Tasteless

I woke that morning with a dry throat and a rasping, grating thirst. Blinding heat flamed behind my eyes, sweat beaded my forehead. I clambered out of the balled-up bed sheets and stumbled to the bathroom. Turning on the cold tap, I immersed my head in the freezing water, then filled a glass. I swallowed the water down in greedy gulps, refilled the glass and drank again. Wiping my face on a clean towel, I examined my reflection in the misted mirror. Two bloodshot eyes in an angry, flushed face stared back. Searching the bathroom cabinet, I discovered a packet of paracetamol. I downed two tablets and finished another glass. A strange sensation coated my tongue; a sharpness I had never noticed before.

            Downstairs, I prepared a simple breakfast. Though my throat was painful, I felt ravenous. That was most unusual for me. Finding no enjoyment in food, meant I never craved it. Preparing a meal was a dull process; a necessary routine to avoid the inconvenience of dying. I put together a bowl of porridge, a mug of hot milk and a banana. Nutritious, healthy; the vitamins and minerals needed to sustain the workings of the body. It was insignificant whether the food was salty, or sweet, or spiced. I could squirt a dash of hot chilli sauce on the porridge if I chose; it would make no difference. Except, I did not buy hot chilli sauce, nor any other form of seasoning for that matter. Bland is fine when you cannot taste a thing.

            Doctors called it ageusia and they had no definite idea why I suffered. It was possibly due to a problem with signals from my taste buds not being received by receptors in my brain.  Born with the condition, I had no idea what porridge tasted like, or milk, or banana. Nor did I understand what everyone found so attractive about a cappuccino or why people raved on about chocolate. Food and drink were for me an essential, not something to desire. As long as I got my recommended daily allowances, it mattered very little what I ate. Most of the time, I just got on with it, lived my life as I had always known it, but I cannot pretend that it did not upset me sometimes. It gnawed away at the back of my mind; a jealous, niggling ache. I was missing out on a large part of what it meant to be a social human being. The pleasantry of meeting for lunch or supper held no thrill for me. The great obsession for cookery programmes passed me by. When I went out, everywhere I looked there were restaurants with people sitting; eating, talking and having a good time together. By any reckoning, I was abnormal, sidelined, ostracized. My disorder made me strange and different. Making friends was difficult. There was always the worry about whether I told a person, and if so, at what stage in the relationship. As a child, I could never join in with the excitements of choosing penny sweets, ice creams at the beach or birthday teas. Dating was hard work; taking a woman out for a meal, choosing wine or cooking a special dinner were impossible tasks that highlighted my weirdness.

            My throat still sore, I sipped the hot milk with care. I had to fill my grumbling stomach with something before heading off to work. My tongue continued to feel odd. It tingled as I swallowed but the rawness was soothed by the liquid, so I downed the whole mug. I decided I could manage some porridge and tried a spoonful. Once more, my tongue seemed to prickle almost as if it had a spirit of its own. The feeling was pleasurable and I finished the bowl.

            Work was the usual dull rigmarole; meetings, telephone calls, writing reports, updating records, interspersed with general pleasantries with other work colleagues. At about ten thirty, Maggie came across for a chat. She was a friendly, full-figured woman, some might say dumpy, with straight, mousey hair. Ordinary but not unattractive. I had often wondered if she harboured some hope of a romantic liaison with me. We were both single, after all. I was middle-aged, balding and skinny so I could not afford to be too fussy. Even so, I had never asked her out. It was all too embarrassing.

            “Hello Nigel,” she said, “Are you all right? I noticed you look a bit under the weather today.”

It was like Maggie to notice something like that. She was the sort who paid attention to what was going on around the place.

            “I have a sore throat,” I explained.

            “Oh dear,” Maggie sympathized, “Can I get you anything?”

            “No, no thanks. A hot drink at lunchtime will help, I’m sure.”

As I was busy, the rest of the morning passed quickly enough. For lunch, I decided to pop out to a café on the High Street; a popular place buzzing with chatter and steaming with crowded bodies. Workmates praised the delicious smells and savoury nuttiness of the artisan breads cooked on the premises. Of course, I could not experience these wonders. No sense of taste meant no sense of smell either; the two inextricably linked. I did enjoy the cosy, relaxed atmosphere, however, and the fact that the seating was arranged in private nooks where I could read my paper in relative peace.

            When you cannot taste your food, ordering meals is difficult. So much to choose from but nothing to guide you. At this particular café, I normally picked the first item chalked up on the blackboard. That lunchtime, it was Roast Tomato and Basil Soup with Goat’s Cheese Focaccia. It sounded nutritious. The plump waitress gave me a wooden spoon with the number eight penned on it and I settled myself at a table tucked away in a corner bay. I had a quick glance around at the happy faces, gorging and gulping down food in ecstasy, then buried my head in the newspaper.

            Service at the café was excellent, another reason I favoured it, so the soup arrived quickly. I dipped my spoon in the steaming bowl, good and hot to ease my throat, and took a careful mouthful. My tongue exploded like a firework in a tin can and I dropped the spoon, showering the table top with orange droplets. Something strange was happening. A tangy, zingy reaction was reaching into my sinuses, stretching up and buzzing in my brain. My synapses were working overtime; detecting, calculating and recalibrating. This…must be what it felt like to taste…to smell. This sensation, this sharpness in my mouth, must be the taste of tomatoes. This tickling, this stinging in the nose, must be the smell of the soup. I had read descriptions about how food tasted; family and friends had tried to explain the nuances. Now, I was actually experiencing it. My mind, my tongue, my nostrils were making connections with the words. My body felt like it was in overdrive. The flavours and aromas were overwhelming. I had never felt so alive, so excited. I finished the soup, savouring each spoonful. Then I nibbled the bread, taking delicate, slow bites, breathing in the scent, enjoying the itchy, savouriness of the cheese.

            When the meal was over, I sat looking upon my fellow diners with benevolence. Now I understood. I hurried back to the counter. I needed to experience more flavours but I was spoilt for choice. Everything seemed like a new possibility; a mysterious door to open. I decided on dark chocolate cake and a cappuccino. Finally, I would discover what all the fuss was about. The minutes waiting for my cake to arrive were filled with unbearable apprehension. My pulse beat vigorously in my chest. Saliva gathered in my mouth. When it arrived, again quickly because of the great service, I stuck my fork into the brown, crumbly cake and took a large chunk. Another explosion in my mouth. A rich, sticky sweetness filled my throat and travelled up my nasal passages. The clockwork of my brain hummed. My heart quickened then settled in a steady rhythm. A great wave of contentment washed over me. I sipped the cappuccino expectantly. This feeling in my mouth must be a roasted nuttiness.  I laughed out loud attracting the bewildered attention of three diners at the next table. It did not bother me; I felt delirious.

            Back at the office, I sat at my desk enraptured.

            “You’re looking much better, Nigel.” Maggie commented when she brought over some paperwork.

            “I am better. In fact, I feel on top of the world,” I replied. “Something wonderful has happened.”

            “Oh, my goodness, I’m so pleased for you.” Maggie said, giving me an encouraging smile.

            “Look…would you like to come out with me tonight…go for a meal…to celebrate?” The words surprised me but I was different now; confident and assured.

            “Oh, Nigel…that would be lovely.” Maggie looked flattered and I felt exhilarated; empowered.

We dined that night at the most expensive restaurant in town. Maggie looked delightful in a floral knee length dress that revealed shapely calves. To reflect my new-found exuberance, I wore my only patterned tie with a pale pink shirt purchased on the way home. I instructed the waiter to select for us the best meal and wine on the menu, as this was a special occasion.

            “What a treat!” Maggie enthused, “Thank you for inviting me to celebrate with you. I hope you don’t mind me asking…what exactly are we celebrating?”

            “You are very welcome.” I replied, “Today, my life has changed unexpectedly for the better and I would like you to be part of that change. Today, for the first time ever, I have a sense of taste.”

            “Nigel, I’m so pleased for you. Do you mean that before today you couldn’t taste a thing? I never realized, you kept that quiet.”

            “It was a secret I hid from most people…one I bore with shame and regret. But now, things will be different. I feel like I have come alive. I want to start enjoying myself.”

We toasted this news with bubbling champagne. An aroma of spiced apples hit my senses. The dry, acidity fizzed in my throat ending in a subtle creamy flavour. 

            “So, this is champagne?” I said, “It really is like tasting stars.”

Maggie giggled, “I’ve never had expensive champagne before; it is delicious. The bubbles have gone to my head!”

Our starters arrived and we were rewarded with salty in the mouth salmon tartare, with a zesty lime and hot, peppery dressing. My heart began a fast, rhythmic beating. My tongue and nostrils prickled like static.

            “How are you finding it, Nigel? It has certainly put colour in your cheeks,” Maggie observed. She too had rosy patches growing on her face and beginning to travel down her neck.

            “It is amazing,” I said, “I never knew just what I’d been missing but I intend to catch up. Have some more champagne.” I refilled her glass to the top.

            “Cheers!” Maggie giggled again as we clinked glasses.

The waiter brought our main courses. I could smell the savoury, roasted flesh of the beef as he made his way down the aisle. It gathered in my nose, travelling up my nasal passages, sending wild signals to my brain. My mouth watered, my stomach clenched, in anticipation. As soon as the plates were on the table, I raised my knife and fork and tucked in. The meat was tender in my mouth, slightly metallic, like the blood I had tasted on my finger when I cut myself shaving getting ready that evening. The buttery, pungent Roquefort sauce coated my tongue and teeth thickly. I took a gulp of the spicy red wine; felt the burn of it in my nostrils. This was a kind of ecstasy.

            “It’s good, isn’t it?” Maggie said.

            “Good? It’s superb…it’s wonderful…the best thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.” I fought back tears of joy and gratitude.

            “I feel rather privileged to be sharing this with you, Nigel.”

            “I’m glad you are here to share it,” I said pouring out two more glasses of the dark, delicious red wine.

            “Oh, only a little for me…I’ll be falling over. I don’t often drink alcohol.” A splurge of red reached the edge of her neckline where her rounded cleavage began. There was movement in my trouser front as I watched her. Something was going on down there which I had never noticed before. I looked away quickly, took another swig of wine.

            “Time for dessert,” I said as the waiter approached.

            “I’m getting rather full…” Maggie said.

I still felt hungry, like I could eat everything all over again, “Don’t worry, I’ll finish yours if you can’t.”

The apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream was a divine concoction of acidity and sweetness. The pastry was buttery and crisp; it melted on the tongue. It had been a pleasurable evening. I had treated my newly discovered senses to an intense experience. I felt happy but this was only the beginning. There was plenty more to find out. I was not yet satiated.

The taxi dropped us outside Maggie’s modest semi. I paid the driver and walked her to the shadowy doorstep. She turned to face me.

            “Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said.

            “My pleasure.” I put my arm around her waist and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She smelt of beef and wine. Her lips tasted sweet like the vanilla in our dessert. I pushed my tongue into her mouth searching for undiscovered flavours. I recognized the metallic tang of flesh. She pushed me away.

            “I’d better say goodnight, Nigel. I’ve had too much to drink.”

            “Of course.” My cheeks burned hot, “I’m sorry Maggie…I got carried away…exciting evening…hope I haven’t spoiled things.”

            “No…it’s all right. I’ll see you in work on Monday.”

“Would you…dine with me again tomorrow?” I asked shyly.

“I’d love to.” She unlocked her door, waved a brief goodnight and went in.

I walked the mile and a half back to my house in a blissful daze. Life was good. Food and drink had opened up a different world for me. The possibilities seemed endless. My stomach rumbled at the memory of the delicious meal we had enjoyed that evening. I bounced up the garden path and put my foot down with a crunch. I lifted my leg to see what I had trodden on. There under my shoe, flattened and sticky, was a squashed snail. I bent down, scraped it from the pavement and popped it in my mouth. It was moist and chewy. I rolled it around my cheeks savouring the gritty, soil-like flavour.

Over the next three months, I took my taste buds on a gastronomic tour of the world. Every restaurant in town was sampled: French, Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, Greek and Turkish. Maggie and I ate out three or four times a week. We even tried the American diner and the local fish and chip shop. I developed the vocabulary and lifestyle of a gourmet. Every flavoursome delight was categorized and filed in my brain. Every new eating experience awakened further the spirit that had lain dull within me.

            I bought cookery books, utensils, spices and herbs. Each night after work, I experimented with a different culinary style. My shelves were stocked with myriad teas and coffees. My wine rack filled with the finest, most expensive bottles. As my wallet got thinner, my girth widened. I had bought a whole wardrobe of clothes to express my new, confident personality. Gone were the grey suits, white shirts and dull ties. Instead, I wore bright chinos and colourful, open-necked shirts.

            My hunger never diminished. The more I experienced, the more I wanted. When my mind was not preoccupied with food and drink, it turned to my other obsession: sex. Passion ran through my veins like a full-bodied, red wine. I had discovered a libido that had been well-hidden for many years. I was invigorated, hopeful and randy. My relationship with Maggie had been going well. We had fun together and were good friends but it had not progressed as far as I would have liked. I was desperate to get her into my bed. Her birthday was coming up and I planned to cook her a meal that would ensure we ended up under the sheets.

            In the fridge and cupboards, I had stocked a feast for lovers. Only those foods with an aphrodisiac quality had been selected. To eat, I had chosen oysters, a salad of avocado, rocket, celery and pomegranate with a chilli dressing and a dessert of bananas, melon and figs with a rich, dark chocolate sauce. To drink, there would be Muscadet for the oysters, an excellent Merlot mulled with cinnamon and the finest Colombian coffee to finish. The meal was calculated to achieve maximum sexual outcome. It could not fail. To add to the romantic atmosphere, I had bought a red table cloth, napkins and candles and had ordered ten red roses to arrive on the day.

            On the evening of Maggie’s birthday, I spent hours lovingly preparing the meal and tableware. When everything was ready to my satisfaction, I went upstairs to bath, shave and dress. Waves of anticipation rolled over me as I studied my reflection in the mirror. The trousers were a getting a little tight but the coming meal was purposefully light and overall, I thought I looked pretty good. Noticing my cheeks were rather too red, I decided to go into the garden to stand in the cooling air. As I passed through the kitchen, I grabbed the bowl of peelings to take to the compost bin.

Outside, the sky was turning purple-grey and the fresh breeze was wet with drizzle. It was getting late; Maggie would be arriving shortly. It would be a relief as my empty stomach gnawed painfully. The lid of the compost bin came away with a sucking sound. I sniffed the fusty, rotten odour of slick vegetable waste. Fat, juicy worms squirmed amongst the decay. I snatched up a fistful and stuffed them into my mouth, chewing on the slimy flesh; enjoying the meaty flavour. Greedily, I gulped down a couple more fistfuls to keep me going until we ate. The chime of the doorbell sent me running inside to wash my hands and welcome Maggie.

She was surprisingly radiant in a gold jumper and black skirt.  I led her to the table and she smiled in admiration at the roses and candlelight.

“How romantic. Thank you, Nigel.”

She pecked me on the cheek and I helped her into her seat.

We had a wonderful meal; the conversation and laughter flowed as freely as the wine. After we had eaten, we sat close together on the sofa finishing our coffees. Maggie put her head on my shoulder and sighed. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I stroked her hair and lifted her face to mine. We kissed and I ran my hands over her body. She did not stop me but pressed her lips harder against mine and pushed her body closer. My heart began to beat faster. I pulled the jumper slowly over her head. Again, she did not stop me. I undid her bra. Her body was curved, soft and pink like a peach. I rubbed my nose over her breasts and breathed in. Her skin smelt of spice and musk. I dribbled with hungry desire. I kissed her hard on the mouth, nibbled at her lip, tasted iron on my tongue.

            “Ouch.” Maggie’s face was anxious in the flickering light. A drop of blood glistened on her lower lip. “You will be gentle, won’t you, Nigel?”

Saliva pooled in my mouth. My pulse pounded in my brain. My stomach lurched and grumbled. My loins throbbed.

            “I’m sorry Maggie. I can’t help myself. You taste delicious and I’m starving…”

I opened my mouth wide and sank my teeth deep into her sweet, bare flesh.

—————————————————————————————————————————–

Happy Halloween everyone!

I have news

Next week, I begin a new stage in my life – as a student (again!) During the last year or so, with its constant miserable stories of Covid deaths, spreading variants and regular lock downs, I have been uninspired and low in mood. My writing has suffered through a lack of motivation and general disinterest. Mostly, I’ve avoided the news and the wider world. I’ve tucked myself away, walking the dogs and enjoying family time. Until more recently, I hadn’t seen many people or been out socialising. Even my choir was cancelled or online – and life without song is sad indeed. One thing I did decide was that I needed a big kick up the backside, so I applied to do a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at a local university. With more than a little surprise, they accepted me (even after reading two of my stories, a poem and perusing this blog). There are no excuses now. I must start to take my writing seriously.

Being a student again will be strange, I’m sure. Things have changed in academia and I must get used to the technology of online teaching, Team meetings and submitting my work online. In my day, we wrote everything by hand – apart from our final dissertation where we paid someone to type it up for us. Yes, I’m that old! Luckily, there are some face-to-face sessions, where I hope to feel more comfortable. The other students are likely to be younger than me, probably much younger and straight from their first degree. Writing should bring us together in shared interest and understanding. If I’m lucky, there may be other mature students signed up too. This should be a period of growth, learning and improvement for me, both as a person and a writer. Who knows? I may even start believing I am a writer.

Whatever happens, for the next two years, I have a plan – which I think is always a positive thing.

Sexual Healing

Dave Rodgers rubbed his straggly beard and sighed. Perhaps he should shave it off? Get rid of the grey. It might take years off him. Maybe then he’d have more luck on the dating app. So far, it had been fairly quiet. The only matches overly made-up and overweight; not one stoked the flames of his desire. Having said that, it didn’t take much to get him thinking about sex these days. He was pretty desperate. From habit, he looked down at his left hand, square and solid on the pitted desk, fingers thick like sausages. The pale line where the ring had lived for twenty years was fading. Soon nobody would be able to tell he’d ever been married. Eight months divorced, nearly a full year without getting any. Who was he kidding turning his nose up at those women? More likely they wouldn’t look twice at him if they saw him in person. His profile picture was at least two years old. Too many trashy sandwiches and sugary donuts grabbed from the garage. Too many greasy takeaways from the Indian on the High Street. Too many Big Macs on the lonely journey home from tedious staff meetings. He’d let himself go. Put on a few pounds, half a stone, probably a full stone. These days, his trousers cut into him, stomach rolling over the top button. He no longer wore a belt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had his hair cut or trimmed his beard. Yes, it had to go. He’d look better without it; younger, smarter. Saturday morning, he’d take a trip to the barber. He must start cooking for himself again too. Judy had loved his red Thai curry. And get out on his bike. He used to cycle miles every weekend but that had been with Judy for company. It wasn’t the same on your own.

Dave Rodgers became aware of a low buzz in the room, growing in intensity, an angry wasp at a picnic. He sat up straight.

“Er…” he said, “This is meant to be a silent reading session.”

The class quietened. He surveyed the room, scanning for anyone who had decided Pride and Prejudice wasn’t worth the effort.

“Read until the end of Chapter Three, then we’ll discuss the questions on the board. Any more mumblings and we’ll see who’d like to read out loud for us.” Dave Rodgers displayed his best condescending teacher smile.

There were a few audible moans. Year 10C weren’t a bad lot, not the brightest but fairly well-behaved overall. Getting through this Literature GCSE would be a slog. There were a few bolshy lads at the back, lost causes, probably with their mobiles tucked behind the book covers but he couldn’t be bothered to check. It was Friday and he only had to coast through this lesson and lunch duty and he would be finished for the week. He scanned the class again. Abbie Smith leaned back in her chair and stretched. Her large, round breasts straining at the buttons of her shirt. Pretty girl, Abbie. Bit rough around the edges but she had a spark about her. She could stand up for herself, didn’t take any crap from the boys and she got plenty of comments from them. With breasts like that it wasn’t surprising. He watched the shapely, ample flesh bulging at the buttons. He imagined sliding his fingers between those buttons, bursting the shirt open…

“Penny for ‘em. Mr Rodgers.” Abbie said.

He started. Abbie was watching him, disgust spreading on her face, as if somebody at the next desk had farted.

 “Sorry, I was miles away…”

A rumble of laughter travelled around the room. Abbie had caught him ogling. Had anyone else noticed? His face prickled with heat.

“Quiet! Has everyone finished the chapter?” he said, “OK, let’s discuss these questions then.”

Slowly, he stood up before the white board, bracing himself to face his pupils. What had he been thinking? He was a grown man, a professional, and there he was fantasising about a school girl’s tits. He must be some sort of pervert. He could get the sack for this. Could he get the sack for this? If she reported him, it would be her word against his. And he hadn’t actually done anything.

“So, who can summarise the chapter?” He turned, ready for the fray.

There were some mumbles, some shrugs.

“Anyone like to start?” He looked around the room, avoiding Abbie’s eyes.  

He wished the bell would ring, so he could go and hide in the staffroom. But he remembered he couldn’t. There was lunch duty. Was he a paedophile? No, he’d never actually touch her. But he’d like to. He knew that. A trickle of sweat ran along his spine beneath his wrinkled shirt. He really should get the iron out one day. If he looked tidier, he might get a date. Might not be so consumed with the thought of getting his end away. That was the problem. Judy leaving him, ‘drained and squeezed out like a soggy teabag’ to find a ‘relationship with someone who meets my needs’. Whatever that meant. She was to blame. The bitch.

“I’ll start. Sir.” It was Abbie, her tone confrontational.   

“Go ahead.” Dave Rodgers clenched his knuckles.

“Bingley ships Jane.” Abbie said.

“Ships?”

“He wants to have sex with her. Mr Rodgers.” Abbie’s voice was like punches to his gut.

Another rivulet of sweat dripped down his back. “Well, certainly Mr Bingley is attracted to Jane as a prospective wife.”

“And that other guy, Darcy. He’s a bit of a snob. Thinks he’s too good to ship Elizabeth. But he will…’cos that’s what men are like.”

Where was the bell, for Christ’s sake? Winded, he wanted to give up, plead an excuse to let everyone go early. Pathetic. He was in charge. The adult in the room.

He caught his breath. “I think that’s a little unfair. Darcy is looking for a suitable match. As Jane Austin says, at the very start of the novel, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. These social balls were set up for that purpose.”

“Bit like Tinder.” Ben Andrews piped up from the back. Everyone laughed.

“Quiet!” Dave Rodgers shouted.

“The point is, the women didn’t get much choice in the matter. It’s male entitlement. Us women still have to put up with men treating our bodies as objects. Like possessions to drool over and be taken.” Abbie’s statement was a final fist in his face. A murmur of agreement rose from the other girls.  

He rubbed his hairy chin. Little cow. “Hold on, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel. I think we’re going off topic here.”

A harsh clangour filled the room. With a scraping of chair legs on scratchy floors, everyone jumped up from their seats and began stuffing books into rucksacks.

“Wait!” The class silenced. “Think about the questions at home. We’ll finish the discussion when I see you on Tuesday. Class dismissed.”

Dave Rodgers turned to his desk to sort out his briefcase. He busied himself as the jostling, shouting and laughter receded. When the last pupil left, slamming the door behind them, he collapsed defeated in his chair. Every limb ached like he’d been in the ring with a rhinoceros. He could curl up and go to sleep for a year. Perhaps he needed some time off? The divorce had been difficult. Maybe he was suffering from stress? Yes, that must be it. His mind wasn’t right. After lunch, he’d go and see the Head about taking some sick leave.

Sylvotherapy

I wandered the woods,

followed the narrow dusty track,

skeletons of season on season littered my feet.

Sat beneath an aged oak,

salt tears stung my cheeks

as crows in the treetops taunted my sorrow.

I sobbed for the acrid air and poisoned rivers,

mourned the dying ash,

grieved the stray swallow family,

wailed the loss of lively hedgerow and swaying meadow,

sighed my sadness into the shadows.

“Hush child,” whispered the oak

lowering rough branches to cradle me,

foliage cool as the rippling stream.

“We will be here when human has gone.

When cutting, digging and taking is silent.

When shaping, ordering and reinventing is done.

Our seeds will grow deep in Earth’s warmth.

Our roots will spread wide and strong in the quiet.

Humankind will fall as Autumn leaves.

Flutter away like dust.

Hush now, your time draws near.

Spend it safe beneath our mantle.

Drink in calm, green beauty.

Rest on soft, mossy banks.

Be as trees, use only what is needed.

Grow resilient, face your future without fear.”

Renewed, I rose and began the journey home.

The last goodbye

Goodbyes are the worst.

Shrugging off the snug blanket of freedom,

carefree moments slip from the shoulders on

the station platform.

Back to normal life, cutting the loose yarn,

each passing township, another dropped stitch,

wearing thinner at every announcement.

The train rocks onward, trailing thread on thread,

And home will arrive.

Spring is alive

Bits of beauty,

moments of magic,

sights of something special,

out walking the dog.

Help me to remember,

time will be forgiving.

Remind me that life

is still worth living.

I haven’t felt much like writing recently, which isn’t good, but getting out and about enjoying Spring’s offerings can lift and inspire. I promised Angie at King Ben’s Grandma that I would share pictures of some the flowers here in the Welsh countryside as I’ve enjoyed looking at her photos of the exotic plants of SoCal.

A Woman’s Place

A woman’s place is in the home.

A woman’s place is on her back.

A woman’s place is to be a good girl.

A woman’s place is to be a dirty whore.

A woman’s place is mouth closed and legs open.

A woman’s place is to be kind.

A woman’s place is to show some compassion.

A woman’s place is to listen.

A woman’s place is to shut the fuck up.

A woman’s place is under a man.

A woman’s place is to share.

A woman’s place is nowhere.

A woman’s place is with friends.

A woman’s place is with family.

A woman’s place is at work.

A woman’s place is self-organisation.

A woman’s place is strong.

A woman’s place is to ask questions.

A woman’s place is to get angry.

A woman’s place is to speak out.

A woman’s place is to say no.

A woman’s place is to tell the truth.

A women’s place is a safe space.

A woman’s place is everywhere.

Loss

There has been too much death this past year. As I write this, 111,264 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK alone. Whilst grieving for lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or fearing for the loss of our loved ones, we have been forced to face our own mortality. For most of us, there is a realisation that life is a precious and fragile gift. We do not know how long we have. We must make the most of every moment, appreciate even the mundane or simple stuff. Striving for success or wealth or recognition is maybe not as important as we once thought. Some of us have been made to reconsider how we live our lives, whether we are in the place or the relationship or the job we want to be in. Others of us have reconnected with nature, the environment and community. We’ve remembered what we are here for, that we are part of the world and every living thing in it, not separate or special.

The virus, and the terror at possibly losing someone close, has made me think about how much I love my family and their importance to me. It has brought back memories from my childhood – occasions spent with my brother, Mum, Dad, cousins, Nanna and Grandad. Watching the film, The Dig, made me sob at the soft Suffolk accents, like those of my grandparents. Living in Wales, I rarely hear ‘silly Suffolk’ now. The sad news of Captain Tom’s death particularly made me remember special times with my Grandad, and his death over thirty years ago. Happy memories and upsetting memories.

My Grandad was a gentle man. A little ‘hen-pecked’, as they used to say, by my Nanna’s sharp tongue. He was an animal lover. His father had kept a donkey and cart. He grew up helping to care for the donkey and often talked of how he missed it. After he retired from working in a factory, he became a pigman. I loved the smell of him when he returned home from tending his pigs but Nanna used to shout, “Jack, get your overalls off!” at the back door. When I visited, he liked me to ‘do his hair’. I would stand behind his upright armchair and rub Brylcreem through the few grey strands around the side of his head with my fingers, brush the hair until it looked glossy with his special wooden, handle-free hairbrush, polish his bald pate with a little of the cream on a handkerchief, then take a long hard sniff of the warm, scented skin on the top of his head.

Sometimes, we would sing. He taught me the old songs – Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up Mother Brown, Show Me the Way to Go Home, The Pub with No Beer and, my absolute favourite, My Old Man’s a Dustman. Sometimes, he would tell me stories from when he was a boy, out delivering in the cart with his Dad, vegetables from their garden for the local people. Or other times, stories from the war when his factory started making munitions and he had a reserved occupation due to the skills he had operating complicated machinery. Nanna worked there too. He became an Air Raid Warden and was kept busy because my grandparents lived near Ipswich Airport (sadly now replaced with a housing estate) and there were plenty of US air bases in Suffolk which were often bombed. I had two favourite stories, one funny, one terrifying. The funny one was the time when my Grandad and Nanna were cycling home from the factory when the air raid siren went off. Nanna let out a scream, jumped off her bike, threw it towards Grandad then belted off down the road to the house. For some reason, she thought she could run faster than she could pedal! The terrifying story was when the air raid siren went whilst Grandad was gardening. He called to Nanna to come to their Anderson shelter and she got to the backdoor with baby Uncle Jack in her arms, as a German plane swooped in from the direction of the airport. Grandad said he must have released his bombs, as he could hear an explosion over the rooftops, then miscalculated as he turned his plane. He flew so low, the wings nearly touched the house and managed to steer upwards just in time to avoid a collision. Nanna said she could see the pilot’s frightened face looking at her from the cockpit as she comforted her bawling baby.

In my late teens, Grandad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For some while, there had been signs that something wasn’t quite right. We noticed a slight tremor in Grandad’s hands, a tapping of teacup on saucer, the sweet brown liquid escaping, a telling off from Nanna for spillages. Grandad became slower. He shuffled in his slippers over the carpet. Sometimes, he got stuck, frozen and rigid rising from his chair. Once diagnosed, Grandad quickly worsened. His speech slurred or he stammered or he whispered breathily. He began to be stuck more often. He started being vacant, staring into space and seeing things that were not there, people and conversations from his past. Sometimes he would join in and talk about things that had happened years before as if he were in that moment. Grandad lost himself. Then came the dizziness and falls. When home from university, I visited Grandad to find him black and blue. We still sang together though and he remembered all the words.

At the end of my first year at university, enjoying a restful summer holiday in my parent’s sunny back garden, we got a phone call. Grandad had fallen down the stairs. He was in intensive care and things did not look good. Mum, Dad and me rushed to the hospital. We arrived to find Grandad in a coma. Apparently, he had died in the emergency room but been brought back to life by the doctors. I understood that was their job, but looking at my Grandad, face blackened with bruises, tubed up, heart and vital organs monitored in that white antiseptic room, I wondered why. Why had they brought him back to this? Why hadn’t they let him go in quiet dignity? His body was broken and suffering. His mind was wandering and confused and now retreated deep into himself. Seeing him lying there, I wanted to shout out in angry misery but I choked down the enormous painful lump in my throat. Mum and Nanna needed me.

The hospital staff said they were not sure Grandad would make it through the night, so Nanna could stay in a special flat for relatives if she wanted to. It would save her having to rush back if anything changed. I agreed to keep her company. She looked so small, her face pale and afraid. It hit me then how much she loved him, although she had often appeared cross with him. Dad offered to bring us the things we needed for the night. The flat had a kitchen area, a bed and a small shower room off. The staff had made me a put-up bed on the floor. Nanna fussed with her nightdress and toiletries then sat down on the only chair. She looked spent. I made us tea. We didn’t feel like food. Nanna talked anxiously about whether Grandad would be all right. I didn’t know what to say but tried to reassure. I felt sick with anxiety and was glad when Nanna suggested we got to bed. I lay awake with worry. Nanna managed to sleep, I supposed it was her age. Soon she was snoring and I resigned myself to a restless night. For a while, I wept silently for my Grandad, for his sweet-smelling head and gentle singing. Then, in the way that tragedy can often become comedy, Nanna began to break wind, probably due to the stress of the day. Suddenly, I found myself giggling as each fart erupted. I think it was some sort of hysteria. I bit my lips and dug my nails into my palms to stop myself.

Grandad made it through the night. The rest of the summer was spent visiting the hospital with Mum. We sat with Grandad. Day by day, his situation was unchanging. The staff said we must talk to him, and keep chatting amongst ourselves too, as he could hear everything. It was difficult, thinking of things to say when we were bereft. Sometimes, to fill the silences, we put the radio or TV on. The nurses came in and out doing their checks and care routines. We ate dreadful canteen food with little appetite, washing it down with cups of tea. With nothing to say, I began to sing to Grandad, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. Roll Out the Barrel, Show Me the Way to Go Home and My Old Man’s a Dustman. With that one, I noticed a flicker of the eyelids. I looked at Mum. She hadn’t noticed. Not wanting to raise her hopes, I said nothing but sang it again. A small miracle! Grandad’s lips began to move. He was mouthing the words. I leant near his face and kept singing. I could hear his breathy whispering – ‘He wears cor-blimey trousers’. Tears trickled down my face, “Mum, get the nurse.”

After that, the whole family sang with Grandad every day. He slowly woke up. One morning when we visited, he was sitting up in bed. It was a shock. He was awake but a shadow of himself. A ghost of Grandad. An empty shell. He did not know us. He looked around blankly. He didn’t really speak again. A few words. But Grandad never came back. In many ways, the following weeks were worse. He moved to a ward. He remained in bed. He was fed, bathed, given drinks through a straw. He developed bed sores and a nasty case of thrush in his mouth. Everyone was celebratory – he was getting better – but I was relieved when I had to return to university. Guiltily, I wished I had never woken him with a song.

A couple of weeks after I left, I got a phone call at my bedsit. Grandad was dead. It was terribly sad. It was also a huge relief. For me, Grandad died when he fell down the stairs. His prolonged stay in hospital had not been living at all. I went home for the funeral and cremation. Poor Nanna, alone after fifty-three years of marriage. We buried his ashes in a garden of remembrance. I bought a small statue of a pig to put next to the small plaque to remember him by. Grandad loved his pigs.

Sex and sausage rolls

When I was a girl, I used to enjoy sleep overs with my cousin Stacey who was almost exactly a year older than me. Sometimes, we slept at my Nanna and Grandad’s house. We would share the big double bed in the chilly front bedroom and lay there talking and giggling until late, or until Nanna came to scold us. I relished scaring Stacey silly with stories about ghosts or ‘Creeping Jesus’ – an unfortunate man with long, lank hair, always in sandals, who passed my house every day. He had become a character in many stories of child abduction, stalking and murder. As the passing cars cast shadows across the curtains, I would tell my tales until Stacey shrieked in fear and we heard the bump, bump of Nanna inching up the stairs, “Go to sleep, girls!” One summer, I told Stacey the facts of life. This story was the most horrific she’d heard yet. She exclaimed in disbelief, “They put their thing where? Well, I’m never having children!”

Our favourite game was to pick fluff from the blanket, roll it into a ball, then wet it with spittle before throwing it up at the ceiling. If a ball stuck, it was a win. Uncle Jack, Stacey’s father, had told us all about this game. Remarkably, Nanna never seemed to notice the fluff balls hanging precariously from the ceiling or find them when they finally fell to the floor. Or if she did, she never mentioned it to us, which was a relief as she could have a sharp tongue when she felt it was needed.

Other times, I went to stay at Stacey’s. Auntie Deirdre would make a bed up for me on the floor in Stacey’s room and the same hilarity would occur. We had a little more freedom at Stacey’s because her parents stayed up until late watching the television on full volume. One stay, when I was about twelve and Auntie Deirdre had gone to her morning job, Stacey beckoned me into the box room, “I’ve got something to show you!” She was wide-eyed and excited. She climbed onto the narrow bed and stretched up to reach a high cupboard. “They’re in here. I found Dad’s porno mags.” I had no idea what she meant but a heap of magazines tumbled onto the bed. Stacey sat down next to the pile and grabbed one, “Look!”

I received an education that morning. Uncle Jack had found new games to play. The magazines were glossy, full of black and white, some might say artistic, photographs of a couple in various acts of carnal passion. It was the Joy of Sex or the Karma Sutra with real people. I had never seen such biology before. Stacey and I gaped and giggled in incredulity, “Why would she want to do that?” We were so occupied, we didn’t hear the key turning in the front door. “I’m home!” Auntie Deirdre shouted. In a mad scramble, we scraped the magazines together and threw them back up in the cupboard.

Auntie Deirdre smiled as we appeared at the top of the stairs, “Had a good morning? I thought we’d pop into town. I need to go to Woolies and we can have a bit of something to eat in the canteen.” I couldn’t look her in the eye. On the bus to town, Stacey and I whispered and sniggered. Thoughts of the things adults got up to lodged in our brains. It was hard to see the passengers, tightly squeezed together on prickly seats, in the same way now we knew their smutty secrets. In Woolworths canteen, we stood before the glass counter and chose our food. “Sausage rolls look nice,” Auntie Deirdre said and we both burst into laughter. We took our sausage rolls and sat at the shiny formica table. Neither of us could bring ourselves to eat them. “Come on, they’ll get cold.” Auntie Deirdre prompted. I lifted mine to my mouth and took a bite. Stacey squealed and I guffawed, sending meat and crumbs all over the table top. “Whatever is wrong with you girls today?” Auntie Deirdre tutted.

Pornography was different when I was young. Available only in sex shops, or on the top shelf at the newsagents, it was fairly difficult to get hold of. Now, internet porn is easily available and children are watching it; some surprisingly young. As demand has risen, porn sites have made their pornography more shocking and hardcore to get an audience. Much of it involves violent acts perpetrated on women. Some sites, such as Pornhub, have made material featuring child abuse and rape available. There are links between pornography and sex trafficking. Sex education is poor in schools, so kids learn about sex from porn. They think they are expected to behave like that. Violent, hardcore acts seen in pornography have become mainstream, encouraged by women’s magazines. Young men see women as sex objects. Young women advertise themselves as ‘enjoying being choked’ on Tinder. Desperate to attract a partner, they do not understand the dangers. The porn industry is wealthy, powerful and influential in our society. We have let this happen. We are letting our children down.

War

This morning my dog woke me before light. I crept downstairs on aching limbs; hauled on my coat and wellies to take him out into the freezing air for his first business of the day. There was a hard frost; sparkling over the grass in the lamplight, as if an over-enthusiastic child had sprinkled glitter everywhere making the garden a Christmas card. The world slumbered, frozen in fantasy land, and I expected silence. Instead, the rumble and roar of a mechanical monster stalking the fields beside my home assailed my ears; its two fiery eyes like searchlights scanning the icy darkness. A fountain of stinking, putrid liquid manure gushed from its rear, coating the rock-hard ground.

Nature is not in harmony with farming in the Welsh countryside. A war rages and wildlife is losing the battle. Farmers say the slurry adds valuable nitrogen to fertilise the soil and they are simply recycling animal waste. In truth, they are caught in a cycle of growing monoculture grasses, cutting for silage and spreading muck which depletes the earth of nutrients. Winters in Wales are wet. When it is cold, the ground freezes and muck cannot soak into the earth. Rain washes slurry into streams and rivers, removing oxygen and killing plants, invertebrates and fish.

Farmers are at war with the Welsh Assembly too. New regulations to prevent muck spreading in the winter were due to come into force in January 2020 but farmers protested and the Assembly conveniently buried it under the ensuing Covid crisis. I understand that farmers are in a difficult position and they need to make a living. My farmer neighbour has recently bought up several hundred acres of land surrounding my home in order to double his herd. He has weed killed and ploughed up fields that were laying almost fallow; full of wildflowers, cut once a year for hay. He has cut down trees and hedges, thick with insects and birds. He has planted grass for silage winter feed for his many cattle. Life has become harder for local wildlife. My unruly, overgrown garden is a sanctuary. From my windows, I watch the year-long rotation of cows grazing, grass growing and silage cutting, and muck spreading. I listen for the tractors racing up and down the lanes, holding my breath as they pass while I walk my dogs, fearing for my life and for my cats tentatively crossing the road. Double the herd means double the dung. He has a lot of shit to shift.

There must be a solution. Some way for farmers to work in harmony with nature. I am biased, I know. My concern for the environment and animal welfare means I have chosen a vegan lifestyle (I won’t go into the unpleasant breeding cycle I sadly have to observe living next to a large dairy farm.) If people could cut down on milk and meat consumption that would be a start, as well as Government legislation to support farmers to work in ways that help, not harm, the countryside. Some farms are managing this but we have a long way to go.

For all our sakes, nature must win this war.