What A Mandarin Speaking Brummie Taught Me

In the light of the now infamous ‘go back where you’re from’ comment I’d like to reshare a post from a year ago on the subject of differences…

I helped at a shelter last week. Amongst the clients who turned up, were three men we’d not seen before. They appeared to speak Mandarin and certainly had a Chinese appearance. Someone, near the counter made an off colour remark. There was a rather pregnant pause and the nearest of the three men turned and in as broad a Brummie accent as could be imagined suggested the speaker might like to shove it. This was done with a smile on his face since the maker of the inappropriate remark also had a Brummie accent. There ensued a beat or two of tension before the inevitable ‘where you from?’ ‘Solihull’ ‘me too’ followed. It turned out that one of the group was indeed Chinese so they were talking in Mandarin; and they were visiting the shelter because they had some meeting with the people who run the organisation to glean some lessons learnt. In no time the two Brummies were swapping mutual acquaintances.

As we watched the byplay, my fellow helper sighed and made a comment about the need to embrace differences and not leap to judgement. Which in turn took me back a few years, to 2005 when we enjoyed a family holiday on the East Coast of the States. The Lawyer was 15 and the Vet 12. We had just seen National Treasure, a movie with Nicholas Cage romping through some US history in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. It felt sort of inevitable we should follow suit but I knew, it being August, the weather might well be rather overpowering so we planned to end up touring Cape Cod for a few days.

We started in Sandwich and Hyannis Port and worked our way east. When I was booking I recall an ‘are you sure, it’s carnival’ when I said we wanted to spend a couple of nights in Provincetown. To me it was the place where the Pilgrim fathers landed, where the monument was erected and a well known artists colony from the early part of the 20th century. We didn’t have Wikipedia, at least not to the extent today and the British guide books mentioned it was ‘liberal’ without much more.

By the time I’d booked and paid I began to realise there was more to Provincetown or P’town as it’s known, than my feeble researching had uncovered. As regular readers will know I make a habit of mucking up vacations (my father memorably described one experience as ‘like joining Dickhead Tours’). I shrugged; it was too late, the money was spent and it was just a parade, a bit of fun with a few floats. Wasn’t it?

Some people did ask if I knew what the carnival was about. ‘Sure,’ I said. And one queried whether it was ‘right’ to take the children there. That convinced me. We were going. A few nice gay people waving at the crowd. It would be fine.

It was interesting, in the conservative (or is that republican) parts of Cape Cod, notably Sandwich, that there was no mention of P’town and carnival. Maybe that might have told me something. As a family we were intrigued and excited. What would it be like?

Well, we arrived late at night so did no more than check-in. It was that first morning that our eyes were opened. Ripped apart really. The first diner we stopped at for breakfast was hosting ‘drag queen bingo’ which appeared to be comprise a series of 250 pound tight ends dressed as Little Bo Peep comparing depilation strategies while singing Kylie songs. We moved on and found a delightful place, serving fantastic waffles. The place was full of these geeky men bearing sleek Macs and with a penchant for personalised leather lederhosen.

We were patently out of place, the only or maybe one of three of four family groups where the parents were of the opposite sex and certainly the only family from abroad (and not just out of state). The other 60,000 were very much enjoying an alternative life choice.

You know what? We had a Fabulous Time, darling. The Vet could see for herself that sometimes less is more when applying makeup (a useful lesson her mother had failed to communicate upto that point). The Lawyer was treated like royalty (though possibly that had something to do with the blond foppish hair) which suited his expanding ego and we, the Textiliste and I, were looked on as eccentric but rather wonderful for embracing all that was happening.

The parade itself – we were given both purple and green beads to show our hetero roots – was both outrageous and perfectly appropriate. It being pretty soon after 9/11, the New York Fire and Police Combined LBGT group, dressed in service hats, leather thongs and skimpy tops, received a huge cheer. They camped it up and the whole thing was as relaxed and easy going as anyone could imagine. Not tasteful as my parents might have understood it but brilliant.

At times the kids wondered, out loud, what they were seeing but everyone who was there oozed good humour and tolerance. There was a certain grace about it all which rubbed off on all of us.

As a lesson in accepting differences, taking people at face value and being non judgemental, it couldn’t be bettered. It’s good to remember that feeling when one fears that levels of intolerance are building and no one seems to be able to stop them. Labelling someone dehumanises them. Truly we are all different, all a curious mix of contradictions and common faults. If we are all different then either we must tolerate everyone or no one. I know which way I intend to go and I thank the good people of P’Town and their 55,000 that hot summer visitors for reminding me and showing my kids this very vital lesson.washington

Posted in miscellany, thought piece | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

The Bionicist #shortfiction #wordlesswednesday(not)

The Bionicist

Eldrich Pomeroy steepled his fingers and released a silent curse. Fortunately for Hildegard Tilt, even now struggling into the seat opposite from the wheelchair, he had had the presence of mind to attach his recently updated ‘permanently caring’ eye-mouth combo so masking his real feelings at the presence of his most stupid patient.

Hildegard fumbled – the woman was defined by her fumbles, thought Eldrich – for a tissue and dabbed various parts of her face. As much to distract himself from this self-evidently self-pitying performance, Eldrich made a note to have Gerrard his PA send her details of the latest in suppurating suppression skins. He was especially gratified at their take up though the recent reports of unsightly bleaching on those needing a darker skin tone would need to be followed up. Especially after the disaster of his range of ‘knowing noses’ allowing the wearer to chose their most prominent feature to suit the cultural and religious sensitivities of their audience. He shuddered at the memory of the headline: ‘Beware the racist bionicist’s proboscis’.

‘Oh Professor, how could I be so silly?’

Eldrich peered at his patient, easily but unwillingly resisting the urge to answer this patently rhetorical question with a brutally honest answer. ‘What happened, Mrs Tilt? It’s not like they were a pair of spectacles you might forget.’

‘Peach mojitos,’ she offered by way of a response.

Eldrich prided himself on the depth of his hard-won cynicism. He liked to believe he was capable of unpicking even the most abstruse of answers proffered by his patients. But this defeated him. ‘Mojitos?’

To Eldrich’s surprise – his left eyebrow performed a passable rumba leading to an immediate regret that he had omitted adding his static brow-line to his features when he had got ready for his first appointment – Hildegard giggled. She was so unsuited to that action, given that the harmonics of her jowls were clearly aligned, and not in a good way, to the wave pattern caused by the giggle at its peak. He made another note to include with the suppuration suppression scheme a detailed list of the available humour modes she might adopt which would, in a heartbeat, remove the possibility of unsightly jiggles breaking out during laughter.

‘I think it’s the combination of peach and alcohol. One and I’m Sensual Siren…’

Eldrich winced at the image, sadly acknowledging that the limits of modern day bionics meant controlling visualisation was a way off.

‘… but after two I’m insensible.’ She shrugged and waved at her hollow trouser legs which would have been filled with two limbs. ‘I was legless. I’d taken off my day pins and had on my party calves – you did them beautifully Professor, they just melt into my Jimmy Choos.’

He nodded at the compliment. It was the least he deserved.

‘But the boys I was with left them behind. I can’t go to work wearing my party calves, can I? I’ll need some temporary legs to see me through until I can arrange for my own to be retrieved.’

Eldrich pondered this woman with her open face and untroubled countenance, a product of his engineering and medical skills. There were many benefits to being the best bionicist around and having a willing – and rich – client like Mrs Tilt wasn’t one of them. ‘Mrs Tilt – Hildegard,’ the woman simpered – he scratched another note to include the removal of facile features from her next upgrade, ‘I am good at what I do. I can provide you with hands for the garden and the gala, arms that can squeeze and seduce, legs that can beguile and beast. You can have an infinite range of faces and fingers. But there are limits.’ He held up a hand to forestall any protests and was disappointed to realise there were none coming. ‘I cannot provide you with common sense.’

Deb of Deb’s World provided a picture prompt on her Wordless Wednesday post here. This is my response.

Posted in creative writing, fiction, miscellany, prompt, short story | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

It Shouldn’t Happen To A Lawyer: Knitting And The Danger Of Flying Low

Most of my working life was spent in and around London. However, the projects I worked on were nationwide, from shopping centres in Chester and Barnstaple to retail parades in Cambridge and Brighton, Offices in Poole and Manchester and industrial complexes in Cardiff and Scunthorpe.

Ah Scunthorpe. A holiday destination if ever there wasn’t one. That’s very unfair, of course and a sneery southerner should know better. Back when I discovered the subtle and barely evident charms of Scunthorpe it was 1984 and the industrial collapse that the Thatcher years exaggerated was climaxing in distressed communities and hollowed out businesses. One remedial measure the Government introduced were Enterprise Zones which gave tax and planning concessions, the aim being to stimulate the development of new businesses, in the hope they might replace the old. The steel works at Normanby Park had shut and the local authority for Scunthorpe applied for EZ status. It was the perfect opportunity and exactly the sort of thing that the Government had in mind, except…

Scunthorpe was a Labour council and the government was Tory. Not that politics had anything to do with it. Oh no, the Government had made it plain the decisions would be decided on need against a set of apolitical criteria…

The landscape, politically in this part of Humberside had the Scunthorpe Borough Council, centred on the town surrounded by the Glanford District Council, a rural donut around Scunthorope and as it happened very Tory. So, in one of those classic compromises that make the world work, a joint bid for EZ status was launched by the two councils centring on land in the two boroughs. In Scunthorpe that was easy – the now redundant steelworks. In Glanford…

Not so much. Not until a site which was iconic for all the wrong reasons in the Industrial history of Britain came up for sale.

Flixborough.

In June 1974 a leak from the ammonia tanks ignited one Saturday afternoon, blasting the plant (though ironically not the ammonia storage cylinders) to smithereens. 28 people died and had it been a week day that number would have been exponentially higher. The plant was rebuilt with insurance money, then bought by a government backed joint venture between the National Coal Board and the Dutch State Mines to provide employment. Only…

The industrial process undertaken at Flixborough was to make something called caprolactum. This is the basic building block of nylon, then used to make many basic products such as shirts, sheets and tights (hose). But between the explosion and the point of reopening, the nylon market had collapsed and anyway cheaper versions of it were available from Poland.

Bum. The sparkling new factory was redundant and no one ever switched it on. The site had warehouses and offices as well as some complicated pipework and with a bit of cash and imagination could be turned into a starter industrial-cum-storage facility. All that was needed was a kickstart.

Glandford had its site to link up with Scunthorpe.

And somehow a city firm of lawyers was brought in to negotiate the agreement to buy the site and sort of the technicalities of the EZ application. If you’ve ever had to fill in a benefit claim form or similar you’ll understand how abstruse these things are. This was peachy. We spent weeks negotiating the deal with numerous counterparties. Our client was the Glanford District Council but everyone – the two JV partners, the NCB and Dutch State Mines, the government and Scunthorpe Borough Council all had legal teams.

Oh Joy! Oh Frabjous Day!! It was a bloody nightmare, trying to broker a practical and political compromise. I suppose like a mini Brexit only without the goodwill and humour. What added to the fun was the presence of two members of Glandford council who had been mandated to see the negotiations through. One, the Leader of the Council, Alderman Terry A, was a bluff, no nonsense self made business man who would have said ‘Trouble at T’Mill’ if there had been any left by then. He was so thoroughly a blue Tory that one asssumed he must have been dropped in a toilet as a youngster and been dyed by those toilet flush things that hang on the side of the bowl. The other, a deliberate counterpoint to Terry’s impatient approach, was Mrs McIver a diminutive Liberal with tight-packed curls and the most disconcerting negotiating strategy I have ever experienced: throughout months of meetings she knitted, like a latter day tricoteuse, one stitch for each concession.

I never did find out what she made

Given how long negotiations took I imagine it was at least a town hall cosy. Maybe she unpicked each days product on the train home only to start again when she could. I do know she never spoke in any meetings or breakouts, letting Terry rant and rave. Except once, when Terry was particularly voluble, berating the opposition for their stupidity, bloody-mindedness and general inability to see a good deal if one was stuck on a pole and inserted into the orifice of their choosing. He had taken to staking round the room, bellowing over people’s shoulders while they waited for the storm to blow out.

Usually, in these moments he ignored Mrs M but this time he stopped and, in a quieter voice said, “Well, Margaret, what do you think?’

Maybe it was the use of her Christian name or maybe she was just fed up but she put down her knitting and turned round to face the red faced bear. Still seated she looked up at him then down at his groin then up again. “Well Terry, I think people might be inclined to forgive you all this nonsense if you just remembered to dress yourself properly in the morning.” And with that she lent over and yanked his fly zip up before turning back to her knitting.

Posted in humour, law, memories, miscellany | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Shoes Have No Soul

I bought new shoes for the forthcoming nuptials. Brown lace ups from Sons of London, an online emporia of gentlemen’s shoddery. This was under instruction from the happy couple to ensure I am fully compliant with the tonal requirements of the big day.

They look nice, these shoes. All shiny and brown. Like a highly polished… Anyway, when I put them on they feel fine. Okay. Alright. But, you know, untried.

There is one month to go and I look at these two puppies and wonder what to do with them. I’ve not had many issues with breaking in new footwear, certainly not in the last thirty years. There’s a Tony Hancock sketch, where he joins the police force. He complains about the uniform but is especially scathing about the standard issue boots.

‘But they don’t bend!’ Our hero complains.

‘But your feet do. Now put them on.’

That’s pretty much been my lot. My feet accommodate shoes with the feeble minded sycophancy of the political researcher promised an internship.

But can I trust to history here? The shoes will go on at about 11am on the day and are unlikely to be allowed to go to their bed until over twelve hours later. They and my feet will have the same intimate relationship that a chrysalis has with its case.

What to do? Begin to wear them around the house? Take them for a walk? My fear here is my innate levels of incompetence, the inevitability I will scuff these little treasures and have to face the ignominy of a bridal scowl.

But not to at least share a little time together, to bond, sock to sole. is also a recipe for disaster if, after an hour or so I’m hobbled. After all I’ve spent decades perfecting my dad-dancing just for this day.

It could be this event amongst events is scrambling my perspective. It’s hot here right now, 35C and heading up. Sandals not shoes are the order of the day. I think I’ll hire a scooter or maybe a wheelchair as back up…

…in brown of course.

Posted in humour, memories, miscellany, thought piece, weddings | Tagged , , | 52 Comments

Corona: Part Ten #short story in instalments

Janice sunk into a brown velour-covered winged armchair, defeated. Her brain focused on the windows to the front but some sort of shrub blocked a view of the street. It was hopeless.

Meanwhile Christopher fussed with the tea things.

She let her eyes go round the room taking in the books and the few ornaments, the sort of thing you might get as a job lot in Ikea or Next homeware department. She needed to distract him. Keep him talking. “You saw your mum, then? She never said.”

“That would have been Roger’s doing.”

“Roger?”

He smiled. “He was the guardian of the family morals.”

“Sorry?”

“Sugar?”

“What? No thank you. Roger didn’t say anything about you.”

“He was the one who tracked me down. Told mum, even though he’d been instrumental in keeping us apart.”

“Can you explain?”

“What do you know about me?”

“Not a lot.” She sipped the tea. There had to be a way to raise the alarm. Maybe if she really screamed, threw a book or ornament through the window. “You had a twin, Colin. You were older than Roger. You left home and never came back. When I first went out with Roger it was said you’d disappeared. When his, your father died,” our father, she thought, “Roger said his mother asked him to try and find you but he said he failed and persuaded her to drop the urge to keep digging. That’s pretty much it.”

He sat back in his chair, a mirror of hers. “No one explained why I left, what happened? Why I kept away. Why I hid away?”

She shook her head.

He sighed. “It was like this…” He stopped. The doorbell rang once, twice, Then there was a banging on the door. “I’d better get this. Please pour yourself a refill.”

Her heart rose. He left the phone on the tray as he moved into the hall. As soon as he was out of sight she took two strides to pick up the phone and fumbled with the code to unlock it. She had just found and pressed Thorne’s number when Christopher reappeared. Behind him stood Inspector Thorne holding up his phone with her number identified as the caller.

Christopher smiled. “Oh you found your phone? Good. It had fallen on the floor.” He ushered in the policeman and constable. “Quite a party. Shall I make me tea, Inspector?”

As Christopher disappeared, Thorne titled his head and held Janice’s gaze. “You know your half-brother then? Why didn’t you say?”

“I’ve only just met him. He…”

Thorne held up a hand. “Shall we wait until Mr Scrutt comes back? Just so we can hear everyone’s side of the story?”

Janice sung back, shutting her eyes. The relief of seeing the policeman made the idea of explaining why she was where she was all the harder.

After what seemed to Janice like an hour but was less than five minutes, Christopher had provided everyone with tea, opened a tin of biscuits and dragged in two kitchen chairs for the policemen to sit on. “Well, Inspector, how may I help?”

He looked at Janice. “We traced the investigation agency who gave us this address. They didn’t mention speaking to you?”

She shook her head once, incapable of speech. She was conscious of Christopher smiling in the way she was beginning to think was his default expression. Maybe he wasn’t so much creepy as simple.

Thorne sighed deeply. “Mr Scrutt, I…”

“I call myself Watson, Inspector. My mother’s maiden name. To begin with it was through an understandable reluctance to be found and then, well, it became more difficult to explain. I’ve mean to have it made official, but I’ve not bothered. I don’t drive and have a passport.” He shrugged. “Mostly it’s fine, though with these modern checks it is becoming more inconvenient.” The smile seemed to droop a little. “So if you would, I’d prefer Watson though of course, feel free to call me Christopher.” He positively beamed at that.

Thorne nodded. “Let me fill in some background so we are all of us,” he looked at Janice, “are on the same page. Mrs Scrutt’s husband died of an apparent heart attack. Roger.”

“I heard. He came to visit. After he tracked me down. I don’t suppose it was that hard, what with me living in the same town I was born in and still having to use Scrutt from time to time.”

“Did he say why?”

“My father had died. I didn’t know but then we never got on.” He shook his head, a rather sad gesture, Janice thought, “My mother hadn’t dared try and find me when he was alive. His temper was…” it looked like he was struggling for the right word, “incendiary.” He nodded as if he approved of his own choice. “Mother wanted to restore relations though Roger wasn’t keen. He told me father was dead and he had tried to persuade Mother to give up the idea of finding me. But she insisted and he fixed for us to meet. After that we met once a week or so but always here. His business had a branch in Canterbury so Roger drove her, left her for the day and took her home.” He glanced at Janice, nodding again.

Thorne caught the gesture. “Janice?”

“I knew Roger went to the Canterbury office and I assumed she went to see a friend. I had no idea what Roger was doing.”

Christopher smiled broadly. “As I was saying just before you got here, Inspector, he wanted to keep my existence secret. He told me to stay away or he wouldn’t allow mother and me to meet.”

Thorne looked up from making a note. “Did he say why? Did you know?”

“Oh I’m the back sheep, Inspector.”

Thorne and Janice waited but Christopher didn’t elaborate. Thorne looked out of the window and then back to Christopher. “Mr Scrutt’s death wouldn’t have involved us, normally but after your mother died, the house, her house was sold. By Mrs Scrutt here. The new owners, well the current ones, carried out some work that involved digging in the garden. They discovered a pit and in it were the carcasses of two pigs and the bones of a human hand. We think it was your brother Colin’s and he must have been fed to them.”

Thorne paused, astonished at Christopher’s reaction. He was laughing, almost hysterical.

The Inspector looked at Janice who shrugged, equally bemused. It took Christopher several moments to regain some composure. As he did so he slowly and laboriously rolled up his sleeve.

“I have a prosthetic, Inspector. I’m lucky to leave bear a hospital with a state of the art facility for modern prosthetics and robotics. If you are familiar with them you’ll spot t immediately but neither you nor Janice have, I suspect, come across these wonders.” He reached out and carefully but successfully picked up the mug of tea and moved it to his lips. “I tend to use my good hand but really I can do nearly all everyday tasks that don’t involve too much strength work with this.” He wiped his eyes again. “Colin and I were identical twins so we have the same DNA. It could be his but since my arm was cut off by my father and fed to pigs, I guess it’s most likely to be mine.”

Janice covered her mouth with her hand. “He cut off your arm? Why?”

Christopher looked at her. “Family shame is a strong emotion.”

Posted in short story | Tagged , , , | 30 Comments

The Garden – Mid July 2019

I’m not sure this place has ever been so colourful. A lot of it is accidental but that makes it all the more splendid. And dotted around are examples of nature that are well just delightful…

Posted in gardening | Tagged , | 34 Comments

Corona: Part nine

Part Nine

“I… how do you know I’m your sister?”

“Sister in law. I thought, with my brother, your husband dead the informality might be appropriate. I didn’t mean to offend. Come. Let’s have a cup of tea and you can tell me how you found me.”

“Why were you hiding?”

He looked pained. “I imagined you might have known. No one said?”

“No.”

“All the more reason for tea and confessions. Please.” He stood back and indicted the back door.

Janice glanced around desperately hoping to see an escape route. The back gate stood behind him, firmly shut and also padlocked. She had no way of scaling the six foot panels that surrounded the garden and screaming might lead to an extreme reaction. She took in a breath and headed for the house, wondering how easy it would be to get to her phone, currently sitting in the bottom of her bag on the work counter.

“Why don’t you go and get settled in the sitting room and I’ll come through with tea.”

She nodded, keen to get away from him. She picked up her bag and moved towards the hall. As she stepped through she eased the door shut behind her. The chain was still on the ront door but it was just a few steps. She could open it and be on the street, in front of who knew how many twitching curtains and calling Thorne in moments. She felt a weight lift as she took hold of the chain and lifted it free. She pulled the door latch hard.

Nothing. She yanked harder, now desperate. The door refused to move. The mortice lock had been applied and without a key she wasn’t going anywhere.

The kitchen door creaked open behind her. Christopher stood framed in the light from the back of the house. On the tray stood two flowery china cups and saucers, an ornate teapot and strainer on a stand with, incongruously, a carton of milk. He saw her looking at the tray. “I know, I’m sorry but I broke the jug a while back and haven’t yet replaced it.” He indicated with his head to the sitting room. “Please. Do go in and sit.”

But Janice wasn’t looking at the tea things or milk carton. It was the keys the front door and her mobile phone that were also on the tray which caught her eye.

Posted in creative writing, short story | Tagged , , | 18 Comments