Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Day Trip

Brighton Pier

The invitation came more by chance than anything else. Max was angling to borrow Adam’s trainers for the umpteenth time, when Josh put his head around the door.
“We’re going to Brighton tomorrow. You want to come?”
“Mebbe,” said Max. “Who else is coming?”
“Dylan, Isabel, Ellie.”
Adam listened intently, hardly daring to meet Josh’s eye. Then, as if Josh had actually heard the question blaring unspoken in his mind, “You can come too if you like.”
“Yeah, OK,” he said as nonchalantly as he could manage.
At home, his mother was less than delighted. “I don’t know, Adam. You’re still only fourteen. How are you going to get there?”
“Tube to Victoria, then the train to Brighton. I won’t do anything stupid, I swear.”
“What time will you be back?”
“Six. Seven at the latest. Max says there’s loads of trains.”
“I was rather hoping the two of us could go shopping tomorrow. We could have tea at Hattie’s Cake Place afterwards, with scones and clotted cream and that lovely plum jam they have.”
“Please, mum.” Adam could hear the edge of desperation in his voice. He noticed his mother turn away.
“I suppose you’re far too grown-up these days to be seen out with your mother.”
“It’s not that. We can go shopping on Sunday instead if you like.”
A pause and a sigh. “You say Dylan’s going? I suppose I could give Jan a call, see what she thinks.” Relief flooded over Adam.
“Thanks, mum!”
The next day, he was up at seven. First he put on his Nike T-shirt and jeans. Then he tried the Arsenal shirt his uncle had given him for Christmas. Surveying himself in the mirror, it occurred to him the Arsenal shirt might lead to a discussion about football and that he might be forced to admit that, despite repeated requests, he’d never been to a single game. Better to stick to the Nike shirt, but with chinos, he decided, not jeans. Using the pointed end of a toy space rocket, he prised the bottom off his piggy-bank and tipped his life savings onto his bed. It added up to a grand total of twenty-seven pounds and fifty-nine pence. Adam scooped his treasure trove into his pocket and went downstairs.
In the kitchen, his mother was wrapping sandwiches in tin foil. “I’ve done you two ham, and one cheese. That should keep you going.”
“I don’t need all that stuff. Honestly.”
“I’m not having you stuffing yourself on junk food all day. I’ve put the sunscreen in your bag, and three bottles of water.”
“Mum…”
“Is your phone fully charged?”
“Yes! And I don’t need sunscreen either.”
“Yes you do. Don’t forget it isn’t too late for me to change my mind!”
“OK, OK.”
During breakfast, Adam tried his best to convince his mother he didn’t need a lift to the station, but she was having none of it. As they drew up, he was relieved to see Max being dropped off too.
“You don’t have to wait.”
“All right, I get the hint! Hey, aren’t you going to give your old Ma a kiss good-bye?”
Adam gave his mother a hurried peck on the cheek and hopped out of the car before she could do or say anything further. “See you tonight!”
At Victoria, it turned out Max was right; there were plenty of trains to Brighton. While the others were buying their tickets, Adam took advantage of the opportunity to dump his mother’s picnic in a greasy, overflowing bin next to a takeaway coffee kiosk. He turned round to find Ellie watching him, a mocking half-smile on her face. He blushed, unable to could think of anything to say.
On the train, he found himself sitting next to the window with the five others squashed in around him. A steady flow of banter batted back and forth, mostly concerning games scores, football matches and a boy called Finn who’d been sent out of Maths for farting.
“So what’s the plan?” said Dylan as the train pulled out of East Croydon.
“Dunno. Just hang out I s’pose. Mebbe go down the pier.”
“How much money you got?”
“Tenner. You?”
Dylan just shrugged.
“I’ve got twenty-seven quid.” It had tumbled out of Adam’s mouth before he’d had time to think. Now the other kids were staring at him.
“Fuck me,” said Josh. “In that case you can get the beers in!”
“Vodka!” said Max. “Let’s get a bottle of vodka!”
The girls sniggered, but their eyes were bright with excitement. “You wouldn’t dare!”
Adam fell silent and chewed a fingernail as the other kids started debating excitedly about how they might dupe a shopkeeper into selling them vodka. At Christmas, his mum had let him have a sip of champagne, but he’d never so much as tasted anything stronger.
“You should do it,” said Josh, turning to Adam. “You’re the tallest.”
“Yeah, and you’re the one with the money.”
Now all eyes were on Adam. Ellie’s gaze fastened on his, the same half-smile playing on her lips. Adam thought he detected a glimmer of scorn.
“Yeah, all right.”
The first two shops they tried were non-starters; brightly lit, with the spirits kept on shelves behind the till. Adam was loitering by a shelf stacked with sweets and bars of chocolate in the second one when he realised the others had come in behind him. Dylan picked up a four-pack of Heineken from the fridge. Within a second, a security guard was tapping his shoulder and pointing out a sign explaining that no alcohol would be sold without appropriate ID. The kids tumbled out onto the pavement, screeching with laughter. A few paces down the street, Max opened his jacket to reveal a bottle of coke.
“That’s no good.”
“It’ll go with the vodka, you numpty.”
“You’ve got a nerve, with the security bloke standing right there and everything.”
“Piece of cake.”
“No-one’s gonna sell us vodka,” said Ellie plaintively. “The only way to get it is to nick it.” Again all eyes turned to Adam.
“Come on Adam. You said you’d get it.”
“Yeah, you promised.”
They chose a place down an alley not far from the seafront – dark, run-down with an elderly Pakistani man alone at the till. “I’ll go in first. See if I can distract him,” said Josh. Adam’s mouth went dry. He could feel sweat gathering on his upper lip. The next second, his phone bleeped. “Let me know when you arrive. Love you. Mum xx.” Adam quickly slipped the phone back in his pocket. He could hardly bear to think of his mother waiting in trusting ignorance at home.
Through the window, Adam could see Josh pointing up at an oversized birthday card on a top shelf at the back of the shop. He watched as the proprietor pulled out a small step ladder and put his foot on the first step.
“C’mon, fam. It’s now or never,” Max urged at his elbow.
Adam took a deep breath and stepped inside the shop. Over the door, a brass bell gave a merry tinkle.
Adam could see rows of whiskey, rum and brandy on the shelf by the till. He looked up and down for vodka but there didn’t appear to be a single bottle. The shopkeeper was handing the card to Josh, who cast a quick ‘do it now’ glance in Adam’s direction. He wiped his palms on his trousers and then quickly grabbed a bottle of Bacardi and charged out of the shop as fast as his legs would carry him. A second later, Josh crashed out onto the street, making the doorbell tinkle alarmingly. Shrieking and cackling, the kids took off in the direction of the seafront, oblivious to the outraged yells of the shop-keeper retreating behind them. As soon as they were out of reach of the shop, they slowed to a dawdle, and the lads took turns to clap Adam on the back.
“Hey, man. That was epic.” To Adam’s surprise, there was genuine admiration in their voices. Even so, his heart was still racing. With a fresh thrill of anxiety, it belatedly occurred to him the shop might have been equipped with CCTV. He cursed himself for not having thought about it until now.
“Put it in here.” Ellie rewarded Adam with a quick smile of complicity, as she held her bag open. “Don’t want the feds getting nosy, know what I mean.” Adam handed it over with more relief than he’d have liked to admit to.
Down on the beach, the kids settled down with their backs to a decaying breakwater and gorged themselves on slices of cold, greasy pizza from a stall near the bandstand.
“So lemme see it,” said Josh.
Ellie opened her bag and handed him the Barcardi. He unscrewed the cap, took a gulp and swallowed with a theatrical gasp of satisfaction. Next it was Max’s turn. He took a sip, pulled a face and spat it out. “You should have got vodka.”
“Yeah right. Like you’d know the difference.”
Then Ellie grabbed the bottle and gulped a couple of inches straight down.
“Hey, leave some for the rest of us, you pisshead!” Josh passed the bottle to Adam. “Get that down you, bro.”
Adam wiped the lip of the bottle and put it gingerly to his mouth. He took a small sip. The rum tasted sour and produced a hot, burning sensation at the back of his throat. “Go on! Put some proper hair on your chest.” The girls smirked. Adam could see Ellie whispering to Isabel from behind her hand. He took a second, larger swig. This time, he could feel the rum burning all the way down to his stomach. For a second, he thought he might throw it straight back up. He became aware of his phone buzzing; his mother again. Shutting off the call, Adam put the phone on mute and stuffed it back in his pocket.
He was beginning to feel a bit dazed. To his left, Max had somehow got Dylan in an arm-lock and was pummelling the smaller boy’s torso, his face alight with violent intent. At the same time, in an ungainly ballet of lunges and stumbles, Dylan was trying to push Max off balance by catching his foot and jerking it out from under him. Sprawling on the beach nearby, the girls giggled uncontrollably. Adam noticed a smear of ketchup staining Ellie’s carefully applied make-up. All of a sudden, Max crashed to the ground in a crunch of pebbles, landing full square in the middle of a pizza. Dylan gave a hoot of triumph. “Yesss! I won!”
“Shit, now look what you’ve done!” said Max, wiping tomato puree off his jeans. He aimed an indignant kick at Dylan’s knee, but Dylan, always nimble, dodged smartly to one side and Max once again found himself scrabbling on the ground. Everyone else exploded with laughter.
“It’s not funny, bloody hell!”
Adam was still wiping tears from his eyes when Isabel gave a sudden shriek of panic. Unnoticed by all, a seagull had landed a foot away and was gobbling down discarded pizza crusts; several others were circling overhead.
“Get them away! Get them away from me!”
Isabel gave way to hysterical sobbing. Adam was surprised at how large the gulls were close up. Without pausing to think, he picked up the empty Bacardi bottle and pitched it at the feasting birds with all his might. It landed right in their midst, fracturing into a mass of glittering shards and causing the birds to lumber squawking into the air.
“Goal!” yelled Dylan, and was overcome with a fresh wave of hilarity. Adam leapt to his feet and chased after the gulls, all the while screaming like a demented dervish and flapping his arms as if he might very well pursue them into the air.
“You all right?” he said, turning to Isabel.
“Yes, thanks,” she replied and gave him a look of unexpected gratitude. Adam smiled. He could sense Ellie watching him.
“C’mon. Let’s go to the pier.”
“Yeah. Good idea.”
Adam was surprised at how much the rides cost. He’d hoped to have a little money left over to take home, but even after pooling all their resources, they’d only be able to afford go on one or two at the most.
“Let’s go on the Booster.”
“No Crazy Mouse, Crazy Mouse!” Under normal circumstances, Adam would have avoided the roller coaster at all costs. The prospect of being shuttled at vertiginous speed up and down and upside-down along the length of the ride and out over the sea, filled him with dread. Feigning enthusiasm, he joined the queue behind Josh, while secretly marvelling that Isabel could be terrified of gulls, but perfectly sanguine about going on Crazy Mouse.
Before he knew it, an attendant was strapping him in and checking the bolts on his carriage. Adam wondered if it wasn’t too late to change his mind. Initially, the rum had made him feel unsteady and not fully in control of himself; now, combined with the sun overhead, it was beginning to make his head pound and an unpleasant acrid aftertaste filled his mouth. He hoped to God he wouldn’t be sick. Just as this thought occurred to him, Ellie vomited copiously, in the carriage in front.
“Out! Out of there this second!” said the attendant, unlocking the car, his face blazing with fury.
“But I’ve paid and everything,” Ellie protested half-heartedly.
“Bloody kids – look at this filthy, disgusting mess!”
Adam leapt at his chance. “Hey. I’ll wait with you if you like.”
“Oh. OK. That’s really nice of you.” Adam signalled to the attendant to let him off the ride. For a second, he considered asking for a refund, but the man’s thunderous expression made him think better of it. In his pocket he still had a few tokens left.
Adam and Ellie sat down on a bench a little further along the pier. A cool breeze blew in from the sea, making him feel slightly less nauseous. Distant shrieks from the roller coaster reached them intermittently as the carriages barrelled along the winding track. Ellie sat hunched over, her long, dark hair flopping over her thin cheeks. Beneath the veneer of make-up, Adam could see the pallor of her skin and the blue veins running along the base of her throat. Surreptitiously, he crept his arm along the back of the bench behind her and let his hand rest ever so gently on her shoulder.
“You feeling all right now?”
“Yeah. Could you get me a bottle of water or something?”
“Sure.” Adam got up. He remembered they’d passed a bank of drinks machines on the way in. He fished for his last couple of pounds in the bottom of his pocket, slotted them into the machine and bent down to withdraw a bottle of Evian.
“Here.” Ellie unscrewed the bottle and drank avidly.
“You want some?” Adam took the bottle and swallowed a few mouthfuls of icy water. A little further up the pier, he could see some younger boys and their dads whirling around on the dodgems.   Hearing their delighted shrieks, he filled with an overwhelming desire to join them and race around the arena in one of the little electric cars, swerving this way and than and not minding who he bumped into.   His mum had never let him go on the dodgems and as for his dad, Adam never even met him.   Paying no heed to the voice in his head telling him he was far too old to want to go on such a childish ride, he decided it was now or perhaps never.    “You wanna go on the dodgems?” he asked Ellie. “I’ve still got a few tokens.”
“Nah, you’re all right. You can go if you want.”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
Ellie shrugged. “Why should I?”
“I won’t be long. It’s just I’ve never tried it before.”
Adam approached the booth and handed over the last of his tokens. Two minutes later, he was trying to fold his legs into a blue buggy with a large number six painted in black on its bonnet. “Don’t forget you have to wait for the ride to end before you get out, OK.”
“OK.” He pressed the accelerator. The little car jerked into action, then shot off across the arena at top speed. Adam ran into the wall several times before getting the hang of the steering wheel. He tried to catch Ellie’s eye and gave her what he hoped was a jaunty wave. He was beginning to get control now and managing to make complete circuits of the arena without coming to grief. All at once, he noticed Josh, Dylan, Max and Isabel strolling towards Ellie, laughing and chattering nineteen to the dozen. They must have finished on roller coaster.
Adam watched helplessly as Ellie linked her arm with Isabel’s and all five of his friends sauntered off in the direction of the exit. He tried to yell above the sound of the music blaring out from loudspeakers hanging from the canopy over the arena, but either they didn’t hear, or couldn’t be bothered to turn around. Adam tried to angle the car so he could keep the others in view, but it was impossible. Two other vehicles crashed into him in short succession, and by the time he had regained control, Isabel, Ellie and the others had disappeared from sight.
It took what seemed like an age for the dodgems to come to a halt. Adam clambered out of his car as quickly as he could. He took off along the pier, searching with growing desperation behind stalls and kiosks, in the saloon and everywhere else he could think of. He decided to call Dylan. He felt in his pocket for his phone. Nothing. His heart sinking, Adam realised it must have fallen out pocket somewhere between the beach and the pier. He tried to suppress a rising tide of panic.
After a moment of deliberation, he set off at a trot along the seafront in the forlorn hope that he might stumble across the others by chance. Surely they hadn’t just forgotten about him? Or had they? It occurred to him that the whole outing was just an elaborate trick to catch him out. He tried to quash this thought as soon as it arose but it lingered stubbornly in the back of his mind. A clock on the façade of an ornate, seafront hotel read half past five. He couldn’t believe how fast the afternoon had slipped away. With a lump in his throat he realised his mum would soon be expecting him home.
On reaching the bandstand, Adam slowed to a halt and tried to decide if he redouble his efforts to find the others, or cut his losses and try to get home on his own. With a heavy heart, he turned away from the beach and starting making his way towards where he was certain the centre of town should be. He walked along several streets, turning first right and then left. There was no sign of the station. As he went on, the streets began to have a run-down, delapidated air; each house had multiple doorbells in a strip by the door. Adam realised he had no choice but to ask for directions.
The first person he came across was a steely-faced young woman pushing a buggy with a grubby toddler squirming and grizzling within the straps. In response to Adam’s timid ‘Excuse me’ she scowled darkly and pushed past him without uttering a word. As he watched her departing back, hot tears pricked at the back of his eyes. He sat down on the wall of someone’s garden.
Suddenly a group of men turned the corner and began heading down the street. One had a fierce looking cross-bred terrier on a lead and was having difficulty controlling it. The others appeared to be embroiled in some sort of argument. Adam got to his feet and cleared his throat. He was on the point of raising his hand when the dog snarled menacingly and made a lunge for him. Adam cowered against the wall. The man with the dog gave a vicious jerk of the lead. “Don’t look at my dog, you fucking eejit.”
Adam was still trembling as they turned the corner and disappeared from sight. In despair, he sank down onto the pavement and allowed himself to sob like a child.

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White Irises

“It’s time to come inside,” Becky tells me. “I’d be amazed if you can still see past the end of your nose.”
“I just want to get these dahlias in.”
“Oh Ruth,” she says, “you’ll stop at nothing when it comes to that garden. You’re garden mad, you are!”
I’m expecting great things this year – narcissi and tulips first, and now lupins, aquilegia and crowning it all, my glorious white irises. I’ve worked so hard, turning the soil, digging in bone-meal and compost. Jam-jar lids full of sweet beer keep the slugs at bay. Some people squash them, or use those little toxic pellets, but somehow I can never quite bring myself to dispatch the little pests to the great herbaceous border in the sky. “You’re too soft-hearted,” says Becky, “that’s your trouble.”

White Irises
It’s peaceful here in my garden but not silent. A robin’s singing its little heart out over in the apple tree, and every so often, the breeze lifts the leaves of the ash tree behind the back gate, making them tremble and shiver. The distant traffic on the motorway provides an unceasing low background rumble.
I lean on my fork and let the sweet smell of choisya and damp earth fill my nostrils. Even though it’s almost dark, I can barely tear myself away. My own little square of paradise.
Inside, Becky grumbles about muddy boots and newly mopped floors as she pours me a glass of red wine. “The police were round again,” she says.
“Really? I didn’t hear the doorbell.”
“They still haven’t found him.”
Jason Polley is who she means. He’s been missing for weeks now. No great loss, if you ask me. In fact, if you want my honest opinion, our little community is very much improved by the absence of Jason Polley. Not that I said so to the young sergeant who came knocking a few weeks back. I told him I wouldn’t be surprised if Jason had legged it, how Jason was always on about what an effing backwater this place is, how he couldn’t wait to kick the dust off his designer trainers and be on his way.
“Knew him well, did you?”
“Not really.”
After that, I shut up. I knew Jason Polley as well as anyone could ever want to. He’d been a thorn in our sides right from the day he and his family moved in.
What you have to understand is we’re a bit old-fashioned here in Ferndale Close, a bit old-school. We look out for each other, you see. Ted at number five, the Whittingdales across at number two and us down at the end here at number nine. Whatever they may have thought about Becky and me, none of them ever said a word. They were too decent for that. Instead, they took us at face value: two genteel, middle-aged ladies who’d chosen to share a house.
After old Mrs Ince passed away, number six stood empty for months. Becky said it had gone to her nephew, but we never ever saw him. Then one day, the Polleys were moving in. Local Authority, the Whittingdales said.
You could tell at once they weren’t our kind of people. Aggressive, noisy, foul-mouthed. Ted asked them a dozen times to turn down their racket, but all he got for his trouble was an earful of abuse. Soon the garden was overgrown and filling up with rubbish – a rotting mattress, wheel-less bikes, an ancient, rusting washing machine. The place was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb.
I never worked out exactly how many kids they had, but Jason was the eldest. He was a big lad, puffy and pale and unhealthy-looking. Small black eyes always sliding this way and that. “On the look-out for trouble, that one,” Becky said.
It started with a ball kicked over the fence slap bang into the middle of my rose bed. Next thing we know, Jason’s trampling all over the garden, plonking his great clumsy feet here, there and everywhere without so much as a thought for the flowers and shrubs I’d spent years propagating and tending so lovingly. “Is this what you’re looking for?” says Becky, the ball in her hands.
“Gimme it here,” he says, snatching it back.
“Just be careful of the plants!” I throw in with stupid, unthinking optimism.
“Screw the effing plants.” And as an afterthought, “Stuck up bitches.”
After that, there was no peace. Every day something foul came over the fence, every sort of filth you can imagine. And that wasn’t all. He peed in the pond. He smeared dog dirt all over the patio. He set fire to the shed.
Becky said we should go to the police.
“They won’t lift a finger,” I reply. “In fact, they’ll only make things worse.”
Then one day, we come home to find him knocking the heads off all my beautiful irises. Paralyzed, I stand in the window, wracked with useless sobs as he wreaks his havoc. Becky, God bless her, she doesn’t hesitate. Out she goes to give him what for, but he just laughs and calls her names.
Then suddenly, he’s telling her all she needs is a good, proper seeing to. And the next thing I know, he’s grabbing her by the arm and dragging her down. Kicking her and pulling at her blouse. Opening his fly and pushing his hands up her skirt.
At that moment, something inside me snaps. A minute later, I don’t know how, I find myself standing over him, the garden spade clenched in my trembling hands as blood fountains out of his skull. I watch in horror as his eyes cloud over and grow dull. With his last breaths gurgling in his throat he mutters, “fucking dykes…”
Slowly, Becky sits up. “Have you…?”
“I think so.”
That night, after we finish in the garden, we both sit up a long time. Becky pours big tumblers full of whiskey. “Drink it,” she says and kisses my cheeks and eyes. “It’ll be all right.”
“Yes,” I say, swallowing the whiskey in a single gulp, “everything’s OK now.”

 

 

 

 

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Looking damned good, Debbie!

Is it just me, of has it been a particularly lovely summer so far?

It’s been warm, with lots of sunshine but not too hot, and enough rain to keep the garden looking fresh. For me, that’s perfect. I don’t mind the odd shower, though perhaps not quite as violent as the one that deluged Glastonbury on Friday evening, causing the organisers to take the rare precautionary step of shutting off the power for an hour while the lightening flashed overhead.

Glastonbury - what summer was made for.

Glastonbury – what summer was made for.

Music festivals have become a big feature of the British summer scene. Along with the huge events like Glastonbury, Reading and Latitude, many places now have their own mini-festivals.   Even our little town has an annual music event at the end of June where local musicians can showcase their talents. There’s nothing like sitting in the evening sunshine with friends, quaffing pinot grigio by the pint and listening to a bit of live jazz.

One of the headline acts at Glastonbury this year was Blondie. When I was the age my kids are now, I used to adore Blondie. To me Debbie Harry seemed impossibly cool and sexy and I admired her beyond all reason. Every boy I knew fancied her rotten. So it was with a mix of curiosity and nostalgia that I sat down to watch their set on the TV on Friday evening.

Debbie Harry in her hey-day

Debbie Harry in her hey-day

Blondie have had a chequered career since their hey-day in the late 70s and early 80s. Their album Parallel Lines was the best-selling UK album in 1978.  Everyone had it. The follow up, Eat to the Beat, which featured ‘Atomic’ and ‘Union City Blue’ also did well.

But then things began to fall apart for them. Riven by internal wrangling and befuddled by drug addiction, by the mid-80s, the band had all but imploded. Then guitarist, Chris Stein, fell seriously ill from a little known auto-immune disease and Debbie gave up her music career to care for him full time.

Many years passed, but then, miraculously, little by little, they managed to reinvent themselves. What was abundantly evident at Glastonbury is that there is still a huge level of public affection for them. They were rock-and-roll superstars, most certainly, but ones that genuinely went through the mill of human suffering.

During the darkest days, they lost everything and went bankrupt. And yet through grace and perseverance, they’ve managed to overcome their difficulties and reinvent themselves. It was oddly moving seeing them making music once again, performing new tracks and many of the old standards in front of huge crowds.

Debbie, despite being within easy reach of 70, still looks amazing. She’s certainly had work done, but those chiselled cheekbones have clearly held her in good stead and her shock of blonde hair is as striking as ever.

Debbie at Glastonbury

Debbie at Glastonbury

Singing along to ‘Call Me’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ made me feel as if those far off teenage years, when my whole life was still ahead of me, were still somehow within my reach; for that I can only thank them.

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Setting off alone

In a few days time, it’ll be the longest day of the year. For me, there’s something very magical about the long June evenings. Even down here in the south, it’s light until ten o’clock at night. I love being able to go for a walk after supper when everyone else is settled down with their tablets or the TV. The streets outside are quiet and there’s a secretive, mysterious quality to the woods and alleys around where we live.

In Scotland, where I lived as a child, at this time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until half past eleven and by half-past two in the morning, the first glimmers of light are already streaking the sky.

Rowardennan

Rowardennan

When we were teenagers in Glasgow, occasionally my parents would consent to an evening barbecue on the shores of Loch Lomond up in the Trossachs. We’d drive up to Rowardennan, heap a big pile of drift wood onto the pebbly beach and fry sausages, bacon and tomatoes or perhaps a few Arbroath kippers.

In the ashes, we’d toast sweet sticky marshmallows and afterwards watch the sun go down behind the mountains, while the midges swarmed around us and a heron fished from a rock by the shore. Often we’d linger until the last embers had died away before getting back into the car and returning somewhat regretfully to the modern world.

Much better toasted

Much better toasted

Often on those occasions, I liked to imagine I was on the cusp of a terrific adventure, as if I was about to step into a JRR Tolkien story. Part of me longed to set off into the wilderness and connect with the natural world in all its timeless, elemental grandeur.

As a child, I was convinced I could survive by depending on my own resources and what nature afforded. I knew how to light a fire, how to catch a fish, where to gather nuts and berries. I loved building dens in the back garden and felt confident I could construct some sort of shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay.

Of course my life took an entirely different path, but even now every so often I feel a strong urge to escape the complications of urban life and get back to something simpler and purer.

I recently saw the John Curran film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, the Australian girl who in 1977 took off into the wilderness in order to trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Despite the harshness of the terrain, Robyn did survive, but not without her four camels, her dog and intermittent support from Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who fell in love with her. Smolan helped to secure the funding for Davidson’s trip, but the quid pro quo was that she would agree to be photographed.

Mia Wasikowska in the film 'Tracks'.

Mia Wasikowska in the film ‘Tracks’.

The film is definitely a slow watch and some have found the main character hard to like, not least because of her ambivalent attitude to Smolan, often rejecting him but ultimately relying on him too. However that’s the miss the point; despite her desire to be alone, Davidson never entirely manages to escape human contact and caring. Ironically, after her story was published, it provoked a huge wave of public curiosity and turned Davidson into something of a minor celebrity.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that however much we want to strike out on our own and connect with the natural world, it’s in our relationships with other people that we find the real purpose and meaning of our lives.

 

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The Audition

The stilettos are a mistake. When she was dressing at six thirty that morning, she’d nearly opted for trainers, but trainers would have spoiled the look. Rock chick glamour. That’s what she’d been aiming for, and for glamour, you need heels.

She checks her watch. Nearly eleven. Her feet are killing her. For a moment she considers taking the shoes off, but the surface of the car park is potholed and gritty and she can’t afford to ladder her tights.

All around her there are others, waiting in a vast labyrinth of aluminium railings, restless as a forest in autumn. A ceaseless symphony of voices – some laughing, some shrieking, some singing – fills her ears and gives substance to the paralysing toxin of doubt that keeps seeping into her thoughts. Still, she’s here now.

“Come by yourself, did you?” She turns to face a tall, skinny girl with scarlet hair and a column of Chinese characters tattooed down one shoulder.   She nods.

“Me too.”    The girl cracks her gum before adding, “my mum would kill me if she knew I was here.”

She smiles and says nothing; she knows the feeling.

By one-fifteen she’s eaten her crisps and shared a choc-chip muffin with the tattooed girl. Every so often, she takes little sips from the inch of water at the bottom of her bottle, wishing she’d bought the bigger one instead.

Tar-like, the queue oozes towards the door.  Just ahead of her, two boys are flinging curses at each other, faces thrust forward, hands curling into fists.  In the row behind, a little girl has fallen over and scraped her knee. The mother kneels, dabs at the blood, insists another half an hour and they’ll be in, but the child just keeps sobbing and tugging at the woman’s sleeve.

“Is it really worth it?”  she wonders.   Perhaps it’s time to call a halt and go home.    “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,”  she reminds herself. What does she have to go home to anyway?

Overhead, clouds clot and spit out stinging needles of rain. She shivers and pulls the little jacket she’s brought close around her shoulders. The last shreds of glamour dissolve and drip from loose strands of her ruined beehive.

At ten to five she makes it inside. An official-looking girl, not much older than she is, takes her name, gives her a number and nods her towards the waiting area. Another hour, they reckon. Even then it’ll only be the producers. At least she can go to the loo. Perhaps refill the water bottle too. She’d kill for a cup of tea.

In the main hall, contestants are settling in for the long haul. Some have hogged entire rows of seats and are pretending to grab some shut-eye. Others are camped on the floor amid a sea of discarded shoes and sweet wrappers. There’s a smell of stale soda and socks and on every face the same look of dogged determination. Each is tending to their own nub of hope.

She slots her last pound into a vending machine by the door, bends to extract a Twix then picks her way through a puzzle of legs to an empty seat by the window. Outside, the sun has shrugged off its mantle of cloud and set fire to the windows of executive flats on the far side of the river. She notices a few disconsolate johnny-come-latelies still loitering between the railings. With a yawn, she watches idly as a gull tracks the current downstream to the estuary.

At half seven, she gives in and calls home. She listens as her mum’s anger yields to sarcasm, then concern. It’s okay though; she feels better now. From somewhere in the guts of the building the subterranean thud of a bass guitar starts up. Around her the roar of voices subsides to a murmur, low and lilting as a lullaby. She almost nods off.

Suddenly, too soon, they’re calling out her number.  First off, they ask for the disc.  Her mind goes blank. What disc? The backing music of course. Her fingers flutter through her bag, as she fights the firestorm raging through her tattered confidence. Where the fuck is it? Idiot! She’s put it in the pocket to keep it safe.

“No need to apologise,” the producer sighs. “Let’s just get on with it, shall we?”   Why had she ever thought she could do this?

Next thing, she’s stumbling onto the stage and peering through a veil of light into the black maw of the auditorium. One judge is absent. Another has swung round to confer with a bearded man with a clipboard and headset. The third is hunched over the desk, jabbing brisk observations onto a notepad. She’s a little shocked, seeing them in the flesh; real human beings not merely a mirage conjured from pixels and a thousand pages of newsprint.

The head judge looks up, gives her the go ahead.   The opening bars, as if she’s never heard them before. Dry mouth, damp palms. She starts tremulously, a tad flat on the high C.  A pause.  She steels herself, draws breath, hits the top note.  Faultless.  She’s flying now, a skylark streaking towards the stratosphere, adrenalin – irrepressible, joyous – flaring through every muscle, every vein.  It’s where she’s always wanted to be.  The judges are listening now, sitting back in their seats, eyes wide, giving their full attention.

On the train heading north, her journey is just beginning.   A scatter of fellow passengers are propped up in corners or dozing over the evening rag.  She’s been up forever, but sleep is out of the question.  She remembers the countless nights alone with the Ipod. She remembers the posh kids, and the clever ones, and the told-you-so teachers who looked down and never saw.   She smiles to herself.   She’s on her way.

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Spies Like Us

It’s a while since I’ve read a book so unputdownable it compelled me to sit reading until lunchtime, but Ben Macintyre’s recently published ‘A Spy Among Friends’ did precisely that.  It comes as no surprise that it’s been optioned by Lionsgate.

Cover of A Spy Among Friends

As Macintyre himself notes, the world isn’t short of books about the Cambridge spies who betrayed their country on behalf of Stalin’s Russia. What’s novel about this particular contribution to the genre is that it focuses on the relationship between arch-traitor, Kim Philby and his colleague and closest friend, Nicholas Elliott. In doing so, Macintyre lays bare all the weaknesses of the upper-class old-school-tie establishment that dominated British society before and after WWII.

This approach also goes a long way towards giving a plausible answer to question of how, against all the odds, and a very great deal of evidence, Philby got away with it for so long. The simple explanation appears to be that nobody could actually believe that a man like Philby – archetypal insider, scion of a well-connected family, member of all the right clubs, loyal sporter of his old Westminster School scarf – could conceivably be batting for the other side.

The cricket metaphor is appropriate. Cricket provided a common bond for Elliott and Philby. Both had been born to severe but ambitious fathers, both had been through the particularly English form of torture represented by the public school system, neither had any inclination to discuss a matter as vulgar as politics, let alone their personal feelings. They took each other at face value. As far as Elliott was concerned, Philby was ‘one of us’ and no further questions need be asked.

The recruiters at MI6 took precisely the same view. According to Macintyre, Philby ‘sauntered’ into MI6 – reputed at the time to be the most daunting and effective espionage service in the world – with such ease that it provoked serious doubts among his Russian handlers. In a supreme irony,  Philby showered the KGB with cast-iron A-class intelligence, and they literally assumed it was too good to be true.

Kim Philby - double agent

Kim Philby – double agent

Philby avoided detection for an astonishing length of time. He was undeniably lucky. But even after his fellow traitors, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, were unmasked and defected to Russia, Philby managed to brazen it out with the top brass at MI6. His friend, Elliott, fell over backwards to protest his innocence and fight his corner.

Elliott’s unquestioning loyalty to his friend is, in the end, rather moving. He and Philby had been through the war together, brothers-in-arms in the great game of international espionage. It is entirely appropriate that it was Elliott who was chosen to confront Philby. The discussion that ensued was secretly recorded and Macintyre’s coup has been in drawing on this extraordinary archive, what he calls “one of the most important conversations of the Cold War”.

It starts with tea, naturally, and mutual enquiries about friends and family. Then Elliott hesitantly lays his cards on the table. Philby bluffs, lies, and calls repeatedly on the bond of friendship between them, but Elliott is having none of it. At last he allows himself to express the cold, direct anger that must have been building in him for many days. Philby, realising that all is lost, finally accepts the reality of his situation and agrees to provide a confession in exchange for immunity. With his signature came the end of a world ruled by gentleman’s agreement.

Much of the entertainment value of Macintyre’s book derives from his descriptions of the louche, cosmopolitan world of espionage that Elliott and Philby inhabited so enthusiastically. This was a world peopled by a gallery of cheerful rogues, most of whom were more than happy to pass on information in exchange for a little extra cash.

James Bond - closer to reality than you might think.

James Bond – closer to reality than you might think.

Elliott’s contacts while stationed in Istanbul included a belly-dancer from Bradford, a ferryman plying the route over the Bosphorus, a former Tsarist guards officer with contacts in Russian intelligence who became his best man, a club-owner who “accepted bribes from everyone without favour and endeavoured to place rival spies at adjacent tables”, an assistant to the papal legate apprehended for operating a wireless set on behalf of Italian fascists and many, many more.

It was a world where chance, luck and bravado were celebrated and where the daring gentleman amateur reigned supreme. Both Graham Greene and Ian Fleming worked for British intelligence during WWII. It isn’t hard to see where they, and indeed John le Carre, who provides an afterword to Macintyre’s book, found their inspiration and source material. What emerges from this account is how little exaggeration their fictional spy novels contain.

 

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