The Smoothing Stream

(first published in Literally Stories, 19th January 2023)

by Michael Bloor

After the cremation, I felt I had to get away. I found a Perthshire country house hotel on the internet, situated in one of those mysterious winding glens that end abruptly in a wall of rock. The hotel advertised itself as ‘a mecca for hill-walkers,’ but that clearly only applied outside the shooting season, as was evidenced by the stags’ heads in the hallway, bar and library. More like an abattoir than a country house hotel, it seemed on arrival. Nevertheless, the staff were friendly and the weather was surprisingly dry for April, so I decided to stay on for a second week: I didn’t relish returning home to an empty house – her clothes in the wardrobe, her flowers in their pots on the kitchen window. And it wasn’t really until that second week that I got to know Willie Anderson.

Of course, there was still quite a lot of snow lying on the high tops, but I hadn’t brought my crampons and, in my view, it’s daft for an old git in his sixties to go wandering off on his own over snowfields only half frozen, with possible hidden crevasses and overhangs above hidden rock faces. I was quite content, most of the time, pottering along the glen, on both sides of the river. And if I was feeling energetic, there was a path behind the hotel that led up to a saddle-ridge and then down into the next glen. From there, I could follow that glen south to where it met up with the main glen, giving me a circular route back to my evening meal and a drink in the hotel bar. All walkers prefer a circular route, but this one had the added attraction for me that the adjoining glen was completely unpopulated. There was one, unroofed shepherd’s house and, scattered among the bracken, a few ruckles of stones to mark the old ‘black houses’ of the native population, swept away from the only homes they’d ever known to North America in the Highland Clearances of two hundred-odd years ago, all in the name of the dismal science of Economics. I felt an atmosphere lingered over those old stones and to stride among the ghosts of these lost dwellings suited my mood.

It turned out that there were perhaps more ghosts in that empty glen than I’d reckoned on. Andy, the hotel owner and part-time barman, told me the story one quiet evening in the bar over a dram. The shepherd’s house was last occupied in the late 1940s, by a young family – the shepherd, his wife, and two young children (a five year-old girl and a boy toddler). It was a winter’s day and the snow lay thick and drifted. Just at dusk, the shepherd appeared at the hotel (in those days it was a shooting lodge with only a caretaker in residence). The man was agitated, and near-exhausted from pushing through the drifts lying on the saddle. He had come to phone the doctor in the village: his daughter was very ill – her parents suspected appendicitis. The doctor was an elderly man and to reach the shepherd’s house would be quite beyond his capabilities. He said he would get a local farmer to drive him on a tractor through the drifts to the shooting lodge. Meanwhile, the shepherd must return to his own house and somehow carry his daughter back to the lodge.

The shooting lodge kept ponies – Highland Garrons – for carrying shot game back to the lodge. The shepherd begged the loan of a pony from the caretaker. The caretaker demurred, but the shepherd prevailed upon him to phone the lodge owner, in London, to give his permission. The ponies were unused to being ridden, but were docile, and would carry a child, if roped or strapped securely to their backs.

 The caretaker watched the shepherd lead the pony away. He was the last person to see them alive. A north-west wind had sprung up, ensuring there would be fresh drifting on the exposed saddle ridge. The doctor arrived just before midnight, too stiff with cold to dismount from the tractor unaided. But there was no patient for him. The wind died with the dawn and half a dozen local men and the village constable struggled up the saddle to search for those missing. They found them all, a mile short of the shepherd’s house. It seemed the mother had come out with her husband to hold the patient steady on the pony, being led by her husband. They must have judged that the storm was too fierce to allow them over the saddle and turned back for home, only for cold and exhaustion to then overcome them all – adults, child and pony died together.

Andy poured me another dram: ‘This was all before my time, you understand. I heard it all from Willie Anderson. He was the gamekeeper here before he retired, but he still helps out when we have shooting parties up here. He stays in the cottage across the bridge. According to Willie, no-one would stay in the shepherd’s house after that tragic business, although there was a terrible housing shortage at the time. Sometime in the Sixties, the roof fell in. It’s called Dookeran Cottage, a garbled version of the old Perthshire Gaelic – Gleann an Dubh Choirein, the Glen of the Black Corries.’

The following day was warm, bright and still, and I lingered on the bridge at the bottom of the hotel drive. I was watching the sand martins. Just upstream from the bridge, the river had cut deeply into a large hummock of glacial spoil (‘drumlins,’ the hummocks are called in the geography textbooks, I don’t know if there’s a Highland name for them), resulting in a near-vertical sandy bank rising some thirty feet above the river. Generations of sand martins had excavated tiny holes in the bank to raise their young, and here were the latest generation to complete the cycle – newly returned from their winter quarters to repair and refurbish, to breed and rear, and to continue the work of their forbears. It’s difficult to say why watching this swooping, twittering, aerobatic community should be so restful.

Yet restful it was; I don’t know how long I stayed there leaning on the bridge wall. At length, an old Series I Land Rover drew up alongside me and a head emerged from the window – a brown, wrinkled, outdoor face, almost hairless, with gleaming false teeth: ‘Aye, you’re watching the martins. They arrived back on Wednesday – a week earlier this year.’ I realised that I was being addressed by an expert, Willie Anderson.

Willie didn’t intrude his expertise: it was a natural part of him, like his toothy chuckle. And he had that pedagogic trick of capturing your interest with an intriguing story: that morning, I was tickled by his tale of how, three years previously, an albino martin had returned to the glen and seemed to act as a sort of leader to the others. Willie was a mine of information about the history of the glen, too. I had already noticed the neolithic cup-marked boulder on the far side of the bridge, but he offered to show me a strange, carved, standing stone, hidden in a small forestry plantation at the head of the glen.

We walked up there together that afternoon. We agreed that it was probably a Pictish stone, possibly erected to mark a boundary between Pictland and the (Scottish) kingdom of Dalriada. Together, we stared at the carved Pictish symbols, more mysterious than Egyptian hieroglyphics: we were enriched, rather than diminished, by the puzzle of the past. On the way back, I stumbled on one surprising piece of Willie’s past: this warm and outgoing man was a widower like myself.

Willie had been born and raised among those hills and in the next few days he showed me many hidden places and told me many old tales: the great cleft in the rocks where the whisky-still had been erected; the cave where one of the Drummond chiefs had fled after the ’45 Rebellion; the ford where the minister’s wife had drowned in a flash flood. Places where jagged tragedies had been worn smooth by the stream of time. On my last evening, we stood together in the kirkyard beside his wife’s grave. Willie told me that it was her birthday. The wild primroses growing among the turf seemed luminescent in the evening light. I noticed that the adjoining gravestone marked another Anderson grave, a husband, wife and young daughter. Willie nodded, ‘Aye, my faither and mither, an’ my big sister.’

May, 1967

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Potato Soup Journal, 6th December, 2022)

I’m 75 years old and, at the time of writing (October 2022), President Putin is threatening a nuclear war, my boiler is misbehaving, and governmental fiscal foolishness is knocking a big hole in my pension pot. So why am I so bloody cheerful? 

That’s a tough one. Can’t say for sure, but I reckon the answer may lie in the fortunate circumstances of my early adulthood. I’m not claiming this as a Universal Law of Human Development, but my outlook on life was probably formed in my late teens and early twenties. This is an essay, not an autobiography, so I will confine myself to a 55 year-old snapshot….

I was coming to the end of my first academic year at Cambridge. A working class, grammar school boy, from an industrial town in the Midlands, I felt no sense of inferiority, no necessity to modify my accent: for the first (and probably the last) time in history, it was fashionable to be working class. I’d joined the University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Group and I demonstrated against the Vietnam War. My girlfriend wore mini-dresses from Biba and suede boots; we went to wild dances, innocent parties, and arty films.

Mid-afternoon, Friday, May 12th, 1967. I was in the college room of a new acquaintance (and now life-long friend) listening with him to his transistor radio. A pirate radio station, Radio London, broadcasting from a former US Navy minesweeper, moored three and a half miles offshore, had secured a pre-release copy of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was to be heard on the airwaves for the very first time at three o’clock. 

The sound from the transistor was a bit tinny but the music was astonishing. As if in tribute, a thunderstorm broke outside. It felt as if the world had turned.

Soon afterwards, the university term finished. I headed back home and got a summer job labouring in a wholesale warehouse (pay: £11 per week). Once I’d saved enough money, I hitch-hiked to Venice, shimmering city in the summer sea. That same May, a young man named Brian Clough became manager of my local football team. He was to take them on a twenty-two run of unbeaten games to win promotion to the old First Division, and the town would go football crazy. And, to top it all, everywhere you went that summer, you seemed to hear Sergeant Pepper playing through open windows. 

Do you wonder I am an optimist?

An Historical Footnote

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 28/11/22)

A while back, I was reading an account, by the poet and journalist James Fenton, of the fall of Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975*. In the middle of the despairing mob outside the US Embassy, begging to be evacuated, as the last of the helicopters departed, Fenton came across one man simply shouting over again, ‘I’m a professor, I’m professor.’ Poor guy, he was well behind the times, we university professors get dumped on nowadays just like any other employee. The trick is to spot when the shit-shower is imminent.

Me, I knew quite quickly after Hopkins was appointed the new Head of the Welsh Department that my days at the university would be numbered. He seemed harmless enough, with his bow tie and his squeaky voice, but I could tell he harboured a vaunting ambition and was itching to make a name for himself by making a few heads roll. That was when I started writing my secret memoir: ‘Eating Your Own Vomit – life in the modern university.’

Anyway, I decided to jump before I was pushed and applied for voluntary redundancy. I knew I could always make a bit of money by coaching monoglot English-speakers who wanted to get ahead in the newly bilingual Welsh Government machine. But, as it happened, I heard that there was a job coming up in the National Library of Wales that would suit me down to the ground. The same chap (an ex-postgraduate student of mine) who’d tipped me off about the National Library job, was able to recommend me for a cushy temporary job while I waited for his librarian colleague to retire. An old landed family with a ramshackle stately home outside Llanelli were looking for someone to catalogue and organise their library, including a number of old manuscripts. As I was a specialist in Old Welsh and had even written (some thirty years ago) the go-to-text on the Book of Aneirin, the oldest poem in the Welsh language, the family were delighted to offer me the job.

The son, who interviewed me, was very clear that they needed to know if any of their books and manuscripts were valuable. For insurance purposes, he said. But it was pretty obvious to me that they were hoping I’d turn up a few tasty items that they could send to auction to replenish the family coffers.

In fact, very few of the manuscripts were of any interest to anyone. A few letters in Welsh from the estate’s tenant farmers might be of passing interest to an agricultural historian, but the rest were everyday estate legal documents, all written in English.

Likewise, the books were an almost total disappointment. Books of sermons predominated. A few dated back to the end of the seventeenth century, but almost all showed signs of bookworm infestation. I made the family aware of the problem and they offered the use of their large chest freezer for any books I thought might be of some value. The freezer would kill both the insects and their eggs, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea because I understood that freezing could damage the leather bindings. However, the employer always knows best, and I reckoned there would be very few volumes worth preserving.

That was until I came to study an early biography of the great itinerant Methodist preacher, Howel Harris. The book had been printed in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in the 1770s, but some accident had subsequently detached the book from it’s original spine and it had been rebound, re-using a sheet of old vellum. The outer surface of the binding was blank, but the inner surface was a revelation…

The original use of the vellum was clear from that inner surface: on it, a scribe had written a fragment of a poem. The language was a bit of a puzzle. It was not Old Welsh (my specialism), but yet there were similarities with Old Welsh. I made a careful transcript and took it home to study more closely. Many of the individual words were familiar, including the word ‘Arthur’ that occurred three times. I was sure that the poem wasn’t written in any of the existing near-relatives of Welsh, like Breton. It occurred to me that it might be an extinct near-relative of Welsh, perhaps the ancient Pictish language of North-East Scotland.

Then, as I was brushing my teeth before retiring, it suddenly struck me. It was not a contemporary of Old Welsh at all: it was the progenitor. It was the ancient language of Britain – the language from which Old Welsh evolved.

Too excited to go to bed, I washed the toothpaste taste away and opened the bottle of Highland Park that Dorothy had bought me for Christmas. Not only had I stumbled on the only surviving written fragment of British, but I had proved, against all the doubters and nay-sayers, the truth of the legend of Arthur. Back there, outside Llanelli, was the only contemporary account of Arthur, the war duke who rallied the Britons against the Saxon invaders, beat them in twelve battles and secured a hundred-year peace, before the tide turned once more and the British princes retreated to the mountains of Wales, Scotland and Cumberland…

And what’s more, I had secured for myself a footnote in the historical record. So screw you, Hopkins.

*James Fenton,’ The Fall of Saigon,’ Granta, Spring 1985, p.82.

Double Dating

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction 26/11/22)

My walk took me into the old quarry by the east bank of the Allanwater, a pleasant, sheltered place on a windy autumn day – my usual stopping place to eat my lunch (on this occasion, a small pork pie and a banana). I was absorbed in my own thoughts, unwrapping the pork pie, when I sensed the presence of another person. I looked up and was astonished to see myself, a few feet away, wearing a worried expression and a spacesuit.

I dropped the pork pie.

The Other Me shook his head and waved his hands. ‘Jeez, what a waste! I’d give worlds for a pork pie. Okay, listen: we may not have much time. I’m you, from the future, from March 30th, 2030.’

Eh?’

Yeah, yeah, you won that competition prize – a trip on the Inaugural Virgin Starship Voyage to the Alpha Centauri system.’

Prize??’

Sure, you dope. You won the prize for your breakfast cereal slogan: “Wake Up to a Bowl Full of Sun.” And now, you don’t remember? Oh yeah, hang on, that’s not til 2029. OK, just listen good. You’re going to win a prize, right? The prize is a trip on the starship. Now, believe me, the trip is a real roller-coaster. Right now we’re stuck in this black hole, a vortex, a spiral of nothingness. Well, a helix of nothingness, to be exact. OK, did you know that in a really huge vortex, there’s a time loop? Mm. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to travel back in time to warn me. I mean to warn you, the earlier me. ‘

Warn me?’

Yep. You’re up to speed now? Frankly, I’m taking a bit of a risk for us: time travel needs to be carefully calibrated, both for period and location. Did you know that the South American Giant Ground Sloth weighed four tons and only became extinct ten thousand years ago? Meeting that’d certainly be reason enough to drop a pork pie.

Anyway, I’m here to warn me – to warn us – about Relief Captain Louise Lolly. She’s two-timing me – us – with that Vinny Visconti, the Communications Officer – the smooth-talking creep. The best thing would be if we gave Louise the go-by altogether. I’ve a sort-of a feeling that Anna, the Polish space cadet, might be quite interested in us, given a bit of encouragement. So… Hey, if you’re not going to eat that banana, may I…? Oops, starting to fade, I think we’re about to emerge from the spiral, I mean the helix. Thanks for the ba…’

Midhowe Chambered Cairn

(first published in The Drabble, November 16th, 2022)

By Michael Bloor

On the small Isle of Rousay in the Orkneys, there lies a great chambered tomb. Five thousand and four hundred years ago, the farmers and the fisherfolk of the island laboured over many years building the tomb, the better to house and honour their dead. It sits in a field corner, alongside the farmer’s pile of black plastic sacks, storing the cut grass that will become the silage for the animals’ winter feed. That black plastic might seem unsightly, but it is surely also a reminder that humankind are still working this field after more than five-thousand years.

The Laird of Balwearie

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 20th October 2022)

I was visiting Fraser, an old friend, in Fife. It was one of those fine, dry, crisp, cold days that you often find in Scotland in February and we took a walk out into the countryside. Fraser pointed out a ruined tower in the middle distance, Balwearie Tower. The name was familiar, like a fragment of an old song: ‘Balwearie Tower? The home of Michael Scott, the Mage?’

‘The very same: medieval astrologer, mathematician and alchemist, wandering Scottish scholar and philosopher-in-residence at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. How have you, a mere English settler, come across him?’

‘I don’t know much about him, though I once read a short story about him. I remember the countryside were in awe of him and believed that he had no need of servants, because he had a satanic familiar that he could summon to do his bidding. Bits of the story are still quite vivid, though I read it thirty years ago.’

The story was vivid because of the strange circumstances under which I read it. I told Fraser about those circumstances as we continued our walk. It’s always been my habit to carry a book to appointments, to read while I wait. In this case, it was an old Victorian collection of Scottish short stories that I’d taken to an out-patient appointment at a hospital Oncology Department…

Fraser interrupted me: ‘Oncology?’

‘Yeah, that’s a story in itself…’

#

I was lying in bed one Sunday morning, idly rubbing my upper body, when I felt fatty lumps on my chest. I knew they’d been there for a while, and I knew my dad had fatty lumps on his chest too. But I thought that the responsible thing was to get them checked out, so I made an appointment with the GP. He was pretty sure that they were just fatty lumps – “lipoma.” But he said that the sensible thing to do would be to get ’em checked out by an oncologist. He’d refer me to the hospital – I’d get an appointment in six weeks or so…

Those six weeks passed, with just an occasional feeling of anxiety. No appointment. Seven weeks, eight weeks. I phoned the GP surgery: my GP said he’d chase  it up. When he called back, he said the hospital had no record of the referral. He’d now made a new referral, but of course I’d have to wait a further six weeks…

I told myself it was just a routine check-up and the lumps were just that – fatty lumps. I knew a little bit about male breast cancer. I had just enough knowledge to be rather unsettled about the prospect of a fourteen-week wait for a hospital appointment: male breast cancer, although rarer than female breast cancer, spreads more rapidly to other parts of the body – early diagnosis is critical. Over the following weeks, I repeated my mantra about the routine check-up, I confided in no-one, I busied myself at work and at home. But the long watches of the night stretched out longer than regret, the calendar became my enemy, and fumbling self-examinations were a shameful daily occurrence. When, at last, the morning of the out-patient appointment came around, I had no appetite for breakfast.

It was in one of the old Scottish Emergency Wartime Hospitals left over from World War II, replaced now. Back then, it was a collection of time-worn wooden huts set down in the Scottish countryside, away from the once-threatened Luftwaffe bombings. The waiting room was crowded as a lifeboat: all seats taken and a couple of latecomers standing. Everyone was wet from the driving rain and there was a crapulous, miserable, fuggy atmosphere. It was soon plain that we’d all been given the same nine o’clock appointment.

Nevertheless, I had my book, a consolation and a distraction…

#

November 21st, 1289. Four Dunure fishermen, Andra Bain, Davie Laing and Davie’s two hulking sons, stood uncomfortably in a corner of the great kitchen in Culzean Castle, trying and failing to keep out of the way of the exasperated cook and kitchen maid. They had received a summons from Sir Thomas Kennedy the previous evening to attend his pleasure on the morrow. They were to convey his visitor from the cliff-top castle northwards, along the coast to Dunure. They had duly arrived six hours ago, but still Sir Thomas’s guest was not ready to depart. Sailing down to Culzean that morning, Andra and Davie had previously read the signs: a storm was on the way and the wind was from the north – thanks to the delay, their sail would be useless. Left to themselves, they would never have put to sea under such circumstances, but they dared not refuse a command from their laird.

Andra could hear the wind whooping in the kitchen chimney. An independent-minded man and a skilled and respected fisherman, this waiting on the whim of a stranger chafed his pride. As he shuffled aside to allow the cook to open the great bread oven, Andra enquired, ‘Mistress, wit way is the laird’s guest sae tardy? Is he an auld body?’

Humph. He’s nay seen sae mony years that thou hast, I judge. But he’s a man o’ strange powers and accustomed tae ca’ his time his own tae spend.’

Strange powers, Mistress?’

Aye, strange powers. Have thee nae heard o’ Michael Scott o’ Balwearie Tower?’ Andra and Davie exchanged startled looks. The cook continued: ‘Aye, it’s him, the warlock.’ She shuddered, ‘They say he has a devilish familiar that he keeps busy by commanding it to weave a rope out of sea sand.’

Those in fishing communities were a people apart. Fishing was an occupation of shared rewards and shared hazards: their small open boats would work in pairs, hauling in a common net; once beached on the shore, a fifth part of the catch would go to the sick and the widowed. But the hazards bred many superstitions, beliefs in charms and curses, good luck and ill luck. A warlock would be a chancy passenger in an open boat.

Before Andra could reply to the cook, the kitchen door burst open, the maid shrieked in alarm, and Sir Thomas’s chamberlain entered the room along with the north wind. He announced that the laird of Balwearie was now ready to depart.

Down at the shore, Davie’s two sons helped the passenger aboard. He was wrapped in a plaid and carried a bag of books. Andra glanced up at the louring sky and felt the first splatter of rain upon his face. He’d often seen worse weather in the Firth, but he’d never before had to row six sea-miles through it, against the wind and the tide. He spat on his hands and took up his oar beside Davie: troubles that couldn’t be avoided had to be bravely borne…

#

Shortly after ten o’clock, a smartly dressed middle-aged man entered the waiting-room hut, spoke briefly to the receptionist, and glanced at a paper on a clipboard. His bow-tie and his mannered drawl marked him out as the oncologist – I took an immediate dislike to him. Two minutes later, the first name was called by the nurse. Now that the consultation was imminent, further waiting became less bearable and I found myself resenting the patients called forth before me. With an effort of will, I returned to my book…

#

Once they’d left the comparative shelter of the castle bay, the wind and the waves grew much in strength. Indeed, so high were the waves that Andra noticed that when the boat pitched into the trough of a wave, they were fleetingly sheltered from the driving north rain by the height of the wave above the bows. And, facing westward, he could see the spume from the nearby waves caught in the beams of the sinking sun and creating dozens of transitory, truncated rainbows. A day of wonders, if he had only the leisure to ponder them, rather than his likely drowning. He took courage to shout an appeal to the passenger:

Master Mage, I prithee, may we return to Culzean, lest we founder?’

The passenger merely shook his head.

Two hours later, dead beat, freezing cold and nearing their destination at last, Andra peered landward in vain. He had hoped to glimpse a fairway guide – the white mark of waves breaking on the rocks of the Mulrhu headland, immediately to the north of their goal, namely the shingle beach at Dunure. But the dusk and the storm had obliterated the looked-for guide. Navigating the boat past the rocks and beaching it safely on Dunure beach would now depend on his kinfolk lighting a beacon-fire on the home shore. He said as much to his fellow oarsman, Davie Kennedy. Davie shook his head:

Andra, thou maun pray to thy name-sanct, forbye Sanct Nicholas and Sanct Christopher, that the storm slackens. As things stand, if we mak the shore, this storm’ll hurl us ’gainst the shingle and the boat’ll shatter and coup us o’er. We’ll be droonit in the under-tow. Had we a rope, that might save us: our kinfolk could haul the boat to safety through the breaking waves.’

Andra nodded and glared at their plaid-wrapped passenger seated beyond the other two rowers, Davie’s sons. Andra’s resentment of the man’s aloofness overcame his fear. He shouted above the blast: ‘Master Mage, grab the bailing bucket, lest we all droon!’

The old man spoke slowly in a resonant voice, ‘I am Michael Scott of Balwearie. I know the hour of my death and it is not now… Forbye, thy seamark is now restored.’

The rowers turned and peered through the spume to see the flare of the beacon-fire. Andra cheered: ‘My brother has lit it. He kenned the storm would likely delay our return.’

But they still lacked a rope. Andra shouted a last appeal to the Mage. The passenger sighed, muttered, and raised one arm aloft. Instantly, a coiled rope thudded into the bows. There was no time to ponder the rope’s arrival: Andra grabbed it and lashed the rope-end to the bows. The rowers, by luck or judgement, caught a strong in-rolling wave and Andra, with the last of his strength, hurled the coil shorewards; the waiting men on the shingle hauled them in. Three times, enormous waves broke over the boat before it was hauled clear. Davie’s two sons had each grabbed a rowlock with one hand and their passenger with the other, else he would surely have been swept away.

Safe on the shore with the others, Andra noticed that, strangely, the beacon-fire had dwindled away as fast as it must have flared up. He remembered the Mage’s rope; yet when he looked, it wasn’t there.

#

A few minutes after twelve, the nurse called my name. Truculent, as a defence against my mounting anxieties, I entered the over-heated consulting room. After a short history, including a family history of cancer, I was asked to remove my shirt. The doctor examined my chest for a long half-minute…

‘Well, nothing to worry about there. Lipoma: just fatty lumps.’

To my complete surprise, I found I wanted to hug him – my magician.

Citizen Wyckam-Smith

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 27/09/22)

Have you ever ordered a DVD of an old film that, once upon a time, you thought was wonderful (back when you were at an impressionable age, say, between the ages of 15 and 25)? And when you settled down to watch it, accompanied by a wee whisky and some cheese and onion crisps, did you then discover that it was utter crap?

Yep, me too. So you’ll know that fond remembrance can’t always be relied upon: judgements change; remembered facts turn out to be false memories… So I was cautious when I was asked to explain why an elderly MP, whom I’d known briefly when were both students fifty-odd years ago, would shave his head and join the Hare Krishna movement, aka ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The town allotments are a different sort of place to when I first used to come here with my grandad in the 1950s. Back then, they were the resort of the self-reliant poor: a means to put good food on the table for large families and active pensioners. Nowadays, all sorts have their allotments, dotted with elaborate polytunnels, fruit cages, and seasoned, wooden, raised beds. But they are still a sociable place and last month I’d been chatting to a fellow allotmenteer, Cressida Arbuthnot. Somehow, the conversation had shifted from Carrot Fly prevention measures to the picture in the previous week’s local paper of the town’s MP, making the headlines because he’d joined the Hare Krishna crowd. The picture had been taken on the steps of the local stately home, which ISKCON had recently bought as a retreat. Thinking I was making a wisecrack, I said it was convenient that the bloke was already bald as a coot (not much head shaving required, mainly around the ears), but I was disappointed that he hadn’t posed in the traditional Hare Krishna robes and sandals. Cressida didn’t smile or reply. I felt a bit awkward. So to fill the silence, I mentioned that, as a first year student at Uni, I’d had to share rooms with him and that he’d seemed a wee bit odd back then.

Cressida was suddenly animated. ‘Really, you knew him fifty years ago? He’s married to my sister-in-law and the family are terribly worried about him. He’s given away a large sum of money. He spends several HOURS a day chanting. He won’t eat meat, or fish, or eggs. The local party are going to  de-select him. And, err, he’s moved into a spare bedroom: apparently, sex is only for, you know, procreation … he’s 72, of course…’

She paused, probably embarrassed in turn, because she’d maybe ‘shared’ a bit too much info. I started to commiserate, but she cut me short. ‘If you knew him when he was student, that would’ve been the time when all that hippie stuff was going on. Was he, you know, a bit hippie-ish back then? Was he interested in those weird cults, and so on? My sister-in-law is twenty years younger than him. When she met him he was a barrister and looking for a Parliamentary Seat… She doesn’t know much about his earlier life. She’s going round and round in her head, looking for some sort of explanation. I don’t suppose… if you knew him back then… if there was anything that might help explain…’

Despite my disclaimers that I never really knew the guy all that well, that it was all such a long time ago, etc., etc., Cressida backed me into a corner, and I agreed to give the matter some thought and get back to her.

To explain the connection, back in the Sixties, the Cambridge college where we’d both been undergraduates had the daunting requirement that first-year students must share rooms in college. In other words, they must share rooms with a perfect stranger. My stranger/room-mate was Alwyn Smith (he didn’t become Alwyn Wyckham-Smith til some years later), a rather reserved, short-sighted, law student from a place I’d never heard of called ‘Sunningdale.’ I eventually discovered that it was one of those not-quite-real, mock-Tudor towns for London commuters. I wasn’t unkind enough to state it, but I kind-of pitied him for never having smelled a foundry on the wind, or felt the surge and press of a football crowd. Things were missing from his life and he didn’t even know they were missing. (Of course, remember this was in The Sixties when, for the first and last time in human history, it was fashionable to be working class).

So there was a connection: we had to share the same bedroom for a year. But there wasn’t a close connection: we only went to the pub together once – he ordered a gin-and-tonic.

Nevertheless, Cressida had got a commitment out of me. I felt I had to come up with something. And not just because she was the chair of the allotment committee. I did a bit of internet searching, but didn’t come up with much: he’d been a moderately successful barrister and a pretty ‘undistinguished’ MP. I did then wonder if there was a clue in the latter ‘undistinguished’ career. Aged 72, did he feel that he had to make his mark now, before it was too late? But apparently, he was doing his best to avoid publicity, refusing all interviews and keeping the curtains drawn.

Then I considered whether Alwyn might have been ‘recruited,’ drawn into the sect by the blandishments of specialist recruiting sergeants. I remembered that back in the the Seventies, there had been a sect called The Children of God, that used to recruit by ‘love bombing’ – sending their prettiest and handsomest members round the pubs and clubs to entice love-starved recruits. But, again, a 72 year-old seemed an unlikely target. And the Hare Krishna crowd at the local retreat didn’t mingle; they kept pretty much to themselves. 

Retired, with time on my hands, I contacted those few old university friends with whom I was still in touch. Maybe they would recall things that I’d forgotten or misremembered?

Andy, who I used to meet up with for occasional hillwalking weekends, said he remembered Alwyn as always being on the lonely edge of a crowd. He suggested that Alwyn’s embrace of Krishna Consciousness was unlikely to be a search for religious meaning and more likely to be a search for community, for the gratification of belonging. This chimed with my old adolescent aversion to not-quite-real Sunningdale, but I reflected that Parliament, with it’s many bars, dining areas, committee rooms, and caucuses, has the reputation of being the most exclusive club in country. So exclusive and clubable, in fact, that many elderly MPs hanker to stay on the premises in that excellent retirement home, the House of Lords.

Another old friend, David, a psychotherapist, emailed me that it was notable that Alwyn had a wife twenty years his junior. He’d got married without reading the terms and conditions. The Hare Krishna prohibition of sex, except for the purposes of procreation, thus allowed the MP to retire from the marriage bed, and its attendant obligations, without any damage to his sense of his masculinity. I’m a bit worried about David. He has been obsessing about the recent birth of a child in Downing Street, to father who cuts a rather louche figure, being alleged to have left several ‘love-children’ in his wake, as well as assorted children from previous marriages. David’s been writing this long, tortuous, libellous, unpublishable, academic paper about politics and the sex drive. Sent David a polite acknowledgement.

Jim’s email promised to be more helpful, because he had been a law student like Alwyn, although Jim’s subsequent career had been very different from the MP. Jim revealed some information that I didn’t know (that Alwyn’s mother had been the daughter of a High Court Judge), and some information that I’d forgotten (that, back then, Alwyn had been the only student in college to attend tutorials in a collar and tie). He suggested that the guy had spent seventy years in rigid conformity to some past parental model of career success, never giving any observer grounds for concern, only to finally crack-up with the finishing post in sight. ‘He fell at the last fence’, was how Jim put it. I could follow Jim’s reasoning, but in my experience conformity was much more likely to increase with age, rather than diminish. In any case, I felt Cressida and the rest of Alwyn’s family would hardly be cheered by Jim’s hypothesis.

It was the last reply I received, from Alan, that convinced me to be as guarded as possible in any message to Alwyn’s family. I hadn’t really expected to hear back from Alan: his was an old email address and I’d heard that he’d recently followed a contrasting, but oddly parallel, path to Alwyn’s: Alan had become a monk in the Orthodox Church. Alan wrote that my dogged search for an explanation for the MP’s conduct was understandable and well-meant, but doomed to fail.

To summarise Alan’s argument, he suggested that we are such complex, multi-faceted, muddled creatures that any clear-cut account of human motivation is bound to be partial at best, and subject to all sorts of fads and fashions. I imagine that he could’ve instanced the unlikelihood that, back in the nineteenth century, any of the most brilliant pre-Freudian minds of the day would have ever suggested that the relinquishment of a political career could be motivated by of fears of sexual impotency.

Alan ended his email thus: ‘This side of death, can we ever see into another’s soul?’ He entitled the email: ‘Rosebud.’

Earwigging

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No.95, Autumn 2022)

The minister, the Reverend Donald MacAlistair, left the Health Centre with a spring in his step. He’d attended for his annual check-up, a service the centre offered to all their over-65s. His blood pressure had reduced since last year and he’d lost half a stone in weight. The nurse, Alison Forbes, had been quite complimentary. She was one of his parishioners and they’d had a short chat afterwards about the Christmas services. He was smiling as he turned the corner into the Cowgate, heading for the hairdresser’s. But his good mood wasn’t set to last.

The minister still thought of the hairdresser’s as ‘Andrew Patterson’s, the barber’s’, but nowadays it was ‘Raymond’s Unisex Hairdresser’s’. Initially, Reverend MacAlistair had been rather thrown by the gaiety of the new female customers, heads festooned with what appeared to be tin foil streamers; the atmosphere had been rather more subdued in Old Andrew Patterson’s day. And why did proceedings always start with a teenage girl vigorously washing his hair, when he’d washed it himself the day before? But the minister had got used to it, just as he’d got used to dwindling congregations and news stories about Kim Kardashian. He settled into the chair and listened to Raymond’s chatter about Tenerife.

Then Raymond was called away to consult on a customer’s ‘highlights’. Without realising he was doing it, the minister found himself earwigging the conversation of a junior hairdresser and her customer in the chair between him and the shop window. They were laughing about a secondary school teacher called Kirsty who had developed a hopeless passion for a teenage boy, one of her pupils. Apparently, Kirsty was a rather dowdy character and her clumsy attempts to woo young Seb were the talk of the school. Her latest escapade was to hang about outside school gates and…

A thought struck Reverend MacAlistair like a meteorite hitting a swamp full of dinosaurs: Good grief! They were talking about his Kirsty, his daughter Kirsty at the Academy!

Raymond then returned with more would-be soothing talk about the different sizes of different hotel swimming pools. The minister muttered abstracted replies and almost departed without paying. His thoughts were only of his daughter, senior maths teacher at the Academy. Memories of her childhood had so often been a staff for him in times of trouble: as a toddler, her gurgling laughter as she discovered the trampoline properties of the settee; as a ten year-old, falling asleep with her arms around the family dog… Now that staff was torn away from him: his only child was in terrible trouble – her career smashed, herself a figure of scorn and ridicule – and he was helpless to protect her. His Presbyterian forbears had taught that this life was a Vale of Tears, from which the only release was The Everlasting Life to come. For the first time in his long life in the Kirk, he truly appreciated the grimness of that doctrine.

Without thought, his feet had taken him up the hill from the Cowgate, to the kirk and the new manse. Some years ago, economies had necessitating the demolition of the sprawling Victorian manse. The land been sold and a block of flats erected in its place; the new manse was a pleasant modern bungalow in a corner of the old manse grounds. The minister stood by his gate, staring at his wife, Alice, who was kneeling among the roses with gardening gloves and a trowel. Too late, he realised that he had failed to consider how he was to break his news to Alice.

She looked up, stood, and gasped in quick succession. ‘Donald, what on Earth’s the matter? You’re white as a sheet. What’s happened at the Health Centre?’

‘Let’s go inside, dear. The check-up was fine. It’s just…’

‘Donald MacAlistair! If you dinna tell me right away what’s goin’ on, I swear I’ll hit you wi’ this trowel!’

He told her all about the overheard conversation. She was silent for a moment, frowning at the trowel in her hand. ‘Tell me, this boy, is he called Sebastian?’

‘Er, yes… Seb, short for Sebastian.’

She smiled and threw her arms around him, dirty gloves, trowel and all. ‘You daft old git. Sebastian and Kirsty are two characters in Amberdale, that soap serial on the TV!’

The Wisdom of Work Placements

By Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction, 24th of August, 2022)

I read somewhere that cats live in the ‘eternal present,’ which is why they never express gratitude, only pleasure. This strikes me as a pretty good life-principle: okay, gratitude goes out the window, but we could also say goodbye to regret, disappointment, guilt, remorse, etc. – a lot of heart-ache.

I was reminded of the Eternal Present Principle when young Billy was telling me about his work-placement experiences at Grantchester Engineering (‘Supplying Solenoid Solutions’). The company not only had him spending time in the different engineering departments, but also in a few back offices, like the Accounts Department.

Billy had been placed in one of those back offices (which had better be nameless) just before Christmas. It was an open-plan design – a potentially annoying arrangement if a colleague has bad work habits. In this particular office, there was an elderly gentleman who used to mutter curses to himself as he worked. A recurrent curse apparently involved the primary school playing field that backed onto his garden: ‘All that fuckin’ money and never a fuckin’ foot set on it. Fuckin’ waste of fuckin’ council tax…’ You get the picture.

On the Monday of Billy’s last week of placement, the old guy seemed particularly agitated, continually muttering, ‘It’s a fuckin’ fiddle. What a fuckin’ nerve. A complete fuckin’ fiddle…’

Less accustomed, or less accommodated, to this near-constant stream of obscene complaints than his fellow office-workers, Billy eventually asked the gentleman what had upset him. It seemed that the guy had taken his grand-daughter to see Santa Claus at the local department store:

‘That fuckin’ Santa Claus Lucky Dip at fuckin’ Williams & MacIntosh – you pay a quid and only get fuckin’ ten pence worth of fuckin’ goods out of it.’

Billy tells me he’s decided against a future job working in offices.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Life Coach

by Michael Bloor

(first published Grey Sparrow Journal, Issue 40, July 31st, 2022)

I believe quite a lot of people chat, from time to time, with their deceased relatives. Myself, I’ve often chatted to my dad, especially when stuck in traffic. But I imagine that chatting to Samuel Taylor Coleridge is more unusual.

Unusual, but understandable in my case. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Coleridge for fifty-odd years, ever since I read that line, “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.”

What we mostly chat about these days is my mobility problem, namely that I can’t walk past my local pub. Previously, we’ve agreed on throwing out my home-brewing kit. I now drink water or squash with my meals. And I only buy-in booze if I’ve got guests. I’ve told Samuel that the mobility problem is now The Big One: crack that and the sunlit uplands await. I’m setting down the gist of the discussion we had, on the hard road home after closing time…

“Urrrggh. What a bloody waste of five hours and thirty quid. Why? WHY do I keep putting things off? And where’s the attraction in that bloody pub??”

“Indeed, sir. I did mark most particularly the ‘Person from Porlock’ who explained to you how to replace the sash in sash-and-case windows.”

“Jeez. Don’t remind me, Samuel. Why? WHY didn’t I just drink up and go??”

“Let us confabulate, Sir, and seek a satisfactory consonance.” Samuel paused and made a sound like that of drawing on a cigarette and exhaling the smoke. “If I may, I would like to offer a personal observation that may assist you. Oft times I have reached for the laudanum to soothe the toothache. And oft times to allay the rheumatics. But more often still, have I fled to the soporific poppy in despair and panic from the terrible specter of Work Undone. And worse still, from the looming, wrathful wraith of Work Only Half Done…”

“You mean…” [It’s difficult to interrupt Coleridge in full flow].

“I mean that, when you hear the old saw ‘the distance is nothing, the first step is the hardest,’ when you hear that blatant untruth, reach for your rapier. There is no thing more daunting to a man of good intentions than a distant finishing post. Speak not to me of completions!”

“No, no, I wouldn’t dream of…”

“Eighteen years, nigh on nineteen years, I struggled to find the occasion and the wit to finish ‘Kubla Khan.’ In the end, that beggar Byron persuaded me to publish it unfinished – an awful monument to, and reminder of, my incorrigible SLOTH.”

Samuel choked on the last word. I would have said something in consolation, but I too was struggling with a sudden emotion. My boyhood hero had supplied the diagnosis for my condition, and “sloth” is an ugly word. I walked on in silence.

***

Kind reader, you are no doubt wondering how it was I turned from sloth long enough to complete this fragment. Providence smiled on me: the pandemic came along and the government closed the pub.