Lists

 

I love to write a list
1. And prioritise.
2. Do the easy first and
3. Take satisfaction at the ticks

Completed growing,
Growing till a sudden STOP.
A hurdle, just too high,
Too high to see beyond.

1. So write another list,
2. prioritise,
3. Do the easy first,
4. …….

Until….
Another list,
And never get beyond the foothills.

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The Brazen Head Bookshop

 

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Earlier this year, I walked into the Brazen Head bookshop looking for an old book titled The Art of Coarse Sailing, out of print since the 1960s. The shop was stuffed with shelves sagging under the weight of words and stories, each crying out to be heard. Without knowing where to start my quest in such an apparent confusion, I approached the proprietor who was looking at the screen of an old pc in a corner of the counter. I asked if he had a database of all the titles in the shop. He passed a withering look which made me feel quite the fool. No! What are you looking for? he asked. I told him my title and without disengaging his stare, said up stairs, room on the left, third set of shelves, under nautical. Amazingly, as if guided by the force of all those titles, I went straight to it. I enjoyed the book, in fact it transported me back to my childhood on the Norfolk Broads with an amazing brightness and clarity. Some days later I felt compelled to return it for someone else to discover. I was greeted by an elderly lady in the shop and I asked after the gentleman who originally served me. She gave me a quizzical look and replied that only she worked there and that most of the books, just like mine, had a habit of returning. It was then I realised the distinction between fact and fiction can become blurred, especially in the company of such a wealth of old stories, all clamouring to be heard.

Toothache

 

I’ve never seen my dentist’s teeth. Or her nose come to that. They are always hidden behind a pure white clinical face mask. Her eyes are beautiful with a classic black eyeliner, which extends alluringly beyond the corners, suggesting there is beauty hidden behind the mask. Somehow pain is all that more bearable when inflicted by a pretty woman called Kataryna. It reminds me of what I read about early eighteenth century dentistry. The patient would be filled with brandy and a naked woman paraded in front of them. I’m not sure what they did if there was a woman in the chair. The theory was this took the mind off pain. I prefer a more modern anaesthetic although I don’t mind having a probably attractive dentist carrying out the work.

She has an accent which I have never worked out. It could be Polish, Swedish or Latvian. As I have difficulty in understanding even her routine businesslike conversation through the medical niqab, I never dared ask.

Helloooow Mr Lamport. How you are? Any change to medical from last visit? No? Just sign here please. You have checkup and clean with me. Do you have problem since last visit?

Nothing that a handful of Nurofen didn’t cure.

That good. Put these glasses please. Open wide.

She pokes around with a metal spike, stretching my mouth beyond elastic limits, and recites a confusion of numbers and things to the dental assistant like 6th occlusal cavity watch, left 6 upper missing. Over the years missing has increased and it is the only one of two dental terms I fully understand. I flinch with a sharp pain.

Apology Mr Lamport. I think we must fix this one now. OK?

I think Nurofen worked last time but I try to say yes with wide open mouth which comes out like

Hearsh.

Mr Lamport, you feel leetle preek now.

Which is the other dental term I fully understand as a giant needle ahead of a frighteningly large syringe enters my mouth. She once asked if I would rather not have the injection as it was only a small filling. I told her I’d rather have a little prick thank you very much.

I used to be scared of the dentist’s hypodermic. What cured me was gas. Nitrous oxide or laughing gas, administered for the extraction of a wisdom tooth. I had never realised that counting to ten with a stainless steel rubrics cube clamped between your jaws could be that hilarious. I giggled about as far as four or five and found myself falling down a well into complete blackness. The odd thing about a general anaesthetic is that it’s not like sleep. It actually feels like a small part of your life has gone missing. I’ve never noticed the time just before going under and have always been too groggy to do so when coming round, so the amount lost is always a mystery.

The strange thing about coming round is that I felt as if falling down a well towards light, leaving me totally disorientated. I remember the dentist, anaesthetist and nurse all laughing as I came back to the world. Maybe I’d farted, said something rude while under, or perhaps the nurse had given me a poke in the genitals to revive me. They didn’t laugh for long. The nurse told me to rinse and spit. As I leaned over the stainless steel cup my stomach gave a great heave. It seems as well as foregoing breakfast, I now had to forego last night’s dinner, retrospectively. The next thing I remember is waking up again in an ante room with the nurse holding a cold compress on my brow. The experience completely cured my fear of the needle.

Fillings today are nothing like they used to be. Great balls of mercury amalgam forced into a gaping cavity, nicely pre-drilled out. One rinsed and spat shrapnel into the spittoon. Those metal masterpieces lasted for decades, and when they eventually fell out they made a significant clink as they hit the dinner plate, leaving you in shock with a crater in your mouth the size of Vesuvius for your tongue to explore. I never could understand why people with interesting dental histories did not die of mercury poisoning. Mercury is highly toxic after all*. You have probably heard of the expression ‘mad as a hatter’. This comes from the time when felt hats were treated with mercury salts as a preservative. Exposure made the hatters teeth actually drop out. Rather ironic as now it was helping to keep them in. It also caused the shakes and symptoms of madness. Nevertheless, I seem to have escaped with the fillings that I had, as do most people with proud lines of silver fillings.

*For those who want confirmation of the potency of mercury as a toxin read the story of methyl mercury pollution in Minimata Bay, Japan. A tragic story dating back to 1956, where organisations failed to respond to one of the worst ever cases of mercury pollution. The situation was either misunderstood or swept under the carpet for many years resulting in untold death and suffering. The sea borne pollution entered the food chain via fish and shellfish, a large staple of the Japanese diet. It also killed thousands of cats and dogs, and became known as dancing cat disease as the cats went mad and danced around before dying. Metallic mercury, the stuff we used to stick our fingers in at school while the teacher wasn’t looking, has a highly toxic vapour. The dentists assistant has to be very careful when mixing liquid mercury with the amalgam powder which contains silver and tin, amongst other things. Once this has set solid in your cavity it is claimed to be entirely safe. For many fillings these days plastics are used but there are some situations where only the strength of an amalgam will suffice.

I always arrange the earliest appointments. This avoids the delays that occur as the day grows longer. I’m usually waiting in the empty car park behind the surgery at ten to eight. The staff car park is already full with BMWs and Audis, along with what I assume are the nurses cars. They unlock the doors at eight sharp and I’m the first in the waiting room. They used to have a nice tank of tropical fish to watch, but that has been replaced by a TV screen which shows a loop of adverts for cosmetic dentistry, porcelain caps and the like, even teeth that screw into little sockets in your jaw, and what the early and final stages of oral cancer look like and why you should not smoke.

I preferred the tropical fish.

It is now quarter past eight and the waiting room is filling up. Each new addition suffers intense scrutiny from those already present and you can see they are uncomfortable as they take a seat. Nobody talks and neither do they seem to look at each other, as if there is some disgrace in being at the dentist, like you haven’t been looking after your teeth properly. I wonder who all these people are? I have never in my life seen anyone I know at the dentist. Perhaps all my friends have electric toothbrushes. I’m not into them. Seems too much like sticking something from Anne Summers into your mouth. I prefer my trusty Oral B manual brush which has served me well for many years.

Before too long those unknown identities are revealed.

Bing bong. Anne Catchpenny, surgery one please

Bing bong. Nicholas Prat, surgery three please.

The mental sniggers at his name can almost be sensed. If it was me I’d change it. As everyone leaves they suffer the same scrutiny as when they arrived, but in reverse. By now I’m getting anxious that I’ve been forgotten when

Bing bong. Norman Lamport surgery nine please

makes me jump from seat, spilling the Cosmopolitan I’d been glancing though onto the floor, spoiling a cool exit. Unfortunately, surgery nine is at the end of a long corridor and involves walking past open doors letting out the horrible drilling noise that is enough to make you want to run for it. The door to surgery nine is closed. I knock.

Please come in, come in, come in…….

Inside I am greeted with firm handshake from an Indian looking gentleman. He isn’t wearing a mask and his teeth are unbelievably white. Eventually he lets my hand go.

Good morning Mr Lamport. Ms Kataryna has gone home to work in Poland. My name is Satchim Patel. I, with your excellent approval, will continue to be your dentist from this day.

I can just make out what he is saying, although subtitles would be a help. Eventually he lets go of my hand.

Now Mr Lamport, just a check up today. Any change to medical history since the last visit? No? Excellent, excellent.

And that’s where I came in, except at the end he hands me a leaflet.

You may like to try one of these Mr Lamport, to get to those difficult little places?

It’s all about those bloody electric toothbrushes.

 

 

 

 

Three Almost Men in a Boat

We were different as chalk and two cheeses. Chris was the chalk. A bricklayer, who even at his young age had acquired great skill. With flamboyant arrogance he would pick up a brick, toss it in his hand and with a lightning trowel, double dab, place it along the line with an educated tap, scrape and it was in position for eternity. In the early 1960s extensive building of council estates meant good money was to be earned. In spite of we three being almost the same age, Chris was already driving a green Hillman Super Minx while John Martin and I were wrestling with Latin verbs and eating Mars bars with our third of a pint of milk at grammar school.

I couldn’t possibly be objective in the description of myself back then, save to say I’m a typical Pisces. Dreamer, romantic, introvert or put more succinctly in my case, just plain lazy. John Martin modelled himself on Elvis. He manicured his quiff constantly with a comb, drawn with a flourish from his back jeans pocket. He always managed to get on the school bus in front of me, nab the window seat and now, as we rowed the length of Oulton Broad to the North Bay, one on each oar, he constantly out-pulled me and the boat kept slewing off course to my side.

“For Christ-sakes John, do you have to keep proving a point. Ease off for a couple of strokes so I can catch up.”

Chris sprawled across the stern, gasping on a roll up, flicking the ash over the side and smiling at the competition being played out in front of him.

“Now, now children. Keep the toys in the pram.”

It was his day off and to quote him, doing FA today except driving there and back. That was exactly what he was doing, nothing, although somehow managing to keep a sort of order on the ship.

The boat rammed into the reeds at North Bay.

Mr Collins, the boat owner, told us to bring back Number 6 looking as we found it. No groundbait over the floorboards or seats. Mud weights clean. No fag burns on the woodwork. Four pm, no later. And don’t piss in the bilges. Use the tin. Chris suggested to keep the boat clean we should push the oars into the mire and tie up to them, instead of using the mud weights, which usually came back up with half the riverbed on them slurping all over the floor. The oars would wash clean as we rowed home.

We set up and fished. And fished. The sun beat down without mercy on our shadeless habitat. The fish were having a day off. Chris seemed to find it impossible to have a day off from his building site banter. He told us that with two mates from the site they built a garage for this toff on a Sunday. They started at 6 am and by mid afternoon the three walls were finished. They knocked on the door for the money, agreed as cash in hand. He said he’d give them half as they’d been too quick. They argued, then took the money. While they cleared up the toff came out of the house with his caddie and clubs.

“Just make sure you clear up properly lads. ”

When he’d gone around the corner in his Jag, they took three sledge hammers from the van and knocked down a half of each wall.

We lived on the same street on the council estate. Queens Crescent. The estate was built on land purchased by the council from Oxford university and the streets were all named after the Oxbridge colleges. Chris and myself lived the bottom of the hill in the thick of the estate. John’s house backed onto the first row of the private houses. Our parents got on together, but the Martins projected an air of being a slight cut above the other four. Mary Martin in particular used words we hadn’t heard before, rolled out like fine juicy plums.

Throughout the day holiday cruisers passed us, often with bikini girls on board. Why is it people on boats always wave? Do they feel self conscious under scrutiny as they pass by slowly? Chris would nod back sagely. John Martin would get his comb out and I would return a half hearted slightly embarrassed wave. I noticed if there were no girls on board, the comb would stay in the pocket.

Sometimes a vision comes you can never forget. Chris painted this one. He and his labourer picked up two nymphs at the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth. After a ride on the Big Dipper, the four of them went for another ride in the sand dunes behind it. When they’d finished, the girls pulled up their pants, straightened their skirts and with a ‘see ya around’ were on their way as if nothing had happened. Chris and his mate walked briskly back to the Hillman, where they took a bottle of Dettol from the glove compartment, and each tipped half the bottle over their John Thomas.

We all sat in silence. Chris took a puff on his cigarette and shrugged his shoulders.

“Well you can’t be too careful, can you?”

After a few seconds all three of us were consumed by uncontrollable laughter. Friendship, what a wonderful thing when it sings.

Back in town there were two main hangouts, coincidentally opposite each other on England’s Lane. The Chalet was a coffee bar with private cubicles and floral hanging baskets around the door. This was John Martin’s haunt. Opposite was the Durban, which had a plate glass shop front, usually with a few Nortons and Triumphs parked on the pavement outside. The leather clad bikers sprawled at the Formica tables around the room, such that just six of them seemed to fill it. The juke box played endless Eddie Cochran. Chris and I would make a beeline for the pinball machine and play until Madge the cafe owner called time on us. The object was to get five numbers in a row, easing the silver balls home with calculated nudges, without tilting the machine and forfeiting the game. We shot alternate balls and on just one occasion got the five. The machine went into overdrive clicking up replays and Madge paid us for them before resetting it. She was a generous girl, serving rolls with doorsteps of cheese and coffee that knocked your socks off, but the highlight were her Cokes. She kept the bottles in an ice cream fridge and they froze to a mush popping the caps with the pressure, with a little plug of ice sticking from the neck. There was nothing better on a hot day than coaxing one of these back to life and sipping the just thawed cola. Sometimes one of the bikers would go out the back with Madge for a few minutes. I never thought too much about this, but Chris said she had to make ends meet.

I thought I could do with one those Cokes there and then. Chris checked his watch.

“Last cast chaps, five minutes to packing up.”

He inspected his hook and cast out. I’m sure it was the same maggot he’d been using for the last hour. Most of the others in the tin had made a dubious escape into the bilge water and I couldn’t help wondering what the smell would be like in a couple of days of this heat. John Martin loaded so many of the larvae onto his hook they were wiggling up the line two inches above the hook. He stood up, presumably for a better cast. On the backswing I noticed from the corner of my eye Chris giving a little double thrust of his hips, enough to rock the boat. John Martin dropped his rod and fell backwards, initially saving himself by grabbing the end of the oar. Chris and I moved over to the other side to counterbalance the weight, otherwise we would have capsized. Things thereafter seemed to proceed in a slow, but inevitable fashion. The oar sunk more deeply into the mud. The securing ropes unraveled until John Martin was leaning backwards horizontally like a yachtsman on a trapeze. We could not move to help him or the boat would have lurched over. Finally the oar snapped and John Martin became one with the muddy water and ooze.

As we paddled back, the plan was to quietly tie up and slip away. I don’t know what exactly attracted Mr Collins to the end of his landing stage. He was standing as close as possible to the end with his legs apart and his arms folded. As we approached he became somewhat more animated. Maybe it was the fact we had gone over the hire time, but more likely it was the sight of Number 6 zig zagging down the broad, with one oar being passed through the air from one side to the other. John Martin was snatching the oar from me and muttering about his ruined jeans and lost comb. The stern was awash with mud and water from where he had been hauled back into the boat. Chris sat in the bow humming a hornpipe.

“Hooray and up she rises. Uh-oh lads, there may be trouble ahead.”

 

“What time do you call this? What’s happened to the other oar? Look at the state of my boat. Have you bastards been swimming?”

So many questions. We tied up letting the tirade pass overhead. Eventually Chris appointed himself spokesman as he unloaded the gear.

“The oar broke and he fell in (which was ostensibly true). It must have been rotten.”

“Rotten my arse. That was a new oar. You hooligans have been skylarking. I’m calling the police. You’ll have to pay for it.”

I nudged Chris and nodded towards the mud weights which were sitting pristine, black and shiny in the bow of the boat. We walked toward the Hillman, gathering pace and I noticed in front of me Chris’s shoulders rising and falling sharply. Mr Collin’s rant was becoming fainter.

“I’ve got your number, lad. It’s no laughing matter. And don’t you come back here ever again…..”

We never did. A few weeks later Chris bought his own boat and trailer, just big enough for two. Friendships continued for a year or so, then we went our own ways.

 

Some forty years on, Chris turned up at my father’s funeral looking fit and well and none the worse for laying bricks in all that time. He crushed my hand as I shook his.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said.

He was with Sal, his sister, and John Martin’s mother, Mary, who looked frail but was still sharp in her mind. Mary told me John had moved to the south coast and made a fortune as an estate agent. She hadn’t seen him in years and it was Sal who now cared for her. Sal, the girl next door who I paid no attention to had grown into a beautiful and considerate woman. I felt sorry for Mary, being the last surviving member of the group of parents. How exposed that must have felt. The four of us entered that bubble of reminiscence and I was transported back to the 1960s, so much so that I forgot that this was my father’s wake. I realised I had been laughing and joking with them which must have seemed worse than inappropriate to the rest of the gathering.

I made no arrangements to meet with Chris again. It was a moment in time not to be repeated, as was that boat trip at Oulton Broad. We were three almost men in a boat, now on the threshold of old age. I know my father would not have minded our get together at his funeral. On the way home, I found myself humming his favourite song, played at the cremation, “there may be trouble ahead, let’s face the music and dance.” God rest his soul.

And God bless all friendships, be they old or new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bluebells

From a distant wood, a boy,
I gathered bluebells by the armful.
They never made it home.
In sadness wilted, long before,
Their sorrow, hidden in a hedgerow.
And now it is too late,
To tell of love and thank you,
Un-wilting sorrows
Carried by the armful,
I pray my mother
Guessed those feelings,
Hidden in a hedgerow.

Alley Cricket

Thompson came to the crease,
with trusty plank in hand,
tapping nervously at the crack in concrete.
Smith bowled, right arm over dustbin,
the delivery disguised in dim street light.
Thompson played defensively,
fending the cobble from the back door.
He knew time was running short, runs were needed, but
Smith’s guile in bowling from the darkness
pinned him back,
time and time again,
thwarting a shot of perfect timing.

Out of the night a loose ball pitched inside the gutter.
It reared and tempted Thompson to the drive.
The resounding crack of flint on pine
sent fractured missiles flying through extra cover,
the neighbour’s greenhouse.

Rows of bedroom windows lit in celebration, and unusually,
both bowler and the batsman
took the run
beyond the long on boundary.
An observer in his lofty commentary position,
high above the broken panes,
shouted that ultimate of accolades:

Come-here-you-fuckers. I-know-who-you-are!

But Smith and Thompson were running out of earshot.
Laughing, running carefree.
Running through the summer darkness,
away from last of schooldays
Friends charging to uncertainty,
knowing who they are,
not knowing who they are to be.

 

Dedicated to two of my best friends at school and after, Glynn Ernest Thompson (artist and lecturer) and Kenneth Ian Smith (personnel director). Those were the days my friend.

Forty years

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How has it been, these forty years?

A long time since swaggering of youth
And your magic eyes, smiling in a crowd.
We fell like all the others of our time
And our places there were taken
By the newcomers.

And forty years where have they gone?
Five, fighting for a home
Twenty, raising kids
Ten, paying off the debts
And five now on our own.

Forty seems like nothing
Started by that glance
Yet I wish it was a record,
That we could play again,
Again those tracks etched of our lives,
And never reach the end.