Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Stalking: could do better.

Stalking is a bit of a specialist interest. If there was an NVQ in stalking, I suspect most people would fail miserably.

I certainly haven't got the aptitude for it. I lack the required level of obsession, have insufficient patience, don't like standing around in the cold unless some horses or blokes are about to ride by at speed and I have almost no pride in my one and only autographed celebrity photograph - of Stan Stennett.

The rot set in when I was eight. Along with 200 others from my primary school, I clutched a small union jack and was forced to stand at the side of the route the Queen Mother was supposed to take to open an old people's home in the village.

We stood for about an hour encouraged by thoughts of Her Royal Highness swathed in billowing Cartland/Barbie pink riding in a golden coach lobbing sherbet fountains to us joyous, flag-waving children.

She swept past in a big grey car to have boiled beef and carrots with the old dears without so much as a royal wave.

I haven't been able to get very worked up about celebrities since then. When a film crew descends on Gloucester or Cheltenham I feel compelled to go take a mildly curious look but not much of a look really - more a glance and a couple of pics.

It was snow joke in the centre of Gloucester yesterday (I refer to the magnificent centre which is the Cathedral not the actual centre, which is deadly 60's concrete). They'd obviously had a bit of weather. The Cathedral close and Millers Green were blanketed with snow. Dr Who was in town and they were filming the Christmas Special.

I find myself slightly more interested in David Tennant than I had been in the Queen Mum. He's a man with sharp, mobile features, penetrating eyes and more charm than any individual person deserves. There he was, in his Dr Who startorial splendour of flowing brown coat over ill-matched pinstripe jacket trousers and trainers.

He only took notice of the hundred or so stalkers gawping from behind barriers when someone shouted his name - then he smiled winningly. I told you he was charming.

Acting is a weird business; a bit of fake snow-blowing, horse movement, a lot of standing about, looking, watching and waiting; a few seconds of “action” and it's back to the standing, watching and waiting.

Riveting, it wasn't. I managed a whole twenty minutes though, which is my new stalking record. I only managed five minutes trying to catch a glimpse of Alan Rickman years ago when they filmed the first Harry Potter in the Cathedral cloisters and ten minutes at Gloucester Docks when “Amazing Grace” was being filmed - but that doesn't count as I was snapping the beautiful tall ships, having been told that Ioan Gruffudd and David Jason had been and gone.

Some stalkers had been diligently following the Dr Who filming for much longer. A cheerfully woman in a wheelchair rocking a baby in a pram had been there for nearly five hours.

“My daughter loves David Tennant,” she remarked “but I haven't seen anything from here.” She'd been shoved under a hedge. Certainly a stoic, undemanding granny to be treasured.

I told her she hadn't missed much. The tardis stood impotently beneath a nearby archway, wrapped in tarpaulin and tied up with string. Why the daleks didn't think of tarpaulin and string, I've no idea but it seems to immobilise it very successfully.

David Tennant didn't do anything dramatic. He failed to dematerialise or even attempt to wrestle a lost-looking cybercreature to the ground and there was no sign of that cool pen/screwdriver thing which he uses for tightening bolts and stunning people - though not at the same time, I've noticed. Surely a design flaw.

He stood and watched, and waited, had a coffee from a cardboard cup and had a bit of a chat with several people including David Morrissey (the merest recollection of the excellent Sense and Sensibility tends to give one the vapours) who seems happiest in period costume and was also well-versed in standing about.

The most exciting thing was a stunning Victorian hearse drawn by six magnificent, gleaming horses wearing jetblack plumes.

And the most extraordinary thing was that, in spite of the standing around and members of the crew and minor cast being encased in arctic-quality puffa-coats, David Tennant didn't look cold or remotely bored.

It's encouraging. It means he has another string to his bow.

If the acting ever dries up, he's got the stamina to make an excellent stalker.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Short Story

Emily lay naked in deep warm clear water, her back flat against the floor of the bath, her knees raised. An extravagant nebula of russet hair arranged itself in a static swirl around the part-submerged pale face with its faded freckles. Her eyes were closed. She breathed gently, her nostrils just clear of the water.

She lay still, a heavily pregnant Ophelia without the water crowfoot, listening to anonymous abdominal gurgles and the vague swishings of the baby shifting; silkily cocooned, intensely female.

Her hands rested flat against the slopes of her swollen belly, embracing the active infant cavorting within. She felt a pointed elbow, the rounder nub of a knee, the force of a small foot exerting astonishing pressure, then a whole body turn, stretching the mound alarmingly out of shape and, fleetingly, tiny pebble-like lumps which could only be toes.

Fingertips sensed the smooth hard curve of a back, the rounded solidity of a head. She imagined the eyes closed in perfect symmetry above perfect nostrils which had not yet drawn breath and perfect lips which had not yet suckled. A closed and secret beauty but not for much longer.

Could it really be true that she would have to do nothing but bear pain and bear down, down to expel this child? That her body would deliver this child without consultation or collusion?

She yearned to talk to her mother, the one person who would tell her honestly; the person who had felt her move inside her as she now felt this not-yet infant shift and struggle.

That was the dream, anyway; the normal dream. The trouble was, the normal dreams didn't seem quite real. It was the other dreams which were much more real - the dreams which terrified her.

The imagination is wild and imperfect when there is little nourishment for it. When she was young, she had imagined her mother as a pianist, a painter, a lady of leisure, a hard-working bread-maker, flushed and damp in a hot kitchen. But like a painter's palette where colours individually so vivid twist promisingly before merging to sludge- grey, so the images she conjured of her mother melted and fused themselves into a faceless indeterminate creature which only made her sad.

The nuns were her first mothers. When when Emily was ten a thick-set man with a florid cheeks and a thin dark moustache claimed her as his daughter. Heather was grateful for a home at last. Although she did her utmost to avoid his belt, for some reason her quiet convent discipline was never good enough for him.

When she tentatively asked about her mother he would not speak of her at all. It wasn't until four years later, six months after the funeral of her father that she ventured the question to her step-mother Dot, a shrewish, nervous woman. Dot told her that yes, she should know now that her mother was alive somewhere, probably in England, in a mental asylum.

The words had meant nothing to Emily. She scribbled them on a scrap of paper and looked them up later in the library at school. An institutional home for the mentally ill. The mad. The insane. She had been late for double Maths.

The thought remained, shut away in a corner of her mind. She was the child of a lunatic. For the most part, during the days, the thought crouched in its corner but at night it rose chased her through disturbed, boiling dreams.

Just recently, the same thought had invaded her dreams along with another dream of looking out of a bedroom window watching torrential rain drenching a garden. Fingers of thick green fatsia japonica leaves spread trembling under the deluge. A brook turned into a frantic torrent yet a sly flat edge of quiet water crept towards the puddles lying on the uneven old lawn until it merged and spread so that there was only a flat expanse of mud and blood. She woke up, sweating, her own blood pushed urgently through a thumping heart.

So there was always a dread. For some unknown reason she had blurted out the dread to Jenny, the tall chirpy midwife who dressed like a hippie in long patchwork skirts and clanking strings of noisy beads. It was her 24 week examination. The small clinical room smelled of disinfectant. Jenny, bending to wrap the blood pressure cuff around her arm, had asked the usual questions.

“Everything all right with you? Any problems at all?”

Emily should have said “No. All fine” which was the established reply. She could have said “Well, I've been having a few headaches” or “I'm starting to feel a lot heavier” or one of the other responses within the “normal” range.

But she said “I've been having terrible dreams again. Terrible dreams.”

And then she'd told Jenny everything; about her mother, how frightened she was, how no-one knew and how, more than anything else, she wanted to stop the dreams. Sometimes they were about the flood. At other times they were about the baby but in her dreams it was a blind gargoyle which opened its red gaping mouth and screeched because it was incurably insane.

Jenny held her hand and finally put an arm around her, absorbing some of the pain of those shuddering sobs. Reassurances and tissues were all she could offer.

Emily continued to see Jenny for check-ups. Sometimes they didn't talk about the dreams because the time was taken up discussing the practical considerations of being a single-parent mother - the baby's father had indicated his intentions quite early in the pregnancy by moving in with another woman.

At other times Emily couldn't not talk about the dreams. She became convinced the baby did not want to be born, especially when she went over her due date and had to attend at the maternity unit with a small overnight bag at 9am on a Saturday morning to be “started off.”

Emily's friend Mandy, who already had two young children, accompanied her twittering platitudes which Emily didn't hear.

Locked in silence, Emily lay on an examination couch, legs in the air, bare ankles held in stirrup slings, as the doctor's head dipped between them to insert an instrument. Something twanged numbly. Warm fluid, a gush reducing to a trickle. Mandy said she'd have to pop off to give her kids lunch in half an hour. Emily couldn't speak. She was cold; possessed by a recalcitrant lump.

The drip brought agony, as they intimated it would. Waves of agony doubled and re-doubled. Mandy had gone. Emily was alone, clutching the back of a plastic chair, colour returning to her knuckles as the pain diminished and the muscles softened again, just for a few moments.

“How are you doing, then?” The voice was familiar. Jenny. Tall and different; prim even, in her navy blue uniform with her hair fastened tightly in a bun.

“I didn't think...” Emily started, surprised.

“I didn't either but I managed to swap a shift. So I'll be seeing you through to midnight. Plenty of time I should think. Let's have you on the bed and see how things are.”


Jenny laughed later, as a different Emily, a bright-eyed, pink-cheeked, brimming-with-delight Emily sat up in her hospital bed thanking her over and over again.

“Reassurance and tissues - that's all I've given you. She'll give you the rest. You're all she's got.”

Beneath a light, white honeycombed hospital blanket in a clear-plastic crib, the baby rested, a miracle of exquisite construction, eyes closed beneath a suggestion of eyebrows; a smattering of short, dark hairs lying flat against a perfect head.

Everything had gone much better than Jenny expected. She'd warned the team that there might be trouble because Emily's medication had been kept deliberately low during her pregnancy. The baby had been quiet after delivery, moving her arms and legs, flexing tiny fingers and making astonished, quizzical faces in the dazzling light.

Jenny had laid the baby at Emily's naked breast. Emily's nightmares were dashed and broken by the reality of the fresh loveliness, the heart-wrenching vulnerability. The baby shifted and blinked away her mother's salt tears as Emily held her, laughing and crying.

The new-mother euphoria would dissipate quite soon. Heather's feelings would change. Her volatile mood swings would need to be watched closely. Jenny knew all that and she'd already had a chat with the health visitors.

She would stay in touch with Heather for a year or more... just as long as it took to make sure that mum and baby got along.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Hotter 'n hell

Surely eating spicy food is a bit like riding a bike; once you've had a go, learned a lesson or two along the way, you can always do it?

Well everyone makes mistakes.

And my first was believing my own homespun claptrap.

In my late teens, I used to be able to put away a Madras, albeit accompanied by two gallons of water, without any problems.

A couple of years ago, a bunch of Indian waiters who warned me against a “very-very-hot-madam Jalfrezi” had a bucket of raita and a fire extinguisher at the ready in case of distress. It was delicious. No problem.

Uncontrolled hiccups are the only drawback with Indian dishes above a certain heat threshold. They usually kick in during a medium jalfrezi but if one attempts to remain lady-like it can be dealt with swiftly and easily by swigging several jugs of water. If they persist, one can always invite one's dining companion to do something unexpected and startling but this is always an unsettling last-ditch strategy. Besides, a high-pitched squeal unnerves other diners.

Hiccups are never a problem with fiery piri-piri chicken in Portugal and the usual home-made chilli con carne includes a fair smattering of chopped bird's eye chillies, seeds and all.

Son no 2 is big chilli fan and used to delight in bringing home hot sauces from his travels, which we'd try together on breadsticks until someone's eyes turned red.

So my seasoned palate was well up the challenge of a piri piri chicken salad in some restaurant named after an unhappy Abba tune - Chiquita or such-like - the other night.

When I ordered it, the waitress looked and said enquiringly, as of a simple-minded person who's not safe to be let out alone, “Is hot?”

She struggled over with a two gallon jug of iced water and dumped it down on my side of the table. Not a good sign.

The salad was unremarkable - your ordinary boring green salad leaves covered with halves of baby tomatoes and strips of char-grilled chicken. It was all liberally drenched in a browny seed-laden chilli sauce.

The first mouthful lightly excoriated the tip of my tongue.

Coming from a nice polite Welsh family and not wanting to appear in any way wimpy, I was reluctant to reveal my true discomfort so as not to disturb other diners.

The second bite lacerated the insides of my mouth.

By the third piece of chicken - well-scraped of sauce now - I was convinced my tongue had doubled in size. The pain began to come in waves.

This stuff wasn't hot. It was straight from the fiery furnace of the seventh legion of hell.

I tried water. It made no difference. This was suffering. Suffering worse than casually rubbing an eye with a fingerful of chopped chilli juice - and THAT's suffering.

“Is my face ok?” I asked my dining companion. By now my lips were tingling - not in a good way - and were effectively anaesthetised. They felt swollen, like one of those pop-art blow-up sofas.

“It's a bit pink,” he said.

“Is that very hot?” he smirked, tucking into his not-very-hot chilli con carne.

Under normal circumstances, I might have been irritated by his smugness but millions of cells were already irritated so I was clean out of irritation - which might have been irritating itself it I could summon any..etc you get my drift.

The pain was increasing inspite of regular dousings with iced water.

I was tempted to try the breathe-through-pain techniques that helped me through childbirth but I thought the panting might be mistaken for that scene in When Harry Met Sally. You remember?

Sally's convulsing, hair all over the place, banging the table with her hands gasping “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

The woman sitting across the restaurant says “I'll have what she's having.”

Any such panting or discomforting behaviour on my part would be been horribly misleading though.

No-one in their right mind would actually want what I was having.

Not even me.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Hero Worship

I don't pretend to know the psychology of it, but hero worship is a powerful attraction which hooks you into utter adoration without ever meeting the person concerned.

The catalyst for the adoration can be music, a voice, a photograph, a fragment of writing.

It's the reason teenage girls went wild for the Beatles. The image of those young men in the peculiarly tailored jackets and the sound they made stirred the already heady mix of swirling, multiplying hormones. A sure-fire recipe for mass hysteria.

I was too young for the excitement of the Beatles in their hey-day. My hero worship was music-based, deeply personal and lavished exclusively on James Taylor and Reg Dwight.

I dreamed of the places they described. The subtle slide guitar behind “In My Mind I'm Going To Carolina” took me to unfamiliar territory, the wide-open spaces of the US and the lyrical calm exuded by JT. With “Sweet Baby James” I needed to know where the Berkshires were and see what he was seeing when he wrote the words. “You Can Close Your Eyes” offered a touchingly simple tenderness.

An integral part of the idolization of these people and their music was the urge to somehow know them.

Too young to work out my feelings in anything but art, I studied their images and reproduced them in assiduous, loving detail. My bemused and bewigged art teacher Mr Davis must have known. Obvious really. I expect he'd seen it all before. The inspiration of a fevered frustrated youth expressed in coursework.

The image on the cover of the album “Sweet Baby James” mesmerised me. I produced at least ten portraits of James in different mediums. I needed to study his beautiful 'lost apostle' face, see exactly how the eyebrows formed, look at the precise relationship between the generous eyebrows and the pupil of the eye. The eyes themselves were crucial, looking at how they reflected, endlessly guessing at what they reflected. His mouth was good with sensuously curved lips stretching broadly. James never did do teeth and it didn't matter.

I watched, listened, drew, played his music on the guitar. Apart from being in his physical presence, which quite frankly I don't think I could have survived without suffering the vapours, it was the complete hero worship experience.

Similarly with Reg. I churned out sheafs of pencil and charcoal studies of him.

“I'm surprised you think so much of him,” my mother declared.

“He's podgy. And he drones on and on.”

I never tired of those cool squarish tinted specs, the dark blonde, slightly wavy hair. Deft and yes - pudgy - fingers on the keyboard. I brushed up my keyboard skills to play Your Song, Rocket Man, Border Song in workmanlike ways and plonk my way through the rest of the Elton John songbook.

Then a flood of other music took over my consciousness. I didn't listen to James Taylor for years and was mostly disappointed by Reg's output after Yellow Brick Road.

A couple of years back, I was taken to a concert for a birthday treat. It was a surprise. I had no idea who was on the bill.

Looking at the older people strolling to the NEC in Birmingham, I had a horrible feeling that it would be one of those deeply sad sixties nights with the original member of Showaddywaddy (a band I detested with a passion) plus a handful of sound-alikes.

It was actually JT himself.

He walked on stage bald and gaunt in a drab suit which hung from his bony frame; a shocking image a lifetime on from the lost apostle I adored. I almost wished I'd forgotten my specs and he'd remained a myopic mystery.

Then he sang and nothing mattered. The voice was still perfect. The voice I'd listened to as I lay on the floor of the living room sketching, the voice which was the source of miraculous, disturbing dreams.

Hero worship persists, as I found out, there in the darkness of the NEC as I closed my eyes and was submerged in the sensations of being a teenager again. There was the curved polished wood of my parents' 1950's radiogramme which, thanks to dad's electrical wizardry, housed the record deck. A warm late afternoon sun slanted through the windows on to my bare feet as I sat on the floor against the sofa, hugging my knees, intense, listening to “You've Got a Friend” alone with James, ready to be furiously resentful of any unwelcome intrusions by my little brother. Real but unreal. Deeply pleasurable.

So listening to those old classic tracks is still very special, as was seeing JT on Jools Holland's TV programme the other night.

Not hero worship as such, but I had a frisson of something akin to it recently; a sudden uncontrolled, unconscious reaction that was very similar - a teenage sensation that reached out suddenly from the past and grabbed me.

It was good, so hallelujah.

Winter ride

A murmuring gunmetal ocean

stretches and slips beneath my wheels

Traffic roars in frozen ears

a winnowing wind takes all the tears

and an aching heart is

calmed by fiery circular rhythms;

soothed by the comfort

of concentration.