‘Kitchen Forensics’

drawing of fliesMy resolve falters as I reach the kitchen door. It will be huge and offensive. It will require a delicate touch. It will be mine to deal with – yuk!

As I approach, an advance scouting party of flies lifts off and disperses itself across less appetising surfaces to wait, I imagine, for the all-clear. Well, not for a while and not here I tell them. I peer forensically at the agglutinated mass, put on gloves and aim a squirt of surfactant at the festering heap. Then, dissecting out two small bones and a piece of cartilage, I wonder for the nth time how come last night’s washing up is always my job[1].

 

 

 

[1] If you’ve ever shared a flat and had a party, you know how this goes. That is, unless you’re the one who gets up last and it’s all been done, gets up so early your hangover hasn’t even started yet and you leave the house in your underpants, or you emerge from the wardrobe three days later and nobody knows who you are.

 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘Micro Management’

drawing of man painting sinking boat‘So they want us to use a particular font of a particular size and a particular colour for our email signatures?’[1]

‘Yep’

‘And there’s no corporate stationery or template for this?’

‘Nope, you make your own.’

‘I see.’ I think it over, devoting a whole nanosecond to the process, which still seems rather too much in view of the subject matter. I deliver my judgment.

‘And when, collectively, we blow it out of our arses, do they want it to be a particular fragrance?’

Ok, not exactly constructive, I’ll give you that, but when the boat’s sinking, you don’t call in the painters and decorators do you? We aren’t meeting our targets and why? Because management is fiddling with the curtains when they should be checking out the dry rot. Each time a target is missed, instead of finding out why that happened, they simply beat everyone over the head with a big stick, threaten to name and shame poor performers and delete a whole band of jobs. The upshot? You guessed – the people who were doing one job and failing to meet targets are now doing two, one of which they didn’t apply for, have no skills in and don’t understand. So what happens? Right again. Even more targets get missed, another round of deletions ensues and suddenly everyone is doing three jobs, only one of which they have a now fading grasp upon.

Meanwhile, somebody with no important nail varnishing or nose hair removal scheduled, has got the hump about email signatures that show a spark of originality, and you’d think it is a form of insurgency given the attention it’s receiving.

I examine my signature: wrong font, wrong size, wrong colour. Perfect.

[1] This could apply to almost any corporate body, any time, anywhere. It didn’t.

 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘The Bridge’

drawing of cowI am moseying along the river bank, heading towards the old wooden bridge. In the far pasture over on the other side, a batch of newly turned-out cattle is cavorting and bucking in celebration of its liberation. Also on the far side, well ahead of and oblivious to the cattle, is a family; a two + two of seemingly stranded townies who are staring with incredulity at the stile over which they must climb in order to cross the bridge. Each of them is carrying rather more bulk than is strictly necessary, and they clearly see the narrow step up and over as a ridiculous indulgence put there by the locals for no other reason than to inconvenience visitors.

They turn their attention to the metal gate, a makeshift affair bent to fit the wider entrance and there to give access for the odd cyclist or baby buggy. Lugging it aside far enough to allow them through, which is a substantial distance, the group is meandering onto the bridge, leaving the gate open. I call across.

‘Would you close that please?’

‘What?’ The man gathers the beginnings of a hostile expression onto his face, and it seems to suit him.

‘The gate, would you close the gate please. You just opened it.’

‘What for?’ The four of them draw together in a belligerent tableau.

‘It’s there to stop large, mindless beasts from getting onto the bridge, which is quite old and a bit delicate.’ I wave at the rumbustious cattle and then at the pock-holed planks and struts upon which they are standing. I look up and smile, ‘Too late though, I see.’

I step up my pace and skip over the stile onto the track back into the village wondering how long it will take them:

One …

Two …

‘Oi! What the … ?’

Ok – not bad.

 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘Dressing Up Boxes, and Dressing Up By Wearing Boxes’

drawing of figure with wingsYou have to be a certain age to remember dressing up boxes. Today’s tiny tots can put in for a replica of the entire Beckham estate for Xmas & call their lawyers if Santa doesn’t deliver, so the frisson of transforming cast off curtains and abandoned antimacassars into theatrical costumery will be lost to them.

Our dressing up box was a battered old suitcase out of which we selected ancient curtains & lace doilies to serve as the trappings of royalty. Net curtains became the wings or the floaty ethereal dresses of fairies; the big velvet ones you had to lug out two-handed transformed scabby-kneed six year-olds into caped crusaders, aided by some tin foil and a cracked cricket stump to serve as a death ray. A bit of old rag and several terabytes of imagination and you were castaways, princesses, knights and astronauts, pirates and bandits, pressing into service old cardboard boxes, stuff from your dad’s tool box and any domestic animals that could be persuaded to wear a bonnet.

But once you’re grown up, that’s it, isn’t it?  Well, no as it turns out. Somewhere in the depths of your computer, assuming it’s fast enough and has a graphics card you could light NASA up with, is the facility to grant access to the biggest dressing up box you ever saw in your life.  Second Life[1], actually. Once you’ve signed up, logged on and discovered how to make your legs work, you can be let loose onto The Grid, as it’s called by its developers, or the ‘What the Cripes Was That?’ as everyone else knows it, at least until they’ve discovered how not to wear boxes on their heads[2].

Once there and in full charge of your limbs, you can head off (walk, fly, teleport if you don’t mind) to a shopping mall of your choice and dress yourself in anything at all that takes your fancy. A bit of a yen to be a punk? Missed out on the Goth era and fancy taking another crack at it? Want to feed your inner Barbara Cartland with acres of pink fluff and confection? No problem.  You can even change your skin colour, your hair and your shape – Bit less bum, rather more leg Madam? Of course. T-W-E-A-K. One person I first came across as a rather gangly bloke, turned up a few days later looking much shorter and rather more girlie.  Clearly either an identity crisis or he/she hadn’t got the hang of the controls yet.

And you don’t have to wait to get your new stuff home before trying it on – just drag it over there and then and … this is the moment you realise that all your clothes just disappeared and you’re standing in a shopping mall wearing only a pair of leopard print stilettos and a mysteriously acquired tattoo on your backside proclaiming, ‘Queen Bitch’ in a large florid font.

Still, at least you haven’t got a chunk of advertising hoarding round your neck or a skateboard with a mind of its own attached to your left foot. Once you have that sort of thing in hand, you can afford to pass off the odd episode of inadvertent exhibitionism with a casual burst of multi-coloured particles, or simply break into some smooth moves you picked up at the animation warehouse. Do be careful with these though, some of them are not too clearly labelled and you don’t want to be demonstrating er, how shall I put this – reproductive behaviour. In a crowded bar. On your own. Best way to get yourself banned.

 

[1] Second Life is a virtual world in which scientists conduct experiments and everyone else dresses as dragons, cats, or women in suspenders whose legs end somewhere under their armpits. The populations are possibly interchangeable.

[2] It still happens. Did it last week.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘Glastonbury, Meteorology, and Shouting at Swans’

drawing of sheepSaturday and I’d spent most of the morning keeping an eye on the weather as we had been promised our seasonal blend of sun, showers and thunder storms and, finally judging it safe to head for the fields without a wetsuit, I strapped the dogs into their harnesses and hit the road. Naturally, as soon as we arrived at a wide open space devoid of any cover, the sky assumed the quality of the inside of a biscuit tin and the rain came down in stair rods, thereby putting paid to any chance of a future career as either a psychic or meteorologist.  On reflection though, the latter may not be entirely out of the question as, in 1987, Michael Fish famously dismissed the approach of the hurricane that flattened most of the south east and left me with somebody else’s shed in my garden and a bemused looking sheep outside my garage.  That kind of meteorology I can manage.

Of course the biggest clue to forthcoming weather conditions is the open air music festival calendar and this week it’s Glastonbury where the mud is traditionally at chest level and after about half an hour nobody knows what gender anyone else is because of the layers of variously baked on and reapplied primeval loam.  Liberally mixed with E.coli and various exotic herbs, this stuff is guaranteed to expand the minds of sleep deprived and over-indulged punters or at the very least peel off a few layers of alimentary epithelials and chuck them over the fence into next door’s tent.

There’s something remarkably special about Glasto;  it’s not polished, it’s not slick – well it is if you’re up to your fundamentals in sludge and you take a run at something – it’s raw and intimate, personal and communal. Back in the day when I was spritely enough to leap about in a field with several thousand other people to a band of unwashed youths at a headline gig rather than sofa-bopping in front of the telly, there weren’t any such shindigs to go to. Hendrix pretty much started it at the Isle of Wight, and Glastonbury followed with a hippy, folksy, medieval fayre event that got entirely upstaged by Hendrix himself who’d had the bad grace to pop his clogs twenty four hours earlier. These days we have multi-acre swamps for the hardy young creatures of the twenty-first century who are willing to queue in the rain for the privilege of taking a leak in an oversubscribed and thoroughly dispiriting portaloo. Probably the wacky baccy and litres of Stella Artois go some way to knocking the edge off that particular experience while, curiously enough, enhancing the rest.

Back in the fields, there is a bit of a ruckus going on up ahead.  Apparently a large swan in an ugly mood is attacking another that has got in the way of him and his mate who is sailing majestically down-river with her flotilla of tiny cygnets.  People on either side of the river are doing what people do when two large entities start slugging it out – they are standing back and shouting ‘Oi!’ One group is smiling; they think the birds are mating.  We give them a country look as we pass by; ‘stoopid townies’ it says. It’s Saturday.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘Aliens on Your sofa’

drawing of two catsToday, we’re off to the Vet’s and it’s the turn of Ms Muppet and General Montgomery.  If you’ve seen that three page treatise on how to give a cat a pill, you may be wondering why there isn’t one about getting cats into carriers.  Well that’s because the process is so deeply traumatic that it can’t be reported without reopening deep psychological wounds.  And we’re not talking about the cats here you understand.

Anyway, today is the day and, aiming for nonchalance, I set out the two carriers in a separate room.  These are minutely explored, inspected and then inhabited by every cat except my two targets so that guerrilla tactics have finally to be employed. Nabbing Ms Muppet, who is essentially a two-cat-cat-in-a-one-cat-pack, I go for the cooperative approach, pointing her at the entrance to the carrier and shoving gently from behind. So she does what cats uniquely do under those circumstances and morphs into a star shape, grabs the sides of the carrier and hangs there like a gigantic Garfield. I regroup.  Pulling backwards, I haul cat and carrier across the room, narrowly avoiding a backward somersault into the litter trays. Ms Muppet lets go to huff off into a corner and sits with her face up against the wall. I sneak up, apply an arm lock and propel her bum first into the box.  Door shut, cat contained, job done.  Now for the General. Again, I try dignity first, making the suggestion that he takes his seat in the carrier.  Not a hope.  Propulsion then.  He assumes the position and, I swear, exposes an array of seven inch claws at all points, including his tail, simultaneously elongating his jaw and giving me a look that speaks of biomechanical devices lurking beneath fur that now hints at scales and body armour.  This is no longer a cat; this is the nightmare product of an Alien-Borg union and I am neither Ripley nor Picard.

Gardening gloves.

I take hold of the front end of the cat; the back end whips around, executes an extraordinarily balletic movement and Miladdo is over my shoulder and abseiling down the back of the computer. I take the carrier to the cat and sneak up from behind, manoeuvring the now winged and primeval monster into it backwards.  Cat concertinas and exits via my scalp and I am reminded of an occasion long ago when, cleaning out the habitats of our pet rats, one ran up my arm and stood yelling on top of my head just as the power suddenly went off and cut the lights.  There is something quite bizarre about standing in the dark with a shrieking rodent on your head and I subsequently employed it as a chat-up line but without much success, it has to be said.

Back on planet earth, my target is sitting attending to his personal force field and so I pounce – the carrier goes over his head and I worm the door underneath in the tried and tested method for nabbing spiders. Victory, we can leave! – although after all these shenanigans, a bit of a lie down wouldn’t go amiss. I lug them to the car and heave the carriers onto the seats. Block and tackle would be handy. Then comes the racket.

Strapped in and underway, these two set about building a rising cacophony of protest which can only end one way – poo in the blanket. The aroma gathers strength as we negotiate the Saturday traffic and I consider opening the windows to see if sharing it will improve our progress. It certainly gets us plenty of clearance in the waiting room and we’re into the consulting room rather quickly. The vet wrinkles his nose and looks over his glasses at me.

‘He’s a bit loose.’

‘So would you be if you’d been hanging upside down from the roof of your transport and trying to saw your way out with your teeth!’

He flares his nostrils like a horse and seems to conduct a search of his internal diagnostic catalogue for roof-dangling induced squit. He must come up short because he harrumphs, loads a syringe, and inoculates the squitter before you can say offensiveyellowdiarrhoea. We escape, load up, head home minus one offensive blanket, and twenty minutes later I discharge two thoroughly offended felines onto the driveway.  Cat treats restore dispositions and my two aliens decamp to the sofa. I locate the savlon and consider tranquiliser darts for next year.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

‘Lawn Dogs and Budgerigars in the Cress’

drawing cat under a hat

Do you remember when mowing was something your dad did on Sundays while your mother got tea ready?  A gentle click click click up and down, and the result looking like a cricket pitch but without the silly mid-off or blokes hammered on real ale and expecting to intercept a small leather missile travelling at light speed.

Of course this was a less relaxed activity when, instead of tea, something called High Tea was scheduled.  This was generally a tuna or spam salad which comprised a precise number of lettuce leaves and slices of radish, a couple of large semi-indestructible tomatoes, and some cress.  The cress, I learned later, was not the stuff posh people knew by that name – the large leaved, power packed salad items grown in running water and nipped off at the peak of taste and texture; that’s the sort you get in bags from Sainsbury’s. No; this was the stuff you grew on a flannel in the bathroom – if you had a bathroom – and you put it in water on the table to stop it drying out; a feat it seemed able to accomplish in extraordinarily short order.

For us, High Tea was a Highly Mannered ritual to be performed for the purposes of demonstrating one’s capacity to set out the cutlery in the right order and on this one particular occasion we were being visited by some rather puffed up relatives who, at their own home, had a front room into which riff raff like us were never invited, but from whom my parents hoped to cop the odd bob or two when they passed on.

Seated around the table with the best china laid out, the salad distributed among the assembled parties, and me howling about the unacceptability of radishes (Get it down you, there are starving children in India), our budgie, perched aloft on the curtain rail and forgotten, suddenly launched himself at the table, landed in the cress and there proceeded to flap, preen and splash in the performance of his ablutions. Then, with exquisite timing, our cat appeared, recalled her feral origins and made a dive for the budgie who was now strutting his stuff in the direction of the buttered bread, leaving a trail of cress across the table.

By this time, both parents had given up on any hope of future pecuniary advantage in the interests of preserving some semblance of a meal – presumably because of the starving children in India – and set about prising the cat off the table cloth and securing the bird with the help of somebody’s hat. Order restored, the fruit salad was produced as though nothing had happened and the illusion of dignity was dragged back into the room with the offer of ‘a small sherry’ to accompany it.

When the time came we only got a pair of curtains from the rellies and I buried a cat in one of them.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

‘Fundamentals’

drawing of corsetI’m in M&S today and I am bewildered.  When you went to the old Marks and Sparks to replace your underwear – once every three or four years, generally – because it no longer achieved its primary purpose i.e. staying up (knickers) and holding up (bras), it was an uncomplicated business.  You made your way through the serried ranks of safe sweaters, sensible skirts and, at the far end, way out of range of the casual gaze, you circled the two counters displaying under garments.

Bras came in three sizes; small, medium and large, and colours were either white, (thoughtfully pre-greyed for convenience), or subtle shades of Elastoplast. Knicker sizes were much the same but the colours included bottle green, dark brown and navy to accommodate local school uniform demands.  The not-quite one-size-fits-all approach was the domestic application of relativity in that garments fit where they touched and quite often didn’t do that without safety pins, leading to unexpected wrigglings and impromptu vocalisations during fourth period Latin or the church table tennis tournament.

The situation for Larger Ladies was different.  At a separate counter would be displayed corsetry that must have been designed by the military with covert operations and armed combat in mind.  In the familiar shades of Elastoplast and white, these architectural constructions contained bones, hooks and ties to harness and hold in place the nation’s matriarchal adipose lest any should wobble in full view of the Vicar or other local dignitary.  Breathing did not appear to be an option but the capacity to launch anti-tank missiles without flinching was clearly integral to the design.

Thus the purchase of bras and knickers in days of yore took about ten minutes start to finish and off you went to turn out the old ones (washed and sometimes even ironed) for the ‘remnants’ box.  Occasionally these would reappear, to the previous owner’s horror, in the boot of the car as accessories to the dip stick wiping, axel grease smearing and sump emptying rituals performed by the man of the house.

Today, a trip to 21st century M&S requires a level of stamina and decision making capability more common to the political strategist than the unwary punter in search of suitable foundation garments. Bras come in more sizes, shapes, materials and patterns than seems entirely decent – which some of them aren’t – and many are so constructed that they could probably go out on their own and get served in a bar. One line; slinky, slippery and rather gaudy, sports a label saying ‘Touch me!’ which one rather hopes is detachable, or at least comes with an easily activated deterrent should some shifty character try to take advantage.

There’s no respite in the knicker department either; shorts, thongs, strings, high rise, low rise, army khaki, leopard print, lace and something that looks a lot like polystyrene.  And black.  Lots of black.  In the hinterland of fashion circa 1950, there was never black; that was for hussies and had to be purchased in dubious outlets that only men knew of. It was where they went in desperation on Christmas Eve to ‘get something for the wife’ and what they got in return from ‘the wife’ was usually a clip round the ear at the intimation that she might be the sort of woman who would wear that kind of nonsense.

Unattended men were never seen in the underwear department of Messrs Marks and Spencer unless in the company of formidable matrons whose capacity to wither a frisky thought at birth had been practised under their mother’s tutelage.  In fact even a somewhat tottery thought asking vague questions about whether it was tea time yet would have been hard pressed to survive and would most likely have gone home for a sit down with an iced fancy instead.

Not so these days; now there are men everywhere. Some of them are evidently lost, having strayed in from the sandwich section, while others have made it with laser guided precision under cover of stocking up the freezer with whatever Nigella Lawson was pouting over on TV last night. Never has the ordinary male taken so much interest in the preparation of food and never has their associated female gone to such lengths to capitalise on this. ‘If we had some of those cutlets and a few cranberries I could maybe do that thing Nigella did the other night …’ Whoosh. ‘As you’re going anyway, there’s a list on the fridge door … And could you drop the dry cleaning off at the square then pick Amy up from her violin lesson as it’s on your way (kind of)?’ Sneaky but what the heck, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

An earlier version was published in Boomunderground, as Fundamentally Wrong, 2009.

‘Heels’

drawing of bus

Heels

Yesterday, on the way to the fields and anticipating not just an encounter with Donovan the Lonely Horse but also a soaking due to the gathering gloom above, I came across a double decker bus.  Not too unusual you might think, but in this part of the world we’ve only just stopped pointing at cars and describing them as horseless carriages, so the arrival of a bus is quite an event[1], especially when apparently stranded at the end of a lane it should never have been able to get up and only has steps, a field and a river beyond. Anyway, being incorrigibly nosey and there being a couple of blokes in bus crew gear hanging about, I figure there is most likely a wedding in the offing.  That and it is parked outside the church. And so it turns out: the young bridegroom has been deposited with the vicar, the building is in lock down, and the bus is waiting to transport guests to the post-splicing reception. In reverse, presumably. The reason it’s up there instead of a couple of hundred yards down-wind is, apparently, in deference to the ladies of this entourage who will be wearing shoes with heels and so can not be expected to walk very far.

Well! Does anyone else recall teetering home from the school dance in the snow in party frock and stilettos because all the public transport had stopped? Not to mention those hours of shopping with your mother (because she wouldn’t trust you to come back with something sensible if let loose alone and quite rightly because who wanted sensible?) trailing around in your best kit just in case an eligible boy were to be similarly flying under the maternal flag in search of longer trousers?

‘Kit’ then meant the most excruciatingly constraining underwear within which one’s newly acquired bosom and bum were being compressed to invisibility and from which stockings were suspended with the sole purpose of losing contact at critical moments, such as crossing the road or, in my case, while hopping around trying to haul my heel out of a ventilation grate in an indoor market.  Add to that the further accoutrements associated with the times when one ‘had the painters in’ and any notion of getting a bit of a shift on would be about as feasible as a trip to the moon on the computing power of an iPod. Although to be fair they managed that a couple of years later.

Our lane is a doddle in comparison. Not even any mud.

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

 

[1] It still is, at one every two hours and a route plan that looks like one of those puzzles where you have to figure out which kitten is playing with which ball of wool.

The Hills Are Alive …

…with the sound of feline yodelling. In the manner of one’s elderly granny upping sticks in the middle of the night to go shopping, wearing only carpet slippers and a hat she drawing of catbought for a wedding in 1946 and kept because it would ‘come in’, Pickle is beginning to take leave of whatever senses Persians start out with. This has never been much to write home about as anyone living with a Persian will testify. That blank look, reminiscent of an iDog[1] that just drained its battery, is what Persians do between thoughts, and since thoughts are about as frequent as the bus service from Thwing to Wetwang (real places, I kid you not), being globally switched off is a fairly permanent state of affairs.

That is, until senility sets in, then suddenly all cerebral hell breaks loose and we have full scale regression. In Pickle’s case this is a reprise of motherhood and so, at unspecified (and all too frequent) intervals during the night, she calls to non-existent kittens whom she hopes to feed with the bits of paper she’s collected from under the sofa.

And the yodelling? Well, tiny kittens stay home and you deliver their food to them; initially from the on-board milk bar then later in a dish or, if you’re feral, as a take-away, which means plundering the local rodent population and then chomping bits off for them.

As they get older and more mobile, kittens are more likely to be wreaking havoc; up the curtains, say, on top of a cupboard, or down a hole, so parking yourself at base and chuntering reassuringly in the expectation that they will all line up obediently for souris tartar is hardly going to be effective. So this, of course, is why you yell. You yell in the loudest, lowest frequency you can muster because the sound has to travel through walls, soft furnishings and the piles of crockery in the kitchen cupboards with the so-called cat proof locks. Also a gob full of struggling rodent even if that’s a vague feral fantasy. The upshot is that your cat’s vocal output goes from Lily Allen, unplugged, in the middle of a field to Pavarotti with Hawkwind’s sound system parked behind your left ear.

Remonstration results in an interrogative ‘Miaow?’ in the daintiest of tones followed by the hallelujah chorus. It reminds me of her mother who, having offered a polite ‘Meep’ in response to the question about whether she was in season or not, let out a throaty roar once liberated and set off down the lane, hurdling the garden fences, with me in pursuit wielding a fishing net.

Quite what the neighbours made of this is anyone’s guess but I don’t get too many visitors come Halloween.

 

From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck.  Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.

[1] We used to be amused by these. It was a progression from watching your hard drive being de-fragged.