Another Misadventure – Milton Keynes to Prague in a…

shitroenThe Challenge

I met Jeff while we were both working for the phone company.  Jeff was a purveyor of information and he was bloody good at it.  Together we built a successful team.  And it transpired that Jeff and I were more or less on the same wavelength about non-work-related subjects and thus was born an enduring friendship.  The pair of us went on to have several adventures, usually involving bikes and beer.

At this point I’ll introduce another couple of ‘characters’.  Young Graham is Jeff’s future son-in-law; well, I hope he is, because Matt (young Graham’s best mate), has promised me £50 if I can persuade Young Graham to marry Jeff’s daughter before Matt himself ties the knot.  Young Graham and Matt met at university; now in their late twenties, they have gone on to enjoy successful careers in trades associated with agriculture and have remained great mates, despite the fact that they take the piss out of each other incessantly.  Anyway, out of the blue came an email from Jeff…

Hi Graham – I got a call asking if I and one other would like to do a rally across Europe.  In a nutshell, we buy an old car for £200, paint it in some odd scheme (on the cheap) drive to wherever the rally starts then to the finish, then scrap the car and fly back.  I guess there will be a few beers involved.  What do you think?  No obligation to accept, if it’s not your thing then no problems.
Cheers
Jeff

I replied…

Hello Jeff – I’ve read through this 3 times:
– first thought… no chance!
– 2nd…mmmm sounds like fun!
– 3rd… yeah, why the hell not?
In conclusion, I’m up for it if you are.
g

Jeff later explained that he had been invited because the chances of making the trip in a car costing less than £200 would be significantly enhanced if you took along someone with mechanical skills and as Jeff is noted for his ‘spanner craft’, he fitted the job description.  Young Graham had evidently suggested that Jeff may wish to bring along a companion of advanced years to provide him with some company.  Henceforth I was referred to as ‘Old Graham’.

The preparations went smoothly and swiftly, with Young Graham taking care of the organisation; entry forms, hotels, flight home.  Jeff took care of the transport; acquisition of the car and its metamorphosis into a themed chariot suitable for conveying two youngsters and a couple of old gits across Europe in style.  Matt and I kept our heads down and left them to get on with it.

We had one planning meeting in London, but as the lads came down after work, by the time they arrived the senior citizens had crawled around several pubs and were slightly the worse for wear, to the extent that I forgot to keep an eye on the time and nearly missed the last train home.  Also, I mentioned in passing that I hadn’t driven a manual car in years and had developed the habit of left-foot breaking.  This could have disastrous consequences whilst negotiating downhill hairpins on mountain passes, a fact that was evident on the worried faces of my co-drivers.  Not an auspicious start.  The main point of the meeting was for me to get acquainted with the team and also to work out what our theme should be.  How the youngsters came up with ‘The Young Ones’ beats me, but upshot was that the four of us took a look at ourselves and each other and based on our character traits organised the casting as follows:

Mike – the father (in-law) figure would be played by Jeff.
Rick and Vyvyan – wayward teenagers with a penchant for (on one hand) fatuous semi-Marxism and (on the other) hitting people, would be played by Matt and Young Graham respectively.
And Neil – the put-upon housewife in all but name would be played by me… obviously.

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The route across Europe was tortuous to say the least.  The trip would be interspersed with various challenges along the way.  This was the itinerary…

Day 0 – Milton Keynes to Reims (340 miles) The plan was to leave Milton Keynes as early as possible and get to Dover for the tunnel.  Then drive south to Reims in time to settle in, attend the pre-rally briefing and have a few beers.

Day 1 – Reims to Chur (400 miles) through the gentle rolling countryside of the Champagne and Alsace regions of France before heading into the Swiss Alpine mountains to the picturesque city of Chur.

Day 2 – Chur to Fussen (250 miles) along a series of mountain passes, via Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Austria and Germany, taking in the Stelvio Pass and having a go on the Pradaschier toboggan run on the way.

Day 3 – Fussen to Prague (300 miles) via the medieval city of Regensburg, before heading over the Czech border onto Prague, for the final party and awards ceremony.

Exodus

We met at Jeff’s in Milton Keynes and then went for a few beers.  The atmosphere was a bit tense; the endeavour was going to be challenging, and although Jeff and Young Graham were well acquainted, the four of us needed to gel, otherwise the trip was going to be a trial.

We decided that I should drive the first leg to Dover as I needed to relearn how to use a clutch and forget how to left-foot brake; a challenge that would be best addressed whilst driving on a familiar side of the road.  We got as far as the first roundabout before the engine management light came on (it stayed on for the rest of the trip), which caused me to have a lack of concentration on the gear front, so with my left foot ‘pushed to the boards’, we coasted out into the traffic.  Full credit to the Milton Keynes rush-hour drivers who swerved expertly around us.  And, full credit to my co-drivers; we escaped unhurt and no one uttered a word, although a nasty smell did emanate from the vicinity of Matt.

The Trip

The trip went according to plan.  We completed all sections of the rally via prescribed routes, undertook various mental challenges along the way and arrived in Prague feeling fairly fresh and ready to party.  It was a great trip; the team gelled… all good then?  So far so boring… well, stay with me.

The Swiss Kiss

We collected the detailed itinerary for day 2 in the carpark of the Pradaschier toboggan run.  By then we’d been down the toboggan run.  The toboggans run on rails so if you keep your nerve there’s absolutely no need to use the brakes.  I left my braking as late as possible but had to succumb in the end to avoid rear-ending Matt.

Day 2 involved taking various photos to prove where we’d been and needed to include a photo of two team members kissing whilst dressed as minions.  We concluded that the forfeit outweighed the value of the points to be earned.  Driving around the continent attired as ‘The Young Ones’ disguised as minions was bad enough, but kissing, or being kissed by either Jeff, Matt or Young Graham was totally out of the question and from how they sounded at the time, my teammates were similarly minded.  However, when Matt landed the kiss on my cheek, I was moved by the tenderness and the cherub-like softness of his puckered lips… guess it’s worth trying everything life has on offer.

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The picture shows us celebrating our success, which is where the story should’ve ended.  However…

The Mafia

akOne of Jeff’s many preparatory tasks had been to work out how we were going to get rid of the car.  Dumping it was out of the question on both ethical grounds (honestly!) and the fact that we were almost certain to get found out and fined.  Matt had suggested parking it overnight with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition, but this plan would fail on two counts.  The car was a bloody eyesore; Jeff had done his best to make it look attractive and although I have a lot of admiration for his abilities, artistic flair isn’t one of them; no one was going to steal the car for keeps.  No, the Shitroen was only likely to be stolen by a joyrider who would dump it somewhere in Prague and we’d still get found out and fined.  We elected to do the right thing.  Jeff contacted a scrap dealer located on the outskirts of Prague who agreed to take the vehicle off our hands and then drive us to the airport.  It sounded too good to be true, and you know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true…

The final night of celebration in Prague was a joyous and noisy affair.  The ‘Young Ones’ had concentrated on the tasks set by the rally organisers well enough to earn them second place and one hundred euros.  We drank the prize money in less than an hour and emerged into the warm evening, slightly unsteady on our feet.  We were immediately accosted by a dubious looking character clutching a mobile phone in one hand and a fist full of euros in the other; he was offering to buy the cars.  Jeff explained that we had already made arrangements and that this involved a lift to the airport.  As Jeff politely declined and the man turned to leave, I asked him for his phone number just in case.

During breakfast the next morning, Jeff received a call from his ‘scrappage’ contact.  Evidently the venue needed to change; the car would be processed separately from their usual wrecks as it was registered in the UK.  This sounded a bit odd, but plausible, so Young Graham programmed the new location into his phone and off we headed, out of town, to find the scrap dealer.

We envisaged a typical scrapyard on the edge of town, but in the event, we drove into the countryside and ended up at what looked like a derelict barn.  During the previous evenings celebration I had drunk the least and so was once again behind the wheel.  As I drove towards a pair of large derelict barn doors I became very uneasy; this just didn’t feel right.  There didn’t appear to be any vehicles, scrap or otherwise, and no sign of life.

As I glanced up at the rear-view mirror I could see dust kicking up from a vehicle following us at speed down the track… uneasy quickly turned into shit-scared.  “We’ve got company,” I intoned, trying to sound calm and failing miserably, “and it looks as though they’re in a hurry.”

We were getting close to the barn doors now, close enough to slow down, so I shoved my left foot on the first pedal that presented itself and crashed straight through the doors with my co-drivers screaming “BRAKES” in unison.  My right foot eventually found the brake and the Shitroen stalled about ten yards inside the empty barn.  The following vehicle, a black Merc with blacked out windows, executed a near perfect handbrake turn and came to a halt blocking any hope of a quick exit.  Three Slavic looking blokes jumped out and one of them was carrying a rusty AK47… I noticed that smell again.

As they approached, Matt wound down his window and threw out a general question, “hey mate, how are you going to get all four of us plus luggage into that?”  Matt had a good, but given the current set of circumstances, entirely superfluous point.

The bloke with the gun waved it at us, clearly indicating that we were to get out of the car.  We complied and I asked “what the hell is going on here?  We were supposed to meet a scrap dealer; who are you and what do you want?”

The bloke with the gun was slightly built, in his mid-thirties, fairly fit looking, but only properly scary due to the AK.  His companions however looked bloody evil, over six foot with the physiques of body builders.  All three of them were adorned with various tattoos that looked as though they meant something.

The bloke with the gun was probably the brains of the outfit.  From an inside pocket he dragged a pristine looking book.  I could make out Cyrillic script on the cover and the words ‘INGLISCH/FRANCHE’ in bold capitals; a phrasebook, and from the look of it, not a very good one.

Mr Gun cleared his throat and spoke clearly “ve av her grand batteau commink” he paused and flicked a couple of pages “yous await or me shoot yous”.

I said “oh fuck!”

Mr Gun said “does whas weez says or weeez fucks yous.”

I smelt that smell again.

Jeff’s phone rang.  Mr Gun walked quickly over, drove the muzzle of the gun into Jeff’s midriff and as my mate slumped forward, he brought the gun smartly up under his chin.  Jeff fell backwards, clearly hurting and clearly shocked.  Mr Gun held out his hand for the phone.  Jeff handed it to him.

Mr Gun answered the phone but said nothing.  Mr Gun nodded a couple of times and It became clear that someone was giving him instructions.  Mr Gun walked up to each of us in turn, looked us over and then spoke.  Although we didn’t have a clue what was being said, it seemed clear enough that Mr Gun was describing us to whoever was on the other end of the call.  After he had completed his explanations, Mr Gun handed the phone back to Jeff, indicating that Jeff should listen.

Give him his due, Jeff tried to reason with the caller, but after a while he just fell silent and listened.  Then he handed his phone back to Mr Gun who terminated the call and trousered the phone.

Muscles One produced some cable ties which he used to bind our wrists.  The three of them walked away out of earshot and went into a conference.

We needed a plan and we needed it quick.  It was obvious that these gangsters didn’t understand any English, but we kept our voices down as Jeff filled us in on some details.

“We’re seriously in the shit.  It was the same bloke on the phone who phoned me earlier with the change of venue.”  Jeff turned to me “they’re not interested in us… too old.  If we go along with them, they’ll tie us up and leave us here for someone to find.  It’s the lads they’re interested in.  Evidently Young Graham has the boyish good looks favoured by a particular type of ‘client’, which is the main reason for the kidnapping.  Matt here isn’t suitable for the KY jelly assignment, but he’s strong enough to work in a diamond mine… this is a nightmare.”

Young Graham started whimpering.

My mouth moved up and down, but nothing came out.  And then I smelt the smell again “Matt mate, how are you doing that?”

You meet some interesting characters over sixty odd years and a yarn told to me by a double-glazing salesman sprang to mind.  Evidently while this particular double-glazing salesman was fulfilling a peace-keeping role in Kosovo (in the British army, not selling double glazing… keep up!), he was confronted in a basement by an AK47 wielding local.  The local fired one-handed from point blank range and missed.  He shot several more rounds, all of which missed, although by this time he was trying to hit a moving target.  The double-glazing salesmen reasoned that one handed, the AK was useless.

An idea occurred to me.

In his youth, Jeff did karate.  He told me that he was good at it; reactions of a whippet and technique to match.  Jeff had also mentioned a method he once practiced to prepare him in the event of a serious street fight.  This involved a sheet of plywood, super-glue and large grapes.  The exercise required great accuracy, both in terms of hitting pairs of grapes with index and middle finger and also applying the correct amount of force to split the grapes but avoid breaking fingers against plywood.  Jeff’s right-hand index and middle finger have distinct kinks; he didn’t always get it right.

I outlined the plan.  We needed to disable Mr Gun and Jeff and I would take him on.

We also needed to slow down Muscles One and Two.  I’d only known Matt and Young Graham for a short time.  Young Graham had a sharp mind; he was physically fit, but to be honest, when he agreed to take on the slightly smaller of the big blokes, I was seriously impressed by how readily he agreed to act as a human sacrifice.

Matt was a different ‘kettle-of-fish’.  He was clearly capable of waging solo chemical warfare, but for this exercise we’d need speed and brute force.  I suggested that he may wish to take on the big fella.  From the tenderness of his kiss in Switzerland, I knew that Matt had a sensitive side, but with a lopsided wry smile, he looked down at his tethered wrists and twisted, the bindings dug into his wrists, which started to bleed.  His smile turned into a grin.  The binding snapped.  Matt said “just tell me when.”

Matt must have been in the boy-scouts, because he carefully unbuttoned his shirt and ripped out a small knife that he’d gaffer taped to his chest.  He glanced over to the group of gangsters who were by now in heated debate about something and paying us no attention whatsoever.  Matt cut our bindings.

I muttered quietly, setting out the plan.

Jeff and I had considered taking the ‘tied-up-and-left’ option and leaving the lads to a life of KY jelly and servitude, but we agreed that the story about leaving us to be found was bullshit.  They were going to kill us.  This high-risk plan was all we had.

We sat quietly and tried to calm ourselves.  Eventually the gangster conference came to an end.  They came over.  We got to our feet; not an easy task pretending that your hands are still tied.

Mr Gun reached inside his jacket and pulled out his little book.  Timing was going to be crucial.  I watched as he crooked the gun under his right armpit and moved his finger away from the trigger.  I got eye contact with him and then looked slightly to his right; ok, this sounds a bit hackneyed, but this opponent wasn’t the brightest star in the firmament, so it worked, he turned his head towards where I was looking – the barn doors.  I set off at a lick towards him, shouting “now” as I went.  It was like a sprint race, with me just jumping the gun (literally!).  I ignored everything going on around me and concentrated on the muzzle of the AK which was swinging up to meet me.

Mr Gun took a step back and fired one handed.  The recoil threw his aim back down and to my left, just missing my left foot.

I grabbed the muzzle just before the next round exited, wrenching the AK from Mr Guns grip.  My momentum carried me forward and to his right.  I completed a forward roll and came up still clutching the gun just in time to see Jeff deliver his signature blow.  Jeff instinctively emitted a Kungfu shriek, which was swiftly followed by a sickening squelch and then a blood curdling scream as Mr Gun reacted to being blinded.

Mr Gun was disabled.  Matt was kneeling on Muscles One, pounding his fists into a face which was fast turning into a bloodied mess.  Young Graham was standing guard over his target, who was on his back nursing his bollocks.

The four of us looked at each other with ‘what next’ expressions.  Young Graham took charge.

Young Graham snatched the AK from me and ran over to Muscles Two who was still clutching his balls; Graham rammed the butt of the gun into the stricken Gangsters neck, who reacted by releasing his balls and using his hands to protect his head, thus affording an open goal, which Young Graham promptly took, smashing the butt of the gun into Muscles Two’s groin.  Then Young Graham ran over to the Merc, shot out three of its tyres, grabbed the ignition key and then ran for the Shitroen.  “Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here.”  Good plan.  Matt and I ran for the back doors.  Jeff retrieved his phone from Mr Gun and then jumped into the front passenger seat, wiping vitreous fluid from his fingers onto his trousers as he went.

The Merc was blocking the exit so Young Graham drove through the wall and away up the track.  As he was driving, Young Graham suggested that the sensible option was to say nothing and get on a plane as soon as possible.  I phoned the bloke who’d approached us the evening before and told him that if he was still interested the car would be parked in the airport car park with the keys on the nearside front tyre.  We took a chance on the documentation.

So that was that.  As we stood in the departure queue, it occurred to me that we must have looked a sorry sight.  Jeff had taped his rebroken fingers together and Matt was nursing broken knuckles.  The Graham’s were in pretty good shape, just a bit dishevelled.

Young Graham broke the silence “anyone fancy doing Monte Carlo next year?”

I smelt that smell again.

 

 

Mystical Cats

Terry Pratchett is credited with stating… ‘In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.’  I reckon he was onto something.

Phobia

Until one particular stray cat wandered into my life, I disliked the supposedly domesticated version of the feline species with a passion bordering on paranoia; in hindsight this was mainly due to ignorance on my part.  The problem was that if I was in a room with a cat and several cat lovers, whilst I studiously ignored the cat and avoided eye contact, the cat lovers would be trying all kinds of attraction techniques to entice the feline onto their lap.  Invariably the cat ignored all welcoming gestures and made a beeline for me, where it would sink its claws through my trousers, into my thighs and then pull and plump with a look of sheer bliss on its face, before settling down for an untroubled nap.  I would be paralysed with fear; a state that the human contingent invariably found highly amusing.  My problem was that cats hate being stared at or cajoled; everything they do is on their terms.  My show of disinterest had exactly the opposite effect to what I intended.

Kittens

Even I, a hardened ailurophobic, became briefly seduced through a chance encounter with a litter of kittens though.  I was with my stepfather; we were on a narrow-boat cruise and the pair of us had escaped to the pub while dinner was being prepared.  It was a chilly autumn evening and the remote inn had a log fire going with a couple of comfortable armchairs strategically positioned for the enjoyment of a well-kept pint by the fire; dad and I duly obliged.  I had noticed some kittens curled up in a heap with their mum as we entered the pub and resolved to adopt my usual ‘don’t you dare come near me’ attitude, so I was somewhat surprised when a tiny bundle of fluff made its way onto my lap and immediately settled.  Some moments later a second kitten joined its sibling and very soon the whole brood had chosen some part of me to snuggle into.  Their mum, having been deserted, decided she too would join us and took up a position along the top of the chair back.  By this time the other customers were enchanted; I however was afraid to move, but after dad had replenished my beer glass a few times, I gained some courage and egged on by a desperate need to take-a-leak, extricated myself from the chair and headed for the gents.  The cats jumped off.  At this point, the cuteness of the situation became too much for several other patrons as various people tried their luck in the comfy chair.  The kittens were having none of it; people tried scooping them up and sitting in the chair.  The kittens immediately jumped off.  By the time I returned, the animal lovers had given up and vacated the armchair, so I sat down again with my pint.  Within seconds the whole feline family was back on me.

So, by the time Tuppie turned up some years later I had mellowed slightly, but not by much.

Tuppie

During March 1993 we moved into a newly built house on the outskirts of Whitstable.  We were the first people onto what was a new development, set amongst woodland on the edge of a golf course.  Tuppie turned up in September and stayed with us for twenty years.

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Although I was anything but a cat lover, my wife Glenys was completely the opposite.  On this particular late summer morning I was standing by the open bathroom window having a shave as the unmistakable sound of mewing wafted up from below.  Glen heard it too and quick as a flash she was out of the back door with a tin of salmon.  My fate was sealed.

There was no way I was going to let a young flea-infested stray cat onto my new carpets, so we compromised by me building the visitor a kennel while we attempted to find out where she had come from.  We travelled around the neighbourhood, knocking on random doors, asking if anyone knew of someone who had lost a tortoiseshell cat; no one had; I was lumbered; Glen was delighted.

Tortoiseshells are noted for their ‘attitude’.  Our new resident was delightfully friendly as she inveigled her way into her new home.  Once the hard-sell had been completed she turned into a typical snooty cat.  She absolutely adored sitting on my lap while I administered the nit-comb though.  She would purr contentedly as I carefully combed out her matted fur and then, when she’d had enough, without any warning she’d turn around and bite me.  Over the years she learned how to moderate the severity of her bite so as to avoid drawing blood, and for that, I was grateful.

For all her fractious behaviour, thanks to Tuppie, our house became a home.  Oh yes, the name, why Tuppie?  Once it became obvious that our furry ball of teeth and claws had been abandoned, we took her to the vet for a check-up.  The vet needed a name for registration, so I insensitively tendered ‘Turnup’.  By the time we left, the vet had changed this to Tuppie; the name stuck.

And as for the handle ‘mystical cat’, there are several slightly odd tales to relate.

Although Tuppie always remained aloof she did seem strangely attached to us.  She had turned up from who knows where and although immediately after she’d adopted us she would wander far and wide she very quickly restricted her roaming to the immediate vicinity, even to the extent that when we went for a walk across the golf course she would follow us as far as the garden gate and then wait until we returned; we could hear her pitiful wailing from some distance away.  She had no problem with us leaving by the front door and going to work because she seemed to know where we were, even to the extent that despite our odd hours, she would take up a watchful position on the front windowsill and after about five minutes, one of us would arrive home.

Tuppie was never a ‘lap-cat’.  Generally, the only time she’d sit on my lap was when I was brandishing the nit comb.  As a back sufferer, I went through a daily stretching exercise that involved lying face down on the floor; the cat ignored this.  However, my back problems worsened to the extent that major surgery was required and on discharge from hospital I was instructed to continue with the usual exercise, which I did immediately on arrival home.  As I lay on the floor I was aware of gentle footsteps along the back of my legs as Tuppie made her way to the problem area.  She positioned herself immediately over the part of my back that had been operated on and lay down.  Her warmth was soothing and her presence comforting.  This daily ritual continued for several weeks until the scarring had healed.  I continued with the exercise, but Tuppie never again took up position on my back.

It was a similar story when Glen underwent major surgery.  On arrival home from hospital, as soon as she sat down, the cat was on her lap; Tuppie continued this therapy until Glen had healed and once she had, Tuppie’s ministrations immediately ceased.

Strangest of all was the cat’s reaction to Geoff, my stepfather.  Geoff loved animals but try as he might, Tuppie was having none of it.  He’d approach her with friendly gestures, she’d hiss and walk away.  When my mother died the depth of dad’s sadness and despair was palpable.  We arrived home from mum’s funeral in a haze of confusion.  Glen and I knew how much Geoff had relied on his wife and we wondered how he was going to manage.  Glen put the kettle on, Geoff sat down and Tuppie gently made her way onto his lap.  The change in his mood was dramatic; I could see his anxiety melt away, he sat back, closed his eyes and stroked the cat; Tuppie purred reassuringly.  Although Geoff never fully recovered from the loss of his dear wife, this mystical cat had somehow understood his grief and pain and did her best to ease his suffering.

We moved soon after Tuppie died; the house was empty without her.

Mike

When Mike showed up we were living in temporary accommodation on the Devon/Dorset border, searching for inspiration about where to settle permanently.  Mike’s companion needed to make an extended trip to America and was looking for someone to provide lodgings for this huge tabby cat while she was gone.  Someone had mentioned that we were ok with cats and so Mike’s companion popped the question and we said ok.

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Cats get attached to their surroundings and although Mike had originated in the USA and moved about a bit since, he was initially very disturbed and unsettled.  Most of our belongings were in storage, but we had kept some things in boxes stored under the beds and Mike hid among these boxes until hunger, thirst and curiosity drove him from his lair.

Having shared my home with a cat for twenty years, I had naturally overcome my fear of them and was confident that Mike and I would strike up a reasonably comfortable relationship; how wrong I was.  Mike stayed with us for several months and during the whole of this time he treated me with complete and utter contempt!

Once Mike plucked up the courage to leave the boxes, he clapped eyes on Glen.  It was love at first sight; the old boy was totally besotted.  This huge beast would trail around after my wife all day.  The instant she sat down he was onto her lap and when she went to bed, he’d ‘spoon’ along her back with his arm (it was big enough to look like an arm!) around her neck.  When I attempted to get into bed he’d turn his head and fix me with an icy stare which said ‘she’s mine now, bugger off’.  I’d squeeze in next to the pair of them and his distaste for me invariably drove him out.  He’d slink off to his room and wait until I was asleep and then creep back in around the other side of the bed and clamber back under the covers, wisely keeping Glen between us.

Mike developed a strange habit while he was with us; he would only drink from a running tap.  His tactic was to attract Glens attention and then stand astride the bathroom sink.  Glen would turn the tap on and Mike would lap the running water… weird.

Despite our rivalry, for my part I became quite fond of Mike; his antics were an entertaining diversion from the worry of finding somewhere permanent to live.  When his companion came to collect him, and took him away from the woman he had fallen in love with, he was clearly distraught.  Quite soon after we learned that he had jumped from a first-floor window and landed on a garden bench.  Luckily Mike was unhurt, but the bench broke in half under the weight of this huge tabby tom.  It was probably just an accident, but the romanticist in me reckons he was trying to get back to his true love, or die in the attempt.

So, have I turned into a cat lover?  Not a question I can easily answer.  If anything, my encounters with these supposedly domesticated felines have left me wondering if maintaining a reverential respect is, in the long run, the safest option.

How about your own encounter with a mystical cat?  If you have a story that you would like to share then please let me know by either leaving a reply or emailing me.  If I can make your anecdote fit, then I’ll use it to expand Mystical Cats, so let me know how anonymous you want your contribution to be.

 

Bloke Dancing

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Why?

If you are married to, the partner of, going out with, or just met… a ‘bloke’, do please read this.  And then get your bloke to read it.  You may both thank me.

Just over three years ago, in an effort to stay fit, my wife took up line dancing.  It didn’t go well.  Occasionally she would come home after a session on the dance floor with a smile on her face and a jig in her step, and reach for a glass of ‘sauv’ in celebration.  More often than not though she’d arrive home looking crestfallen, muttering something about a car-crash and reach for a glass of ‘sauv’ to lift her spirits.  Line dancing didn’t last long.

There is a bloke who lives just up the road; he’s over six foot, an ex-rugby player and built like a brick outhouse.  One day the pair of us were doing some forestry work and he suggested that perhaps I should give salsa dancing a go… ‘no chance!’ was my immediate and unequivocal response.

Some weeks later, my mate once again posed the question about me maybe giving salsa a crack… ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me!’ was my terse reply.  However, on this occasion, I did mention it to my wife, who, after her recent experiences was even less enthusiastic than I was.  Nevertheless, at some point it occurred to me that through our forty odd years together, we had shared our lives, but not much in the way of hobbies, so as time went on I started to view this dancing shenanigans in a different light.  Also, I’d read articles about how older people can most effectively stay fit and stave off dementia; dancing was right up there near the top of the list.  Maybe I should reconsider?

Another week or so went by and my mate gave it another go.  It became clear that he had an ulterior motive for wanting to recruit me; dance classes are always short of blokes.  This time I suggested that he should have a go at persuading my ‘better half’, because there was no way I was going on my own.  My wife, albeit reluctantly, caved in.

We gave it a go.  And we’re still at it.  Okay, I’ll never be any good, but it is fun, good exercise and a great way to meet people.

It is not my intention to try and inform anyone about how to dance.  However, the experience of learning has given me an insight into the psychology of ‘bloke dancing’ and the enjoyment that an average bloke can derive from it, so this is what I’m going to share.

Will you look daft?

Absolutely not!  There is always a shortage of male leads (blokes).  I often quip that I have never been so popular with the ladies, but strewth, at times popularity on the dance floor can be exhausting!  My point is that from the moment you can manage the most basic of steps, you will literally be welcomed with open arms.

Overcoming an initial lack of self-confidence is a major obstacle for anyone embarking on something like this though; particularly us blokes.  I overcame this in part by resorting to the good old standby – Google.  Salsa, and from what I can make out, most other dances have a few basic beginner steps.  Once you and your partner, or even you on your own have made the decision to give a particular dance style a shot, then check out the basic steps online, listen to some typical music that suits the style you are going for and get an insight; this will help you to relax when the instructor says ‘okay folks, we’re going to do a mambo.’  Oh, and most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously; it’s fun if it goes right and, with a sense of humour, just as much fun when it goes wrong!

Find a comfortable dance class

I use the word ‘comfortable’ because before setting foot on a dance floor you need to examine your motive.  If you want to dance like Fred Astaire and win prizes, then you’ve left it too late mate, you should’ve started years ago.  If you just want to have some fun with like-minded people and discover new friends through a shared interest, then you need to find a class that welcomes beginners and places enjoyment ahead of expertise.  If you are lucky enough to have a mate living up the road who already dances and can give you an introduction then good for you.  If not, then go along to a class, have a chat and see what they are like.  The instructors should be welcoming, enjoy what they do and their pupils should clearly be having fun.  If not, then find somewhere else.

From my limited experience, dance classes run in cycles, so find out when the next series of beginner classes start and give it a shot.  And, this is most important, give it at least a month before deciding if you are going to stick it out.  Sometime during that first month you will hopefully experience your ‘eureka moment’.

Eureka moments

I can only relate to my own experiences here, but for me there were three.

  • All of a sudden, the music took control of me and I no longer needed to try and fit myself into it. I guess this means that I had developed a sense of rhythm.  It felt great!
  • And then, armed with that newfound sense of rhythm I found myself partnering someone who could really dance; in that moment I realised what it was all about. I was hooked!
  • And best of all, while my wife and I were applying our basic steps to an Argentine tango, I realised that she instinctively knew what was coming before I’d even thought of leading it and whoosh, we merged into a single rhythmic entity…magic!

Dance with strangers

The main reason for dancing is to enjoy it with your partner.  After all, this is a hobby you can share.  However, if you are both beginners, then sticking to each other like a limpet to a rock will hold you both back.  You’ll soon understand why…

  • It doesn’t matter how loving, considerate and perfect your relationship is, when you first dance together and it goes wrong, you’ll blame each other and a ‘domestic’ will ensue; believe me, it will!
  • If you stick with just your partner, you’ll miss the opportunity of learning by example from people who are much better dancers than you.
  • If you just stick with your partner, then you’ll miss the benefit of social interaction and the opportunity to make some great mates.

Trust, respect and consideration

When you dance with a stranger you will need all of the above attributes and so will they.  This is obvious when you think about it;

  • The dance hold is an embrace that you must both feel comfortable and secure in. Be aware of where your hands and feet are AND CONCENTRATE!  My problem has been absentmindedly straightening out the odd annoyingly twisted bra strap; fine when I happened to be partnering my wife, but not on when dancing with a stranger.  Incidentally, if any of my dance partners are reading this, then please accept my sincere apologies!
  • It’s the blokes job to lead. Your dance partner will know that this is not easy and they will cut you slack.  If you cock-it-up, then apologise, smile, pick up the rhythm and give it another go.  If your partner cocks-it-up then apologise (yes mate, it may not be your fault, but you are leading, so say sorry anyway!), smile, pick up the rhythm and give it another go.  After all, it’s our job to make the lady look good; and on that subject…
  • Showing off won’t go down too well.
  • We have more recently embarked upon learning the Argentine tango. This is a very sensual dance (when done properly, so for us, maybe not-so-much), so remembering the above is very important when dancing with a stranger.  And remember, just because a style of dance can be danced in a very close embrace, doesn’t mean that it has to be!

Support and enjoy the novices

Many years ago, I taught people to scuba dive.  One of the highlights was escorting a novice on their first open water dive.  Before entering the water they were gripped by excitement and fear in equal measure.  After the dive they were filled with joy and wonderment.  In my experience, dancing is similar.

In the beginning I was very apprehensive, but thanks to some supportive and encouraging dance partners, apprehension soon melted away.  Nowadays we always join in with the beginner class; in a way this is one of the most rewarding aspects of going to a dance school.  A group of non-dancers come along with their non-dancing partners, they do a couple of steps, and then our instructor calls… ‘leads stay where you are and followers move around one.’ For most people this is a terrifying shock; it certainly was for us when we started.  But, as you welcome the novice into hold and try to put them at ease, their look of horror soon turns to a smile.  And, once they have completed a couple of circuits, it’s ‘high-fives’ all the way!

In conclusion

Blokes of all ages could benefit from giving dancing a go:

  • If you’re a young bloke, then bear in mind that dancing was how your grandparents enjoyed themselves and may well be how they met in the first place. Your mates will probably take the pxxx (so don’t tell them!), but you’ll have the last laugh when the music starts and you demonstrate flair on the dance floor.
  • If you are in the ‘middle years’ and the kids have fled, then dancing is a hobby that you and your ‘other half’ can enjoy together.
  • I’ve witnessed some good friendships and partnerships develop through dancing. Having a shared interest is a great start, so you never know…?
  • Considerable physical and mental health benefits can be derived from dance. Check out… https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/getting-started-guides/Pages/getting-started-dancing.aspx
  • And finally, if you live in the East Devon/West Dorset area, then I can wholeheartedly recommend salsa sabai.

 

Lucky Geoff – Virtuous Circle

Geoff and Cyril were neighbours.  Geoff completed National Service after the war.  As a POW Cyril took part in the infamous ‘Death March’ across Europe.  Nothing phased Cyril.

When Cyril’s wife died, Geoff comforted and looked out for him.  Cyril recovered.

When Geoff’s wife died he was inconsolable; dementia soon followed.  Cyril looked out for Geoff and kept him safe.

Geoff moved to a care home and as Cyril’s health deteriorated Jenny moved into Geoff’s old home.  Jenny looked out for Cyril; she smartened him up, prettied his home, gave him hot food and became his friend.

Cherish your neighbour.

Anti social media (?)

I’m dead anti… social media because it’s antisocial.  Nevertheless, a few weeks ago I decided to find out what the fuss was about so within the space of an hour or so I’d set up accounts for Facebook, twitter and WordPress.  I embarked on this mission partly out of the need to try and keep up with life, but also because I enjoy writing and one of these days I may even have a serious go at it (doubtful, but possible).  To have any success a would-be author needs to use social media, engage with ‘followers’ and do all that blogging bollocks that you hear people talking about.  Anyway, modern technology never ceases to amaze me, especially what you can get for free, which is why I broke my ‘vow of silence’ at a meeting the other day.  I was the note taker, and as such, I was there just to take notes.  Nevertheless…

I was taking these notes at a Board of Directors meeting for an organisation that runs a large rural estate.  Between them they manage a wide range of tasks; everything from waste treatment to woodland management and they do this for roughly a hundred households who, thanks to their efforts are able to enjoy a pretty wonderful and unique environment.

It was getting towards the end of the meeting when the question of how to update the estate website cropped up, someone mentioned “social media”, and with that, I dropped my pencil and butted in.  A heated debate followed and it became obvious that despite many of us using social media, most of us remain extremely suspicious, especially given all the fake news shenanigans.  However, after the meeting, I thought some more and since blogging is all about sharing some thoughts, this is me… blogging!

The problem with running a website is that someone needs to update it.  The more comprehensive and ‘in the moment’ the website is, the more onerous the task.  If you create space for different people to provide input, then someone has to manage them.  No matter how small your organisation is, you need to keep control over you image.  Just imagine giving the local angling society access to your website; in no time, the whole thing would reek of fish!

On the other hand, if you keep your website as small as possible and concentrate on what is core to your operation, then you can invite local interest groups to give you a link to their own blog or Facebook page… something like this

My point is that OK, a hell of a lot of what you find on social media is drivel and some of it is dangerous and just plain evil.  However, there is nothing wrong with the medium; use it on your own terms and it could be useful.

Yes… but is it art?

I was recently having a heated debate with my very good friend, Dr Phyllis Stein.  We were arguing about the validity of some ‘sculptural installations’ that were springing up in an East Devon wood.  Phyllis asserted that in order to create art, you needed to set out to create art.  And, even if the end result was a pile of pretentious junk, Phyllis was adamant that art was art and therefore worth what someone was prepared to pay for it.  Indeed, the higher the price tag, the better the art.

Anyway, this is what led to the argument…

loggers5

…and in my opinion, the photo definitely depicts an example of modern art; it’s easy on the eye and since it is a recent installation, it is… well… modern… isn’t it (?).  And, having made several visits to Tate Modern, I am well qualified to express an opinion on the subject of what constitutes art.  Indeed, Tate Modern has over the years offered a unique service, located, as it is, in exactly the right place to provide a therapeutic break during a demanding pub-crawl.  I did (only once) make the mistake of visiting this ‘temple of modern art’ prior to tucking away a few pints and the experience was, to say the least, unsettling.  Do it in the correct order though and a visit to Tate Modern after first visiting several inns, followed by a philosophical debate at a few more watering holes is a thoroughly enjoyable way to waste a day in London.

A proper painter (you can tell what his paintings are supposed to be) recently attempted to explain modern art to me, maintaining that understanding the back-story leading to a particular installation, daub, unmade bed, pickled shark, added immensely to one’s appreciation of the form, which brings me back to Phyllis’ point; to qualify as art, must the perpetrator actually set out to produce art, or, can a fortuitous accident qualify?   I only pose this question because when asked, the artless individual responsible for the woodland sculptures shown in the photograph said that he was constructing log stores off of the ground to assist seasoning prior to burning.  Furthermore, when it was mooted that what he had actually produced was worthy of the Turner Prize, he retorted with “stop taking the pxxx!”.  Anyway, someone did (innocently by the way; they thought it was firewood!) remove part of an ‘installation’.  They were however quickly advised of their mistake and asked to put it back.

So, although I already know the answer, I’ll throw the question open.  Yes, the random log stores are indeed things of beauty and they demonstrate the dedication and hard work that is going into restoring an area of woodland, BUT…

…is it art?

Bloody Bay Wall

Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall is a vertical drop-off.  The top of the reef is comfortably shallow at seven metres, but pop over the edge and there’s nothing to stop you until hit bottom at 300 metres.  There is something truly magical about experiencing this on just a lungful; come with me…

Ok, so we’ve snorkelled across the reef and while the dive boat sorts itself out, we’re just resting on the surface looking down into blue merging into indigo.  We’re lying with our heads facing to the northwest, with the sun on our backs.  We can see the sunbeams like a halo surrounding us, with rippling shafts of light cutting down through the water, pointing out our path into the abyss.  We breathe normally; we are relaxed; we are content.

We are aware of divers in the water now.  As they complete their buddy checks, we fin back over to the top of the reef.  We breathe with slightly more intent, but these breaths are only for preparatory dives.  We glide down and swim with a turtle for a while; it seems neither afraid of us, nor that interested in us.

The divers have set off in a procession now.  They have reached the edge of the reef and are following the sheer drop obliquely down, studying the reef as they go.  Our aim is to track them from the surface, staying in front and waiting until they level out at thirty metres – the depth limit imposed by most holiday dive operations.

That’s it, they’ve slowed, they’ve reached their maximum depth.  We continue to lie in their air-stream, exhaust bubbles bursting all around us.  We move ahead of them again and make our final preparations for the dive.  We close our eyes now and relax, then we start our ‘breathe-up’.  One final concerted exhalation as we draw our knees up under us and force our diaphragms to eject as much air as we can.  We pressurise our ears and take our final breath, packing in as much air as we can manage, and then in one smooth motion we flick our legs vertically out of the water so that their weight pushes us downwards.  As soon as our fins are below the surface we take several strong fin-strokes, driving ourselves into negative buoyancy. We pass by the edge of the reef and continue into the abyss.  We adopt a streamlined posture to ease our passage through the water.  We orientate ourselves so that we are facing the reef; watching the teeming life will divert our attention from the urge to breathe.

As the depth increases we continue to pressurise our middle ears and sinuses, we breathe out through our noses just enough to stop our ultra-low-volume dive masks from squeezing onto our faces and damaging our eyes and their surrounding tissue.

We’ve stopped finning now, we are beyond the point of positive buoyancy and have started to accelerate effortlessly into the abyss.

We slow our decent by swinging our feet up and adopting a crossed leg position, holding the blades of our fins to ensure that we remain relaxed.

Our lungs were crushed some while ago and our stomachs have pushed up behind our diaphragms to help fill the void, leaving a pronounced hollowness between our ribs and our pubic bones.

We have drifted away from the reef now.  As we look up we can see the divers above us.  Time for us to think about the trip back to the surface, but before we do, take a look around and allow your senses to appreciate the majesty and the enormity of this environment.  It is a dark grey world down here; most red light was filtered out by the time we reached ten metres and then, as we descended, the blue world turned to grey; look down and feel yourself drawn into empty blackness.  For us this is a silent world now; we are too deep to be aware of the elemental interaction between sea and air.  As we drift further down, away from the divers, the sound of their breathing fades to a whisper.  We are virtually weightless, suspended in a shadowy void, with only the sense of increasing pressure telling us that we are drifting still deeper as a warm glow of intoxication envelops us… hold that thought!

Lucky Geoff – the eureka moment

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the people who love and care for a person with dementia will experience a riot of emotions – bewilderment, sadness, frustration, anger.  However, if you can embrace one simple truth and engage with that truth every time you are presented with illogical, irrational or just plain irritating behaviour, you will hopefully be able to protect your own emotional well-being.

I was homeward bound travelling along the M4 after a particularly gruelling day on the road.  Radio Four was helping to keep me awake and I was listening to an interview about dementia.  I can’t remember who the expert was, but when he uttered the words…

“…YOU CANNOT REASON WITH SOMEONE WHO HAS NO REASON…”

…my lights came on.  Obvious isn’t it, but I can honestly say that hearing this simple phrase changed the way I viewed dear old Geoff and all of us were the better for it.

When Geoff was eventually taken into care, I visited him regularly and on fine days we’d have a stroll to the pub for a shandy.  He loved it and so did I.  We were comfortable in each others company, even though by now he did not know who I was.  He used to say “I don’t know who you are, but I’m sure you’ve been good to me”.  I didn’t bother to explain, we just enjoyed the moment.  One day he said “you know, I don’t know where I live; do you?”  I replied “haven’t got the foggiest mate; let’s have another pint”.  We both laughed.  But we didn’t have another pint, alcohol + dementia = disaster, so one weak shandy was quite enough.

Once you learn the knack of not reasoning, it can come in handy, but do please be very careful…

I was visiting dad in the care home and one of the residents was in a real state.  He imagined that he needed to to get to the station to catch a train home.  He accosted me for help, so I responded with “no worries mate, I’m going to the station after lunch, I’ll give you a lift”.  He thanked me, calmed down and rejoined the queue for lunch.  By the time he got his lunch he had forgotten about the train, and when I bid him farewell, he was still relaxed.  One of the ladies running the home expressed sorrow that they were unable to placate anxiety in the same way.  Evidently the professionals are not encouraged to lie.  In this case, there were risks associated with my actions and if the chap had remembered that I’d promised him a lift, I would have made a bad situation even worse.  This is a professional viewpoint .

 

 

Lucky Geoff – recognising the signs

A lot has been written about dementia.  There is no shortage of advice, but in case you have stumbled on my blog early on in a search for information, I’ll include a link which is a good starting point if you are on a quest for knowledge.

Early signs of dementia are subtle; looking back though, the first telltale indication was the confusing conversations.  We’d be talking to mum about a subject and then dad would veer off on a completely unrelated topic.  The problem was that as his short term memory degraded, so did his ability to concentrate, therefore his mind wandered.  We used to laugh about this at the time, not realising the cause.

And then there was the time he flagged down a motorway patrol vehicle on the M25 to enquire where the M3 slip-road was; he had a logical explanation as to why he did it and he was surprised that the officer he spoke to threatened to ‘nick’ him.  And then he was even more surprised when I had a go at him.  At the time I was upset that the role-model whose standard of driving I had admired and aspired to could act in such an idiotic way.  In retrospect, it should have been obvious that his judgement was failing.

Dealing with lost property will become a challenge for anyone associated with dementia.  As the condition worsens the sufferer may spend inordinate periods of time searching and when asked “what are you looking for”, they will probably have forgotten and respond with something like “I’ll know when I find it”.  Putting things in a safe (but illogical) place may become an issue.  Geoff regularly lost his keys and his wallet.  One day he telephoned my wife Glenys; he was in a panic because he’d locked himself in.  Glen dashed over to his home with a spare set of keys and released him.  She searched for hours to no avail; we found the keys several days later wrapped in his cap and pushed to the back of a cupboard, which leads me neatly into the ‘I-never-did-it’ syndrome.

One of the frustrations for a loving carer is that their loved one is unlikely to take any responsibility for their actions.  And when you think about it, why should they?  After all, who can be blamed for something they have no knowledge or recollection of?  The even more annoying consequence of this is though, that having spent hours looking for something, when you eventually find it, you’ll be blamed for hiding it in the first place.  So it’s hardly surprising that the people who love and care for a person with dementia will experience a riot of emotions – bewilderment, sadness, frustration, anger.  Hopefully though, they will also experience their ‘eureka moment’, which I’ll cover in the next blog.