S is for Silence (or lack of)

Anyone who knows me well will testify that quiet is something I do not do well. For many years I was cursed at any kind of work off site trainings – they do not do them that often now, which I have mixed feelings about – where part of the schedule would be ‘break out’ small groups that, huddled around a flipchart, would try and answer some obtuse challenge in too short a time period. This exercise in futility was itself not a problem. The issue is the truly painful exercise of each group having to summarise its findings back to the plenary. For this, a spokesperson would be needed. Everyone in each small group would steadfastly not look at the other group members when the momentous decision to choose the sacrificial goat was required. Each person hoping that someone else would volunteer. Each person playing a kind of game of chicken where the first person to break the silence would end up having to make up something for the rest of the small group that made everyone sound intelligent and/or achieved something in the exercise.

I’m not good at this form of chicken. I cannot cope with silence for very long. It is not, as I suspect some people think, that I like the sound of my own voice or even that I think I have something vital to say. It is just I get exponentially uncomfortable after someone has asked a question and no one responds. I need to fill that gap if someone has not filled it already. I need there to be noise.

This manifests at home in a very obvious way. The Lovely Wife jokes that it is quite clear when I am in the house and when I am not. The first thing I do when I come in is to turn on the radio, or if it is that rare time of day when the only programs are one that make my teeth grind, then put some music on instead. If I go out and the Lovely Wife is in, the radio will be off again within minutes of me exiting stage left (rarely pursued by a bear). If I am working, music in the background helps me concentrate. I think if it is silent, I have a tendency to focus on the silence, in the same way nothing fills my imagination than the darkness. I become obsessed with the silence, why is it quiet? Something must be wrong. Whereas, if someone is burbling on gently in the background it is clear that the world has not, in fact, ended and I can get on with what I am doing. For the Lovely Wife it is the opposite. We accept this, and we make it work by the use of lowered volume and closing of doors at relevant times.

Why I need noise is a something we have discussed at times. Partly it is an extrovert/introvert thing but there is also something about what you have become used to. My upbringing was in a house where the TV was always on; often in two different rooms, and if the TV was off it would be radio or vinyl or cassette player. The only time the house was ever quiet was when no one was home. In all my years as a student and as a single man, the one reassurance I could count on was music, and so it was never really quiet for long (I needed lots of reassurance in those days). I can appreciate silence and why for many this can bring rest and relaxation. However, it is not for me, so sorry but I am about to turn the volume up – I need to think.

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R is for Rambling

The Lovely Wife and I love walking. It has been commented on in our home town that we are seen out and about more than might be considered average. To be frank, if we have an hour or two to fill, footwear will be donned and we will take a turn around wherever we are at the time, even if it is the same circuit of up into town, down and around the park and back again – a three-mile circuit that never really gets boring. I know that may sound odd, but the very frequency of doing the same walk becomes its making; you see the differences through the seasons, for example, much more clearly – know when the kingfisher is likely to appear on the river, and later when it is not worth looking for it anymore as it has now moved upstream to breed, for example. The changing views of the town as the flowers and trees put on growth, change colour and fade away to the starkness of winter produces different vistas, and after a while, year after year, you can also begin to compare – last year the ducklings were early, this year, after the cold snaps, we are still waiting. Walking a course in the sun means other people and therefore the ability to people watch; properly equipped in the rain and it is peace and solitude with only us and a few hardy runners and dog walkers.

All relationships are different but we have found that rambling about together to be a good thing for how we relate. Aside from any fitness benefit to our weary limbs, mentally even the soggiest wander generally lifts both our spirits and helps sort out some of the tensions that inevitably build up. We talk more while walking than probably any other time – the world around us always throws up new things to talk about, so the conversation will never run dry when we can eb speculating on whether we will see little grebes on the lake today, or whether the Man In The Red Waterproof will be feeding the geese as he is oft to do. We do not take big decisions while walking – those are best done for us in the pub, and I kid you not on that – but we might have laid the framework for those decisions while engaged in an extended walk to the pub in question.

Ah, and there’s one of the other delights, rambling the same route across and round your home town, a walk that, oh, there is a surprise, might just end up in your local hostelry for a cheeky one before going home. Call it an incentive to exercise if you like, but it is a fine pleasure and as we are such regular walkers the right pub is a good pseudo home. Although it is fair to say that in the winter weekend walks to the pub do mean getting their early enough to raise the eyebrow of the Landlord; but if you want to walk in daylight, that means early and therefore and early liaison with the desired pint of the day and possibly some pork scratchings. And then, home, for a well-deserved sit down and the satisfaction of a fitness tracker interface adorned with the happy green indicating that today’s targets had been reached, nay, perhaps overachieved. It’s making me smile while writing. At the moment, life is throwing enough things at us that the things that can lighten the mood are to be cherished.

Q is for Queen

The late, great Kirsty MacColl insisted that there was a guy down the chip shop who swore he was Elvis. I am not sure about that, but I recently have discovered that the late Freddie Mercury is alive and well and working as a waiter in a St Albans restaurant. Well, there is a member of the waiting staff at this establishment who has, in my mind, more than a passing resemblance of the great Queen front man; and once you decide that he’s ‘Freddie’ then it is very hard to back away from that thought.

I have a very dear friend to blame for my love of Queen. A copy of ‘Queen’s Greatest Hits’ recorded onto a cheap AGFA C90 cassette was the first piece of music that came into my hands that was not related to my parents record collection. It was a revelation, and I played it to death. It did have the quirks that many people had with the recordings they had in the days before digital, where jumps in the vinyl gave you unplanned remixes of songs never intended by the artist concerned. In the case of this tape the issues were that the album did not quite fit – it was some time before I actually heard the end of ‘Save Me’ for instance, as it was rudely truncated. Also, while the album was obviously stereo, my friend’s midi system was only operating on mono and had recorded as such onto the tape. For most of the tracks that did not matter; for those of you who know ‘Bicycle Race’ will realise this rather impacts the song in the middle section as the stereo bell ringing was reduced to one bell and an uncomfortable series of silences. It has never been one of my favourite songs.

Not long afterwards came Live Aid and my love of the band was cemented when they stole the show, although my initial experience of that performance was listening to a radio in the back of the car on the way to a summer holiday in Dunbar with the sort of inconsistent signal you felt was deliberately trying to annoy you by dropping off at the most inopportune moments.

The Lovely Wife and I have been lucky to go to many gigs over the years, separately and obviously together in more recent years but the one regret I do have is that I never got to see Queen live. It was never really going to happen, to be fair to me, as they stopped playing live in 1986 when I was in my mid-teens, and I would never been able to afford tickets anyway. Like most fans I was distraught when Freddie died of AIDS in 1991 when I was at University, and the tribute concert (aside from the oddest thing in the world, David Bowie reciting the Lord’s Prayer on stage – where did that come from?) only served to show how few vocalists could really get Freddie’s range (honourable exceptions being the late George Michael and the marvellous Annie Lennox).

Queen were never ‘cool’ and liking their music never will be. But that was OK for me as a teenager as I was not in any way cool or trendy. That is the joy of music; you can own it and take joy and support from it, and even more so now you can be listening to whatever you want without anyone else knowing, providing you keep your iPhone screen hidden from view. Or, wear the T shirt with pride. Some music is to listen too, some is fuel for your soul.

P is for Parallel Parking

The Lovely Wife and I are in alignment with many things but there is one thing that we differ in considerable terms and that is cars and driving them. It is a source of huge amusement to me that the one of us that has a sports car that is ‘fun’ to drive is her. For me, the solid workhorse does perfectly fine thank you. It needs to get us from A to B as comfortably as possible; I ask no more of it.

I have never been keen on driving and long years of commuting on the M25 has not endeared me to it any more. When treated to the offer ‘would you like me to drive?’ the answer is almost always a firm ‘yes, thank you’.

I have never been that fussed when it came to cars, and came to driving late. This is partly due to the disaster that was my first driving lesson, where my father, in a fit of enthusiasm that his newly turned seventeen-year-old son wanted to learn to drive, took me for a lesson in his beige Ford Cortina estate in an empty car park in the Team Valley in Gateshead. It did not go well. I did not actually hit anything but my natural lack of coordination combined with the fact that – faced with the reality – my Dad could not cope with anyone else behind the wheel of his car, meant that patience was quickly worn thin and that was the end of any attempt to teach me. Since my mother had never learned to drive and we could not afford driving lessons that put paid to any attempt to learning in my teens. Then university came along, and the last thing you want in Oxford is a car, so it had to wait until I had started work for me to finally work up the enthusiasm to learn. So, for many months that followed I would have lessons at lunchtime, picked up at work. Needless to say, I had many, many lessons with two different driving instructors – although I deny any responsibility for the retirement of the first one. I just was a bit of a slow learner.

My first test was a failure because I was too hesitant. The second test, on a swelteringly hot day, I failed because I overcompensated and was too aggressive. I have seen in my life what I like to refer to as Goldilocks syndrome, and driving tests were no exception so, thankfully, as with my relationship history, third time was just right.

At the time that I was learning to drive the skill of parallel parking was being introduced as one of the manoeuvres that you might be called upon to perform. I was, and still am, awful at parallel parking. It was my main weak spot and I was dreading it coming up in my test and I was sure that if it did it would be the cause of failure. As it turned out I did not need it to come up to fail, but in none of my three tests was the skill tested. In retrospect, I need not have worried. No one is particularly comfortable with change or the introduction of something new, and that includes the test examiners as well as those taking the test. Or maybe they just saw the fear in my eyes and took pity on me. I don’t care, I was just glad to finally pass. Although I think unleashing me onto the roads of Britain was a mixed blessing. Certainly, a friend of mine saw his life flash before him as a passenger as my little white mini careered onto my first dual carriageway. But I was lucky and I have enough miles under my belt know to decree myself vaguely competent. But I don’t have to enjoy it, so if you offer me a lift I’ll accept, with honest gratitude.

O is for Order

One of the main disruptions for the Lovely Wife and I at this time is the lack of any real ability to plan. There are many, some of my very best friends among them, who are quite happy to ‘wing it’ a lot of the time and see what happens. I am not one of those people. I like to know what I am doing, when I am doing it and whether I am doing it right (and not in retrospect, I like to know before so I don’t make a massive fool of myself).  I see double booking myself as a major gaffe on my part and one to be avoided at all costs. So even though there is only two of us to manage, one of the most important documents in our household is The Schedule.

The Schedule is king. It is a simple, day to day account of what we are doing each day, in the day and in the evening. For the next few years. Yes, there are entries that are several years ahead, where things are set in stone and/or are important enough to secure the dates this far in advance. It even is colour coded so I can see if the entry is to do with personal or work commitments.

This is all well and good if we are able to control events. Normally this is the case, even with work trips to some extent. But with my Dad’s situation dominating pretty much everything we do at the moment I am suffering Schedule crash. Things booked six months ago, when life seemed a bit different, are now having to be managed in a way I never foresaw. Do we abandon them, chalked down to the fact that this situation will never really happen again for us? Do we come up with a Plan B, inevitably involving travel and expense and a nagging sense of completely inappropriate guilt that we might want to take a few days off visiting duty, at least while he is stable and able to entertain himself with TV, DVDs and now internet… Order has been lost and now I have to ‘wing it’. It also means that things which form a set of touchstones that are regular in the schedule – platelet donations, my volunteering at Wrest Park, attendance at church and our favourite pub (although to be fair, the latter two are happening, just it is now my old church I went to as a child, and the massively improved Newfield Inn, Newfield rather than The Mermaid, St Albans) – all are more or less on hold, and that is surprisingly annoying.

However, however… It is not that simple, is it? A new order has been put into place, one that involves stopping at Pelton COOP to pick up a copy of the Evening Chronicle on the way to the nursing home. Sitting for a couple of hours with some light conversation as CBS Action burbles on in the background – NCIS: Los Angeles if we are lucky, interminable repeats of Bonanza if we are not (i.e. at the weekend).  Drawing his curtains before wandering back to a bungalow which is so familiar – the first 18 years of my life – but also strange because my parents are not there, nor will my Dad ever be there again. Maybe a short walk to the Inn for a pint of Double Maxim (it’s rather good) for the miraculous price of £2.75 a pint. A short term order, to be realistic, but one that is also comforting in a way while it lasts. And actually, I have found I am rather good at executing Plan B’s.

N is for Never Giving Up

At the moment, life for us is pretty much take each day at a time. My father is still currently with us and obviously we are hoping this continues for as long as possible, providing he is still getting something out of life. We have been very blessed in recent days and weeks that when we have been in to see him pretty much every day there has been something to laugh about, and/or he has enjoyed and ice cream or been happy watching a DVD (he liked ‘Dunkirk’ a lot, and I’m very happy he has been able to see it, albeit on the tiny screen of the portable DVD player that he bought himself after his stay in hospital in 2011 and had entirely forgotten about until I came across it while looking for something entirely different; it has been a definite Godsend). When we left him today he was in the midst of binging on ‘Sharpe’, engrossed in the antics of a youthful Sean Bean as the dodgy eponymous anti-hero. We had thought that the entire box set would keep him happy for quite a while but we’re now looking for more of the same to keep him from getting bored.

What is happening is terribly sad, and we are just about manging to juggle other commitments -both to work and where we can to ourselves. But ultimately, we know this is for a season only, and likely not a long one, so we are taking every positive and building on those as preparation for the times that are inevitable and coming. We all have many things to be thankful for. As well as the joy of seeing him smile, and the opportunity to say what needs to be said – most which we have now ticked the boxes both ways so I won’t ever be hit by the ‘I wish I had told him…’ scenario, we have been blessed by sharing some special moments; he had an oasis of feeling well over Christmas, a final time at home; we have shared both his birthday and mine, with cake. Outside of visiting we have had time to walk around parts of the North East that have brought back memories of my childhood for me and introduced the Lovely Wife to some of the things that I have talked about in the past or have had impact on my development and thus given her valuable insights I think into certain aspects of weirdness in my character. In particular it was interesting for me to visit old holiday haunts such as the windswept coast at Blyth, where my grandmother had a caravan and therefore I was packed off for several October half terms. The caravan site is gone now; as have the bookshops I used to delight in, and the newsagent where I found to my surprise and delight a copy of issue 3 of Doctor Who Weekly (my eight-year-old self – this was 1979 – had no idea such a thing existed, and I’ve still got a subscription to the magazine in its current form) has at some point become a hairdressing salon. And when trying to find the Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men sculpture in nearby Ridley Park (no one knows why, they were just there) I was downhearted to not find them anywhere. But I was not giving up and when I noticed someone in the Friends of Ridley Park building, a polite knock and inquiry delivered the desired result. The rather grotesque ‘sculptures’ that I remembered as a child were in fact safe and well inside the very building for safe keeping and brought out for charity events. So not all of my childhood is entirely limited to my own head it seems. And, another justification for never giving up

M is for Mother

My mother passed away in 2009, and as my family health issues continue I found myself thinking of her again and the part that she played in my upbringing. My mother was a woman of some resolve and tough as old boots, but managed to hide it most of the time – and thus avoid familial conflicts which otherwise might have made the inevitable family get togethers at the very least, edgy affairs. Many times it is clear to me looking back that she bit her tongue and acquiesced, especially in relation to elder members of the family, as frankly she could see it was not worth making a point about it.

Most of the time she was spot on about that.

Mum and Dad were inseparable and they meant the world to one another. My Mum could always get what she wanted out of my Dad but had the most graceful way of doing it. Normally, anything out the ordinary routine would normally be met with a flat ‘no’ from Dad. There would be no argument; but the question would be raised again a bit later, in a slightly different way, at a different type of time. By now the answer would be more of the ‘I’ll think about it’ kind of space. A little later we would progress through subsequent stages of ‘maybe’, ‘yes’ before becoming his idea in the first place. Of course, my Dad was certainly aware of this process and I suspect they both enjoyed the game. After all they were both used to my Mum’s favourite comment on the statement of who was in charge in relation to household – she was clear that this was my Dad. He was the ‘Head of the House’, clearly. However, my Mum was clear that if Dad was the Head, then she was the Neck. And, as she went on, the Neck turns the head whichever way it wants.

Mum was practical and sensible through my childhood (except where fizzy wine was concerned, which in the day was at best a bottle of Lambrusco or if we were lucky, Asti Spumante, on Christmas or on holiday, and thus a rare occurrence – my Mum never really got a handle on alcohol and treated it much as she would lemonade, with rapid and hilarious results). Once they were no longer having to pay for my education and as her health began to fail she took the opportunity to travel a little to see me and to destinations such as the Channel Islands, leaving my Dad to fend for himself (the family joke as to what he ate in those periods being mostly pork pie and cold beans out of the tin was, unfortunately, quite accurate). She was a huge present giver – not big, expensive things, but large numbers of small things, often bought via catalogue after she became housebound. So many things in fact that she managed to forget what she had bought everyone for Christmas and random things would reappear during the year, hidden and forgotten about in draws and cupboards.

She never complained, and yet was the perfect complainant – if anything was ever wrong or needed fixed both Dad and I would hand the phone to her and she would work her magic, with such opening gambits as ‘I’m sure this is my mistake, but…’ which inevitably would end in the desired result.

Mum was a superb judge of character and often made scarily accurate predictions about people she had just met. For this reason, I was delighted when she took to the, as then, Lovely Girlfriend straight away. I think for me that approval was very important but I need not have worried. It came without coaxing and heartfelt.

Through the difficult times that we are living through now, memories of my Mum are the kind of support that I need, as I try to be for my Dad what he was for her, a loving support to end of her life.