Saturday, 5 June 2010

A month on the wild side (part 2)

Zolfo Springs is about two hours and a thousand light years away from the razzle dazzle and big dippers of theme-park Orlando. The multi-coloured arc lights faded to sodium yellow, then to the occasional illuminated window of a road-side diner or drive-through pharmacy, and then dwindled almost to nothing but the moon and the stars as we pushed our way south and west across Florida that first night.

Our hosts had warned us that the intern house had been empty for a month or so and that there'd not be any food there for us when we arrived. I used our one stop, at a McDonald's, to buy a small bottle of milk. When we arrived, the little house was cold and its emptiness seemed to somehow be emphasised by the artificial Christmas tree that still stood rather rejectedly in the corner of the living room. Tea bags, milk and a packet of cigarettes has been for many years my own personal survival kit. I made us a cup of tea before jet lag overwhelmed us and we fell into our bunk beds.

Waking early the next morning, I tip toed to the kitchen as quietly as I could so as not to wake Tatiana. She was Brazilian, and at 21 very much younger than me - the same age as my own daughter in fact. But we'd got on well the previous evening in the back of the car on the long drive down here and was optimistic that the age gap would not be a problem; I'm pleased to say that it never was.

Cup of tea in hand and cigarettes in my pocket, I wandered out into the cold Florida sunshine that first morning. There was frost on the grass and a hazy mist hung over the fields that surrounded the intern house. My breath puffed little white clouds into the bright blue sky. I sipped my drink and felt immensely happy and relieved. Whatever lay ahead, whatever the next four weeks had to offer, I was here and determined to make the most of it. I went back in, made some more tea, and sat down on the frosty steps to watch and wait as the first morning of my Florida adventure unfolded.

Photo of the intern house

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A month on the wild side (part 1)

It had been a decision quickly made over my birthday weekend in early December, signed and sealed before the still-hot melting wax of thought had time to cool and dither and faff. Yes, there had been last minute nerves mixed in with all the excitement, and as I looked down from the jet's cold metal belly at the mounds of snow encrusting the runway I tried as hard as I could not to even attempt to picture what lay ahead. Not just yet, anyway.

It is probably to overstate the case to say that I'm afraid of flying, but I've always understood why some pre-flight passengers might dose themselves with alcohol or tranquilisers; comfortably numb could well be a most commendable flight path. The cups of tea and fizzy water I'd had during my long wait in the snow-bound airport were very small beer by comparison, necessitating only loo trips rather than sweet oblivion. But no matter; the plane was only half full and I had the block of three whole seats to myself by way of some compensation. The staff busy themselves with the ritual of take-off - bolting the doors; closing the overhead lockers; the safety talk; the seat belt check; the first small movements; that slow-growing rumble that turns into a growl that becomes the powerful roar of the engines that thrusts you back into your seat and has your brain muttering half-remembered prayers whilst seeking religious conversion.

There had been times in the five weeks between my decision to go and actually reaching 35,000 feet that I really thought it might not happen at all. Britain had been enduring its coldest, snowiest winter in more than three decades. All the airports had been forced to shut several times, including up to a day before my own departure. It had also been a very tight time squeeze to get a whole three-jab course of rabies vaccinations done at the travel clinic. But cruising now, relaxing high above the clouds amid brilliant jewel blue skies, miniature plastic glass of Diet Coke in one hand and in-flight meal on the fold down table in front, all that was left behind.

All that lay ahead was the ocean, America, and a month in the middle of nowhere surrounded on all sides by wild animals. Grinning, I finished my drink, folded the table away, tucked myself up under the bright red blankets and fell asleep. Next stop: Florida.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Ah... Now where was I?

Hmmm. Eleven months. Nearly a year. That's a slightly longer detour into the foyer than I anticipated. Did you save me some popcorn?? Hope our ice creams haven't melted...

The seasonal cogs have cranked almost a full circle and the early summer has jostled into my little back garden again, trailing birds and bugs and buds in its path. The determined snails have munched my two tiny courgette plants into oblivious stumps; the nettles are untouched, needless to say. The lackey moth caterpillars are back, festooning the blackthorn tree outside my front window. The dog is curled up in a tiny tight ball by the door. Everything's the same as it was a year ago.

And everything's different too. The barn finally sold last autumn after two years of trying. I've taken a good long spell off work - 7 months to be exact - every day of which has been delightful. My daughter Roo has celebrated her 21st birthday. I bought a proper camera. We've welcomed my sister's beautiful new baby boy to our family. I spent a month in Florida working as a volunteer at an exotic animal refuge. And I've got a new job - 3 days a week - which I started today.

More of all of this (and other stuff) to follow. But just for now to peep round the corner back into the world of blog and say hello again. Did I miss much? Do tell me, please...

Stained glass window at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A little less conversation...

... a little more action please, as Elvis might have put it. With or without a rhinestone studded wing-collared jumpsuit.

Unlike Elvis, I cannot sing nor have I left the building. But I am going to be taking a short break from blogging for a while. I've also got the whole week off work so am planning to take a few days of r 'n' r to enjoy the fabulous sunshine and to do a few other things that I've been thinking about for a while but have been putting off.

So more of an interlude than a departure really. Do take the opportunity to grab a drink and an ice cream from the foyer. I'll be back soon. In the meantime, enjoy the sunshine.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Cocoa weekend

If it is the possession of clever thumbs, a smart-wired brain and walking on two feet that defined homo sapiens in an evolutionary sense, it's storytelling that makes us human. The telling and sharing of stories is of such universal importance that it is among the handful of characteristics that all peoples have had in common since the dawn of time.

Whether set in far away places full of mythical creatures, amid the colourful pageantry of times gone by, or in the work-a-day real world of the here and now, stories serve to unite and to educate, to share tribal traits and beliefs, to warn, to question received wisdom, to show novel ways of thinking and to capture new ideas, to pass on skills and techniques, to place the current day in the context of the past, and - above all perhaps - to entertain.

Many books that you read in a lifetime will change the way you think about the world, but arguably none more so than those that your read (or hear) in your very earliest years. The magic contained in the books you read (or which are read to you) as a child is so spellbinding that it can remain with you all your days. Those talented, clever people who write children's books have an almighty burden upon their shoulders: for their words - and the worlds they create with them - are quite literally capable of shaping young minds. Paradoxically, of course, a child might not remember all the details of the carefully crafted characters within a story - nor even who the book was by or what it was called - but he or she may take away the essence of the story and make it part of his or her own human fibre.

One such for me was a story that was first read to me and then read by me when I was able to do so. At one point in it, the little girl puts on her Sunday-best dress, packs up her tiny brown suitcase and goes to stay with some neighbours, the Cocoas, for a few days. This thrilling event is called a Cocoa weekend. So of course all my life, my mother, my sister and I have always referred to a few days away as being a Cocoa weekend. I can't for the life of me remember what book it was in. I wish I could. But no matter, the essence has remained even if the title is lost now to my childhood memory.

And so it is that the dog and I are about to embark on our latest Cocoa weekend. I'm off in the morning to Lancaster to collect Roo from university, to drop her belongings into storage for the duration and to bring her back home for the long summer holidays - a Cocoa vacation perhaps? Meanwhile, Kaos has gone to stay with my mother in a canine version of the same thing, except with a lead and collar and tins of dog food rather than a pile of suitcases and a car full of computer equipment. Roo and I should be back home again on Monday evening.

And whilst I'm enjoying my Cocoa weekend, I will try my best to retrieve from the dark dusty corners of my brain what the name of that wonderful book was.

The British Isles: from Mercator's 'Atlas or Meditations of a Cosmographer on the Creation of the World and on the Form of Created Matter' 1595.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The heartbreaking persistence of nature

Perfect sultry day, air thick as honey. A day for lying on the grass folded in the arms of a lover. For stroking damp hair from a sweated forehead. For cool crisp white wine and soft summer fruits dipped in sugar. For watching leavening clouds growing dense as charcoal. For laughing as slow swollen rain drops explode on the skin and running for cover under newspaper umbrellas. For ice creams, choc ices, kiss-me-quick hats and long cotton skirts. For barefooted footsteps, flip flops and wriggling scarlet varnished toes in the sand.

A crow stands on a chimney pot, king of all he surveys. Ragged jet wings and glistening beak full of discarded sandwich crusts. He feeds his young as tenderly as the gentlest cow nuzzles her calf, then arches his wings and leaps into the air in an act of faith as old as time. To us earth-stuck creatures, who can gaze only with envious eyes as he soars and swoops with a natural grace, his flight is a miracle.

In the high street, engines grind and rumble as cars and lorries inch their way towards the end of the work week. Office workers run lunch time errands, hair slick with sweat and make-up melting on burning cheeks. Music seeps through open windows, snatches of conversation, of badly tuned radios and exotic languages. Pigeons squabble over market remains on the edge of the pavement. Fresh black graffiti on the face of a white painted building, mismatched curtains hang limp at its dusty windows. A man chews his nails as his van waits to turn at the lights, his mind fixed on the long cold beer and the quick hot kiss to welcome him home.

Sunset on the beach and the hazy mist of night time heat blurs an invisible line between sea and sky. Herring gulls strut and peck on the shingle bank picking out oysters and winkling crabs. It is quite quite still; even the incoming ocean raises barely a ripple in the storm heavy air. Swifts chase overhead darting on the trails of hazy insects and the bulging vapours of mesmeric midges. Oystercatchers call to each other from the hem of the tide among the driftwood and the bladder wrack. The pink orange sun erupts through a rift in the clouds, its colour staining the sky as it starts its final descent. A giant blazing disc dropped with infinite slowness into a timeless slot machine by unseen hands.

We make our way back through the gathering twilight. The dogs have spent their effervescence and trot contentedly side by side, chewing sticks and stopping to sniff at the promenade news. The gulls are still fishing out of sight in the darkness, still calling to one another, still prising open shells. Groups of boys show off tricks on skateboards and bicycles, the nearby girls pretend not to notice as they talk and giggle just a little too loudly over cans of flat Coke. We say goodbye to our beach walking companions, then home once more in the quiet still evening. A moth scuttles up the window pane and the dog snores his contentment from the cave of his bed.
A night at the end of a perfect summer day.

Picture: Surf City Sally's Sea Shell Emporium by Richard Cardona

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cautionary tales from old ma Pythagoras

Should you ever find yourself plummeting towards a certain death whilst trapped inside a tiny tinny lift, just jump up and down as fast as you can. This simple act will save you from being scooped out of the bottom of the shaft on a shovel whilst also cocking a snook to the always-trying-to-prove-itself force of gravity. It is unclear whether the presence of muzak enhances or detracts from this manoeuvre.

Never walk underneath a ladder propped against a wall. It's bad luck. That's because the gods hate trying to work out the square of the hypotenuse enough as it is without you trundling along and bisecting the base line measurement with your silly shoes. It'd also be pretty grim having to spend eternity in damnation just because of a geometrical mishap.

Don't put food in your mouth using a knife. It'll make you look as if you missed out on the 1966 casting session for One Million Years BC (whether or not you resemble Raquel Welch) and may give any younger siblings in the vicinity the urge to accidentally jog your elbow. And forked tongues only look good on snakes.

Birds of a feather flock together. Except when they don't.

Never accept lifts from strangers. Aunty Barbara did that once in the seventies and she's never been the same since, what with the tattoos and the piercings and the CND posters. At what point an acquaintance ceases to be a stranger is a moot point: a decade sharing a house and / or bed is usually enough, but you can never be too careful.

If you wash your face in the dew at dawn on the first of May, you'll be beautiful all year round. If you get up early enough, don't stand on the dog in the dark and once you've got rid of the grass stems and ants from your hair.

Good things come to he who waits. If your good thing hasn't arrived yet, you've just not been waiting long enough or you gave the wrong address when you were ordering the good thing. Don't forget that patience is a virtue. Virtues are good things too. See, now your good thing has arrived already even without it being the actual good thing that you expected.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. As proved repeatedly using ducking stools during the witch trials of the middle ages, a witch who drowned was innocent all along. Thus being both strong and dead. Or in other words, what will be, will be. If you allow fate to take its course, then that is the course you were always fated to take; if you make a conscious act or a change of direction, then that is the course you were always fated to take... Ok, you're always on a winning streak with the fate thing.

Rain before seven, fine by eleven. Unless you're very unlucky and the storm lasts longer than four hours. Quite what climatic calamity would be unleashed for the next forty days by rain before seven and after eleven on St Swithin's Day (July 15th) is anyone's guess. So be prepared and take an umbrella.