My late father’s life through his own words, tales and stories
|Brian Matier – 03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018|
Writing Class Submission 2003
|Why do human beings do certain things? God knows! The answer is, I suppose, because we are human beings. After meeting our basic needs, of food, clothing and shelter, our humanity points us in different directions to achieve the seven stages of man, or whatever the hell they are called. So what, I hear you cry, is all that to do with our little writing group. Well, hang on, I’m getting to that.|
As we go through life, there are a number of challenges into which we bump, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Like the rest of us, I went to school. Well, OK, then, that’s not strictly true. I was sent to school. Unlike, I guess, some children, but, I suspect, exactly like many others, I wasn’t all that terribly involved in this process. Most of the subjects were peripheral to my interests, at best, even if the meaning of the word was unknown to me at the time. However, the years rolled on, and when it came for me to leave school I had developed an affinity for History, Geography and yes, English. This is, I think, called Sod’s Law.
It was too late, I had to find a job, and I had discovered girls, the latter often necessitating the former. The next twenty or so years were fully occupied with raising children, paying the mortgage and putting food into mouths. Along the way I tried to be a responsible citizen, and ran the political spectrum from voting Labour, through the Liberals of Jeremy Thorpe to being a fan of Maggie. I once asked Jeremy a question at a political meeting. No, it was about politics. I also had lunch with Glynis Kinnock and drank white wine with Mrs T. If pressed, I will admit that there were thirty other people at the do with Kinnock’s missus, and some three hundred sipping Chablis with the Iron Lady.
I wore the Queen’s uniform and fought in someone else’s war. As we said at the time, for Queen and Country. Our Queen, their Country.
Basic needs satisfied, my ambitions wandered around looking for other peaks. Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Claudia Schiffer always featured high up on these peaks. Never scaled, alas! Nor did my ambition to be called upon to open the batting for England at Lords and score a hundred before lunch against the Aussies on the Saturday of the Test Match. Many red-blooded males were similarly disappointed, and not only by the cricket.
Some more achievable targets were reached. One was giving my daughter away on her wedding day. This was such an honour, she allowed me to do it twice. Falling in love completely, for the first time in my life, some thirty years after getting married and divorced was a never to be repeated experience. I got my Jaguar, some thirty-six years after drooling over the sexy E Type at Earls Court in 1961. So many years wasted, but there will never be another car but the Big Cat until I die.
I wanted to hike in the Himalayas. I did. I wanted to see a tiger in the wild. I did. I wanted to visit every country in the world. Hands up! I failed that one. The score stands at 122.
And I wanted to write. Why? I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious, but I felt I had something to say. We all have, the trick is persuading someone else that they want to read it. So at long last we get to our writing group. I have now completed my second full year, and also had a few weeks before I toddled off to earn a bob or two in South Africa.
Two heads are reputedly better than one, ergo, fifteen must be better than two, and make that sixteen if we count Sam. As some of us may accept, the group has also become something of a social gathering, which adds to its attraction. I enjoy the writing, and, in particular, I enjoy the challenge of trying, not always successfully, of trying to write on the given topic. This can be annoying and frustrating, as I would prefer the easy option of writing on Tigers, Jaguars, Wellington or Russian girls.
The discipline of constructing a piece on a subject about which I know little is a worthy challenge. It requires imagination, research, and frequently a decision to approach the work from an entirely different, and sometimes obtuse angle. All these exercises stretch one, and make a better writer to return to the self-selected topics.
Within the bounds of acceptable behaviour, my fellow writers offer, usually, constructive comments. Sometimes I disagree with them, more often I wince and recognise the truth. From them, I hear the thoughts or musings of up to fifteen others, sometimes expressed mundanely, sometimes amusingly, sometimes emotionally, but always, or nearly always interestingly. Sometimes I think, ‘That’s a load of cobblers’, but everyone has tried, and everyone deserves the courtesy of constructive dialogue.
After a while, it is possible to discern certain styles from people; Harry’s apparently unconnected wanderings, loosely woven around a central theme, Judith’s often crisp, well constructed and amusing pieces; June’s wild and zany humour, Beth’s wandering bears and flat faced angel, and Jade’s courage. I do frequently learn much from you and think to myself, ’I wish I had written that.’ Thank you all.
“Two of a Kind!”
|Henry straightened from his digging and leaned on his spade, breathing heavily. “God, I’m getting too old for this,” he chided himself as he surveyed his extensive garden with lawn running over fifty yards to the tall copse of oak and elm trees through which the sun streamed in shafts of gold. In the near distance a church tolled its tribute to this June Sabbath as Henry savoured the suspicion of an aroma of woodsmoke drifting at nose level from an anonymous neighbour’s fire. The promise of the day was limitless. It was perfect.|
Henry Miles stiffened as he heard the hated voice of his next door neighbour. This perfect day had been destroyed in an instant. He turned around slowly, ramrod straight, his face a mask. He regarded the man on the other side of his garden fence with no attempt to hide his contempt and distaste. There he stood, Oliver Leach, the neighbour from hell. Henry could only see his neighbour’s head and shoulders. “He looks older and thinner”, he thought, “but as arrogant looking as ever.” He hadn’t spoken to this man for years, except through lawyers.” Were you speaking to me?”
“Yes, I was.”
“What do you want? Come to complain about the moles, or my cat?” He could not bring himself to use the bastard’s name.
“No, nothing like that. I was just thinking that it was time we settled all our differences. We are too old to keep this up for the rest of our lives.”
Henry stood still, shocked beyond measure by what he had just heard. “What do you want, Leach?”
“Perhaps we could have a drink sometime and resolve things between us?”
Henry could not believe his ears, but here it was, an opportunity to wash away twenty-five years of enmity. He spoke slowly, clearly, as if speaking to a child. “Very well. Come over to my place this evening. Eight o’clock all right for you?”
Leach nodded. “Eight would be fine.”
“Do you still drink malt. I have a very fine Laphroaig?” With considerable effort he added, “Oliver.”
“Yes, I ‘m still a whiskey man. Eight o’clock then.” And he turned away towards his back door.
Henry stood for a full five minutes as he tried to absorb the impact of their conversation. Slowly he put his gardening tools away in the shed. His heart was no longer in the tasks he had so eagerly anticipated when he got out of bed on this beautiful day. After all this time Leach wanted to talk. His mind slipped back to the start of their feud. That dammed back fence. Had it really been important that it was built twelve inches on the wrong side of Oliver’s land? It had seemed important at the time, and especially after three court appearances. That had been the start. Afterwards it was everything; the kids, the noise from their records and the television, smoke from the barbecue, the cat crapping in his flowerbeds and the damage to Henry’s car which he had been certain was caused by Oliver Leach. One thing led to another. Neither side would take the first steps in making peace. When the children left, it got worse. So bad, in fact, that Henry’s wife just upped and left and Oliver’s ran off with her driving instructor. And still two bitter old men maintained their feud, the reasons for which were almost forgotten.
Henry went into the house, his mind full of the past and the implications for the future. As he remembered all the misery he had suffered because of Oliver Leach, he felt his anger rising. He felt he now understood what ‘blood boiling’ meant. “I wish I had never asked him here”, he muttered to himself, as he pushed the cat away from rubbing itself against his legs. Still, he had asked him, and he had better prepare.
At eight o’clock precisely, the doorbell rang. Henry glanced at his watch. “Bastard, he always so punctual.” He opened the front door, and Oliver, resplendent in grey slacks, blue, open necked shirt and sports jacket entered. He presented a bottle of Wolf Blass, white Australian Chardonnay. “Good evening, Henry.”
They talked in general fashion for twenty minutes or so, and Oliver had two whiskeys in that time. “Another?” Henry indicated the empty glass.
Henry moved away to the drinks cabinet to fix the drinks. He sensed, rather than heard, Oliver behind him. He half turned, stopping as he felt the searing pain in his back. It was a knife, he knew that, and felt the blade drive into him, a tearing, unbearable pain. He could feel the hilt of the knife hard against his back and then the indescribable agony as the knife was twisted and then withdrawn. He turned slowing to look into Oliver’s twisted face and he was immediately stabbed again, the blade sliding into his abdomen just under his ribs. Slowly Henry subsided into a sitting position on the floor, his back against the cabinet. He was dying, he knew that. His shirt was stained with blood, blood poured from his mouth, salty on his tongue. Blood everywhere. Painfully, he raised his head to look at Oliver’s hate filled eyes. He could smell the whiskey on the man’s breath, his dammed whiskey.
“Why? Why? You said you wanted to sort things out.”
Oliver laughed harshly. “No, I said I wanted to settle things between us, and I have, you loathsome bastard. I have cancer of the colon and I will be dead in three months. I didn’t want you to outlive me and think you had won. Now I am going to cut your repulsive head off.” He grasped Henry by the hair and forced his head back.
Henry laughed, the blood spraying from his mouth. “You won’t have that long, Oliver. Maybe twelve hours. Why do you think I drank gin? Did the Laphroaig not taste strange? I put strychnine in your drink. We are two of a kind, you and me.” The last thing Henry saw was Oliver’s face convulsed with hate, dissolving in front of him, as the blade sliced through his throat.
Writing as a form of Suicide
|I stare at the screen, which stares back, unblinking and arrogant. What I have written is not right; it does not say what I want it to say, and stare as I will, it will neither change nor fade away. “Damm it!” I stretch out my left hand and pull back the curtain at the window above my desk to study the clock. “Bugger me, it’s 1.30 in the morning.” The clock is a handsome piece, golden face set in green marble, bearing the legend, ‘Mobil Security Annual Meeting, Baltimore, and April 1999’. Three years and a lifetime have passed since that was presented.|
I rise stiffly from the computer, and, taking my half-filled mug of cold coffee with me, depart for the kitchen. I feel suddenly cold, and I shiver, reflecting that my normal indoors dress of shorts and a tee shirt may be suitable for the South of France in summer, but not for Epsom in February. The hairs on my bare legs are standing in rigid protest, and in deference to their well being, I switch on the central heating. It seems like ages since it went off, and the last creakings of the cooling house had momentarily upset my concentration. I make a fresh coffee and sip it, my back against the bookcase, staring once again at the screen.
“So why do you do this?” I ask myself.
“Do what?” myself replies, playing for time.
“Write, you fool. What do you think you are achieving?”
“I don’t know,” I mumble.
“Do you think you are going to write the great British novel, or become the next Shakespeare, or do you simply want to see your name in print?”
“No idea,” I mumble again. “I’ve not thought about it.”
“Well, think about it.”
So, as instructed, I think about it. No, certainly not Shakespeare. The man was a genius. Well, he was, or whoever wrote the books was. He knew, he understood so much, about life and people, about ambition and fear, about joy and despair, but most of all about love. And he could write. He had a way with words, their selection, their sounds, their nuances and their positioning, one against the other, chosen each to enhance the other. “And gentlemen of England, now abed, will hold their manhoods cheaply, when they speak who fought with us upon St Crispin’s Day.”
No, I will never be Shakespeare, with his truths, as meaningful today as four hundred years ago. So, then, the Great British Novel, is that your aim? No, not guilty my lord.
“All right, you would like to see your name in print?” Again I ask myself the question.
“That would be a bonus, but it is not the driver. I want to say what I need to say in my words, using those words in the most pleasing way I can. If anyone else reads them, that would be fine. If they enjoy them, that would be even better.”
“It’s not much of an answer, is it?”
“No, you’re right, it’s not any kind of an answer.”
I have written four books in my lifetime, two in the last two years. The first was called ‘If you can’t stand a joke.’ It was written because I wanted to know if I could write. It was set in England, and Denmark, places I knew, and Israel, which I didn’t know. Foolishly, as it turned out, I gave it to my wife to read. Far from constructive criticism, or a loyal “Well done, love,” I was questioned as to when I had been at Eilat and made love on the beach?
The second, written ten years later, in 1990, was called ‘Casters of Shadows’, and was a murder story located in Britain, Australia and Vietnam, during the war, all of which places I knew. This was better, but was written to fill in the hours of sleeplessness after my divorce.
Following the ten-year rule, ‘The killing of Alex Millar’ came along for the Millennium. This was born after a painful labour, in the long dark evening of the soul, after Jeanne and I parted. It was undertaken to heal the wounds of the past and exorcise the ghosts. The wounds, even after four years were still open, untreated and untreatable, ready to be re-infected by the most mundane events of the present. The ghosts were not exorcised; they are still smashing plates and throwing the furniture around. I am on first name terms with these ghosts, who visit at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual places.
Book four was ‘Allez les Reds’, a love story and a football tale. Commercial stuff this, with a male and female interest.
I was loaned a copy of ‘Disgraced’ by J M Coetzee, set in South Africa, which I know well, and the book, I think, won the Booker Prize. It was probably the least enjoyable and most badly written book I have ever read, and yet he won an award. If he can get away with that, surely I can write too.
I finished the coffee and returned to the kitchen.
“Finished?” I ask myself.
“No, you ding a ling, the bloody writing?”
“For now, yes.”
“And did you work out why you want to write?”
“Well, find an answer to the question, and one day you might, just might, be able to write.”
I didn’t answer. There’s no future in talking to yourself, is there?
The Old Photograph Album
|He stood just inside the door of the once familiar room and looked around. The memories, long asleep, flooded back, and assailed his brain, causing his eyes to sting. He rubbed the back of his index finger underneath his eyelashes, and dried it on his shirt. He’d better get on with things, before someone came in and told him to hurry up.|
He picked up a handful of CD’s and turned them sideways to look at the titles. Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Chris Rea, and what’s this, Mark Knoffler? He put them all on the floor, and pulled aside the television to get to the videocassettes. They, too, ended up on the floor, alongside the CD’s. What will I do with all of these? I haven’t got enough room for everything. There was something else behind the videos, a photograph album. He had not seen that in years, and had forgotten about its existence.
He pulled it out, and noted the thin film of dust which seemed appropriate to its age. He took his handkerchief, blew off the worst of the dust, and wiped the rest with the hankie. He opened the pages, flicking through them, before moving to the armchair and sitting down. He turned the pages more slowly now, lingering over special memories. And there he was, in RAF uniform, smiling broadly, his cap set at an angle, his prized wings just showing on his tunic. And the ribbon of the DFC underneath the wings. How different the world had been then, a better place in some ways, a worse place in other ways. No, on balance, a better place.
He turned another page, and a photograph leaned drunkenly, held by only one of the little corners. Jean stared at him, head inclined slightly, almost quizzically, confident and assured in the full flowering of womanhood. Nothing bothered Jean, not four children, not the war, not a shortage of money. She had been indomitable. Indomitable, that was the word, all her life, until she died. It had only taken a week from diagnosis until her death. God, how he had missed her. The love of his life. The focal point of his life, to use a modern term. No point in living after Jean had gone, but he had to, so they told him.
And here were the children, on the beach at Torquay, posed, but smiling, buckets and spades held aloft like trophies. And here was Jasmin, stretched out on the seat in the garden, her head resting on her front paws, her eyes half open in the manner of cats. He could almost hear her purring, like an old Singer sewing machine. And speaking of Singers, here it was. He turned the page and the Gazelle, with its daring two-tone paint job, posed proudly beside the family. I wonder where that car is now?
He turned another page, and there was Stella’s wedding pictures, all very conventional. They were shown signing the register, standing in the church door, getting into the Daimler. It was the only time she had been in a Daimler in her life. He had been so proud to march down the aisle to give his daughter away. The sun had shone all day, that far off July.
He finished the album and put it down carefully. That must not be thrown out, it contained his life. His wife came into the room. “George, are you all right?”
He wiped his eyes again, but with his hankie; she didn’t like him wiping his tears on his shirt. “Yes, love, I’m Ok. Sorting out Dad’s things brings back memories.”
The St Valentine’s Day Messy Cure
|The rain started just as the train was slowing on arrival at Ewell Station. The swollen raindrops plopped against the windows like over-ripe fruit, before spreading out in straight lines across the glass. “Damm it!” He swore gently under his breath. He had just known this would happen. The 1830 had been cancelled and the 1845 was ten minutes late. Had he caught the earlier train, as he had planned, he would be home by now. It had been a bastard of a day and the boss had been in his most bloody-minded mood.|
It was raining heavily as he left the station concourse and viewed the twenty or twenty-five people huddled at the taxiless taxi rank. He swore again. This would take forever. He resolved to walk, despite his umbrella being safe and sound in the rack at home. He crossed the park to save time and obtain what little shelter the leafless winter tress offered. The rain was cold and pervasive.
Richard was soaked through and in a very foul mood as he turned the key in the front door of his flat. The door did not open easily and he had to push it quite hard. There was something behind it, a brown paper parcel. It was quite large and he wondered how it had got through the letterbox. This problem was quickly solved on picking it up. The contents, whatever they were, were soft and pliable. He dropped the parcel in the kitchen and left wet footmarks on the carpet as he squelched up the hall. It could wait; these dammed clothes could not.
Richard stripped naked in the bedroom, leaving a damp bundle of clothing steaming like freshly dropped dung. He showered and put a towel around his waist. He did not know why, as he lived alone. Towelling his hair vigorously he returned to the kitchen and viewed his parcel. It was certainly addressed to him, but the franking was a bleary mess and it was impossible to tell where it had been posted. There was no sender’s address either. He used his fingers to open the wrapping and lifted a small Teddy Bear from its brown paper bed. It had a tiny red heart in its mouth.
“My God,” be said out loud. “It’s a Valentine’s Day present.” Again he searched the paper wrapping for a note or clue of some kind. There was none. Who could have done this? His ex wife? No, she was only interested in taking money from him, not spending it. Perhaps she was trying to stir things in some way. Margaret, then, his girlfriend? No, she did not have a romantic bone in her skinny body. But who? And why?
At that moment the doorbell rang, and still in his towel he went to answer it. There stood Helen, his prematurely widowed Greek neighbour from Flat 8. “Good evening, Helen”. He spoke warily.
“Richard, no clothes on. You were expecting me?”
He shook his head helplessly and retreated a yard. “No, I was in the shower. Got wet walking from the station. What can I do for you?”
“Milk,” she said advancing even as he retreated further. “Can I borrow a cupful?”
Nervously he tightened the towel at his waist. “Sure, in the kitchen.”
Helen frightened him. She was a predator, somewhere over fifty and much given to wearing clothes designed for sixteen-year-olds. A roll of middle aged female flab hung between her top and jeans, and the stud in her navel glistened in the kitchen light. As was normal, a cigarette hung loosely from her bottom lip, her yellow teeth exposed in a grin. A long time ago Helen had mistaken his look of horror for one of lust and had pursued him with a ferocity known only to Jim Corbett, the legendary tiger hunter in India. Helen spotted the parcel and teddy bear. “Someone sent you a present?”
He shook his head. “No idea”
“It was not a British person.”
“How do you know that?”
She pointed to the address. “Look at Flat 7 and the postcode, KT17. Both the sevens have a little stroke through them.”
A terrible thought struck him. “It wasn’t you, Helen, was it?”
“No!” The reply was emphatic. “Perhaps it was that Spanish man in number 17. Are you queer, Richard?”
An escape tunnel opened in front of him. He spoke gravely. “Yes, Helen, I am gay. It had to come out sometime. That was why my wife divorced me.”
The effect was electrifying and Helen scuttled away clutching a cup of full cream.
The following day after a morning spent trudging round Ikea with Margaret, they returned to his flat for a coffee, where Al Capone, heart in mouth, sat on top of the fridge.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
“Do you mean the fridge or the teddy bear?”
“You know what I mean. Who sent you the stupid bear?”
“You mean it wasn’t from you?”
“It bloody well wasn’t”
One thing, as they say, led to another. Just before she stormed out, she demanded. “Richard, are you a queer. You have never tried to make love to me.”
God, the same accusation twice in twenty-four hours, perhaps he was. A dignified reply was the preferred response. “Margaret, I am not gay, if that is what your question implied. Could you consider that perhaps, just perhaps, I don’t actually fancy you.” Even as the door slammed, he knew he would never see her again.
Monday morning was clear and sunny, if a little cold. He had his suit in a plastic bag to drop off at the dry cleaners. The young woman who ran the business was invariably cheerful and pleasant. Richard smiled. “Am I right in thinking you have a child?”
She looked puzzled. “Yes, Janine, my little girl. She’s three.”
He took Al Capone out of his briefcase where he had nestled beside his umbrella. “Would she like this? He’s a very good bear. I call him Al, and he has been a really good friend to me.”
They were both smiling as he left the shop, and Richard imagined that Al waved to him as he left.
The Holy Grail
|He was a short man, with glasses, and a balding pate, white hair curling around his ears. He smiled, reminding me of a benign, if probably homosexual vicar. “Just fill in the questionnaire, please, Ben.”|
There were some thirty pages and it took me about fifteen minutes to complete, with Simon, for such was his name, watching me over his glasses with his fingers steepled to his lips. I finished and handed the document over. As Simon read, I wondered if I should have come here. It was, I reflected, free to me, and my employers were clearly sufficiently concerned about my life, post Mobil, to pay for this counsellor to give me the benefits of his thinking.
At one stage he began to laugh heartily, and in a refreshingly masculine way. “You can’t do that,” he said, pointing to question 56.
I looked at 56. It asked what would I like to do most of all in the world, if I had the chance. I had replied, “Open the batting for England against Australia at Lords, and score a hundred before lunch on the Saturday of the Test Match.”
Simon shook his head. “Sorry, you can’t do that. I’m going to do it.”
Robert Croft, the Glamorgan cricketer grew up wanting to play Rugby for Wales and cricket for England. I grew up wanting to play football for Northern Ireland and cricket for England. Robert Croft at least achieved one of his goals. I achieved neither.
I have long supported England’s sports teams, cricket, football and Rugby, and it has not always been a rewarding experience. I remember 1966, of course, but was living in Australia at the time, so the immediacy and excitement of Bobby Moore’s heroes’ achievements were lost. This time was different.
Over the years I have concluded that Rugby is a better game than soccer, not necessarily on a skills level, but because of the behaviour of the participants. In the 2003 Rugby World Cup I passionately wanted England to win. They were joint favourites with the All Blacks, and it looked good. England, under Will Carling had lost the final 12-6 to Australia in 1991 in a game they should have won. They had been searching for the Holy Grail ever since.
It was easy in the first game against poor little Georgia, who were probably on a par with Epsom 3rd XV. The score was 86-6. The second game against South Africa was harder, but we still won 25-6. The Springboks were probably the fourth best team in the world. I listened to the Samoa game while working in my daughter’s lighting shop. The brave Samoans led for most of the match, but still lost 35-22. Uruguay’s minnows lost by a cricket score and England were in the last eight.
In the quarter final, the Welsh dragon managed three tries to England’s one, but the red rose still came through 28-17. In the semis, the Wallabies upset the joint favourites New Zealand and England outplayed our old ‘beloved enemy’ France. It rained during the game and the French captain wished England luck in the final, but excused his team’s loss as ‘the conditions climatique were against us.’ What, it never rains in France, then?
The long awaited final was played on a rainy Saturday evening in Sydney. The Holy Grail was in sight. Throughout the tournament the Australian press maintained a vicious campaign against England who were described as, ‘arrogant’, ‘old’, ‘slow’ and ‘boring.’
For several days before the big game, I could hardly eat with tension, and did not sleep on the Friday night. I have a confession to make. I decided that I could not bring myself to watch the game, but set the VCR. About 10.00 AM my sister rang.
“Did you hear the score?”
I was screaming inwardly. “I don’t want to know the score.”
“It’s all right, England are playing well. We’re leading 14-5 at half time.”
“Go away,” I told her, “and don’t phone again till this afternoon.”
Finally I weakened and switched on the box with about five minutes to go, and just in time to see Elton Flatley level at 14 each. “Oh, my God, we’re going to blow it again.”
Now that I was watching, I couldn’t break away, living those last twenty minutes on my feet alternately wringing my hands and biting my fingernails. The wonderful Wilkinson gave us the lead again with a penalty and then, unbelievably, there was Flatley again to level with two minutes to go
I can’t stand this; I will have a cardiac.
Steve Smith on the television said, “kick long, gain yardage, win the ball, hold the ruck, get Wilkinson in the pocket and give him the ball.” England drove on, Matt Dawson darted up the side of the scrum on the ground, gaining seven or eight yards before being dragged down. The ball came back to England, to the giant Martin Johnston. He saw that Dawson was out of place and he offered his body as a battering ram to gain a yard and give Dawson time to get back. The ball came out on England’s side, to Matt Dawson, who half turned and slipped the pass to Jonny Wilkinson in the pocket. Jonny swung his right foot as the despairing Aussies descended on him.
There was the ball, white in the stadium light, spiralling end over end towards the posts as the spectators began to rise in anticipation, their arms reaching towards the heavens. It seemed to be a lifetime as that ball went through the posts, as English players and Australians alike stood still to watch. It was through. 20-17. It was done, or nearly done.
The Wallabies kicked off with twenty seconds to go, and the ball came to Catt. “Lose it, Mike”, I found myself screaming, “put it into the bloody stand.” The ball was in touch, the whistle went. England, despite trying hard to give the game to the Aussies, were the World Champions. Johnston was handed the William Webb Ellis Trophy, from John Howard, the lemon sucking Australian Prime Minister
On Monday 8th December 2003 I went to Central London to applaud the team as they drove through 750,000 cheering fans. England held the World Cup. They had reached the Holy Grail, and there it was in Martin Johnson’s hands. But not just the team had reached the Grail. All the people watching in London and all those who could not be there, we too, through our Rugby players, had found the Grail also. Thank you, fellas, and congratulations.
Lies and Lying
|“Does my bum look big in this?”|
This question is normally posed by a woman to a man, and demands an answer. This is what is known as a ‘no win’ situation, and was invented by Eve when she made up The Rules. Refusing to reply is a policy which may lead to withdrawal of co-operation in the kitchen or the bedroom. So what is the answer? One of the following may apply.
“Of course it bloody well does, you stupid bitch.”
“Of course not, darling.”
“Well, I think it is probably a bit loose on you, sweetheart.”
So, what are the elements in this little folk story?
OK, so the third answer is so obviously crawling that it will be seen through immediately by any half intelligent woman. Leaving aside the proposition that any half intelligent woman would not have posed the question in the first place, unless she was looking for you to lie, what are you left with? I would suggest that the male reply is ”Of course not, darling,” and a quick retreat to the Daily Telegraph.
We are left with the almost certain knowledge that the woman whose bum did not look big in something or other would have known this for a certainty, and would not have wasted her time asking.
Firstly, you will, if you are a quarter intelligent man, tell a lie ninety nine times in a hundred. You know, a lie, a porkie, a whopper. Or as our old friend the Compact Oxford Dictionary would have it, ‘an intentionally false statement’. And it is sort of covered in the Ten Commandments in the Bible. You remember the bit about bearing false witness. Yes, I do know that it is lower down the scale than adultery, even though the two are often related. This is what is known as a ‘lying relationship.’ Get it? Well, never mind, Jane will explain later, with diagrams. Yes, I did say diagrams. I will spell that if you are uncertain.
So, we need someone to tell the lie, and someone to tell the lie to, or as Sir Winston would have preferred it, someone to whom the lie can be told. But it isn’t quite as simple as that, things rarely are. As we have seen from she with the big bum, a lie may be what is expected, and is therefore a Good Thing, whereas, the affirmative reply, although true, would earn you a smart clip around the ear, and is, therefore, and by definition, a resoundingly Bad Thing.
So we have established that there are good, or white, lies, and bad lies, which are also called bad lies. We could get into lying where the liar believes what he is saying, but we do not time to discuss the Prime Minister here.
Anything else on lying? Well yes, the position of the liar matters a bit. If Joe Smith states in the Fox and Ferret, “I did not have my leg over with Stella, the barmaid in the King’s Head,” it possibly doesn’t matter a scrap, except perhaps to Joe, Stella, and maybe their nearest and dearest, including Stella’s Dad, if she is pregnant. These are known as Consequences, to which we will allude later.
If the President of the United States, and leader of the free world, states, on oath, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” it matters a little more. He was, of course, referring to Monica, but could just as easily have meant Hillary, probably with more truth.
The Consequences are different.
Let’s examine another liar, the great Napoleon. In his day, Boney had been Pele, George Best and Sir David Beckham all rolled into one. On the 18th June 1815, his best days were behind him, and he should have been on the bench and not leading the line. He kicked off at 11.30 and some two hours later the scores were level. Wellington was playing a blinder in his sweeper role.
Napoleon then saw some troops about five or six miles away on his right wing. He recognised them as Prussians, the first wisps of Blucher’s terrible kinder, intent on a bloody revenge on the French for years of national humiliation. Napoleon lied. Telling his staff that the distant figures were the outriders of Marshal de Grouchy’s 30, 000 Frenchmen, he sent his brave men under the Bravest of the Brave, Michel Ney against the unwavering Anglo Dutch lines, where Wellington knew about bravery himself. The line held, the British were still fighting when the Prussians arrived and swept Napoleon and the French Empire into the dustbin of history.
If the Iron Duke had given way, the battle would have been over before the terrible kinder had arrived, and we would all be speaking French today. That was the consequence of Napoleon’s lie, but it could have been different.
So, lying is like alcohol. Too much is bad for you, none makes you miserable, but a little at the right time makes you happy.
I never lie myself, of course.
Jaguar: A Love Requited
|Maybe I was a slow developer, but I was not aware of Jaguars until the middle 1950’s, when I was at school. In those heady days, C and D Types were regularly winning Le Mans, and my interest, and pride stemmed not from the fact that they were Jaguars, but that Jaguar was British. In truth, I was unable to reconcile the racing Jags with the fairly big beasts seen occasionally on the roads. I cannot ever remember seeing an XK in those days. This all changed in 1961 when I saw the E Type, and fell in love, madly, truly, deeply. It has been a love affair that has lasted forty-three years now. I was not made an honest man until 1997.|
From the depths of my folk memory, I first saw the E Type at the Motor Show at Earls Court, and it seemed to be priced just under £2000. A nearby Mercedes-Benz SL something or other was about two and a half times as much. At the time, the E struck me as just the most beautiful car I had ever seen, and my opinion has not changed in all the succeeding years. It was love at first sight, but from afar as far as I was concerned, as I had no ability to buy a used Ford Anglia, let alone this fabulous creature.
My next close encounter, sometimes not very close, with Jaguars was when I was a Police Officer in the Met, and our big, black Wolseleys, 6/99’s and 6/110’s were routinely left trailing in the wake of the Mark II’s driven by a variety of villains and ne’erdowell’s. On one occasion, three young men killed themselves when they lost control of a 3.8 we were chasing. A high price to pay for ‘taking and driving away’,
Like many young people, especially in the early ‘60’s, making a living was more about clothing and feeding the children, and paying the rent, than owing any type of car, let alone a Jaguar. My first car was a 1938 Wolseley 14, a splendid chariot, for which I paid £20. On its inevitable death, it was replaced by a 1953 4/50. I was much taken with the Flying W in those days, though this example would not have delighted the great Herbert Austin, who had designed for Wolseleys at one stage.
As a family, we lived in Australia for twelve years, and began to move up the vehicular ladder, starting with a Zephyr Mark III, a truly awful car. This was followed by a succession of Peugeots, starting with the delightfully eccentric 203. Big sister, the wonderfully robust 403 was around for a couple of years. Great car! Then came the quatre cent quatre, an elegant and very reliable car. My son would not necessarily have agreed, as I slammed the 404’s door on his eight-year-old fingers. C’est la vie, as the Australians say.
As I was working for General Motors Holden at the time, my management took a dim view of one of their managers, albeit a lowly one, driving the competition, even though the 404 was not Ford, and I was added to the car plan. For half a dozen happy years I drove a succession of mostly very good company cars, especially the little sports coupés called Toranas in Oz. Jaguars had not left my mind, but like Bridget Bardot and Audrey Hepburn then, and Claudia Schiffer and Gwyneth Paltrow now, they were desirable but distant and unattainable dreams.
We all returned to UK in 1977 and I was employed by an oil company, an excellent employer, who insisted on my joining their car plan. I allowed my arm to be twisted and embarked on twenty years behind the wheel of someone else’s vehicle. Two Capri’s 1.6 opened the batting, both very good, to be followed by two big Rovers, 2300’s, one excellent, the other less so. The next two were also BL or whatever they called themselves at the time, MG Montegos, an under rated car, in my view. I lost my patriotism for three years with a BMW 320i, a splendid car, before returning to Rover with a 220GTI, a great little beast.
In 1997, the Company changed the plan and decided to pay an allowance, in lieu of a car, and left it up to the individual to buy what he or she liked, if at all. Ken Clarke/Gordon Brown still took his whack, but I was free to buy my own car. At that time fate intervened. As the 220 and I were driving past the TVR dealership in Chessington, in Surrey, I saw a red Jaguar on the forecourt. I knew that any car I bought, Jag or no, had to be my seven days a week transport. I could not afford the luxury of a vehicle for high days and holidays, while I went to Tesco’s in the Metro.
The red one was a G registered XJS 3.6. I had long known in my heart that the beloved fantasy of my dreams, the E Type Roadster, was not practical. Sorry, Claudia, adieu Gwyneth, but stopping in a straight line is important. I had a trial drive in the XJS and before I had gone five miles, I knew. I wanted this car. I was reminded of the story of Frank Sinatra seeing the E Type in a showroom in New York. “I want that car,” says Francis Albert. “I’ll order one for you, Mr Sinatra,” replies the happy salesman. “You’re not listening,” growls Frankie, “I want that car, and I want it now.” He got it.
On reflection, Frank also sang much better than I could.
I had been warned about Jaguars by all my ‘friends’ who drove Sierras and Mondeos, about needing a fuel tanker to follow me, about needing a spare Jag when the first one was in the workshop. Yes, I was worried, and it would be idle to pretend that owning a Jaguar, especially an older one, is a cheap option. But if price were to be the only criterion, then we’d be on bicycles, or worse, driving the hideous Smart car. (Just my opinion, guys, if you’re into Smart cars.)
My 3.6 had about 75,000 miles on board when I bought it, and I brought it to just over 100,000 in eighteen months. There were no real problems, apart from the A/C, seemingly the Achilles heel for the model. Do I hear groaning? I also found that Jaguar main dealers were less than interested in me, or my ageing XJS. I began to get it serviced at Arun, then in Billingshurst, now in Pulborough in West Sussex, and before long, the smooth talking Dominic had sold me a K registered four litre, post face lift XJS coupé in black. This, too, was splendid, although I felt that the 4.0 litre engine delivered less oomph than the 3.6.
This magnificent creature did some 28,000 miles in eighteen months, and it was then back to Mr de Grouchy again for the present love of my life, an M registered four-litre convertible, in kingfisher. I have now owned this car, back with a favoured K plate, for nearly four years, and completed nearly 60,000 miles since I bought it. .
My Jaguar provides me with my daily transport, to France, Germany and Poland, as well as Tesco’s. I have long dispensed with the fuel tanker following me, and 26-27 mpg on the motorway or AutoRoute is satisfactory. There have been costs for repairs and replacements, though these costs are manageable. Not one of my three XJS’s has ever let me down, touch wood, mahogany veneer, of course, and their style, performance and handling have repaid me many times. In particular, in la belle France, where they make a very decent car themselves, it is magic to see les Français gather round to check out la Jag waur.
It has been a long love affair, from 1961 at Earls Court, to today, and it took me a long time to get my love to the altar, as it were. But we’re together now, and, insh’Allah, that’s how it will be till death us do part.
21st Century Tiger
October 4th 2004
|In the final week before departure the amount of sponsorship reached £1000, and my own contribution was around £1300. There was snow on the ground as I travelled to Heathrow for departure, so suddenly India looked very attractive. The BA flight to Delhi was uneventful despite being two hours late, due, it was said, to post 11th September security requirements. No one felt inclined to argue about increased security at times like these.|
Delhi is not at its most attractive at five in the morning, and we were glad to snatch a few hours sleep before setting out on a seven hour drive to Rishikesh in an Ambassador, the Indian version of the 1956 Morris Oxford. There are a reported 40,000 road deaths annually in India, and this drive provided us with some likely reasons for this figure. The roads are shared by trucks, buses, cars, scooters, rickshaws, three wheeled ‘tuk tuks’, pedestrians, mules, horses, camels, bullocks, pigs, sheep, goats, monkeys, and of course, the ubiquitous cows, which are sacred to Hindus. The road was single track in each direction for most of the way, and overtaking seemed to be the second national sport, after cricket. However, we arrived in Rishikesh with only our nerves damaged.
Rishikesh is one of a number of ‘Holy’ towns alongside the Ganges, and was fascinating, full of weird and wonderful sights to Europeans on their first visit to the sub continent. It was here that we met our guide, guru and friend for the next two weeks, Nidish Sharma. We enjoyed a second seven hour drive up into the Himalayas on roads often one car width wide, and with sheer drops on one side. After a while we decided to trust in God, and our drivers’ skills and enjoyed the views of the silver ribbon of the Ganges far below, and the miles of terraced fields, separated by dry stone walls. We overnighted in a pleasant guesthouse, with beds but no power or running water.
The following day I discovered that three miles twice a week around Epsom Common had ill prepared me for the mountains, which, by definition, are almost always up or down, but not flat. We trekked for three days, with about twelve miles being the maximum day’s march. The views were stunning, snow capped mountains and forests of pine, rhododendrons, and silver oak. Little communities were everywhere, and the people friendly in the extreme. The children, many of whom had not seen white people before, stared with curiosity, and adults shyly said “Good morning.”
The temperature was up in the mid twenties, Celsius, during the day, but plunged to well below freezing at night. I was grateful for my thermals, and a bottle of Scotland’s finest to help survive the nights in the tent. The trekking was hard, particularly so as the ‘paths’ in the mountains consisted mostly of climbing over rocks and tree roots. Going downhill was worst, and put enormous strain on the thigh muscles.
Out of the mountains we travelled by train to Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve, some 670 kilometres away. The average speed of the train was around 20 miles per hour. I am pleased we took the Express! The Park has an area of about 1400 square kilometres, and supports about 35 wild tigers. The tiger’s habitat, and ‘food supermarket’, in this particular area is stable, and Ranthambhore is a very successful Tiger Reserve. We met with former Park Director Valmik Thapar, better known in Britain as the producer/presenter for the BBC of the superlative ‘Land of the Tiger’, seen a year or two back. We also learned a great deal about where the funds raised by tiger charities go, and visited a hospital part funded in this way. It was a humbling experience. A women’s co operative was visited, and discussions held with a researcher for WWF.
We learned a good deal in our time at Ranthambhore, primarily that saving the tiger goes well beyond the animal itself. A sustainable environment must be preserved, and human encroachment discouraged. This depends on the co-operation of the people living next door to the tiger, and this co-operation requires, in turn, the provision of employment, health services, power, clean water and education. This is where some tiger funding must go, to ensure preservation of the creature’s habitat. The most important lessons that I took back from India were these:
If man cannot save this beautiful, powerful, majestic creature, man cannot save anything; and
The earth is not ours to do with what we will. We hold it in trust for future generations.
Oh, and yes, we did see a tiger in the park, a large male about ten feet away, a stunning and staggering sight, which made all the aching muscles in the hills worthwhile.
On 27th September, Born Free received the sad news that Tessa, the Esso tiger, had died.
Tessa had been used regularly throughout her life on television and appeared in a number of Esso commercials as well as featuring on the Esso bill-broads in petrol stations. She has spent the last four years in Aruba, in the Caribbean. Paraded daily for tourists and chained to a table, Tessa was reportedly being used as a photographic object by her owner, Marc Chandler. Tourists were apparently charged US$25 a photograph.
A source close to Mr. Chandler, Tessa’s life-time owner, told Born Free that she had died of a heart attack in early hours on 23rd September at Mr.Chandler’s home in Aruba. She was reportedly 13 years old and had been suffering from chronic arthritis.
Daniel Turner, spokesperson for the Born Free Foundation said, “The Born Free Foundation has been receiving reports from hundreds of distressed tourists, pleading with Born Free to help Tessa. We vowed to do what we could and launched a campaign, to try to stop her exploitation and to seek a tolerable retirement for Tessa.”
Following a Daily Mail article (01/11/03) reporting on Tessa’s plight and the resulting public outcry, the Born Free Foundation launched a campaign in December 2003. Working together with the newspaper, Western Morning News, the campaign appealed to the Aruban authorities to stop Tessa’s exploitation and to seek an alternative, more tolerable retirement for her elsewhere away from the camera. The public’s support for this campaign has been staggering. People wrote in their hundreds to ask the Ministry of Culture, Labor and Sport in Aruba to stop Tessa’s exploitation.
The campaign instigated action and a special envoy from the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in Washington DC visited the Island in early 2004. The Aruban Government then reportedly asked Marc Chandler to leave the island. Rumour followed that Mr. Chandler was taking Tessa to New Zealand but on speaking with the authorities there, Born Free learnt this was not the case. Further investigation revealed that Tessa would be going to the Big Cat Haven in Dawsonville, Georgia USA for emergency treatment for her arthritis. Upon investigation by Born Free, the US authorities confirmed that Tessa would be going to America but only for a six month period for the treatment, after which time, she would have to return to Aruba. The authorities in Aruba, however, were adamant that Tessa and Mr. Chandler could not return.
Mr. Turner explained, “Prior to Tessa’s death, Born Free had secured the offer of a long term home for her at the PAWS sanctuary in California.” He continued, “Esso also came forward with an offer of funding, however Mr.Chandler still had to be persuaded to relinquish Tessa”.
Born Free was still in talks with the US authorities and investigating other ways to communicate with Mr. Chandler, when the news about her untimely death was received. Born Free hopes that a full post mortem will be carried out to clarify her cause of death. In captivity tigers can be expected to exceed 20 years of age. It is such a tragic ending to the life of a beautiful animal that had, like so many captive wild animals around the world, been exploited for commercial gain.
As far as the Born Free Foundation is concerned, Tessa’s life will not be in vain, Born Free will continue to campaign against the exploitation of captive wild animals in zoos, circuses, in magic shows and as photographic props.
Born Free would like to thank all those people who have supported Tessa’s campaign, and hope that they will continue to follow and support the work of the Born Free Foundation.
My Father wrote this letter to the Born Free Foundation following the news of the Death of Tessa.
4thth October 2004
M/S Born Free Foundation
I returned recently from France to find out the sad news about Tessa the Esso tiger, from a friend’s e-mail. He also attached your coverage on the Internet.
You may be quite right in all you say, however, having been to Aruba on two occasions and having met Tessa each time, I would like to present a different picture which pertained at that time from the one your article seemed to suggest.
A little about myself may set the background. I, too, am a strong supporter of animal conservation, particularly of endangered species. My particular love is the tiger, to such an extent that my nickname from family and friends is Tiger and Tigre to my French friends. I support 21st Century Tiger and have a standing order in their name with my bank. In 2001, with that group, I went trekking in the Himalayas to raise funds for tigers in the wild. While in India, I met Valmik Thapar. In addition I have made presentations to school and church groups on the survival of the tiger.
In 2001, in Aruba, I had my photo taken with Tessa and spoke at length to Mark Chandler. Tessa was NOT chained to a table, but held by a cooker by Mr Chandler during photo sessions. She did not seem in any way distressed or unhappy and outside of photo time was free to wander in her enclosure, which was reasonably sized, clean, had areas of shelter and a pool. Mr Chandler told me the tiger lived at his home at night, though under what circumstances I do not know.
Mr Chandler, to me, had a close bond with Tessa, and was clearly very fond of her. I do not believe that Tessa was exploited, to use you word, any more than the animals in Howlett’s. There, too, admission is charged for entry to see the animals. In this terrible world in which we live, creatures like tigers, in captivity, teach people about their wild cousins’ plight.
I thought you might like to hear another point of view on the matter.
A Walk in the Woods
Reflection 2004/Penned 2009
|I have been watching the small square of Perspex for about twenty minutes now, and it had gradually changed in colour from jet black to pale white, journeying through a variety of shades of grey. I know I should get up, but the pressure on my bladder is not yet sufficiently strong to force an evacuation from the comfort of the sleeping bag. I remove one gloved hand from the warm folds of the bag and pull my woolly hat back over my ears. God, I am glad that no one I know can see me! I must look like a right berk, with my thermals, top and bottom, trekking socks, jogging trousers and fleece. Still at 12000 feet it is better to be warm than fashionable.|
You cannot rap on the flap of a tent, not literally, but metaphorically that is what Bala Singh does. “Good morning, sir, your chai.”
I unzip the tent flap, and stare into a lined, nuggetty, brown face, black eyes twinkling, even in the half light of six in the morning. His remaining teeth are indelibly stained brown by a lifetime of smoking binnies, the foul smelling mountain cigarettes. Bala is forty-six, but looks half as old as the Himalayas from which he sprang.
“Mostar.” I grunt, using up 50 per cent of my Garwali vocabulary. “Thanks.” I note with an involuntary shiver the white mantle of frost on the grassy meadow, and I duck inside the tent again, my tin mug of tea clasped in both hands. The tea is hot and sweet, and stewed, in the Indian fashion, but welcome for all that.
I wash quickly, kneeling naked inside the tent, wincing at the scaldingly hot water fresh from the wood fire which has burned all night. I rub ‘Deep Heat’ into my aching thighs, the pungent smell giving a familiar, but entirely false sense of well being. Dressing is an equally rapid activity, and is followed by breakfast, mango juice, boiled eggs, tea, and toast and jam.
At seven thirty we are all ready, hoisting on our backpacks as the boys strike camp, and load the patient mules, unconcerned by the activity, with heads down nibbling the thin mountain grass. Nidish, looking incongruous in Indian dress and a baseball cap, regards us wickedly. “Shall we go, gentlemen?”
“Do we have a choice, mein sturmbahnfuhrer?” I mutter rhetorically, as I stagger off, my mind already occupied by another twelve miles of the sight of the backsides of Nidish, Richard and Neil a hundred yards ahead of me as I wallow like a Thames barge in the wake of three schooners.
We climb, slowly in my case, through a forest of pines, rhododendrons, and silver oaks, the sun shafting down in unexpected cascades of gold. Occasionally a startled bird springs in flight from a branch in front of my face causing my heart to leap. You don’t find tigers up here, do you? There are no paths in the mountains, just a series of rocks or tree roots that countless generations of Garwalis have smoothed with their feet over several thousands of years. The air is thinner, and my breath rasps in my throat, my chest heaves.
We stop every half hour, or so, for me to catch up with the others, to recover my breath and gulp a mouthful of water before we are off again. The sun is high now, and beats down on me, spreading wet stains across my body and under my arms. My bush hat sits square on my head, absorbing the sweat. Does it make me look like the great white hunter, like Jim Corbett, or like some inexperienced city boy? I know the answer, so I concentrate on gritting my teeth and setting small objectives, that rock, or those trees. Anything, to stop thinking about the climb and the ache now beginning to seize my upper legs.
We reach the top, a flat Himalayan meadow, about a mile across, above the tree line, the air crisp and sharp like Chablis, even in the growing warmth of the late autumn sun. The high Himalayas, snow covered and regal, the real mountains, stare at us arrogantly, from the north, contemptuous of our puerile presumption. I sink to my knees, as much from exhaustion as in awe, and slowly stare around in open mouthed wonderment. This is worth the climb, these splendid guardians of Nepal and Tibet, Trishul, Mrigthuni, and Nandahunti, all over 22,000 feet, the magnetic hors d’oeuvres to K2, Annapurna and Everest. We rest, flat on our backs, using our packs as pillows, and I sleep, for ten minutes perhaps, but deeply.
We lunch, briefly and silently, and I find a cricket bat carved from a piece of wood, with a flat front and curved back. I wonder at this, the shepherds, only departed two weeks earlier with their flocks to lower, warmer pastures, playing cricket at 13,000 feet up in the mountains. The legacy of the Raj to India is not all bad, parliamentary democracy, the English language and the ultimate in civilisation, cricket.
Time to go and we plunge once more into the forest on the other side of the high plateau. The climb down is worse than the struggle up. Increasingly the unused muscles in my thighs scream in red hot protest at this abuse. Three miles around Epsom Common twice a week was ill preparation for this torture. Occasionally there is a short and blessed relief as we pass through little villages, the simple one story houses dignified by their red and blue doors, delicately carved in wood. There is no hostility from the people, only a wide mouthed curiosity. One or two venture “Good morning” and I reply in Garwali, “Mostar.” The children pose, unsmilingly stiff and formal, for photographs, while the women, their saris a blaze of colour, giggle as they pass us with their heavy baskets of firewood or fodder.
We are back in the forest, still descending from rock to rock, my trekking boots seeking out footholds. The strain on my legs is becoming unbearable. Someone has stolen my femurs, to say nothing of the tibs and fibs. My legs, so powerful on Epsom Common, are turned to jelly. It is only twelve miles, for God’s sake. Keep going, you fool. At last we see our destination, Tahrali, a small town on the River Pindar, squatting dustily far below, beside the silver ribbon of the river.
I am exhausted when I reach the roadway, where Nidish and the others sit waiting. Nidish puts his arm around my shoulders. “You’ve done well.”
I reply inelegantly, but accurately, “I’m knackered. I hope those damm tigers know what I am doing for them.”
Nidish smiles. “They don’t, but you do, and that is what really matters.”
It’s My Turn Now
|They were, I think, just about the most extraordinary eyes I had ever seen.|
The day was almost idyllic; a sun washed Sunday in early July 2001. I had not specially wanted to come to the damned barbecue, but, now that I was here, it was not all bad. There was a mere whisper of a breeze, dappling the shadows of the trees on the grass lawns, and a short distance away, the laughter of the children mingled with their shrieks. Tim, wearing an incongruous apron, sweated over the sausages, chops and steaks, and the pale blue spiral of smoke drifted its haze of promises, making my mouth water.
“More wine, Ben?”
I nodded as the pale golden Chardonnay glugged into my glass, cooling my hand.
“Now” said Ilsa, “On your feet. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.” I changed my glass from right to left hand as she hauled me reluctantly from my chair.
“Margaret, this is Ben. He has just come back from working in South Africa.” She turned to me. “Margaret is from Johannesburg.”
The eyes, light grey, almost translucent, were the most remarkable feature in a pretty, but generally unremarkable face. We chatted, pleasantly, if inconsequentially, and mostly about South Africa, for half an hour.
On the following Tuesday, there was a hand written note, from Margaret, pushed through the door, inviting me to tea and scones on Friday. It was, I reflected a very old fashioned thing to do, but I went. Margaret was in her early forties, and carried, as they say, a lot of baggage. She had four children aged from six to seventeen, and had been divorced from her husband for four years. We began a friendship. I was not seeking romance, as the love of my life, who had come, stayed five years, and left, was still in my heart, and blood and sinews, if not in my bed. Margaret said she was not looking either, still in trauma after the divorce. We went to the cinema, to the theatre and restaurants together and visited interesting places in the south of England in the Jaguar. I saw a lot of her kids and liked them and helped to entertain other family members. We passed a comfortable year together.
In July 2002 I was in France working on my newly acquired house when my mobile rang. It was Margaret, in floods of tears.
“Steady on. Just tell me what is wrong”
Her ex husband had left his girlfriend, who was his boss’s daughter and consequently, surprise, surprise, lost his job, a well paid job that allowed Margaret to live in a £600,000 house, drive a Mercedes C230, and send all four children to private schools. I listened, and made appropriate noises, and offered advice when asked to do so. I had arranged to come home early, in time for her birthday and suggested we talk again then. “OK,” she agreed. I have never spoken to her since.
At home, I phoned both her home and mobile numbers and left messages. I sent emails, after checking with a mutual friend that she was apparently all right. There were no replies. I cancelled the restaurant and left her birthday present in a cupboard outside my front door, after e mailing. The present was not collected. After a while I requested the return of books and CD’s I had loaned. No reply. I had, with her agreement, bought tickets for the Lords Test Match for her twelve-year-old son and myself. I sent his by mail to her, saying if she got him to Epsom Station, I would take him, and put him in a cab to get home. No reply, and the seat remained empty. I had no sense of loss, just anger and frustration. The matter of the Test Match angered me most of all. She should not have deprived him of his visit to Lords.
I saw Margaret briefly in Epsom High Street, just after Christmas 2003. If she saw me, she ignored me. I shrugged, but mentioned it to a woman friend.
At New Year, I received a card from her, which was backed up by an email. The message was that she didn’t understand what had happened to our friendship and perhaps we should have lunch and start again. I think that by this time I had understood that she had tried to get back together with her husband. A reasonable thing to do, and she could have told me that eighteen months earlier. We had not been lovers. She had failed, as that gentleman had, I believed, difficulty keeping it in his trousers. Now it was my turn. I could either ignore her completely, as she had me, or send a scathing email. She deserved that. I choose the computer.
“Margaret. I hope you and the children are well and you are working through your difficulties. I don’t think there is any point in meeting for lunch, but thanks for the thought. Keep well. Ben.” The lady had enough problems in her life. I had no entitlement to add to them.
Tyger Tyger Burning Bright
|I don’t think I am mad, but then, I am not sure if the truly mad know that they are. I am not certifiable, although that could be argued. On the other hand, I do not think anyone would happily certify me as totally sane, either. I am reminded of a visit on holiday to Southern Germany, and a guided tour of the fairyland castle of Neuschwanstein, built for King Ludwig of Bavaria. I foolishly tried my German by venturing to the guide that King Ludwig was mad, wasn’t he? He, with Bavarian charm, and German grundlichkeit, thoroughly put me in my place by replying, in perfect English, “Oh, no, sir. Around here we say the king was a little eccentric, perhaps.”|
In my family, my nickname is Tiger. There have been several great personalities who enjoyed this name. In our own time, the sublime Tiger Woods, at his best, makes golf look like a game for averagely gifted three year olds. In the 1930’s Tiger O’Reilly was a ferocious leg spinner, who was as much a thorn in the side of his skipper, the legendary Bradman, as he was to the English batsmen. Nearer our own time, Tiger Pataudi was a classic steel wristed Indian batsman, who frequently played like the Prince he was. Over New Year 1967/8, as a young Air Force officer, I watched in awe as this God take 75 and 85 off Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with only one good eye and one good leg.
My nickname does not depend on the skill, character and courage displayed by the foregoing. In fact, I am probably more Tigger than Tiger. Jeanne was, and still is, French. She was small and dark, with eyes to drown in, and she lit up my life in the five years we were together. Her interests were eclectic, and included windsurfing and skiing for France She introduced me to the Chinese horoscope, and the fact that I had been born in the Year of the Tiger. From then on, I became Tigre, and she Biche, which is French for deer. Only later did I come to realise how much the tiger depends on the deer for his happiness and survival. The house became filled with tigers and deer; paintings; fridge magnets; soft toys; etc.
My interest developed, and I saw that the biggest of the cats was an animal of immense courage, great strength, and stunning beauty. Truly did Wellington’s old adversary, Tipu Sultan, remark, “It’s better to live two days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep.” And yet, and yet, these superb creatures are in danger of extinction in the wild. From an estimated population of 100, 000 in 1900, there are believed to be fewer than 6000 today. The tiger, which has adapted to living in environments as different as the snowy wastes of Siberia, to the jungles of Sumatra to the semi desert around the Caspian, may not be with us in ten or twenty years.
Does it matter? I would submit that if we cannot preserve this beautiful, majestic masterpiece of creation, we cannot save anything. The tiger is faced with ever increasing pressure by man on his habitat, and the appalling use of tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicine
This earth is not ours to do with what we will. We merely hold it in trust for future generations. As my small contribution to this credo, I am going trekking in the Himalayas to raise money to help preserve tigers in the wild.
My love affair with Jeanne lasted five years. My love for her continues. My emotions, fallible perhaps, and my logic, less fallible hopefully, tell me, after five years apart, it will continue until I die. And from our love affair, sadly over, came a child of sorts, my love for, and love affair with, tigers. Both will continue until I die.
King Ludwig was eccentric; he also did not have all his circuits connected. My nickname could just as easily be Ludwig.
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
in the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry