The Logical Mind

3.12.2012 | 20:24

I proposed to Rose today.

She was so overcome she nearly fell off the kitchen worktop. OK, technically speaking she laughed so hard she nearly lost her footing, but that’s a mere trifle. It’s not like I propose to women every day. Oh, right, it’s true, I do sometimes. I proposed last week to the woman in Robert Dyas who showed me where the packs of wood screws were. And there was the lady at the Post Office on Saturday who told me that Second Class Packets were cheaper than Standard Parcels, thus saving me about £1.50, so my gratitude is understandable, even though my proposal was dismissed by a button push that resulted in the next person in the queue being called to ‘Cashier Number 3 please!’ (She’ll rue the day, you mark my words.) But how did I get here?  OK, let’s rewind.

This afternoon, while she was returning the cooker top to its pristine condition with Flash, I regaled her with a story of my detective prowess in tracking down a ‘missing persons’ change of address for the Christmas Card List. My ineluctable powers of logical deduction were of a match for Mr Holmes, with the sole difference that I do not smoke a pipe, play the violin, or take opium. This is a prowess that women, being illogical and not very good at working things out, can only marvel at from a distance. Or in Rose’s case, about five feet.

As I reached the peak of my logical investigation into the Christmas Card List Missing Person Whereabouts problem, Rose determined that the kitchen cupboard surfaces required bringing up to scratch, and began the Flash Attack on the wall section above the hob. The action somehow reminded me that I’d intended to call on a ‘Sparky’ to repair the extractor fan and lighting unit above the cooker, which had not been working for some four or five years. I’d tried all the fan and light switches (I’m logical that way, you understand), and I’d even tried changing the bulb inside the lighting unit, having first checked that the replacement bulb worked by plugging it in to a table lamp (logical methodology is a characterising feature of us blokes, the logically deductive sex). The bulb worked, but the lighting unit didn’t. And as the whole goddam set of socket circuits were protected by the new RCD type circuit breaker mains box, the electrical flaw had to reside in the extractor fan and lighting unit. And being a Bosch, a replacement wouldn’t be cheap.

So there I was, remembering my plan to call for a ‘Sparky’ to come out, as even my renowned DIY skills recognised a boundary at things concerned with high speed movement of vast quantities of electrons. So I said, “I must remember to call for a Sparky to fix that extractor fan thing. I miss having the overhead light to help in photographing my periodic food porn creations.”

“Is it switched on?” asked Rose. That’s women for you, always asking questions that the Logical Mind has already discounted.

“Of course it’s switched on. The switch is behind the lowest drawer where the pots and pans go. It’s the same switch that powers the piezo on the cooker, and that’s working.”  The piezo had not worked for over a year, leaving me to resort to a hand-held piezo gas lighter, until I discovered that a missing pot lid had fallen down the back of the lower drawer and dislodged the cooker plug from the wall socket. Piezo working = switch connecting power. Ineluctable logic, you see.

“Well, that’s low down,” said Rose, “and the extractor fan is high up. There might be another switch.”

“It’s not in the top cupboard either,” I announced with that world-weariness we Logical Supermen have to resort to occasionally with the illogical minds of women who’re not good at this sort of reasoning. “I’ve already looked.” And by way of confirmation, I opened the cupboard beside the extractor unit to show that there was only kitchen foil and clingfilm and bin bags there. No sign of a wall socket with a recalcitrant plug in it.

“Yes, but what about the bit above the extractor fan, behind the panel there?”

“OK, I could look there, but I don’t see why it would be there. I suppose I could go downstairs and bring up the ladder to have a look.”

Haven’t women heard of Health and Safety Regulations?  The next thing I knew, she’d jumped up on the worktop by the cooker, and was striding across to the bit above the extractor fan.

“There’s a socket and plug up here.”

“Is it switched on?”

“Yes, but the fuse could have blown.”

“The fuse can’t have blown. There’s an RCD circuit breaker at the mains box. Fuses no longer blow.”

“Get me a 3 amp fuse.”


“I said get me a 3 amp fuse!”

I got a 3A fuse and an electrical screwdriver, and passed them up. She took the old fuse out, handed it down to me, which I accepted with that weary resignation we Logical Supermen reserved for those who don’t ‘get’ the Holmesian Methods. She put the new fuse in, plugged the thing in, then threw the switch on the lighting unit.

It lit up. The goddam thing lit up. She threw the switch on the fan unit. The goddam thing burst into life.

Momentarily thrown by surprise and the prospect of having saved a callout charge of at least £60 plus parts from a ‘Sparky’, I said “Rose, will you marry me?”

At this point she laughed so hard she nearly descended to the floor by gravity alone. I think this was her way of saying she was overcome by my thoughtful and considered proposal.

In the end, we decided to set up a business partnership, Joyce & MacPhee, Problem Solving and Detective Agency. If you have a guilty secret or a floozy to be tracked down, or a blown fuse, let us be your first port of call.

in vodka veritas

28.11.2012 | 21:54

My Mum could never pronounce the word ‘menstruation’.

It always came out as ‘menu-stration’. (Can you tell echoes here of an attempt at a bird-and-bees talk? “Ah’ll huv tae tell ye, ’cause he’s no gonnae”. ‘He’ being my father, a quiet, taciturn Hebridean who doubtless thought that these were things that a boy should learn when he reached the age of about seventy.) The thing is, by the age of fifteen, I already knew about all this stuff. Or as much as a fifteen-year-old thinks he knows about girls and the way of the world. I didn’t want to tell her that we schoolboys knew all about ‘jam rag week’, though in truth, it was all theory and second-hand knowledge to us, however sophisticated and ‘a la mode’ we thought ourselves to be in 3A Boys.

That said, I’ve always thought her pronunciation, ‘menu-stration’, so be so much more euphonic, so much the way it should have been pronounced, that even yet, I have to mentally correct myself on those odd and rare occasions when I need to invoke it, lest I appear like an unschooled fifteen-year-old again.

How did I get here? Ah yes, it was looking at the rain this morning. What is a chap to do when it’s peeing rain hard enough to keep you indoors? Why, go for a walk, that’s what. So I put on my waterproofs, packed a water bottle and a banana in my backpack, and I was off for a seven mile hike through the miserable November grayness and downpour. And as I walked, can you guess who popped into my mind?

Of course you can. It was Auntie Penny again. For reasons that are absolutely nothing to do with my innocent and delightful maiden great-aunt, she reminded me of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Pismronunciation, founded by the late and great Ronnie Barker, and thence to the story, recently told, of Calum’s wife Pam, in Florence, how she meant to order ‘Penne Arabiatta’, and instead instructed the waiter to bring her ‘an angry penis’.

It’s a story I’d occasion to relate a few years ago, and it was that telling that came back to mind as I strode through the gray drizzle this afternoon.

It was my old Russian friend and fellow fencer, Kirill Turbanov, who taught me how to drink vodka. “There are three things for wodka,” he said, “good people, good words, and good wodka”. Vodka is to be drunk sociably, with good friends, good words (those almost interminably long Russian toasts that have to take place before every quaffing), and good vodka. I was fortunate. Each time Kirill returned to his native St Petersburg, he’d bring me back some of the finest Russian vodka available anywhere in the world. Then he introduced me to The Ritual. You don’t just knock back a shot of vodka. Oh no. “Two more things also,” continued Kirill, “good bread, and good peekle, cucumber peekle.”

First, the vodka had to be chilled. Really chilled. In the freezer overnight chilled. Then there had to be freshly made bread. Home made bread. And cucumber pickle. “Feerst, with the good friends, we say the good worrrds. This take long time. Then, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle.”

That was the order. You don’t eat the bread, you just inhale it. This is to neutralise any slight tendency to bitterness in the throat. And once the ferocious warmth suddlenly comes back up the throat from the ice-cold vodka, you immediately eat the cucumber pickle. Don’t ask. It just works.  The combination of pickle and vodka flavours is fantastic. And so many a night was spent in Kirill’s company ; “Good friends, good words, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle!”

I introduced the Vodka Ritual to our dear friends, Ian and Claire, one evening. It seems to have made an impression, for a couple of weeks later, Frances had a phone call from Claire, inviting themselves round to dinner. (That’s the kind of friends you really want.) Appended to the self-invitation was the remark “Ian’s hoping Alex has some of his vodka left.”

I can’t remember what Frances cooked that evening, but just as Ian and Claire were leaving to come round, there was another phone call, from Claire. “We’re on our way. We’ve just met Father Chris, so we’ve invited him along too. Is that OK?”

Of course it was OK. We liked Fr Chris, a newly-ordained curate, intelligent, witty, a good conversationalist, who liked a dram (there is no Catholic priest worth a damn who does not take to a good dram), and who loved Bach. What’s not to like about such a man?

I should mention that there is no need to reveal Fr Chris’s surname here. For reasons that should become apparent, there is likewise no need to reveal his identity to the Bishop, just in case the Bishop happens to have the Parish of Google in his Diocese.

Ian, Claire, and Fr Chris, arrived about 8 pm that night. Quite possibly (= absolute dead cert) they brought with them some bottles of wine. And though I can’t recall now what Frances had made (she made an effort, as Ian is an accomplished chef), I do recall the collective putting-away of a lot of red wine. Then someone said, “Is it time for the Vodka Ritual?” You do not get a prize for guessing that this was Ian. Naturally, I had vodka — Kirill’s vodka — in the freezer. There was also home made bread. And there was cucumber pickle.

Quite surprisingly, we managed a fair few “good words” before downing the frozen St Petersburg vodka. And less surprisingly, the vodka bottle went down and down and down. I can’t remember all the conversation, but I do remember it included discussion about the occasional difficulties of making yourself understood in a foreign language. And there was the story of Calum, terrifying the girl at a petrol station kiosk by asking her to hand over the takings, when he thought he was just asking for a receipt, and the ‘angry penis’ demands of Pam.

But it’s not only in the living languages that such pismronunciations can occur. Oh no, said Fr Chris, it can happen in the dead language too.

As a seminarian, Fr Chris had to spend some time in Rome, with a number of fellow seminarians from all over Europe, preparing for ordination to the priesthood. At the college in Rome, however, all conversation had to be, not in Italian, but in Latin. Classical Latin. Dead Latin. The Latin of Cicero, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (oh, how I remember it well : “gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”!) Not only had all conversation to be in Latin, each seminarian had to prepare a sermon, to be delivered in Latin, before the whole assembly of seminarians and senior priests, and the Bishop.

Fr Chris knew what he had to do, and worked assiduously on his sermon, checking and correcting his Latin grammar, making sure that all noun declensions had been properly declined, and all verb conjugations properly conjugated.

He stepped up to the pulpit. And then, in front of the entire assembly of Latin-fluent seminarians and priests, and the Bishop, began his sermon.

It went well. Right up until the point where, as Fr Chris said, a slight and unexpected hush came across the congregation. It was slight, but it was definite. However, he picked up his thread and continued, right to the end.

A little later, during coffee and biscuits with the Bishop afterwards, and keen to have pointers on his assessment, Fr Chris approached the subject of his sermon. “I couldn’t help feeling,” he said, “that at one point, there was a momentary pause in the flow, as if something was not quite right.”

“Ah,” said the Bishop, with only the merest hint of a trace of a wry smile, “we all knew what you meant to say, but what you actually said was, ‘And then Mary and Joseph arose, and took the little fucker to Jerusalem.'”

I have decided, since then, that we probably over-dosed on cucumber pickle. But any priest who tells you that he does not take a good dram, or a good vodka, is probably not worth listening to anyway.

‘in vodka veritas’, as the old Romans would say.

Parliamo Pasta

15.11.2012 | 09:28

Auntie Penny popped into my head today, completely derailing my train of thought. There I was, walking along in the autumn sunshine, minding my own business, when suddenly, like Mr Dick with King Charles the First, there she was.

In truth, I’m not even sure I remember the train of thought she interrupted, for it was just one of those stream-of-consciousness things that pass the time on those long miles and that so help clear the mind of the cares of the messy and noisy world. I have a feeling it had something to do with malt whisky being fed to me in hollowed-out strawberries by dusky maidens, but no matter. There was Auntie Penny, plain as day, and then she vanished. And the derailment of my train of thought? Obvious. I changed to thinking of Italian food. (The connexion may seem tenuous, but it should become apparent.)

The next moment, I was recalling an evening spent earlier in the year with Calum, my youngest brother, and his wife Pam. There may have been a glass or two of malt whisky by the fireside, as we talked about many things, the joys of foreign travel, and the occasional difficulties in communication. In trying to converse with the locals in their language, we make regular mistakes, even though we’ve been warned in classes about ‘faux amis’, those words that look similar in both languages but have different meanings. Or idioms and turns of phrase that work in the school classroom but don’t work when you get to the real world abroad. Like the time in a little Breton restaurant when my French was a little more suspect, and I managed to order a giant bowl of roast potato ‘noisettes’ for six people when I actually thought I was saying “No thank you”, or the time Calum went to a filling station in France, paid by credit card, and terrified the girl at the kiosk when he asked in his schoolboy French for a receipt. Well, he thought he’d asked her to give him a receipt, but instead he’d asked her to hand over the takings. And if it’s easy to make mistakes like this in French, it can be even worse in Italian, when the meaning of two similar words in Italian can change significantly merely by the subtlest change in pronunciation of a single consonant.

Calum is besotted by Italy. He travels to Italy at every opportunity. He has fallen in love with Florence. A keen and experienced off-road cyclist, he has gone on long cycling tours in mountainous Italy with local septuagenarians so experienced they could outpace any teenager, and that includes quaffing litres of wine en route with thirty miles still to go. He has become fluent in Italian, and reads Italian novels avariciously. His bookshelves are full of Italian books and magazines. He even reads Agatha Christie novels in translation. Driving around Glasgow, his sat nav gives him directions in Italian. When, as was only a matter of time, he discovered Italian opera, he was bowled over by it. Calum and Pam have two cats. Their names? Diva and Tosca… Are you getting the picture here?

And if Italy is paradise for those who love cycling and opera, it is also a paradise for those who love cooking. Pam loves cooking. Pam is seriously good at cooking. Pam is gourmet class in the kitchen. Pam can do things with broccoli you won’t believe. And of course, the Italian influence is strong in Pam’s cooking too. Where else, then, to take inspiration?

So, one starry evening, in a romantic little restaurant in Florence, Calum and Pam were surveying the menu. An easy and accustomed situation for Calum to handle, and an opportunity for Pam, wanting to practise some of the essentials she too has been working to acquire. Calum signalled to the waiter, and gave his order. Pam, next, gave her choice, in her slightly less fluent Italian : it was ‘penne arrabiata’.

There was a short silence. Then laughter resounded throughout the little restaurant.

Calum leaned over to Pam and said softly, “They know what you meant to order, but what you’ve actually asked for is ‘an angry penis’!”

Another ‘remembrance day’

11.11.2012 | 22:29

I bought my poppy last night from a decorated old soldier in the shop where I bought my cabbage and peppers on the way home from Send, and pinned it to my jacket this morning as I prepared to leave for my walk. The poppy shape seems a little different these days from those I bought as a youth. Then, they were bigger and rounder, with paper green leaves behind the red poppy, and a long stem made of wire that fitted into my lapel buttonholes. The shape is slimmer, a little more abstract now, with just a short plastic stem, a product perhaps of mass manufacture. But no matter ; the significance of the poppy has always been in what it represents, and why we wear it.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month, I stood by my desk, observed the two minutes silence, then set off for a long walk in the November sunshine. The sun is low at this time of year, and cast long shadows as I strode along the road before me. The flickering of shadows through the trees made me think of a picture I have seen recently, and you may have seen too. It is a picture of an old man with a walking stick, standing by a wall at a Remembrance Day service. The old man casts a long shadow on the wall, but it is not his own shadow, it is that of a young soldier in combat gear. It is very cleverly done. The connexion is clear : that soldiery goes on, and we are linked to the past in innumerable ways.

And as I walked, I thought that perhaps every old man of that time casts a shadow, his own piece of the jigsaw of history. Yet it may not be the sunlight that reveals his piece of the jigsaw. His shadow and its story may be revealed in other ways.

I can date it fairly closely. We were living in a little flat in Paisley just after we married and before we took our first little house in Livingston New Town in the summer of 1974, and in the mornings I took the red Paisley bus into Glasgow town centre to the place where I worked. As I got on the bus just after half past eight one morning, I noticed an old man sitting on one of the seats about half way down the bus. He was in his late sixties, short, unkempt, with a flat brown soiled-looking cap, a dirty brown overcoat, and in his hand a brown paper bag crushed at the top. I knew straight away that the brown paper bag camouflaged a bottle, some cheap alcohol or fortified wine. And he was drunk. His eyes were bloodshot and wet, and it seemed he could only focus them with a concentrated effort. I pushed my way down and, like other passengers, sat several seats away from him, leaving him isolated. I looked out of the rear window of the bus, so as not to look at him.

As the journey continued, he could be heard muttering, at first barely audibly, and as the bus rolled on, a little more loudly, yet hardly more distinctly. He seemed to be having a conversation with some invisible person in front of him, and periodically he would jab the air with the bottle in the brown paper bag as if to reinforce some point he was making. Hardly one slurred word in four could be made out, and those that could be made out were crude and vulgar. Yet as the old man muttered and mumbled and swore, there seemed to be some kind of story coming out, as though his words were on pieces of a jigsaw that could be fitted together to make a picture.

This old man wasn’t on a bus at all. He was in a field in northern France. And he wasn’t holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, he was holding a tin can of cold beans that he was eating with a spoon. Beside him, there was no passenger, but an old comrade who was sitting beside him in the trench, also eating from a tin of cold beans.

“See that, fuckin beans, Ah hate they fuckin beans, they’re fuckin cauld.”

He held up the bag a little.

“Ah’m looking roon at Jamesie, and he’s got fuckin beans an’ a’. Jist a tin a fuckin beans.”

The bus rolled on, and most of the passengers tried to avoid making eye contact with the drunk.

“See they fuckin shells? They’re jist wan fuckin thing efter another, feeep feeeep feeeep.” He tried to make whistling noises, and his other hand made slight motions like he was trying to point to traces. “Whistle and bang, whistle and bang. If wan o they things are gonny get ye, it’s jist whistle, thur’s nae bang, if ye hear the bang, it’s nae got ye yet.” And he tried to whistle again, but nothing came save a dull hiss of air.

More words came and, though still nearly all indecipherable, more of the sorry scene came with them.

“Ah’m jist sittin there, ye know? A fuckin whistle, feeep, an Ah turns roon tae Jamesie. Know whit? Jamesie’s no fuckin there. Fuckin shell. Thur’s nothin a Jamesie at a’, he’s no there, but jist that tin a fuckin beans a’ his, no even fell ower, jist sittin there on the grun’.”

As these pieces of a horrid scene emerged from the drunk’s ramblings, I remember the sense of shame I had in my first disgust. This old man, over thirty years on, was still reliving the moments when a shell took his comrade clean from the face of the earth beside him, leaving nothing behind but the can of beans he’d been eating from, sitting upright and intact on the ground.

I have thought of that journey, and that old man, many times. He had his own shadow, and it was a drink fuelled journey on a bus that pieced together the story within its darkness, nightmare memories that no passage of Novembers can erase.

For some, not all remembrance days are in November, and not all remembrances are eased by the lovely and poignant poppies. On this Remembrance Day, I remember him too.

Fencing boobs

10.11.2012 | 23:28

It’s strange how a half-forgotten name, or just a song, can trigger a set of old memories. Sometimes melancholy, other times humorous. This one is of the latter. I hope the women who are its subjects will not object to the re-telling.

I am never able to hear the name Ralph McTell, or the song ‘Streets of London’, without thinking of Mary O’Donnell. Or at least, Mary O’Donnell’s breasts. No, no, all of Mary O’Donnell! I’m getting ahead of the story.

I usually take a small recorder or music player on my walks, so that for those times when I don’t need silence, I can listen to music, or some of my favourite radio broadcasts. On my walk today, I found myself listening to an old Ralph McTell song, which I hadn’t heard for years. It brought back two memories that were strangely symmetrical. And straightaway, I was back four decades ago and fencing with Mary O’Donnell.

When I began fencing, the sport I came to love above all others, I was a callow youth, fresh-faced and new, in my teens, slim to behold and terrified of girls. (I am working to regain the former property ; the latter never went away.) I was taught to fence by the marvellous Christine Tolland, in Glasgow, who had been for many years Scottish Ladies Champion at foil. Of all the coaches I have had in fencing, she has been my favourite.

I loved the sportsmanship in fencing : you could fence with someone who would be aiming to cut you in half on the piste without quarter, yet in the coffee room later was as an old friend. When I’d begun to acquire some of the skills, I began fencing rounds with other, more experienced club members. I fenced with Brian, who’d spent time teaching me elementary ‘conversation with the blade’. I fenced with a beautiful French girl, Hélène, who tore me to pieces. Then I fenced with Mary.

Mary was one of those girls who exuded self-confidence. Not overly tall, but slim, curvy, with long waist-length frizzy black hair and flashing dark blue eyes. Feisty hardly describes her, for she’d left home after an argument with her father and learned to fend for herself. Mary’s favourite singer, she often told me, was Ralph McTell, and she adored the song ‘Streets of London’. Perhaps it had an echo of having had to fend for herself for a while until she got her own place. But whenever I hear ‘Streets of London’, it’s Mary O’Donnell.

One evening, not long after I’d arrived at the ‘salle’ and had been fencing with Brian, she strode over to me and asked me if I’d like to fence a few hits. (I was to learn that left-handed fencers, like me, are often popular with right-handers looking for experience against sinistrals : the higher up you go in competitive fencing, the greater the number of left-handers compared to the population average, so having the experience is useful.) Etiquette, of course, is that you always accept a fencing request, and as Mary was dark-haired and beautiful-eyed, accepting was never hard.

“There’s just one thing though,” she added on that particular night, “you can’t give me hits on the chest.”

Before I’d even time to look perplexed, she explained that she’d just opened her fencing kit bag and discovered she’d left her breast protectors at home. These are cup-shaped (well, what did you think they’d look like?) high-impact plastic inserts that fit into internal pockets on women’s fencing jackets. She must have been putting her whites through the wash and forgotten to put the protectors back. She continued to explain that she’d been reading an article which said that breast tumours could be caused by high-impact strikes or bruising, and as she didn’t want to risk that, I’d to avoid chest hits. Whilst I’d never heard of that before, her reasoning was perfectly understandable, and so of course I readily agreed.

We set to en garde, then began to fence. I was fairly good at keeping off-target, making the odd hit on the shoulder or flank. Just now and again, I’d forget and make a riposte to the chest, and she’d stop momentarily, cross her hands at the wrist and wave ‘no, no’ signs, and I’d remember and continue. Then I’d forget, and there’d be another ‘no, no’ signal followed by her fingers pointing to her chest, and I’d try my hardest to remember the Chest Directive.

Mary was always an attacking fencer, whereas I was usually defensive, trying to lure the attacker into making a mistake. But as I was now always fencing defensively with hardly any attacks at all, Mary became even more aggressive, pushing the attack and herself not realising that I was backing away because of the Chest Directive. It was a natural progression. As she pressed her attacks harder, and I had to step farther and farther back, with little option but repeated parries with no counters, I knew I was being pushed up to the wall. The fencing exchanges got faster and faster : straight attacks, attacks from disengage, beat attacks, beat disengage attacks, they were coming pell-mell, for Mary could press her attacks now with impunity.

When you have been drilling fencing exercises for some time, they eventually turn from exercises to instinct. You begin to ‘read’ the play, and to anticipate instinctively. And in your mind, at high speed, you’re ever rehearsing what’s about to happen and how you will respond. At that moment I just knew what Mary was about to do. She’d strong legs, and a powerful lunge, and she was going to launch a beat attack on my blade from her ‘sixte’ side, knocking it out of the way, then propel herself from her back left foot with an attack on my ‘quarte’ flank. With nowhere to go, it had to be parry of seconde downwards and a riposte to her own ‘quarte’ side. All within less than a second.

It happened in a heartbeat : beat .. lunge .. attack .. parry .. attack-disengage-and-HIT!

I hadn’t meant it, but I knew I’d done it. Sheer instinct. Straight to the chest. Her left side. Perfect hit. My blade flexed beautifully.

She stood up, slowly pushed her mask up over her face, feet apart ‘at ease’, backs of the hands on her waist, arms akimbo, and said,

“Alec, will you PLEASE stop prodding my tits!”

At just those very seconds when she spoke, there had fallen one of those occasional and entirely accidental lulls in the general hubbub of the fencing salle, so that her voice now carried over the ensuing silence. I froze with embarrassment, feeling the surge of crimson blush rush up from my neck and all over my face. A few heads turned quizzically in our direction, and I could see Christine, who’d been giving lessons to some novices, turn her face slowly towards us with a look that said clearly, ‘What IS that boy doing now?’

I looked again at Mary, only to see the broad grin of laughter cover her face. It was pure mischief. I couldn’t help my sense of mortification, but she only teased me more in the coffee room afterwards, and she knew it had been an innocent mistake in the heat of the bout. “Oh, Alec! If you could only have seen your face!”

On leaving Glasgow, with the change of career and start to married life, I’d to leave this lovely club at Bellahouston, and Mary O’Donnell.

When we came to Surrey, many years later, I found a fencing club to join. By this time, I’d been fencing more at épée than foil, having been a fencer now for about twenty years. One of my regular fencing opponents had been Geoff, a tall, slightly older man, built like a fencer, whom I loved fencing as he had a perfect classical French style, which was how I’d been taught by Christine. Geoff’s wife, Margaret, was also a fencer, a foilist. I was to fence her often. She was an American (she still is!), from Philadelphia, and I loved her east coast accent and the way she pronounced my name, which she sounded as “Ell-lix”. During those early evenings, I think I’d fenced her about three times. It would have been around the fourth occasion, when we were exchanging a few hits, circular disengages, cutovers to her shoulder, the customary testing things. Suddenly, she stopped, pushed up her mask, and said,

“Ehl-lix, I know what yore doing.”

I must have looked puzzled.

She stepped forward a little. “Yore avoiding my boobs, aren’tcha?”

I had to nod, because I was. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I’d been making hits to her right and left flanks, cutovers to her shoulders, a few low-line hits to her waist and stomach.

By now she was grinning from ear to ear. She stepped forward again.

“You don’t haffta. Look, you can hit me here on the boobs!” and she pushed her chest forwards ostentatiously, then struck herself on each side with the knuckles of her fingers, making the plastic protectors ping with the noise. “It doesn’t hurt! I’m protected! I actuallly prefer it if you hit me here because I don’t feel a thing! When you hit my sides, it hurts, but it doesn’t hurt here!” And she gave herself another couple of demonstrative blows with her knuckles.

I nodded.

“Tell ya what, Ehl-lix, I’m coming in next week, and I’m gonna have bulls-eyes painted on my boobs so you know where to hit ‘em!”

I could only laugh at her, and myself, and agree. After all, when a lady tells you to pay attention to her boobs, it’s only polite to comply.

In the bar that evening, I told Margaret and Geoff the story of Mary O’Donnell. I was “too sensitive now”, she said, but for all that, we shared a chuckle over the two tales.

I’ve often wondered what became of Mary O’Donnell, she of the long black hair and the flashing blue eyes and mischievous smile. I hope she found her Mr Right, and got to meet Ralph McTell. Looking back on my fencing life, what I am sure of, however, is that my fencing boobs were bigger than hers.

An unexpected milestone.

3.11.2012 | 20:19

Saturday is always my day to go for a long walk, no matter what walking I may have done during the week, and no matter what the weather may argue otherwise. It’s my day to walk to Send, and take my bouquet of carnations to her. It never matters what the weather is, but today, there was sunshine, that cold-aired, brisk, pinching, late- autumn sunshine that braces and makes the skin tingle and the blood rush to try and warm the fingertips. These are the days and the walks when the quiet of the road clears out my head and recharges and rekindles my spirits. Always, I know, at the end of that road, I’ll renew the carnations with fresh blooms, tell her how my week has been, read her mum’s weekly letter to her, and sit for a while on the bench under the tree shade, to have my flask of coffee and my sandwich. The road ahead is my time for thinking, remembering and re-speaking old conversations, all those memories that enrich and are enriched by moments spent in recollection.

On my walk today, I was thinking about walking. How Frances used to love going for long walks. Walks by the River Spey. Walks along the Cornish Coastal Path, where she lost an entire toenail, bloodied, footsore and blistered. Walks to Tintagel, the legendary seat of King Arthur. The day we walked into Edinburgh and down to Leith. How in recent years I’d grown out of condition for walking. How, when even a single step was eventually denied her, I understood that old saw about never missing the water till the well runs dry. How I’d resolved never to take again for granted those so-taken-for-granted things she’d lost, like walking by the riverside, holding things, making things with her hands, eating an apple, even breathing air. It’s been the common thread in all those things I have been doing in the days since we laid her to rest : walking, cooking, using my hands by learning to play piano. They all link back to her. And for her.

Sometimes, to pass the time on the road, I like to count things. I like to get a feel for numbers, and for estimating distances. So I know how many thousands of paces it is from Cart Bridge to Tannery Lane on my route to Send, and how many paces it is from the crossroads and up Send Hill to the cemetery gates. Since I began walking last year, I have walked around three and three-quarter million steps, and covered around 1,750 miles. Today, on my walk to Send, I wondered how many steps I had taken walking to the cemetery from then until now, and how many miles that came to. I know the distance well now, and I know how many thousands of paces in each direction. I know when I first started walking the route, and I know how many times I have walked it since. I multiplied all the numbers in my head, multiplied by my pace length, and multiplied by the number that converts it all into miles.

I had to stop in my tracks. I counted the numbers again. It is hard to explain the elation, but suddenly my head was full of song. As of today, in my walks to the cemetery and back to be with her, I had walked 500 miles. Five hundred miles! You will know the song that has been in my head all the way there, and all the way home.

She’s the only lass I have ever walked five hundred miles for, and I will walk it for her again.

And yes, there was sunshine in Leith on that day too.

Olives and red wine

29.9.2012 | 22:20

I met Suzanna at the cemetery today.

I was sitting on the bench eating a carrot when I heard her come up and say hello. She was bringing gladioli to her late husband, Vincenzo Ravalese. I only ever meet Suzanna here. We chatted, and she told me she’d just come back from a short stay in Crete with an old friend, Pat, also recently widowed. It had been so warm, and her trip to the ancient civilisation at Cnossos so absorbing, that she hadn’t wanted to come home. In the late warm evenings there, there had been black olives, and warm bread, and soft cheese, and wine, the essence of Mediterranean joy. Even our late evening sun streaming through the branches of the oak tree seemed warmed by her stories, and I asked her how she’d met Vincenzo. He’d been working in a hospital in Brookwood in the sixties, where she was a nurse, and had swept her off her feet, a romance that lasted forty years. I think we’d been chatting an hour or so when more steps crunched up the gravel path, and it was Tony, who in a previous visit had brought me that thirst quenching bottle of lemonade when I’d been dehydrated. So I told him how I’d talked to his mother Antonia the other week, which of course she’d already told him about. The late sun shone more, we laughed and talked, and eventually we said our goodbyes as Tony went to visit his late father, and Suzanna arranged the gladioli for Vincenzo. I had joked with Suzanna that her stories of Crete had put me in a holiday mood, and we laughed again.

So this evening, for late dinner, it has been homemade bread with olive oil, and black olives, and soft cheese, and red wine. A little remembrance of a Mediterranean island I’ve never been to, and a little toast to Frances, and Vincenzo, and George Frederick.

A small kindness

20.8.2012 | 12:55

I set off today on my Saturday eight mile walk, on what felt like the hottest day of the year (not that there have been too many of those to choose from this summer), my shorts, a light tee-shirt, and backpack. I forgot my hat. I forgot my water bottle. But no matter, there was the faintest light breeze to keep me from overheating, and the prospect ahead was agreeable and attractive, and not just because of the occasional pretty girl in light summerwear who crossed my path. I stopped at the usual place, Jean’s, to get my flowers, and set off once more, pleased to be distracted by the sunshine and blue sky, and only slightly feeling the heat. By the time I got to the cemetery, I was ready for a short rest, and sat on the bench under the tree, when I noticed Tony. Tony isn’t someone I know personally, I only ever see him at the cemetery, where he comes to tend his father’s grave, and sometimes our visits overlap, so we nod, and occasionally chat. Like everyone I see there visiting someone lost, he has a routine. His begins when he stands behind the cross at his father’s grave, kisses the palms of each hand, closes his eyes, puts the forefinger of each hand on top of the cross, then says a few prayers. The un-needed rule is never to interrupt the routine. Tony’s around mid-fifties, and a project manager of some kind, though he looks for all the world like an Italian restaurateur, with a suitably cheery demeanour. The bench I sit on was put there by Tony and his family as a dedication to his father, Frederick. I stood up to say hello. I must have looked as faint as I suddenly felt, for he said, “Hi Alex, you look like you’ve had the sun!” And I had. I felt light-headed, which is usually a sign of lowish blood pressure, and I nodded. “Hot isn’t it?” I said, sitting back down. He looked at me again, and said, “D’you want me to get you some water? I might have a bottle down in the car.” I shook my head, saying I’d be fine in a few minutes, and anyway, there was a mains tap at the entrance to the cemetery where I could get water on the way out. For all that, I felt almost dizzy and slightly palpitating, realising what a mistake it had been to forget to put my water bottle in my backpack. We chatted a little more, then he said he would be off, and leave me to my time ; and as always, a handshake on parting. He strolled off down the long central pathway, to the gates and his car.

I got my flowers ready, took the old ones out, and refilled the vase. It’s become a kind of routine, for me too, that when I’m on my own, I fix the flowers, then tell Frances how my week has been, what has gone right, what hasn’t. As I stood there, I heard a soft crunch on the gravel behind me, and looked round. It was Tony, strolling back up to the bench. “My wife’s been shopping,” he said, and he held up a bottle of lemonade, reaching down over the bench and planting it down beside my backpack. “Have this, maybe it’ll help take away your thirst!” And with that, he waved, and set back off down the long path. Gladder than I wanted to admit to, I opened the bottle, took a long slaking gurgle, and went back to tell Frances of this latest thing.

It has made my day. I have often thought that some of the smallest gestures have contained the greatest kindnesses. Tonight, my glass was raised to Tony.

York C102 exercise cycle

19.8.2012 | 17:06

York C102

My primary exercise is walking. I wanted something to take the place of walking for those days when it was impractical, and after evaluating several options, chose the York C102 exercise cycle.

It took three attempts to get a working model, and were it not for Amazon’s customer-focussed replacement policy, I’d have given up much earlier. The first arrived with a fault on the tension control, so that the cycle always operated at full tension. When the second arrived, a piece of unfinished machining, leaving an edge sharp enough to cut skin, had severed the electrical connecting cable, which had been folded across the sharp edge in packaging. The third worked as it should on assembly.

Assembly takes about an hour (or in my case, about thirty minutes by the third attempt), and is time-consuming but not difficult. Essentially, it’s just a crankshaft connected to a flywheel whose ability to spin is limited by an adjustable set of strong magnets. The tension control has eight settings, and it works by adjusting the distance between the magnets and the flywheel, with ‘1’ the easiest, and ‘8’ the hardest. In practice, it works well, giving good control over the exercise regime. There is little that is adjustable other than seat height, and there is no adjustment to height of handlebars, though they can be moved forward or backward, and are long enough to give a variety of holding positions. For people of average height (I am around 5’9”), a comfortable sitting position should be easy to find. The saddle is adequate, but not particularly comfortable, and after fifteen minutes or so, ‘numb bum’ is inevitable. It is also not a standard size, so finding a gel cover proved tricky, although eventually I found one (Velo Extra Wide Gel Saddle, Amazon Marketplace), which fitted perfectly, and did the trick.

There is a wire frame magazine holder, which is supposed to allow you to read a magazine whilst exercising, but it is clearly something that was thought a ‘good idea’ without actually testing. It’s completely useless. It won’t hold a magazine, or a book, as there’s no ‘shelf’ for the magazine to rest on, even when butted up against the display panel, and no way to stop the magazine flopping off.

The display panel shows a variety of measurements, some useful, some not. Along the bottom of the panel are shown pedal cadence/rpm (alternating with a notional speed in km/h), time pedalling, a notional distance travelled in km, calories burned, and pulse rate. On the upper and larger section of the display, is shown each of the lower display figures in turn, cycling through the displays at six seconds at a time. This is less useful than it might seem, and a static display would have been preferable.  On the right hand side is displayed one of several heart symbols, showing the pulse rate expressed as a percentage of ‘maximum heart rate’ (using the rough formula ‘220 – age’). It shows one of the figures, 55%, 75%, 90%. This is next to useless, as a heart rate of 74% will still show as just 55%, and especially when it’s borne in mind that there’s a caveat in the user guide on not training at 90% unless you’re a ‘professional athlete’, yet an 89% rate will register as only 75% on this display. It would have been a simple matter to convert the displayed pulse rate into a %capacity figure. My workaround has been to print a small table of pulse rates and equivalents, which is taped to the side of the display. I can then read my pulse rate on the table and see just what heart capacity level I am exercising at.

There are several training programmes, but these are just ways of setting a count-down target of time, or distance, or calories, with a beep to signal when the target has been reached. The beep is virtually inaudible, even in a quiet room. They’re not worth bothering with.

The calorie display is not particularly accurate, and the manual rightly cautions against using it for medical purposes. I use a Polar heart monitor whilst training, and its calorie figures seem accurate, as I use them whilst on a calorie controlled diet and my weight lost/gain tallies closely with my calorie intake and burn. By comparison, I reckon that the C102’s display over-estimates calories burned by around 75%, and that also tallies with my subjective impression on how I feel after burning the same number of calories in walking. I therefore ignore this part of the display. There is no connexion between the rate of calories burned and any tension level set on the exerciser, it seems purely linked to the pedal cadence.

The most useful part of the display is the pulse rate and the timer. Using the tension control, I can get very good control over the working heart rate I choose, which for me is between 110 and 130 bpm. The pulse display occasionally stops registering, mostly, it seems, when my hands have become damp through perspiration.

The display includes a ‘fitness level’ indicator, which at the end of a training session returns a value between 1 (fully fit) and 6 (very unfit), apparently by measuring over one minute the rate at which your heart rate drops from the exercise high. I have strong doubts about its accuracy or usefulness. I have been shown as ‘2’ and ‘5’ on the same day, with no discernible difference between the rates at which my pulse dropped after the same exercise session.

After a few weeks of regular but not excessive use, the cycle began to develop an annoying squeak, which eventually became so loud and distracting, that I could not use it for more than five minutes at a time. The squealing was so loud it could be heard next door. I had to take the casing off, which was a tricky job, and using a good quality cycle lubricant, lubricated everything that rotated. So far, it seems to have done the trick, but there are no access points to allow routine lubrication, and it’s a fiddly job, including detaching the pedals and many deep-sunk screws. Had I not been able to do this, this exerciser would have been in the metal recycling cage at my local household waste site.

When it works, it works well and does what I expect of it. It is a pity that there have been so many rough edges to contend with.

Would I buy another York exerciser? On the basis of my experience with the C102, I think it unlikely.

The more, the merrier

6.8.2012 | 17:58

my tatties

Among my earliest memories of my father, a quiet, hard-working, decent man, is going down with him to the vegetable patch he worked and cultivated, in the south west of Glasgow. For although he spent most of his life in Glasgow, he was of Hebridean stock, and the crofting and the growing of things was in his blood, and in his father’s. I remember one late afternoon, it would have been in the late summer, around five decades past now, he went down to dig up some of his tatties. And it was one he’d to keep a wary eye on, living as we were in a place where neighbours would send their children out at night time to dig up and steal it for themselves. The rain poured down that day, and I was drenched, asking him with boyish impatience if it was time to go home yet. He looked up at the rain plummeting down from the gray noisy sky, pouring over us and soaking us to the skin, looked up at me, then with that funny, lop-sided grin, said “The more, the merrier!” And he carried on digging and lifting tatties, until his work was done.

I don’t remember how cold or wet I felt that day, nor do I remember much of the rainwater down the back of my neck or the wet socks in my shoes that would have been like sodden sponges, so long had I stood in the mud and the rain. Time changes what we see is important. What I remember is his bright smile and the cheerful way he just carried on putting his back into it, and then the sight of all those tatties, which our dad had planted, our dad had grown, our dad and tended, and dug up for us. And whenever it has rained hard, and the heavens have disgorged seas of stormwater, I’ve looked up and remembered him, “The more, the merrier!”

It is half a century now since that day ; and this afternoon, as I stood looking out of the window, the rain came down, battering at the shaws growing in my tiny little vegetable garden. So I took my fork and my spade, and went out, and dug for my own little harvest of tatties, planted in the spring. The rain came still down, but it didn’t matter, and as each forkful brought up more of the golden and rounded potatoes, and the rain soaked into my arms and neck, I heard myself saying aloud to him, “The more, the merrier!”

I understood a little more about my dad today.