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.

Old habits

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarianne had taken the least expensive room. The place was visibly dying, crumbling with a lack of genuine love. She’d passed it often enough, wondered who the hell would stay in such a cattle pen. Now here she was standing in one of its windows, gazing down at her Subaru in the parking lot. There were three other cars, none of them worthy of extended attention. It was almost dark.

She pulled the curtains tight together with a shudder. As she flopped back onto the bed, under the swaying ceiling fan with its faint metal-on-metal squeal, she thought about those habits that had stitched themselves into her, how hard they were to unpick. Even in a moment like this, in the whirlpool of it all, when it was so far from important, she’d still needed a bargain. She couldn’t simply forget the money, say “what the hell?”. She could almost hear Henry’s voice in her head, wanting to know what she was wasting their money on now. At least it made her smile, albeit bitterly.

The mattress was brutal – stony in some places, shredded in others, and never consistent, whichever way she arranged herself. Marianne was still in her uniform. There was blood on it. That old guy with the greaseproof-paper flesh – he’d bled like a gutted fish when she changed his dressings. Warfarin. She kicked off her shoes and felt pure physical pleasure for once. How long must it have been?

The suitcase she’d stuffed lay open next to her. She hoped to find comfortable underwear, and pyjamas, but in the few frantic minutes she’d had she’d just scooped things up randomly from anywhere. She’d needed to be out of there before Henry and whoever it was came out of the shower. It was another one from his office, she’d guessed, looking at the clothing strewn across the bedroom. That Linda bitch, probably, all big hair and tits. If she was braver, she reasoned, she’d have stuck around, confronted them, not fled. But she was too tired for that. She just wanted to curl up and sleep.

How that was going to be possible here she wasn’t sure. She mouthed quiet curses at herself. She hadn’t even looked in the bathroom, checked out who or what she might be sharing it with.

She upended the suitcase. She found the bottom half of a pair of pyjamas, but there didn’t seem to be a top, never mind a matching one. She had – unintentionally – grabbed Henry’s old college football shirt, the one she’d taken to wearing as a nightdress. She flung it across the room, though there wasn’t far for it to go. She picked out a sweater, then put it to one side, figuring it was going to be way too warm to sleep in without any air-conditioning in the room.

Then she found something she’d never seen before, something that certainly wasn’t hers. A small but very expensive-looking patent leather purse was nestling in the pile of clothing. It had silver trim reinforcing the corners, some kind of monogram design that didn’t mean anything to her.

She opened the clip. There must’ve been three, maybe four hundred in cash, easy. She slipped out a credit card and examined the name on it. Linda Franklin, it said, both in the raised lettering across the front, and a scrupulously tidy signature on the reverse strip.

Marianne lay back on the bed again. She tapped the edge of the card absent-mindedly against her nose. The whining of the fan seemed to be getting louder.

She leaned over and grabbed the phone, lifting the receiver.



Image by cygk


Nail clippings


We found nail clippings lying in the sink in the bathroom at his apartment. It looks like it was one of the final things he did before leaving, getting into his car and driving across town. Maybe he cut them too short – maybe that was what made him do it? They were serious clippings for a guy.

It’s irritating, frustrating, when you do that, leave them too short, expose the quick, even wound the nailbed. But easily done. A casual slip, a simple misjudgement. If you keep your nails relatively long, there’s plenty to play with, margin for error. But if they’re short anyway – it doesn’t take much in the way of carelessness and you’re in trouble.

Then you get that uncomfortable feeling. It’s not quite pain – unless you really do draw blood – but it’s impossible to ignore. And you can’t put them back on once they’ve been cut, can you?

There’s a Charlie Brown cartoon I recall from childhood, a line one of the characters says – maybe even Charlie himself. “Cutting your fingernails too short is like discovering your psychiatrist has gone away for the weekend.” Or perhaps it’s the other way round? Anyway, it always kills me thinking about it.

He drank a coffee at Nina’s, down by the riverfront. We know that because we have the footage. There’s a traffic camera on that corner, trying to catch drivers jumping the lights. He arrives at 10.25, alone, looking nervous. We can’t tell that from his face – the resolution’s not that good. But he’s doing a lot of looking around, guilty fidgeting, almost like he’s expecting to be watched, when all the time he is being watched, of course. Maybe he never noticed that camera?

He empties six of those little sachets of sugar into his coffee. Can you believe that? At first we thought the tape must be sticking on playback, except they don’t use tape these days of course. It’s all digital. And even though he’s already cut his nails to the quick – probably – he’s gnawing away at his finger-ends. Long enough and he’d be down to bone.

She arrives at 11. Classy. One of those who wears sunglasses all the time when she’s outside. I’m just guessing here, of course. Very unprofessional of me. I can’t prove it, and it’s probably not relevant. He gets up to kiss her. She must be in heels, because they’re almost the same height, and he’s no midget. Five eleven, easy. Maybe six.

And then they leave.

That’s all we have. Our guys are searching the river, but we’re not hopeful. After all the storms of the last few days, it’s fuller than it’s been for years. It’s conceivable anything of interest could’ve been washed out into the ocean by now.

Looking at it, it would be difficult to pinpoint a specific, solely-responsible catalyst for something like this – it usually is. Sometimes one thing simply leads to another. Maybe his fingernails had nothing to do with it. It’s just something we noticed. The forensics guys are running DNA tests on the clippings, naturally. But there’ll probably be nothing under his nails for them to look at if we ever do find him.


Nettle Soup

April 15th

These woods don’t offer exceptional scope for foraging, but it’s become one of my personal annual rituals to make nettle soup every spring using leaves harvested fresh from the undergrowth.

NettlesIf you’ve never tried or even heard of nettle soup, it might seem an unlikely dish. Nettles are more renowned for their stinging capabilities than their culinary value, but they do make a very nutritious and palatable broth. In fact, they are one of the most historically useful wild plants to be found in the British Isles, having been employed in the past to make herbal remedies, dyes, beer and even rope.

They are at their best just now. The new shoots and leaves which have emerged in the past few weeks are still tender, and relatively easy to digest. Later on, they become stringy, fibrous and a much chewier prospect. In the past, they would’ve been a precious source of vitamins at this time of year, which was traditionally known as “The Hungry Gap” – the period when the previous year’s stored harvest was all but depleted, and the new season’s crops were still far from ready. It was a time when foraging for wild sources of food would’ve been a matter of survival rather than just curiosity. Knowing which plants and fungi were edible and nutritious – as well as tasty – was essential.
Nettle soup
I choose nettles for harvest which are growing well away from any paths, and therefore – hopefully – where dogs have pissed. I wash them well before using them in any case, but I figure such selectivity increases the chances of them being uncontaminated! I’ve handled so many nettles over the years that the tips of my thumbs and forefingers appear to be immune to the stings now. I’ve heard it said that nettle stings used to be (and perhaps still are) reckoned to prevent arthritis, but I’d advise wearing gloves all the same! The sting is neutralised by cooking, so your mouth, gullet and stomach will be unaffected. It’s possible to add other vegetables to your soup – e.g. carrots, leeks – but I like to keep mine simple.

You’ll need:

1 onion;
2 or 3 medium sized all-purpose potatoes;
3 or 4 good handfuls of nettle leaves and/or tops, washed and roughly chopped;
2 pints of vegetable stock;
Butter or oil for frying;
Salt and pepper to taste.

  • Slice the onion finely, and fry gently in the butter or oil in a saucepan until softened.
  • Cut the potatoes into small cubes – I prefer not to peel them, just scrub them well.
  • Add the potatoes and stock to the pan and bring to the boil.
  • Reduce to simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost soft.
  • Add the nettles and cook for a further five minutes.
  • Season to taste. Liquidise if you prefer your soups this way. Adding a little cream or milk is also an option.
  • Nettle soup is particularly great served with homemade wholemeal bread.