Life trek: The next generation

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The week just finished was one I’d been dreading for some time, but which I couldn’t have missed at any cost. Not one for early mornings, my body was required to haul itself up and stay there three times this week, but time spent with generations respectively either side of me made the extra hours worthwhile.

man-machine-evolution-TVH-gerd-leonhard-1024x608Press release for Gerd Leonhard’s 2016 book: Technology vs. Humanity – The coming clash between man and machine

Further to my dad’s trip to London and a subsequent, more local hospital appointment, he’s surrounded by some clear water: The fluid on his brain hasn’t returned in any great quantity, and his blood readings are returning to normal. His neurologist vindicated my thinking, noting that the series of setbacks my dad’s suffered (an infection, then an adverse reaction to the antibiotics) will have slowed his recovery. Now things are more normal, and with no appointments to worry about (he stresses over the travelling), his recovery should quicken.

The visit to mum and dad’s was much nicer than I expected it to be; not that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy time with my parents, but because dad is in better health than I’d led myself to believe. I’m an advocate of optimism over pessimism, because being of either persuasion makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. But a mind which will sometimes remind itself of its host’s human mortality also needs to prepare for other eventual certainties. My life has covered a lot of experiential ground, but there’s some I’m yet to tread one day.

As a scientific atheist, I don’t fear death. Or rather, I believe there’s a different life after this one, but while I remain human, I lack proof. I’ll always fear the mode of transit to the other side, and my own mind’s capacity to deal with the passing of another. It’s a universal human fear of the unknown, which my brain dwells on more than it should. For now, I’m only human.

On the other side of the generational family sandwich, I spent yesterday with my children, and was able to deliver positive news of the older generation. It was an important date (for us) because it marked the last time we’d be together for some while, before we’re once again all prime numbers. We’re currently 47, 13 and 11, so the next window will be when I’m 53, and the kids 19 and 17 respectively.

Life in 2023 will be very different to today, and we only have to look at the speed of change around us to see how obvious that is. If the world’s still here, and humans not extinct, we’ll see many more human occupations made redundant by technology. Like many others, my children understand the importance of remaining in education for as long as possible, when soon there’ll be relatively few jobs which are the sole preserve of humans.

In the right governmental hands, there’s a possible utopia ahead, where the productivity of machines means that wealth generated by a nation can finance a universal basic income, so that humans are free to pursue their hearts and dreams more, with the essentials taken care of. I believe a basic home is a human right and not a privilege, and that autonomous freedom has huge public health benefits, but the UK has a Conservative government.

I’ve always told my children to be the best they can at that which they enjoy the most (provided it’s legal and ethical), because that will give them the most back in satisfaction, and allow them to give more back to the world in which they create. At the moment, the eldest is learning to play keyboards, to possibly concentrate on the piano further down the line. He’s also building his own home computer. Meanwhile the youngest is a budding artist and illustrator in her spare time, in between learning three European languages (French, German and Polish).

There’s a lot to be said for being the middle of three generations, because each is a reflection of me on the other, and I’m not the Marmite filling I once was. I’m glad the gene for questioning and discovery was passed down, and only regret not making better use of it in my time. My children don’t suppress their curiosity in a conditioned life like I did. Now we’re learning together, as the world around us changes; and as old as I am, I sometimes have to ask them what something is.

Now that my dad’s getting better, hopefully we’ll be able to restart those conversations too.

Star Trekkin’ across the universe, Only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse…”

No jacket or factory reset required

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve just returned from a 24 hour break, which I needed to open my eyes again. I’ve been among nature and handled a snake, I’ve been to London to be reminded where my heart lives, I’ve helped the aged, and I’ve been touched by beacons of humanity. I’d become trapped in my own home and I needed to escape, so I took my notepad and made some notes in the field…

star_trek_data

My main purpose was to help transport my dad to London for a consultation with his neurologist. For the uninitiated, he’d developed signs of senility but had fluid on his brain. This was drained and he seemed to be making a good recovery before complications set in. First an infection, then a long course of powerful antibiotics meant that his improvement slowed, and he even looked like he might be declining for a while.

Long story short, his recovery is now picking up where it left off, and we’ll know if any further invasive procedures will be needed in a few months’ time. The most recent prognosis is that his condition isn’t degenerative, but he’s of a certain age and any full recovery will take time. For now, he’s a bit slow on his feet and in his mind, but he has my mum as full-time carer. Yesterday I got to drive the wheelchair around London, in a role-reversal of all the times dad wheeled me around in a buggy as a kid.

As someone who’s become gradually more withdrawn over recent months, I wondered how my social anxiety and paranoia would cope with a return to the capital. Although I was there in sensible mode, providing practical help to a wheelchair user, I couldn’t help feeling drawn to stay. Looked at another way, I was fulfilling a duty which I’d have to complete, but London didn’t take long to let me know I’d be welcome back any time.

There’s the well-known saying, that you can take the person out of London, but you can never take the city out of the person. It applies equally to others in places all around the world, but London is where my heart is. Although I wasn’t born there, I’ve spent more than half my life living and working in London, and I believe I’m from the place where I feel at home, rather than my birthplace.

An early start to the day had skewed my internal clock (I was up at 8am, when normally I wake around noon), so by the time we got to dad’s appointment at a part of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Holborn, it felt like evening (it was 2.30pm). Mum went in to the consultation with dad, and I was free to explore. I quickly spotted a pub.

Unlike five years ago, I can go to a pub now for a single or social drink, and it won’t be the first of however many are needed to prevent me functioning. A pint of cider came in at just under a fiver, and I sat at a table outside on Queen’s Square to contemplate the cold, frosty glass. Then I took out my notebook and wrote this blog entry: everything to here in fact, as my glass sits almost full beside me, and an occasional droplet of condensation runs down the side. That pint cost me a fiver, so I owe it the respect of savouring the anticipation before I actually drink it.

Before I got there though, I’d travelled from my home to my parents’ house, and then to London. I had nothing to fear of any extra stress involved in travelling with a wheelchair user, and even though we were travelling on a group discounted ticket, we were given a little public transport red carpet treatment.

Our train was held so that a wheelchair ramp could be provided, and a train guard asked some young people to move from the wheelchair priority area of the carriage. Once dad was installed, seatbelt on and handbrake applied, I enjoyed a personal journey to London I’d not made in a while.

When I visit my kids every month, I only pass through London, hardly pausing on the way to Milton Keynes. The journey from where I live in West Malling, takes the rail line through the Bowie lands of Bromley and Brixton, before docking at London Victoria. On this trip, I was returned to travelling from Tonbridge and into London Charing Cross, a route I’ve not taken for over two years.

I like many things, including trains. I like all transport and the infrastructure which surrounds it (I love airports), and I like architecture, building and construction. I was keen to see the new London Bridge station and the progress of various tall buildings in the Square Mile. We were just passing through, but I vowed to return and explore the new London Bridge further, perhaps on a future visit to ride on Crossrail, The Elizabeth Line and the Battersea underground extension.

We were provided with a further ramp for alighting at Charing Cross, and with time to spare, we decided to walk to the hospital. On the way, I gave a running commentary on places and buildings of note, including Savoy Place, the only road in the UK where motorists drive on the right (it dates from an age of carriages setting down outside The Savoy, and now modern cabs, where the driver opens the driver-side passenger door to disgorge patrons). It was shortly after that I decanted myself into the pub.

A further ramp was provided by an obliging cabbie for the return journey to Charing Cross, and again by South Eastern staff at both ends. Local mini cab drivers had provided a similar assistance service (without the ramps), so my dad spent the entire day on wheels.

I stayed over and we had fish and chips for dinner. I decamped to the garden every time I needed to smoke, and with dad’s condition preventing him from keeping things as he’d like, it’s become somewhat overgrown. While I was smoking in the evening, I saw many species of birds, insects and spiders. Later at night, I heard the familiar rustle of undergrowth as a hedgehog foraged. My dad loves nature and he dotes on his garden, but he may decide to retain a bit of the wilderness now that all these new visitors are popping in.

As I smoked my last at around midnight, I was surprised at how clear the skies were above mum and dad’s home. Theirs is a suburban setting with street lighting, but despite the pollution, I could clearly make out the main planets, the obvious stars and constellations, and some more distant bodies in the night sky. It was as I wondered at my place in the universe that the familiar sound of mating urban foxes curdled the air, so I wished them well and retired.

I was physically and mentally tired from the day, so I turned in a couple of hours earlier than usual. At my parents’ house, there’s no danger of footsteps outside the door with the comings and goings of social tenancies, so there’s no need for a fan to provide drowning ambient white noise. Instead, I fell asleep to the sound of chirping insects and the occasional hoot from a distant owl, before floating through the universe.

My parents are off to another appointment for dad today, this one more local and not requiring my help. I got up early to spend a couple of hours with mum and dad, and their snake: a seven-year-old four-foot royal python, adopted from me when I fell apart (and he was my son’s snake: a birthday present, staying with me (another story on this blog somewhere)), but never returned because they were too attached to the little guy. Now their priorities are more with each other, and with my life far more settled and as secure as it can be in social accommodation, I could do with a companion. I need to check the specifics of the “No pets” rule with the landlord. Snakes don’t make a noise like some dogs, but attitudes towards them can be somewhat different among those who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

FordMy arm, with bracelet

It all started with a Facebook post (and a picture of a snake), after I’d written the last blog entry: I tend to post less personal stuff on here nowadays, and save my sentiments for the blog…

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve had good friends phone me to see how things are. It’s like the Facebook post led them to the blog and they took the time to read. If so, then I’m grateful. Because that last blog post was a quiet cry for help, and the help found me when humanity functioned.

It was nice to have a whole day and night, to relax and not worry about people wanting my material possessions. It was pleasant to spend time with different people and to see humanity and nature, briefly in the same view.

This post has rambled all over the place, just like me with my notepad in the last day. I needed to write it all down before it faded, because the depths and messengers of depression will return, as they always do. For now though, I’m restored, and I plan to venture out of the darkness again. Better to restore functionality than have to resort to a factory reset.

Snakes and stepladders

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It was by strange coincidence that I walked into a lost property office when I myself was lost. As I leaned on the counter, I remembered having the thing I’d lost, but not what it was. I rested my head on my hand and my elbow slipped, banging my head on the counter, and then I realised what it was: I’d lost my memory. I’d been self-censoring for too long, with so much stuck inside me.

Royal PythonA royal python

While the fiction writer was away, things had been happening in the real world, and one such happened on Friday, when I got a text: “Could you order rats on the internet please?” It was my mum, and in my family, this is a normal event. It also allows me to tell a story of my life, as I step back into writing…

Long ago (in 2010), after my marriage had broken down through my drinking, I lived in Bexley. I was still running a print management business, and I had a nice flat in an old manor house, with a heated swimming pool in the garden. The kids would stay with me at weekends, and so it was on the eldest’s seventh birthday. He asked if we could have a party, but I wasn’t sure how many of his friends would make the journey, and feared a deflated son. So I offered to buy him something with the money I’d otherwise have spent on a party, specifically a snake.

At the time, I was volunteering with a reptile rescue centre, and although snakes thrive in captivity, are cheap and easy to keep (after the initial outlay on housing and an actual snake), people were still naïve. Most of our guests were snakes and there were three main reasons for them becoming homeless: Their size, their diet, and their longevity.

Among the collection was a 12-foot Burmese python, which could potentiallly grow twice as big. She’d been bought as a yearling at about three feet, and the owner didn’t know some constrictors could grow that big. Most snakes feed on rodents, which can be bought frozen in bulk (you need a zookeeper’s license to feed live prey, it’s inadvisable to feed a captive-bred snake live food, can be inhumane for the prey, and a risk to the snake if the prey turns). So if you’re squeamish about having dead rats next to your frozen pizza in the freezer, perhaps best not to have a snake. And they can live for 30-40 years or more.

We had half a dozen or so royal pythons in the collection, which are relatively small (5-6 feet maximum) and easy to keep, but they’re secretive and can be fussy feeders. So the talking point in the room isn’t so much the snake, more a nicely decorated vivarium.

I could write reams on snake husbandry, breeding and minor veterinary treatments (I filed a paper at The Zoological Society of London, on treating snakes with scale mites), but a personal blog is not the place to learn about keeping snakes. Anyone considering keeping snakes should thoroughly research the subject, certainly more than most of our donors had.

I’d work with the rescue centre some weekends, and the kids enjoyed coming with me, because they’d learned a lot about snakes through me and were fascinated. Mostly we’d go to local and school fêtes, where we’d show the snakes (and a couple of lizards), engage with the curious, and educate the willing. It was mainly dispelling myths: Snakes aren’t cold and slimy, most are not venomous (certainly no constrictors), and very few bite in any case. In general, they’re placid, inquisitive creatures, and it was always a joy to witness someone’s first ‘Snake moment’.

On at least one occasion, I’d had a lady moved to tears. It was her 40th birthday, and she’d asked if she could learn about snakes. I happened to be free, so I sat down with her and a royal python at a table, and I answered her questions. She confided that she’d been not so much frightened as nervous about snakes, because she knew so little. At the end of the meeting, she held a five foot royal python in her hands and started crying. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I must admit, that caused me a bit of a moment too, having helped someone overcome a common, pre-conditioned repulsion of an unfairly maligned creature, so that they could better understand it.

There was amusement too, like when we were at an event on Blackheath during the London Olympics, and I was charged with Alexa, the aforementioned 12-foot Burmese python. The Burmese is a fairly stocky snake, and pythons are constrictors, so they’re heavy on muscles. A snake of her size weighs in at around 25kg, which you’re very aware of when you’ve got one draped around your shoulders. Like most snakes, she was inquisitive too. To her, I was a warm tree. For me, it got tiring, so I’d let her down on the grass to give myself a rest.

We’d displayed signs around our reptile enclosure, clearly stating ‘No small dogs’, and as Alexa was stretching herself on the ground, I spotted an old lady with a toy ‘dog’ (the kind which would fit very easily down a large python’s throat). “Excuse me, madam,” I said politely, and pointed to a sign.

Oh it’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the snake’s food, “he’ll only lick you.”

That’s very nice madam, but my snake’s tongue is flicking because it sees food…” I picked up the snake, the rat licked my foot, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The point is, snakes are fascinating creatures and totally undeserving of all the myth, suspicion and ignorance surrounding them. Generally speaking, kids are for more into snakes than grown-ups, perhaps because our greater general understanding of them isn’t shrouded in so much superstition as a generation or two ago. For at least the last 30 years, all snakes bought by the home enthusiast have been captive-bred, and there’s a large conservation scene among those who study and keep them.

I’ve been fascinated by snakes ever since a reptile breeder visited my primary school in 1977 (when I was seven), and my children have inherited the passion from their part-reptilian parent. I suspect my parents have snake DNA too, and that circles me back to the beginning of the story and that text from my mum.

So I got my son a royal python for his seventh birthday. My ex-wife wasn’t so keen, so I had the snake at my place, but he was very much my son’s project. The snake moved with me to Sidcup, where I lived for two years after Bexley. Eventually of course, I drunk everything away and I ended up back at my parents’, with a snake.

When I had my breakdown and all sorts of people were supporting my parents, the reptile rescue centre asked if they’d like them to take the snake. But they declined. The snake belonged to their grandson, so they wanted to keep him in the family. They paid me what I’d paid for the snake and the whole set-up, to give me money to stay afloat, and the arrangement was that I’d buy him back when I got myself sorted out.

I’ve lived in my studio for almost two years now, I have a rolling tenancy, and therefore the nearest I’m ever going to get to a permanent home. But ever since we started talking again after I’d sobered up, my mum (who’s 73) and dad (76) will not sell the snake back, not through any concern for his well-being, but because they’re so attached to the little guy. For now I just order his food for mum and dad’s freezer.

People think I’m weird, and I am. But don’t blame the parents.

Breaking the mind cycle

THE WRITER’S LIFE | DEAR DIARY

I said I’d be more open when I could, and now I can write more honestly about a few things which have been keeping me quiet lately…

Break the cycle

Top of the vox pops has been my dad, who’s been unwell. He’s home now and all the evidence suggests he’s much better. Long story short, he was having problems with his memory and sense of direction. It had been a process so gradual that it was barely noticed by those closest to him, until one night when he went missing.

A keen and able driver with 60 years of incident-free motoring behind him, and a man who would invariably be early for any meeting, appointment or gathering, it was unusual for my dad to be late home. So when my mum phoned me to say dad was an hour late, alarm bells began to toll in the distance.

I spent at least ten minutes on the phone to mum, during which she kept popping outside the front door to see if he was coming up the road. It was getting dark and it was a Saturday. Dad was never keen on driving in the dark, and there’d be something on TV he’d scheduled to be home for (probably a transport, engineering or emergency services documentary), now finished.

Eventually I phoned the police, and in doing so, I knew I was robbing my dad of his main liberty: his car and the freedom to drive it. I was also taking away my mum’s ride, and their means of visiting me and others. I asked mum several times if I should grass the old man, when there might be a perfectly valid reason for him being late, but none seemed likely. I knew – and I told mum – that as soon as I reported dad missing, the police would put out an alert, dad would trigger an ANPR camera and probably get a TPAC by three fed cars (I watch a lot of police procedurals myself). After a couple more checks on his whereabouts outside, she agreed, better that than a starring role in 24 Hours in A&E.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that dramatic. Dad did indeed trigger a camera, and was soon lit up by blue lights from behind. He pulled over to let an emergency vehicle pass, then quickly realised it was him the police were after. “Your son reported you,” they’d said, so that was nice of me. One officer then drove dad home in his car, tailed by her colleague in the Battenberg. I found this all out when dad phoned me when he got home, to thank me for getting him there. But I knew there’d be fallout.

Dad’s 75, so his slight doddering might have been put down to simple ageing. But when it became life-affecting, thoughts turned to senility and degenerative neurological conditions. I’d been aware of his ongoing decline when I reported him, and dad’s health had been one of the police’s concerns. He was at the consultation stage at the time, but it was serious enough for him to have to surrender his driving license, for his own safety (and that of others). I felt like shit.

Further tests and scans revealed a build up of fluid around dad’s cerebellum, causing pressure on his brain. Dementia couldn’t be ruled out, but it was likely that relieving the pressure would restore his cognitive functions. This was at the end of last year, so any treatment would be in the new year. I’d displaced my whole family over Christmas, as my dad was the only one with a car. Everyone was going to have a shit Christmas, because of me.

Early this year, dad had the first of two operations, initially to drain the build up of fluid around his brain stem. Later he may need a stent, but the first procedure was a success. Very soon after, dad regained a lot of himself, and he was reading, watching TV, and even got some fine-detail colouring books. It was quite incredible to witness someone return so suddenly from something which had been so gradually debilitating. Then it all went tits up.

Just a few days after returning home, dad was hit with an infection, specifically at the site where the excess cerebral fluid had been drained (he’d had a spinal tap, after all). Infections are never welcome interlopers, but the ones who attack the brain and central nervous system can be particularly worrisome. Earlier dad had been picked up by a police car, now he was being carted away in an ambulance (to the best of my knowledge, my parents don’t play with matches).

Dad was in hospital for three weeks and I didn’t see him once. It would be a five-stage journey for me, by public transport or taxi. Social anxiety aside, I simply couldn’t afford it, and I had no-one to give me a lift. But in some respects, I’m glad I stayed away, if only to witness my parents becoming much closer. Mum gets free travel, so she was at the hospital every day and I spoke to her as regularly as I thought appropriate, caring, but at the same time, not wanting to be in the way. Now dad’s home, where he can recover quicker, and after 50 years of marriage, him and mum are still very much in love.

I’m told I shouldn’t feel guilty for taking my dad’s liberty, and that I’m not to blame for his ill health (his cognitive decline brought on by my breakdown and subsequent conduct), so I must just be paranoid.

Paranoia breeds and cross-pollinates my other neurological inflections, anxiety and depression, and together they form the unholy trinity in my mind, which many others suffer. I live alone and I’m left alone, so few have to suffer me.

I’m an alcoholic, who lives with a guilt complex. I could probably get utterly pissed and get away with it, and no-one would notice because few call or visit. But I made this situation, by not wanting anyone too close, so if I lapsed, I’d be the only one who noticed.

It wasn’t because I lapsed in anything other than myself, that this blog has been less dynamic than usual lately. Now that I have my greatest fear – that of losing my father – lessened, I can start to make plans again. Among those plans are to write more, so that I’m less alone now that my mind isn’t so tied up with myself.

Like my dad, it’s like I can hear myself again. I hope others can too.

Guardian angels, in the skin

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s much in my real life which I’d like to write about, but which for various reasons I can’t. There are stories developing which could end well or otherwise, and there are others with endings very much open. There are concerns for the health of at least one relative, and many other people’s situations I’m helping in. One story I can now tell, could have gone very badly, and it’s only just beginning.

Dark Angel

Like so many of the young people I’m still in touch with, I met Courtney when I was homeless. I met most of the others while I sat writing in McDonald’s, or later, when I’d established the squat (in an old commercial premises). An initial ‘No minors’ policy in my temporary hermit’s home quickly fell apart, when first one teenager found it and others inevitably followed. In time it became a peaceful anarchy of lost boys and young suffragettes.

My main fear was preconditioned perceptions. Although everyone at the squat was respectful of the neighbours, young girls visiting an older guy is bound to get the thought police thinking wrongly. So began on ongoing battle with the plastic police and defective detectives, who would jump to conclusions and assume that my conduct was inappropriate, despite never enquiring to find out. On any given day, I’d be camped out on a mattress somewhere, with sometimes half a dozen schoolgirls sitting with me. It would be wrong to envy me, for all I heard from those troubled young minds.

If those judges unfit for purpose had attended some sort of anti-kangaroo court, they might have learned the truth. They’d learn little though, as most of what was discussed was intensely private. Those young people (and they were mainly girls) mostly had complex backgrounds and many were without an older guardian, or frightened of the ones they had. To them, I might have been some radical, travelling, free-spirited writer, but most of all, I became an older wise friend they could talk to outside of their peer group.

For me, it was something to do. Those young people gave me purpose and helping them out with words of advice was rewarding. Some of them are doing some amazing things now (a forensic science student, a budding equestrian…) For the most part, they told some fascinating and tragic stories, and I was always touched that they’d chosen to confide in me. And there were never any drugs.

This was all known to the real police, as the squat was just up the road from the nick: I’d been on the wrong side of them (and stayed there) when I’d stolen some food, and they knew where I lived by then. Every so often, a couple of PCSOs (Laura and Mary) or local plain clothes officers (John and another) would pop in after school, just to see who was there, and if they were all okay (many of the youngsters were known to the law as well).

At six o’clock their mummies and daddies wouldn’t come to pick them up, but they’d disperse into the evening and whatever waited at home for them. I really feared for some.

Courtney was at the squat too, but I’d met her before, initially on my first night out with Mike Skinner (on the streets). Her and two friends got talking to me, as I sat on a bench with my life in three Sports Direct bags at my feet. I lied that I had somewhere to stay that night, but had a vague hope a friend at the other end of town might help me out. So I walked two miles to the other end of Tonbridge, with three 15-year-old girls carrying my bags. I asked them to wait while I called at my friend’s door. As I’d actually expected, he couldn’t help out. So I let the girls know I’d be safe for the night, and they returned to their respective homes. For some reason, I later got a slap from Courtney, when she found out I’d lied to her. Even though she was a third my age, she was a protector (she’d lived on the streets before).

Courtney was reassurance that it was possible to be more displaced in life than I was, as most days she’d appear beside me in McDonald’s, either bunking off college or avoiding home. Eventually, she moved into the squat for a while. At the time, she was 16. We let the local police know where she was (they knew her very well), and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the police station. Now it would be much easier to find a serial absconder from home.

Aged 16, a person isn’t legally obliged to return to an address (certain conditions aside), especially if it’s the same address they’re running away from. The police themselves agreed, that with me in the squat, it was the safest place for Courtney.

In the four years since, we’ve remained close friends, I’ve met many of hers, and they’ve become friends too. We’re siblings, in all but blood (but there’s been blood). We’ve been through a lot ourselves, and together. Long after we left the squat, when Courtney returned first home, then to various shelters, she’d still abscond when life got the better of her, and I was always first port of call for the police (If she wasn’t with me, the network of youngsters from the squat would help us find her). I still would be, but she’s an adult now in the eyes of the law.

When a girl with a history of drug use, and a criminal record as long as her medical one (she has depression and PTSD, and she’s on the ADHD, Asperger’s and other mental health spectra) falls pregnant, interested parties and agencies are inevitable, and so it’s been for the past several months.

Come the day of the birth, I wasn’t there. I know the girl well, but there are parts of some people I never wish to see. I’m sure there were a few people who were surprised when the baby’s skin tone ruled me out of any paternal role, but I’d only remained close to my friend because the father hadn’t.

A Child Protection Order had already been placed on the unborn baby, which naturally stressed an already highly-strung mum-to-be. There was a chance the child would be taken away soon after the birth. Courtney, her mum and her grandmother were very aware of this, as three generations gathered to welcome a fourth, possibly for only a short while. Then, like a rhino quite literally charging through a hospital (bull in a china shop is too clichéd and polite), an uninvited interloper blundered in.

By all accounts (three that I’ve heard), this “friend” ate some food, asked the relatives to leave, and let the medical staff know she was the mum’s best friend and godmother to the baby. Then she went home and posted a self-congratulatory photo proclaiming her godmotherliness on Facebook, expecting I-don’t-know-what. Social awareness and responsibility are as far removed from reality as social media twists some lives.

Far from adulation, a general sense of shock pervaded, among those aware of the insensitivity of the selfish gesture. Everyone else seemed aware that Courtney only wanted to be with close family in a very tense (and possibly temporary) situation, and that anyone else could jeopardise the whole thing. She’d previously said she might need a friend, but quickly realised that none were more important than family, even if hers could only be gathered fleetingly. The gravity of the matter didn’t trump the importance of self in one person’s blind ignorance. Even in the absence of a specific instruction to respect privacy, everyone else got it. If ever the blindly bungling, misguided excuse were to read this, perhaps it might provide some spectacles with which to see the bigger prevailing picture, better late than never. 

This invader hadn’t been the only one competing for attention and accolades as the day of the birth arrived, and the roles of godparents had been brought up many times, mainly by those who wanted to occupy the titles. Courtney herself had more pressing matters to attend to (having the baby and keeping it), so she’d made vague indications to a few persistent friends that they’d discuss it at a later date, perhaps when she found out if she was allowed to actually keep her own child.

So the announcement on social media of the Mr Ben godmother was wholly inappropriate and insensitive, to many people, not least of all the girl who then lay in hospital wondering if she’d even see her own daughter grow up. Now she was looking at Cleo (the baby) in someone else’s arms, while that person looked very pleased with themselves grinning out of Facebook. When it was pointed out to the would-be anti-fairy godmother that her conduct was in fact quite crass (it was as close as you could get to mental kidnap), she responded in self-defence, with yet more disregard for anyone’s feelings outside her own malfunctioning ones. There was never an apology, just prolonged self-flagellation in public.

For my part, I’d explained to my little sis that a godparent isn’t just a badge to be worn by the highest bidder, any more than a Christening should be used for personal gain. Courtney’s about as religious as me, so she gets that a Christening would be a waste of the church’s time, and that of those attending, obliged to dress up for a public display of infant torture as it has water splashed over its head. She’ll have a baby shower instead. But more importantly, choose any godparents wisely.

The godparents would be the ones Courtney needed most, for possibly a very long time, and not just in fair weather or for photo opportunities. Single parenting is difficult in any circumstances, but a mum with so many mental health issues and past problems is going to need help and support. While all those clamouring for selfish attention and entitlement crawled over Facebook, myself and a young friend of Courtney’s (a student midwife) were talking to various agencies, eventually ensuring that she kept Cleo. I helped with the phone calls and emails which eventually got mum and baby a placement in a joint dependence centre. All of this was done quietly by myself and “Charlton” (she’s named after a west London football club, but I’m from Catford), with no premature self-congratulatory posts on Facebook. The key was a letter I wrote.

As someone who’s always been in conflict with authority, Courtney doesn’t trust officialdom. It was a tough job, getting her to see that the various agencies wanted to help her, but that they had both her and Cleo’s welfare at heart. Even though I know she’s a decent person, I also know she’s prone to the odd wobble. She’s slapped me in the face and kicked me in the shins, simply because she gets frustrated. She can’t do that to many people, so she normally runs away. I just wait for her to fall apart, then pick up the pieces.

She eventually realised why everyone seemed to be against her (the courts, social services etc.): all they had to go on was what they’d seen: probation reports, a criminal record, drug use… That was all they knew, because they didn’t know the person, just the pieces of paper. A court hearing was pending Cleo’s birth, and whether Courtney kept her baby would be down to what was presented in court. So I wrote a letter of defence, a personal reference to counterbalance the case against my sister.

There was a lot in the letter (six pages of personal testament) but my closing statement was that I believed (as a friend) that Courtney would change, as soon as she had a reason. She wasn’t one who felt things should be earned, but give a homeless alcoholic a home, and he will sort the rest out with support around him. I used myself as an example of how someone’s life can be balanced, if they’re given something to live for. For me, it was a permanent home. For Courtney, it would be a baby. It was also a massive risk of a friendship, but one I knew would prevail, whatever happened.

I’ve had confirmation since, that it was this letter which helped Courtney into the mother and baby unit where she is now, when it would have been far easier at the time (this was Christmas) to simply place the baby into care. She’s halfway through that placement now, she’s proved me right and she’s vindicated my letter’s content. With Charlton and myself still helping out, the next step is to get her back home from Essex (it was the only place available then) and re-integrated with her own area (Kent), where dangers from the past could upset the balance if there’s no support. A combination of what all three of us have done means she’ll have her liberty back sooner than anyone might have thought.

Charlton and me have both been interviewed by social services and we’ve been asked to become Courtney’s family unit, for all upcoming meetings and hearings with various agencies, then for her ongoing life (and support). We’re recognised by the county council as being appropriate to the roles, and we’ve been asked to write life plans with Courtney, thereby committing ourselves to a judge.

Courtney asked us to be godparents. Auntie Steve and Uncle Charlton will help to bring Cleo up, and we’ll help our friend, as we always have, quietly and with no sense of entitlement. We’re not religious. We didn’t want for it, we didn’t need it, ask for it, or assume it. We earned it, by being ourselves.

Now they’re together, Courtney decided to get a tattoo for Cleo (on herself, not on the baby). She had a few stock quotes and poems in mind, but she thought something original would be more appropriate. So she asked a writer she knows to come up with something that had much personal sentiment besides the context of the words themselves.

The greatest love
grows inside
The strongest bond
my eternal pride

Cleo-Rose 18.12.17

With thanks to Courtney, who allowed part of her story to be told. All agency and authority references available on request for appropriate parties.

Adventures in Nan’s dentures

FAMILY LIFE

With my next collection of short stories finished (and published in a couple of weeks), I’ve returned to the book which will follow. When I left it, my dad was a chimney sweep, so I’ve been back to childhood to pick up from there, trying to leave my dark fiction writer self in the future.

Desk and skull

Sundays at Nan’s followed roughly the same routine: Lunch and a long walk, then tea, and any remaining jobs Nan had listed for dad (after he’d swept the chimney). Sunday tea wasn’t so much quintessentially English as idiosyncratic, with Nan normally taking her afternoon drink with a slice of toast, browned under the grill on one side only. No-one can remember when Nan lost her lower set of dentures.

For reasons known only to those who took me there, we’d sometimes pop in to see Nan’s next door neighbour, in an adjoining war memorial bungalow. I remember very little of the discussion, but Nan’s friend Franie (Frances, I think), lived alone, and sat for the most part at her dining table by the window overlooking the front garden onto the road, and on the other side, the farm. She liked to “watch the folk go by…” quite a lot.

The farm opposite Nan’s was Simmons’ Farm in those days, run mainly by the brothers, who all had occupational nicknames. The most fragrant was ‘Spuddy’, whose brother (‘Digger’) had a son in my class at secondary school. There were fewer things to occupy teenage boys’ curiosities in the 1980s, so producing a severed turkey’s foot from one’s school bag was guaranteed to draw attention, especially when the foot had tendons attached, allowing it to be operated as a puppet claw. Acquiring such niceties was a simple matter of walking over the road from Nan’s to the farm around Christmas time.

We were very close to our food in those days, with most that fed the family taken from the land. At Oldbury Place in Ightham, dad would sometimes escort his boss, Mr Byam-Cook, on shoots, both on his own land and further afield. ‘Mr. B.C.’ had a black Labrador gun dog (Beta) and dad was his human beater, scaring game from the undergrowth with a stick.

Many were the days us children helped mum in the kitchen, plucking pheasants, skinning rabbits, and picking lead shot from various unfortunate Beatrix Potter characters. These would be served with vegetables, fresh from the kitchen garden. Having little money didn’t mean going hungry when the boss was a wealthy altruist with a gun.

The main landscaped gardens (by Dad & Co.) were host to a tennis court, and many visitors on weekends when the main house was open to members of the public with an interest in history, or where their neighbours lived. There was at least one occasion when I opened the door of our annexe stable cottage to a curious traveller, who no doubt grew gradually confused when she was shown around the wrong house by an over-eager kid.

The whole estate – the houses and the grounds – were an adventurer’s playground when we were young. The big house was ridiculously so, with rooms bearing names I never knew existed. It had separate rooms for general dining and taking breakfast, supplied by a cathedral-like kitchen, with its own walk-in larder and a maid’s room. There was a library, a games room and a drawing room, which I never saw anyone drawing in (there was also a scullery, but no skulls). There was a main living room and a vast bathroom, and a chequered corridor ran throughout from the main reception hall. That was the ground floor, then there were two storeys above and one below.

When the owners of the big house were away, mum would sometimes let us go with her to the mansion in school holidays, when she was cleaning or cooking. I dare say it caused her more stress than we ever knew, as she worked downstairs and we were two floors above, strangely silent among treasures but still very much in someone else’s house. Wealthy people too, who had real treasures.

These were people who were well-travelled, so there were various curiosities from around the world strategically placed. Where we had a family photo album, they had oil paintings of ancestors on their walls. But even though I was only young, I questioned these. Although they were fine paintings by talented artists, to me they were unreal, at least because they weren’t as honest as a photograph.

There was the subterranean level too, in the wine cellar. No doubt there were many great vineyard vintages ageing and increasing in value down there, but to a kid, it was yet more adventure.

And then of course, there were guns. But these were locked in a cupboard, within a locked room, which was out-of-bounds to all but Mr Byam-Cook. I recall at least one time, when he came to our door at night, and there’d been intruders in the big house. There may have been far more anecdotes to recall, if those guns hadn’t been so responsibly kept. Or maybe not, if we’d all died.

Seven days a week it seemed, mum and dad both worked. Even days out were usually wrapped around something which someone else needed doing, and my parents would take us kids along. But I recall no resigned shrugs or kicking of heels, because even the working days were adventures for enquiring minds whose lives didn’t depend on it. We depended on our parents and it was both of them who worked and made sacrifices to put food on various tables.

Despite my research spanning several centuries for parts of this book, and the many old houses that’s taking me to, the mystery of Nan’s missing dentures remains thus far unsolved.

Silent Gardens will be published in March.

Parking the bus on a lake

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Living with depression means that many of us are expecting a shit sandwich in the post any time, even if we know there’s no reason for one to have our address on it. For those of us who live alone, these can be difficult times, especially when the time of year is tinged with dark memories. For the writer, it’s material for another time, while pots boil on burners over Christmas, and I just float around in books.

Bus StationAutoEvolution.com

In the real world, one book is finished, one not, and a third is gathering around, circling sharks to play with from my Laker’s boat (a Laker being one who fished from lakes, in the history of family names): the finished, the unfinished, and the finned.

I’ve been busy with many things worthy of their own future stories, and my busman’s Christmas is very much one to look forward to, now that everyone else of concern is settled in their respective best places (with others simply ignored). Top of this list has been my sister by another mister, the young girl I met four years ago on the streets and who remains close. Now a new mum (not by me), The Courts got a bit of help keeping hold of the kid, and now they’re safe together in a foster placement for new mums. While everyone else was crawling over the new baby, and one in particular trying to claim some sort of credit for leaving a trail of destruction, I’d just been quietly working in the background, so that what they were cooing over could actually be cooed over and not taken away. I can only speak of it now, because the story has a happy beginning. The young one is called Cleo, which makes me an auntie.

The Unfinished Literary Agency (the book) is compiled and going through proofing. It’s 20 stories in all, available in January in paperback (272 pages) for £7.99 (other currencies are available). I out-sourced the back cover text, because I didn’t want it to sound too much from my own arse. I gave it to an editor acquaintance. ‘Friend’ would be stretching it, which is exactly why I went to him, as I knew I wouldn’t get sycophancy back. I knew he wouldn’t slag me off, and perhaps it’s a bit thick with the praise, but as the words of someone else about me, I was pleasantly surprised:

These are collected tales from an author variously compared with the surrealists Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, the horror writers Kafka, Lovecraft, King and Poe, and with Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Roald Dahl and Paul Auster.

“A writer who can hold a black mirror to the soul, and who has a deep insight into the human condition,” these are stories of fairy tale fantasy, plausible and whimsical science fiction, near-future vision and surreal dreams, with drops of dark humour. Tales of post-human landscapes mix with everyday slices of life to tell a longer story with a dark heart.

“A weird and thought-provoking journey…”

So that’s nice, to read about oneself, by someone else, in a published work, as most of my family will in the other book I can now concentrate even more fully on.

In Silent Gardens, I’m still fishing around my nan’s old house, with the farm opposite, where myself and a school friend used to procure turkey feet at this time of year. My friend’s uncle would obligingly leave the tendons protruding from the feet, so that we could use them as grasping claws on unsuspecting friends and family, and to pick up litter. It was all very Christmassy.

After the silence of the gardens, a third anthology is already taking shape. The Unfinished Literary Agency is lighter on pure graphic horror than The Perpetuity of Memory, and more suitable for all ages (my son co-wrote one of the stories). Given some of the material I’m being gifted in real life, the third collection will likely contain more surreal horror and mindfuckery, because it’s nice for people to read about fictional characters they can relate to in a published work.

Living alone with depression and anxiety at Christmas can be like keeping a bus afloat on a lake. If the lake has sharks in it, it’s even more fun.