Friday, 28 February 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: Slip-sliding away

There's a proud feline tradition of skating
- even when forced to wear wheels!
Over the past couple of weeks, the humans seem to have become captivated by the sight of tiny people in the box with the moving pictures cavorting about on lots of white stuff whilst wearing a series of increasingly odd-looking outfits that hug every lump and bump of their physique.

In particular, DanglyMan’s mother (she of the soft voice, but hard hand when I deliver an affectionate nip) seemed especially fond of watching couples with knives trapped to their feet and wiggling about together in a huge room paved with ice.

Sometimes I despair at how unobservant you humans are. There she is, sitting on the guest spot on the sofa (the one I’m turfed out of the minute anyone comes to visit), waxing lyrical about some pair from unknown places like Russia, or China, as they slip and slide about the screen.

And yet, when I put on my own display of elegant sliding choreography - live in their living, up-close and in person - without the benefit of technical embellishment in the form of skates, all they do is yowl “Scram, cat!” and poke me with the wet thing on a stick they’re wiping the floor with.

Honestly, I’m surrounded by Philistines! (Whatever a Philistine is, when it’s at home).

This morning, however, was different. DanglyMan had just finished with the wet thing on a stick and had settled down next to Big Red as she tapped away incessantly at the black box on the table. Seeing as he looked loathe to get up again, I decided to take advantage of the freshly wet floor to treat them to a display of virtuoso cat-skating with nothing but the claws nature gave me for traction and control.

Now, I’m sure you know that I am no Show Off by nature, but I do take a pride in my performance. So, when I saw that – for once! – I had the undivided attention of my humans, it behooved me to give them a show to remember.

Taking a long run-up from the corridor, I flew onto the kitchen rink to slide gracefully to the far corner, where I expertly executed a ‘pas de chat’ and mid-air twist. On landing, I elegantly transitioned to a four-legged standing split, before introducing a whimsical ‘running to stand still’ skit (remembering one of the Golden Rules of Showbiz – Make ‘em laugh!) and launching myself into a mid-floor display of standing jumps.

It’s bloody hard work, I can tell you. But I’m a true pro and always remember that I have to maintain the illusion that my performance is as natural and effortless as licking my backside, so the entire performance was delivered with pricked ears, wide eyes and a manic grin like the ones I’ve seen on the faces of the human skaters charging round the box with the moving pictures.

My routine came to a rousing end with my ‘piéce de resistance’ – a dizzying, high speed spin mid-floor, a triple somersault vault and my finishing leap…. face-first into the wall (which I course was my intention).

It had been the performance of my lifetime, given as a special gala display for the humans. And yet, as I sat there panting lightly waiting for their applause and the judges’ result…   they just went back to whatever nonsense they’d been up to before.

I looked in disbelief from Big Red to DanglyMan, half expecting them to laugh and say “Fooled you!” before holding up an array of perfect ten scorecards.

But no. Nothing. Red went back to her infernal tap-tappity-tapping and Dangly got up to light yet another of his smokey, stinky rolls of paper.

They say that it is the fate of every great artist to go unrecognised in his lifetime. So, I swallowed my pride and skulked off to do something unthinkable to Red’s dressing gown where she’s foolishly left it on the bedroom floor (serves her right, the slattern!).

But not before giving one last, slipping slide and wiggle as I turned my back on my ungrateful audience.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Times, they are a-changin'

Manual typewriters, scratches of shorthand in a notebook, reams of copy paper and bakelite 'phones used to  be the tools of the trade in the news room.

[A blast from the past (blog)]
Not so very long ago, if you saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves there was a good chance that you were looking at the local loony. These days, they are more likely to be chatting away on their mobile phone.

In the relatively short space of time since I’ve been a working bod many things have changed almost beyond recognition.

When I started out as a trainee reporter on a South London local newspaper in the early-mid 1980s, I had to bash out my copy on an antique manual typewriter and the paper was still printed using hot metal technology.

Now, I won’t deny that I was glad to see my old typewriter go the way of the dodo and be replaced by the far more forgiving (and correctable) computer keyboard and screen, but there was a strange glamour to the old printing process that I still miss.

Our news room was above the print floor and there was an indefinable thrill in watching the chief sub and printer working on the “stone” that would become the plate for each page. Next would come the unmistakable rumble as the massive presses started up for the Thursday afternoon print-run, accompanied by the distinctive smell of hot metal and printing ink.

Once the presses were running, we in the news room would heave a sigh of relief safe in the knowledge that another edition of Croydon’s finest had been “put to bed”, submit our expense slips and head for the pub. Of course there was always the chance of something big happening and us having to swing into action. But the cry of “stop the presses!” was rarely heard (mainly due to the huge cost of stopping and starting the machines once they were on a roll).

The news rooms of today are very different to the one I walked into at the tender age of 18. Then, they were chaotic, cluttered, smoke-filled dens filled with scruffy excitable individuals who were deceptively organised (they had to be to create order out of that chaos). Desks were littered with copy slips, expense claims forms, old notes slammed onto “spikes”, forgotten coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Sounds like hell, but I loved it.

Now, news rooms tend to be quiet, clinical, air-conditioned havens peopled by clean-living, non-smoking (either by choice or enforcement) individuals who have probably never seen a manual typewriter. And the sounds to break that ordered atmosphere are the gentle clicking of computer keyboards and the occasional chirrup of a mobile phone.

Thanks to the Internet, news is now an instantaneous business, so the focus of a weekly local rag has changed too. It’s not so much a matter now of getting the news to your readers, but offering the best promotions, inviting “citizen journalists” to contribute to your column inches (filling space for free and allowing them to grind their own particular axes, often at the cost of impartiality and decent writing) and attracting the most profitable advertising.

I am not going to pretend that I don’t get nostalgic for the “old days” where the glamour of organised chaos, combined with uncompromising news editors who insisted on the best possible quality of reporting and writing, produced something we were satisfied with every week – and occasionally something we were genuinely proud of.

However, times are a-changin’, as they must, and in many ways things are better now. We all have access to multiple sources of information, instantly, at the touch of a button. And if we are so inclined, we have the ammunition to judge and reach our own conclusions based on a variety of sources.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water.

The renegade tradition personified by the newspaper hacks that populated news rooms for much of the 20th century still has valuable lessons to teach us. That we should never simply swallow everything we are told. That we should not be overawed by authority. That we should always ask the key questions – what, when, how, where, and (most of all) why – and insist on straight answers. That it’s OK to break the mould and take a sideways look at things. That it's right to be outraged by injustice and to believe that things can be changed.

Looking even further back, the roots of that tradition go back to social observers and would-be reformers like Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.
Isn’t that a tradition worth keeping up? 

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: The Curious Incident of the Cat in the Night

(with apologies to Mark Haddon)
Some of you probably know that night-time is the natural habitat of us felines. Unfortunately for those of us held in house arrest by you humans, you are quite the opposite - so we have to adapt to your routine to make you feel loved (and in order to get the food, attention and adoration that we so richly deserve)

What you probably DON’T know  is that when you lot have finally given into your human natures  and succumbed to sleep (even the likes of DanglyMan who seems to be doing his best to evolve into some kind of a nocturnal animal), THAT’s when we come into our own.

You might think that once you’re snoring softly – or not so softly – beneath the covers, we stay curled up at your feet where you’ll find us when the birds start squawking their dawn chorus outside the window as the sun comes up.

Think again. Night-time is my time.

It’s when I finally have the chance to conduct a proper patrol of our shared habitat, unencumbered by shouts of “Get down!”, or endless maulings and fussing interrupting my inspection and musings on The Meaning of Life.  

Timing is everything. My humans don’t make that easy. Big Red and NoisyKid aren’t too bad, heading to their beds after three or four hours or so staring at the box with the moving pictures. But for some reason, they get unaccountably annoyed when I follow them to give them a personal performance of my latest impressive dance routines on their beds once they’re tucked up under the covers.

Some promise of salvation lays with DanglyMan, who I can pretty much guarantee will be around for a couple more hours after the others have gone to sleep (lightweights!). It’s our chance for some serious man-to-man time when I can share my pearls of wisdom with him, in between performing my balletic moves round the lounge and delivering therapeutic massages on his belly. But eventually, even he surrenders to the night and heads for his bed. I go with him. After all, I wouldn’t want him to feel unloved, would I?

Only once he is purring like a diesel engine with his mouth wide open (what manners!) and his arms flung across Big Red snoozing shoulders am I truly free.

Then, at last, it’s time for my true nature to come to the fore. A time when there is nothing to do except to wait and to hunt. There’s a shortage of prey in my prison but a cat has to make the most of what he has to paw, doesn’t he? Where my nature drives me to track down voles, moles and hedgehogs (whatever they are), I have to hone my hunting skills on socks, stray scraps of paper, dust bunnies (or which there are far more round here than there should be - subtle hint to Red there) and stray insects. 

It’s not ideal but what can I do? Instinct drives me, even when I don’t know why I’m running down the hallway with what the thing Big Red calls ‘Swiffer’ (but I call ‘Darling’) to hide out and hug in my special hidey-hole.

I find people confusing. Some of you humans think God has put you lot on earth because you’re the best animals. Of course, we all know you’re not (I don’t think I need to state the obvious here, do I?). Human beings are just an animal that will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and more cat-like. Then maybe human beings will be put in zoos or have to tolerate being fussed and patronised like pets just to get their basic sustenance.

Dogs are different and, to be fair, I can see why so many humans prefer them. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Cats are more interesting – and that probably is too much for some of your number to deal with.

Being clever is when you look at how things are and use the evidence to work out a new way of getting what you need. Like me letting my humans believe that I’m so devoted to them that I’ll lay down with them and spent the whole night by their sides.

It’s my way of making them feel special. It’s not a lie. A lie is when you say something happened which didn't happen. You lot don’t understand anything I say to you, despite your constant yapping at each other and in my direction, so how could I lie to you? I just let you believe what suits me. 

For example, this morning when Big Red opened her eyes, there I was (literally in her face) making sure the first thing she saw was a thing of beauty, thus setting her up for a good day. She thought I’d been keeping her company all night. I hadn’t, but surely it’s not a lie to let her believe what she wants, is it? And if that beautiful start to her day makes sure the first thing she does is to fill my bowl with some yummy crunchies, well that’s a result for everyone, isn’t it?

So, next time you glare at me as I curl up like the world’s most gorgeous throw pillow on the sofa while the sun is high in the sky, stop and think before you call me lazy. I’m not idle, I’m just gathering my strength for the rigours of the night to come.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Smells like Greek spirit

Take a walk pretty much anywhere in Greece tonight and you won’t be able to miss it.

There’s something in the air.
Something unmistakable assaulting your nasal passages (unless the latest flu bug to do the rounds has got there first).
It’s the aroma of burning coals and charred flesh.

But don’t worry, it’s not the scent of barricades burning, rubbish bins ablaze or the eruption of new riots. Though unrest and anger has become all too familiar in the past few years, today  is ‘Tsiknopempti’ – a day traditionally marked by the consumption of mountains of meat, ahead of the 40-day Lenten Fast when observant Orthodox Greeks are forbidden from eating any meat, fish or dairy products (though oddly, seafood and fish roe are permitted).

Those who abstain for the full 40 days are in the minority these days – but that certainly can’t be said for the Meat Fest that comes before it. Almost without exception and in spite of ever tightening purse strings in almost every household in the land, everyone rushes to prepare and enjoy their favorite meat dishes, with a strong emphasis on grilled cuts. The result is an unmistakable cloud of flesh-scented smoke hanging over each neighbourhood like a layer of fog.

In true Greek spirit, the key is excess. To quote my Mother-in-law, “If there’s not too much, it’s not enough”. And although many Greeks have tempered that philosophy in their everyday lives recently, out of harsh economic necessity rather than choice, when it comes to special food for special days, excess is still the key to success.

You won’t find any half-hearted examples a couple of bangers and a few frozen beefburgers thrown on the grill here. Oh no. It’s gotta be a rich selection of choice cuts, including spare ribs, skewered cubes of flesh, assorted offal, homemade burgers, village-style spiced sausages the size of baby pythons, massive oozing steaks, and more. There may be some chips to accompany the Meat Fest, and maybe a lonely looking salad lurking at the corner of the table – but don’t count on it.

If it were possible to measure the communal cholesterol count and blood pressure of the population of Greece on the day after Tsiknopemtpi, you’d have the World Health Organisation handing out emergency supplies of statins and blood thinners to every man, woman and child in the country. As it is, the national consumption of antacids usually spikes at this time of the year, just as it does at Easter.

So what, you may ask, is it like for the a lonely herbivore like me in Greece on this "Feast of the Carnivores"?

For some time now, I have avoided meat. Not for any pressing moral, religious or health reasons – I just felt I didn’t need it much (proven by still my healthily high haemoglobin), I don’t crave it and I'm more than happy with veggy, fishy and (especially) cheesy alternatives. Though on the seriously soft end of the veggy spectrum (actually a pescatarian if you want to get technical), I am considered something of a weirdo here, despite the fact that classic Greek cookery offers a veritable cornucopia of meat-free delights.

You may recall the scene from ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ where a concerned (horrified?) aunt asks “He don’t eat no meat?” with an arch of her perfectly plucked eyebrow, followed by a sigh of compromise followed by “No problem, I make lamb”. Believe me folks, that was no poetic license. I’ve lived it first hand.

Considering that is the day to day reality, you can imagine the response on this day of meat, meat and more meat when I try to politely decline. That’s usually countered with protests and assurance that the slab of glistening grilled flesh dripping with tempting juices and a squeeze of lemon isn’t fattening, forcing me to explain that actually I don’t eat meat. The reaction – at least on days when my ego is feeling robust – is hilarious: usually a look of surprise, bemusement and the question, spoken or simply flashing in their eyes, “How can you be a vegetarian when you’re SO…. big?”. (The answer, for the record, is “Easy as pie - literally”.)

In truth, I have no problem with Greece’s meat-loving culture. It’s part of what gives the place and its people the full-blooded personality that first drew me here all those years ago. My husband and son eat meat, and I’m fine with that. I know I’m the oddity (so what else is new?) and that’s also OK, but there are times when I feel like more of an outsider than ET desperately trying to find a call box to ‘Phone home’.

But, on the plus side, once I’ve managed to extricate myself from invitations to tables groaning with stuff I don’t eat where I’ll watch the carnivores chewing away as I nibble on a chip, I know that when I head for the gym tonight, instead of waiting in line with all the other sweaty bods at the treadmill, I’ll probably have the place to myself.

And tomorrow morning, I may be one of the few not reaching for the Rennies.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Coming down

“That’s the fourth time this week,” she sighed and drained the last of the tea from her mug. Becky turned from the window overlooking the back gardens of the Regency terrace, and padded across the wooden floor to the corner kitchenette.

Scrubbing the last trace of tannin from the dainty porcelain, she fretted about the young woman she’d watched letting herself into next door’s shed. The house had been empty for years. Who was she? What did she want?

She looked harmless enough, certainly no threat to the sanctity of Becky’s citadel. No shouts in the night or muddy footprints had betrayed the presence of anyone but the supermarket man who brought her weekly order - that nice chap trained to find the key in its hiding place and remove his shoes before coming upstairs to her flat.

So long as that skinny scrap kept her distance, she wasn’t Becky’s problem. And from the way she moved, the girl barely had the energy to make her nest for the night, let alone sprint the stairs and disrupt the familiar security of her third floor world. Who was she to make waves for a waif who’d otherwise spend the night on the street – or worse? 
Anyway, that would mean dealing with things. Out there.

She shuddered.

“Someone walked over your grave” her mother would have said. She wondered how Mummy had been so glib despite years staring her own mortality in the face from her twisted, tortured body before succumbing to ‘flu 25 years ago.

A tick of the clock on the mantelpiece brought her back. 2 o’clock. In just three minutes, she would turn on Radio 4 to catch up with antics in Ambridge.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Doesn’t she EVER go out?” wondered Stella as she stared up from her bed of musty potato sacks at the woman on the third floor. “Who are you, lady? Don’t you have any friends? Not even a cat?”

It was a week since she’d escaped the mean streets, and the meaner creatures that prowled them. And for a week, she had watched the woman stand and stare out the window five times a day. Every day. Regular as clockwork. If Stella had a watch, she could have set it by the old biddy.

Finding this shed had been a stroke of luck. Luckier still, no junkies, lost souls or assorted illegals had discovered the empty house.

Some might have put her in the same category. She hadn’t been born here, after all. Not that she could remember anything before arriving from Bosnia in 1997 as a mute, wide-eyed five-year-old clutching her shell-shocked mother’s hand. Mama had insisted they only spoke English. Soon she’d forgotten what little of her native language had had the chance to develop before hell spewed forth in their village, taking the men away and rounding up the women in the place called ‘Karaman’s House’. No words remained, not even her original name, just a series of impressions of rough men and her mother stroking her hair before they dragged her to the closed room at the end of the corridor.

She hadn’t seen Mama for years. Probably now the same age as the woman at the window, in Stella’s mind she remained the same. Tired grey eyes and caramel-coloured hair caught in an elastic band at the nape of her neck. That was where the resemblance ended. Mama was always at the hub of whatever was going on. Never a dull moment. Enough to make Stella crave a lifetime of dull moments.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

An ecstasy of banging broke the night quiet into a millon pieces. Someone was hammering at the front door and howling wordlessly from the street below.

Becky stared wildly into the black beneath her quilt, curling tighter into a comma and hugging her knees to her chest.

“Go away, go away, go away….” she swept the mantra over her like a security blanket, willing the repetition to cast the evil out.

The bangs ended abruptly. A hiccough and a sharp intake of breath, then chaotic footsteps beating a hurried retreat. Empties rattled in a recycling bin as a startled cat scurried out of the way.  A distant ambulance siren screamed a whoop of fear on its way to hospital.

Hospital. All white walls, endless corridors, and antiseptic and anxiety-scented air. Worried eyes seeking good news after her mother had been taken in for the very last time. The answer, an unspoken apology.

And then, nine months later, guilty secrets misting her mind as she discharged herself leaving the ward sister with a fake name and a helpless bundle conceived in a fumbled sorrow- and gin-soaked one night stand after Mummy’s rain-washed funeral. Weak from the ordeal her mind denied, but her body had been powerless to stall, she had stumbled through the 3am streets to fumble for the key beneath the garden gnome and tumble through the door like a delivery of junk mail. After a numb hour under the scorching shower stream, she took to her bed for a week. And so started her self-imposed life sentence.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The quiet of the shed was enough. She could scrounge or scavenge enough to eat most days, and did a decent job getting clean in public toilets. But the street never gave her freedom to drop her guard and breathe easy without wondering if the next person to pass would make her their victim. She was no-one’s victim - that’s how she had survived so far. But she was tired. So very tired.

Her senses spiked as someone beat on a door somewhere along the street, then she pulled the hessian sack over her face, safe in the knowledge that no-one knew she was curled up among the earth-encrusted spades and packets of long-dormant seeds. Relaxed, she slept. Deeply, strongly, like the dead.

She didn’t hear the sniggers and scrapes as a firework was stuffed between the shed’s slats. Nor did she smell the sting of gunpowder as the fuse was lit. Only when it exploded, bursting through her dreams like the bombs that had rained down on grandma’s house did she come screaming back. Animal instinct took over. She ran.

The blaze behind her made the dark night unseeable. She slipped, falling through a wall of unkempt conifers to the garden next door.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sleep fled as the wailing sirens and blue flashes invaded the dark like a thrash metal vocal at a string quartet recital.

“No, no, no” Becky moaned. This could ruin everything, rob her of the familiarity shielding her from the world outside and her demons lurking downstairs. She dived beneath the covers.

As dawn broke, she peered out at a pile of charred timbers arranged around discarded garden tools like a sad Stonehenge. The blaze hadn’t spread. Her little world hadn’t been violated. Nothing had changed. She was sa…..  

Wait! Something HAD changed. At the bottom of her garden a small figure was balled up against the fence, rocking rhythmically in the drizzle.

Something in that cowering foetal coil woke an ache deep inside Becky. Someone needed to be held, comforted. To be told the monster had gone. Someone needed her arms around them.

The walls swam as she opened the door from her flat. The ceiling crawled with unknown horrors as the staircase leading down stretched out before her. Becky fought the urge to vomit and stifled a scream that threatened to drag her into oblivion. She grasped the handrail and groaned as she took the first shuddering step.

It took an hour to reach the landing, and another for the next two flights, interspersed with juddering jolts of breath and dry heaves. Ahead lay the back door, key in the lock. The final barrier between her and the world she had been hiding from for so long.

Almost catatonic with terror, she reached forward, turned the key, unbolted the latch and opened the door.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Clicks and a tortured creak broke the quiet damp as the door opened. Stella looked up, expecting gruff men in uniform, crazies wanting to touch her or vampires wanting to suck the last drop of sanity from her fractured psyche.

Instead, she saw a small, shaky figure peering out. A woman with tired grey eyes and caramel-coloured hair caught in an elastic band at the nape of her neck.

She stretched out her hand. “Mama?”

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: Cleanliness is next to cattiness

I’m afraid there’s no gentle way of saying this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: Humans stink!

Please don’t be offended. I say it with love, and out of concern for your poor disadvantaged species.

As you know, I’m a true anthropo-phile and a keen student of human behavior. So I understand, I really do. It’s not your fault. I realise that you’re probably blissfully unaware of how much you honk, seeing as how your sense of smell is approximately 1/14th of mine.

You only use have one organ with which to smell, so heaven help you when it’s suffering from an attack of the sniffles. Unlike my kind. The superior design of the feline olfactory system means that we don’t just rely on our noses to get a whiff of the world around us, but we also have an extra special smelling organ in our mouths.
(Now you know, DanglyMan. When I sit there looking at you with my mouth open, I’m not smiling – I’m trying to get a handle on way you smell.)

Every one of you has a different scent, and if that wasn’t enough, it changes - ALL THE TIME.

First thing in the morning is pretty dire – sweaty sheets, nighttime farts trapped under the duvet, morning breath and the all-over aroma of ‘don’t wanna get up’. That’s why we come and pat your face in a gently barbed wake-up call – to make you get up and escape the miasma that clings to you of an a.m.

That, and the fact we NEED to visit the sand box on the balcony and get fed.

My front row seat for the human rain dance show.
That morning honk usually follows you around until you visit the mysterious (and endlessly fascinating) Chamber of The Waters, where you sit on the porcelain throne a while, scrub and swill out your mouths, and then stand under a shower of rain for ten minutes. Perversely, in the process you insist in applying a bewildering array of unctions, lotions, potions and creams that simply add more layers of smell to what’s already there. I know, I’ve observed my humans from the side of the bath on many occasions.

Personally, I can see what all this achieves that couldn’t be done without a nice relaxing morning spent preening yourself with your tongue. But then I suppose you lot are far too busy constantly wagging your tongues with your endless chatter to use them for a more useful purpose.

Poor things, you don’t have the benefit of a pelt to cover your pasty, puffy parts like us, so you have a huge selection of rags that you wrap yourselves up in. 

Behind the scenes at cat TV
But what it took me a while to understand is that not only do you lot change them – ALL the flippin’ time – but you try to rinse of your stench of them (perhaps you DO know that you stink, after all?) by bunging them in what I had previously thought was cat TV. 

You know, that round-windowed, big white box that shows a soothing circular motion of suds every time it is switched on. It’s only recently, through my careful study of Big Red, that I made the connection between her emptying the bin of especially-stinky rags and the box being put to work that I realised what you use it for.

And as for the things you put in your mouths yourself with, and their inevitable impact on the household aroma?

Who NEEDS onions in their life?
Well, let’s just say:
a) are you mad?
b) let’s just not talk about it.
(I mean, w
ho NEEDS onions, or burning shredded leaves, in their life, really?)

So, my dear smelly bipeds, have pity on your poor house cat. By no choice of his own, he's an aristocat imprisoned in a bemusing kaleidoscope of scents that send his nose twitching and can even make him from his essential slumber.

Little wonder that we need to catch up on cat naps throughout the day.

Speaking of which….   (stretch, yawn, snap)….  I think it’s time to a little lie-down and some serious preening.
Watch carefully, humans, you might just learn something.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Bad romance

Picture the scene: A 40-something wife and mother waits patiently for hubby to come home bearing gifts and gushing expressions of undying love. She'd half-expected an extravagant floral display to be delivered to her workplace, for all her colleagues to admire, but when it never materialised she reckoned he was saving his romance for later in the day. 
Money’s tight, and she’s told him she doesn’t expect anything, really.... but the Valentine’s hype has sown a seed of hope of a grand gesture from her man of more than 20 years. 
He eventually gets home, tired and apologetic, at 9pm and hands her a bunch of daffodils with a peck on the lips and a murmured “Love you, darling”. She smiles, blinks back the tears, swallows past the lump in her throat and goes back to the ironing.

In another front room, a 17-year-old girl bawls into the sofa cushions, convinced that she is unloved and unlovable because her boyfriend of two months failed to step up to the romantic plate with highly public declarations of undying love and huge fluffy toys presented in front of admiring schoolmates.
And no, the anonymous card she knows her dad sent her doesn’t make her feel any better. He’s her father – of course HE loves her.

Elsewhere, a newly single lady browses through the Facebook album chronicling her time with her most recent ex up until the time they broke up.
Everywhere she looks, loved-up couples are drooling over each other in a pre-prescribed obligatory gloop-fest, as she looks bleakly into a future she’s convinced she will spend alone and unwanted.

All three are miserable – and they really have no reason to be.
Mrs Wife and Mother could be enjoying an evening of comfortable companionship with the man who knows her as well as she knows herself. The forlorn teen should be celebrating the very fact that she’s young, probably in the best shape she’ll ever be in and utterly unencumbered by the worries and responsibilities of real life. And our sad singleton should be out with her best buddies reveling in the fact that she is free of obligations at a time in history when it’s OK for a woman to have a good time without having her reputation sullied by small minds waiting to judge her.

Instead, they’re sad, disappointed and feeling slightly discarded. And that is the direct result of the machinations of a chubby winged cherub who should be swatted like a pesky fly the minute he flies in through the open window.

I’m willing to bet that all three would be perfectly content if it weren’t for that wretched little Cupid, his arrows and all the hype and hysteria surrounding St Valentine’s Day that raises the expectations of women and girls (and let’s face it, SVD is sold exclusively as a day on which fellas have to shell out for flowers, chocs, undies or jewellery for their ladies – never the other way around).

I know. I’ve been there. In all three scenarios. But finally, as I hurtle through my fiftieth year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is enough heartache in the world. I don't need to create more by building up expectations for something out of this world when the real test of true love is not a pink fluffy heart, or a cartoon cat on a card saying “To my PURRRRfect girlfriend”Love and romance cannot be turned on and off like a light, depending on the day of the year. It’s supposed to be spontaneous, so isn’t it just a little bit daft to raise our hopes to stratospheric levels, whilst knowing that we will most likely be disappointed?

My inner cynic even suspects that it may all a cheap pay-off to stop us womenfolk complaining, getting all ‘feministic’ or – heaven forfend! – ceasing to run around like skivvies tending to our Lords and Masters for the remaining 364 days of the year. After all, we get spoiled rotten on St Valentine’s Day, don’t we? Surely, we can’t complain about inequality in our relationships when we are showered with romantic gifts on some arbitrary day mid-way between New Year and the First Day of Spring – or can we?   

Don’t get me wrong. Please don’t dismiss me as a bolshy, dungaree-wearing, bra-burning (you’ve got to be kidding, right?)  Killjoy or the Grinch that strangled romance.

I am – in fact - a diehard romantic. I love the love poems of Roger McGough, still get a lump in my throat watching “Love, Actually” and have even been moved to tears by the unexpected arrival in the office of a personally prepared fruit salad from my Significant Other on a day when there’s more work to be done than time to breathe (let alone eat).

That is exactly why I get so frustrated by the mass-produced, copy/paste tat that couples are expected to indulge in on a specific day in February, and that we’re all supposed to get gooey-eyed about.

Honestly, I would quite happily turn Cupid's own arrows on the fat little fart and keep shooting til he stops flapping and bleeds pretty pink all over the floor. 

Surely, opening the book you’re reading as you board your flight for a business trip to find an unexpected handwritten note from your beau saying “I miss your smile when you’re not here” is far more romantic that a cheap Care Bear with a tacky “Be my Valentine!” stitched into its chest, brought in a panic from the service station as the Ovver Arf tops up his petrol and grabs an emergency bunch of sorry-looking tulips?

I know I’ve probably shot myself in the foot here.
My Significant Other may take this as my permission to never make another romantic gesture for the rest of our lives. If he does, so be it. I know he loves me just as he knows I love him. If I know he’s going to continue to be there with me, propping me up when the going gets tough and letting me prop him up when it all gets too much, I can do without the tacky red roses thank you very much.

But a nice bottle of cheeky red, and no housework waiting for me when I get home from work this Friday, THAT would be the kind of romance I could rock.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Aloysius Lark hits the street (or "The Case of the Missing Madrigal")

“Up the stairs, first on the left” said the helpful stranger with the face of a Persian prince and the voice of a Cockney barrel boy. The carefully constructed blonde in Prada heels smiled thanks and sashayed up the narrow staircase, fully aware of the impact on those watching.

In the gloom behind unwashed windows obscured by towers of box files, an equally unwashed man took a furtive swig from the coke bottle in the nearest one and summoned his best Sussex Downs accent to bid the shadow at the door enter. 

In walked a vision of statuesque but studied femininity. Arched brows, a slash of red lipstick, eyes that kept you guessing - and the merest hint of an Adam’s apple.

(‘When’s a dame not a dame?’ the PI thought in his best Raymond Chandler inner narrative.)

“Aloysius Lark at your service, dear lady. You can call me Al. How may I help you?”

“I’ve come up from Brighton,” came the husky reply.


“My name’s Bambi Fancipants and I manage The Wayward Strumpets drag and burlesque troupe. Maybe you know them?”

The PI grunted and shifted uncomfortably is his swivel seat.

The cool blonde’s composure suddenly melted as she gushed: “Help me, Mr Lark. You’re my only hope! Madrigal’s being held to ransom.”

Madrigal was her ancient one-eyed tomcat. Sounded like a thoroughly vile creature to Lark, but Fancipants seemed distraught at the thought of anything hurting a hair on his scabby tabby head. Days after Madrigal stopped turning up at her seafront villa for his morning kedgeree, she’d received a ransom note from Hamish McFarb, her silent partner in the Wayward Strumpets business and owner of Bundlewood Fun Fur Factory. His demand? Complete control of the Strumpets’ assets – or the cat would become mittens.

“I’m a wealthy woman and there’s nothing I won’t do to have Madrigal safely back where he belongs – except surrender the Strumpets to that beast McFarb! He’s gone to ground and I need someone local to ferret the weasel out."

She paused, before continuing coyly: "And let’s face it, no-one’s going to believe I’m a simple check-out girl at the Tesco superstore, are they?”

After giving Lark her details, a description of the mangy Madrigal and the last known whereabouts of McFarb, Fancipants turned on her exquisite heels and left, leaving the PI intrigued, but faintly miffed.

Final demands spilling onto the floor witnessed the fact that he needed the cash. But this was no run-of-the-mill ‘Toy Boy does a runner’ or ‘Mrs Goggins loses her dentures’ case. It would take real leg work – and that meant he’d have to leave his second-storey office, venture downstairs and hit the mean streets of Sussex.

First, though, there was no harm in a little Googling to gird his loins for the task ahead. Nothing could have prepared him for what the results revealed…

          The Sussex Sentinel – 27 July 2009:

Freak ice boulder kills movie star and spinster

Hollywood and a Sussex village are reeling after a freak accident claimed the lives of one of Tinsel Town’s hottest properties and the local librarian.

Rick Rivers and Bambi Fancipants died instantly when a 500lb block of ice and frozen waste plummeted onto the stage at the Holthorne-by-Sea fete, where Rivers was presenting prizes in the cooking competition. Investigators believe it had formed as a result of a faulty valve on the toilet of a plane that took off from Gatwick Airport 20 minutes earlier. The frozen sphere is thought to have fallen off just before the aircraft crossed the English coast.

Rivers is best remembered for his impromptu performance of “The Lumberjack Song” when accepting the Oscar for his supporting role in “Mounting Miss Maisy” this year. Born Dickie Pond in Holthorne-on-Sea, he had returned to the village to conduct research for a documentary about his rise to fame – and to open the annual fete.

His agent Barbra Heinschleck said: “Since Rick arrived in LA, he had turned our world upside-down with his cute English accent and penchant for playing bad guys. The tragedy is that he was poised for greatness – both professionally and personally. Not only had he been on the verge of signing for a major new movie deal, we were about to announce our engagement.”

From Holthorne-by-Sea the Rev. Obidiah Digby, vicar of parish church St. Mary’s-On-The-Side, said the community was struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

“Naturally, we’re deeply saddened by the death of little Dickie Pond – I mean, Mr. Rivers,” he said. “But the greatest blow is the loss of Miss Fancipants - she represented everything great about rural English life. The very soul of discretion, she was always eager to serve in any way she could.”

Neither Rivers nor Fancipants left any family. However, a Last Will and Testament found in the spinster’s cottage bequeaths her collection of Anne Summers memorabilia to the Brighton Home for Wayward Strumpets and expressed the desire that her cottage be converted into a new 20th Century Erotica wing of the county library.

Well! The dame in his office a while ago sure hadn’t seemed dead, but it seems she’d wanted it to look that way five years ago.

Al couldn’t help thinking that a simple name change might have made the ruse rather more effective.

He sighed heavily, laced up his boots and lumbered down the dingy staircase to street level. That’s where he had to be to track down the fiendish McFarb – he was sure his contacts wouldn’t let him down.

He was wrong. 

Neither the knots of teenage gangstas defacing the town’s walls, the friendly landlords, the not-so-friendly betting shop managers, or the philosopher tramp who held court in the bandstand knew a thing. Or if they did, they weren’t talking. 

He even approached the sweet-faced lady in a pink hijab greeting indifferent Waitrose shoppers with a hopeful smile and “Wiggy Shoe?” as she tried to sell them copies of ‘The Big Issue’. Nothing.

Then, inspiration stuck. He shuffled into the saloon bar of ‘The Poisoned Pen’ where he found old Harry, business correspondent of the local rag, propping up the bar like one of the historic pub’s ancient beams.

“McFarb, old chap?” chirruped the hack after Lark told him who he was trying to find. “Piece of cake! I was at a junket at his place just last week. Launched a new line of pet warmers - dreadful idea. Probably make him a fortune. Quite an arse really, but the man knows his single malt.”

In vino veritas, indeed...

...Two hours later, buoyed with renewed hope and a skinful of Dewars, Lark hailed a taxi and headed for Clayfield Flats, the not-so-secret hide-out of the plush goods magnate.

An eerie silence descended over the damp landscape as the cab sped away and the PI started tramping up the muddy private lane towards the sprawling mock-Tudor monstrosity. Rooks cawed a creaky welcome and something rustled in the hedgerow.

The house seemed deserted. No hum of TV or radio betrayed a presence within, nor did any lights brighten the inner gloom. But a sound from the rear alerted Lark’s attention. An insistent, mechanical tak, tak, tak, tak accompanied by a scent of scorched metal that grew stronger as he skirted the sodden lawn and headed for the back door. Unlocked, it opened easily to reveal an artfully reconstructed ‘olde worlde’ kitchen packed with 21st century stainless steel and halogen hobs. An old-fashioned kettle was rocking on the hotplate as the heat warped its faux copper base.

A flight of worn steps led down to the basement scullery, from where what sounded like a miniature pneumatic drill could be heard. Lark descended the stairs and peered into the darkness at the bottom. The steady, defiant gaze of a single gold-green eye staring out of the face of the biggest cat he’d ever seen floated out to greet him.

Of course. The famous Madrigal.

“Well, that was easier than I expected,” said Lark out loud as he bent down to scoop up the feline.

He jumped back abruptly as a sharp-clawed paw swiped at him, threatening to sever something vital. Only then did he spot what the animal was sitting on. The lifeless chest of a moon-faced man with a 1970s porn star moustache and a tartan tie. There was a sticky pool of half-dried fluid on the far side of his face that was turned away from the dim light.

Madrigal was idly playing pat-a-cake with a round glutinous object. A small trail of slime and blood showed the progress of the cat’s plaything from its original owner’s eye socket.

Aloysius Lark screamed.

Once the shock of realisation passed, he took out his last century cellphone and dialled his client’s number. “Miss Fancipants, I don’t think McFarb is going to be troubling you anymore.”