My partner takes a yearly holiday visiting her beloved Appalachian Mountains for a month in the Autumn, or as she refers to it, ‘The Fall’. This is the time of year of course when everything that has been on the trees for the year falls off them, in varying shades of scarlet, vermilion, peach, orange, lemon and even ginger. When we first met, I was in mid-stream, so I took myself off to deepest India for a new mind and she went off to walk the Appalachian Trail, alone, which is a hike in the eastern US of about 2170 miles from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mt Katahdin in central Maine. The highest point she went over was Mt Washington at over 6,000ft. A long way for a lone woman.
This month of solitude every now and then gives me a chance to wind down, or wind up, as the case may be. For the last few years it’s involved me scouring tree nurseries to further enhance my patch of wilderness. The routine of being alone is different. A host of bachelor stuff starts to happen again. Things get left where they’re handy, and more to the point, where I can find them. Sometimes I think that I’m only using one plate, one set of cutlery and a mug. Not true perhaps, but close. There’s plenty of entertainment.. huge amounts of it.. too much in fact, and late at night, the baseball season is fast coming to its usual lofty finale.
I’m vaguely aware of when she’s coming back. At first it’s a long way off, but then it all seems to cascade in as fast as I can count to ten. This year was no different. I thought about buying flowers a few days beforehand, but then I thought that I’d better save that till the last day, not wanting them to be looking tired on her return. Just before she left, one of the toilets sprang a leak, and I’d rubbed the bottle of my local plumbing genie to come and fix it. He was really busy but promised that he’d do it within a week or two. When I rang him again a couple of weeks later, he’d done his back in, but promised me he’d be there. Eventually, through no real fault of his own, we got down to it the day before her return.
Obviously, fixing the loo was the priority, and neither of us thought that it would take that long… but if I’d thought about it, this has been the loo which has given me the most problems in my life. I bought the house when I was finally exiled from England. A long story for another day. The house was a virtual shell, so at least 2 toilets were needed. I bought these in a little designer bathroom shop in the middle of Nottingham. One of them is a replica Victorian willow pattern loo, and is still in its box in the attic. The other was put into the house straight away… by a cowboy. It’s a very finicky little Italian job with different plumbing than a normal loo, which means that normal pipes and fittings have to be botched onto it. Ideal stuff for a cowboy.
In consequence, for one reason and another it’s had to be dissembled for three out of the last five years, as elements of decrepitude have begun to creep in. This usually involves all the pleasantries of having a large sample of septic tank gases floating around at least three rooms for the duration. Brian’s one of the good guys, and when he comes round to do these jobs for me, I’m often his stand-in labourer, which means that he’s got four hands when he needs them. I can also be relied on to pass tools, hold ladders and theorize.
The bathroom has a cream-coloured carpet in it, so that marching into it from the outback has to be countered by putting down a multitude of sheets and towels that have become surplus to requirement over the years. Even with the carpet pulled back, it’s difficult to stop boots from straying all the time, and it’s my job to try to make sure that the carpet stays evenly off-white. Just the small matter of occasionally lifting Brian’s twelve-stone foot up now and then to replace a scrunched up towel or two….
When we got the loo off the wall, the leak was discovered exactly where it should have been, at the join of the botched pipe. Various shades of sealant were applied and it was put back in place on the wall.. but it wouldn’t go.. but then we thought it did. We flushed it.. and the problem seemed to be worse, so off the wall it came again. We were well into our second hour, and my body was telling me about an entire miss-spent youth I’d had the previous night. I needed to get more fluid down me.. really important.
“D’you want anything to drink Brian”, I say as I head off for the kitchen, pausing to wait for his answer. The pause continues, which causes me to look him in the eyes.
“A double scotch Roy.. if you don’t mind.. take a bit of the edge off”, he says, a bit hesitantly, with a hint of guilt and a little of last night still in his eyes.
“This time of day?!”
“Yeah.. take the edge off”. I’ve never known him to do this before. It’s a one-off, so we’re both feeling the effects then, apparently.. I go for my lemon ginger herb number and come back with that and a double Jameson. We talk for a few minutes, get back to the job, and finally decide that a new piece of pipe is going to be the best answer. The new pipe means a journey to town and another hour gone, but I have to say that when it arrives, it does look the business… all grey and shiny, with a concertina shape on one end… soon to be plunged into the darkest place known to mankind.
After another hour, the toilet is back on the wall.. and it works!.. but as it fills up we discover that the designer float in the designer cistern, which isn’t going to be easy to replace locally, has seemingly come to the end of its miserable existence, and that the whole thing is going to overflow, and continue to overflow. Not good. This means that the cold water feed into the house has to be turned off yet again, for the third time. The cold water feed is managed by a red stop-cock type tap which is appropriately sited in the middle of a complete set of Hansard volumes dating from 1945 to 1972. The tap itself is about as hopeless as a lot of what fills the books. Like many of the slightly less than iffy members mentioned within the surrounding pages, it’s inconveniently placed, hard to get at, temperamental, difficult to turn on and off when you do retrieve it from behind the bookshelf, because it’s then wedged solidly onto the shelf, likely to blow at some point in time, and also coming towards the end of a life equally as miserable as the designer float.
Having turned the cold feed off again, Brian disappears back to his own place to research an alternative for the float, during which time I down another Twinings lemon-ginger and attempt to con myself into feeling a little better than septic. Half an hour elapses, just not long enough for me to race out for the flowers, before he returns with what sounds like a plausible solution. He’s taken the rubber out of the float and reversed it to the less worn side.. which I’ll not go any further into… So the cistern is put back together with a float that’s now on life-support. I then stand over it with a bowl full of water, with him underneath it looking for a leak.. for the third time, and hope that my aim is good… He doesn’t see a leak, so the cold water feed is turned on again.. and the tank fills. By now, the sun is definitely on its way down.
Mastic is then applied to the wall because, guess what?, there are no fittings with which to tie it to the wall! This particular toilet was obviously meant to stand in the middle of a throne room, by itself! Eventually all is fixed and we can move on to the next job, which has been an issue for months now; the dripping tap in the utility room. When I moved into the house originally, I brought an assortment of old brass taps with me. I’m a sucker for old stuff. Problem is it tends to get a lot older almost instantly. The cold feed is switched off again and Brian begins to work on trying to flatten the seat inside the tap so that there’s more of a seat to tap down onto to shut the water off. This involves filing the brass down. By this time, with added clues in his body language, I can sense that we’re running into Friday night. It’s actually going dark, and we’re both on the way to becoming re-knackered. Eventually, when he’s managed to get the drip down to less than half of what it was, he says, apologetically,
“Roy, I’m sorry I’m going to have to go”, which roughly means that he’s going to have to leave me with cleaning up the mess… which is fair enough, because what he’s done for the last few hours is beyond the call of duty.
Suddenly he’s gone, and I’m in the middle of the war zone we’ve created over the entire afternoon. At least he’s thrown all the indescribable gunk into the bowl, so it’s all in one place. I take it downstairs, separate the plastic out of it and make a fire. There’s only one place for that kind of mess, and as soon as the fire’s hot enough, it’s on there. (CO2 junkie.) I’m hungry but I realise that there’s a long way to go to get the bathroom back into shape, so I’m up there again sorting the clean from the soiled among the sheets into two piles, one for the washing machine, the other to be folded and returned to its utility space.
Being Friday, there’s no option, it’s fish and chips night, which is an easy meal to make, so I get that going. At which point I just have to sit down. My back and my legs have been emailing the editor for the last few hours, and he can no longer ignore their pleas. Wow! What a relief! I really need to switch off; so what do I do?, well, I switch on the soporific box in the corner. Well, it can be a soporific in a lot of homes.. but not this one… First things first, I go for the news and the weather. Apparently, the kids are not being taught as well as in Victorian times, the bankers are rich again, there’s a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and peace is being threatened in the Middle East!? Oh, and an Indian mogul is saying that he only comes to Britain for graduates, because they’re the best! Oh yes, and Pat Kenny is hosting The Frontline on RTE1 with a room of public employees on one side and privately employed on the other. Entrenched attitudes. Wow! Daggers.. and everyone has a point! Daggers all over the weather map too.
I’m now looking at the clock. The supermarket closes in an hour and a half. I can put my feet up for another hour, I tell myself, but I have to be out of the door by 8.30pm to catch it before it closes. I go to last nights recorded baseball, and start where I left off.. bottom of the fourth I think, with Manny just having dumped a pitch into the crowd in right field and jogged round the bases as nonchalantly as only he can. It’s a balmy night out there in tinsel town, and just for a few seconds I bask in the warmth. Manny’s 37, and was banned for 50 games this year for ‘unintentional’ use of drugs which, in the end, obviously didn’t turn out to be performance enhancing. This meant that he was docked proportionately from his $27 million dollar wage packet for the year. Manny Ramirez, he’s been one of my favourite people to watch for the last ten years. A lot of the good ol’ straight people over there don’t like him at all. PE drugs have no place in sport, but Manny’s more of a bohemian adventurer in his own theatre of sports showbiz.
So I’m lost in Los Angeles again… in the ghost memories of boutiques on Melrose, the chaos of ‘The Strip’, the view from the top of Mulholland Drive, the horror show and the prices on Rodeo Drive, the ‘antiques’ on Wilshire Boulevard and latterly the long exercise walk from North Curzon to The Beverly Center. Capitol Records on Vine Street and Led Zeppelin in the ‘Riot House’. Part of me wants to live there for a few weeks every year, but another part of me needs to live in my Georgian Irish wilderness, in my own reduced bohemian exile, in the continuous sting of cool rainy summers and cooler coal fire winters….
Very suddenly it’s 8.30 and I’ve been dreaming and ssshhhi…, I’ll just get to the shop in time.. if I put my foot down. It’s a calm night, and I’m in the shop by 8.45. Just as I walk in.. some of the lights go out. Not a good sign. It feels almost personal. I quickly find the flower shop section and make a fairly quick choice. Lilies.. some nice, potentially smelly lilies. I dump them on the counter.. naked, wet, straight out of the pot, un-bunched. Then I realise that I’ve got no greenery to go with them, so I excuse myself and rush back to the unattended flower shelves. I can’t find anything. I search all the corners.. time is being especially relentless now. Then I find some.. hidden. There are loud ticking noises everywhere.. in every direction I look… so I rush back to the counter to pay for everything.
“We can’t sell you these”, she says, with a robust Polish accent, “The Lady has gone home.. and we don’t know the price”.
“Well look, I’ll find a bunch that are priced and you can charge me double”.
“No Sir, we can’t do that….”
“Here’s the manager”, she sees him and calls him over. He asks what the problem is and I tell him. He’s a Brit. I’ve dealt with him all my life. He’s friendly enough, but he’s not going to deviate from the ‘it’s more than my jobsworth’ scenario I’ve dealt with now for fifty years. At this stage I’m rattled, and I start to blither.. or blather.
“So the shop earns twice the cash it should have done.. so where’s the crime? I’m trying to buy some fresh flowers for someone who arrives back into my bed at 6.30am.. there won’t be any time for me to buy any anywhere else before she gets here.. You will be SHUT at that hour in the morning.. I don’t need to know that the florist left at 7.30.. the shop shouldn’t be open for business if the florist left the shop at 7.30. Civilisation is going to close again.. at a time when it seemed to be open.. again.. a myth.. ..for you.. I’m just a moth, and I’m caught in your headlights. I’ll be dead in a second and you’ll have forgotten about me entirely a few seconds after that”.
“You can buy anything in the shop with a price on it Sir, there’s plenty of things back there with prices on them”. I leave my chosen flowers where they are and we both go back to the shelves. He’s starting to shut the shop up, putting things away, scurrying. I search among the packed vases and pots and after thirty seconds I’ve come up with some embryonic lilies packed into a wrapper as tight as a featherlite for €6.99.
“Look!”, I say to him, from across two aisles, “6.99!” And before I can say ‘you could have had double’, he says,
“Great”. At this stage I decide to give up on even trying to explain anything or be remotely human, or even animal. Clearly, I’m not. I’m something that’s just dropped in from another planet, speaking an unintelligible form of gobbledegook. I try to be as kind as possible as I pay my €6.99, but inevitably, something comes out of my mouth that must seem entirely unreasonable..
“People…. have got to be… more organised”… I look at her, as I enter my numbers into her card machine. She gives me a blank look. I hurry out, full of remorse. I’ve just had sex with a dodgey card machine again.
I get into the car and I notice that it’s about a minute to 9pm. It occurs to me that Dunnes supermarket, on the other side of town, may still be open.. I still haven’t got any accompanying greenery for the squashed lilies. I lost it in the scuffle. I fly round the by-pass hoping to catch the last signs of life on the other side of town. As I get there, there are people coming out. ‘Good’, I think, ‘at least I’ll be able to get in’. As I’m shutting the car door.. some lights go out. I rush inside. If this is going to be déjà vu then maybe I can handle it better second time round. Just as I reach the flowers, a voice comes over the p.a. system,
“The clothes department is now closed, will customers needing to pay for their items please come to the check out”. A small sigh of relief crosses my mind. Then I discover that half the flowers are behind a chain going into the clothes department! No chain is going to stop me at this point. I stride across it into the golden dawn of a potentially new confrontation. What joy it is to be so prepared for the next dull cynic. I feel decidedly liberated; but quite soon I’ve been thrown into another pickle. The shop is full of roses, all perfectly shaped, and all less than two inches in diameter across the top. They’ve travelled from somewhere like Kenya, or maybe Uganda.. or maybe even South America. They’ve been grown to size, fifteen or so in a perfectly smashed little bunch.. packed tightly into a hold and flown thousands of miles in sub-zero temperatures to arrive in front of my eyes as a virtual wonder of the world.
I bend down to smell them. They smell only of vegetation. I feel one of them to see if they’re real, and yes they are, but there are bunches just a few feet away that aren’t real. I go and have a poke at them too, just to think about who might buy them and in what kind of a place they could function. I wonder about the differences between the two of them, and I’m staring into space again, lost in the myriad social, economic, political and ecological implications, in the middle of something known as a retail outlet, which is closing down around me. I stare for another moment, imagining women who used to pick tea.. now picking roses. Is it all still as it appeared on the old tea boxes, on the old postage stamps, with smiling ladies in saris collecting things in baskets on their backs, or has Black and Decker long since stepped in? Where are those happy women now; where is that ethic? Was it really an unhappy one? Come on roy, get your skates on mate, we now line up in guilt-ridden armies to keep Ethiopian and Somali starvation and breeding programmes going by throwing great lotteries of cash at them. Dutifully, they breed, in millions, children die in squalor, parents catch rampant STDs, and die young, in tens of thousands, to keep the ball, (and the NGOs, and the dictatorships), rolling.
The latest stats tell us that the AIDS epidemic is now contained, but I don’t have the time to discover in which countries that might be true. Global food consumption steadily exceeds the Earth’s annual biocapacity. Daniel O’Donnell is awarded an MBE. A billion poets speak at once. The Chinese had the right idea, and the means. We all buy the flowers.. and think about Felicity.. in The Good Life… and digging up the rampant garden, again. I think about blurting all of this out in the middle of some deserted aisle in the back of beyond.. but then I wonder about the bit(s) that may come back to haunt me, and about how much politics exist alongside flimsy statistics pulled from models in virtual Amsterdam shop windows.. and I decline my own open invitation. To hang forever: on my lipstick.
Meanwhile, no one has even noticed that I’ve stepped over the chain twice in an incredible attempt to conjure some green and pleasant growth into being… and into my hands. There’s plenty in the meadow next door, but, well…. eventually I settle for something small and white, shaped like a miniature stunted carnation. It has more green about it than white and it’ll compliment the lilies when they bloom.. if they bloom. They’re so rammed into their wrapping at the moment. I stagger to the check-out under an equally staggering weight of misplaced expectation. The girl on the till never says a thing to me, she’s in conversation with another woman who looks like she’s stood on the Olympic podium celebrating her award of a couple of packets of paper towels and a can of baked beans. She gives me my card back and I say, “Thanks, bye”. She doesn’t respond. I’m over sixty, I’ve become invisible. I step back into her view and say,
“Bye”. She looks at me with suspicion. She looks at my hat, and then looks away with a muttered,
“Bye”, and carries on reciting the anthem to Brenda with the paper towels. I can’t hang around for the emotion. I hand over the world to her. The upstart despot of the check-out, and slowly walk to the car. There’s no rush any more. Civilization has closed for the day. I can spend the next twenty minutes at least going at primeval speed.
I get home, walk in and slump into my chair in a state even Confucius wouldn’t recognise. The plumbing episode now seems an age away. It’s been smashed by a phalanx of Imperial Post-Suffragettes coming from the east with sharpened stethoscopes, in white coats. I nod off.
I don’t really sleep. I enter into a state of deep daydream with scary edges to it. I’m Transported to India, onto a hillside near Darjeeling. The hill is very steep, and getting steeper. My mother is picking tea on a cliff edge.. she turns to me.. she’s quite dark, and very beautiful. She smiles, and she’s nothing like I imagined her to be, but it is her. I can see myself in her face. She beckons me, and I climb further up the hill with her.
I reach out for her as we come to a ledge.. and suddenly I feel the flesh on her stomach. She says nothing. Then I feel the strap of a g-string and I stand back to see the despot of the check-out, totally naked except for the g-string. She’s a walking fleshbath. There’s huge amounts of her. She would need to be discovered, and mapped. I make a feeble effort to avert my eyes from pyroclastic mountainous movements and great gullies. I find myself at the computer, in google map mode, looking at the map, then the satellite, then the hybrid combination. Then the combination moves, and I can no longer control it. It’s out of my hands and it’s sucked me into the screen, and I’m in the middle of an incredible weather event. A gigantic tsunami, with waves of rippling flesh tossing me towards great hirsute shorelines with towering volcanoes in the distance. A beach is coming towards me at great speed and I plunge into it. I roll over and over and wake up with a start, desperately trying not to choke on a mouthful of Kentucky fried hair!
When I come round, I make my way out to the kitchen to unwrap the flowers. I breathe a sigh of relief, although I still have the ghost of an unpleasant sensation between my teeth and my gums. I unwrap the corseted flowers and cut them to the size of the vase, and they too breathe a sigh of relief as they’re spread out. ‘They’ll be white ones’, I think to myself again, as I look at them, arrange them a little more, then stand back thinking that it’s the thought that counts. They’re quite small, and very green, and I wonder if they’ll come out at all.
So, when I’ve tidied up a bit, and got myself my first beer, it’s back to the National League Pennant Race. I doodle with my baby Martin at one stage, then Ryan Howard homers to left-center in the top of the fourth, which sends me off to bed. I thought about having a small wager at one stage, but I’ve hit the wall by 2.45am and I’m fast asleep at about 3. I’m quietly joined at some stage when it’s vaguely light by another body. I briefly wake, put my hand on her backside.. and doze off again. Two days later, the buds have turned pink and one or two have opened, and I’m down in the garden again planting some heather.. in another dream.