteen graced our G-Plan table and its retired-curtains tablecloth. But over the years the box is checked and visited just for fun – until last week when it’s discovered in a cupboard lousy with mould. The cutlery itself (the irons in Yorkshire) is fine – gleaming, black-handled as always – but the case is ugly with greens and blue-greens at the edges; dusty spores and some corner-curling dampness. I wash it as best I can and rush it outside into the sunshine to dry. Mum washes the knives and forks and re-houses them in a plastic bag, and seems, though I try, to have forgotten their funniness, the comedy of their improving poshness.

There’s a Betjeman self-spoofing verse goes by the title How To Get On In Society; begins:

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Which is all the thumping better for hearing this read by our own Alan Bennett, as I have in a cassette collection Mum gave me in the 90s. (The circular la-di-dah irony reference is not lost.) If you’re able and so-minded, return to the verse and read it aloud in your best Alan Bennett attempt. It will brighten your day.

Whilst it’s outside and drying, Dad sets about the box. His poorly mind regards it as a thing to be prepared for the recycling, like the pile of junk mail by the kitchen door. He strips away the blue velvet lining and claws up the cardboard and tape underneath. I help make a breezy joke of this – how we might discover a long-hidden letter, a secreted Holbein sketch, or bank notes stitched into the lining. Anything to turn the events away from anything that matters. After a few minutes he gives up and returns to some weeds which are very probably flowers.

And I bring the old box home with me; loving what it was and what it now is – and crazily even, what happened. Empty of fish knives and full of our family. Its mad blue patterns ready to be made into something new.

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Eat One Of It

We know – trust me, we do – that there’s just been the one mouse living in the big gap in the slabs at the top of the garden steps. I mean, these last few months. And Steps, by the way, is his name. By which I should say ‘was’. On Monday afternoon, after weeks and more latterly long, long days of her waiting and watching, the cat got the mouse. Got Steps. I saw this happen. One of those strangest of timings things where I’d just happened to have called myself a spontaneous break and come down from the studio to make a coffee – this being unusual in itself because I all to often ignore my own internal ‘take a break’ klaxons and push on hunched until the idea has passed. Monday, and with the all-new working set-up up there, I hopped up right away and came downstairs. Catface was there in her usual place. Yes, we call the cat Catface. Actually, B. tends to spell it with a ‘y’ – Catfayce – which gives it a mystical medieval air, appealing perhaps to her Potter-esque leanings (B.’s, I mean) – on the odd occasions when she’s moved to message me about this cat which isn’t ours, but one of (more correctly our favourite of) the many neighbourhood types who like to hang out round our mad little enclave of jumbly houses and chaotic gardens. And I should add at this point that B. doesn’t know (and must never know) that Catface and Steps are now as one. So, yes, Catface is in her usual place and I’m making this coffee. The doors are all locked up, which is significant because the few seconds it took between my noticing the all-new tensing of her body, the angling of her ears and the giveaway flicks of the rose stems, and the actual pounce – would not have covered my locating the keys and flying out to intervene. To save, effectively, Steps’s tragedy. Instead, slack-jawed, I watched Catface emerge from the roses and descend the steps with her tiny russet quarry; a perceptible wink in my direction, and off to a neighbouring yard to seal the deal. Oh, bloody hell, I thought. And I thought about the coincidence – that this should all play out in the moment I took this little break – that more logically I should never have witnessed this, the pay-off, the money-shot, from the weeks and weeks of waiting. I thought how she’s a good mouser (it’s not the first catch I’ve seen her make), and how perhaps Steps could’ve been a little smarter, rustling away like he was in broad daylight. And I also thought a little bit, hey, shouldn’t Catface be bringing me Steps as a present, like cats are reputed to do? And then she did. Double-backed from across the way, and mewed at our back door in the cat-faced equivalent of a ‘ta-da!’ moment. What happened next was surprisingly crunchy, but of no importance.

In the evening I finally nailed (I think) the ‘branding’ for this year’s also surprisingly crunchy sauerkraut batch. Branding in quotes because it’s just an internal affair – although small pots are being distributed amongst a mad little enclave of jumbly gourmands and chaotic europhiles. And here is assembled the three legs of the old milking stool that is electric-bang wizz-cats and foodish adventures and my now-jobbing love of character-full design. Because sauerkraut is mad enough to be as mad as this.

The next day, Catface is back in position, again watching, waiting. Over my coffee I tell her, for godssakes you caught the bugger yesterday, remember? And then think how this has simply always been the part she loved, and loves, and loves to re-live, the most. I can’t completely tease out the analogy; the zen-like lesson – and besides, I’m busy drawing little labels. But I at least commit the observation to a haiku in progress – which probably says all that needed to be said, after all, about eating one of… It. Some of which B. must never know.

The cat, there again
– still, crouched, watching for the mouse
she ate yesterday


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Pictures from the Var Side

A small break in Provence. Five photographs to represent. Haiku thoughts. Wisteria twisting round the railings of our little balcony; catching a sunset as the islands slip away; a wall of wabi-sabi growth, decay and colour; pretty pastel houses and a toy car parked in toy town…

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The Next Few Steps

In the first window of the charity shop there’s an acoustic guitar. A make I don’t recognise and the price is just a little high. In the next few steps I think about how Dad’s going into care for a short while today: will be about this time that he’s being helped into the car and not knowing what the little suitcase is for. In the second window there’s another guitar; wide-necked, casual classical. It answers the brief I wrote in a note to myself last year (the year before?). In the next few steps I think how my godson’s getting married today. And that I have a guitar down there, where they are in France that answers the brief very well. And how we’ll see them, just married, in sunshine next week. I step onwards to the cash machine. Feels at the moment that the whole world’s just taking the next few steps. Like getting rid of the guitars.
I think about the Larkin poem (closed-book recall, Aubade?) ‘Postmen, like doctors, go from house to house’…
We’ll drink our toasts at the end of the day; end of the week.
I made a painting of Dad.

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Ghosts of Hardware

Before I start anything, I say (referring to a grand project for a very small workshop), the door will need to open the other way. Coming up on ten years this has been a nuisance. It’s funny how we let things ride. But it’s nicer how we know when it’s the time.

I’m happy that I get to use the same old hinges, even most of the taciturn screws. The ghosts of hardware.


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