The Shadow of a Passing Year

As I write this, I am sat on a train heading north from High Wycombe to Nottingham (transfers at Banbury and Derby). It is the 31st December, the last day of 2015, and I am once again collecting my thoughts before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. Apart from that, in almost every sense, I am very far from the point I was at this time last year.

2015 has probably been my worst year, even considering life-threatening illness, injury, and other sundry miseries that have afflicted my life. I’m choosing not to dwell because there’s little point, but the first nine months of the year can be accurately described as in the shit. I am in no hurry to revisit them, so I shall move on to when things picked up. Similarly, and perhaps a little selfishly, I think that for all the tragic events of this year, others have said it better than I. Sometimes, the only appropriate response is silence.

I have been living and working in High Wycombe for three months now. My job, which I won’t go in to for security reasons, has been going well enough. The people I work with are quite nice people, though many of them are leaving in 2016, including one of the two who have been coaching me in my role. As is always the case when someone departs, there is a wistfulness for those who remain as the change forces them to reflect on their own position. Largely, it is a job and like all jobs something that is done to pay for the things we like – capitalism fails – but right now the novelty of a monthly pay cheque has not worn off. For my part, I am hopeful that the new year will offer me chances to continue my development. I work with a place that offers excellent access to training and I intend to exploit it to the fullest.

If my workplace has been welcoming, my new lodging has not. Nothing sums it up more fully than this: Having returned from my visiting my parents’ over Christmas, I found a Christmas card left outside my door. The message? “Please remember to empty the bins once a week and switch off all lights.” None is the worse tyrant than the petty one.

Socially, High Wycombe has been challenging! I’m not, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who can just go in to a pub or café[1] and start making friends. Yet I did not wish to live in isolation in my new home, if for no other reason than it would be quite boring. I have made a few efforts to meet people that have had some success, using the site meetup to, well, meet up. I have gone to a coffee meeting in Marlow where I met a group of older adults. They were friendly and chatty but I found I had little in common with them. I have also signed up with a reading group, which I really enjoyed and will be going to again at the end of January for The Martian.[2]

The largest and most active group has been the most challenging. After a shaky start at a comedy club, where I largely did not get to talk to anyone, I had two more events with them. The first, at Halloween, was a complete farce. I up alone in costume walking the streets of London as they had missed the train. The next time I met them, for brunch at a local bar, was similarly fraught, as they chose not to sit at the table they had booked. I elected to give it one last shot for a Christmas meal in Marlow. I admit that, with so many false starts, I was a little trepidatious. I half expected them to have changed reservations at the last moment. Thankfully, I went through with it and had a chance to speak with everyone. They seem like very nice people, so I was glad I did.

I have been able to read a great deal more, despite having less free time. I think this is probably a result of having to give structure to my days, what with having demands on my time. I have meant to write a little on the books that I have read since coming to High Wycombe, but I suppose there I but up against the limits of my time. I’ve moved back on to non-fiction for the last little bit of they year, having just finished Flynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan. At some point I will try and look back on some of the things I have read; Rivers of London, in particular, was both better and more thoughtful than I expected.

I continue to write, much the same as I did last year. Having finished ‘The Mountain’s Shadow’[3] I returned to an old, old idea of mine. I first came up with what was then titled ‘Zodiac Rising’ on the train to Stoke-on-Trent to visit my then girlfriend while she was at university. The bones of the tale, a journey of self-discovery, remain; all else – gods, magic, monsters – has gone. I’m a very slow writer but I try to put in 500 words a day – some days I do more – and it currently sits at 100,000 words. Some months ago I returned to rewrite the beginning, which is extending things somewhat. I had originally intended to do one and done but I am now thinking that perhaps it could work split in to two parts. The vital thing for now is to focus on getting it finished, then I can worry about the rest. I suspect this time next year I shall still be writing about it!

Something else that I am looking forward to in the new year is my return to running role-playing games. I and two of my brothers had been dabbling, in a desultory manner, with gaming[4] while I still lived in Gloucestershire. I have invited a few friends to take part in a VOIP game session drawing inspiration from pretty much the entirety of my gaming life. Titled ‘The Road of the King’[5] the concept is that the characters are the children of a band of great and good heroes who were felled by an insidious and triumphant evil – the “King” – and it is up to this new generation to take up the fight. I’ve written a fair bit on the setting[6] and am really looking forward to it – largely because of the excellent character ideas I’ve already received.[7]

The past two weeks saw me back at my parents for Christmas. I visited Liam and Susie in their new home in Quedgeley, which is a lovely little house just right for them. He showed me his pride and joy[8] while Susie jetted off on hers.[9] I went to a Greek restaurant, the Mythos,[10] in Chepstow with Jim. I saw my parents, more of my brothers, and my nieces. I went for a run and, for the first time, fell over while doing so. The foresters appear to have taken a dislike to their trees, hewing them haphazardly and turning the paths in to mud-slicked nightmares. It rained a lot. I ate a lot. I played far too much World of Wacraft.[11]

With the liberty afforded me by salaried employment,[12] I’m actually able to play things for the coming year. In addition to ongoing little things like theatre trips and a triumphant return to watching an awful lot of awful films.[13] Like the world and his dog, I went to see Star Wars VII. It was probably my film high-light of the year.[14] I took two of my brothers on the trip and all three of us were absolutely thrilled. As we left the cinema, we were pleased but as we walked and talked, comparing the little details of craft and wonder, our esteem grew and grew. It was not a film that shocked or surprised, but rather a master-piece of intentional design – much like the original Star Wars film. Others may not have enjoyed it as much as I; I wouldn’t know, I stopped reading op eds about it even before it had screened. Unusually for me, I am keen to see it at the cinema again – I may go while in Nottingham, or when back in Wycombe.

I’m also hoping to get back in to regularly watching theatre. So far, I’ve restricted myself to National Theatre screening of plays, so as to recoup the cost of moving and setting up here in Wycombe, but I am thinking of going to see the Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer. I have been recommended the Wycombe Swan; at the moment it is panto season (which I do not care for) but hopefully something will tickle my fancy. There have been some mumblings among the social groups I have attached to about going to some cultural events – they’re still of an age where clubbing and rekt is the main diversion – and I think I would enjoy the company.[15]

I also have bigger plans in the offing. Having missed 2Cellos perform in London, I have looked up their tour dates and am planning a trip in late May to see them in Munich. That will be a bit of a double treat, as it will be a chance to see performers I greatly esteem and my first trip outside of Britain since 2012, when I went to Paris. It will be my second trip to Germany.[16] The chocolate comes highly recommended. I am also hoping to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival in August. This is being arranged with the Meet-up group so there is every chance it will go wrong. Finally, and most excitingly, my brother Jim and I are planning a trip to Marrakesh in time for Christmas/New Year’s for 2016. It will be the first time I have been off continent. I anticipate growing fat from all the tagine I will be eating.

[1] Not that Britain has a café culture. More’s the pity.

[2] I was a bit pleased that a group primarily focused on literary fiction chose a sci-fi book to start the year. On the other hand, a reviewer I greatly admire has made a good case that ‘The Martian’ isn’t a sci-fi novel at all. We shall see!

[3] At least for now. I have some further ideas to expand it.

[4] 13th Age for those who are curious and care about system.

[5] RPGs are where I get my latent pomposity out, I’m sure.

[6] RPGs are also where I allow myself the luxury of world-building – mental masturbation at its finest. For those who have read me elsewhere, this is a reimagining of the Xerxes/Sol Crucis setting.

[7] I don’t want to tell you about my character, but I really do about these guys! A demon-summoning warrior and the son of a Time Lord and the Old Woman of the Mountain. Sweet.

[8] Playstation 4

[9] A motorbike

[10] I am not an aficionado of Greek cuisine, but the food was excellent and the service great.

[11] I seem to relapse at Christmas. I got a rocket this year.

[12] It is amazing the difference money makes. People parrot the cliché that it cannot buy you happiness but the honest truth is that without it, you will be miserable.

[13] I was so excited for Black Mass and it let me down.

[14] But Fury Road is so close!

[15] I do have a theatre buddy in London, but she is occupied with work commitments most of the time. Those hyenas won’t hunt themselves.

[16] I stayed in Berlin while travelling Europe in my early twenties

The Man without Leg Days

About three months ago I embarked on a bit of a fitness jig. While I was in the forest, this involved getting up to do half an hour of sinawali, going for a run in the forest around lunch time, and lifting weights before bed. It’s not a particularly intensive regime – more on that in a bit – but it does mean I’m exercising for between an hour and ninety minutes every day. I’ve, in the main, kept this up in the two and a half weeks I’ve been living in High Wycombe, despite having to find a new running route and adjust my time table accordingly. At the moment, I am up at half-six to get in the time for my escrima.

My motivations for this are as dorkly as anything. I really like dressing up in costume for Halloween and, a few months back, watched the Netflix Daredevil series.[1] I quite liked it, and especially liked the ‘Black Mask’ look. I thought I would poach it but, at that point, I was in shabby shape. The components for the costume were relatively easy to get together[2] but, to quote a phrase, I did not want to look like a bipedal frog, all spindly limbs and bubble belly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a bit of ‘get fit.’ I first started caring about exercise when I was about sixteen, seventeen. That was prompted by, of all things, a news article about Michael Jackson hiring a personal trainer because he was worried about bone strength and getting brittle in old age.[3] This made me worry about the state of my bones. So, I started doing a little bit of body-weight stuff – press-ups, sit-ups, and lots of stretching – until my brother Kris invited me to his gym.[4]

ROKO in Portsmouth was basically a giant, well-lit warehouse filled with (then) high-tech exercise equipment.[5] You had a profile set-up recording your range of movement on a given station and then from there you were on your own. You could ask for coaching or help from one of the staff but why would I do that? I’d turn on my music player and just pootle around for an hour every other day, going through my twelve or so stations. It was great fun and, on the way home, I’d reward myself with some chips.[6] ROKO ended when I got so sick I had to be hospitalised and ended with chronic fatigue. I also lost loads of weight, going from a healthy adult male to skeletor in the space of an evening.

I next attempted to climb the hill of physical fitness while living in Greenwich. That pretty much involved more of my old regime and a bit of shadow-boxing thrown in for cardio. It was very, very low impact because I was in no shape to do anything more. I like to think that this helped me recover better than I would have done but I never reached the lofty heights I had achieved at ROKO. This tailed off when I moved to Stoke-on-Trent. While there, I walked two hours each day to get to work, which I figured was exercise enough. Whether it was or not is neither here nor there.

It wouldn’t be for another three years, when I started at Nottingham Trent University, that I would resume the Sisyphean pursuit of personal fitness again. I joined a local gym about fifteen-minute’s walks from home and, once again, started to go every other day. This wasn’t as high-tech as ROKO had been, but was a bit fancier than the local gyms stuffed with hard bodied bros that comes to mind when I think of ‘local gym.’[7] This wasn’t as successful a time as going to ROKO; a combination of stuff that darkened my mood led to me not going as often, or with as much dedication, as I should have done. I stopped going to that gym after a year, though only because the initial incentive low-price expired and I couldn’t in good conscience afford any more.

Another period of laziness followed, which gave way to swimming. I’m not a strong swimmer and I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my early teens. The Lenton pool was a tiny little thing, in the abstract a representation of what a local community can do for itself, but my strongest memories are of banging my head repeatedly on the sides.[8] I remain unsure as to why I stopped going.

After graduation, my exercise turned back to the old standards of press-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. I also added, for the first time, jogging.[9] I would get up early and go for a run around the block. Much as now, it wasn’t anything a real runner would consider running, but it made me feel good, especially once I’d managed to actually do my whole circuit without collapsing dead. However, being unemployed does wonders for the mind and I lost my motivation.

About a month after moving in with Liam, I had a small epiphany and started exercising again, and a lot. I would get up at silly o’clock to do press-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and lifting. At that point in time, I didn’t have the money to buy weights so instead I stuffed some bags with books and lifted those instead. Much to my surprise/pleasure it worked. I started to beat myself in to some shape. I actually managed to beat the 100 press-up thing. Later, I started adding escrima to my regimen, buying a pair of sticks and proving myself a menace to my skull and masonry. That bout of exercise tailed off during my time in Lenton Manor, once again putting up with cold and misery sapping my will to keep in shape.

So, obviously, at this point I think it’s fair to acknowledge that to keep this good habit I am developing, I also have to own up to being a bit of an inconstant exerciser. With that in mind, I’ve been establishing to myself what makes for good exercise practice. Mostly, this is things I’ve gleaned from people saying motivational slogans at me as I lift:

  1. Have a goal. This is my own one. In this instance, I want to not embarrass myself when I dress up as Daredevil, even if it’s just in the privacy of my own room.[10] I think it’s important to have something tangible to aspire to, because you can compare yourself against it. This also applies to the structure of your work-outs – I have a timetable for increasing weight and reps for my lifting, so I can see how much I’ve improved.
  2. Finish strong! This one is from Kris. I don’t know if there is an actual fitness reason for this, but I’ve internalised it as a psychological principle. If I finish better than I started – so twelve reps rather than eight – I feel better about the work I’ve done, even if I am tired. It works for me.
  3. Don’t train yourself to hate something. I mentioned earlier that my exercise is low-intensity. This comes from something a friend of mine said, many years ago, about going from unfit to marathon runner: don’t do something until it hurts you, because all you are doing is training yourself to hate it and want to stop. Instead, keep it reasonable, keep it fun, and you’ll want to keep doing it.

So, with those three things in mind, I’m off to do some arnis. Maybe nobody will see my impressive Daredevil cosplay but at least my secret identity will be safe.

DareLuke

[1] All a bit moot now, mind. I was intending to visit Oop North for Halloween but Liam’s moved and Rob doesn’t want to do anything for Halloween. As yet, the RAF do not seem to ‘do’ Halloween. They’re big on Oktoberfest though. Must be the German connection.

[2] The only problems I ran in to: Tactical gloves are illegal and I would love to know how they made the actual Black Mask, because apparently Charlie Cox’s one allows you to see.

[3] Turns out, he needn’t have worried. That’s life.

[4] I believe I did go to the Gym with Jon once or twice as well. Suffice to say, watching Jon lift weights is an experience.

[5] Also free-weights, but I have never been fond of free-weights.

[6] I didn’t think of this at the time, but those chips were probably why I put on any muscle while going to ROKO. Fuel and that.

[7] I would like to take a moment to say I’ve found most gym guys quite friendly, though overly competitive. I’m just not that chatty when I’m exercising.

[8] I swim underwater with my eyes closed. I don’t recommend it.

[9] Perhaps, more correctly, gasping.

[10] Take that, Crime!

Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.

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As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.

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In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.

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One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]

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We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.

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Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.

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[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.

A Dog’s Life

Today, 28 August 2015, my mum and my brother took our Sky, our oldest dog, to the vet to have her put to sleep. It’s a recurrence of a tumorous growth, perhaps a cancer, that she had two years ago. Then, it required operation. Now that it is back, it’s worse, and there’s nothing that could be done: the tumour had become infected, and either one would have killed her. So today is a sad day.

When I first moved back in with my parents, following the disintegration of my life after an ill-timed moment of trust, I would take Sky for a walk in the forest. It was a way to get out of the house, and have space with my thoughts; there is nothing like the (mostly) silent constancy of a dog to provide space for your thoughts. After a while, those walks became runs. Though Sky is – was, it will be past tense from now on – was old, already eleven, she loved to run. To begin with, she ran faster than me, loping ahead in her particular, peculiar doggy stride. It encouraged me to push harder and go a little faster. It was good, but she deteriorated quickly. The last time we ran together, I was outpacing her and it was only after I turned a bend and stopped to see her loping so far behind that I realised she couldn’t keep up. Even then, once she had reached my heel, she tried to start running again, still filled with a doggy enthusiasm for life. The runs turned back to walks, but eventually she couldn’t manage that. I noticed a growth on her back leg.

I remember the first time I met Sky, both vividly and not. I was back home in Portsmouth, visiting and checking my post. I still had my key, and let myself in as no-one answered the door. As I opened my letters, I heard a little yip and looked down to see a fluffy grey pup poking her head nervously around the corner of the sofa.

That was Sky, an anxious puppy. She never overcame that shyness, always happier to let the more boisterous and inevitably smaller dogs take the lead or boss her about. But that grey pup is old now, and quite sick.It’s gotten to the point where Sky struggles to stand, her back legs shaking so much it is painful; where younger dogs playing causes her to be so upset she hides; where her eyes and her nose have failed her so that she has to get so close to something to see it that she frightens herself with its proximity. It’s my mum, whose love for Sky can’t be doubted, who has been the closest witness to Sky’s deterioration: mum feeds her, walks her, sits with her, washes her with water and, when that got too hard for Sky, with baby wipes. Last night, Sky’s last night, my mum turned off all the lights and locked all the doors as normal but, when it came time to leave Sky on her own, she couldn’t do it. My mum sat up all night so that Sky’s last night would not be lonely, and sat with her at the vet so she would not be frightened in the end.

Sky has had a good two years since her previous diagnosis. It might feel like when the tumour was first spotted, she should have been let go. But there have been runs and walks in the forest, sniffing this plant and looking at that wild animal in mild but not aggressive interest; new dogs came in to the family, which though at first they made her nervous, she befriended and until very near the end she would wrestle with Freya, or clean Daisy (the newest, and noisiest Spry dog); the Forest was a place of belly rubs and treats and away from frightening roads and cars. It helps somewhat to think of Sky as a grand old lady, enjoying her retirement out in the woods in the sunset of her life, but that’s really a human projection on to a different type of thing entirely.

Dogs are magnificent creatures. They are not human, though we humans project ourselves on to them in ways large and small. It’s a human foible that dogs haven’t picked up. Their love is not a human love; their loyalty, as immortalised as it is, is not human loyalty. But they are things that are real, and that exist, and perhaps most important of all that we can recognise. It’s a strangeness about us that we can’t reciprocate, not in them that they love us so fully and without limit, that we form bonds with them that require no language, transcends the limits of speech. Perhaps that is the greatest gift dogs have passed on to humans, the ability to breach a divide between species without words. It is the privilege of the dog owner to share some space in time with the dog, to share in kinship with a species that, at the last, though not our own, understands us perhaps more than we understand ourselves, and certainly more than we understand them.

Goodbye Sky. You’ll be missed.

Jump

This week was one of many ticks on many clocks: My mum celebrated her birthday, my youngest brother came to visit, and another had his final day in the Forest before heading off on adventures new. Alongside a tea-party for my mum, we went to an activity centre to throw ourselves off a cliff. It was rather fun.

Of the people who went over the edge, three of us suffer a terrible fear of heights: Liam, Jim, and me. I think I’m not being too bold when I say mine is the worst: as we were walking up to the jump point, I found myself concerned that my dad and Jim, the brother who is leaving (now left), were walking too close to the edge of the path. They were a good six feet from it! There’s no helping being a scaredy-cat.

As there were seven people jumping, and the set-up only allows for pairs or solo jumps, one of us had to go alone. I was that lucky fellow, having resolved the matter with Jim in a quick game of Rock Paper Scissors. Because, as I said, I have peculiar obsessions, I can remember my strategy for my second draw which went: ‘Because I have gone scissors, Jim will not be expecting scissors again. Because he will not be expecting scissors, and will expect that I expect scissors, he will expect for me to go rock, so he will use paper, so I will remain with scissors.’ We both know of the Monty Haul problem, even if neither of us is proficient enough at maths to truly grasp it. The point was, I was jumping alone, and that meant I was jumping first.

At the embarkation point, we handed over both our entrant rubber bands, and our waivers to confirm that we were willing to accept injury and death were our own responsibility. The attendants helped me in to my harness – though they were reluctant to loop ties through anyone’s legs, a moment of modesty that felt a little absurd in the circumstances – and then I got in to line. Ahead of me were two boys, children, who had that air that children always have when they are doing something that might be dangerous, and so that danger makes it feel illicit. The rest of the crew came through. Dad danced a little to the Bob Marley that was playing. He may have been nervous; he’d never say.

I was. Liam reflected later that it would be easy to mistake me for a tough guy. In my combats and vest top, I certainly looked like I was trying for that role. I stood at the point of no return as the attendant tied me in to the harness. I made weak jokes which, no doubt having both heard them all and grown tired of them being repeated, he paid no attention to. It was probably for the best. “Lift your knees up when I ask you to” was all he said, as absurd out of context as not wishing to risk improperly groping my legs was within it.

I stood. “You can hold on to the rope if it helps you,” the attendant, finished tying me in, said. I did so, but it didn’t help. Inside, I reached for something to help me relax, to not take me away from the height but allow me to embrace it. And I thought: There is no emotion, there is peace. You can’t help but smile at yourself as, when confronted by your terrors, you find comfort in the dorkiest thing. But my name is Luke Spry, and if you think I haven’t heard a thousand iterations on Sprywalker then I don’t know what to say. I was named not for an apostle or a god, but a space farm boy from a film with a magic sword. I’ve been bought lightsabres regularly for much of my life. I was baked a Death Star cake for my birthday once. My Dad, when not dancing to Bob Marley, does tell me he is my father. Perhaps it is that, because it is fictional, there is nothing guilty about reaching for the Jedi.

There is no death, there is only the Force, I thought as I went over the edge. The wind buoyed me like a new invisible organ, a sense that carried the rattling wire through the rope I held on to. Then, I let it go. I reached out my hands, first left, then right, then both. I soared over blue waters and under blue skies. It is only seconds, but I am primed for time losing all meaning so it became a perfect and eternal moment, all just mine. I drifted, alone and at peace, arms out. One and the same and no longer there.

A Tale of Two Kitties [1]

Look at this fine fellow of a cat. Behold that smile! Look upon those whiskers! Doesn’t he have the very firmest of paws and the cleanest of limbs! If there is a modelling agency for cats, surely this handsome chap deserves a top rate contract for an indefinite period of time. He lounges at ease, king of all he sees, rightful monarch reclining as he should. There is just one problem. That is not my cat. That is Socks.

I wrote a little last year about the two Spry family pets: Sky the Dog and Odin the Cat. They are quite fine, but the family had an addition early this year. Sky was lonely and, more importantly, so was dad, so a pet was adopted from the local sanctuary. Dad had wanted a King Charles but what they returned with was a Puggle.

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Enter the Puggle

Freya gets in to everything, chews on everything, and, unlike Sky, had the most tremendous problem with Odin. Attempts have been made to acclimatise the two to one another which is now starting to bear some fruit. She also terrorizes Odin.It become such an issue with her chasing Odin that we had to section off a part of the house to Odin (and to a lesser extent, Sky3) could get some peace.

However, because Freya is in the part of the house with the kitchen and the cat flat, and Odin still longed for the great outdoors4 we had to work on a solution until Freya settled down around the cat. At first we’d open and close the doors for him but also started to leave a window for Odin to hop in and out of just fine.

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Further complications arose, though, as Odin has a best friend. That is the cat initially pictured, a fine fellow by the name of Socks. He is more than happy to pop through the open window and hoover up Odin’s left overs. Socks is an affable cat, incredibly friendly and charming, who is no doubt loved by someone otherwise we’d just take him in. Unlike Odin who, though he’s our cat, or we are his, Socks is more than happy to have a hug and a tickle. He’s a difficult cat to dislike.

He also happens to be Odin’s best friend. Unlike what you may expect from a pair of male cats, Odin and Socks are thick as thieves. They go on hunting jaunts together, they do that cat rub faces thing, and Socks stick up for Odin in the face of the new menace Freya. In return, Odin doesn’t eat so much and Socks grows rather fat. Or at least that’s what we thought at first, that Odin was clearly the submissive cat and Socks in charge.

Then, I happened to catch them having a bit of roast pork. As a treat, after a roast dinner, Odin is sometimes given a bit of roast pork as it is his no joke favourite food. Socks had also introduced himself for tea and my Dad, being a softy, also got him some pork too. Odin was having none of it, and gobbled down the lion’s share. Later, in the garden, Odin bopped Socks on the nose to let him know who is boss.

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Socks does take the piss a bit, and we can’t really have him coming and going. Odin is a bit of a nervous fellow, and while Socks is his friend, we can’t have Odin thinking he is second cat in his own home. So, sad to say, whenever Socks come in now, he gets carried over the garden fence.

 

  1. Alternatively, the Two Moggie Problem (with apologise to Dickens and Cixin).
  2. Mum insists that Odin winds Freya up. The criteria for this appear to be: a) being a cat; b) being in Freya’s vicinity. My mum is, of course, hideously biased.
  3. Sky was initially not sure about this new dog but now they are top chums.
  4. Those mice aren’t going to eat themselves.
  5. An ongoing process.

By Request: The Sandwich Question

Tomorrow is the 2015 General Election in the United Kingdom, of which I am resident and citizen, so I get to vote. This will be the third General I have been able to vote in* and the first one I am not entirely sure who to vote for. Today (6 May 2015) I was in Bath for an interview to work at the University. I am still unemployed, still travelling on the dwindling reserves left over from my job and deposit on my old house, still supported by my parents otherwise. I’ve come to think of my situation, as the title suggests, as revolving around, or rather continuing to devolve to, the Sandwich Question.

The Sandwich Question is the system by which I measure the minimum standard I can relate to others to describe my poverty as reflected by my access to things. When I was in employment, I still lived to a very strict budget; I had no choice, as mine was sole income and provider for two people. I was one of the ‘good’ poor people, a ‘striver’ who worked a full-time job, supporting his partner, a nice white boy in a shirt. This fictive impression of a person obscures the hardship of people struggling and failing to cope. One thing that I did to help maintain my sanity was keep enough disposable income available on a week to week basis that, all other considerations dealt with, I could still manage , on a whim, no more than once a week,to buy a sandwich from Gregg’s The Bakers.**

For those who are not familiar with it, Greggs is a national (predominantly Midlands and Northern, though not absent in the South of England) chain of bakers. They do a variety of cakes, bakes, and sandwiches which for a while included a ‘value’ menu of sandwiches that came in at £1. I was particularly fond of the Chicken Mayo and Tandoori Chicken Sandwiches, again, both at £1. Eventually, and understandably, the prices went up to around about £2. They consisted of a white bread baton filled with a bit of iceberg lettuce and bits of chicken in a lot of mayoinaisse. There were no frills, nothing so much as a tomato or a bit of cucumber. The Sandwich Question is, then, “Do I have enough money that I can buy a Gregg’s value Sandwich and not worry about it?” That is how I got by, week by week. To me, they were a luxury for when I just wanted to have lunch without using left overs or what have you. I know for many, many people this is an unaffordable luxury even at £1, but it helped keep me sane. Obviously, the answer to that question now is: No, emphatically not.

As I was walking around outside Bath train station, I looked for a Gregg’s (no joy!) to secure a sandwich. Not because I had the spare money but because I have rigorously calculated what I can and can’t afford. It’s not an especially grim calculus, but it is something that I have to consider at all times. Bath is a beautiful city, and when I am in a beautiful place I have two (well more but let us settle on two) running thought processes. The first is one of admiring all this loveliness and thinking that I too could be a part of it, have a place in these places. I think to myself, as I look at the historical stonework and the bright flowers “ooh, this is nice. I could sit here.” But then, under that is the sort of screaming feeling, the same place that despairs that the answer to the sandwich question is so often no, that just wants to set fire to the lot because I do not get to have nice things so why should anyone.

Of course, no sane or decent member of society would actually just douse an opera house in petrol and fling in a match. Yet this feeling, and the sandwich question, are very much on my mind as I consider my vote. None of the major parties*** really care for people like me: over-qualified, past the ‘young adult’ bracket, not in work and not in receipt of benefits. I am cut away from any and all benefits of society, a liminal beast who sees few faces and attends to no functions. At best, I am a member of the model poor, not burdening the productive state; at worst I’m the lurching lump that bubbles under the uneven economic recovery. I have a great deal of natural and social advantages, but they avail me nothing. I will vote, because I believe in democracy, I believe in the importance of voting, if nothing else I believe that so many fought and bled and cried and died for my right to scratch on a piece of paper; yet as I consider the ballot tomorrow, the bigger issues are stifled by the singular, depressing, repeated “No, no, no” in answer to the Sandwich Question.

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* I was only just too young to vote in the 2001 election. I remember this because one of my co-students was a keen campaigner for the Liberal Democrats & wanted to campaign at me.

** I want to be clear that I did do other things to: movies, meet up with my brother, buy a computer game. The difference here is freedom: those other things I scrupulously budgeted for. The Sandwich Question is the freedom to do something different.

*** Except, maybe, the Greens, but I’ve let go my idealism.