Friday 22 August 2014

Friends of Poo-pooh

Whoopie: at last, after only seven years, I have finally finished renovating the upstairs of the house. Well, when I say finished, I mean completed to a standard where people can live in it. OK, there may still be the odd gap in the skirting where a mouse could sneak in and obviously Spike, our highly talented cat, can still manage to nest in every room behind locked doors but, in general, we now have a succession of usable bedrooms and bathrooms. Just as well, as they are currently all occupied by a coach-load of burly young lads who are all here on holiday, oozing testosterone everywhere and burdening a constant drain on the fridge. I have to admit, it is nice to have guests and this year, due to unforeseen issues, we have had precious few. It may have been a tad easier if they had arrived in ones and twos instead of 12 all at once, but hey-ho, we can cope as long as the septic tank holds out. They are a refreshing bunch, too, many of whom are finding their way on new career paths after a lifetime in education, and relishing what challenges life holds before them. I would like to think I could offer snippets of guidance here and there, but then when I look back on my own dappled career of cattle groomer, computer programmer and then writer, I am not so sure anyone else on earth could take such a diverse route through life, blindfolded or otherwise. Possibly the only real advice I can give is that: when your years come nearer to retirement, be able to look back and say ‘if I had my time over again, I would do it all exactly the same.’  I am almost proud that I can do that.
Anyway, enough with the philosophy, let’s get down to complaining about stuff. For instance, what the heck is the British government on about now? Most of us are aware that autumn is the time of year when bored politicians, just back from their annual month in the sun, sit around creating new legislation to justify their overpaid existence. So why is it that, even though we expect the absurd, their moronity still never fails to amaze? Yes, I am talking about the latest suggestion, that of putting health warnings on alcohol. Are we really expected to save ourselves from ourselves by heeding the signs. Will a skull and crossbones deter us from pulling another cork when we really should be reaching for the Perrier? Exactly. Who is kidding who here? Of course drinking is bad for you, that’s why we do it, surely? Save your money, Mister PM, and give the nurses a well earned raise instead.
Although I am not one to intensely keep an eye on world news, this month I really must mention Captain Ian Baston who was brought to my attention by the BBC. It appears that this honourable chap lost control of a Flybe aircraft during landing when his arm accidentally fell off! Yes, I reckon that would do it? ‘Nobody was hurt,’ said a CAA spokesman, ‘and Mr Baston has sworn he will make sure his arm is well and truly screwed on in future!’  No wonder Flybe has a the nickname Fly?Maybe! Note I have avoided the temptation to make a sic joke about their second-hand planes…
Last month I mentioned that the Tour De France was coming through our local town. Well, despite my disinterest in the sport of cycling, we decided to use the occasion as an excuse for a party and, my, what a party it was. With quite surprising insight, I did a reckie of the route the night before, selected a suitable spot on a blind corner and parked my sheep trailer there. The next day, when 20 of us arrived at noon, the French bystanders were already into their picnics and lining the route when I unlocked the trailer, rolled out the gas bbq, 2 tables, 20 chairs, 20 litres of red wine, a full 5 course meal, including 2 whole legs of lamb which we proceeded to cook under their noses. I have to admit, the locals were generally impressed by the pluck of Les Anglais, and particularly when they got to sample some gigot de agneau. However, some of neighbours were not quite so hospitable, suggesting that we were parked in their own personal space. Non too perturbed, we continued preparing our feast until one quite angry little Frenchman became very irate, threatening to remove us personally and hurling a few insults. ‘You are not friends of poo-poo!’ he repeated time and again, in a mysterious fashion. To be honest, if he wasn’t so intimidating, it would have been quite comical. Still we held fast, and even checked with the local gendarmes that we were perfectly within our rights to remain there. In fact the men in uniform also partook in a few morsels of cooked lamb and a wee snifter. Eventually our friend retreated still muttering about poo-poo but, feeling slightly sad for him, one of our party delivered him a plateful of food and an aperitif, to try and console his grief. It turned out that Poo-Poo was not an insult at all, but a real person. Not just any person either, but one of France’s most famous cyclists who had lived in the town until his recent death, and these were his mates who were trying to get themselves on TV via helicopter coverage of this exact spot. Instead, what made it onto TV was a plethora of drunken English, complete with one wearing a lime green chef’s hat and brandishing a carving knife. C’est la vie, Poo-Poo. Merde Happens!

Thursday 7 August 2014


The following short story made it into the list of 6 finalists for the Scottish Arts Club competition in Edinburgh, judged by Alexander McCall-Smith. August 2014.


Tony watched the fat grey bird with mild disdain as it hopped from yellow foot to yellow foot, inching its way across the damp grass. What was it with seagulls that made them so undesirable? Rats with wings, someone had once described them. A slither of paper, possibly a sweet wrapper was the object of this one’s attention, lying on a patch of damp sandy dirt under the wooden bench. With little consideration, Tony put his foot over it, the worn tread of his walking boot obscuring it from view, and then glanced out over the estuary.
Faint lines of distant white waves rose and fell from the dappled surface, as though raising their heads and then lowering them again like meerkats peeking out to see if the coast is clear.
Across the bay, two identical hills loomed from the otherwise darkening skies over Fife. It must be nearly two years that he had been coming here to this bench, and yet still he hadn’t gotten around to finding out what they were called. The Queen’s nipples, he always referred to them as, due to their shape with a pimple on top, like a woman lying topless on a chilly beach. The Royal reference was to Fife itself, known quite boastfully as the Kingdom of Fife as though a powerful King owned it personally. Well a king had a queen, didn’t it? And its queen was right there, lying on her back. Tony had never really discussed this with anyone; people didn’t like that sort of thing when it came to nudity and royalty. And anyway, since Laura had gone, he didn’t much talk to anybody else. At first he had tried to be brave, and even ventured down the Bissets pub on the main street and chatted with John behind the bar; but it wasn’t really conversation, just talk, pretend to listen, and then wait for your turn to talk again. He had an idea the few locals laughed about him when he left. After a couple of visits, he got bored with it - and them -and got a dog instead.
By his foot, the grey bird had got nearer and was now inspecting the area where his boot was. He glanced down at it, staring into its shiny eye. For a second, it reminded him of Ralph, and the way that he had always looked at him with that expectant expression when he wanted something.
‘Oh Ralph,’ he sighed. ‘Why did you leave too?’
‘Ralph!’ squawked the feathered creature, its beak open at right-angles.
Tony let out an involuntary laugh. Ralph had been called Ralph as a joke, because when he barked it sounded just like that very word. The dog was a walking onomatopoeic creature that would be a sketch-writers dream.
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ he said it out loud, to no one in particular.
The bird glanced down at his foot, repeated his words in its birdlike tone, and then pecked at his boot.
‘Are you mocking me, you scavenging creature?’ Tony raised his foot to push it away but the bird ducked its head underneath it and snatched the sweet wrapper like a well-practiced pickpocket. He watched it back away, hanging on to the white paper so that it didn’t take off on the breeze, and then turned his eyes back out over the dunes to the sea once more. Out in the bay a giant oil tanker sat empty and motionless, its red whale-like body sitting high up out of the water and exposing its lower waistline a like an old man’s sock at half mast. As usual, it wasn’t the boat or the water that interested Tony, but the thicket of gorse and buckthorn that smothered the rolling hills of sand for the quarter of a mile or so between him and Gullane beach. To the right it extended back towards Edinburgh, culminating with the massive old house that towered over the golf course, backlit against the afternoon sky. He had searched there, so many times. Out to his right, sprawling eastwards towards the North Sea and past Muirfield course, the dense buckthorn gave way to spindly pine trees that flailed and thrashed in the wind on blowy days.
It was there, within a stone’s throw of the second green, that he had last seen poor Ralph.
That had been over a month ago.
Each morning, at first light, Tony had checked outside the door of his tiny house in Broadgait, in case he had come home during the night, returning after a frantic scurry around in the undergrowth, momentarily forgetting the time or day. Each morning, the heartache wrenched at Tony’s soul, like a sucker punch to the stomach. With every morning, the hope grew thinner until now it was barely more than a distant wish. Time was healing, just like they said it would, but as the optimism faded so it gave way to an emptiness that was filled with scolding pain.
‘Are you still out there, Ralph?’ His eyes scanned back and forth, pulling a pair of field-glasses tight into his sockets like his old tank commander done in the dusty desert.
Since Laura had left him over a year ago, that scruffy dog had been his only friend and, in a short time, they had been through immeasurable emotional turmoil together. Late into the night, he would sit and hold perfectly acceptable conversations with him, while the dog sat and listened patiently about life with all its horrors, prospects and values. Occasionally, when he understood words like birdies or sausages, he would chip in with a few of his own. Ralph, Ralph.
Tony considered that it was everyone’s wish that their dog could talk? Or their cat, or hamster? On patrol, one scary night, he had even talked to a lizard while, somewhere inside him, willing it to talk back to him in words he could understand. Just a few words of encouragement - that was all he needed? Well, that’s what made Ralph so special. He did that.
Tony surveyed the land again, casting his eyes across the thorny bushes, their once bright orange berries fading like forgotten Christmas decorations, as winter turned its head towards springtime. A  young couple on the distant beach were throwing a ball for their own dog on the beach, adding pain and guilt to the thoughts he already harboured, about what he once had, now all gone.
‘But gone, it is!’ he sighed, addressing the obese bird as it watched him, now perched on a gnarled wooden fence.
‘Ralph!’ squawked the bird again, but this time, to Tony’s surprise, opening its wings and swooping the 10 feet or so towards him. As he flinched, it stuck out its claws, heavily thudding onto the back-rest of the bench and balancing there, the green wooden rail bending fractionally under its weight. Still in slight shock, he watched it fold its wings up like a child’s transformer toy, tucking them away until it resumed its rotund shape once more.  Resisting the urge to chase the seagull away, Tony turned towards it, admiring the intricate array of dark and light feathers that together made up its grey appearance.  Still wary it may attack him, he spoke to it again.
‘Have you seen Ralph, my friend?’ he asked, quietly. ‘Is he out there, chasing birdies like you, and causing menace?’  As he stared at it, tears uncontrollably welling up in his eyes, the bird fixed his gaze once more. ‘Is he out there now, running free?’ Tony swallowed hard. ‘Or maybe up there?’ He broke the animal’s stare and looked up to the grey skies overhead, where a few clouds were assembling like a gathering army of grey wool-sacks. ‘Do you think he will come back, some day?’ When he glanced back down, the bird was looking up too, following his gaze.
‘Ralph,’ it said, much quieter this time. Then there was nothing, except the silence of nature’s own background.
For the first time in weeks, Tony felt his pain drain away as his lips slowly widened to a smile. Their eyes locked again as its pupils, jet black against pools of vibrant yellow, seemed to peer into his soul. His heart quickened, and the young man felt his voice drop to a whisper:
‘You can understand me, can’t you? You know, don’t you? You know all about Ralph?’
Using slow movements, he delved his cold hand into the depths of his coat pocket, burrowing beneath a mass of tissues before bringing out a small plastic bag. He tore open the top and offered a brown object in the palm of his outstretched hand.
‘Are you a smart birdie?’ His voice raised in encouragement. ‘Do you like sausages?’
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ came an eager reply.