Ed

ed

Ed by Chris Green

It came in with the cat a fortnight ago last Tuesday. I was holding the back door open for Tiggy when in it darted. I couldn’t get rid of it. It made itself well and truly at home. It seemed to consider itself the new household pet. I wouldn’t have thought that a unicorn would be such a domesticated beast. In fact, I wasn’t sure unicorns actually existed. Years ago, my erstwhile friend, Cliff went up Bleak Hill looking for them once or twice. He used to take his tent up there and camp out hoping to see one. But, I’m not sure he ever did. I seem to recall him remarking how elusive they were. The last time he went up the hill, his tent got trampled by rampaging cattle. He gave up his quest after that. I have often wondered what happened to Cliff. We lost touch after he moved to Topanga, a hippy enclave in California. He could be anywhere.

Unicorns are smaller than I would have imagined. If you have not seen one and I’m guessing that many of you have not, they are about the size of a Labrador dog and the horn is the size of a bone-handled dinner knife. People usually think of them as white but they are a curious silvery grey that in the light makes them seem almost transparent. Unicorns have unusual dietary requirements but fortunately, I have acquired a large stock of old free newspapers and they do keep coming through the door. My daughter, Cassie quickly became fond of our new pet and has taken to calling it Ed after Ed Sheeran. Ed is particularly fond of homework books. Apparently, he has devoured her Maths homework twice now. Since Ed arrived, Cassie has stopped asking when Mum is coming home and whether Anne and I might be getting divorced.

……………………………………

Who would have thought it? Unicorns like listening to music. While much of the time Ed is a bundle of nervous energy, if I put Radio 2 on when I get home or play a background music shuffle on the iMac, he stops zipping around the room and curls up on the rug with his legs stretched out in front of him. He makes a soft purring sound. So far as I can tell, his favourite artists seem to be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Smashing Pumpkins. Ed doesn’t seem to be so keen on hip-hop or some of the tunes Cassie plays to him on her tablet. It could, of course, be that he doesn’t really like having those over-ear headphones over his ears.

My colleagues at the office didn’t believe me about the unicorn at first, even after I had shown them photos of Ed. But, gradually a few of them began to accept that Ed was real. Fiona, in particular, showed an interest. She said she had always been curious about mythical beasts. Nothing mythical about Ed, I told her. She started coming around to visit. From the outset, Cassie eyed Fiona with suspicion. Although I told her there was nothing going on between us, I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought I saw Fiona as a replacement for her mother. I couldn’t help but wonder if I did too.

Because unicorns are so scarce, I began to speculate how Ed would be able to find a mate. I didn’t like the idea that unicorns might become extinct because of Ed’s exile. There appeared to be no books available on unicorns so under the handle of guybloke, I joined a unicorn forum on the internet for information and advice. Did anyone perhaps know of the whereabouts of a female unicorn? Just how plentiful were they? I posed these questions. Unfortunately, the forum was a little short of members and had just one other post, by a cliff77 from July last year. I wondered if perhaps this was my old friend, Cliff and left a response on his thread, hoping for some positive news. I checked the forum daily but to no avail.

……………………………………

Eventually, cliff77 replied to my message and wondered if I might by any chance be his old friend, Guy from years ago. He said he suspected now that unicorns did not exist but deep down, he still lived in hope that one day he might be proved wrong. I told him to look no further, I had a healthy pet unicorn called Ed. I gave him a description, posted a photo and suggested he dropped whatever he was doing and came over from wherever he was to take a look.

I was still waiting for Cliff’s visit when I got home from work one day to find Ed was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished. At first, I thought that despite my telling Cassie that under no circumstances should she take him out for a walk, perhaps she had done so. What if someone were to take a shine to him? What if he were to run off? I texted Cassie but she was adamant she had been at school all day. As if! She was probably down at the rec with her friends, Foxx and Qwerty. The ones from the Tokers End estate. She became very upset though when I told her that Ed had gone and started blaming me for not looking after him properly. When Ed failed to return, Cassie got it into her head that Fiona had stolen him. Before I knew it, she was back on the I hate you, it wasn’t like this when Mum was around, when is Mum coming home?

If you are going through a sticky patch in your marriage, have a contentious pre-teenage daughter and a needy cat, take my advice. When you hold the door open for your fussy feline, be careful not to let a unicorn into the house. If somehow a unicorn does make it across the threshold, don’t be tempted to see its apparent cuteness as a solution to your strained family dynamics. Never consider letting your daughter adopt the vagabond unicorn as a pet.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Little by Little

littlebylittlebw

Little by Little by Chris Green

It is said that everyone who looks into their family history will sooner or later discover a deep dark secret, some unexpected turn of events. Time is a slippery customer. There are inherent dangers in unearthing the past. You never know what you might find. Perhaps the past should be left where it belongs. Didn’t Lara realise that with a surname like De’Ath, there might be some skeletons in her cupboard? Or worse? There might be no skeletons in her cupboard.

In her defence, since Who Are You? the television series revealing celebrities’ family trees, everyone seemed to be looking into their ancestry. It was practically all they talked about at the office where Lara worked. Her colleagues, Holly, Polly, Siobhan and Trudi chattered endlessly about the new revelations from the programme, this giving them an opening to relate what they had found out about their own family trees through an array of genealogy websites.

Although Lara’s colleagues all wanted to feel they had uncovered hidden secrets, in the big scheme of things, their backgrounds were nothing to get excited about. Grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed in various bygone conflicts, immigrant great uncles and the odd wayward philanderer from Southern Europe. Siobhan’s maternal great-grandmother was an unwitting bigamist and Holly’s great-great grandfather was a circus performer in pre-Soviet Russia. Over a number of generations, these were the kind of anomalies you might expect to spring up in a family tree. Trudi, in particular, had gone a long way back and found that she was distantly related to someone in the court of Henry the Eighth.

Who Are You? on the other hand, had delivered some major bombshells. Angus McReedy, the bearded host of The Great British Fry Up had found out that he was the rightful king of Scotland. Kirsty Banker, the well turned out presenter of the popular travel programme on Sunday nights had found out that her grandfather was thought to be Jack the Ripper. Kirsty had, by all accounts, tried to stop the programme from going out but Channel 6 held her to her contract. The revelation about her background was gold dust, especially as Kirsty worked for the BBC.

‘You ought to find out about your heritage, Lara,’ said Holly. ‘Probably time better spent than going on all those dating sites.’

‘How’s all of that going?’ asked Polly, vaguely suspecting that it might not be going well. Lara hadn’t mentioned her dates very much of late.

‘Ah, yes. What happened with …… Leon, wasn’t it?’ asked Holly.

‘Leon! Huh! Leon was typical,’ said Lara. ‘He described himself as a debonair thirty-something with prospects but turned out to be haggard looking forty-something with halitosis. None of them seem to match their description. If they say they are in sales or marketing, they probably sell scratch cards outside the railway station. Tall, dark and handsome usually means portly and five feet four, sporty means has a mountain bike in the shed, and good sense of humour means expects you to sit with him watching repeats of Dad’s Army. I think you are right, Polly. It is a waste of time.’

‘You’re not even thirty yet, Lara’ said Siobhan, comfortingly. ‘There’s plenty of time. The right man will come along. Meanwhile, you should find out who you are. Where you came from.’

She was thirty yet, in fact, she was thirty two, but Lara took Holly’s comments aboard. Lately, she had become curious as to where her roots lay. She knew very little about her family’s background. Her father disappeared when she was young and her mother was always very tight-lipped about the past. Her mother had never called herself De’Ath, preferring her own name, Wilson. Wendy Wilson. Lara often wondered why this was but with the atmosphere at home being strained most of the time, never got around to asking. As there was no professional reason for keeping her own name, Lara assumed that it was either because of the connotations of the name De’Ath or that they probably had never actually been married. She could not remember any talk of a divorce. Since her mother died several years ago from a rare blood disease, and Lara had no brothers or sisters, there was now no way of finding out.

On her father’s side, Lara had nothing to go on but his name. She had no other information, no birthplace or date of birth. So far as she could remember, she had never met a paternal grandfather and she had only a small recollection of a paternal grandmother. She had an inkling that she had some cousins up north but she was not sure. She had never met them but she vaguely recalled a Chester and a Preston being mentioned once or twice, if not in a favourable context. But, at least Lincoln De’ath would be an easy name to follow up. There wouldn’t be too many of these. Fortunately, she knew her mother’s date of birth and where she was born, so at least she had something definite to go on here. Little by little, she would be able to build this into a family tree.

When she signed up for the genealogy sites, Lara hoped to unearth some artistic ancestors, a great line of forgotten bohemian artisans perhaps. A keen painter herself, she was sure that there must be an artistic streak running through her bloodline somewhere. If not a painter or sculptor, perhaps there might be a forgotten writer or a poet there in the background, or maybe a virtuoso musician. She felt that knowing this would help to give her confidence in her abilities. She hoped one day if she worked hard at it, she might be able to sell her paintings and perhaps be able to give up her nine to five job.

When she could find no record anywhere of a Lincoln De’Ath, Lara was not completely surprised. Over the years she had realised that there was something distinctly dishonest about her father. He could at best be described as a wheeler-dealer. Lincoln De’Ath was probably not even his real name. But, why he would make up the name De’Ath was anyone’s guess. Why would you? More to the point, what malevolent caprice had prompted him to curse her with it too? Why had her mother not stood her ground and put Lara Wilson on her birth certificate? What power did he hold over her mother? It seemed that she might now never be able to find out.

She managed to find her mother’s entry on the ancestry.net site but when she clicked on it, something unexpected happened and she was faced with what she had heard referred to as the blue screen of death. When she managed to reboot the laptop and get back into the site, she could no longer find the record. She became a little alarmed. What had she done? If she couldn’t even find her mother, what chance was there of going further back?

She started again from scratch, following all the instructions and screen hints. When this revealed nothing she tried a couple of the other free sites. Still none of the right things seemed to be happening. Now it was a case of do or die. One by one, she upgraded to the subscription versions of the sites for their added capabilities. To her alarm, Wendy Louise Wilson, born 8th December 1945 was missing on every single one of them. Surely, it was not possible to have deleted the records of her mother at their very source. Surely, it was not possible to change anything on the internet without being a webmaster or whatever these tekkies were called. Perhaps she was doing something inherently wrong. She remembered the time she spent hours trying to work out which was the any key. And the time she thought the keyboard was broken because her password came out as asterisks. She would be the first to admit that she was never that good with sorting out computer problems. Some gremlin always seemed to creep up from nowhere to catch her unawares.

Even though it was late, she phoned Trudi and pleaded with her to come round to see what she was doing wrong. Trudi was a whizz with spreadsheets and data entry and she also knew her way around ancestry sites. She had traced her ancestors back to Tudor times. Trudi would be able to spot straight away what she was doing wrong.

Trudi had been in the middle of saying goodnight to her new friend, Tariq when she got Lara’s call but as Lara sounded desperate, she got in the car and drove round. Her expertise, however, did nothing to correct the problem. They tried every possible combination of Lara’s mother’s name and came up with nothing. It hardly seemed worth trying her father’s name, but Trudi tried anyway. Nothing. It seemed suddenly as if Lara’s parents had never existed. While Lara could understand the difficulty with regard to her father, with all the resources available on the enhanced ancestors.com, her mother should have been straightforward to locate.

‘Her name was there, on the screen in front of me, honestly, Trudi. Wendy Louise Wilson. But when I clicked on her name, Windows 10 crashed and the record was gone,’ said Lara.

‘That’s simply isn’t possible, Lara,’ said Trudi. ‘If she was there, then the record of her would still be there. We’re not putting something in wrong here now, are we? You’re sure this is your mother’s date of birth?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘And her birthplace?’

‘Definitely Compton Abbot.’

Trudi’s phone rang. It was Tariq wondering when she would be back, he had something planned.

‘Sorry, Lara. I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll give you a call over the weekend.’

On Saturday morning after a night of fitful sleep, Lara got up and booted up the laptop again. She went to log in to Facebook and she was greeted with the something went wrong message. She had come across this before, so she did not get too concerned. She brewed some coffee and tried again and she was able to get in but her Facebook profile had completely disappeared. Do you want to sign up, it said, with the instructions on how to do so. She tried to get into her email account but this too had completely disappeared.

Trudi was not amused to get another call from Lara so soon. She was trying something new with Tariq at the time. She was growing to like the way Tariq introduced new activities into their daily routine. This one involved Belgian chocolate. She was enjoying it very much, so she ignored the call. She could phone Lara back later. The chocolate thing temporarily seemed more important.

When she phoned Lara back around midday, her phone just kept ringing. It did not even go to voicemail. Trudi assumed that Lara had got the hump with her for not answering her call earlier. Lara could be a bit like that sometimes. She took things too much to heart. She had to realise that the world did not revolve around her.

Trudi decided to drive over anyway to see what was going on. There was no point in falling out about a phonecall. Perhaps Lara had called to tell her that she had resolved her computer glitch and having done so, had gone shopping and left her phone at home. While she was stuck at the lights at the Scott Mackenzie roundabout, she called again. This time, she got the message the number you have dialled has not been recognised. She quickly checked. It was definitely Trudi’s number, the same number she had dialled not twenty minutes previously.

Trudi arrived at Lara’s flat and knocked firmly on the door. A lady in her late forties in a quilted housecoat and slippers carrying a black refuse bag emerged from the adjacent flat.

‘Are you looking for Mrs Fakenham?’ she said. ‘Because she’s gone to the shops.’

‘No. I am looking for my friend, Lara De’Ath,’ said Trudi. ‘She lives here.’

‘Lara De’Ath. What sort of name is that?’ said the lady, looking Trudi up and down. ‘Anyway. Never heard of her. She doesn’t live here. Mrs Fakenham lives in that flat. She’s been here for years, Mrs Fakenham has, with her cats. Look! There’s one of them now. I think that one’s called Thursday. She’s named them all after days of the week. I suppose that’s how she remembers them.’

Trudi was flummoxed. It was fortunate that when she got back home, Tariq was waiting with another surprise. This one involved whipped cream.

When Trudi arrived at the office early on Monday morning, Holly was already there. She began to tell Holly about Lara’s disappearance.

‘Lara?’ said Holly, interrupting her. ‘Who’s Lara?’

‘Who’s Lara!’ Trudi echoed. ‘Who’s Lara? Only the person who has been sitting opposite you for the last three years.’

‘Hey?’

‘The girl with the long dark hair and the peaches complexion. The one who was always lending you her mascara. What’s wrong with you this morning, Holly?’

‘I vaguely recall someone used to sit at the desk over there,’ said Holly. ‘Sara, wasn’t it? But, that was a long time ago.’

What was the woman talking about? What in Hell’s name was happening? Was it perhaps all part of some poisonous conspiracy designed to push her over the edge? All this, when things were going so well with Tariq.

‘It was Lara. Her name was Lara. And if you recall, Lara was still here on Friday. Sitting right there. You had that conversation about your dog-walker being distantly related to Daphne du Maurier.’

‘I’ve no idea what you are talking about.’

‘Come on! You’re winding me up, Holly.’

‘No, sorry Trudi. ……. Are you all right?’

‘Check your phone! Go on, check it! You will have Lara’s number and a list of calls you’ve made to her.’

Holly took her phone out of her bag and played with it for a while. ‘No. Sorry,’ she said ‘It’s not bringing up anyone called Lara.’

‘Why are you doing this, Holly? It’s not funny. ……. You must remember Lara. She’s the one who…….’ Trudi began. ‘The one who ……., but even as she was saying it, her own recollection was beginning to fade. She could no longer remember what Lara looked like. Little by little, Lara was disappearing.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Cats and Dogs

catsanddogs

Cats and Dogs by Chris Green

It hasn’t been a good Spring. I have spent most of it listening to birdsong on Birdsong FM because there hasn’t been any birdsong in the garden.

Every week when Sophie and I tune in to CountryWatch, they go on about global warming. March was the hottest on record and April was the hottest on record and last Sunday the weatherman with the Polish name tried to tell us that so far May has also been the hottest on record.

‘Not here, Tomasz,’ I told him. He could not hear me of course. He was in a studio miles away. On the Moon possibly.

I know that it has rained every day so far in May because I keep a diary and, looking at it, I can see that Sophie and I have not been able to get out for a walk in the country once. It has been so wet I have not even been able to go down to the allotment. When I drove past it on Monday, I noticed that the weeds were colossal.

There has not been a single day’s play at this year’s cricket festival and the tourists, having had to abandon their county fixture, are considering abandoning the whole tour. ‘

You can’t play cricket in a bloody climate like this,’ captain, Rick Sydney said in an interview on Radio Glanchester yesterday. ‘We’re off home, mate.’

He may not have been serious. He did seem to be three sheets to the wind. All that 4X, I guess.

According to John Bearcroft, the River Glan burst its banks last night and apparently there are boats going up and down the High Street. Fortunately, we live in Lofty Ridge, one of the higher points of the town. The roof is leaking a little in the back bedroom, but I think we should be all right for now. We’ve got a few bowls and buckets. If it keeps on raining the way it has, though, who knows what might happen?

Aunt Molly phones to ask about Sophie and little Riley. Not that Riley is little anymore. He’s nearly thirteen. Aunt Molly still thinks of him as if he were three. She phones every Wednesday. Aunt Molly lives on her own and she likes to have a bit of family news. Especially since Uncle Mitch passed away. I expect it gives her something to talk about at the church bring and buy or the hairdressers. I tell her that Sophie is lying down. She has a bit of a headache but otherwise, she is fine. Riley is a little sulky because, even though it’s cricket season, he does like his football and he hasn’t been able to get out to play.

‘I know,’ she says. ‘It’s sweltering, isn’t it? I’ve got the fans on upstairs and downstairs. It’s going to be forty degrees by the weekend, they say.’

This is strange. There’s no sign of a break in the cloud here yet, in fact, the rain is falling with a new intensity. Cats and dogs, as they say. And yet, Norcastle, where Aunt Molly lives is less than fifty miles away, in fact, as its name suggests, it’s north of here. I am about to mention this but Aunt Molly interrupts.

‘That’s beautiful birdsong I can hear,’ she says. ‘I expect you’re out in the garden, sitting under that lovely maple tree.’

‘No, Aunt Molly. We’re indoors,’ I say.

‘Are you really? On a day like this? That’s a shame. ….. Good Lord! Have you got birds in the house, David?’ she says. ‘Isn’t that a cuckoo?’

‘Oh, that’s just the radio,’ I say.

‘The radio?’

‘Well, it’s internet radio, Aunt Molly. There’s a station that broadcasts birdsong all day. I listen to it a lot.’

‘But you shouldn’t be indoors on a day like this, David,’ she says.

It is beginning to dawn on me that Glanchester seems to have developed its own micro-climate. I suspect something is very wrong, but I don’t want to worry Aunt Molly. She had a stroke last year. It was touch and go for a while.

‘I’ve got to go now,’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door.’

I take a look on the BBC weather site, something that I have avoided doing lately. I can see why. It’s hopelessly inaccurate. There is absolutely no mention of rain here in Glanchester, or in neighbouring Starborough. Not a single black cloud on the graphic. It’s blanket sunshine all day every day for the foreseeable future with light winds and projected temperatures similar to those reported by Aunt Molly.

You can find almost anything out on the internet. All manner of information is there at your fingertips. You can find out how many Seventh Day Adventists there are in Tuvalu. You can find out what Beyoncé had for breakfast. You can find out what Prince Phillip’s favourite sea shanty is. But, I cannot for the life of me find out what is happening to the weather in Glanchester. I search on all the major browsers using a dictionary of different search terms but there is quite simply no reference to anything untoward. It is supposed to be hot and sunny here.

I rattle the old grey matter around to try and come up with a rational explanation. Are scientists cloud seeding perhaps? I recall the Kate Bush video for her song, Cloudbusting, with Donald Sutherland, based on Wilhelm Reich’s revolutionary device. The cloudbuster consisted of a set of hollow tubes pointed to the sky which were earthed by a body of water. It drew the orgone energy out of the atmosphere. OK. Perhaps, a bit of a longshot. What about the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark. Are Smetterton Studios maybe doing an extravagant present-day remake of the doctrinal epic here in Glanchester?

Riley comes into the room, interrupting my speculation. No school today. It is flooded. He is wearing a sweatshirt that says I’d Rather Be Sleeping. Better than the I Hate Everyone one he was wearing before, I suppose.

‘When’s Mum going to get up?’ he says, looking up briefly from his phone.

‘I don’t know, Riley,’ I say. ‘Your mother has a headache.’

‘I’m not surprised she has a headache,’ he says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful row off?’

‘That awful row, Riley, is birdsong,’ I say ‘It’s therapeutic.’

‘It’s what?’

‘Oh never mind.’

‘I was going to ask her to give me a lift over to Axel’s. Perhaps you can take me.’

‘I’m busy, Riley.’

‘Can Axel come over here then, Dad. He’s got some cool new apps on his phone. There’s this one that ……’

‘Not now, Riley. Oh! Go on, then! Tell him to come over, if you like.’

I take Sophie up a cup of herbal tea and ask her how she is feeling. She has the television on and is watching the Chelsea Flower Show on catch-up. A succession of royals and celebrities are paraded before the cameras. It seems that this is now the focus of the TV coverage of the event with just the occasional glimpse of a garden or a flower or two to suggest a modicum of authenticity.

‘It’s baking hot here in West London,’ says the presenter with the plum in her mouth.

‘But the celebrities are out in their droves,’ says the presenter from the other side of the tracks. It is the wrong expression, of course, but you can’t help thinking she is right. They are a little like cattle, herded around to put on a show wherever they are needed to promote the well-to-do club.

‘Some of the plants might be wilting but the tropical plants here are in their element,’ says the presenter with the dark linen suit, trying it seems to get the narrative back to horticulture.

‘Any better, darling?’ I ask.

‘A little,’ says Sophie. ‘But I’m not getting up until the rain stops. Look at the sunshine there in London. The presenter with the gaudy floral twin-set says it is going to be 41 degrees tomorrow, I suppose that’s today or was it yesterday. It’s hard to tell where you are with this catch-up TV. But, look at it here. I can’t remember when we last saw the sun. What’s happening, David?’

‘I don’t know, sweetest, but whatever is happening is not supposed to be happening. It’s very worrying.’

‘Can’t you phone your friend, Darwin? He’s some kind of scientist. He might know.’

‘Darwin is an opthalmologist, petal. He only knows about eyes.’

‘What’s Riley up to? He’s very quiet.’

‘He’s doing something on his phone.’

‘Isn’t he always?’

‘I said he could have Axel round. He’ll be over shortly.’

‘Axel. H’mm, Axel. He’s the one with the new phone, isn’t he? 6G or whatever it is. He was showing me some things on it last week. It’s amazing what they can do with smartphones these days, isn’t it, lover? Axel had this app on there that could change the colour of the sky. I don’t imagine it could really change the colour of the sky, it was probably some trick of the light, but then again you never know. I expect they’ll come up with an app that can change the weather soon.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Importance of Being Nearest

theimportanceofbeingnearest2

The Importance Of Being Nearest by Chris Green

‘Milk,’ I say. ‘Milk.’

‘Is that all you want?’ says Karim, the Asian shopkeeper.

‘My mate Marmite,’ I say.

‘On the shelf over there, mate,’ says Karim, the Asian shopkeeper.

‘Maybe Mimi might make more marmalade,’ I say.

‘What?’ says Karim. ‘Come on! I’ve got customers waiting.’

‘Maureen may marry Marvin Monday morning,’ I say. ‘Mild mann …..’

‘Get out of my shop!’ says Karim.

He is shaking his fist at me. I leave the milk on the counter.

No-one seems to understand that I have to practice my resonance exercises. Little and often throughout the day, my speech therapist, Heather says. She tells me I should try to work the phrases into everyday conversations. Living on my own and having an arthritic hip I don’t really get the chance to have everyday conversations every day. Unless you count talking to Alfonso, my cat. Alfonso, bless him, is getting old, though. He is eighty-three in cat years. That’s eight years older than me. He spends most of his time sleeping. The main chance I have to practice my phrases is when I go out shopping.

In the post office, I try to strike up a conversation with the cashier with the purple hair and the nasal jewellery.

‘Many men make mountains out of molehills,’ I say. ‘Minced meat never manages to minimise my migraines.’

‘Have you come about disability benefits?’ the cashier says.

‘Mac Macnamara manages a military museum in Miami,’ I say.

The cashier makes a politically incorrect loony tunes gesture and calls her manager. Her manager, a pro wrestler type covered in tattoos, comes over. She glares at me and roughly grabs the parcel I have brought in to send to my eldest daughter, Zoe in Canada. She takes the tenner I am holding out and roughly throws my change down the steel chute. It lands on the floor. I struggle to pick it up. Old people are not treated with much reverence these days, especially here in Downmarket. I would not stay here if I could afford to move. Mimi says that I can move in with her and Malcolm. It’s important to be with your nearest and dearest as you get older, she says. But I don’t know. Even though Noel and Liam have grown up and left home, it wouldn’t be fair. Apart from this, I still have my pride.

I tell Heather about my unfortunate experiences. She sympathises. She is very professional. I have had four sessions with her now. She says I am suffering from muscle tension dysphonia. The condition is the result of the lengthy bronchial tract infection that I had over the winter. My vocal chords do not meet properly. She showed me a film of this on her monitor. It was quite scary seeing my internal organs there on the screen. Over the four weeks I have been coming along to the hospital, we have progressed from basic humming sounds to words to phrases. Each exercise Heather gives me concentrates on the Em sound. She says this sound encourages forward resonance.

‘The problem is that people round here don’t seem to understand that I need opportunities to develop my forward resonance,’ I tell her. ‘They don’t take into consideration that I have no one at home.’

‘Perhaps you could ease the phrases more gently into your conversations, Dennis’ says Heather. ‘Start off by saying something about the weather or The Great British Bake Off.’

‘But I don’t watch The Great British Bake Off,’ I say. ‘And the weather is always the same, wet and windy.’

‘Well, there you are then,’ says Heather. ‘You could remark how wet and windy the weather is.’

………………………………………………………….

I’m not much good in the kitchen. Brenda always did the cooking. Brenda died three years ago. Liver failure. Sometimes I feel that part of me went with her, but you have to carry on, don’t you? When you are old and live on your own, though, you don’t tend to cook anything fancy. You just put something in the microwave. You have enough to do every day, just remembering to take all your medications and supplements, without learning how to cook Beef Wellington or Baked Alaska.

But, to get myself up to speed on what The Great British Bake Off programme is all about, I watch three episodes of it back to back on iplayer. Jonathan showed me how to use iplayer last time he was out of prison. It doesn’t always work, but maybe I’m doing something wrong. Anyway, the aim of The Great British Bake Off seems to be to put the contestants under so much pressure that they forget to put a key ingredient in the cake they are making, so that the celebrity cooks can tell them how hopeless they are, in front of ten million viewers. But at least, I have something to bring into the conversation next time I go to the shops.

I start to practice my conversations about the weather on Alfonso. It is as well to try them out at home before taking them out into the real world.

‘There’s a real storm blowing out there today, Alfonso,’ I say. ‘In fact, you could say it is raining cats and dogs. Cats and dogs, get it?’

Alfonso doesn’t stir.

‘There’s a strong north easterly, Alfonso. That’s unusual, don’t you think for this time of year? We mostly get mild to moderate south westerlies. It might be milder on Monday morning.’

Alfonso doesn’t stir. He hasn’t stirred all day, in fact he didn’t stir much yesterday either.

‘The weather forecast for the next few days isn’t good either, Alfonso. Blustery showers with more persistent rain arriving from the west later.’

Alfonso’s ears twitch a little.

‘I think it might be to do with El Niño.’

Alfonso pricks up his ears. He clearly likes this development in the narrative. He has consistently shown an interest in the climate change debate. He always sits up and takes notice when Attenborough is on the television. Who says dogs are cleverer than cats? When he puts his mind to it, Alfonso is a match for any mutt.

………………………………………………………….

‘Oh look!’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door, Alfonso. He looks like one of those charity workers. We haven’t got any more money to give away, have we? …… Not since we lost our pension top ups. Never mind. I expect he’ll go away.’

My visitor doggedly stands his ground. He is young and, it seems, determined. When he rings the bell a third time, I slowly make my way to the door.

The young man in the red anorak stands there for a moment, not saying anything. I look him up and down. His anorak has an unfamiliar logo on it. Something to do with communities in crisis. At least, he’s come to the right place. Downmarket definitely fits the bill. Things have been getting steadily worse for years. The decline of textile manufacturing marked the beginning of the end for the town. No-one has wanted to invest here since and there’s now no work to be had anywhere.

Years ago, Downmarket was an easy going nice friendly place, a prosperous town awash with opportunity. It had a Third Division football team, three cinemas and a gymnasium, where you could learn to box. There used to be a thriving Sunday morning market and a dog track. There were bingo halls, and selection of pubs where you could go to play darts or skittles. Now, what is there? Boarded up shops, street drinkers, kerb crawlers, joy riders. I’m afraid to go out at night. The Mature Times that I picked up in the post office says the so-called Big Society too has failed local communities. The demise of the town centre it says is a major contributing factor towards loneliness and isolation. Small towns like Downmarket it says are the worst affected. There’s even talk that they might close the hospital. How will I manage then? The nearest one will be forty miles away in Slumpton.

The youngster brings me out of my reverie.

‘A big bag of baking powder’ he says. ‘And baked a batch of biscuits,

At least, that’s how it sounds to me, but my tinnitus has flared up today, so it is hard to tell what he is really saying.

I don’t get a lot of visitors, and given different circumstances, I might have welcomed the opportunity to stop and chat with him. But I don’t want to start a conversation about the weather as it is now raining heavily. He is drenched. He might see it as an invitation to step inside. At my age, you do have to be careful who you let into your house. Mrs Spurlock at number fifty-seven had someone call on her who said he was from British Gas. Next thing she knew he had run off with her prized collection of crocheted kestrels. PCSO Stringer says that they are called distraction burglars.

‘I’m not interested, thank you,’ I say, politely.

‘A big bug bit a bold bald bear badly,’ I think the fellow says. Once again it is difficult to tell exactly what he is saying. The rain is beating down and his articulation is poor, this on top of the background noise from my tinnitus.

‘I already donate to charity,’ I tell him. ‘I buy all my clothes at CLIC Sargent.’

‘Ben bought a big black bag of banned beta blockers,’ he says. Or something similar. His voice is now cracking a little. He does seem a little …… nervous.

Maybe I have been slow on the uptake. I find this happens more and more as I get older. It had seemed unlikely that the whipper-snapper on the doorstep should have voice problems on account of his being so young. But it occurs to me now that he himself might be on a regimen of speech therapy. Perhaps he is under a different therapist at the hospital. Maybe his therapist isn’t aware of the benefits of practising the em sound, or misguidedly thinks that the be sound is more beneficial. If this is the case then the young man needs a little advice on annunciation. Also, he needs to understand how to open a conversation with a more general topic. Perhaps he might even begin by introducing himself and saying what it is that he is calling about. Heather is right. Kicking off with the resonance exercises is the wrong approach. You don’t tend to notice how off-putting this alliterative nonsense can be until you experience someone else coming out it.

‘Have you thought of starting off by saying who you are,’ I say. ‘Or perhaps commenting on the weather? It puts people off when you dive straight in with gibberish sentences. I realise that you have to practise your phrases, but you have to learn to work these in gradually. Why don’t you come in and dry off and I will show you? We could even watch Celebrity Bake Off on iplayer if you want. That’s a good topic for conversation. Nearly everyone you meet watches Celebrity Bake Off.‘ I think they have Ken Dodd, Samantha Cameron and Bono on the next heat and that fellow, what’s his name, Ayman al-Zawahiri. You know, the fellow with the …. beard.

‘I’m not …… big on baking,’ says the youngster. ‘I’m …… uh, Billy by the way.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Bobby, I say. ‘Celebrity Bake Off wouldn’t have been my cup of tea either, but it is helpful to be able to talk about this stuff. I was able to hold a conversation in the convenience store yesterday when I went in to buy Alfonso’s pilchards because I knew what they were talking about. That was The Jeremy Kyle Show by the way. That’s another programme I never used to watch. If you’ve got time we could have a go at that after Celebrity Bake Off.’

Over a cup of Yorkshire tea, Bobby and I watch Bake Off and have a nice chat about speech therapy, the state of the NHS and the difficulty in getting your point across. Bobby seemed a nice young chap. It is not until the next day that I discover that the money from under my mattress is missing along with most of my military medals.

………………………………………………………….

I might move in with Mimi and Malcolm. Mimi and Malcolm moved to Monmouth in March last year. Mimi was horrified that I had been robbed and practically ordered me to join them. Monmouth seems like a nice place. It’s a prosperous small rural market town two miles over the Welsh border. Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it says on Wikipedia. The River Wye looks lovely. Malcolm says he will take me fishing there. Although Monmouth hospital closed recently, Mimi thinks I should be able to get my hip done at a nearby hospital. I can’t remember the name of the place. They look after people better in Wales, she says. The country air might also perk Alfonso up a bit.

PCSO Stringer thinks I will be able to claim for the medals on my insurance, so I should have a little money coming. He has even offered to help me fill out the forms. He doesn’t think I will be able to claim for the cash that was stolen, though. You should never leave money lying around the house, he says. But it was only a hundred or so. He says they haven’t caught Bobby yet but he thinks that Bobby probably wasn’t his real name anyway. There’s been a lot of distraction burglary lately. Pretending to be charity workers is their latest trick. It is easy to target elderly or vulnerable people this way. PCSO Stringer says that victims can lose their confidence and peace of mind, as well as money and possessions. I mustn’t let it get to me. I should view my misfortune as motivation to move on.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved