Sunday, 15 May 2016

Of Grandchildren, Dear Friends, Sandwiches And Sometimes Being In A Right Place

I swept up an armful of sandwiches. "Are all those for you?" enquired the young man behind the counter.

"Cheeky buggar," I thought. "No," I said.

Later in the day, in another town and at a supermarket checkout, another young man asked me, "How has your day been?" Despite the intrusion into an area of a stranger's life in which he probably had little truthful interest I answered, "Interesting."

"Interesting good, or interesting bad?" he asked. Maybe his initial enquiry was more than simply an expenditure of hot air.

"I'm still thinking about it," I replied.

I had started the day in Hampshire.  The third day in succession and the fifth this week of grandfatherly duties after a cry for help from one of my daughters.  This daughter is usually very independent and has rarely, if ever, called for help, but she has had a tough couple of weeks.  My son-in-law was really struggling to meet deadlines at work, my year-old grand-daughter had been unwell for a fortnight and was barely sleeping.  A cold, a post-inoculation hangover and a new tooth were making life impossible for everyone. She could not possibly be left in her usual nursery. I made the first trip earlier in the week when my daughter needed some childminding help in order to be able to attend a getting-back-to-work job interview, but life was getting on top with a stack of commitments and exhaustion building up.  Being SATs week, my regular school had cancelled and, now having a few days bunched together with no impending gigs or rehearsals, I had planned to test out the boat engine repairs, by taking a river-trip to the accountant to deliver last year's books and coming back to the farm the long way round.  The twenty-five minute road journey took me six hours by water last year. This year I had bought both a key to the lock enclosure and the right sized windlass for the lock paddles on this system, so I was hoping for a marginally shorter journey, assuming I could avoid getting grounded again at an overnight mooring spot. 

I was going to start out on Tuesday and be back by the weekend. I'd half planned the route I was going to take, but the weather was so bad I put off the start of the journey for a day.  Wednesday was better and I started prepping the boat for the trip.  Then the text came through. It was a group text to selected family members and a cry for help.  I really wanted to ignore it, let one of the others respond and get underway, but I knew I wouldn't. Perhaps if I left it long enough someone would step in before me (after all, I'd just got back, it was someone else's turn), or I could start the journey and then say I was too far away from my van to be able to help by the time I saw the message. I knew I wouldn't go through with either plan, but I continued prepping the boat anyway. Eventually my conscience became an itch that would not go unscratched. It only took hearing the catch in her voice and my soft, old heart melted. She is not manipulative and I knew the exhaustion and frustration were very real. It may have been nearly forty years since she had placed me in a similar situation, but I knew what she was suffering.  "What time do you need me by?" For once I was in the right country at the right time.  Arrangements were made for me to be the designated adult to pick up the older grandchild from school.

It had been a lovely few days reconnecting with my grand-daughters.  Who knew that a five-year old could bounce solidly for three hours on a trampoline in the garden after a full day at school and a visit to the park on the mile and a half walk home? I also rediscovered that delightful satisfaction in having the younger one snuggle into my shoulder and fall asleep for three hours after only having slept for two hours the previous night. When she was awake we played with her toys, read stories and sang songs (okay, I did the reading, the singing and most of the playing, but she was an active, if somewhat captive, member of my audience) and I loved every minute. 

As it happened s-i-l made good progress on the end of year assessments for his college students and I would now no longer be needed on Saturday. He was able to bundle both girls into the car as he took the older one to her weekly dancing lessons and my daughter left for her Saturday teaching job with a different dance school. I was going to call round and visit my eldest son's family with two of my grandsons on the way home. My son's oldest is fourteen and flexes his growing personality using appropriately challenging behaviour. He is also a very talented keyboard player and drummer and loves to compose - which he does very nicely albeit still somewhat derivatively while his knowledge and skill are developing.  Even so he is far, far in advance of anything I achieved at his age or indeed until I was much older.  He generally talks to me about bands I've not heard or have never heard of, so I always look forward to spending time with him and learning new things from his world. The first thing I had to do upon hearing that he went to see Bring Me The Horizon was check them out on YouTube when I got home. To his credit, though, he is, like his father, a big fan of both Bellowhead and The Treacherous Orchestra. I am looking forward to the time when we can converse in complete sentences. I worry that I probably work too hard to fill in the gaps between each monosyllabic utterance and condescending glare. I didn't let them know I was coming and they weren't in. A joy of living in the moment.

Nearby, however, was one of my oldest school friends. It seems our entire cohort has used well our six decades to rack up troubles, anxieties and failed relationships. He married and started his family nearly twenty years after me. His youngest son is younger than my grandson. My friend and his wife have medical issues, and a severely depressed daughter, which have impacted the lives of everyone in the family.  Their oldest daughter is just finishing university and came out a couple of years ago. She is someone I could envy. She learned to know herself at a much earlier age than I did and avoided some of the heartache my late coming out caused. Surprisingly my friend understands completely how my circumstances made my situation so different. I haven't seen him for decades, although we have kept in occasional touch by e-mail and telephone. For some reason his number is not stored on my phone and all I have is an e-mail address and a LinkIn connection. I sent messages and didn't really anticipate a reply.  I was trying to remember how I located his telephone number last time we spoke and enlisted Google's aid. Google didn't supply the phone number, but via an entry on the Companies House website did supply an address that sounded familiar, so I entered that into the map app on my phone and drove as directed. I pulled up outside a house at the end of an unmade cul-de-sac and rang the bell. He answered and my erratic visual memory failed me yet again.  As I stared to try and find a face I could recognise on this older man he spoke and I knew it was him. My visual memory may be disconnected, but my aural memory is better than average. He and the family were on the verge of going out. I promised not to stay long and only wanted to make contact while I was in the area. We sat, his wife came in, we all talked and shared some of the darkness and joy of the last few decades. Four hours later we hugged our goodbyes. So much for fleeting visits. It still felt fleeting, though, and there is still so much of the world that needs putting to rights. It felt good to have been in the right time and place for those few hours. I am sure that meeting again will be easier next time.

The journey on the M4, M25 and M1 was straightforward as the traffic was relatively light, but I was tired and the van was beginning to wander as I struggled to stay awake.  I had to pull over for a break, a nap and the safety of other travellers. British motorways are rubbish!  In France one cannot drive more than a few kilmetres without passing an "aire" - one of those very civilised pull-overs that, even at their most basic, have toilets and a place to park overnight if required. In England we are often forced to travel for dozens of miles before having to endure one of our motorway service areas, which often have crowded, restricted parking with undersized parking spaces and cramped, smelly, poorly attended toilet facilities in overpriced and usually closed food halls - ah, the food halls of despair. Even when they are open and busy they still look closed. From getting on to the M4 at Reading it is scandalous that the next service area would not loom into view until I reached Toddington on the M1. I made it ... just. I would like to apologise to anyone who was anywhere near me on that journey. Because I drive a van I usually park at the further reaches of public car parks and I headed for my usual corner at Toddington. Immediately the reason for the high speed blue-ing and two-ing of passing police cars became apparent. Near to the space where I often witness peculiar and mysterious exchanges of vehicles among recovery vehicles in the dead of night was an articulated lorry. There were two police cars. A number of police officers were gathered in congregation at the rear of the lorry which had been opened to reveal packages on pallets and perhaps a dozen or more people, mostly men, but including at least one small child, whose journey from who-knows-where had now come to a stop in the sort of circumstances they must have been praying would never happen. The passengers looked exhausted, bewildered and resigned to whatever horror fate would inflict on them this time. All were dressed in uniformly drab non-European, non-African outfits looking like jumble-sale mannequins.  I couldn't tell whether the quilted jackets were helping against the chill and the Arctic wind of our recent Spring weather. I assume this was a party of "illegal migrants" about which our printed press so frequently needs to warn us. They looked more pathetic than the fanatics the media tries to portray. Immediately I wondered whatever could have been the events that would force them to undertake such a horrible journey in the most squalid, dangerous and uncomfortable of circumstances. I wondered how long they had been in the lorry, when did they last have anything to eat or drink, when did they last have access to a toilet ...? It struck me very forcibly that, but for the fortune of circumstance, it could have been me in the back of the lorry. What would it take to force me to go on a similar journey, where my eventual destination and fate would entirely depend on the goodwill or otherwise of other people who had no interest in my personal welfare? I thought how not even the love of my man and the promise of a home in a country that is sympathetic to my circumstances has motivated me to move from the UK during the past decade. How desperate must these people have been to give up everything they know for being kept in the back of this lorry by Bedfordshire's finest until someone made a decision about the next stage of the journey for them?

I still needed to sleep, so I shut my eyes and nodded off. I came round an hour later and everything in front of me looked more or less the same, except that I could no longer see any children and the lorry was now surrounded by several emergency vehicles, including two ambulances and a fleet of police vehicles of most of the types used by the Bedfordshire Constabulary. The men were being held among the pallets at the open rear door on the lorry. I hoped the children and at least one parent of each had been taken somewhere more comfortable than this bleak car park. Police officers congregated or ambled, presumably with purpose and awaiting further orders. I wondered again when these people had last eaten. I considered approaching the police and asking if I could buy them some food. I was pretty certain I would be turned away and told to mind my own business, so I decided I might have more luck if I were a little more pro-active. I set off for the food area of the services, and realised this was not a simple task.  For a start I could only guess that there might be cultural and ethical considerations about any food I decided to buy. I suppose most people apart from me and and other relatively well-off Westerners eat animals, but Muslims wouldn't eat pork products and many Africans cannot digest milk. I supposed there were also many other constraints to take into account, but I didn't know what they might be. I opted for sandwiches and Greggs was the closest place. They only had egg or cheese sandwiches anyway, so I bought my armful of sandwiches and filled a carrier bag. I turned back to the unfolding tragedy and, removing my sunglasses, approached a policeman and police woman on the edge of the action. "I was wondering when these people had last eaten," I explained.  "Is it all right to give them these sandwiches?" The policeman looked at me for some time and it felt like he was trying to size up what this old hippy in a headscarf was up to.

"Under other circumstances that could be me.  I couldn't not do something. May I give them these sandwiches?" I swear I saw a moment of watery-eyed humanity flicker in his expression, but he regretfully informed me that the travellers would not be allowed any food until they had been formally medically checked. The British authorities could not be allowed to be held responsible should any of the people in the wagon prove to have undisclosed allergies. He wanted me to go away and to take the accusatory sandwiches with me. I said I could not eat all the sandwiches and I would leave them with him where they might have at least a chance of doing some good. "Even if you and your colleagues end up eating them, please take them," I insisted. Both police officers verbalised their recognition of my "incredible kindness" and took the bag.

As I walked away I felt angry with myself that I hadn't the courage to break the cordon and give out the food personally. I felt angry and ashamed that the powers of authority valued back-saving over simple humanity. Here were men who had been prepared to sacrifice everything and everyone they knew in order to be able to find safety for themselves and their families, who had already endured unimaginable hardships with enough stoicism to get them as far as the UK - well, I know it was Toddington, but there are bound to be worse places - who were now facing a very uncertain future in a completely alien environment perhaps fearing that the authorities here valued life as little as those they may have experienced at home.  On top of these fears, dangers and indignities they were being infantalised. Here were grown men being refused food in case something in it might prove bad for them. It was like the pub landlady I know who puts up notices all round her pub warning customers not to feed her dogs cheese or chocolate because either might prove fatal. I would assume that the men in the back of this lorry might have some idea of the foods they could safely eat. 

I wonder when and where they sat at a table with proper nourishment or had a place to lay their heads.

Right place?  Who knows? Yes, it has been an interesting day.

Of Engines And Yet More Hope

Oh dear, I was sidetracked.  I meant to write about my boat engine again, but I got thinking about P and the love he mixes into his delicious food. He has always been like that. When much younger, and his father took him and his brothers skiing, P would get out of the torture of being pushed down inappropriately steep mountains by opting to stay home and undertake kitchen duties.  He would stay home and play the piano all day until it was time to get a hot meal ready. He undertook both activities with love. He still does.

Over the years I have lived on it, and having not been able to have any faith in the boat reaching a destination whenever I set out, I decided reluctantly to take it to the yard where the mechanics would not only be qualified but also accountable. Doubtless it would cost far more than the very little The Engineer was willing to charge, but at least the job should be finished in one or, at least, fewer goes than it had been taking so far. I mentioned this before being betruffled in the previous entry.

My main concern now was the leak of diesel fuel that was swilling around in the engine tray. If it got any higher it would trigger the float switch operating the bilge pump and dump diesel directly into the river.  I could not have that and mopped it out again before I left. The yard had little work on at the time and were able to accept my boat at a couple of days' notice.  By the time I had travelled the ten miles or so to the marina the bilge was filling again with diesel.

The two mechanics took one look at the engine and concluded the main culprit was, once again, the fuel injection pump. Two visits to a specialist repairer and servicing agent were obviously not enough in the course of a year so the pump was removed and would be collected after the weekend. That accounted for my first three days in the boatyard.  While I was there I asked if they could do some other bits of work that needed doing. They fitted the replacement inverter, repaired the horn and fitted a spotlight which I had never had.  The inverter is a 3kw pure sine wave type and will now charge my computer battery.  The 3kw is, of course, not at all necessary for such a job, but the pure sine wave bit is. The previous inverter that came with the boat was of the modified sine wave type and sent the computer into a total tizzy when I attempted to charge it up. The confused device didn't know whether it was coming or going and beeped continuously as the digital power cut in and out. However the new inverter has since also proven useful when running the engine and using the washing machine.  Without running the engine such an operation would have emptied the batteries completely in almost no time at all. At the end of a full wash cycle the battery bank was still reading full. Letting the engine idle while using a vacuum cleaner seems to lead to a net reduction in battery voltage.  I don't know yet whether that will improve with the increased revs required when the engine powers the boat along. I'll need a domestic assistant or another driver to try that out. I have also yet to try baking a loaf of bread in the breadmaker using the batteries via the inverter, for which the engine would also need to be running.   I would only be able to attempt that on a longer trip of about four hours, so I may try that out when I get round to taking the accounts books and other paraphernalia to the accountant.   Out of interest the sky is cloudy at present and I am sitting in a cloud of foul smoke from the horse woman's fire.  She's burning the bedding from the horse boxes again and the wind is blowing this way.  Naturally I have just put out a line of washing to dry.  When I bring it in it will be well-smoked and I shall trail the aroma behind me wheresoever I wend.   In these conditions the panels are putting out 32w and 2.2A of power are going into the batteries. They are reading at 13.8v. Not bad.

Meanwhile, back in the boatyard and when the pump returned nearly a fortnight later they put it back back and serviced the engine. We also looked at the gas locker where holes to allow any stray gas to escape had been drilled through the hull at or under the waterline.  Whenever I fill the fresh water tank these holes sink below the surface and my gas bottles stand in a couple of inches of water until I have used sufficient water for one of the holes to allow egress of stray gas above the water line. This always struck me as weird. The mechanics concurred. It has never made sense to me that part of the boat should be designed to take on water that swills about at will.  We made plans to add to the list of tasks that need to be done when I bring the boat in for the whole of August to have the paintwork blasted back to bare metal and the painting done properly.  Hopefully that will at last stop rust from bleeding through.  My efforts to deal with the ongoing rust situation have proven futile. Raising the floor in the gas locker, plugging the existing drainage holes and making new ones higher up would make it a little easier to keep the rust out of that compartment too.  I expected my trip to the boatyard to be over with in a day or two but, two weeks later and nearly £900 lighter, I could make my way back to the farm. My next trip could see me laying out nearly ten times that amount.

During those two weeks I had to sacrifice my usual beautiful views for these. Now I know precisely why I have no wish to live in a marina.  Through the window on the port side I could see whatever boat had been buttied up with me. 

On the starboard side, however, was this stunning vista of the corrugated workshop wall.

The journey back took me some three hours and it was with no real sense of hope that I lifted the boards covering the engine.  At least I couldn't see any diesel.  There was, however, rather a lot of oil and a great deal of water.  Ughhh!

Obviously to be continued ...

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Of More Truffles And Marzipan

Shame on me for missing April.  I meant to write and heaven knows there was certainly enough to write about, but I didn't get round to it.  I took advantage of being too busy and too tired and probably too cold as well.  

I went to France to spend a week with P.  As always it was great.  We came back to the UK on the same flight so that he could stay with me on the boat for a couple of weeks.  I even fancied that we might get out for some boaty travelling.  We got less than ten miles … and I was stuck in the boatyard for the next fortnight awaiting the return of the fuel injection pump (which had gone off to be serviced/repaired for the third time in sixteen months) during which time P. had to head back to France where more work, exams and piles of papers needing to be marked were waiting.

As usual on the boat, P becomes very domestic and, when not knitting, he commandeers the galley for the important business of conjuring up confections of the most delicious kind - in between delicious meals of course.  He brought marzipan in pastel colours and first made batches of marzipan sweets with dates and other fruits and from liquids clear or in various shades of brown poured from the bottles with which he has filled my food drawer.  It started with Madeira a few years ago.  I realised after a lifetime of teetotalism that, while pretty much undrinkable (even French people don’t drink Madeira), it does wonderful things to a vegetable sauce. So, on the trips when I could afford the extra costs of taking a suitcase, I began to bring flasks of the stuff back from France.  After that came the brandy, the whisky (or should that be whiskey?), the kirsch. the orange liqueur and there may well be vodka for all I know.  I can’t drink any of it, but I do try from time to time to see if the flavour has changed into something that others seem to find delicious.  The joy of alcohol has completely eluded me.  

Rubbish at making delicious sweets, but excellent at clearing up

After the marzipans it was off to a neighbouring village’s shop for clotted cream.  P. is often distressed and appalled at the state of the chillers in most of our food outlets here.  At home in France he likes to put butter and cream in almost everything.  However, in the UK most of the big supermarkets don’t seem to sell proper cream.  They do sell worthy products of the reduced fat variety filled with chemical colourings, flavourings and preservatives and often oils extracted from the plantations that spring up for a generation or two between the periods of destroying native rainforest that may have been in place for thousands of years and the dust that’s left after the palm oil plantations will no longer grow, but it doesn’t taste like cream - even I know that.  After failing to find real cream at any of the big supermarkets in the nearest town he was overjoyed to find, and become curious about, Cornish Clotted Cream. It is now the main ingredient in his chocolate truffles.  He confectioned for the two final days of his stay leaving me with no space for cooking in the galley after he left, just trays and trays of lovingly hand-crafted truffles, most of which contained more of the boozy contents not used up in the marzipans.  The whiskey (or whisky) and crystallised stem ginger ones were particularly successful.  He added them to his list of favourite truffle recipes and made cling-filmed trays from the tops of used and long-disappeared, ice-cream containers along with instructions as to whom these gifts should be given.  Each of the hundreds of truffles had had their microscopically small pink sugar hearts tweezered into formations and patterns.  Thankfully those destined to be covered in coloured sugar strands could be rolled in saucers filled with said sugar.  Even P may not have had the patience to apply each strand individually.  Still, his sweets are known amongst our friends and they always know when he has been here because I turn up to places with boxes of truffles and marzipans.  Invite me somewhere and you may find out for yourselves.

P. labouring in the galley

A tray of truffles from P.'s fair hands.