Sunday, 28 June 2009

The dodgy starter motor of impending doom

14st 12lb, 1.5 units. Our baby starts each day making a noise exactly like a vintage car with a dodgy starter motor. I wonder whether he is destined to be a world class mimic, though at present he is very much a one trick pony, like those blackbirds of my youth who drove people mad with their uncanny imitations of the trill of a BT “Trimphone” (remember those?) On the whole I find it quite endearing, though more so when he does it at 7 a.m. than at 1 or 4.

Today, though, it was not his crying that got me out of bed, but the distinctive sound of someone lowering the ramp of a sheep trailer. So far, so usual, until I remembered that I was not in my house in the middle of Northumbrian sheep-rearing country, but close to the centre of distinctly urban Chester. Clearly this required investigation to establish whether I was suffering from auditory hallucinations as a result of sleep disturbance, so I drew back the curtains and found myself looking at a Land Rover and sheep trailer, which were inconveniently blocking our drive. They were in the charge of an impossibly old, bald man who moved in such slow motion that I felt like going out and recommending that he seek work in our local sandwich shop, famed for its exaggerated defiance of the fast food ethos.

He must have come from somewhere in the very depths of Wales, to judge from his evident bafflement on spotting one of those polystyrene boxes from a kebab shop, thoughtlessly discarded on the pavement by some passing scratter. He had clearly never seen anything like it before, indeed to goodness. First he bent double to assist the process of staring at in intently. Then he moved it ever so gently with his foot, as if concerned that it might be some sort of improvised explosive device. It was clearly one of the most unsettling experiences he had had since Mr Attlee’s shock landslide in the 1945 election. Then he moved ever so slowly into the house next door, in the stylized way I had only ever seen before in a slightly strange production of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, emerging about 15 minutes later clutching a bed headboard. Clearly this was going to take all day, creating a splendid opportunity to ruin it when I insisted on getting my car out of the drive to go to church a little later. I was hugely disappointed when we came out with the baby at 9.30 and found that the bloody trailer had magically disappeared, as though it had never been. Could I have imagined it?

I enlivened the drive to morning worship by suggesting that Mrs H might like to ring her friend, who owns and rents out the house next door, to find out who we would be getting to replace the unnaturally quiet young couple who were clearly just moving out. I envisaged a conversation along the lines of “Don’t you worry, I’ve let it to a lovely group of clergymen who want to hold silent retreats there. They call themselves something like The Angels. Yes, that was it, Hell’s Angels …”

We were greeted at church with many congratulations. The splendidly charismatic vicar was wearing the gold cope in which he had married us, and cheerily told us of his latest symptoms and imminent operation for what he always presents as terminal cancer. Because I am incredibly easily suggestible, and have a few mild symptoms that might be compatible with the diagnosis, in the past few days I have managed to convince myself that I also have prostate cancer. This at least gives me something else to fret about, in addition to the question of whether or not I should accept the remarkably generous job offer I received over the telephone yesterday afternoon. That should be what some people call a no-brainer, because the money is good and the requirements undemanding, and at my age I stand precisely no chance of anyone else offering me anything better, or indeed anything at all. But, on the other hand, while I actually quite enjoy work whenever I do it, I absolutely loathe the IDEA of work, and of being tied down to it again after five glorious years of increasingly impoverished freedom. In which, in case you are wondering, my occasional expensive treats like nights at the opera have been funded by squandering what is left of my rather pathetic savings.

The church had clearly lurched further in the direction of liberalism since our last visit, because towards the end the vicar read the banns of marriage of what both Mrs H and I took to be two women: Leanne and Simone. Then we were summoned to the front for a cheerful celebration of our baby’s birthday, along with that of another newborn and assorted slightly larger children. I left in a state of grace and with the benefit of a glass of pink champagne to celebrate the imminent ordination of a lady parishioner, which unfortunately gave me a taste for more of the stuff, which I was quick to satisfy.

Alcohol, heat, hunger and my twin nagging worries all made for a thoroughly miserable afternoon, in which almost the only light relief was wondering “Who the hell is Fred Perry?” I had never knowingly heard of him before, but on my way back from the city centre shops with our lunch I ran into the King of the Scratters, looking particularly gormless with his mouth hanging open, wearing a black shirt emblazoned “Red Erry” in white letters at least 18 inches high. As we passed I spotted the “F” and “P” on his side, and reflected that it would have been more amusing to do it the other way around, when I would naturally have extrapolated these as “F***ing Prat”. Or possibly “Prick”; it is a nice distinction. I have something of a track record of misinterpreting scratter garb. In the winter their favoured uniform seemed to be a red bomber jacket with a gold crest on the back and three brilliantly descriptive letters. I was most disappointed when Mrs H belatedly explained that these stood for “Liverpool Football Club”. And not, as I had always assumed, “Lazy Fat C***.”

When the heat of the day had finally abated I resolved to take The Dog for a refreshing walk by the river, and the first thing we encountered was a hopelessly drunk scratter staggering out of the nearby chipper with a plastic carrier bag full of chips in one hand and a half bottle of vodka in the other. He was slurring some sort of song as he lurched along the pavement, and I could not help noticing that he was also wearing a Fred Perry shirt. I had found out who this was by then: the last British man to win Wimbledon, and the father of a once respectable line in gents’ apparel. Oh dear. Another fine old British brand evidently going the way of Burberry, brought down to the gutter by its inconvenient and no doubt wholly unintentional appeal to the scratter community.

Things looked up distinctly when we got to the Dee and I saw the always wondrous sight of a kingfisher flying along the river, and a large patch of beautiful yellow water lilies. Yet even in this idyll the scratters haunted us, for approaching from the city could be heard a pleasure boat, loudly playing music. The oddity was that they appeared to be tunes from a completely different era: first “Knees up Mother Brown” and then “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” I stopped to watch, to see whether it was indeed a boatload of Welsh geriatrics, and to establish whether they were all wearing Fred Perry shirts, but it never came into view. Perhaps it really was an auditory hallucination, and maybe that is another symptom I could be worrying about. I must get onto Google and check without further delay.

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