An unexpected milestone.

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.

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Olives and red wine

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. 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, 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.

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A small kindness

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.

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The more, the merrier

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.

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Shoebox Mementoes 2

Browsing through the shoebox mementoes has brought back memories I’d not recalled for decades, and until now had entirely forgotten. Among the mementoes Frances kept, were a stack of my letters from around the time we were engaged and then married. Love letters, I guess you’d call them. Old folded letters in envelopes nearly forty years old, some with my undying love, some with my remorse for having been an idiot following some now-forgotten argument. Whether it was my fault I’ll never be able to know now, but I learned soon enough that it was conducive to amorous and domestic harmony to assume that it was always my fault anyway ; and in one such letter, I regretted my folly in whatever it was had cause me to behave like an idiot the night before. I guess I must have been forgiven, for the engagement wasn’t called off.

Other letters are from shortly after we were married. I’d changed careers, and it meant spending a lot of time away from home on training courses, sometimes for up to a month at a time. It is probably appropriate that the content of most of these letters just stay in the memento box, but re-reading them has brought the odd moment worth sharing.

We’d not been married a year when I’d to spend a month away in Manchester, at the old Post Office Traffic Training Centre there. I stayed in a B&B run by a lovely man called Jack Ripley, who was as camp as a row of tents and made Larry Grayson look butch. Fabulous cook, with a wicked sense of humour, he wouldn’t have women in his B&B. (“Why don’t you have women guests, Jack?” “Ooh, nothing against women, ducky, but if they’re not washing their knickers in the sink, they’re washing their hair, and it doesn’t ‘alf block up the plug’oles.”) Jack had a Triumph TR7, with the famous headlights that were hidden under articulated covers in the bonnet where, on the flick of a dashboard switch, the covers opened like eyelids and the headlights came up to shine. Jack had arranged for his to have big eyelashes painted on them, and the headlights to be de-coupled, so that he could make them ‘wink’ at other drivers as he passed them by on the road. At supper time, he’d bring us a tray with a big pot of tea and a big plate of his home-made fairy cakes, “because I know you all like a good fairy!” The following night, when he brought us a plate full of queen cakes, putting them down with not a word but a sly smirk, we were convulsed with laughter.

I guess I must have been feeling lonely, a newly wed young chap at several hundred miles remove from the object of his love, for I seemed to be writing just about every night, telling her how much I missed her, or what had happened during the training day, such as the time we spent on one of the old fashioned PO telephone switchboards connecting calls (‘Manchester Rampart’), in the days when telephone operators actually could connect calls, and I’d accidentally connected a woman caller to the Speaking Clock.

As I read this particular letter, from February 1975, the memories came flooding back. The excitement of being not yet a twelve-month married, the anxiousness of being two hundred miles separated from my true love, the cool emptiness of a single bed in a guest house. On the Friday evening, I’d written to her again, talking about the new house furniture we’d been planning and waiting for, how lonely it felt down here in Chorlton, and how much I was missing her. And then, in a phrase that showed my language skills had yet to understand the concept of bathos, my ardent love letter continued : “I’ve just washed my socks, and I’m going to wash my underwear shortly. I wish I’d brought my talcum powder.”

God, I knew how to romance a girl back then!

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Shoebox Mementoes

This may mean nothing to most, but I have just found a completely unexpected treasure trove.

Whilst in the process of turning the small bedroom into a home office again, I came upon a large white box with a silver lid. made of cardboard and well worn at the edges. I don’t know what it originally held, perhaps some article of clothing, or maybe it was a huge box of chocolates. But when I looked inside, I found nearly forty years worth of mementoes of one sort or another, collected by Frances over the years. There are many to look at, but this is about just one of them.

The first thing I found in the box was the menu card from our wedding reception, in 1974, which she’d kept, the quaintly typed blue ink, on an old fashioned proper typewriter then Xeroxed, fading and slightly spreading.

Since he died many years ago, in 1977, it has always been one of my great regrets that I have nothing that is in his own handwriting. We called him The Auld Man, but he was just 54 years old when he died, following a debilitating stroke a few years earlier, and which robbed him of the power of one half of his body. He didn’t write much, being a practical man who lived with his hands and made things skillfully, and I think the most I ever saw him write was when he signed our school report cards. My memento of him, which my mother gave me and which I still have, it his shaving razor. I turned the menu over, to find on the back a message of good wishes to Frances and me on our wedding day, and I saw that it had been signed by a number of the guests and family members. Near the top of the left column, under the signatures of The Wifey (Doreen, my mother-in-law) and my mother, Rose, I saw my father’s name, his own handwriting. After all these years, my dad’s signature, and my mum’s, together.

The Ardmore is coming out tonight.

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Shoe polishing with Flash

I was Second Porter in the old Grand Hotel in Glasgow’s Charing Cross, in 1968. My brother Neil was page boy, and our mutual friend Mike was also a porter. On the night staff, one of the night porters was an old chap called John (I forget his surname), whose nickname was ‘Flash’ ; and believe me, it was thoroughly ironic. The head night porter was an Irishman called Les.

The Grand, being a hotel in the old style, offered a boot and shoe cleaning service, where guests would put their shoes outside their bedroom doors, and one of the night porters would take the polishing trolley around each floor (there were three in the Grand), and polish the shoes, a good night-time’s job.

There were regular tours arriving at the hotel, from all part of the UK, and one day, a tour arrived from Wales. There must have been nearly a hundred, as there were two coaches on the tour. Getting the suitcases from the coaches up to the bedrooms was a real challenge for the porters, because, being Welsh, almost all the surnames were either Jones, Evans, or Davies, and matching luggage to rooms was very time-consuming and fraught with errors. However, we managed it and had all the luggage up by completion of check-in.

Les sent ‘Flash’ on boot polish duty that night. And Murphy’s Law being what it is, almost every bedroom had at least one pair of boots or shoes outside. The prospect of a night trawling around each of the three floors, going from door to door, polishing shoes as quietly as he could, was not appealing to Flash, so he tried to think of a way to reduce the drudgery, and applied his mind to a solution.

Flash was what might be called ‘challenged in the thinking-things-through’ department. After some cogitation, he hit on the labour saving scheme of fetching one of the big wheeled laundry baskets from the laundry room. He then went round every floor, picking up all the shoes and boots, and then took them in the lift down to the little Porters’ Rest Room that was just by the lift door on the ground floor. There, he set about industriously polishing everything, brown, black, grey, and neutral. Then Les, who had been up to the Still Room for a pot of tea, came back, looked in on Flash’s industry, and said

“Why, that’s a good job ye’ve been doing there, Flash.”

“Aye, Ah thocht it wid be easier tae dae it a’ here, save me movin about a’ the flairs.”

“Aye, aye, Flash, good thinkin’ there, I’ll grant ye. Now, how are ye goin’ to get them all back in the right places?”

Flash looked up, and it took several seconds for the significance of Les’s query to dawn on him.

“Aw shite. Ah nivvir thoat o’ that. Jesus, whit’ll Ah dae noo?”

“Aye John, that’s somethin’ ye’ll have to figure out next.”

The next morning was a crazy morning, and not all the Welsh saw the funny side of it …

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Francis Hay (1855-1872)

Andrew Hay was a fisherman, born in 1828, and he lived and fished and married Jane Findlay in a small hamlet in Aberdeenshire by the coast, in Cruden Bay. Jane was four years older than Andrews, and she too worked at the fishing. They had ten children, the ninth of whom was Catherine, my great-grandmother. Piecing together the Hay household in that little hamlet, new members arriving with births, reaching adulthood and leaving, I’d find the household expanding then contracting then expanding again. With each new arrival for Andrew and Jane, I set out to find another life history.

Andrew’s first son was named Andrew, and as others were born, they were named by the usual convention that honours grandparents. The third child, a boy, was Francis MacPherson Hay, and he was born in 1855. I first encountered him in the decennial census snapshot of 1861, as a boy of about six, and again ten years later, as a teenager, following in his father in fishing in the north-east coast waters. I lost track of him after that. It was by a piece of remarkable serendipity that I found him again, whilst browsing a collection of 19th century newspaper archives.

I discovered from an old copy of the Glasgow Herald, dated September 24th, 1872, an unexpected report of an accident at sea. Andrew had taken his son, Francis, to Peterhead to take a new fishing boat, and they planned to sail her down the coast from Peterhead back to Cruden Bay. They set sail on Saturday, 22nd September, 1872. As they approached Whinnyfold and home, the boat capsized near a dangerous point known as the Scares of Cruden, and father and son were both thrown into the sea. The old man held himself afloat by clinging to the broken mast, but the young Francis was washed away and drowned. His body was never recovered.

In 1873, Francis’s older brother John, and his wife Jane, had a son. They called him Francis.

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The Remembrance Service at St Dunstan’s this afternoon, to remember all the parishioners who had died during the year. I walked all the way there, through the light mist that has been hovering most of the day. Bright beautiful church, it brought back memories of the day in January when we laid Frances to rest. Claire and Ian were there, waiting for me, and that made it a little easier. Kept composed ; though the final hymn, one of her favourites, ‘How Great Thou Art’, proved too much. It would not feel right to have remained unmoved, anyway. I could not take Communion for her, not being of the faith that meant so much to her, but I did take a blessing for her.

Still miss her every day. It was good to be there, hear her name read out, and to remember.

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Miss Potter’s Flick

Now here’s a thing you need to know about fencing, though it shouldn’t put you off. Sometimes – not often, thankfully, but sometimes – you take a hit in the nuts. If a bloke hits you in the jewels, he stops instantly, shoves his mask up, and leaps forward to check you’re OK. When a woman gives an accidental hit on the clackers, the first thing she invariably does is get a fit of giggles. Men don’t laugh when they do it ; women do. There’s probably a giggle-gene on the XY chromosome for it.

One night I was on the piste fencing with Kay. We were fencing foil, which is the one where only the trunk of the body is a legitimate target. Kay had a peculiar style with foil, she fenced it like it was sabre, and a high proportion of her attacks were ‘flicks’, where, instead of thrusting outwards at the target, the fencer throws the blade out sideways with a sudden stop of the wrist, resembling a sabre cut, so that the foremost part of the blade ‘whips’ round in a curve and in towards the target area. This can be very hard to parry because even though you catch the blade, the front part is curving round your defending parry at high speed and can still reach target. A lot of fencers dislike ‘flick’ fencers because they can hurt. And you can see it coming (which is more than I did) : Kay lunged forward, head low, and tried to flick my right flank.

Jesus! I took it full on. Kay pushed her mask up and said “Hey, are you OK?” and I put my right palm up to say “give me a minute, I can’t speak!” Then she started giggling. She giggled so much she dropped to the floor on her knees, shoulders heaving, hand trying to stifle the laughter, while I stood there wondering if I’d ever regain the power to inhale. Every so often she’d look up at me, then break down into more peals of laughing. Eventually, the pain subsided, there appeared to be no permanent damage, and I started to collect myself again. She did, it’s fair, re-collect her composure, and asked me if there wasn’t any protective gear for the men the way there is for women. And I thought that was a good point, especially as it was also a painful one, so I said I’d dig out the ‘cricket guard’ I used to use when I did martial arts training.

And so the following week, I brought the cricket guard, and put it on when I changed into my kit. I strode into the fencing room ready for anything, and sure enough, Kay came across for a few hits. I’d got onto the piste and was taking up the en garde position, as she was, when she was again taken over by a fit of the giggles. Then the giggles became peals of laughing. She strode right up to me and said “Hey, is that a protector you’re wearing there or are you just pleased to see me?” What I’d forgotten about was that when you’re wearing martial arts training kit, it’s very loose fitting, so a cricket guard just doesn’t show. But fencing kit is close fitting, and I now had this enormous tell-tale bulge of the cricket guard in my breeches. I
had a look, and there was nothing for it but to fall about laughing myself. What was worse, in practice it was awkward and uncomfortable to move in, and after just one bout I had to go and take it off again. Kay milked this for all it was worth, and whenever she squared up to me on the piste, would pretend she couldn’t walk properly and push her pelvis out as if she were wearing the damn thing.

I never wore it again, but I can tell you that my strongest and fastest parry is the parry of seconde.

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