The Wonder of Wetherspoons

Christmas and Culture in Margate

We spent Christmas with Team H in Margate and as Team AK were also coming down we volunteered to stay at the Premier Inn.

Premier Inn is a British hotel chain and the UK’s largest hotel brand, with more than 72,000 rooms and 800 hotels.

On our various trips and breaks we do stay at blogworthy bed and breakfasts and hotels of character and weirdness, but Premier Inns are a good choice if the location is handy. You know what to expect; the rooms are big enough, the beds comfortable and everything is purple. The Margate Premier Inn is by the railway station, looks out to sea and the walk to the home of Team H takes us within view of many cultural landmarks.

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We have stayed a good few times and never had a room with a sea view, this time we did, but the view was blocked by the air conditioning unit on top of the Brewer’s Fayre pub and restaurant below. But the winter afternoon was drawing in and it was time to check in with the rest of the family, then back to the sea front for another family tradition – dinner at Wetherspoons.

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J D Wetherspoon plc is a pub company in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Founded in 1979 by Tim Martin, the company operates nearly 900 pubs and a growing number of Wetherspoon hotels. The company is known for converting unconventional yet attractive premises into pubs.

Another chain where you know what to expect, Tim is obviously a chap who, unlike most politicians, cottoned on to what people want. Cheap pub food, refillable coffee cups, meals served from morning till night and a relaxed place where you can take your granny or your grandchild. As you order at the bar, or with your smart phone, you can wander in and out for a handy loo visit or perhaps hang out all day. The added bonus for writers is that you can watch all sorts of people and for photographers many of the branches are in amazing buildings rescued from neglect. Another interesting fact; it is claimed that every Wetherspoon has a different pattern of carpet, inspired by the location and specially woven; you can even buy a book about them.

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The Margate Wetherspoon has just been refurbished and now boasts comfy booths where you can charge up your various electronic gadgets. The walls are adorned with framed snippets of the town’s history. It is called The Mechanical Elephant, recalling the creature that used to give rides along the promenade in the 1950’s. This little bit of history inspired my short story ‘Thanephant an Elephantasy’ which was included in Thanet Writers’ anthology ‘Shoal’.

On Christmas Eve morning it was time to return to Wetherspoons for breakfast, but first another cultural landmark. At this end of the main sands is the Victorian Nayland Rock shelter. In the late Autumn of 1921, the bank clerk poet T.S. Eliot came to Margate on doctor’s orders to convalesce. He was in a fragile state physically and mentally and took a tram to sit on the seafront every day. While looking out at the expanse of grey water, watching children playing and war veterans exercising on the beach, he drafted part of The Waste Land.

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“On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing/”
I have to confess I haven’t read The Wasteland, but I have just downloaded it onto my Kindle for 99pence.

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Margate is on the Isle of Thanet, a real island until a few hundred years ago. It is on the east coast of Kent, but actually faces north across the Thames Estuary, so the sea can be grey on a grey day. The first day trippers used to come by steamer down the Thames.
On Christmas Eve morning the sun had come out and on the beach we saw the new attraction, a recreated bathing machine; the steam arising from the roof gives a clue to its secret, it is actually a sauna. I was almost envious of the chap emerging from the sea to clamber inside.

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Near the Mechanical Elephant is Dreamland. Amusements have been on this site since 1880, it was first called Dreamland in 1920 when the Grade 2 listed Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster was opened. After going into decline early this century and being closed down there was a public campaign to restore the park and it re-opened in June 2015.

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Dreamland’s morale has been greatly boosted by the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in 2011, bringing a big buzz to the town. Cheap property prices and a fast train route to London have brought artists and fresh blood into the town – DFLs Down From London. The gallery is built on the spot by the harbour where the painter JMW Turner’s landlady had her boarding house.

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At the end of last year the Turner Prize took place in Margate, the four artists exhibited at the gallery and the award ceremony was held in the Hall-by-the-Sea in Dreamland. It was an unprecedented event as the prize was shared between the four artists.

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Our Christmas break finished with a family breakfast at Brewer’s Fayre. If you are staying at Premiere Inn and want breakfast this is where you go, sneaking in a secret door at the back…

Brewers Fayre is a licensed pub restaurant chain, with 161 locations across the UK, known for serving traditional British pub food and for their Sunday Carvery.

There are several advantages to be enjoyed, refillable coffee cups, up to two children under fifteen can eat for free at the breakfast buffet and there is a soft play area where your toddler can end up well beyond reach and stuck there forever unless you persuade him to come down in the slide tube. If your child is a strapping fourteen year old they will be too big for soft play, but can eat twice as much as the adults for free!

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Where do you like to stay when you are away? How many doctors these days advise their patients to go on holiday to convalesce and write?

Part of my novel ‘At The Seaside Nobody Hears You Scream’ is set in Margate.

Your Amazon Order – Silly Saturday Story

She was not addicted, she was just adapted. Amelia’s grandchildren had told her to get on Amazon while she was in lockdown. She was not locked in, still allowed out for exercise and shopping essentials, but that was no help if she wanted a pair of slippers and the shoe shop was closed. But even going to the local food shops was an ordeal; wearing a mask, her glasses steaming up so she couldn’t see what she was doing let alone think what she wanted. Her dermatitis had flared up after putting the basket cleaning spray on instead of the hand gel. Then she couldn’t buy any cheese because she accidentally bypassed the dairy chiller cabinet and couldn’t reverse in the one way system. The final drama was getting in the wrong queue and ending up at the self service tills; waving to her nice young man on the real till she was accused of pushing in by a large woman with a scary red mask.

So here she was at the computer she used to only use for Facebook and emails. Amelia was now the proud owner of an Amazon Prime account and it was true, you could get anything on Amazon. Instead of two or three emails a week she now had half a dozen a day, kindly keeping her up to date with the progress of her deliveries. It was like Christmas every day.

It had started with slippers, some nice face cream and a big box of fruit and veg from that nice Suffolk farm; too much veg, she had to share with Doris and Ken next door. They were so impressed with her on line skills she offered to order things for them. Autumn bedding plants, then her son sent her links for the grandchildren’s birthday presents; more than she usually paid, but she wasn’t spending any money going out to the theatre, cinema or meals with friends.

When she couldn’t think of anything more she needed Amelia decided to give herself some presents, Covid Comfort… Self Care her granddaughter called it. Well Amelia did not want to plaster her face with green paste like that YouTube video, but she could improve her surroundings without even setting foot in B&Q. Colourful lampshades, amazing rugs and exotic plant pots arrived at her doorstep. Now she needed a new challenge.

Later, Amelia could not remember how the idea came into her head, but once it was there she was determined to see if Amazon could realise it. No more trips to the post office, she would have her own little drone to deliver letters and parcels and impress friends and family with her technical skills. She would probably have to practice first, a few tours giving her birds’ eye views of her neighbourhood.

It was rather expensive, no doubt because it was a high end model according to the description. Must be the latest model, there was only one review so far. The five to seven days passed slowly, but at last came the email Your package with 1 item will be delivered today. She waited for the doorbell to ring and her parcel to appear in the porch. Glancing out of the front window to see if a white van had drawn up yet, she was surprised to see a huge truck turn into her little road. Someone must be having building work done, though the equipment on the back of the lorry looked very strange. Paul across the road had come out to look and the sound of the strange vehicle being unloaded, like one of those huge rubbish skips, brought the children and other neighbours out. If they were being nosey, so could she, but before she could get to the front door there was a frantic ringing of her doorbell.

A huge chap in a yellow jacket and black mask stood back from the doorstep; what little she could see of his face was frowning.

‘Is this number forty six?’

‘Yes.’

‘Mrs. Amelia Dawson?’

‘Yes that’s me, have you brought my Amazon parcel.’

‘Hardly a parcel, but it’s all unloaded. I presume you have a licence from the Ministry of Defence or the Civil Aviation Authority…’

‘Pardon?’

‘Never mind, not my problem, I just deliver things.’

Amelia closed the door and crept upstairs to look out the bedroom window. The lorry had already gone; surely that monstrosity parked outside her front gate, on the residents’ parking only lines, couldn’t be for her. She slipped into the little back bedroom to check her emails. One new, 11.51.

Hi Amelia, your package has been delivered.

How was your delivery?

It was great Not so great

A photo of your delivery location.

She looked at the time on the computer, 11.59, then looked at her order again, peering closer; she had assumed the measurements were in centimetres not metres…

Home Alone

The pandemic has revealed just how many people live alone; we hear and read about well known stars and artists happily living by themselves, presumably as a lifestyle choice. Plenty of ordinary people live alone, perhaps always have done as adults, or since a parent or partner died or after divorce. Many of these are happy living by themselves, self contained. Those elderly people already restricted to home before Covid hit, are not necessarily lonely. A lady in her nineties on our library round told us she was never lonely, as long as she had the twenty books we brought her every three weeks. Of course there are many people who are lonely, young people from broken homes in tiny bedsits, old people who have no family left in the world.

None of these ‘single households’ reckoned on having a pandemic and being prisoners in their homes. Single retired people leading busy independent lives suddenly found themselves described as vulnerable. The people for whom lockdowns and the lack of access to normal activities are so hard are single parents in tiny flats, carers left to cope with disabled children or parents and partners with dementia. Their support network was suddenly pulled out from beneath them.

Being alone is not the same as being lonely. In days gone by lone people might manage a farm by themselves with the nearest humans miles away; being alone really meant that, no radio, television or internet. I can’t imagine what that would be like, but perhaps the company of their dog, farm animals and nature all around was enough. It’s a cliché, but you can be just as lonely in a big city; most of us have probably found ourselves in a new town, at a new job, knowing no one.

When we first moved here sixteen years ago Cyberspouse had a few more weeks working out his notice at Heathrow. When he left for work early on Monday morning with the kitchen flooded ( that’s another story ) I suddenly realised I had gone from a home with five people and a job at Heathrow with thousands of people – I wasn’t actually working with thousands, just moving among thousands each day – to a strange house in a place I knew no one. I wondered if I only existed in relation to other people.

I had time to get used to the idea of joining that large club, widows ( what a medical scandal it is that women are still outliving men ) and the even larger club of women living alone. After the flurry of activity and family visits we are in our second lockdown in England, so now I am officially on my own. Cyberspouse was totally dependable, unflappable and fun, so being on my own was not what I would have chosen, but if others manage to cope so will I. During 2019 we had plenty of time for trips and fun and getting everything in order. In 2020 I learnt to be a carer and the only responsible adult in the house, no more yelling for help when the computer didn’t work. I am cheating slightly, having had family to help out with the official stuff and Cyberson Two, who after doing nothing at school, is now a builder we all depend on, who can turn his hand to anything. The downside is that none of the family live nearby, but it must be hard to truly be on your own.

What else helps? Covid Comforts are what we all need and anyone who has a home and food enough to eat must be grateful. We glimpse on our television screens into the homes of news commentators or our favourite entertainers; they enjoy having the chance to chat and presumably they are coping fine with lockdown. Invisible are those folk in poverty or grieving having lost family to Covid. It may seem to me that everyone is walking around alive while Cyberspouse is not, but 53,000 is our death toll from Covid in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile in my cosy lockdown retreat I live in a nice little road with good neighbours and a garden to keep me busy. We are allowed to go to the shops for essentials and at the local shops I buy fresh flowers regularly, my lockdown treat to brighten the dark days of winter.  We can go out for exercise and use our beach huts; I can sit and chat at the beach hut with the one friend we’re allowed to meet outside. We can go out for medical reasons, so I was quite excited to go on the bus to the hospital for a blood test!   

Indoors the lifesaver is BBC Radio, it never goes off; if I can’t sleep I can listen to the World Service. During the day there is news aplenty ( too much ), but also intelligent chat, dramas, serials and music. I have a CD player so I am never without music on tap. Television may have plenty of rubbish, but also interesting or cheerful programmes to watch with dinner on my lap. Writing is absorbing, creative and vital. Photography and crafts are other creatives to focus on.

Connecting with the outside world? The good old fashioned telephone is the easiest way to chat to people, but how many of us would want to do without the internet during Covid? We can blog, Facetime, share political and lockdown jokes on Facebook, go on zoom; my only experience with zoom is the weekly quiz my daughters’ friends do, but it’s good to have something fun to focus on.

What will happen next in the world, in our own countries; will Christmas be cancelled, will those of us in the northern hemisphere cope with winter… look out for Home Alone Two.

Silly Saturday- Dropping into Documentaries

I never get invited to be in documentaries. I was watching a documentary about a well known artist the other night, admiring her garden as she wandered down the path to her interesting studio. Then into the studio saunters a young man and on the screen appear the words Fred Bloggs ( not his real name, which I forget ) friend and writer. I have no idea what he has written, perhaps I should have heard of him and read all his work. But it doesn’t matter, he enjoys a certain kudos just by being a friend of a famous ( and infamous ) artist. Did he just turn up or did the producers plan his role and coach his lines to the artist ‘Have you got time for a cup of coffee?’ Luckily she had and they chat about her work, not his writing.

How do you get to appear in someone else’s documentary? It helps to actually have a friend who is a famous artist, or any friends at all. I do have some artistic friends, but nobody has made a documentary about them.

It also works the other way round. I was watching a documentary about a writer last night and lo and behold, we pan to a studio and there is someone else whose name I forget; the screen says Joe Smith, friend and artist. A great asset for the film makers because they can film him painting a portrait of his famous friend. Now I just need to find an artist who paints portraits and wait for someone to make a documentary about me.

If you enjoy visiting galleries, why not visit my Covid safe gallery.

https://www.ccsidewriter.co.uk/chapter-three-picture-gallery/

The Game of Death – New Players

Warning: If you want to avoid the topic of death and dark humour read no further.

Covid 19 has made people think and talk about how people should die, with emphasis on not being alone, preferably with family. Covid patients in isolation have been unable to see loved ones.

In reality most of us cannot choose where to die or plan the scenario; victims of murder or major disasters certainly don’t have the luxury of dying in their own beds comforted by family. Awful circumstances such as terrorist attacks find total strangers holding the hand of a dying person, giving their death some dignity. As no one comes back to tell us, we cannot know if the surroundings and company or lack of it make any difference to their own unique internal solo journey. Celebrities often seem to have died ‘peacefully at home with their family present’ but folk lore and family tales seem to indicate that dying people often wait till the very moment loved ones pop out of the room.

Most terminally ill people will probably get the chance to opt for palliative care at home, though it can’t be guaranteed; they may need to go to hospital or a hospice eventually, but Covid has made it even more desirable to stay at home and leave hospital beds free for others. Unless everyone in your family is a medical person, carers will need help along the way or near the end; team work and various bits of equipment are required to make life easy for patient and carers. There is nothing to stop you ordering wheelchairs and all sorts on Amazon and getting next day delivery, but the National Health Service is geared up to lend what you need and the various teams helping you will be busy arranging equipment. The largest item is the hospital bed; you might die in your own home, but probably not in your own bed, however romantic that looks in films. The beds have to be plugged in and do all sorts of things. The bed and other items come with wheels and stiff pedal brakes impossible to put on or off if you are only wearing your slippers!

In the first few months of the lockdown I coped fine by myself with Cyberspouse. District nurses were trying to avoid going in any homes, but they phoned regularly with advice and to arrange some of the medications. They were ready to come out with their protective gear if necessary. Cyberspouse was happy not to have any visits, medical or otherwise, relaxing at home in the exceptionally sunny weather we had.

Later on, family help was more vital than keeping isolated and they took turns to come and stay; it was only in the last ten days that the district nurses came and arranged for Marie Curie nurses to parachute in with four visits a day. A helpful bright yellow book arrived promptly in the post. We were also glad a few times to ring the emergency numbers that had been sitting by the phone for months; night duty district nurses and 111 doctors. Marie Curie were excellent, compassionate and caring ladies and one chap. Visits rapidly increased and they made sure I had a night nurse for what turned out to be the last night, one of the few nights I was going to be by myself. They told me I was going to have wonderful Linda who had been doing the overnighter ‘forever’.

Linda arrived with a huge bag, rather like a mature Mary Poppins. I explained yet again that none of the family lived nearby, but they had all been to visit and my daughter was coming back the next day. It was a busy week in real life with two grandchildren just back in the UK and starting a new school and my daughter’s son starting school! Younger son had just got engaged. Linda was there to make sure Cyberspouse was comfortable, to organise the practicalities and make sure I didn’t miss the moment…

I later got a nice card from Marie Curie and they have rung me a few times to see how I am getting on. They are a charity well worth supporting.

Handy Home Hints

You might think your loved one is past the point of seeing the GP, but it is the GP who has to prescribe the drugs and you will have to go and sign for the ‘just in case’ controlled drugs as well as collecting various ongoing prescriptions.

It is helpful if someone in the family works for the NHS or has a friend in palliative care nursing … my daughter is a physiotherapist and had that very friend to ask for advice. She always made lists of questions and sounded professional on the phone, so we were well prepared.

After the death a doctor has to come and certify the death, either the GP or the on call ( 111 ) doctor at night. After that you must call the funeral director, but you can decide if you want them to come as soon as possible or wait a while.

Afterwards you will have to return all the drugs to a pharmacy, especially the controlled drugs, but unused needles have to be returned to the doctors’ surgery.

Darkly Funny Moments.  

The next day, Thursday, the funeral directors phoned to say they had not had the notification from our GP of the death. The on call night duty doctor had sat at the kitchen table typing into his lap top, saying ‘everything is going straight through to your doctor’s surgery’ but my writer’s mind thought ‘I have no proof he’s even been here, no piece of paper, was he actually a doctor?’ I was slightly reassured that nurse Linda knew him. When my daughter tried phoning our surgery she couldn’t get through and in the end resorted to using her internal NHS email. Luckily the information did end up in the right place.

One thing the district nurses requested unsuccessfully was a hospital bed extension, we had been expecting it for weeks. When a chap with a truck arrived at the door on Thursday morning I thought he was very quick to collect the hospital bed until he said cheerfully ‘I’ve brought the bed extension’. Poor bloke was embarrassed when I apologised that it was too late.

We had not seen much of the palliative care team from the local hospital who originally got us organised. One of the nurses had phoned the previous week saying ‘I’ll touch base with you on Friday.’ Sure enough on Friday the phone rang and she said brightly ‘Just calling to touch base’… so I had to tell her the news.  

Because of  Covid we were saved a trip to the registry office; instead I had a nice phone chat to Polly the registrar including Cyberspouse’s no funeral request. After taking most of the details she asked me my occupation. Oh oh, was I going to fail this part? I replied that I had done all sorts of things and she said ‘How would you like to be known in a hundred years?’ Well who in a hundred years would know I didn’t earn a living at it, so of course I replied  ‘A writer!’

https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/terminal-illness/preparing/what-to-expect

Saturday Short Story – Lockdown Two

Vivienne looked out of her front window, the road was quiet, empty; Saturday, day three of the new lockdown. At least in the first lockdown it had been spring, a spring as warm as summer and she had not been living by herself. Glad as she was for the peace and quiet after her divorced, inexplicably homeless son had left, you could have too much peace and quiet. She was used to living by herself since Geoff died, but that was without a pandemic; going to her groups, lunches out, friends round for coffee. Now the clocks had gone back, the nights were drawing in, dark by five o’clock… a month was a long time, but there seemed little hope that it would be only a month. It made little difference that Julia had been stuck in Tier Three, no one was going anywhere. If James drove her up there for Christmas they would be the exact limit of six people, but she presumed that was another rule that had gone by the board. Now her son was talking about helping cook Christmas dinner for the homeless, no doubt because Cassie had also volunteered. Vivienne felt like a statistic, vulnerable because of her age and pitied as a one person household. Could join a bubble or was that just lonely old people who needed help, certainly not her. Meet one other person for a walk, hmm, Sonya down the road had said she must pop in for a cup of tea a couple of weeks ago, after her ex husband had departed from Sonya’s life and his own… but her new friend had been busy with the funeral and both daughters returning from abroad and now it was too late.

A morning walk would be good and the autumn weather was pleasant, a newspaper was all she needed, with James still insisting on doing her on line shopping, but it gave a little purpose to the outing. As she passed by Sonya’s front gate she was pathetically grateful to see Sonya coming towards her with the dog.

‘Oh I’m glad I caught you Vivienne, why don’t you come in for that cup of tea, I’ve still got cake left over from the funeral, I’m sure no one is going to tell on us.’

Vivienne didn’t take much persuading, she was rather curious to see inside the house. Their front gate chats had really only been about Covid, the dreadful ( Vivienne’s opinion ) dying ex husband Sonya had taken in for his last two months that had turned into seven and Vivienne’s trials and tribulations having a son in his forties back at home.

Inside, the house was bright and tidy, not at all the gloomy hospital scenario she had imagined from Sonya’s descriptions.

‘The girls did a great job helping me put the house back to rights, once the hospital bed and all that equipment had gone. Glad to get rid of all those things with wheels and brakes, the number of times I banged my ankles. It is a bit strange without him; they rang me up, the cancer charity, in case I wanted to talk. I felt like saying I would be more upset if the dog died.’

‘But you might benefit from someone to talk to, it must have been very stressful.’

‘I feel sorry for our daughters, nothing much was really resolved, especially as he was dead by the time they got here.’

‘Oh dear, I’m sorry, but it must have been good for the three of you to be together.’

‘Yes, they decided we must celebrate the good times; all those photos I had up in the loft have been digitalised and you wouldn’t believe what you can order on line.’

Vivienne could hardly miss the large framed photo in the hall. The young man bore no resemblance to the withered scowling figure Sonya pushed in his wheelchair.

‘He was very good looking.’

‘Yes, unfortunately lots of women thought so.’

Sonya led her into the front room where a large framed collage of photos took up one wall; babies, holidays, happy days by the look of it. Turning away Vivienne supressed a smile as she saw heart shaped cushions scattered on the large sofa, each bearing pictures of young Sonya with her beloved.

‘Goodness…’

‘Wait till you see the dining room, I’ll put the kettle on.’

On the dining table was a colourful jigsaw in progress, as Vivienne tried to make out the picture her friend came in with two mugs of tea and slices of cake.

‘Only his cousin actually came to the funeral, so we didn’t have to worry about numbers or getting much food in – do you like the jigsaw, that was when we had the caravan.’

Vivienne picked up the large bright mug, disconcerted to look into the eyes of the deceased ex. She thought of the one family photo and picture of she and Geoff at that dinner and dance displayed in her living room and wondered how many items in this house were dedicated to Sonya’s husband.

‘Did you see on top of the piano?’

A very blingy metal frame contained a picture of an impossibly glamorous Sonya leaning against the muscular loved one, who in turn leant against a huge shining motorbike.

‘That was before we had the children and how about this, I ordered it from Amazon, my family tree.’

On the other end of the piano was a gaudy metallic tree with heart shaped frames hanging from its branches. Tiny babies and aged people peered out.

‘It was a very reasonable price, for real silver. But I still like this best.’

Vivienne followed her gaze to a large family portrait, two little girls swamped in frills and their father gazing adoringly at his wife and daughters.

‘We won a free studio session, though it turned out you had to pay a fortune if you actually wanted to keep any pictures, but I’m glad we had that done.’

‘I wish Geoff and I had thought to do something like that, you can’t beat a professional photographer.’

‘Yes, that was taken just before he deserted us.’

Scary Saturday Short Story – Door Bell

At least Covid 19 meant no children knocking at the door this year. My own ten year old had gone to her friends’ house to do Halloween and my husband was picking her up after his shift finished. We were still medium risk in our area and no one in Maya’s class had tested positive, but it might be the last time she could see friends if we were heading for a second lockdown. Anyway, I was going to leave the television and radio off and read my new book. I did not want to hear any Covid news.

Two pages in and I was startled by the door bell ringing frantically. How annoying, Maya and her friends must be playing a joke.

I opened the door to see a pale very solemn child standing there, peering from beneath a hood. Her costume and acting were rather good. I peered over her head; the street light by our front gate revealed no parent or older sibling looking out for her.

‘Are you out on your own?’

‘I’m always on my own.’

Her voice was faint. That’s all I needed on my evening off, some child from a dysfunctional family, probably one of those who needed food hand outs at half term. She looked like she needed feeding up, but I could hardly invite her in, I might be accused of kidnapping and anyway, I did not want to get involved.

‘Perhaps you had better run along now, I haven’t got any sweets, my daughter took them to her friends’ house.’

She remained silent.

‘How about a bag of crisps and a banana?’

She remained silent, so I turned to nip into the kitchen and see what we had in the fruit bowl. I grabbed a carrier bag and put in two bananas and a few satsumas; she probably never got any fruit at home. But before I could turn back to the kitchen door I sensed her behind me. There she was, standing in my kitchen, this was getting creepy.

‘Where do you live?’

‘Here.’

I didn’t like the way she looked through me, I felt a chill; despite her translucent pallor she looked familiar. Now we were in the light I noticed the ginger curls escaping from her hood were just like Maya’s bouncy hair and she was the same height.

‘Now don’t be silly, your parents will be worrying where you are.’

‘No they won’t, they don’t want me, why didn’t you want me? You love Maya, why didn’t you love me?’

I felt chilled to the core. I hadn’t mentioned Maya’s name and I was certain she wasn’t one of the neighbour’s children or in Maya’s class.

‘You have done your tricking and you have your treat. Now I want you to leave my house.’

‘Why can’t I live here?’

I felt sick, should I call the police… where had I left my mobile… I didn’t want to take my eyes off her, this could be a burglary attempt with a big brother waiting to slip in the front door… it was upstairs charging and the landline was in my husband’s office…

‘Why don’t you tell me your phone number and we could ring your home.’

‘This is my home Mummy, it took me a long time to find you.’

What kind of sick joke was this, could she really be… no that was ridiculous…

‘My daughter will be home soon and it’s time you left.’

‘She’s not coming home.’

‘Her Dad’s bringing her.’

‘Maya’s not coming home, so I can stay now.’

‘Of course you can’t.’

‘Why don’t you want me, you wanted Maya.’

I tried to think rationally, so why did I find myself trying to explain?

‘It wasn’t the right time, it wouldn’t have been fair to you.’

‘You should have given me a chance.’

Who or what was this strange child? What could she possibly know about… I tried not to let my imagination run wild, prayed that Maya and her Dad would be back soon… no, I prayed this frail creature would leave before they did return. I stepped back, nauseous as she held out her blue veined hand.

‘Please go’ my voice was shaking ‘I told you  my daughter will be back soon.’

I told you Mummy, she won’t be coming back.’

I closed my eyes for a second, trying to think. I heard a tread, felt the floor vibrate, they must be back. But when I opened my eyes a policeman was standing there.

‘Sorry Madam, the front door was wide open, didn’t you hear me calling?’

His voice was muffled behind his mask, but his eyes were darting around nervously.

‘Thanks for coming, were you looking for this lost child, will you call social services?’

He looked puzzled. I followed his gaze round the kitchen, the girl was not there.

‘Oh she must have crept upstairs, we better check.’

‘Madam, madam please, I need you to sit down. Is anyone else at home?’

‘No, my husband and daughter are out.’

‘I am very sorry, I have to tell you there has been a serious accident and we think…

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Friday Flash Fiction – 800 – Hot Meals

Cassie was worried about James; even though their town was still a medium risk area his mental health felt like a high risk area. She bit into the tender flakes of haddock; Friday evening fish and chips was one of her Covid comforts; the pandemic had come down to appreciating the simple things. Five of them, plus Sam’s dog, sat well spaced out in the staff canteen of the MPJ building; few staff had used the canteen since March, but this week it had been well used.  Sam had honed his cooking skills catering for the small group of fellow homeless folk sheltering at MPJ and it had been his idea to provide meals this half term for children entitled to free school meals and at risk of hunger every holiday. James had been reluctant to agree, but the MPJ bosses had seen a further opportunity to be seen as part of the community and not fat cats. James had been reassured that he would not have to meet any real children. He had the perfect excuse to steer clear of the whole operation as he was still frantically busy coordinating who was coming in to work at the offices and who was working from home. There was still an international company to run in the midst of pandemic uncertainty that seemed never ending.

But it was not work stress that was taking its toll on James. Though their homeless project could not be described as wildly successful, he had proved the homeless could be housed in empty or near empty office blocks. But an office block was not home; the man who had lost his home to divorce and lived with his mother during lock down wanted his own comfortable place. Cassie didn’t blame him, she was thankful to be working at home and thankful she had her own house. She had no intention of sharing it, at least not with James. If there had been a spark earlier, when they could only talk on line, she now knew a relationship was not what she wanted; there was a limit to how much she could help him, it was up to him to work out how to move on.  As for Cassie herself, Covid had been a positive experience, discovering new strengths, making new contacts, happy to have James and Sam as friends. Doubts about her actual job, what she really wanted to do with her life, were now put aside as she helped with the homeless. Being Sam’s assistant cook for the children’s meals had made her feel she was really contributing to society, part of the Covid Community.

When they had finished eating and debriefing the week’s project it was time for Sam to walk the dog and for Cassie to cycle home, not quite so pleasant now the clocks had gone back. They stepped outside into a dark, wet and windy evening. She wheeled her bike to the park with Sam and despite the weather they were so busy talking they reached the other side of the park without her mounting her bike. He had important news. While James was now in a bad place Sam was in a far better place. Cassie had no idea what the dark years had been like after his wife left and took their little boy, but he was determined to make the future positive.

‘It’s strange that Covid has made it easier getting in touch. I suppose his mother knows there is no chance of us meeting up, no chance of me getting up to the wilds of Scotland. Well I guess she reasons that if he finds out how little his real father has to offer, he will appreciate his stepfather.’

‘But you have got a lot to offer, sounds like her second husband only knows about deer and salmon fishing, he can’t help with on line science lessons like you can.’

‘Yes I really think my son might be taking after me, he knows enough to understand what an excellent job I had, or should have had. But I’m glad I was up front with him about what happened; I think it appeals to his teenage rebellious streak that he has a father who has to sell the Big Issue and run a dog walking business.’

‘Socialist leanings perhaps, young people can see how Covid has revealed terrible inequalities and it’s not his fault if he’s been given everything and has never had to worry about food or money.’

‘As long as he doesn’t try and do anything stupid like run away. I told him to knuckle down and study now, not use Covid as an excuse, if he wants to get somewhere. The world is going to need scientists more than ever.’

Silly Saturday – Essentially Essential

In Wales a two week ‘firebreak lockdown’ has started and only essential shops are allowed to open with the essential idea that these essential shops are only allowed to sell essential items, so as not to cheat on the non-essential shops who are not allowed to open. For example, you may not buy an electric kettle at Tesco, because Dai Jones the Electric in Pontypandy has been selling only electrical goods in his shop since 1937.

How are customers and supermarket managers to decide what is essential? Essential for survival or for Covid Comfort?

Tick which of the following you will buy over this weekend as the clocks go back and winter nights draw in. Chocolate of course, chocolate biscuits, bread, wine, potatoes, warm fluffy slippers, rice, cosy pyjamas, bunch of carrots, bunch of flowers, cabbage, boxed set of old black and white films, pork chops, celebrity magazine, cheese, pot plant, milk, Lego set, a free range chicken, new underwear, shredded wheat, paperback book, cocoa pops.

If you ticked more than ten ( 8 if you are vegetarian, 6 if you are vegan ) you are being self indulgent and breaking the spirit of the new rules. Now imagine the task of staff who have to police the supermarket customers.

Chains will be strung across the sweet aisle, padlocks put on the ice cream cabinets and  constant patrols to remove flagrant non-essentials from the shelves. As staff must socially distance they cannot grab that bottle of whisky out of your hands so there will be announcements over the PA system.

Will the lady in the lurid pink coat put down the packet of chocolate digestives and raise her hands in the air… now take a packet of plain digestives.

Customers are reminded they must produce their child’s birth certificate if they wish to purchase birthday candles and cake decorations.

Pet owners with a certificate from their vet may purchase one bag of pet food, but not a squeaky mouse toy.

On the ball managers may have already set up deafening alarms to beep if you pick up a box of hair colouring and there would be greater embarrassment if you have braved the medical aisle and got as far as the intimate products…

Perhaps within a few days harassed supermarket staff will allow you no further than the till where you will be handed one basket of  food essentials.

The Game of Death – Changing the Rules

Warning: If you want to avoid the topic of death and dark humour read no further.

Covid has completely changed the way we do funerals; whatever your faith or traditions most funerals involved an open invitation to attend, with numbers kept manageable merely by the short notice, travel involved or the health of elderly relatives. Equally important were the refreshments afterwards, whether a cup of tea back at the house or a big booze up at the deceased’s local, it was a chance to catch up with long lost relatives and reminisce about the dearly departed. At present, funerals seem very bleak.

In between the death of my mother and husband I heard of the sudden death of a friend I hadn’t seen for ages; the game of death was being played out at speed. I was sent a link for the funeral at the crematorium and logged in successfully on time. I thought I had missed it as I saw the coffin disappear through the curtains and cleaners appear to dust and spray. Crematoriums work on a strict half hourly in and out schedule; the notes with the link warned with words to the effect that if you accidentally zoomed in on the wrong funeral you must close your eyes. The one camera revealed only the backs of my friend’s mourners as they entered to Elvis Presley singing ‘Love Me Tender’. It was hard to work out who the tiny group of mourners might be until the immediate family sat down at the front; it did feel bleak. A woman introduced herself as someone official and spoke on behalf of the family, but when my friend’s son got up and spoke very amusingly and movingly the bleakness was gone. The memories came back and the official lady rounded everything up with dignified words and The Lord’s Prayer – ‘proper version’ from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Everyone filed out to more Elvis.

Cyberspouse had always been adamant he did not want a funeral. His one wish, decided years ago, was to bequeath his body to science and he had filled in all the forms. Our part was to call the hot line to Southampton University Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences as soon as possible. Once a year they have a service for families of donors so we would be doing something. Cyberspouse knew there was no guarantee of acceptance, in normal times they might have enough bodies. Plan B was cremation and we could do what we liked with his ashes! Sadly we were not surprised when it turned out Covid had wrecked Plan A; they weren’t accepting any bodies.

Two days after Cyberspouse’s death my daughter and I were at our local Co Op funeral parlour chatting to a very nice lady who was totally unfazed by our instructions for no funeral; we would have a ‘direct cremation’ with a courier delivering the ashes. A pleasant surprise was that she was composing a mini biography, tapping away at the computer as we offered snippets, so that the staff ‘caring’ for him would see a real person who had had a life. The few times I have been involved in organising funerals there always seem to be amusing moments. She said he would be dressed in a white robe; daughter and I looked at each other ‘No way!’ As he liked casual wear we agreed he should be left in the shorts and T shirt he had worn most of the hot summer.

A few weeks later I was told when the ashes would be delivered. A man in black stood on the doorstep and I could not see how he had arrived. I peeped out the window after he left and saw him open the boot of an ordinary car; the boot was full of smart grey paper carriers with large grey tubs, identical to what he had just given me – at least he wasn’t in a white van doubling up with Amazon deliveries. What will we do with the ashes? I have some ideas, but getting family together or traveling to places all seems so difficult with Covid and we have all heard stories of ashes kept on the mantlepiece…

Does it matter if you don’t have a funeral? At a funeral you can write something and read it out and you probably have flowers. I will be writing more blogs, I wrote a piece for our camera club, of which Cyberspouse had been chairman a few years ago and the house was full of flowers, more appreciated than their short life at a funeral. I have kept the flowers topped up – easier than visiting the cemetery. We had to explain to everyone there would be no funeral, but how many would have been allowed to come with the Covid situation? We carried out his wishes. Unless you own an ancestral estate you do have to get official involvement in taking care of the body of your loved one, but it seems you don’t have to have a funeral.

Dark Humour.

My mother told me that though her father died suddenly, too young, they still found themselves bursting into laughter when the funeral director left their home; he had been so ridiculously sombre and Dickensian.

When we took my uncle to arrange my aunt’s funeral the chap who showed us in was straight out of a Dickens novel, gaunt and dressed in black. But he showed us into an office to talk to an ordinary bloke who went through the plans then finished up with a flourish ‘… and this coffin comes with a special offer this week, a free shroud.’

When I got a letter back from the Co Op a few days after our visit, it came with a free book mark impregnated with flower seeds! Rather amusing considering what even this most basic of their services had cost!

Sunday Short Story – Sheep May Safely Graze

‘Daaad, that’s disgusting, it’s still oozing blood.’

‘You can’t beat a rare 16 ounce steak, it’s your sawdust burger that looks disgusting.’

‘At least I’m not eating a sentient being.’

‘He’s not sentient anymore, besides, he had a good life roaming free and eating all that lush Scottish grass.’

‘You mean he was one of the unlucky ones, castrated, never destined to be the prize bull.’

‘That’s life…’

‘Even the prize bulls are herbivores; if they can turn grass into muscle, why do humans need meat?’

‘Your daughter’s right Geoff, even if you don’t care about the animals you eat, you need to care about your health.’

‘…and I am eating all the delicious veggies you cooked to go with my juicy steak.’

‘But you had egg and bacon for breakfast and a huge ham sandwich for lunch.’

‘From outdoor reared pigs, I thought that was okay. Humans have always been omnivorous, that is why the human race will always survive… Phew, is it me or is it hot in here. I’ll take the dog out and enjoy a death stick, ha ha.’

‘Daad, I thought you were going to try vaping.’

‘That’s for teenagers, sucking in steam that smells like a sweet shop, my grandfather smoked forty a day and…’

‘…lived to be a hundred, yes Dad, you have told us that a hundred times.’

‘Your father’s been a while.’

‘Probably chatting to next door, his smoking buddy…. Oh it’s okay, I can hear Rex… why is he barking like that?’

Geoff opened his eyes, the dreadful pain had disappeared. The sun shone in his eyes, but that couldn’t be right, it was a dark autumn evening in Mildred Avenue and where had that stupid mutt gone? Green fields, rolling hills, a meandering river, reminded him of that Scottish holiday. Peaceful, the air so fresh, no sound but the bleating of sheep. He stood up and took a few shaky steps; he had lost his glasses somewhere, but his eyesight was perfect. Sheep dotted up on the hills, cattle grazing by the river, this was paradise, but what had happened to his house, his road? Was he in a film set, or in heaven? No, there was a farmhouse in the distance, best to ask there.

No sooner had he thought this than he was there, in the yard, chickens pecking around him, a sheepdog lying in the sun, a sow brushed past, followed by her piglets.

‘Hello, anyone around?’

‘So you have arrived Geoff.’

He couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. ‘How do you know my name, who is this speaking?’

‘Your long suffering guardian angel.’

‘Ha, ha. Very funny. Am I dreaming, fell asleep on the sofa watching Countryfile?’

‘No, you’re dead.’

‘You’ll be telling me next I’m in heaven.’

‘You are, though it’s not your heaven.’

‘Whose is it then? Don’t tell me the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right all along, are there lions here?’

‘All God’s creatures, you are just seeing all the ones you have eaten.’

It dawned on him with a mixture of relief and fear; he was in intensive care, his wife and daughter must be feeling smug. All that nagging about him being an obese middle aged chap, vulnerable to Covid, going down the pub and not social distancing. Hallucinations, that’s what happened when they put you in an induced coma, not so bad, but he must not relax. He would show them, he would get better; if Boris and Trump could recover, so would he. His hallucination was still rabbiting on.

‘Your daughter was right all along. The answer is reincarnation, it’s time for you to go to your next life.’

Two could play at this game, he hadn’t finished with this life yet. ‘Okay Gabriel, or whatever your name is, who will I be next time?’

‘A pig; but don’t worry, you have earned a dispensation as you were not a bad husband and did not commit any crimes against humanity. You are about to be born in a muddy Hampshire field, suckled by a healthy sow, playing with your siblings till it’s time to go into the barn to be fattened up.’