Tuesday, 5 November 2019

I know what's coming, I'm not working...

I find myself caught in a strange kind of halfway house.

I've been productively spending my time volunteering... it keeps me busy and makes me feel like I'm doing something useful for the world after many years of working for a fairly soulless corporation.

As well as the MyGuide stuff that I've been doing for Guide Dogs, I'm also about to be appointed as a trustee for a Nottingham domestic abuse charity and I'm excited to get started with that and to learn the ropes. As I currently have the time, I have the opportunity to go and watch them working at first hand as well as learning what it means to be a trustee.

When I met the other trustees, one of the questions that they asked me was how, if I was looking to get back into paid employment, was I going to find the time to do all the volunteering I do.

It's a good question.

My answer was simply that, if I do go back into full time employment, nobody is making me work 60 hour weeks and I should therefore have plenty of time for my volunteering if I stick to a standard 37.5 hours.  They seemed happy with this and it's 100% true that no one was making me do the hours I ended up working in my last job. That was entirely down to me and a misplaced sense of responsibility.

If I've learned anything over the last few months, it's that I get far more satisfaction and fulfilment from the stuff that I do for nothing than I ever did for any job that paid.

But here then is the dilemma: why am I looking for a paid job back in the kind of thing that I used to do? I'm distinctly ambivalent about going back to work in a corporate environment and I don't really need the money.... so why am I not looking to do more volunteering or, at the very least, look for a job somewhere that won't pay so well but will be doing an awful lot more good for the world and for my soul?

This morning I spent some time looking at maybe volunteering at a food bank. It obviously wouldn't pay, but it would undoubtedly be a good way to use my time.  I then spent the next couple of hours looking at business analysis jobs that I could do but really don't want to. I might apply for one.

This shouldn't be this hard.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

I'll be needing stitches...

I had a busy day last Wednesday. I think it's fair to say that, since redundancy, my days haven't seemed quite as busy as when I was working 11 or 12 hour days every day.... but last Wednesday was definitely a busier day than average: a hospital appointment first thing, an appointment to take one of my MyGuide clients out for a walk at lunchtime, an interview with the charity that are looking to appoint me as a trustee and then the second week of the short course on creative writing that I'm taking at Nottingham Trent University.  By the time I got home at around 9pm, I was very much looking forward to sitting down with my tea and watching a bit of disposable telly.

At about half ten, I popped upstairs during an advert break (we were watching Elementary on Sky+. so we could have just skipped forward, but I needed to grab something from the bedside table). As I rounded the top end of the bed, I was unscrewing the lid on my drinks bottle when I was suddenly falling. I think my legs gave way, but as my hands were busy, I didn't have any time to react to this before my knees hit the ground and my chin hit the bedside table.

There was a short pause as I gathered myself and did a quick mental inventory: what just happened? have I really hurt myself? I was naturally a bit dazed, and my immediate reaction was to feel my teeth to see if I'd knocked any of them out in the fall. They seemed okay, but my ears were really hurting for some reason. At this point, I realised there was blood coming from somewhere, so I headed to the bathroom mirror to assess the damage. Through the beard on my chin, I could see a gaping cut. It wasn't more than an inch or so across, and it wasn't pumping blood, but it looked pretty deep.

Balls.

By now, my wife had rushed up the stairs to see what all the noise was about, and together we applied pressure to the cut and tried to work out what we needed to do next. It was tempting to do nothing and to just try and cover up the cut and go to bed, but I'd had a pretty nasty bang and the cut looked pretty deep, so we settled on calling 111, the NHS urgent care hotline. The operator on the other end of the line methodically ran me through the concussion protocols and then tried to assess the cut. I was coherent and seemed to be okay, but we agreed that the cut likely needed stitches and I probably needed to an x-ray. They passed my case on to the A&E department at QMC and told us to get there within the next hour.  It was a pretty efficient process and this call effectively acted as the triage for the hospital, and once we got there, all we had to do was to wait our turn. But there's the rub: we got there at about 23:30, and the screens were showing an 8.5 hour wait.

So we waited.

On my way back from my class, I'd wandered through town at about 20:30 and marvelled at the packs of students in fancy dress marauding through the city on their way down to Ocean. They were quite the spectacle, many wearing nothing more than a pair of speedos, and most of them being extraordinarily drunk for such a relatively early hour. As things worked out, I now saw several of the same people at the other end of the day, arriving at A&E covered in blood. Not a great way to end the evening, but most of them seemed in good spirits. Literally, I guess.

The staff were brilliant.There just weren't enough of them. One doctor and maybe three nurses for the whole department (there was another doctor, but he was called away). What made things worse was that several of the people waiting were clearly suffering from various mental health issues and were there because they simply didn't have anywhere else to go. It's heartbreaking to watch people sitting there with problems that an accident and emergency ward is never going to be able to fix. The staff are amazing, but they can't work miracles and they've been handicapped by a decade of austerity.

By the time we got actually seen by the doctor at about 6am, I was staggered by how cheerful he was, and how, even 11 hours into his shift, he was still looking for blankets to give to some of the shivering students. I was examined, X-rayed and stitched up. The A&E doctor thought he saw a fracture, so I was referred up to the Head and Neck ward, which was just opening up for further consultation. The consultant there explained to me that he was fairly sure that I didn't have a fracture, but because the A&E doctor had documented one, they needed to be super careful to rule it out. Did I mind waiting for a CT scan? Ah, what the hell. What's another couple of hours when you've already been there for ten?

So we waited. We had enough time to get a coffee and something to eat, but then it was the scan and a final consultation to hear the news that I almost definitely didn't have a fracture. They were worried about what's called a "Guard fracture", apparently: named after what happens when a sentry faints at his post and lands directly on his chin, causing fractures on the point of the chin and on the hinge of the mandible on either side (which is why the ears hurt).  I left the hospital with a sore jaw and a couple of stitches, but the feeling that I'd been really very lucky indeed not to have anything worse. A fracture might easily have involved extensive surgery and pinning.

It was a very, very long day.

The thing that I really don't want to think about is *why* my legs gave way. I think we probably know why, don't we? I've an underlying weakness in my legs, especially my left leg, that has been getting worse and worse recently. I've been moaning for a few months now how much harder running seems at the moment. I guess this is another thing that can happen. 

Understandably, I don't really want to dwell on this. I appreciate that something like this can cause as many mental problems as physical, but I really don't want to live my life like that. Maybe it's excessively stoical of me, but who wants to live their life like that?

Mad props to my wife for helping to pick me up and then spending a long, uncomfortable night at the hospital before heading off to work once we got home. I just went to bed, but she's hardcore.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

slow down...

Let's not make any bones about it: I've been lucky with my MS.

Sure, I have some problems: numbness, pins & needles, muscle weakness and wastage, spasms, bladder issues, fatigue... but when it comes right down to it, I've run 6 marathons since I was diagnosed in 2009 and I still go out running 5 or 6 times a week. In the grand scheme of things, my problems are small.

Just recently though, things have been getting a bit worse and are really starting to affect my running. I was warned years ago that this day might be coming: a consultant specialising in sports medicine told me nearly ten years ago that it probably wouldn't be my MS that stopped me running directly, but it would probably be something caused by my MS. This doctor was a runner too, and he'd recently had to stop running because of back surgery, so he was quick to spot how important running was to me and quick to realise how critical it was to keep me on the road. He understood. To be fair, he also said that I would probably never run more than 10km again, so he clearly didn't know everything.

Perhaps he was just a few years early with his prediction.

I've been steadily losing flexibility in my left ankle for a while now but it's become quite stiff over the last couple of months and the achilles is very tender; I've had stiffness and numbness in my legs almost since the very beginning, but it's now taking me a mile or two to shake it off and get into my running stride; the muscle loss in my left side has been apparent for a while now, but I'm now getting niggles across my core and on my right side as my body tried to compensate.

I ran four marathons between April 2018 and April 2019. I'm still running around 25 miles per week and have run just short of 1000 miles in the calendar year to date. It feels ridiculous to complain because I've sat in enough MS clinics to know what this disease can do and how lucky I've been.

... but still, it is upsetting. I was hoping to run another marathon in spring 2020, but at the moment, even a half marathon feels like a bit of a stretch goal. We're almost exactly 12 months since I ran a half marathon PB (at Tissington) and a marathon PB (at Chester) in successive weeks.  It feels so frustrating to find my mileage restricted by a failing body.

Still, although it's frustrating, I hope I'm wise enough to realise that slowing down a little isn't the end of the world (even if it might feel like it is). That doctor was right: running 10km slowly is a lot better than not running at all.

Dangnabbit.

A runner just wants to run.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

the hardest way to make an easy living...

Perhaps it's the weather.
Perhaps it's because I've finally started to read the bleak, dystopian vision presented in  "The Handmaid's Tale".
Perhaps it's something else entirely.

Whatever it is, I've been feeling discombobulated for a couple of weeks now.

Yeah. You're right. I do know exactly why.

It's now a full 12 weeks since I stopped working. As you might expect, I haven't missed working or sitting in an office for 11 hours a day or being on call 24x7 for a moment. Not even once. It's a ridiculous way to spend your life and I've spent enough of my life doing it already. Everyone knows that, don't they? Very few people would work if they could afford not to. With the time and space to actual think about it, stopping doing that job is one of the best things that could have happened to me. Them paying me to stop doing it was even better.

With all that time back in my days, I've generally been pretty good at keeping myself busy. As well as all the usual running and coaching and things that I normally do, I've started doing some volunteer work as a sighted guide for Guide Dogs, I've been doing some facebook moderation for shift.MS and I'm going through the process of becoming a trustee for a Nottinghamshire Domestic Abuse charity. I've also been trying to do a little bit of reading and writing and generally clearing my head of the chiff-chaff of 22 years of full time work to see if I can work out what I want to do next.

I think it took the full three months to really blow away the cobwebs of all that time working a full-time job. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things and after 22 years, 12 weeks isn't really that much decompression time and I might easily have expected it to take longer. In the end, I surprised myself by actually applying for a full time job. It wasn't something that I had been planning, and I don't really need to seek paid employment at all for a little while.... but a job advert popped up in front of me  the other day and I was curious enough to follow it up, to ring the recruiter up to talk to him about the role and then interested enough to apply for it.

Even more surprising to me was that this was an IT job. I've been out of IT for about 5 years and honestly never thought it was something I would want to go back to.

I don't know if anything will come of this application. After all, I'd be pretty lucky to land the first job I looked at.... but at the same time, going through the job specification and putting my application together showed me that I do actually have the skills and experience this company need and that I do apparently have the energy to help them with this thing.  It's really easy to become institutionalised when you spend a long time in one place, to lose sight of your own value. Slowly rediscovering that has been a pretty positive experience and  the application process was quite a revelation for me as I buffed up my CV and crafted my covering letter.  I really do know how to do this stuff, whether I get this particular job or not.

The application went in a couple of weeks ago with a deadline of last Sunday. And now I wait. I haven't heard anything yet, but nor could I reasonably expect to have done so. So I wait.  And as I wait, my focus on the other things I was doing seems to have drifted a little.

The very fact that I have put an application in for a job when I had no immediate plans to do has been like crossing the Rubicon: I was quite happy in my little routines and my little plans for the future, and all of that seems to have been thrown up in the air as I wait to see what happens next.

Perhaps this will come to nothing; perhaps they won't even reply at all; perhaps the won't want to interview me... who knows? What I do know is that I now feel a little trapped in no man's land as I ponder whether I should start a more systematic campaign of job applications, or if I should just be patient and trust that -- as I did with this one -- I'll know a job that I actually want to do when I see one.

I know the answer to that question too.


Wednesday, 28 August 2019

the dream...

It was baking hot and Johnny immediately made me think of snow.
“Do you remember that kid?”
“Which one?” I said that like I didn’t know exactly which kid Johnny meant. Of all the hundreds of kids I must have seen over the years, including my own, there was only really ever the one that really stayed with me.
“You know damn well which one. On the West Side, near the Village. Around ’47. What did he say to you anyway?”

How could I ever forget?

It was one of those grey New York days where it seemed to be getting dark before it had ever gotten light and where a cruel wind whipped in off the Hudson. My feet were wet through my boots from walking through those damn puddles on every intersection in town. On a day like that, it seems about damn impossible to get warm, especially when your coat is maybe third-hand and was probably meant for a Florida spring, not a New York winter.

Since we’d got back from France, it seemed like we just couldn’t catch a break. One minute you’re a returning hero, and the next you’re just another bum trying to make ends meet. In those days, we took whatever work we could get and considered ourselves lucky. The Teamsters had the whole place stitched up back then. Same as now. If you weren’t part of that, then you were always grubbing around the edges, picking up the scraps all the while hoping that they either didn’t notice or didn’t think it worth having. It’s no way for a man to make a living, that’s for sure.

I likely wouldn’t even have seen him if the other kids hadn’t been there. It was them that caught my eye as we walked past that alleyway. They were shouting and I glanced over as we were walking past. Looked like a fight, with the bigger guys kicking the shit out of someone or something lying on the ground there with the boxes and the trash. Now, like most guys I know, I can’t stand a bully. As soon as I worked out what we were looking at, I couldn’t just stand there and waded straight on into that alleyway without a second thought with Jonny not far behind.

Like most bullies, those kids took one look at the two of us and hightailed. I let them go and carried on down to the little bundle hunched down in the trash. As I crouched down, it didn’t take too long to figure out that it was a boy. I reckon he couldn’t have been much older than ten, but it was hard to tell for sure. Everyone seemed a bit smaller now. Looking down at him brought immediately back flashing, memories of Europe. I’ll have nightmares about those days for the rest of my life and I can’t forget that dreadful smell that permeated everything. I scrubbed myself for weeks and never once felt clean of it. This kid was skinny too.

“You okay, kid?”
He seemed almost half asleep, but he managed to look up at me with a kind of half smile on his face. “Oh. It’s you”.
Johnny and I, we just looked at each other. Maybe he took a kick to the head.
“Did they hurt you? Those kids?” I gestured back down the alley.
“No. I’ll be fine”. He coughed, and for thirty seconds, his whole body shook with the effort. When he was done, he just sat there wheezing, wiped his mouth and then looked back up at me with that strange little smile.
“Do you need something to eat kid? When did you last eat?” I had a sandwich in my pack somewhere, and I shrugged the bag off my shoulders to get it. I was hungry and cold, but this kid looked like he needed it more than me. I found it and pushed it towards him. “Eat this. It’s corned beef. Bread ain’t too old, but it’s good.”
He reached up and took it off me, started shovelling it in like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Maybe he hadn’t.
Johnny touched my shoulder. “Maybe we should get him someplace warmer?”
I nodded. It was dark now and the night was only going to get colder. There was snow in the air now. He was so dirty that it was hard to say for sure, but it looked like the rags he was wearing were so thin as to almost not be there at all. No decent person would just leave him lying there. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do, but it was surely a whole lot better than doing nothing.
“Come on kid, let’s see if we can’t find you some soup”.
He shook his head vigorously at this. He didn’t want to be moved. I looked around: maybe this was all he had. Maybe it was all he knew. The wind gusted off the Hudson and the newspaper in the alley took off for a few seconds before settling back down onto the icy ground. I looked back to the kid and saw that he was beckoning me down with his hand, all the while with that crazy little half smile on his face, like he knew something. I couldn’t help myself, I smiled back and stooped to bring my face down to his face so he could whisper straight into my ear.

What he told me that day will stay with me forever. He told me that nothing could hurt him now because he was already dead; he told me that I would die too, not now, but in 1953. He was weirdly specific about that, but before he let me go, he told me that this would be okay, that everything would be okay. I believed him, too.

“So, do you remember that kid then? The one in the alleyway in ’47?” Johnny was still talking. I guess the whole thing must have stayed with him too. It seems weird to think about the cold when you’re stood in the middle of the longest heatwave anyone in the city can remember, but at that moment, both me and Johnny were standing back in that alleyway five years ago, cold down to our boots even as we waded through the puddles from the open hydrants.

I guess that kid’s strange little half smile will never really leave me, and 1953 ain’t over yet.


--

I actually did dream this. I woke up in the morning with this story lodged in my head.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

aliens...

Write a brief dialogue between your character and someone else. Make them disagree. Add in descriptive sentences throughout until you feel that it’s balanced.

Ancient Aliens

After a long, comfortable lull in the conversation, Joe leaned forward on the sofa, took a deep and thoughtful breath and looked over the room at Sam. “You know what?” He didn’t pause for an answer but ploughed straight on, “I reckon it must have been aliens”.
Sam rolled her eyes. Not this shit again. A few glasses of red wine, some crappy late-night programming from the SyFy Channel and a few too many spliffs always had this effect on him. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah”. Joe looked thoughtful for a moment. “There just isn’t any other explanation that makes sense”. At this pronouncement, he sat back definitively.
Sam crossed her arms. “Explanation for what?”
“For everything”.
“For everything?” After all this time, Sam couldn’t resist biting. “Aliens are responsible for everything? Would you care to narrow that down a little?”
Joe frowned. “Ancient aliens were here when mankind was still scraping around in the caves. They flew down, showed us fire and built the pyramids and shit”. He sniffed and reached for his tobacco. “Without them, we’d still be grubbing around in the dirt”.
“Yeah. And that’s a fact, is it? No room for argument?” To be honest, Sam didn’t know why she bothered talking to Joe when he was like this. It was funny up to a point, but she should know better than to expect any kind of sense out of him.
“Well, how else do you explain it? The Aztec pyramids. Egypt. We still don’t really know how they built those, do we?”
“Ah yes, if only they had access to unlimited, disposable slave labour in those societies, eh?”
Joe didn’t even bother looking up from the delicate construction of his next joint. “Well, I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand it”
“Someone like me?” This was old territory, but Joe either didn’t recognise the danger he was walking into, or he simply didn’t care.
“You’re so fucking logical. You need to be a bit more…”.
“Yeah? A bit more what?”
“Open fucking minded”.
Sam laughed. “Pass that over here, you twat and shut up”.
Just another Saturday night.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

magic...

Write a brief dialogue between your character and someone else. Make them disagree. Add in descriptive sentences throughout until you feel that it’s balanced.

The contents of the magician’s car


Jan had more or less given up on hitching a lift when the magician pulled over to the side of the road. He wound the window down.
“Where are you headed?”
He wasn’t quite wearing a hat covered in a star and moons motif, but he was sporting what looked like a velvet smoking cap and he did have a long, white beard. He also seemed friendly and, as she hadn’t seen another vehicle for more than an hour now, Jan put her bag down in relief and turned towards him.
“Ipswich. I’d be ever so grateful of a lift, if it’s not too much trouble”.
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. I’m headed in that direction, more or less. Hop in”.
It wasn’t much of a car really. Although it didn’t seem to be that old, it also felt ancient. Opening the passenger side door, Jan paused for a moment.
“Oh, excuse the mess”. The magician reached across and began to gather up crinkling crisp packets, piles of books and what looked like a very battered leather briefcase. After a minute or so, there was just about enough room for Jan to climb inside. She tried not to think about some of the stains on the seat and felt it was probably best not to mention them. She really needed this lift, after all.
“This is really very kind of you. I wouldn’t normally do something like this. I’ll pay you petrol money of course”.
“Hmm? Oh, don’t be ridiculous. It’s no bother at all. No bother. You look exhausted. Why not close your eyes for a moment and enjoy the ride?” He waved his right hand in a slightly odd gesture, and Jan immediately felt her eyes beginning to sag. Maybe she was more tired than she thought? Before giving in to the sudden drowsiness, Jan glanced behind her, into the back of the car behind the driver’s seat. What she saw quickly drove any thoughts of sleep out of her mind. She gestured over her shoulder.
“What’s that?”
The magician didn’t even bother looking back and instead kept his hands firmly on the wheel. “That, young lady, would be none of your business”. His extravagantly bushy eyebrows arched upwards in a mild rebuke.
“What do you mean? It’s glowing!” Even as she spoke, the faint blue light she’d seen emanating from the back seat began to intensify and to gently pulse.
The magician continued gazing out of the windscreen into the night and said nothing. As it turned out, the sound of the engine wasn’t quite enough to obscure other sounds.
“What was that?”
“What?”
“That noise”.
A flash of irritation crossed the magician’s face. “Also none of your business”.
Jan suddenly felt vulnerable, trapped in a moving car. Being stuck in the cold, dark night on the edge of the road in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem so bad now.
As if sensing her discomfort, the magician’s demeanour softened and he let out a gentle sigh. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I don’t often have other people in the car, but you looked a little forlorn back there on the side of the road and I felt I really ought to stop to offer you a lift. I’m not much of a knight in shining armour, I’m afraid, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Not really”.
Hearing this, Jan began to breathe more easily, but the blue glow in the back seat seemed to be getting brighter and brighter. “I don’t mean to pry, but what is that?” She angled her head slightly to one side, indicating the back seat. “If you don’t mind me asking, of course”.
The eyebrows flickered briefly, but then the magician sighed a little and turned his head towards her.
“It’s really nothing to be afraid of. Just don’t make any sudden moves and you’ll be fine. Most likely. He doesn’t like surprises or strangers, but he’s usually sleepy at this time of day.”
Jan turned anxiously to look at the back seat again. The glow seemed to be coming from underneath a large picnic blanket. As she watched, she could see that the blanket was moving slightly, as if something was breathing slowly and rhythmically underneath it. It seemed to be snoring slightly.
“What kind of a dog is it?”, Jan asked hopefully.
“Oh, it’s not a dog. What makes you think I have a dog?”
Jan blinked. “Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“No. I’ve told you: it’s none of your business. Besides, you wouldn’t understand and you’d get upset”.
“Can you pull over the car, please? I’d like to get out.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s the middle of the night and we’re in the middle of nowhere. I’m not about to stop the car to leave you here. It wouldn’t be safe”.
“But it’s safe in the car?”
That flash of exasperation again. “Yes. Of course it is”.
“Then what’s under the blanket? Why is it glowing?”
The magician seemed to focus even harder out of the car windscreen. Perhaps it was Jan’s imagination, but were his knuckles turning white as he clutched the steering wheel? It started to rain, and now the gentle sound of breathing from the backseat was obscured by the rhythmic thud of the wipers.
“I told you that you should rest. It would perhaps be better for us all if you just had a little nap until we get to Ipswich”. The magician made that strange hand gesture again, more emphatically this time, and Jan felt the world beginning to swim before her eyes. She fought the feeling, but everything suddenly seemed so far away and unimportant to her now. The only thing that mattered was sleep.

Jan only awoke when the car suddenly stopped and she was jerked into consciousness. It wasn’t raining any more, but it wasn’t quite yet light. It must be nearly dawn, she thought. I’ve been asleep for hours. As she surfaced, she began to remember and instinctively checked the seat behind her. The blanket was still there, but she couldn’t see any movement and it was no longer glowing. She turned back to find the magician beaming at her.
“Hello there. Did you sleep well?” Without bothering to wait for a response, the magician continued. “Well, we’ve made it safely to Ipswich”.
Jan blinked at him sleepily and looked out of the car window again. They were pulled up on a quiet residential street somewhere. It could have been anywhere for all she knew.
“We’re just off the ring road, about ten minutes’ walk from the main square”.
“Thank you. That’s very kind of you”. Jan paused before continuing. “I had a very strange dream last night. It seemed very real, though”.
The magician turned to face her, the bottom of his strange little smoking cap almost touching his magnificent eyebrows. “Oh really? Well, I’m sure it was nothing”. He seemed almost amused.
“Well”, said Jan, “I suppose I should let you get on. Thanks again for the lift.”
“Oh, it was nothing. A pleasure”.
Jan opened the door and began to lift herself out of the car. As she turned to close the door, movement caught her eye and the blanket on the back seat seemed to twitch suddenly. The magician seemed unperturbed, but perhaps keen to move on.
“Be sure to take care now. Goodbye!”
Jan pushed the door closed, the magician pulled away and within seconds, he was gone.

Jan really hoped this was Ipswich.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

remember, remember...

On a page in your journal, answer one of Neil’s questions from A Calendar of Tales. Now write a story from this answer. This can be as long or short as you like.

“What would you burn in November, if you could?”


Whatever happened to duffel coats? The question popped into Joel’s mind one warm, November morning as he walked towards the bus stop on his way into work. Joel was one of those people who always seemed to be cold, but the morning had been so warm and clear that even he had been forced to seriously consider leaving the house without a coat. He’d grabbed one on the way out, of course, but the short walk up the high street was already causing the first prickles of a sweat to bead on his forehead and to trickle down the small of his back.

Novembers didn’t used to be like this, did they? Joel certainly remembered duffel coats. Not the trendy, designer label ones that you occasionally see in the Sunday paper (‘This Season’s Must-Have Overcoats’), but the heavy, distinctly unfashionable ones that your mum used to make you wear with horn toggles and that covered you from head to knees and had a tartan patterned lining. They might even have been part of the official school uniform as everybody seemed to have one. If you tried wearing one of those on a day like today, you’d melt. Maybe that was why you don’t see them so much anymore.

And it used to be colder, didn’t it? Cold, crisp November mornings where you could see your own breath on the air and where the frost would sparkle as it reflected the thin, end-of-year sunlight onto the grass. Joel couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a frost. In February maybe? Only once so far this year? The world was warmer now.

As he neared his bus stop, Joel saw a pram dumped next to the old toy shop. As he got closer, he realised that it wasn’t a pram and but was, in fact, a strange contraption fashioned from ancient pram wheels and old crates. A go-cart! Good lord! Joel could scarcely believe his eyes. When was the last time you saw an honest-to-goodness go-cart? In the age of the micro scooter, it seemed like a glorious relic from a bygone age, yet here it was. Was it possible that… Joel got a little closer and peered inside. Yes! There it was! A pile of stuffed sacks dressed in raggedy clothes, with a painted-on face and a hat at a jaunty angle. Hanging around this approximately man-shaped pile was a cardboard sign with a simple, scrawled request:
“Penny for the Guy?”

As a cub scout, Joel could remember spending cold early-November evenings with the rest of his pack putting their Guy together. The best would be proudly pulled around town in a go-cart before being hoisted up onto the bonfire for burning. But when was the last time anyone saw a Guy? And what good was a penny going to do anyone anyway? The local Rotary Club or Round Table was surely going to need more money than that. Inflation meant that you couldn’t even buy a penny chew for 1p nowadays.

Almost without thinking, Joel began to smile and moved in for a closer look at this relic from his childhood.
“Alright”
Joel leapt back in astonishment, wrenching the headphones from his ears. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he could have sworn that the…
“Wotchoo looking at?”
The Guy was speaking to him, its twisted facsimile of a face didn’t appear to be moving, but he was definitely being addressed. Joel quickly looked around him, but the street was still deserted this early in the morning.
“Um…. Hello?”
This was pretty much as good as he could manage under the circumstances, all the while looking around the doorway and underneath the go-cart and the Guy to see if there might just be someone hiding under there, playing a desperately unfunny joke. There was nobody there.

“I’ve got a problem”.
Joel blinked, swallowed and then, for want of anything better to do, opted for a somewhat tentative reply. “Oh yes?”
“Yeah. I need a bonfire. I got to get burned, you see.”
Thousands of questions flooded through Joel’s mind all at one. He only managed to get one of them out. “Why?”
“Well ain’t that a stupid question? I’m a Guy. Guys get burned. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re for”.
Joel’s head swam as his reality began to collapse inwards. He shook his head and started to think that perhaps he should just walk away from this hallucination and just get on with his day. He began edging away.
“Where do you think you’re going? I’m talking to you and I need your help. I need to get burned.”
Joel froze and, a little reluctantly, turned his head back towards the Guy. “Well, how can I help? What can I do?”
“You need to find me a nice, big bonfire and you’ve got to slap me right onto the top of it and then I’ve got to burn”.
“Um. Okay. Can I do this later? It’s just that I really need to be getting to work now and my bus will be along any minute now…”
“Do I look like I can wait?”

And so it was that, somewhat against his better judgement and definitely confounding all his expectations for the morning, Joel found himself skipping work and instead hauling an old go-cart down to the river and the site of the weekend’s scheduled bonfire and firework display. The Guy didn’t really say very much now. Perhaps he’d said his piece. The day was really heating up now, so Joel had removed his jacket and, for a want of anywhere else to put it, had wrapped it around the sloping shoulders of the Guy.

As he sweated his way down along the riverbanks, Joel reflected how profoundly strange a tradition it was to burn the effigy of a Catholic on a bonfire every year. Perhaps it was an instinctive understanding of this that had led to the slow withering of the tradition. Perhaps it was just that the burning of the Guy was a late addition to an older, far more ancient fire ritual anyway, from a time when people huddled around bonfires to stay warm but also, more importantly, to stay away from the dark. Darkness was pretty hard to find now, real darkness, anyway. But even so, people still had bonfires and they still had fireworks at this tie of the year, even when the nights were warmer and the celebration of the torture and death of a Seventeenth Century Catholic was fading from memory. Oh, for sure, it was still called Guy Fawkes Night by some people, but mostly it was just Bonfire Night, and people turned up to bob apples and to watch the fireworks regardless.

The Guy spoke only once more as Joel hauled the effigy up the pallets and branches of the bonfire site at the rugby club. “You need to keep the spark alive for the long winter to come. To ward off the darkness”.

Joel reflected on this as he caught the bus into work at lunchtime, rolling up his shirt sleeves as the day grew ever hotter, and only then realising that he must have left his coat on the bonfire.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

big wheel keeps on turning...

I was at the physio yesterday.

I ran four marathons last year and I've run 782 miles so far this year. Given that I have a chronic, incurable neurological condition, I suppose that it was only really ever going to be a matter of time before I needed a bit of maintenance.

I'm currently seeing various specialists about various ailments, but my visit yesterday was to consult with an expert about a sore achilles tendon on my left side.  I tend to have a rolling list of things that bother me when I run, and this sore tendon has worked its way up to the top of the list over the last few months, overtaking a stiff ankle and finally moving its way past my previous number one concern of very sore internal oblique muscles. Yeah, it's a laugh a minute keeping this show on the road, let me tell you. I was hoping that I'd be able to get some easy answers and some quick treatment to push this back down the list.  Sadly, this isn't quite how the session worked out.

You will not be in the least bit surprised to know that all of these complaints are apparently connected. As I sat down to talk through my reason for booking the session, the physio looked at the side of my left knee and pointed out that my tendon there looked like it was substantially wasted. Indeed, when I looked, you can see a hollow developing where it used to be. He also admired the fact that there was noticeably less muscle on my left hand side compared to my right and moved down to examine my ankle.  Oh, look at this.... you've got almost no strength here compared to the other side and your tendons have got about twice as much slackness as they're meant to, meaning that I have very little control at all over the lateral movement of my foot, which is why I fall over a lot as I lose control of my foot and my ankle rolls.

He's shown me a load of exercises to do to try to build up the strength of my left ankle, but I left feeling a little down about the whole thing. A sports specialist told me ten years ago that it wasn't likely to be the MS that stopped me running, but that it was probably going to be some underlying, secondary issue caused by the MS. This looks like the way it's going to be.

I'm a stubborn old bastard and it will take a lot to take me off the road... but it's always sobering to have your own physical decline spelled out to you. No matter how much I like to pretend otherwise, I'm not entirely like other runners and my performance isn't linked to how hard I train or how much I want it.

I've got an appointment at the musculoskeletal clinic next week. I'm hoping that I'll get some proper bio-mechanical assessment done to see if there's anything more that can be done to help keep me out and running... be that orthotics or whatever. In the meantime.... I've got a 10km club trail race tomorrow to keep me busy and to both take my mind off and to focus it intently on my physical shortcomings.

cry me a river....

Set a timer for 60 seconds and write the opening of a story. Set the timer for 30 minutes and finish it.

When was the last time you cried? What caused it?


When I was a younger man, tears were a precious commodity, to be hoarded at all costs; buried from view; to be kept secret from the world. Maybe they were, so we reckoned with the wisdom of youth, a myth. Perhaps they didn’t even exist at all. Not to a real man, whatever that was, as if any of us would know.

Now that I’m older, many things have changed. For me, at least - I’m sure there are many other men of my age who still cling to the certainties and stupidities of their youth, but I do not believe that I am one of them. The passage of time has taken many things from me, but it has also stripped me of some of the certainty and ignorance of my youth.

There’s nothing wrong with crying. Of course there isn’t. Why would there be? Why do some men seem so afraid of such an overt display of emotion? Is it some lingering Palaeolithic need to hide a weakness that might single us out from the pack and render us vulnerable to predators? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Although I don’t remember feeling the pressure of my masculinity, I didn’t cry much. Oh sure, I cried all the time as a small child. I’d cry at the drop of a hat. I’d cry long and hard, as though the world was against me. They were real tears too. My brother, after me, would cry bone dry crocodile tears, but mine always flowed freely down my cheeks as I cried and cried at the cruel, unfeeling world.

And then, at some point, I stopped. The tears dried up. At school, my friends cried for their parents and for distant homes, but I never did. I even felt guilty that I didn’t feel at all homesick, but I didn’t cry about that either. The absence of tears wasn’t because I was afraid to show my emotions, it was because I simply didn’t feel any.

Over the years, I built an armour around myself to protect me from the unpredictability of feeling. Almost nothing can penetrate the forcefield around me and it has left me feeling blissfully numb to the unpredictability of feeling.

Now that I’m older, that armour seems to be slowly melting away and I’m beginning to feel the world seeping in around the edges. I’m now feeling for perhaps the very first time. I’ve been numb for so long that suddenly I’m now feeling everything with the intensity of the new.

I never cried before, but now the tears flow readily. The sensation is so new and so unfamiliar to me that I don’t know what to do with it. My first instinct is to hide it. I’ll be watching a mediocre film in the dark of the movie theatre or on the sofa at home and the hot, prickly feeling of tears begins to mist my eyes at the lamest, cheesiest of sentimental promptings. I don’t know if I’m ashamed, exactly, but it feels like a part of myself that I need to keep buried. I sit in the dark and try to wipe my eyes dry in secret, as though this sudden, unexpected display of emotion is something to be embarrassed about, revealing some terrible weakness of character.

When was the last time I cried? When was the last time I watched a stupid reality programme featuring a sick cat? Does this make me more vulnerable to predators? Maybe. Well, there’s not much I can do about it now. The armour is gone and, for better or for worse, those feelings aren’t going away any time soon.

--
I'm not sure this is exactly a story, but this is what came out when the timer started ticking.