My life on and off the rugby pitch

chris robshawAfter some careful, serious thinking about England’s showing in the Rugby World Cup, I’m afraid my opinion hasn’t fundamentally changed.  I still think it would have been better shirtless.  When I explained this to someone earlier he asked, “but would they still change ends at half time?” to which I think the fairest answer is: “only if it feels right.”  Frankly, there’s no point asking people to do something if it makes them uncomfortable.  We’re all different, and that’s what makes the world go around.  For instance, I can’t stand even the thought of Cash In The Attic but I know some people build their day round it.  

Last Saturday night I kept half an eye on the England Wales game and thought pretty much the same then.  We were staying in France with our friends Richard and Mike, in their house high up in a forest somewhere not very near anywhere, and everyone other than me fancied watching it.  Wales apparently didn’t do well for a time, and Mike said something about them being at a disadvantage because one of their best players was unwell or otherwise unavailable.  “Leigh something,” he said.  “Leigh Halfpenny,” said Rory.  “Oh I know him,” I attempted to join in, “he’s got lovely blue eyes.”  

Rory really loves rugby, but the fact that some of the players these days are not uneasy on the eye seems to have passed him by.  He enjoys the game for the sake of the game, and I’m utterly mystified.  When we’re at home he might watch it on the television while I’m in the kitchen attempting a mayonnaise or something tricky with vine leaves.  And he’s very vocal in his likes and dislikes of not only my food but what’s happening on the pitch and I look at him wondering whether he’ll ever go, “only kidding,” and wink.  But he doesn’t.  

Occasionally, I’ll consider showing an interest and try to imagine how a conversation would progress.  Oh you see that one there with the nice bum well why doesn’t he run away from that scary but quite hot one with the poncy haircut into the arms of that other one with biceps ruined by a tattoo.  But I don’t because Rory and I love each other and I hate to think of him despising me, and anyway I suspect “running away from” and “into the arms of” are not recognised rugby terms.  

In an attempt to engage with Rory I will acknowledge that rugby is a game not simply of tremendous physical skill but mental ones too.  At school our Welsh head of sport, Mr Walbyoff, had played professionally and so was very keen his boys didn’t miss out on the fun.  Once a week, out we would trot onto the pitch, my friend Neil and I, skinny in those days, like two undernourished exotic ticks in our maroon and gold-striped rugby tops, and then we would concentrate.  There was an exhausting hour ahead of us of focused running about trying not merely to avoid being anywhere near the ball but also, just as vitally, not so far from it that it was obvious we were trying to avoid the bloody thing.  Even once we had succeeded in steering well clear we had to make great show of clamping our hands to our waists and despondently shaking our heads with disappointment: yet another one that got away was the look we were aiming for.  I suspect it didn’t translate.

Ours was a game of considerable tactics, skill and effort, and the sort of thing that might have appealed to a job scout from one of the intelligence services had they joined Thresher’s Wine Merchants  and the local timber yard at our school careers’ day, but they never did.  

Schools these days not only want to utilise their pupils as drones in classrooms but I understand they are expected to get involved in all manner of other ghastly-sounding stuff as well.  You might, for example, be expected to mentor another child, or even more horrifically be mentored.  Or be a member of a pupil council, a body where you sit in judgement on your teachers, and hold ultimate sway about what pasta shape goes best with the simple tomato and basil sauce available at lunch.

Likewise for parents.  Parents I know are always rolling up their sleeves for cake sale days, and putting in a couple of hourscroquet at the weekend to paint the roof of a pop-up dreams workshop.  Like every other parent of friends of mine, my mum and dad went through the school gates but only once a year.  Indeed, if you ever spotted a parent going in at any other time there was usually a policeman or a paramedic to greet them.  Parents’ evening took place in the autumn and my reports from sport in particular were never especially glowing.  

Back at home, after one of these occasions, as they started to go through my report with me, there seemed to be discernible tension between Mum and Dad, and it all seemed to hinge on my performance on the pitch.  I couldn’t understand: my lack of skill in this field was not a new development.  But as they talked it became clear it wasn’t really anything to do with me.  Their froideur centred much more around the issue of Mr Walbyoff himself.  Dad glowered as Mum looked at me and said, “you never mentioned how dishy he is.”  I was barely aware I was gay myself at this time so it seemed slightly too much to ask of me that I’d take time off watching Nationwide to point this out to her.  “Oh before I forget Mum, that Mr Walbyoff is quite the hunk.  You should treat yourself, get yourself down there and get an eye-full.”  (And anyway I thought his deputy Mr Keenan was nicer.)

Dad seethed during all this.  Completely understandably.  The last thing my father wanted to hear was that his wife fancied a rugby enthusiast.  He has an overwhelming loathing of the game.  And for once, my father and I saw eye to eye.  He didn’t want to hear this of his wife, and I didn’t want to hear that Mum fancied one of my teachers.  The only thing worse would have been to discover that she fancied my father.  A year later the subject was forgotten.  Mr Walbyoff still caused consternation but this time it was down to my request to skip rugby and set up a croquet lawn in the school grounds instead.

Between appointing teachers to the payroll and debating the viability of a drumming workshop, I would suggest pupil councils in the state sector address this rather more serious matter instead.  Let’s face it, it’s good to widen the choice of sports on offer and, certainly as far as England is concerned, like football and cricket, I suspect rugby is better left to the girls.  

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The rhythmic squeak of the approaching tea trolley was the sign that everything and everyone was in place.

In the Yvonne Manor Nursing Home, a squatting sprawl of a 1970s red brick building, its days were given shape by meals, snacks and drinks but its essence was to be found in the layers of smell that assaulted visitors when they arrived.  In the words of the home’s publicity material everything done within its walls was in the spirit of bringing both security and joy to the residents (our guiding ethos demands residents are not just in our care but are our friends).  The reality was that the place merely possessed various types of stink.  The staff and residents became immune but the first time someone walked through the arthritic electric doors as they wheezed open beckoning them in, they couldn’t fail to be aware of it all.  In the reception, (an attractivhampton court mazeely tiled foyer) there were ever-present lilies with their sickening sweet gush, then as you made your way through the building, depending on the time of day, odours of cooking fat or boiling vegetables greeted you, then talcum powder, urine (strong), human faeces (mercifully milder), soap and toast.  Below everything else, there was a permanent base note of something more antiseptic.  

The home was located not far from Hampton Court Palace (a pleasant short stroll from this world-renowned monument alive with royal intrigue and refreshment options – pleasant if walking for half an hour on frenzied A roads was your thing) and this afternoon the residents were gathered in the lounge to ensure mutual sociability.  Mutual sociability was something else the Yvonne prided itself on.  The fact this made the doling out of four pm tea and biscuits easier for the staff was a happy coincidence.  It also ensured the residents, well those that weren’t in wheelchairs, got to have a bit of exercise.  To get to their tea, they shuffled into the lounge from the activities room situated at the other end of a corridor that was decorated with framed photographs of the almost-adjacent palace on one side, and health and safety notices, unread by everybody, on the other.  Once tea was digested they would make the return journey for a bit of group singing, the lyrics to ancient songs almost all of which the residents could clearly remember, however flaky their grasp on everything else was.

Yvonne, her Christian name being merely coincidental to her final dwelling place, took the tea that was handed to her and said to the woman, “Is my husband showing his face today?”

Yvonne’s husband was long gone but Rita, new to her job, was struggling to remember the ins-and-outs of all the residents’ personal situations.

Yvonne pulled on her right ear, quite hard.  

“Hold your tea with both hands, Yvonne,” Rita said, reading the woman’s name badge whilst making a mental note to check with someone on the existence of a husband for her.  

The old woman kept tugging.  It looked like she was playing a particularly tricky round of Charades and was indicating that her film, book, tv series or show ‘sounds like’ something for which she couldn’t think of the word.  

The nurse took the tea and placed it on the fold-down, easily wipeable table that had been positioned over Yvonne’s lap once she was settled, and left her to her tugging.

In the seat to her right was Cedric, and whereas Yvonne believed she had company to anticipate, however hazy this all was, Cedric’s visitors had dried up some years back and he made no reference to them.  He always sat in the same chair and sat looking at the same view in the direction of the Scilly Isles roundabout just shy of a mile away.  

“You love that view, don’t you?” one nurse would occasionally say to him, turning as if inspired by his gaze, and duly taking in her own share of a privet hedge.  Beyond this the traffic moved swiftly or grindingly depending on the time of day, and on the other side of those four lanes was an estate of little houses with pretend Georgian windows laid out in a cul-de-sac making it safe, just like in the olden days, for the kids to play.  

“Holidays,” said Cedric, and Yvonne laughed.

‘Holidays’ was one word Cedric often said and no one knew why but there was something about the sound of the word that lady in care hometickled Yvonne.  Cedric clearly didn’t know why he said ‘holidays’ either.  If such a mechanism was available that could sift through all the broken bits of his brain and the misfiled information and jarring electrical impulses that made crying and laughing interchangeable, and equally meaningless, it might possibly have found the answer.  Perhaps, in the middle of this terrific muddle of confusion Cedric occasionally glimpsed something that made him think of holidays and that is why he said ‘holidays.’

Some of the old people in the room were watching Countdown on the television.  A contestant’s letters almost spelled something dirty and Rita said to the other woman doling out the tea, “Look at that, Helen.”

On the screen, Carol Vorderman was smiling, but in such a way as to deter further comment, and when the camera cut to Richard Whitely he was leaning back, beached almost in his striped blazer, and smiling too but his mirth was harder to read.  He looked like a man at the end of a very long lunch.  

“He’s a funny one,” said Helen.  “My mum’s favourite but he gives me the creeps.”

“Holidays,” said Cedric.

Yvonne laughed.

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Aylan Kurdi

Covering almost all of its front page, The Independent today uses the photo of a dead boy washed up on a beach.  In time it will become one of those seminal photographs used to codify a particular human catastrophe.  And I for one am pleased to be forced to look.  He lies there on the sand, the gentle waves lapping at his head, and he appears to be sleeping, in one of those awkward positions small children often assume in sleep.  However, a policeman is reaching down to pick him up, wearing protective gloves, as if he’s a seagull to be saved from an oil slick.  

I’ve noticed many of my contacts on Facebook have been crying out to be spared sight of this photograph.  We know the level of catastrophe, they say.  We don’t need this voyeuristic image to bring it home to us.  I hope they realise how fortunate they are for they must be blessed with greater imagination and empathy than I have ever been.  

For nothing has moved me quite like this image has.  The sight of young men clambering through holes in fences or hopping onto the backs of trucks hasn’t affected me like this.  That is News and Politics and Human Lives with capital letters and statistics attached.  The numbers of people fleeing their homes that I read about, or the horrors consuming Syria and Libya that I watch on the news, haven’t left me quite as hollow as this.  

A tiny boy, lost along with his mother and brother, his father left unimaginably bereft.  Dead like thousands of others before him, whether it be in the backs of trucks or murdered in their own countries or drowned at sea.  The sight of ordinary shoes and ordinary clothes, and, to my shame, the sheer European-ness of these clothes in which he died, drag at my heart.

The image on the Guardian website front page is of little Aylan Kurdi, when he was merely the youngest son in his family with a name and the promise of a future, not the more memorable human driftwood on a stretch of holiday sand he was to become, smiling with his brother Galip as they hold a teddy bear between them.  It has taken these images to move me in a way I have failed to be moved before.  A child robbed of his life by both the evil that ransacks his homeland but also the bureaucracy and regulations and sense of order we pride ourselves on in the rich west.  We’re doing everything we can, we’re told, and I’m no better; for instead of doing anything practical I’m merely sitting here typing out these words.

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The Malady of Peckham Rye

the ballad of peckham ryeWhen I first moved to London SE22 what seems like a hundred years ago now and people asked where I lived I’d say East Dulwich.  I bet it’s Peckham, they sneered back.  

Now if I’m asked I say Peckham Rye because that is more accurate than anything else, and it was a quite distinct London district up until the 1960s.  People now say I bet you wish it was Peckham proper.

I’ve always rather liked living between the two.  Peckham and East Dulwich are quite different places with contrasting charms and frustrations.  On a day to day level one is good for one type of shopping and the other for another.  When I first arrived, if I took a right out of my front door there was a Somerfield and lots of Indian restaurants nearby.  Around 2002 the Evening Standard insisted East Dulwich was on the up and a shop duly opened selling Alessi lemon squeezers and expensive French tea towels but that soon went bust.  But eventually a head of steam built up and the Somerfield morphed into a Co-op, a number of independent shops set up camp, most of the curry houses are still trading and amongst the fresh pasta makers, wine merchants, and numerous pricy jewellers you can still buy a cheap tea strainer and some drain unblocker if you fancy it.  

Instead of taking a right, if I made my way to Peckham there was a Woolworth’s and a lot of beautiful if lary pubs.  In Peckham you can snap up five avocados for a pound, absolutely anything you like in Khan’s, and even, should you want such a quantity of the stuff, ten kilos of ox tripe for £27.  Southwark Council however likes to bend over backwards to try to smarten up the place and currently there’s a battle on to save a stall that’s been trading for twenty years simply because a gym would like their entrance to be where the stall currently is.  The fact that there are already two other entirely serviceable entrances isn’t good enough for the gym apparently and the bloody council have taken the gym’s side in the matter.  So, as is the way across London these days, there’s a battle on to stop the place being turned into a wasteland of rich people’s flats, gyms and coffee shops.  Now I read there is to be a Soho House.  And if that happens truly the place will have gone to the dogs.  

Before that monstrous day some elements of Peckham’s gentrification aren’t all bad.  vertigo film posterRory and I went to the Rooftop cinema at the Bussey Building on Thursday to watch Vertigo.  Hitchcock’s films are always less brilliant than everyone says they are.  Vertigo, for instance, is premised on the idea that when a ferociously rich man wants to bump off his wife instead of opting for all the ways men like that have at their disposal he instead chooses to exploit the psychological condition of someone he’s not seen for yonks after having created some terrifically complex rigmarole where James Stewart is encouraged to believe the wife has been driven mad by the ghosts of a certain ancestor, the badly painted portrait of whom contains the key to the whole blinking mystery.

Anyway, about eighty of us sat on damp deckchairs on a chilly August evening and all we could see was the screen and a beautiful dusky sky behind it.  Scrubbed clean of rain earlier in the day it was a panoply of pinks and blues and when the screen lost my attention from time to time there was always something to watch in the heavens behind it.  This part of London has never struck me as particularly blighted by planes but there were lots that evening and I wondered as they descended into Heathrow if anyone on board could see us, and if so what they’d make of it.  

Looking out from planes the world below is always abstracted.  Traffic moves slowly, towns appear deserted, areas you’d know well enough at ground level are rendered completely baffling when viewed from above.  What you’d make of Barbara Bel Geddes looking kooky in big glasses from such a height is hard to say.

In 1978 my family took our first summer holiday abroad.  It was the first time I’d been on a plane and everything on it felt different.  It wasn’t just the fact you could see clouds from above, let alone when I tried to make sense of the horizon or what was on the land below but the food seemed exciting too.  “Is this the same as the ones we have on earth?”  I asked Mum of the Mr Kipling French Fancy the stewardess passed to me.  This made the woman laugh and that was even better.  

barbara bel geddes in vertigoI look back on the holiday very fondly but I don’t think it was such a treat for my parents.  Italy was far more expensive than they anticipated and they had to ration their money, added to which Mum developed bronchitis.  When we arrived she was very in awe of the beautiful Italian women who seemed so much more at ease at this holidaying lark than we pasty English people were.  “Look over there,” she’d say, “aren’t they beautiful.”

When she started on like this the last thing I wanted to do was to look in case I spotted a certain one of them.  When we’d first been shown into our hotel room my sister and I ran around checking everything.  After looking in the wardrobes and checking out the bathroom our attention turned to a closed door and what lay beyond it.  I flung it open and rushed into the dark room on the other side.  “We’ve got two rooms,” I shouted, thrilled at my discovery.  My eyes adjusted to the gloom of the shuttered room and to my horror I realised the room wasn’t ours at all.  In the bed was a woman with long brown hair and she was smoking.  She was sitting up and staring at me and drawing slowly on her cigarette and this was exciting enough but the fact she was naked only dawned on me slowly.  I’d never seen a woman’s breasts before and I thought they were the most marvellous, terrifying things ever.  I wasn’t to be as moved again by the sight of a stranger’s body quite so much until two years later, one lazy afternoon in the last summer of Junior school, when we were playing rounders on the field and I caught a glimpse of our student teacher’s underarm hair as he demonstrated how to bowl.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him or it.  

alassio seafrontWith the adjoining door now firmly locked by a hotel porter, our Italian holiday proceeded and thankfully I never saw the woman again despite her being next door.  Instead Mum got ill and Dad ran out of cash.  Showing the concern of children throughout the ages I wasn’t even aware Mum was ill until years later and my sister and I continued to demand treats and snacks, most of which we didn’t eat.  I spent the days sitting happily on the beach reading the incredibly violent comics I found in a shop in the old town.  One afternoon, as we were making our drinks last as long as possible in a cafe, my parents got chatting to another English couple.  Over dinner that night Dad told us they lived somewhere called Peckham.  He went on to explain it was a pretty poor, rough part of London.  The idea of it seemed more alien to a kid from Teddington than even Italy or viewing clouds from above.  Nowadays it’s the place I live and work in, where I sign petitions to keep things a bit rough, and where I dread a ghastly members’ club will open up to keep company its other branches in Toronto, West Hollywood, Berlin, Istanbul and Dean Street.    

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My failed career as a peace envoy

hotel-sign-22198092Eileen was the woman who often assigned me potato peeling duties.  We worked together at a hotel and although she wasn’t in charge I have always been good at taking instruction from women.  The building was a low-slung Jacobean monstrosity with tumorous additions and in one of these was Eileen’s kitchen.  It wasn’t hers in any real sense but she was very much the boss, whatever our real boss, Mr Cattermole, might have thought.  

Life had brought Eileen no end of ordeals.  Money worries, children worries, family back in Kerry worries, weather worries.  The list was endless but she never seemed beaten by it all.  “We’re not here to enjoy ourselves,” she explained, her Catholicism making sense of everything.  

Her greatest burden were her legs.  Her legs weren’t what they were.  “They’re not what they were,” she would say as she groaned her way onto the stool kept specially at the table in the hotel’s kitchen for her benefit.  “My legs aren’t what they were.”  This was the explanation she gave for why so much of her time at the hotel was spent sitting down.  

“I bet your legs never were much,” Huan said, unfunnily, hooting loudly at her own wit.  Huan was the Chinese woman who also worked in the hotel kitchen alongside us and the two women loathed each other.  

Eileen was the less vocal in her dislike of her work colleague, and at first I assumed, incorrectly, her to be solely the wounded party but when Huan was out of earshot Eileen let her feelings be known.  Huan, said Eileen, was lazy, dirty and incompetent.  I suspected these were simply code words for Chinese.  

Huan, on the other hand, had two great terrors in life.  Roman Catholicism was one and something called the Yellow Peril.  Her objections to “smells and bells” and “those priests with their dirty hands” seemed mainly to be directed at Eileen but I couldn’t work out what aspect of the dowdy Irish woman was being critiqued for being a peril in yellow.  Yellow was a colour I never saw her wear, more accustomed as she was to shades that seemed an absence of anything rather than a positive.  Added to which, perilous didn’t strike me as a word that could be applied to Eileen, it had too energetic and sprightly a note to it.  And her skin, if that’s what the yellow referred to, was entirely misplaced.  Eileen’s skin was grey with blooms of broken red capillaries.  Tiny B roads on the ordnance survey of her face.  

Finally, one evening over our third bottle of Bulgarian red, it was my friend Emma who explained Yellow Peril.

“But, she is Chinese, herself.”  I screwed my face up in confusion.

“Cultural self-loathing,” said Emma.  (One of her sociology textbooks brought to life.)  “Does she self-harm?”

I was lost again.  At seventeen I’d heard of neither self-harm nor yellow peril.  My thickness was being laid in front of me like an assortment box of embarrassments.  

“Cut herself,” Emma went on wearily.  “Razors, that kind of thing.  You remember Letitia at school?”

I nodded, unsure.  

Emma sloshed more wine into her glass and I could tell she was really getting into this.  “She used to do it on the District Line.  It only came to a head when a woman saw her slicing at her legs at Gunnersbury Park, had a meltdown, and called an ambulance.”

So, when I next heard Huan bemoan the Yellow Peril, I made even less of the insult.  “You watch my words, it is rising in the east,” she exclaimed, bending her knees on the word east and following it with her two hands rising as far as possible, some curious yoga-cum-religion move.

As Eileen and Huan bickered and bitched about each other I fantasised about bringing them together, using their physical frailties as the glue to bond one to the other. I imagined they would see each other afresh and forever after be grateful to me.  As I washed up, mopped floors or peeled vegetables I often found myself gripped by this fantasy, almost as frequently as I imagined being snogged by unobtainable straight boys I saw around the place.  The gratitude they would show me for bringing them together was the prize I sought, but when I emerged from these reveries I could never explain to myself why bringing these two women together would be quite so satisfying.  

Why did they loathe each other so much?  I even asked the hotel manager Mr Cattermole one day.  But his answer was vague enough to make me think he didn’t know either.  “Some women just don’t hit it off, Christopher.”  He said this as if describing something universally obvious that didn’t need any further explanation like why dogs and cats struggle to happily share a home.

With Huan the problem was her eyes.  The thick lenses in Huan’s glasses magnified her eyes and gave her a permanently alarmed look.  The myopic glare of a cartoon character, a hapless mole forever glancing against walls and knocking things over.  

“Blind chink,” Eileen would mutter when she saw Huan fail once again to notice something or to miss the hook on which she wanted to place her coat.  

When our shifts first coincided it was Eileen’s ankles I couldn’t take my eyes off.  Her legs, thick trunks all the way down to her shoes, made no concession to the shape that would pop into most people’s minds when they think of ankles.  Ankles were not a part of the body I had ever imagined capable of becoming fat but Eileen’s were and they looked painful with it, the skin almost bruised, its thinness in direct contrast to all that it was holding in.  One morning, as if aware of my staring, Eileen explained their shape by the single word “childbirth.”  Her legs really weren’t what they were.

What did they used to be?  I had visions of them enjoying a carefree existence, maybe a life entirely independent of Eileen.  A Time Before Eileen.  Travelling around Europe perhaps.  I saw an open top sports car, racing over hills in the south of France or through the Low countries, a long scarf billowing in the wind, Eileen’s legs at the centre of the action.  Laughter, there was always laughter.  Then Eileen’s legs were partying, delivering acid bon mots and smoking multi-coloured cigarettes with gold tips through a long ivory cigarette holder and kicking high into the wee, small hours in some impossibly romantic nightspot or Riviera palace.  Basically Eileen’s legs had enjoyed life a very great deal up until the point some older, wiser pair of legs said “it’s time to settle down now, dear, you’re not getting any younger.”  So, Eileen’s jaunty, devil may care legs were introduced to the far less sprightly rest of her and that was that.  They were fastened on to her hips, and those once globetrotting pins, so full of life and possibility, suddenly lost all their spark.  The invitations stopped coming in, the road trips weren’t taken any more but instead they remained trammelled to this woman.  Their vitality was crushed.  213px-Norwegian-road-sign-626.0.svgAnd Eileen, sensing it was the only the history of her legs that stood between a dull workaday life in suburbia and a former, better existence so full of potential kept her mantra up purely to remind her legs and anyone within earshot that she had never forgotten what had been denied them.  

Sometimes there would be a wistful sigh at the end of her statement of woe.

“Oh for crying out loud shut bloody up,” shouted Huan.

“Piss off,” replied Eileen.

My role as peace envoy stalled for yet another day.  

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Why old friends drift apart

suffolk terraced houseWe visited the Malarkeys for three days and two nights every summer. Some years in the late autumn there was brief talk of reappraising the experience for Christmas but this never came to anything.

I started to think about the Malarkeys, for the first time in years, when I was in that cafe that’s named after an unexpected bird of some sort.  The Gaudy Crow?  The Forlorn Peacock?  A Pair Of Violent Doves?  I can’t remember right now.  Anyway, a woman had come in and there was something about the way she stood at the counter, and the way she looked in her bag for money that brought to mind Mrs Malarkey.

The Malarkeys lived in one of those Suffolk towns that was the personification of drab.  As I teenager when I roamed its moribund streets the houses often appeared deserted and now I imagine that’s simply because people didn’t want you to know they were in and that there was incest taking place.  Nowadays, people from London can’t wait to spend half a million pounds on a tiny house in those streets but back then it was unbearable.  I suspect it’s equally unbearable now but people look at silent unbearability in a different way now there’s the internet.  

The town was built on an east facing hill not far from the Southwold coast.  On one of the roads in there was a sign that welcomed you (if you were a careful driver) and advertised the fact they had a castle.  Indeed, there was a castle on a mound in the town, or the remains of one.  A single tower with a Union Jack flag hanging limply on overcast days.  I imagine the rest of the castle had been torn down by furious, bored holiday makers like us just to try and give themselves something to do.  

Despite the ad campaign by a verge by a bus stop, the castle wasn’t open but if you were in the know you could pick up a large key from a woman called Doris who worked in the post office, and then let yourself in.  It didn’t take long to look around.  Once you unlocked the door (the exciting bit) you walked in and realised you were just in a tower with not much else.  There was a floor made of soil like some sort of French toilet and if you looked up there was a birds’ nest and some sky.  This was no Tower of London.  No one even mentioned that torture was likely to have taken place there.  Anyway, before you knew it you returned the key to Doris and she’d look all disappointed because it hadn’t taken you longer to look around.  

“Seen everything?” she asked doubtfully.

Yes, the floor, the walls, the sky, a pigeon swooping in.  The smell of damp.

“I reckon so,” said my brother.

“Such a fantastic thing to be able to call your own,” said Mum.

We looked at the castle every year when we came to visit and it was always the same, both inside and with Doris.  Maybe there was a shopping centre or a funfair we consistently overlooked and that’s why she couldn’t understand how we were so quick, but I doubt that was the case.  Having been to the countryside a lot I’ve learnt that people who live there can take considerable time over almost nothing at all.  If you didn’t, you’d get to about the age of twenty-five and realise you’d done absolutely everything there was to do in the place and you still have another fifty years to live.  That’s why everyone, once they’ve grown out of the incest, has so many affairs.  

Don’t get me wrong, at first glance the place looks nice enough.  There are pretty little houses on winding little streets that lead to a central square.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays a market took place there where lumpen red-faced husbands and wives would sell the gubbins from their small farms: eggs, leeks, jam, that sort of thing.  We were usually there for the Wednesday market, the runtish sibling to Saturday’s jaunt.  

“You should come one year when the Saturday market is on,” Mrs Malarkey said one morning as she scraped dried mud out of her husband’s boots with a fish knife.  “It’s a very different beast.”  

So, the following year we arranged our trip to coincide with this excitement and wouldn’t you believe it she was absolutely right.  On the Saturday there was a man selling packs of bacon from a van, and not only that.  But a stall that sold large old lady knickers. Five pairs for two pounds.  No wonder Saturdays were so popular in that town.

I have vague memories of when the Malarkeys lived near us in London but they moved when I was about five and they have lived in Suffolk ever since, and we went every year but never at Christmas.  They never came to us because we lived on a bus and it won’t come as a surprise when I tell you there wasn’t much room spare.    

“If I’m honest,” said Mrs Malarkey, “I’m not even sure I could cope with London these days.  What with the terrorists and the way people drive.”turnip field

“The best decision we ever made,” said Mr Malarkey one night as we sat in their small front room staring out of the window at the field opposite watching the turnips grow and putting on their show.

I caught my brother’s eye and we shook our heads, Dad admired the turnips a moment or two longer and then went back to leafing through the Radio Times.  I could tell he was itching to cross and tick certain programmes with that red pen of his.  Mum yawned loudly and said she might turn in and then Mrs Malarkey got to her feet.  

“That freezer won’t defrost itself,” she said, eager to give the evening after eight pm in that little Suffolk town some sense of purpose.

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Straight men and their ways

  peckham rye parkIn the park on early Saturday mornings a group of runners dominates the place.  There is nothing casual about their running but as they snake around the paths, their routes are dictated either by little yellow arrows on sticks or running group organisers.  Small bearded men all of them, who play the role of the sticks and hold up little yellow arrow signs as the runners approach, and no one makes any eye contact.  No one chats as they run either.  Everyone is running alone and it’s far too serious a business for affability.

The closest anyone ever came to companionship that I saw was one lean man with a hungry face who pushed two babies in a double push-chair ahead of him.  As I sat on a bench and the trio hurtled past me I saw one of the babies was round-faced and placid, staring firmly ahead, unfazed by the world passing by at an alarming rate.  Whereas his sibling, the wind howling over him turning a curl of his baby hair into a terrible toupee, had a look of utter panic about his features.  Bets are off as to which one will have an easier time of it in life.

My friend Jake took to running for a while.  But not outdoors.  peckham rye park benchBeing gay, he preferred a proper gym with a punishing direct debit schedule.  He made semaphore of a warm-up routine, then pounded the treadmill and used weights.  On leaving the place, he clutched a large frothy coffee in a paper cup and maybe once in a while a muffin, too.  Because what is a trip to the gym without a heap of cake as a reward at the end of it?  We didn’t see each other for most of this time.  He is always much busier than me and the gym took up the rest of the time but when I did finally see him after our eight months absence he was changed.  Not just physically but his voice had deepened too, until he laughed that is, and I told him that, other than his laugh, I thought he had changed in numerous ways.  

He said, I know.  I feel more masculine.  

In what way, I asked?  

Well, for instance, when I sit down on the Tube now I do so with my legs wide apart.  

You want to grow out of that habit, I said.

He looked offended.

There’s nothing to be said for taking up more than your fair share of space on the Tube, I explained.  It’s a horrid straight man affectation.  It’s a good thing your laugh hasn’t deepened.  If it had, I’d be worried you’d find other men like you and laugh together in that way certain straight men sometimes do where you’re never sure if they’re going to buy each other a pint or end up in a brawl.

These days, I’m pleased to report, Jake is a much more hot yoga kind of guy.


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