“You people have seen God,” she said.
We’d been asleep when we heard her wailing outside our door. It was after midnight. Slinging on a sarong, I dashed outside, concerned somebody was being attacked.I found an old woman wearing clothes from the bush walking along the corridor, feeling each and every door. Our flight had been delayed and the airline had put us up in the Nairobi Hilton, a round building, so the woman had no idea she was going round and round in circles.
In perfect Swahili, she told me she was trying to find her room but they all looked the same in the seemingly endless corridor. She also had no idea that a number was required, indeed, she couldn’t read. Barefoot, I took her down to the grand reception, surprising a bunch of flashy Americans returning from a nightclub. The receptionist lead us back up to our floor and let her in, telling her not to open the main door until her son woke.
The son, one of Kenya’s prominent politicians, was treating his mother to a trip abroad. Used to the savannah, far from roads and electricity, living in a mud hut, fetching water from the river, she was understandably overwhelmed by her first view of the modern world.
By the time she told us our people had seen God, we had flown to London’s Heathrow airport and she was gobsmacked by the order of everything. Electricity, running water, polished stone floors, glass everywhere, straight lines, loud speakers and all the things we take for granted. Shaking her head, she said, “This truly is paradise!”
We were returning from a rare visit to my home country and to me it was not heaven. What she had left behind was closer to Utopia. To me, Heathrow airport represented hefty consumptive consumerism and much that is wrong with the world.
We greeted one another and in response to the biting temperature, I said, "What a good day for a swim!"
This was no irony. Pimpled skin, bare feet testing the waves, summer swim wear still dry, towels laid at the ready ten paces back. The mother turned, her gaze verging on fear. "Our friend wrote that article about wild swimming all year round."
"Ha!" And we remembered photos of a woman on an icy day doing breast-stroke through a calm sea.
"We've been told no more that two minutes, but to get out if we go numb."
Her teenage daughter sniggered, shivering in the gentle breeze. The woman stepped forwards with determination, when the cold winter sea splashed her thighs she plunge in for a second or two, then leapt briskly out. The daughter, more cautious, kept walking in slowly wetting her calves, thighs, but with her mother again beside her wet through, she squealed and let her mid-drift sink. Another screech, a quick bobbing dip on the spot. Rapid retreat to where her mother stood.
"You'll get cold waiting," I was worried for them. I told them my aunt, on her eightieth birthday, had decided to stop her daily swim, which had sometimes involved breaking sea ice in Porlock's sheltered small harbour.
It worked. Off they ran towards France a day's sail away and their splashing and gasping and loud retorts mingled together as they swam in panicked strokes around in a circle and then quickly made for the beach. Flat out, they pelted up the incline, ignoring the uncomfortable pebbles digging in to the soles with each powerful stride.
It woke a memory of my first English swim. Weeks after having flown in from Kenya, we'd driven from London to camp in Cornwall and the next day being a hot, I ran down hill, stripped off at the beach and plunged into the welcoming blue of the Fowey River. It took my brain a while to register that these were not the warm tropical waters I was used to but English liquid which had hardly warmed up after a cold winter.
Egged-on by my half-brother, I couldn't give up. The far side of the estuary called and I ploughed forth at speed. Half way over something strange happened. My limbs grew stiff and cramp stopped me working my legs. Knowing I was in danger, I turned and slowly armed my way back to the beach I had left. By the time I got there, despite the warming sun, it took my blue body along time to recover sufficiently to be able to warm myself by walking, then running up and down the hill.
The two women lay cosseted in blankets, shivering as uncontrollably as I remember shivering. I smiled, wished them well. Too cold to speak, they each attempted a grin.
It is always interesting when people shun you and you have no idea why. This happened to me in the French village we've not long left. For four years we'd built up a group of French friends by creating a dinner circle and throwing two parties a year, one at Christmas and another in the summer. Then one day these people who had eaten in our table and who eventually started inviting us to theirs, stopped mixing with me. It was doubly odd, for I was always there when things needed doing in the village.
During our last month, I discovered why. A man I met by accident was effusive, apologising for not having kept in touch, explaining that it was because he, like almost everyone else in the village, believed the story about me.
Upon asking him what story, he became self-conscious, assuming until then that I knew.
It turns out that three years previously a woman in the village accused me of trying to take her in her bedroom. I was stunned. The only time I'd been beyond the woman's kitchen was with my wife. Anyway, I didn't fancy the person at all. And had I, it is not my in nature to behave like that.
She spread the malicious rumour to underweight her husband's case against me. One day he had walked through our garden and almost hit me. I tried for weeks to talk to him, but he refused to let on why he was so angry.
Eventually, months later, I discovered he'd had an argument with a man with whom I'd found him work. And, naturally, I was blamed. And not just blamed. It was spread around the village that I'd tried to beat him up, had then gone and set the other man on to him, threatening the security of his wife and family.
Until that day a month before we left, I knew nothing of this and had to suffer his anger for years. That people who had got to know me, believed an unreliable couple's untrue stories, shows the danger of rumours. I, for my part, never let it bother me. Life is too short, you simply have to live with what it throws at you.
That old wood.
If you've read entry number 2 on this page, you will recall the old wood seller. Well, he delivered wood to us the other day. I'd been asking him for two weeks and eventually he came. His excuse had been that there'd been lots of demand with the bad weather arriving from Russia.
I'd rung an hour before he came to ask if he knew where we lived and got a gruff, "Yes." He inevitably got lost and had to ring me, so when he arrived he wasn't in the best of moods. The pick-up parked close to our raised pavement and the old man let down the side. Concerned at the quantity, I asked how many cubic metres and had an impatient, "Look, I told you." I asked again. He said, "Bit less than four."
I told him he should rest and he said he was retiring this spring, aged 80! We worked rapidly, shoving the wood over onto our property, conscious we were blocking the road. He got in his truck and turned it around. I thanked him and paid over the money. He raised his thumb and drove away. My wife, a neighbour and I took the logs up our side path and began stocking the store we'd specifically built last week. When we were finished, it was obvious there wasn't enough wood, so I measured it and found half as much as promised.
It started to snow heavily. I rang the old man, first asking if he'd got home OK, then telling him we'd got half his predicted quantity.
He said, "I never said four cubic metres. I said two."
"OK, even at two, you said if I paid for that quantity I'd get more, there's less."
"Ha, you see, when you stack it there's no air gaps, so it looks like less."
"A cubic metre is a cubic metre of wood, not wood and air. Anyway, each log has been cut 30% shorter than promised"
"Ha! You can't have it all ways. Shorter logs give more wood because there's less air."
I said goodbye. You can't win with an old salt, they've been honing their bargaining skills all their lives. And how it snowed. All day, all night, all the next day. And the wood, we've discovered, isn't as good as the load we'd had from another supplier...
Ever since Christmas, when we gave her a storybook with a pop-up Big Ben, ‘I’ has been fascinated by clocks. Two weeks ago she went all the way to see Big Ben and I asked what it was like. “Big Blen was sick. All blue.”
“Scaffolding,” her mother interjected.
We sat around the table painting, little tot scrubbing her brush full of paint so hard she created a hole in the paper. I said the brush had her name upon it. Recognising the ‘I’ of IKEA, she smiled, ‘“Me!”
As it was approaching midday my wife suggested I make the bell sound on the grandfather clock so I rose, opened the three hundred year old wooden casing, reached down to lift the dead-weight. As I fixed it to the hook attached to the string which linked up with the mechanism, a blond head was there between my legs. Two little hands reached out like a flash and grabbed the round brass pendulum end. A little face fixed me with a mischievous grin.
I froze. She was twisting a delicately tooled part of a rare antique clock and daring me to intervene. I asked her to let go because it was fragile. She tugged it towards her, that thin grin now challenging. Fearful the irreparable item would soon be broken, I asked quietly. My hands reached towards the old pendulum. She grasped it to her chest, twisting the long thin rod which held it.
Her mother called from the table, “Look with your eyes.”
But our little ego was in possession and knew she held my, well, delicate bits. Her mother rose, bent down and repeated her advice, adding that this was a thing which could break easily, like an insect. The child who loves insects, let go in an instant.
I’d been using dominance, appealing to her with reasoned discipline, but her mother reached beyond these to emotion and a wise phrase which has now become well used between them - “Look with your eyes.”
This little bundle of curiosity who had sat between her mother and my wife had slipped from them without being noticed. That’s a young child for you. You have to have your eyes on them every second. It’s exhausting.
It was noon, the armed clock sounded. Little tot looked up in awe. Here was Little Ben right before her eyes, not a long train journey away, but down the road. What fun! She laughed.
"I've never driven a right-hand-drive vehicle before. Let me have a go!" Stephan exclaimed, his eyes bulging.
Unusually, I was cautious, ignoring my urge to share material goods. The last time this had happened was when a man working for the cabinet maker in the next village had said he was afraid of his impending holliday in Scotland. "They drive on the wrong side of the road. I'm convinced my wife will get us killed in our hired car."
And so, as I always do, I let the woman I'd never met until she sat next to me in my precious van, drive us through the narrow Pyrenean lanes surrounding us. My assumption that these were a safe place to learn a new skill was borne of not having been there long.
Nor had I bargained for a feisty young French driver. Exclaiming (the French exclaim a lot), "Oh la, la! (yes, another thing they do a lot), how peculiar shifting gear with the right hand!" she shot along the tight street she lived in, narrowly missing old steps which protruded from houses on either side, breaking sharply as she rounded a corner and was confronted by, yes, an other vehicle.
Hmm, me thought, this is beginner's bad-driving. And I was right. By the time we hit the next village less than a mile away, she had the hang of shifting from gear to gear, accelerating and swinging us to and fro with ease. She flung us into a junction with a mountain road, screeching leaving, marks, and sped as fast as she could make my engine go up the twisting lane where to see twenty metres ahead was a luxury. As she rounded a blind corner hardly decelerating, worried anything, a wild boar, a cow, a tractor, could be hiding round the bend, my cool broke.
"Charlotte! Slow down!"
Astounded at my gall, Charlotte blurted, "What's wrong? Look, the road is clear!"
"You didn't know that until you were round the corner, so slow down. Keep on our side of the road."
"Don't be so Anglo-Saxon!" Her jaw had dropped. Whereas she had been flirtatious with me until then, she now saw me as a damp drip. "No! No! No! How dare you criticise me! I've been driving for twenty years and I know these roads I grew up on. I'm driving safely!"
"Charlotte, this is my vehicle. This is my life you are driving round blind corners on the wrong side of the road. Stop! Let me take over!"
I was never to see her again. But Stephan had been persistent. And he drove along a tortuous road he had specifically chosen at neck twisting speed, breaking hard into each sharp bend, swinging us perilously close to the dramatic drop, spinning the tyres into the brief short stretches so that my expensive tyre rubber was to be there for months to come. I yelled, "Stephan! STOP! And I mean stop!"
Using a favourite phrase, he yelled, "You are so Anglo-Saxon!"
"Exactly! And that's why we have far fewer road deaths than you!"
"Who cares! Life is for the living and I'd rather die quickly on a road than slowly in a hospital bed."
Inevitably, I got lots of flack as I drove us homewards, on the correct side of the road, slowing before each bend in case we encountered another Stephan or Charlotte.
I'm worried. Every degree of warmth costs and on a State Pension, that hurts, consequently, we hardly ignite our central heating system because it runs on expensive bottled-gas and rely on the tiny, clunky wood-stove already in place when we bought this house a few months ago. But wood is expensive too, so when I saw a pick-up loaded with wood passing my window, I dropped my paint brush and dashed outside to see where it was heading.
By the time I'd put on my shoes, the driver was reversing carefully down a track connecting our narrow country lane to a line of four houses huddled at the foot of the sloping village common. Puffing up hill like mad man warmed me, for in my haste I'd forgotten to don a coat and the winter wind streaming over Somerset bit through my T-shirt.
An old man climbed out of the pick-up and I asked him how much he charged for the load. "One hundred quid. It's old wood, look." He picked up a log and said, "this ash has been eight years in my barn." He gave me his card.
Impressed, I asked where he came from. The old man lifted his hand and pointed over several ranges of hills spread before us, "See that isolated hill. There. I've been doing this for sixty-four years." He unclipped the tarpaulin, flipped down the tail-gate.
I sang The Beatles song, "Will you still be bringing me a bottle of wine, when I'm sixty four."
He grunted, "And I'm still doing it every working day."
"Incredible." That made him in his mid seventies at youngest.
"It was my birthday this week and my son gave me this tool." He held up an old garden rake.
Non-plussed, I watched him use the rake to pull wood off the deck. Inspired, from the other side of the truck, I used the elbow end of my crutch to do the same. We were watched by the male owner of the property and by a neighbour who also sought wood. A log rolled off the growing pile of wood at the truck's rear and rolled to within a metre of an expensive car. The owner shot, "Mind my car!"
Ignoring his concern, I continued helping until we were done. The woman smiled, and although it wasn't her wood, thanked me for helping and asked which cottage I lived in. The owner said nothing. I smiled, asked her name, told her mine, where I lived. I introduced myself to the haughty owner. He grunted his name. I later discovered the owner disregards others, thinks he's superior.
It's amusing how we cut ourselves off from others by assuming we are better than them.
A New Olympic Sport.
She peered across her sister who was fussing about, asking the till attendant to wrap this, ensure that was not bent, roll this in bubble wrap, and more and she said, “I’d better change places.” And she shifted to place herself between her sister and me. “That’s better, now I can do anything that needs doing.”
Her sister ignored this.
Noticing my crutch, she asked, “So what’s wrong with you then?”
“Oh, lots of things.” I smiled.
“Just like me, I’ve lots of things wrong too so we’ll get along fine standing here.”
I laughed, she was affable, if not all there. “Well that’s reassuring.”
“We need reassuring when there’s lots wrong with us don’t we.”
“Yes we do and this is the place, standing here in the queue. You know, my ankle is funny too.” She lifted it and wobbled it in front of me.
“What have you done?”
“Oh, what sport?”
“Now that’s an Olympic sport worth having.”
“It wouldn't go down the stairs so I made it!” A hearty laugh.
I smiled at the gathering crowd eager to get to the till. You could tell the locals for they smiled, laughed and winked merrily without rancour. Those from other parts of the country, particularly the South East, for this was a venue which attracts folk from all over the country and the world, turned their stiff faces away. One or two even sniffed, showing disapproval of the interaction between my educationally challenged neighbour and me.
“The next wardrobe was easier. It came apart with screwdrivers so I didn’t need to be sporty.”
“Well that’s good thing.”
“Yes, I learnt my lesson.” Her sister had finally completed her complicated transactions and moved away. My new friend picked up bits and pieces and said, “Well, it’s been very nice talking to you and I hope we meet again! Bye bye.”
“Bye bye and enjoy your Christmas.”
“Oh we will!”
After I’d bought a card I was sending to France, I sat outside in the freezing cold to wait for my wife who was in another shop buying Christmas baubles. My friend was passing and called, “Now be careful not to catch a cold sitting on that stone wall!”
“Oh, thank you, and you be careful with wardrobes.”
“Oh yes I will!”