Fiction Month. Novel Extract 3

  In Extract Three of my new novel, ‘Til It’s Gone’ Grandfather, Hugh Conway has opted for travel to the solar fields of the African desert rather than euthanasia. He has forged a bond with Ahmed, the African superintendant of the scheme. Here, Ahmed takes Hugh to visit the solar fields and they discuss the state of the world as they travel:
Ahmed was taking Hugh out to visit a solar farm, a two-hour journey by solar powered vehicle across the desert. It was strange, Hugh considered that the desert he’d first seen and thought so uninteresting, so devoid of features he now realised was as varied and fascinating as any landscape in the world. The vista changed from rocky outcrops in myriad colours sprouting from undulating sands to boulder-strewn plains stretching to the horizon, or sumptuous, curving dunes, silky smooth at a distance, the sand shifting visibly on occasions.
Ahmed was a comfortable travel companion, sensing when Hugh needed silence to appreciate the sights and occupying him with conversation or information when time lagged. The two had become friends, finding they had much in common despite their disparate cultures. Hugh felt fortunate to have been accommodated in Ahmed’s own village and whilst the other two elders, Anders and Peter, were pleasant enough he enjoyed the challenging discussions he had when Ahmed dropped by for tea or when they sat together at the edge of the village to watch the sunset-an event he never tired of seeing.
To an extent he was embarrassed, that he was learning more than he was imparting, though when he expressed this his friend disagreed.
“No, no, no my friend! There is no real distinction between teaching and learning. They are two points on the same circle, are they not? What better way to learn than to teach? And what better way to teach than to be constantly striving for understanding?” Ahmed was an optimist by nature as well as by religion. He challenged Hugh’s view of the world as doomed.
“Why would you think this?” he demanded, “Since the beginning of mankind people have adapted, learned, made the best of what they had. This is why mankind has endured. And to be adaptable is to be optimistic. When your road is blocked you try another pathway. When he needed to eat and feed his family ancient man-made tools to make it easier and learned how to grow food. When he was cold, he began to make clothes. Other ancient species did not survive. Perhaps they could not adapt or were not optimistic enough to try!”
Hugh protested. “But the poisoning and exploitation of Earth’s resources has itself been wrought by mankind. He has orchestrated his own downfall!”
Ahmed shook his head. “Not so, friend Hugh. It is a mere chapter in our history. Men will put the poison to some use, will find alternative resources. It happens already! What did you have too much of, back in your homeland? What was a surplus, a problem to be eradicated?”
Hugh did not hesitate. “Water! Water rising and water falling. Too much, always. Leeching the land of nutrients and forcing people from their homes.”
His friend nodded. “And yet here, as you see we have none of our own at all. We could equally say our problem is sun. We have too much. This is a paradox, is it not?” He laughed, throwing his head back at the clear blue sky. “Between us we have found the solution, your people and mine. We provide your power. You provide our water. Perfect, is it not?”
Hugh grimaced. “It isn’t much of a deal. Our water is poisoned with acid. Even rainwater can no longer be used untreated for irrigation or anything else. Then we create more pollution cleansing it for our own use.”
“Hugh! See here, we have no shortage of a power source. It never fails. And it is all we need to purify your water. You pipe it over. We clean it. Problem solved.”
When they were within half an hour of the solar farm Hugh was given a visor to wear to avoid glare damage to his eyes, his protest about deteriorating eyesight overruled. “No, no-we have use of your eyes my friend.”
In the distance a pinpoint of white light hovered near the horizon, expanding as they drew nearer. The extent of the solar field took his breath away. It was vast, stretching across the desert and disappearing into the earth’s curve; a silent, recumbent country of plates, as if the entire desert had been tiled over. It was unfenced, unguarded, unpatrolled. Ahmed shrugged. “The desert is its own defence,” he explained.
They travelled down a passageway between the plates, like the corridors between the polytunnels at Earthsend, until they came to some low, white buildings in the same style as his village house. A single, modest sign by the road was all there was to say that it was the property of SOL, the energy giant.
Ahmed turned to Hugh as they drove past the sign and pulled up outside the building. “Did you know, Hugh that SOL now owns and runs installations in the deserts of America, Australia and Europe? It is a powerful world force. I wonder what our African predecessors would think of that? Only a hundred years ago the African continent was on its knees, begging the rest of the world for help. It was decimated by corruption, wars, misguided ideology, famine, cruelty. Now it has become a world energy superpower, looked up to by everyone.”
Hugh experienced a wave of despondency, as if a heavy weight had been hung around his neck. He’d expected to freed of concepts such as ‘energy superpowers’ by relocating here. It was a land of purity, of high ideals; an egalitarian society that valued individuals and revered the elderly, wasn’t it?…

Further extracts from ‘Til It’s Gone’ can be read in this November’s posts. Comments and feedback will be much appreciated. Thank you in anticipation…

Decline but not ready to Fall…

Attaining an age where there is more of my life behind me than in front of me sometimes prompts me to ruminate on what lies ahead.

I don’t feel that this is a morbid activity-more of a philosophical wander through aspects of life, although not its meaning. Speculation over the meaning of life is pointless, since there is no necessity for a meaning. You only have to watch Professor Brian Cox’s brilliant series on the planets to realise that the fact of our existence is happenchance.

But I do an occasional mental stocktake of how my life is. Occasionally this will be dominated by physical difficulties and health problems. There is an inevitable deterioration in the functions of bits of me, such as the joints or the digestive system-and these bits demand to be treated with more care than in earlier years.

More complex is the changing of mindset. I begin to understand some of the oddities and anomalies that became commonplace when communicating with my parents. I notice that I have become more fearful about some activities, less concerned about others. I must, for instance discipline myself to be a relaxed passenger in a car, otherwise I am aware I could become un-transportable! On the other hand I take a perfectly unconcerned view of ceasing to exist-providing this does not happen too soon!

I have become ultra-observant, some would say nosy; I understand the stereotypical, curtain-twitching old lady persona. I note and appreciate feelings like ‘comfort’, which has risen to near the top of my cravings, my must-have for a happy life. A good night’s sleep is not to be taken for granted; a pain-free long walk or a cycle ride is a blessing.

I become absorbed by current affairs and make [admittedly] feeble attempts to throw myself behind causes. I like to spend long hours in our garden, pottering, tinkering, looking and tending. I am patient with my small grandchildren.

I’ve become fond of art. I love the discussions my Book Club has, which take all kinds of directions and are lively and absorbing. I love my dance exercise class for we old ladies [and gents-if they came along]-optimistically called ‘easy aero’].

I dislike some aspects of modern technology, such as the effects of social media on social gatherings. But I remember my parents railing against [in no particular order]: automatic washing machines [‘they don’t get things clean’], video recorders [‘why would we want one of those?’], telephone answer machines [‘we are too old to manage those things’]. Later on, in his nineties, my father learned to use a PC and write and send emails.

So no, I do not fear the reaper, but I do fear memory loss, loss of independence, incapacity, loneliness.

Oh-and by the way, Facebook-I really am not interested in ads for pre-paid funerals. When the time comes they can do what they like with me-as long as they have a cracking good party while they laugh about my eccentricities…

 

 

 

How do you Watch?

My maternal grandmother measured around four foot six inches in height and looked about the same distance in width. She was a complex character, at once merry and childlike but also prone to emotional outbursts. As a young child I adored her and loved nothing more than to snuggle up in her bed [once my austere, child-hating grandfather was up] listening to her nonsense rhymes and the funny stories that caused her to laugh with an infectious guffaw.

She ate an appalling diet of cream cakes, sweets and puddings, never moved unless she had to and lived to a ripe old age of ninety-eight.

She was also addicted to television, watching it for as many hours as it aired, which in those days was not twenty-four/seven but test card to close-down, when the screen would diminish into a tiny dot and disappear. She loved to sit on the sofa munching her way through a bag of sweets and watch whatever was on, distracted only by the sound of an approaching ice-cream van tinkling its jolly, summoning tune, at which she’d reach for her bag, withdraw a note and send one of us out to get a round in.

Spending time with my grandparents became trickier as I got older. The nonsense rhymes lost their appeal along with the long sessions of lolling on the sofa watching endless TV. One of her favourite programmes was ‘Peyton Place’, an American soap opera of the sixties which kick-started the careers of such actors as Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. We children were not allowed to touch the TV buttons, on pain of the wrath of my grandfather, who also considered that the court drama ‘Perry Mason’ was too ‘deep’ for us.

During stays longer than a couple of days I’d feel an urgent need to get out and away from the endless hours of television, although the soulless estate the claustrophobic bungalow occupied was not over-conducive to walking. I’d wander the identical streets and stare into the windows of the shops in a small row called ‘The Cut’. At last, in an area of wasteland near to the estate I discovered a diversion that would take me as near to heaven as a pony-mad child could be: a riding stables. Thereafter I spent all my pocket money riding and any other time cleaning tack, mucking out and volunteering my services.

Grandma would be astonished to see how many channels there are on TV now and even more amazed at the ways we can view; recorded, I-player, Netflix and the rest. But what astonishes me is that despite the plethora of footage of one sort or another, how little there is that is worth devoting any time to. Since we returned from travel we’ve watched a so-so detective serial, some historical drama and the news. We almost never watch anything on commercial channels except for the channel 4 news.

The future of TV is even more uncertain as the young turn away in favour of alternative screens, gaming and interactive viewing. So It’s unlikely I’ll follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, few as they were!

What Makes You Old?

A woman at my book club told me she didn’t begin to feel old until she reached her sixties. But what exactly is feeling old? Is it to do with physical failings? Memory? Loss of independence? Or does it occur due to fear of death, which, of course comes closer with each passing day?

Sibling 1 moved house last week, after more than thirty years in the same, large, old, character-ful home. He was seventy last year. Like many of us, the old family home has become too large for two growing-older people to manage. His new home is a bungalow; tidy, neat and unremarkable. We live at opposite ends of the country, he and I, communicating sporadically and meeting infrequently, but in his email he writes of needing to walk with a stick, having to ‘get a quart into a pint pot’ [of the downsize they have made], of the various health issues he and his wife are experiencing.

It is dispiriting to read this. While we are dependent, to a degree on fitness to stay the fears of old age, seventy should not, need not feel old, any more than sixty should. After all we are used to seeing footage of centenarians running marathons or parachuting out of planes. So what makes some continue to be adventurous and intrepid in older age and some not?

I believe it is possible to think yourself old and I suspect it has much to do with how you have lived life all along, who you’ve hitched up with, where you’ve taken up residence, what your occupation was and many other, related factors.

The small town Husband and I moved to a year ago has a reputation for being home to the largest population of pensioners in the country and this is often evident on Mondays, when the market in the High Street is beset by swathes of motorised scooters, walking stick wielding geriatrics and silver browsers.

And yet on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night the town hums with fun seekers; music lovers, clubbers, theatre-goers and the pub community thronging the streets. In the pubs there’ll be live bands attended by drinkers and dancers. The restaurants are full and the streets are busy with revellers moving from one venue to another. Look closely and many of these fun-seekers are the same, older folks that were in the market, determinedly rocking the night away. And who can blame them?

What should we do, then? Some simply give in to aches and pains, sit around and eat themselves into a blob. Others don their lycra, deny themselves to anorexia and run, cycle and circuit train themselves into gristle. Personally I prefer the happy medium. I like to walk and cycle and enjoy it all the more with a slice of cake, an ice cream or a glass of wine at the end of it!

But most of all I could never, ever give up to the point of buying and living in a bungalow!

Fiction Month: The Courtyard Pest

             A new, two-part  story  begins today. Nancy has moved to be near her daughter but has left her old life behind. How will she adjust? A neighbour is offering support; or is he?

The Courtyard Pest

                  Nancy wakes again. The grey glow of an autumn dawn is seeping between the curtains. This room is still new, shadows in strange places. She pushes the quilt back, eases pale legs over the bedside then pads across the carpet to the en-suite, shaking her head at the incongruity of it. An ‘en-suite’! Imagine!

On the way back she pauses by the window to peer out at her tiny patch of yard, bare except for the wooden bench, a flat-warming gift from Sarah. “What will you do with this courtyard?” her daughter had asked her as they sat on it, only three days ago. Nancy shrugged. “Not sure yet. A few pots. A bird feeder.”

Sarah laughed. “You and your birds!”

But they were company; bird company was easier to come by in a strange town than the human sort.

There is a movement, a flicker in the passageway outside the yard gate, caught in the corner of her eye as she stares. But it is nothing; a moving branch across the faint light. She sighs. It is still only six. She must try to get back to sleep. The days are already too long to fill.

She is washing up her breakfast bowl when the doorbell rings, a shrill unaccustomed sound above the murmur of the radio news programme. A silhouette fills the door’s frosted glass as she fumbles with the key. “Won’t be a minute!” she calls and at last the door yields, revealing Jeffery, from number five. He leans down towards her, eyes protuberant in his florid complexion. “Is the door a bit stiff? I can fix it, if you like.”

She knows her smile is weak. “It’s just new, that’s all; new to me.”

Clad in a beige waistcoat with pockets, he is grasping a canvas shopping bag. “I’m off down the road. Can I get anything for you? Hexton’s bread is marvellous. Shall I get you a loaf? And I’m going to D0-IT-ALL for a few bits this afternoon if you need anything”.

It is only eight. Early, Nancy thinks, to be setting off for the shops. What time does he get up, this neighbour? She has a sense that he must have been waiting until it was an acceptable time to call on her. She shakes her head. “It’s kind of you but I’m going out myself later.”

“Like a lift?” He breaks in. Too fast. She maintains the narrow opening, lifting her chin. “I shall walk. I like to walk. It does me good.”

He takes a step back and she lets out a breath.

“OK. By the way-watch out for rats, won’t you? Some have been seen in the alley at the back. They’re probably from the social housing in the close. Vermin, that’s what they are.” Nancy nods, unsure whether he means the rats or the residents of the housing association development opposite their flats.

He turns with a wave and withdraws, swinging the canvas shopping bag as he plods around the corner.

Later, as she drifts along the unfamiliar High Street Nancy wonders if she should have asked Jeffery to fetch her some compost for her courtyard pots. Has she been a little hard on him? He is only being neighbourly. She did ask Sarah if Danny might be able to take her to the garden centre but they are so busy all the time.

It had been Sarah’s idea for her to move here, to be nearer the family. Nancy was reluctant at first, then attracted by the notion that she might be of some help now that Sarah and Danny were both working full time. She’d thought she might be able to collect the boys from school, help with homework, even make some meals when the parents had to work late. But Sarah pointed out that the boys had little need of childcare and either went to clubs and after school activities or messed about with their friends.

Nancy stops to study a display in the window of ‘Chic Shack’, a small shop selling household items, many of which appear to have been made from driftwood, or been painted and subsequently had patches worn off. She snorts. These are things that wouldn’t have got into a jumble sale in her day.

Since she moved to be near Sarah she’s had no more contact with her and the boys than she did when she was seventy eight miles away. At least then they’d talked on the phone every evening.

Later, when she’s finished clearing up her supper things and is settled in front of the TV the phone rings.

“Will you be in tomorrow evening, Mum? Danny can drop your compost off then. He’ll pick it up on the way home from work”.

Nancy had been looking forward to a morning at the garden centre and had been going to suggest she treat them all to lunch. “It’s very kind, when he’s so busy.”

“It’s nothing. How are you settling in? How are the neighbours?”

“Oh-the couple in the flat above are very nice. They say Good Morning”. She hesitates. Jaqui and David are polite but self-contained and disinterested.

“Anyone else?”

“There’s Jeffery.”

“Is that the man with the wild, grey hair and the county accent?” Sarah met Jeffery when Nancy was moving in. He’d been on the forecourt sweeping up and had introduced himself, shaking their hands and offering assistance. “Has he been a nuisance?”

“No. He’s friendly enough. I’ll see you later.”

“Not me, I’m afraid Mum. Just Danny. I’ve got to collect Lewis from football training.”

Danny arrives with the compost, leaving the engine running while he heaves the bags into the small yard outside her living room and waving a cheerful goodbye as he drives off. Nancy surveys the three bags stacked against the fence. At least she’ll have something to be getting on with tomorrow. She can’t get to the garden centre for spring bulbs but the ‘Supercuts’ shop had some mixed bags on offer outside in a basket. She is about to close the curtains when a face appears above the fence, prompting her to cry out in alarm, hand over her mouth. An arm waves at her. She opens the patio door. Jeffery.

“You’ve got your compost then? Want a hand with the planters tomorrow? I can bring a trowel.”

She sighs. “Alright. Just not too early.”

Nancy’s sleep is restless. In her dreams giant rats stream over the gate, flooding her tiny yard, squeaking at her, hectoring, chastising, although she can’t catch the words. She wakes many times, hears scraping sounds, feels disorientated and sleeps on to an unaccustomed eight o’clock.

She is on the phone when the doorbell rings, chatting to Meg. When she’d heard her friend’s voice she’d visualised her unruly hair and bright lipstick and felt tears pricking her eyes. ‘Yes’ she tells Meg, ‘the move was fine. The flat is perfect. Just what I wanted.’ She doesn’t say it was what Sarah wanted.

“And how have you been, dear? Any more falls?”

Nancy shakes her head then realises Meg can’t see. “No. And I don’t need to use the stick Sarah got me. I’m as steady on my feet as I’ve ever been. I’m not sleeping well, but I suppose it’s just the newness of the place.”

There is a pause.

“We all miss you here, Nancy. ‘The Nettlehide Players’ isn’t the same without you.” The tears are threatening again. “We should arrange a meet up. Shall we? A weekend, even! There’s always the coach-why don’t you come to me? Or I’ll come down if you’ve room. What do you say?”

“I’d like that.”  The bell is ringing. “I have to go, Meg. We’ll arrange it.”

Jeffery is wearing overalls and brandishing a trowel. “I’m not quite ready” she tells him. “You’d better come in. Would you like a cup of coffee?” He takes up all the space in her miniature kitchen, scrutinising the tiny room, unabashed.

“You don’t have much…” he sweeps the trowel around at the walls “…stuff, do you? My place is an Aladdin’s Cave! You must come round.” She brushes past him to get to the kettle before reaching into a cupboard for a small jar of Nescafe. “Could I have tea? I’m not a fan of instant. I grind my own beans. Costa Rican. A friend gets them for me. Have you tried Costa Rican? It’s marvellous!” She replaces the jar and pulls out tea bags. “I’ve got a spare tea pot at mine. Do you want it?” he asks, watching her. She takes the two mugs of tea outside and places them on the wooden seat.

“Where are you having the pots?” Jeffery gestures at the tall, terracotta planters which are dotted about on the paving slabs in what Nancy considers a satisfying, random arrangement. She stares at him.

“They’re staying where they are.” Nancy’s chin lifts a little then she stoops to take the bags of bulbs from under the bench. He shrugs. “I prefer a bit of symmetry myself.”

When Nancy can take no more advice about which bulbs to put where she goes in to make more tea. They sit on the bench to drink it.

“So, Nancy, what did your husband used to do?”

She frowns at the paving slabs by her feet, taking a sip of the tea. “I’m sorry?”

“Your husband. What was his line of work?-if you don’t mind me asking. I was a financial adviser myself. Got it all up here still.” He places a finger on his unruly hair. “If you need any help with investments, that kind of thing, you have only to ask!”

She is silent for a moment, placing the mug on her lap between her hands.

“I’ve never been married”.

“Oh I’m so sorry!” he blurts, drops of tea splashing on to his overalls.  “I’ve been married three times. Had five children. Not that I see much of them of course. They’re spread far and wide. One in Singapore, one in America. I expect they’d contact me if they were in trouble. No news is good news, as they say.”

Nancy stands up and holds out her hand for his cup. “Thanks for helping. I’ll have to leave it there for now, though. I have an appointment after lunch and will need to clear up and get changed.”

 

Do What You Like

I am amused by a news article declaring that the latest cohort to come under attack from the health police is the middle aged. Apparently this is due to their unhealthy life styles. They work long hours, spend hours on their commutes and then mitigate the ensuing stresses of their days by glugging down copious glasses of wine and lolling on sofas watching box-sets whilst dipping into bags of Pringles or pressing pause only to order a takeaway pizza. Shame on them!

Lucky me, then that I am past middle age. In fact, as I recall I became my most active and healthy during those years, despite having a busy, stressful job and being a single parent etc. I’d have to hold my hands up regarding the wine consumption, which was not modest-but on the exercise front I’d have won a lot of points. Not only was I undertaking DIY on the hovel I’d purchased but also attending exercise classes, following a slavish regime of aerobics videos and running each and every day. I was a virtuous paragon and the only pity was that there was no Facebook or Instagram or whatever to enable me to ‘Map My Run’ and brag about my achievements.

If that exercise regime gave me anything it was an ingrained awareness that regular physical activity is a necessary component of a comfortable life-even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. The difference now though is that the activity must be dictated by what is physically possible. In other words, running and leaping around in an aerobics class are no longer options due to failures of joints and general decrepitude. Instead I indulge in pursuits that a] I am able to do and b] I enjoy.

Exercise crazes come and go with the wind. Once upon a time I threw myself into aerobics, embracing the entire Jane Fonda/leggings and leotard package. The next big thing was Step-Aerobics. Again I became snared in the allure of leaping around and up and down, attending  3 classes each week, unaware of the damage I was doing to my hips, knees and feet but thrilling to the appeal of the ‘horseshoe turn’ and its accompanying, fancy moves.

My aversion to tepid water has been blogged in a previous post, hence swimming is ‘out’. [https://gracelessageing.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/when-you-know-you-are-out-of-your-depth/]. But I can still treat myself to a twice weekly dose of dance with the ever-popular Zumba and have learned to love walking, whether accompanied or not, although I am in a constant search for the Holy Grail of all walking shoes; a pair that eliminates all vestige of arthritis, plantar fasciitis, corns, bunions and the rest. How unglamorous bodies become in older age! I’ve documented my late entry into the world of Yoga [https://gracelessageing.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/sensual-slow-and-unsupple/] and recommend it for anyone hoping to stay fit and mobile for as long as possible.

I eat vegetables √ I’ve replaced a lot of meat meals with fish √ I’ve cut out sugar √ I’ve all but cut out alcohol √

So now, reader, I fully expect to become immortal. I’ll keep you posted.

Who’s Volunteering to Die Before they Get Old?

‘Hope I die before I get old’ sang The Who’s Roger Daltrey in 1965, belting out the lyrics to ‘My Generation’ like he really meant them. ‘Why don’t y’all f-f-fade away?’ he queried, the rhetorical question snarled from his lips, curled in a sneer-a provocative, taunting line in a song that celebrated youth as being the only tolerable state.

Tousle-haired Rog was twenty one when ‘My Generation’ was released. Now he is pushing seventy. He has retained a lithe, nimble appearance but is bespectacled, greyish, ‘good for his age’. You have to wonder what he feels now about the song which reached number 2 in the UK chart [their highest charting single].

In one of my first blog posts I wrote about the next generation’s anger at us, the ‘baby-boomers’ for hogging all the money, having houses and retirements, getting free education and generally acting like evil rip-off merchants.

And what is more, now we have had the audacity not to die before we got old. We are hanging about, growing ancient-still living in our too-big houses, using too much of the health and other services, having bus passes, dithering in cars, getting prescriptions free, clogging up cruise ships, taking too long fumbling at cash machines, telling the same stories over and over-and telling the same stories [you get the image] and generally being a nuisance. We obstinately refuse to croak and release our easily gotten gains to our progeny.

Idly watching an election talk programme involving pensioners I listened to an eighty two year old saying how tired he was of feeling he was a nuisance.

The fact is, life expectancy is climbing. Perhaps many of us felt like Rog when we were twenty. I don’t remember. When you are twenty old age seems an impossibility; a state that only others attain. But we are all programmed to cling on to life, so unless there are specific conditions such as chronic, debilitating, life debasing illness we feel less inclined to ‘die before we get old’ as we age. We can cope with dodgy knees, failing eyesight and deafness as long as life continues to be better than the alternative. There was a delightful news item only this morning about a 103 year old and a 92 year old who are planning their wedding.

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper suggested that sixty should now be considered middle-aged [http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2004/aug/01/features.review37]. The writer makes a good case. As we age we often push the boundary of what we consider to be the middle years.

And just as new parents begin to reflect on how annoying/frustrating/expensive/ exasperating/uncommunicative/rude/faddy and tiresome their offspring are capable of being, everyone discovers, on their way through life that no, they have no wish to terminate, to step into the void, thank you very much.