Once bitten…

Once bittenI don’t think any of any of us had ever thought about Vicky before. Not in that way, anyway. There were plenty of others to think about – Maria Fairley, Jacqui Sellars. Lisa Williams too, of course, although she mysteriously lost it at the end of seventh year. I don’t know where it went, but once it was lost, it never came back.

When I say ‘us’, I should specify who I mean, because I don’t mean everyone. I mean the losers, the nerds, the retards and the irredeemably unhygienic. The ones who all the girls were so not ever going to even give a chance to, we had to experience it all vicariously, a reluctant yet fascinated audience for the couplings of the chosen few. We were a shudderingly desperate collection of cretins.

Not so Ash. He wasn’t especially handsome, with his uneven front teeth and Pontefract Cake hair that just couldn’t be cut into a flattering shape. When I saw him again in my early twenties, his hair closely-cropped, I understood that some guys’ heads are only designed for the crew-cut. He was also neither eloquent nor intelligent, although these were not considered advantageous at our school. What he was, was confident. And good at sports. And that was a killer package as far as all the girls appeared to be concerned.

I suppose Ash was also imaginative. As I said, no-one had thought about Vicky Chapman as potential girlfriend material, not until the rumour that he was going out with her reached escape velocity and entered the intoxicating orbit of school gossip. How had this happened? What had we missed? When I picture her now, I get it instantly. She had perfect olive skin and always wore her hair in a long braid you could moor a yacht with (until she had it tragically lopped to collar-length in the summer holidays between the eighth and ninth years). She also had these nut-brown, cartoon eyes that never looked far from playful, wicked laughter. Yet there had always been something equally fierce about her, and intimidating, more so than the girls who were intimidating just because they were universally reckoned to be desirable. And because they were girls, of course.

Another thing I should probably clarify, are the details of the going out with arrangement. Expectations were low. A typical first date would involve a walk around some of the town’s choicest alleys and lanes, with optional grunting. Hand-holding was on the menu for the brave and romantic. If all was progressing well, the evening could be capped by a shared bag of chips on a park bench, before the first exploratory snog at a safe distance from the girl’s house. Safe meaning either far enough away so that no parent would accidentally disturb the act, or close enough that a hasty exit could be arranged if necessary.

The morning after Ash and Vicky’s first date was one of rare anticipation. We all huddled at the usual location in the school grounds, hands in pockets, staring at our feet, waiting for something to catch our attention. When Ash arrived, he looked very pleased with himself. You could sense he was bursting with something.

Before saying a word, he took hold of his lower lip and pulled it down to show us its inside. There were two red marks, wounds of some description.

“She bit me,” he informed us. “When we were snogging.”

She’d bitten him. This was a new piece in an already complicated puzzle. Had she meant to? I’d never come close to kissing a girl before, obviously, but I’d seen it happen, and it did look quite violent at times. Was it normal for the girl to bite you though?

With his lips back in place, Ash resumed his self-satisfied, perhaps even boastful air. The urge to not seem even more stupid by asking the wrong question meant that a nervous silence gathered, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having my head filled for the rest of the morning by thoughts of that braid, of it being slowly and carefully unplaited.


Image: Nicolas Raymond




Next year’s holiday


Noel had been certain the bungee cords would be adequate. Boasted, even. Sworn on his life in the face of almost universal doubt and derision. And yet he understood that moments like these – right now – were the moments in a long, complicated life that truly made you die, more completely than anything physical.

He’d managed to bring the car to a halt on a gently-sloping verge of daisies, clover, dandelions with seed-clock heads bedraggled by the night’s rain and pasted to their stems. Each of the four suitcases had slipped from the roof and yawned their contents across the carriageway, decorating both lanes. You could see them for over a hundred yards up the road, arranged like fallen festival bunting.

The beginning of the trail was beyond sight, but the traffic was swerving to avoid them, or trying to, a long way back. Occasionally, a vehicle passed with an item of clothing clinging to its tyres, like it was spinning dry in a washing machine.

Mother wouldn’t look. Or perhaps she didn’t want to be seen. She kept her face wrapped up in her hands, as though it made her invisible. The girls were on their phones, taking pictures, thumbing away on screens, faces intent. Intermittent bleeps of notification coming from his trouser pocket told Noel that the scene was already on Instagram. Were either of them using Twitter yet? Did kids do Twitter? Or had it already become uncool?

Noel gazed across beyond the other side of the road. Families whose holiday luggage wasn’t going to be reported in traffic bulletins – even if it didn’t go viral online – were moving or settling into new homes dotting a half-completed estate. Above the noise of cars, you could still hear the rumbling of egg-yolk yellow bulldozers, the screeching of orange cranes swinging pallets of breeze blocks about like conkers. The routine violence of it all was presumably being co-ordinated from somewhere, no matter how random it appeared.

A truck growled by in the inside lane. Noel briefly caught sight of one of his shirts – a striped number he’d been bought last Christmas by Mother – partly obscuring the windscreen, though only on the passenger side. The driver hadn’t seen fit to decelerate as he’d carved his way through their new, open-plan wardrobe, and the car shuddered on the verge as it passed, tiny chips of aggregate pinging off the bodywork and skittling into the grass.  In the truck’s wake, smaller items of clothing circled like sparrows before landing unceremoniously – and no doubt only temporarily. A sock; something green and white he couldn’t place; and a pair of what Noel was certain were very insubstantial, very pink knickers. He was also certain they weren’t Mother’s.

Fifteen to twenty minutes, the emergency call centre operator had assured him. Half an hour had elapsed. Overhead, aircraft contrails and their peculiar shadows crossed the sky like spines, or the antennae of insects, yet no planes were visible anywhere.

Next year, he resolved – if there was a next year – they would fly.

The World According to John Irving

lastnighttwistedriverI’m currently re-reading John Irving’s epic novel “Last Night in Twisted River”. Actually, I should qualify this – the previous ‘read’ was in audiobook form, a library-loaned stack of CDs that I fed eagerly into the car stereo on a road trip from Maryland to Maine and back, four years ago.

As “Last Night in Twisted River” is set at least partly in New England – as many of Irving’s stories are – it felt highly appropriate to have it as a companion on that particular journey. Regrettably, both the road trip and the library loan came to an end before I had chance to finish the book, so I don’t know how the story ends (no spoilers, please!).

The great man is one of my favourite authors ever, someone whose style of storytelling I greatly admire. My first encounter with his writing came many years ago with “The World According to Garp”, which remains my favourite novel of his. I love the way he creates a complete universe the reader can believe in and immerse themselves in, no matter how off-the-wall or larger-than-life the characters that inhabit it. I’m also always impressed by the way his stories embark on endless, breath-taking loops backwards and forwards through time, both feeding in back-story, and providing teasers of what’s to come, without either clogging up the narrative or giving too much away.

The central character of “Last Night in Twisted River”, Daniel Baciagalupo, is – like his creator – a novelist. Writing about writers – and about writing – are two of Irving’s best known tropes (along with bears and wrestling!). At the back of my copy of “Last Night in Twisted River” there’s an author’s note; a few precious pages in which Irving gives some fascinating and generous insights into his approach to the craft.

Irving is completely unapologetic about how important plot is to the way he writes, even if some consider this an old-fashioned approach. What intrigued me most is his assertionjohn_irving that the process of writing all of his novels has begun with the final sentence, both as a captured moment in time and a feeling. He works his way backwards from that point – ‘a kind of roadmap in reverse’ as he describes it – and until he has the ending nailed down as a reference point to work towards, he can’t begin.

Although I enjoy trying to tell stories, I must confess that the theory or the process of how it happens are not things I’ve studied in great detail. I would like them to be. And I do think about it a lot! If anything, the stories I try to tell emerge initially as incidents or happenings – pictures I get in my head of events unfolding contrary to how they perhaps should. Certainly, the characters involved are rarely if ever the starting point, even though much of the reading I have done about the business of fiction writing emphasises the importance of characters and their development. But plot, planning, the structuring of any story – let alone one of novel-length – is all stuff around which I have a lot of work to do.

I do find it very encouraging, however, to read that Irving considers the three year period it took him to write “Last Night in Twisted River” to be ‘unheard of’. Apparently, the process is usually a much longer one than this!


Ash Dieback

May 10th

Wandering through the woods in early May, it would be a simple assumption to make that all is well with the world, and that spring is now unfolding furiously, just as it should, just as it always does. The understorey is becoming dense and complex, flowering plants, ferns and moss all competing for space, and feeding off a rich diet of accumulated organic matter. The canopy overhead is starting to colour itself in with new leaves, and soon the sky will only be visible as pinpricks between them, shifting at the whim of the wind.

But if you look a little closer – and I’m always trying to – you’ll see that in certain places, something is going awry. The picture is not as healthy as it appears on the first, cursory inspection.

The Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is a stalwart of Britain’s woodlands, as well as our municipal parks, gardens and urban spaces. The bark of its new growth is a distinctive olive-green, its hard black buds bursting in the spring to form fronds of multiple leaf-lets. It can grow to 35 metres and live for 400 years. The tree and its timber have been part of life and folklore for centuries, evidenced by the regularity with which it appears in place names.

Ash Dieback

Young ash tree showing typical signs of the disease – discoloured stems and branch lesions

Since 2010, the fungal disease known as Chalara or Ash Dieback has been infecting Britain’s ash population. It may have arrived as wind-blown spores, or via saplings imported from mainland Europe. There is no cure for the disease. Common symptoms include discolouration of the bark, blotches on the leaves, and lens- or diamond-shaped lesions on branches and trunks. In Denmark, 90% of trees are reckoned to be affected, and the most pessimistic opinions predict the eventual disappearance of the ash from most of Europe.

I can’t tell you when Ash Die-back reached these parts. I can tell you that this is the first year I’ve noticed it in these woods. I’m sure it has been here longer. And the speed with which it has taken a hold – particularly amongst young saplings – is astonishing.

Ash is not the most well-represented species in these woods – it is easily outnumbered by sycamore and Scots pine. But it is one of the most prolific species when it comes to regeneration. In certain parts of the woods – usually where a mature parent tree is close by – ash seedlings reach skywards in spectacular numbers. Not all are destined to survive to maturity, of course, but in their first year, they can grow to human height and beyond.

Now you wonder whether any of them will survive at all.

And what would that feel like – to have such an emblematic species disappear almost entirely from the landscape? No doubt another opportunist tree species would fill in the gaps left behind, the biosphere never being a sentimentalist. The woods would not become full of holes.

I have no great knowledge about trees, and the diseases that afflict them – or how they might or might not be cured. Personally, I feel a tremendous sense of helplessness, like all I can really do is walk through the woods and try to enjoy the fact that these trees are here, for now at least.


Heron in flight“Let go,” Will said. “Let me go.”

His strangled voice was pushing at the edges of its limited range, threatening to break if its volume increased further. Stuart held on with both hands. It was an uncomfortable position, and his back was beginning to ache from having to bend.

“Let go, let go,” the boy said again. He was pleading now, starting to kick out with his feet in desperation.

The car park was almost empty. There were only three other cars, and none of them were parked close to Stuart’s. It was getting gloomy, evening approaching. The lights hadn’t come on yet, although even once they did, it would still be gloomy. There weren’t enough of them, and the bulbs were a pathetic, low-watt type, which it took the council ages to replace once they’d burned out.

“Let me go. Please!”

Will was almost in tears now, tears of fury.

Just like your bloody mother, Stuart thought.

“Look, Will,” he said, “how about this? I’ll let go with this hand, and then you can work the handlebars.”

Stuart released his right hand, so the boy was in complete control of the steering. He wobbled instantly, and the bike swung from left to right to left to right until he gathered some measure of equilibrium. Stuart thanked himself silently for not letting go with both hands, for keeping his left one securely on the stem of the seat, just below the saddle. The bike and the boy would never have remained upright if he hadn’t, although it did mean he had to continue stooping.

Will was only placated for a moment.

“No, daddy,” he said. “Let go properly. Please. Let go.”

“Will,” Stuart said, “you don’t have your helmet on.” He was starting to get out of breath, though he couldn’t see why.

They’d now negotiated their way to the end of the path leading down from the front steps of the community centre. Stuart put his hand back on the handlebar for a second, to guide the bicycle through the ninety degree turn it needed to take to enter the car park.

“Daddy, let go!” Will snapped again, grabbing at Stuart’s fingers to try and prise them off.

“OK,” Stuart said, peeling his hand away. They were already safely within the car park, facing the far corner, where the silver hatchback waited for them.

From behind, a dark shape appeared low in the sky, moving slowly, even clumsily, almost not dynamic enough to be airborne. As it moved past and gave a dinosaur screech, Stuart realised it was a heron, returning through the twilight to roost somewhere in the trees ringing the old quarry ponds. There were often herons there, though you rarely saw them flying; it was easy to forget that they could, and to forget how ungainly they were. Stuart watched it move beyond the field of tarmac, with its rows of identical straight lines marked out in white paint, and disappear between two poplars, gaunt now their leaves had fallen to earth.

He did a hurried calculation in his mind. What was it – thirty yards? Perhaps forty? Less. It might take Will no more than twenty seconds to cross the barely noticeable slope. What could seriously go wrong? The numbers collided in Stuart’s exhausted brain, in a part of it where the inevitable unknowns in the equation could be easily overlooked, or fall through the gaps; unknowns that would seem obvious later. But he’d seen the scene before, the one he was picturing, in dozens of movies. He was sure of it: unaware that he’s no longer being held, the boy carries on pedalling as before, made confident by the imagined security of the adult hand, the one he resents, the one that represents restraint, unfairness. Before he realises the hand isn’t there, and he’s free, he’s already far away, beyond the threshold, becoming a man.

Stuart’s hand released its grip on the bike, and he watched as Will sailed off and away from him down the slope. Somewhere over by the ponds, in the descending darkness, there was a commotion, another screech, a sudden shaking of branches, the briefest view of something taking flight.