Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.

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Snippets from Four Countries-

I last visited Strasbourg as a teenager. But Husband had never been and one advantage of becoming ancient is that you can revisit old haunts and not remember a thing about them.

       It is a gloriously hot, blue-skied day. We are able to cycle from the site into the city, which is thronged with shouting school parties but still gorgeous with its covered bridges, medieval architecture and sparkling waterways. We stop to rest our feet [a feature of sightseeing these days] at a table outside a bar in a pretty square and remember why we like to travel this way.

        Next day we are off through Germany, taking in the edge of the Black Forest, which is all cuckoo clocks and cow bells, and catching some squally rain as we climb higher, the temperature having plummeted as we arrive at Salem, near the Bodensee, our stop for the night. Just outside the village on a hillside, the site has a small bar with the type of German beer that Husband likes. The night turns icy enough for our little heater and extra blanket to be barely adequate.

The following afternoon we cycle to the Bodensee, a magnet for German tourists though precious few foreigners. Few places are open but look set to begin the season in earnest for Easter weekend. We lose the next day’s travel due to over-excited consumption of beer, but set out for the German/Austrian border on the next morning, settling for Wertach as an overnight stop. It is a pleasant, Alpine farming town. I am startled by the cigarette machine in the washing up area.

As we are leaving an older German fellow tells me ‘We CAN NOT understand the Brexit’ and I can only reply that ‘No, neither can we’.

On to Austria, a slow crawl across the Fern Pass on an ill-chosen, holiday Saturday. But the scenery compensates for the traffic jam-snowy peaks glistening in the sun, ski runs zig-zagging down under gondolas and ski-lifts. Our chosen destination-Feriensparadies on the Natter See- is elusive, confusing Mrs Garmin, our austere SATNAV lady, who sends us off up winding mountain tracks filled with pole-wielding hikers in an unlikely quest for the site. At last we arrive to Feriensparadies, which justifies its coy location by being spectacular; a sun soaked hollow in the snow peaks with pitches facing the cherry blossom fringed lake. The staff are charming, the views are breath-taking, a free shuttle bus can take us to Innsbruck, where we can ride the funicular and gawp at the splendid medieval buildings and the services are nothing short of luxurious. All power to the Austrians!

Regrettably, after 2 nights it is time to crack on-and so on to Venice, which I don’t need to describe since a great deal has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary, watery city. It is another re-visit for me and new to Husband. As we meander the alleyways and over the bridges with our cornettos I ask him if it lives up to the hype. ‘90%’ he says, not revealing the 10% in which it fails…

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 4]

It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.

“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”

“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”

Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.

It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.

Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.

“Yes?”

Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned; the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.

“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”

He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.

“Oh it’s um..”

“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”

“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”

There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.

“What did you want Brian?”

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 2]

An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.

Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.

Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon [part 1]

Brian Meadon peers out into the darkness and is forced to admit a grudging fascination for the way the snowflakes are looming out of the sky and settling in an ominous and ever growing heap on his car’s windscreen. His initial feelings of hot anger and frustration with the car’s failings have ebbed away to be replaced with somewhat colder resignation. There is still just enough light outside to make out the writing on a road sign beyond his lay-by. ‘Stoodley Interchange’, it asserts, taunting Brian with confident superiority, even though accumulations of snow are creeping up its legs.

Settling back into his driving seat once more, Brian decides to give his phone another go. He is pleased with the way he’d remembered to charge up the battery, a task he’d frequently been accused of neglecting by his ex-wife. This small celebration of competence affords him a slight, smug smile until yet again ‘no signal’ appears on the screen in an impudent gesture almost as if it were conspiring with the road sign to gang up on him. At least the phone’s tiny screen casts a little light.

Brian shivers. He attempts to recall the advice being provided by experts on this morning’s Beeb’s news programme but it had been burbling away as a background to packing. If he’d not been carried away with optimistic anticipation of the evening revelries to come he might have paid more close attention to the weather warnings and in particular to dire predictions concerning road travel. What was one meant to do? Firstly, you should not travel at all unless your journey is absolutely vital. ‘Well’, thinks Brian, ‘It is vital to my wellbeing to have a bit of fun, so I’ve covered that one’. Secondly, you should ensure that loved ones know your whereabouts and your travel plans. Brian feels uneasy about this one, since although he has made Jackie, his ex aware that he has been invited to a ‘country house New Year festivity’ somewhere in Berkshire he had not been motivated so much by a need for self preservation, more a desire to demonstrate what a popular, well-connected and upwardly mobile fellow he has become since they split up. ‘Neither is she a loved one!’ he speaks aloud into the silent phone. He has not brought a shovel or a torch, but these would be of no assistance as the car is going nowhere, snow or not. A flask of coffee, however and a warm blanket, he has to admit, would have been very welcome by now.