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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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The concluding part of the story,….

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. The car goes like a rocket, doesn’t it? A little wild on the corners by modern standards, but plenty of kick! Anyway, here we are, just pulling into a space on Menses Park Terrace. The college is over there, and Menses Park is to our right. We’ve still an hour to kill, so I thought we’d take a look in the park because I’ve not been in there for ages and, well, the place is kind of special to me, for a number of reasons.

I’d forgotten how green this part of town is, all cherry trees and wide open spaces. It’s just a stone’s throw, and yet a million miles away from the bustle of the centre. And here,… see? Isn’t this a pretty park? Look at the lawns, and the colourful borders. You won’t find parks like this anywhere else in the world – it’s so English, so Victorian. See the bandstand? The ornamental lake? This is where I come at lunchtimes when the weather’s good. It gets me out of college, gives me somewhere quiet to be on my own and lick my wounds.

If you don’t mind we’ll just sit here on this bench for a bit. We’ve been lucky with the weather eh? Today’s exactly as I remember it: warm, and the scent of fresh cut grass. But it was always a pleasure tainted by the perpetual loneliness of being in love, and always disappointed by the reality of love’s apparent indifference to me. Still,… no need to dwell on that now: I’ll soon be seeing Serena again. She’ll be sitting beside me in the car, and I’ll take her to that little pub. We’ll talk over a decent meal and get to know one another,… we’ll feel so grown up and sophisticated – then I’ll bring her home and drop her on her doorstep and say: it was fun, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed being with you. And she’ll blush and maybe give me her number and we’ll arrange to do it again sometime soon.

What’s that? I said: We’ll arrange to,… what are you looking at? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,….

Woah!

Didn’t I tell you Faye was a looker? Crikey, I’d forgotten she used to wear her dresses as short as that! That’s her bench over there you see? Didn’t I tell you? This is where we first met. This is what I wanted to show you, just for completeness really, though it’s a while yet before our time comes, and I wasn’t expecting to see her today. She was sitting over there, reading Wuthering Heights. I was going through a bit of a Bronte phase myself and was reading The Tennant of Wildfell Hall – made a change from Newton’s Laws, and Mhor’s Circle.

Anyway, even from a distance we couldn’t help but notice one another’s books and we made a joke about swapping them when we’d finished. It was said light heartedly but – you know how these things work – I looked out for her every time I was in town after that, and in the end we did exchange books. Her telephone number was written on the very first page and the rest, as they say is history,… or rather my future.

Look at her legs as she sits down, and crosses them. Aren’t they sexy? You can nearly see her stocking-tops! And the way she dangles her shoe on the end of her toes like that! Oh,… but she looks so pretty,…. so young and absolutely devastating! I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit awkward now, sitting here, knowing I’m about to be going off with someone else shortly, and maybe you think it’s wrong, but you’re forgetting: Faye doesn’t know me yet and it would complicate things if I were to do what you seem to be urging me to do, and take my copy of Wildfell Hall out of my bag – yes I know it’s in there – I’ve seen it too. Oh, Faye: red high heels, big bushy hair, a slash of red lip-gloss, electric blue eye-shadow. How I used to ache for you! Where did you go, my love? What happened to you? What happened to us? Do we really change so much as we age – or are we the same, and we just forget who we are?

Okay, maybe we should move on. I’m beginning to feel really strange now, like I’m going to wake up. Talk to me will you. Say something. Why do you have to be so flipping quiet all the time? Oh,… I think it’s too late,… we’re slipping free,…. no sense in fighting it; once we start to slide there’s nothing we can do to stop it,… here we go.

Damn!

Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I think it was seeing Faye that did it. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Let me come round for a moment, then we’ll go back into the house and check on her. Does everything look as it should to you? I mean the shed. I could swear there was something,… oh never mind,… I think the tea was a little too strong. Do you have a funny taste in your mouth? Yak!

So, anyway, here we are. The house is all quiet. We’ve been away a bit longer than I expected and everything’s in darkness. There’s just a light showing under the lounge door, and I can hear the TV, so I don’t think I’ve been missed, but I’m feeling guilty about the Serena thing, so I’ll salve my conscience by asking Faye if there’s anything I can do. It’s a little weak I know and she’ll suspect me at once of something underhand but, really, seeing her as she used to be has reminded me of what it was that drew me to her in the first place. She was every bit as pretty as Serena – I’d forgotten that – but there was something else,… and I’m really glad I woke up in time before I had the chance to disgrace myself. Anyway, here we are:

“Faye,… I was just,…”

Okay.

You’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I think about this.

Yes,… I can see it’s not Faye. But who?…. Oh, I get it – It’s Serena of course! Nice one! She’s padded out a little, and there are lines around her eyes – not unattractive, I might add. Its more her expression that’s so shocking – the same dull, deadness – just like Faye: those lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but the crap she’s watching on TV. So,… I take it we’ve slipped forwards, not to our old future, but to our new one?

Fine, just so long as I know where I am!

On the up-side, it seems our courtship went well and we’ve managed to share a life together, but on the down-side, unlike my life with Faye, I’ve obviously not had the pleasure of remembering the best bits of it. I’ve gone straight from that tingling anticipation of our first date, to surfacing directly here into the featureless plain of our later years, a time when it’s all been said and done, and we can barely be bothered looking at each other any more.

“Serena?”

She’s barely aware of us,… fortunately, the TV is on so loud she didn’t hear me calling her Faye.

“Serena, can I get you anything?”

She waves her hand dismissively. Clearly I’m disturbing her and I suspect we’d be as well retreating back into the kitchen.

Now, given the rather shop-worn outcome of both these relationships, I agree it seems I’m most likely the one at fault here, since I’m the common denominator in them both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that though. I mean I could do the decent thing while I’m here and try to perk things up with Serena, but since I don’t remember anything of our relationship, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that without her knowing something’s wrong, and maybe making things even worse.

So that leaves me wondering about your part in all of this, and how we seemed to bump into each other at that particular time and place. And you must forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking it’s you who’s been married to Serena all this time, that this is your future, and that maybe lately you’ve been haunted by memories of a woman sitting on a park bench flashing her stocking tops, and reading Wuthering Heights? A woman who caught your eye and smiled at you as you were waiting to go out on your first date with Serena perhaps?

Okay. Fine. Well, I trust that, like me, you know what it was now that you really left back there in ’83, and now we’ve found it we can both avoid screwing up our lives any further. It was really weird bumping into you again, and you understand if I hesitate to suggest we do this sort of thing more often? For now, I’d be obliged if you’d just put the kettle on and hand me your almanac. With a bit of luck the moon’s not moved too far away from the ecliptic,…

….and Faye’s still sitting on that park bench.

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I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

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She was waiting by the shop, dropped into the car without a word, and turned her head half away from me, like in the old days, as if to discourage conversation. Not a good start, you might say. I preferred to think it was just her way – a little haughty, and ever so “cool”. The main thing is she was here, in my car, filling it with her scent, and with the mysterious tingle of her womanly being. She wore this crazy-short skirt. And I mean short, so it showed the tops of her stockings. She turned the radio on, found something with a beat and cranked the volume up.

There were two of me that night. There was the me who’d skipped after Lorraine to the bus stop when we were kids. Him, that kid, he was in the driving seat, carried away in the heat and the excitement of her presence. Then there was the other me, the guy who could only look on in a kind of stupefied horror, while this idiot got to work. This was the me who wore the jacket and tie of a white collar job, thought it smart and respectful attire for dating a girl, while everyone else turned out that night as New Romantics, Goths or Emos, all of them in search of this thing called “cool”.

We didn’t see a movie. She changed her mind, wanted a drink in a place well known in those days as a venue for plastic people who’d turn up and pose at one another. The music was loud, which made talking tiresome, everyone just nodding to the beat and looking glum. As for Lorraine, she was with me, but not with me. I was more the anchor around which she floated, while she showed herself off to the rest of the room. The only time she acknowledged my presence was when she tugged off my tie, and she didn’t look too pleased about it. I obviously hadn’t a clue how to be cool, and I’d better get with it.

Then it was on to a club – the only club in town actually – a dive, infamous for broken glass and drugs. I’d never been in before, but the bouncer seemed to know Lorraine and nodded us through. I recognized him as one of the bully-boys from school who nabbed my lunch money, but he didn’t know me now. Had the years changed me so much then?

Inside it was more loud music, and a wall of gyrating bodies. After a couple of drinks, Lorraine too was becoming more animated. I wasn’t drinking on account of driving. Sure, I could have done with loosening up a bit, but it gave me a clarity of vision I suppose everyone else lacked that night.

At some point she hooked up with a bunch of girls she knew, and they took to the dance-floor. I’d already made myself look un-cool over the tie business, indeed seemed unable to find my “cool” anywhere, and I didn’t want to make things worse by attempting to dance. So I propped up the bar, drank fizzy water, and then the God of Men broke through my thick skull, and woke me up.

There were pills circulating. Who knows what they were in those days? The kids probably had kid names for them, like they still do. I suppose you could only dance like that if you were off your head on something, everyone so completely gone. Was this what “cool” looked like, then? I wondered. If so, it looked disturbingly nihilistic, and certainly not pointing to any future I aspired to. Or more likely I just didn’t get it, and the notion of “cool” was beyond my small-town comprehension.

Sometimes, Lorraine would flick me a smile, but mostly she stuck to her mates, whom I guess she’d intended hooking up with all along, but with the added kudos of some guy in tow and what I had begun to uncharitably suspect was simply a ride home whenever she needed it. That smile was definitely an improvement in our relationship, but I reckon that was only because she was by now as stoned as everyone else, and she couldn’t tell me apart from all the other guys she was flirting with.

It was small-hours late when we spilled out. She was unsteady on her heels and giggly. It was the first sign I’d had she’d hit a point of happiness. But it had taken copious quantities of alcohol, and whatever pills she’d been washing down with it to get her there. Whatever this “cool” was, it was a hard task-master, and demanded a heavy price the morning after. I wondered what her mother would make of it when I dropped her off back home, if she’d blame me for not looking after her better. But that was real old-school thinking, and those days were already long gone. Anyway, Lorraine wasn’t done yet. When we sank into the car, she took my hand, clamped it between her thighs and stuck her tongue down my throat. She tasted of booze, and her perfume, so alluring to begin, had soured now with the cling of cigarettes.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

She meant a dark country lane, and the back seat. But it wasn’t really her speaking. It was whoever took a hold of her when she was in this state. Still, the younger me might have gone for it, not seen what this other person wanted was simply “it”, and not necessarily me also, and worse, when the real Lorraine reappeared next morning, she’d either not remember a thing, or she’d be cringing with regrets.

I was entirely in the hands of that God of Men now, and I fear he’d not done such a good job up to now. Or was it that the God of Women was the more powerful, and I’d been unable to hear him above the noise of all that loud music? Anyway, he had me driving round on the pretence of knowing the perfect spot for such a desperate tryst. Just stall her, mate, he was saying, while you think this through.

Think? I couldn’t think. I was feeling the future shaking apart, and I was terrified of going too far with a girl who was sexy as hell, but seemed of a sudden darkly strange, and in exchange for what? For more nights like this? Is this what the world of Lorraine looked like? Was this “cool”? Then the fates intervened, as I realized of course they’d been intervening between us all our lives. The God of Men clanged the gates shut with her behind them, and me safe on the other side again. She fell asleep, woke as I stopped the car outside her mother’s, then she threw up all over her dress, stocking-tops and all. I would rather have spared her that last indignity, but the God of Men knew me better, knew nothing less than a serious sobering up was in order. And it worked.

So,…

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Mike. You okay?”

I’d just finished my second strong shot of coffee, and was already in danger of being not the best of company for Chloe. But she was bright, chatty as always, and I was starting to perk up, feeling better for being with her.

“I’m okay, just slept a bit funny, that’s all.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever lied to her, and we’ve been together now for thirty five years. We’ve seen children and grandchildren into the world, and by the grace of God we’ve dodged the worst of ill health and misfortune. We shared her flat for a while, were lovers from day one. Then we bought a house on the outskirts of town, fixed it up, and tended the garden. It’s been a happy sort of place, and we’ve never felt the need to move on from it. More recently, I got promoted a little beyond where I was comfortable, rode it out as long as I could, then took early retirement. Chloe had been working part-time since the kids were born, and now she’s done the same.

Next time you’re out, and you see a late middle aged couple, still smiling in one another’s company, that’s us. We’re still taking trips to the seaside with a flask of coffee and a blanket to sit upon, still reading and sharing books. Kind of twee, isn’t it? Certainly it’s quite ordinary, yet how little my life would have been without it. The thing is, I could have thrown it away that night with Lorraine, because I’m not the brightest when it comes to women, indeed I’m as easily seduced as the next man by the flash of a stocking-top.

Everyone has a love story to tell. Mine says we shouldn’t want to change ourselves when a girl comes along and makes us feel like shit. But when a girl makes you feel good just for being yourself, then you should take notice because she might just mean it. And if she’s genuine, she’s not the kind you chase with your eyes full of moon. You don’t need to. She just turns up one day, and it’s like you knew her in a past life or something, and you’re simply picking up again from where you left off last time around.

As for Lorraine, I never saw her again. When her mother passed, she took over the shop. For years then, she wore her mother’s blue house-coat, and an odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not. But I reckon some things we’re more at the mercy of than are worth the knowing, and the best we can hope for is we’ll grow out of them before they do us harm. I was afraid that was to be the story of her life, from the queen of cool to a corner shop and hair curlers. But then she sold up some time around the millennium, shipped out to Ibiza for all that party culture, and with a guy half her age in tow. She would have been in her forties then, good-looking. I’d like to think by then she knew the shape of what “cool” was, exactly.

And I like to think she found it.

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Now the thing with Chloe is I’d known her for years, but without realizing I knew her. She was one of the secretaries at the factory, a chatty girl, and ever so friendly. She’d talk to me, soak me dry actually, but she was like that with everyone, and I never thought anything about it. Neither, I’m sure, did she. I’d read novels in the lunch hours – quaint, I know, but this was before the invention of smartphones. She’d ask me what I was reading, ask to borrow the book when I was done with it, then she’d read it and talk to me about the story, and the characters like they were people we both knew. What did I think when he said this and when she said that?. I swear, Chloe found out more about me than I knew about myself during those chats, and all without either of us knowing she was doing it.

I was driving out one lunchtime to buy a wedding gift for a colleague’s upcoming nuptials. She came tapping on the glass saying she’d ride with me. She’d pick out a suitable card, she said, and was I going to the reception? And did I want to sit on the same table as her and her mates?

“Aw, go on, Mike. We’ll look after you.”

We got stuck in traffic on the way back, sneaked in late. Everyone saw of course, assumed we’d been up to something, and took no end of pleasure in teasing us about it. Is that what planted the seed in us? I don’t know. She was just easy to be around, and I swear neither of us thought about it until then, but something had changed. Whenever she came over to talk now, there seemed to be a heat in her, and I could feel it soaking through my bones.

She was renting a flat, but it was stretching her salary. She’d invited a mate to share with her, but it had fallen through. There was something both casual and pointed in the way she told me this, definitely a hint in it, I thought. I wondered how we’d moved on to the point of nearly moving in together, when you couldn’t even say we were going out. I’m not saying she was suggesting we’d be sharing like that, you know, like lovers. We’d be housemates, or something, that’s all. But the gods were also telling me it was a subterfuge, and deep down we both knew it. There was only one place we were heading, and what did that feel like? Well, it felt like pulling on a familiar glove. It fit just right, and I didn’t need to think about it. That’s not to say it wasn’t exciting too.

Still, not being the greatest reader of womankind, I thought I’d better ask if she fancied lunch, one weekend. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken in the vibes I was getting. I also wanted her to know what kind of guy I was outside of work. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most exciting type, while Chloe was sparkly and fun. She could have had any guy she wanted.

“Lunch, Mike? Okay. Thought you’d never ask.”

So this was a Friday night, the night before we were due to meet at the coffee shop in town, and I’m thinking about it on the way home, wondering how I’d eventually tell my mother when the pace of things picked up, as I sensed they would. Moving in with a girl was still a racy thing back then, and my mother, born to the Edwardian generation, was bound to have some reservations. I found her fussing with the fire, and out of firelighters. So I said I’d nip to the shop for some. And there behind the counter, like I’d tried to game it so many times before, and failed,… was Lorraine.

She’d bloomed out in a way, travelled, seen things, done things I could not imagine – or so I imagined. And here I was, never left home, asking for a box of stupid firelighters, in an age when everyone else had moved on to gas. I felt like a loser, or at any rate seriously “un-cool”. Nothing new there then. And if I’d paused for a moment I would have realized that’s how Lorraine always made me feel.

“Hello, Mike.”

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you know, been away for a bit.”

Yes, I’d heard all the rumours by now. She’d dropped out of University, worked in a store down south for a while, then got mixed up with a guy in London. He’d turned out to be a bit of a stoner, and she was well shot of him. Now she was back home. All of that sounds a bit grungy, laid out plain like that, but remember, the god of women looking after her, painting that somewhat dubious history in more of an adventurous light, while making everything I’d done seem ever so dull and conventional.

“I don’t suppose,” she said,…

“Hmm?”

“You fancy going into town tonight? Watch a movie, have a drink, catch up a bit. You know? All those mornings we used to walk to the bus stop together. Remember? Seems so long ago now.”

She’d never said more than a couple of words to me before, and only then with her lids turned down and her head pointing the other way. Now she was full on, eyes wide.

What? She was asking me out? Were the gods having a laugh?

Well what would you have done? Maybe you’d have been right, too. Me? I said okay.

To be continued,…

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Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

It was in the turn of her head as she got down from the bus, the way she blew the hair from her eyes, and pretended not to see me. They might have called it coquettish, back in the old days. But then those were the old days, forty years ago, when everyone still rode busses into town. We were both eighteen, and her name was Lorraine.

Her mother ran the corner shop. I’d make up excuses to go there to buy bits and bobs, on the off chance it would be Lorraine who served. But it was usually her mother – always a blue nylon housecoat, and this odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not.

“Here again, Mike,” she’d say. “What can we get you this time?”

I was not the only young man drawn to the shop, and for the same reasons. Lorraine was a good looking girl, had something of the unobtainable about her, something they used to call “cool”. Maybe that’s what amused her mother – her daughter, the queen of cool, and all these dreamy guys with not a hope in hell.

Some mornings Lorraine and I would be walking out for the bus at the same time. I’d manage a shy hello, and slip into step with her, but she spoke little, and those five minutes to the stop were an agony. Then we’d get there, and she’d slip into lively chatter with her girlfriends. Seeing that transformation, I mean from near-mute to sparkling, I’d die a little, while at the same time falling all the more deeply in love.

The bus would drop her off outside the sixth-form college. She was doing A levels. Then it would be University, I supposed, and on to the big wide world, or at any rate somewhere beyond the old town. Me? I rode the bus to the polytechnic. I was doing a day-release thing for my engineering studies. I had a car by then, but so long as Lorraine rode the bus, I’d ride it too. There was an urgency, you see? If I didn’t impress her soon, she’d most likely be off somewhere far away. Then I’d never see her again and my life, as I knew it, would be over.

I can’t say what kept me going. It was more hope than expectation, but also the belief in something supernatural. That I could feel something so profound, it was impossible to imagine she’d be unaware of it. More than that, it seemed impossible she could not return it, otherwise, what was I feeling, and why? What strange god was playing with us, lighting me up, and making her so cold? And had there not been that look? She’d seen and, in that instant, read my heart. I know she had! I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

I only went to the polytechnic once a week. The rest of the time I was doing an apprenticeship at a factory, miles away. I’d take the car those mornings, and as I drove I’d imagine her in the passenger seat. We’d talk then. She was sweet and understanding, easy to be with. Then, on the next poly morning, I’d set out thinking this might be the day, that I’d ask her out, and we’d ride together somewhere for real. We’d watch a movie, maybe a drink afterwards. All I had to do was ask the question. But then I’d find she’d not caught the bus that day, like some obstructive god was playing with us. Other mornings, when I’d timed it right, she’d seem even more frosty than usual, and I feared her scorn.

Lorraine’s awkwardness, her evasiveness, drove me mad, but it was not lust I felt. She was an attractive girl, but the thought of sex scared the life out of me. I only wanted her to want to be with me. I wanted to hear her say it: “I want to be with you , Mike.”

It never happened.

Rumour reached me by way of my mother how “that girl from the shop” had gone off to Aberystwyth, to the university. I would never see her again. It was over, or rather, it had never begun, and I had to face the fact she’d never thought of me at all, and that look,… well, she’d jut been playing with me.

For months, I was sunk in the most profound depression. Indeed, a part of me has never forgotten that sense of loss. I mean, why had the gods built me up to such a fever-pitch of expectation over so futile a cause, then let me down? If there was a god of love, I thought, he/she/it took care of the women-folk, while the men could go to hell, for that’s pretty much where I was when Lorraine went away.

Anyway, I carried on, finished the apprenticeship, signed up for more studies, found myself a position in a well paid, technical department of clever, decent men who inspired me. It was a slow, steady business, climbing that ladder. Maybe I was still doing it for her, building myself up to something that might impress her, make her change her mind and just look at me, dammit – I mean always supposing she ever showed up again. Or maybe it was bloody mindedness, to say nothing of an abundance of energy I needed to channel, after so long wasting it stoking the useless flame of love.

From time to time I’d hear snippets of news from my mother, who’d got it gossiping to others who’d got it from Lorraine’s mother in the shop. I told myself I didn’t care, that I felt nothing for her now. Except, I could always tell from my mother’s tone she’d never cared much for Lorraine. She thought her shallow, a bit of a flirt, getting by on her looks, that sort of thing – just like her mother, she’d say. That would hurt, and I’d be protective of her. Lorraine was misunderstood, that’s all. She was the queen of cool, she was everything a romantic man aspired to in a woman. Then we heard rumours of dubious boyfriends, of parties, drugs. But that was just the usual student silliness, surely,…

I was on the road a lot, travelling out to other companies. Most of the time I was alone, long weeks away, staying in big hotels, something my parents had never had the money for. It was an education for a working class lad, I mean beyond the studies. There was also learning the middle class ropes of expenses, hire cars, and first class railway tickets. Then came the business trips abroad. I learned French, German, got to know a little of Paris and Berlin.

It should all have helped me to forget – and in the most part it did. I felt an optimism about life, a sense of going places. But there’s something about a love gone wrong that lingers. You think you’re fine, then a thought pops into your head, and you’re floundering in a tide of sweet melancholy again. They say you never forget your last love until you love again. There’s something true in that. And if ever a fresh breeze could blow away the sticky cobwebs of Lorraine, her name was Chloe,…

To be continued – all episodes by Friday!

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It’s nineteen eighty five, October, a Tuesday evening, and I’m in the Library of the Bolton Institute of Technology, as was. It’s been a long day; ten hours of lectures so far, and another two to go. It’s pitch black outside and raining, and I’m reading something up on the mathematics pertaining to electrochemical erosion. My diary tells me this much. It also tells me that across from me there’s a bunch of girl students in their teens, and at twenty four, I’m already feeling like an old man.

It’s hard to say what attracts a man to a woman other than, like I’ve said elsewhere it’s the reflection of something as yet unknown within himself, though I understand this makes little sense when you play it back. But there’s this one girl in particular and I don’t know why she stands out but she does. She has long, dark hair, wears a denim jump suit with a small enamel teddy bear in her lapel. She speaks to her friends with a soft, Scottish accent, never looks my way, never notices me at all.

Twenty years later she becomes a character in a short story I’ve hawked about pointlessly before sticking it up on Feedbooks – The Man Who Could Not Forget. And, like the man who could not forget, and with a little help from my diary, I have not forgotten her, but it’s not her I want to talk about tonight.

There’s this other girl in the library that night, a psychology student. She’s gorgeous, as all girls seemed to be back then, or maybe, like sunny days, I only remember the pretty ones. I’m up at the book shelves now seeking out another reference, and she comes up to me with a piece of card.

“I want you look at this,” she says. “It’s a picture of two people arguing.”

Thus primed, she flashes this card at me. It shows a cartoon of a black man and a white man. Their arms are out, as if gesticulating. Right. So, these guys are arguing.

She covers the card and asks me: “Which one had the knife?”

There’s something of a challenge in her tone, like she already knows the answer I’m going to give.

I’m confused for a moment, and want to see the picture again, because for the life of me I don’t remember either of the guys having a knife, but I understand this will defeat the point of the exercise. Yet, if there’s no knife, she’s forcing an answer to a false choice. Why would she be doing that? There must have been a knife. I must have missed it. By the way, did I tell you I’m basically this young white guy, and she’s this beautiful Asian girl, with long shiny hair and glittery eyes?

Then it clicks. There was no knife, and yes, she is forcing a false choice on me. I can read her mind, and I’m a bit upset by it. I’m supposed to say it was the black guy who had the knife, because I’m a white guy, and all white guys are supposed to have these prejudices about black guys, or any other guys not the same colour as myself, so even if I’m not sure there was a knife, if I’m forced to admit there was, because she’s saying there was, then I reveal my racism by saying it’s the black guy who had it.

At the end of her survey she expects to count up all the ticks and show a graph that most white guys like me are basically racist. But even in Bolton, in 1985, if racism was an issue, I was unaware of it, but then I had my head in things like Electrochemical Erosion, so maybe it was. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should reverse it, I’m thinking, say it was the white guy who had the knife. Then maybe the girl will think I’m not a racist and might be more inclined to like me, because the goddess is strong in this one and I really want her to like me. But this is too deep, and a pointless application of reverse psychology anyway, one than can only screw up her experiment. The inside of my head is strange sometimes. People think they are sealed up, secret from others, when by the slightest thing they render themselves nakedly transparent.

“I didn’t see a knife. Sorry.”

Her expression gives nothing away. She does not thank me for my participation. I think she’s beautiful and I wish we could talk some more. I manage a smile. It is not returned. I think the experiment was flawed anyway – a definite experimenter effect. I do not ask her if she fancies a coffee sometime. And not because it would be a crass and desperate thing to do in that situation, nor yet because she’s the daughter of another culture and I’m a white guy, because really I’m too naive to take such things into consideration. It’s more that she’s beautiful, and I’m afraid she will reject me.

There was a time when I saw the goddess in all women. She has many aspects, sometimes alluring, sometimes scornful, sometimes challenging. She is the thing that animates a man, but projecting her into the material world renders him vulnerable to the fallacy that women are something other than human. It’s a fallacy that fades with age and experience. A fallacy also that in trying to understand the goddess within ourselves, a man should expect women to know anything about it at all, like expecting the canvas to understand the painting. More likely she will look at him blank, or suggest he goes to see the doctor.

I muddled through my final exams that coming summer – mostly an average student on that course, having reached the limit of my mathematical and technical ability by then. But over the years I’ve found little use for mathematics anyway, that intuition is a surer guide when it comes to the oftimes shady byways of the daemon haunted world I live in now. I rest assured neither aspect of the goddess in the library that night remembers me, and it’s puzzling I should remember them, when there are other human beings I have more reason to remember but do not.

I’m not sure what else I’m trying to say here, except I swear I did not see a knife.

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The morning draws on and the sky becomes a deeper grey, while the air drifting down the valley grows cooler and not so humid. A change is coming. The sycamore leaves in the deep of the wood begin to show their backs, a paler green lending contrast to the shadow, and I smell centuries of life rising, centuries of decay and renewal. There will be rain.

I descend the bank to a narrow ledge by the river, along which there runs a sketchy path. I follow it downstream, nosing through low branches to a hidden bend, half remembered, and to a broad shelf where there lies a ring of rounded river-washed stones, and the remains of a recent fire. It’s hard to believe it’s still here. I built this ring as a boy, here on this dry bank – nothing combustible close by, nothing to risk a fire getting out of hand in the dry season.

I’ve thought of this place over the years. In the meantime, some other soul has adopted it, a sympathetic soul too; there is no litter, no orange peel, or chocolate wrappers to disturb the harmony of the wood – just the scent of those centuries, and the ever present rippling of the peaty Rye.

I gather dry grasses and twigs, then set them in the ashes contained by the ring, and I light them, then add more fuel to the flames and while the fire grows, I take out a screwdriver and dismantle the gun. The stock comes off easily and I lay it across the fire. It steams for a while, as if in disbelief, then darkens suddenly and begins to burn. Before removing the barrel, I cock the spring to make sure time will ruin it. Then I take off the telescope and unscrew the focusing lens to expose the delicate graticule and its adjustment.

The river runs slower here, bulging out to a hundred feet or more, and slowing to a ponderous glide as it takes the bend, so that towards the far and inaccessible bank there is an almost stagnant pool bottomed by deep silt. I toss the telescope into the middle of it, then the mechanism of the spring and cylinder. The barrel I lay between two rocks and strike it with a hefty stone, bending it. Then it follows the rest of the gun into the silty pool,… and is gone.

I remember the gun as an accurate weapon. More than that, the gun represents for me the lore of the wood. It belongs to a time beyond the ken of today’s children. But the days of guns in Durleston Wood are over, and it’s better it should meet its end here by my own hand, than be sold on, perhaps to fall into the hands of a misanthropic teenager, to become corrupted as a breaker of windows and a killer of cats.

Guns mean something else entirely to people these days.

It’s partly this sentiment that has brought me back to the wood, but there’s something else, something in the ritual I do not immediately understand. It is a sacrifice of course, an offering. It is a letting go, the sending of a ripple into the past, so the past might offer something back to me, now.

It’s then, glancing up from the flames, I realize I am being watched. It’s a woman, dark skinned, gaunt, crouching perfectly still among the sleepy balsam on the opposite bank. I had thought myself alone. Suddenly though I’m looking across the silty waters of the Rye into a pair of eyes, watching me.

How long has she been there? What must she be thinking?

I call over : “Hello?”

But she takes fright and is gone, snatched back into the shadow of the wood. And for a moment, above the thickly lapping sound of the river, there comes the sound of a chain being dragged.

From In Durleston Wood.

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girl with green eyes

I’ve been walking from supermarket to supermarket all day again, chasing rumours. It’s the last thing any of us were expecting, this run on toilet paper. I always imagined the end of the world would be aliens or crashing meteorites. But this? Well now I’m down to my last half-roll, my feet are killing me and if I don’t score this time I’m going to be needing new shoes as well.

Of course by the time I reach the next place the shelves are empty, except for a single pack of twenty-four. It sits there, fat and fluffy, taunting me. They’re asking thirty quid for it, but I won’t see that kind of money until payday, unless the bastards dock me again, in which case I won’t. And I don’t need twenty-four – four’s plenty for now. Anyway, I’d likely get mugged for them on the way home, a big pack like that. So I’m standing here, weary from the search, and this girl comes up looking like she’s after the same thing.

She’s dressed cheap, but she’s pretty, like a princess in rags. I’m dressed cheap too, but not worth a second glance. When she sees the twenty-four pack she lets out a sigh, no doubt thinking the same as me. Then she weighs me up, wonders if I’m going to make a grab for it. But I shrug, step back a little.

“Too steep for me,” I tell her. I’m smiling my best ‘I’m harmless’ smile, but that doesn’t always cut it with girls. Man, she’s pretty. Did I tell you that? Looks sad though.

So then I say, “we could always,…”

“What?”

Hear that? There’s a sharpness there, like she’s at the end of her tether. I suppose we’re all a bit that way now, what with one damned thing after the other. But she’s short of more than toilet roll, looks pinched and hungry, like she’s not eaten for days. Sure, I’m skint, but she’s worse off.

“I was thinking we could go halves.”

She shakes her head. “That’s still fifteen quid on bog roll, innit.”

I know what she means. Fifteen quid. Take your choice: try to feed yourself all week, or wipe your bum.

So I say, “Well, we could always wait a bit. See if anyone else turns up. Split it with them too. That way we get the price down a bit more.”

“Worth a try, ” she says, then sits on the floor, lithe as a dancer, shrugs. “Nothing better to do anyway.”

So I join her on the floor, drop the goofy smiles. Sure, some girls prefer a guy to come across like a sour git, and maybe that’s worth a try as a last resort, but it doesn’t exactly come easy for me.

Then the security guy comes along and wants to know what the problem is. She’s a feisty one, tells him to f&@k off and leave us alone. But he’s only doing his job and I can see there’s no real malice in him, so I apologize and explain our plan. He weighs us up and decides we mean no harm, tells us we’ve got twenty minutes, then we’re out.

Her name’s Ella, and she’s a student. I was a student too, once upon a time. Now I’m a zero-hours slave with no prospects and fifty grands worth of uni-debt I’ll never pay back. And right now I’m sitting here looking to organize a union all so’s we can afford the dignity of some bog-roll. Hey! Small beginnings, right?

Ten minutes though and nothing, but then this guy comes along, well-dressed, looks like a high roller. I’m worried he’s the type who can splash thirty quid on the twenty-four pack – rip-off or not – and not think about it.

“You guarding those or what?” he says.

Hear that? Assertive type. Boss class.

So I explain the situation. He thinks on it for a bit, then grabs the pack and walks off with it. Look at me. I’m dressed like shit. Who’s going to listen to me? So what am I supposed to do? Ella calls him an effing bastard. I’m thinking the same thing, but say nothing. Then he comes back, looks contrite, says he’s sorry. So I reckon I’ve misjudged him; he’s a middle class salary man, that’s all. It makes him a sitting down slave rather than a standing up one, like me, and he’s desperate for bog roll like the rest of us. Okay, so I’m a soft touch.

“I’ll split it with you,” he says. “Eight each. Eight’s plenty for anyone.”

I explain to him that while that’s a good idea, and very decent of him, a tenner’s still too much for the likes of me and Ella.

Then the security guard comes over again, tells Ella to mind her language, checks his watch, tells us we’ve got five minutes. I’m worried the high roller will divvy up the thirty quid now and leave us to it. After all, the middle classes have only so much patience for the precariat, and who can blame them? Man’s got to wipe his arse, hasn’t he?

“Four will do me,” I tell him. “You pay the thirty quid, like you were going to. We’ll give you a fiver each. Then Ella and me get four rolls apiece.”

He has to think about this. Basic maths isn’t his strong point, and he’s looking for the trap. Ella’s not happy either.

“I’m not paying a fiver for four bog rolls,” she says.

“But it’s our best shot, Ella, and I’m fed up chasing this stuff around.”

The guy’s worked it out now, and he’s up for it, and Ella’s persuaded it’s this or nothing too. So we follow him through the tills under the beady eye of the security guard. He pays, and we divvy up our fivers to him. Then we split the pack on the carpark, and he lifts the lid of his Beamer to stash his take.

I’m wanting him to go now, so I can get a minute with Ella on her own – pop the question, like. I’m thinking I can afford to buy her a burger or something, but she’s looking at him with big eyes and doesn’t seem to notice me any more. Then he invites her for a coffee as if I’m invisible to him as well. Sure, that happens a lot.

Quick as you like she’s in his car, and they’re driving away. Okay, I don’t blame her. She’s got something to give a guy that I’ve not, and a girl’s got to live the best way she sees fit. Sure, a decade of austerity and skid row will do that to you, so who am I to judge? I only hope she’s the sense to get what she wants from him before she lets him have what he wants from her.

So in the end I didn’t get the girl, which isn’t much of a story I guess and no surprises there. But I plucked my share of bog roll from a system that seems ever more intent on denying me my dignity. I count that as a plus, and small things are important now. All it took was a little grass-roots organization, and sure as hell no one else is going to do it for us. So remember that. It might come in handy later on when things get really ugly, and we’re fighting over tins of beans.

[Thanks for reading – and I promise, hand on heart: no more riffs on the subject of toilet paper]

Graeme out.

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the sea view cafe - smallMy latest, possibly my last novel, is finished and up on Wattpad now for free. It’ll shortly go up on Smashwords from whom I’ll blag the free ISBN, then put it up on Free Ebooks who seem to be doing a good job of shifting downloads at the moment. And there we are. Finished! About two and a half years – the Sea View Cafe years. The small blue car years, the Scarborough years.

It’s a cliche I know but as ever I’m genuinely grateful to anyone who’s read me or commented on my stuff. Even had it been conventionally published, the Sea View would have made relatively nothing, financially, yet already it’s rewarded me tenfold with those readers who’ve picked it up on Wattpad and commented as I’ve posted chapters piecemeal.

It’s a novel written against shifting times, a story swept up in another iteration of the myth of Britannia’s idiocy and decline and, by association the  decline of the west. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s been an all pervasive narrative for as long as I can remember, and probably for centuries. Yet more than any other, the Sea View Cafe is a story that found itself distorted almost daily in the writing by yet one more headline in  rejection of the progressive ideals of strength in the collective of nations and a fall into a petty nationalism, into racism and bigotry.

Yes, these have been the pre-Brexit years. Years when we have wrapped ourselves snug in the native flag, covering all but our faces which are by turns ugly, pompous and hate filled – ejecting spittle with every sentence uttered. Our collective soul stunted by the recurrence of all manner of shadow complexes.

Some of the most brilliant minds working in Britain are of non-white, non Christian, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Anglo Saxon origin. We are a multi-cultural society, product of our history – not all of it good – but I’d dared to hope we were on the cusp of a rapprochement with our chequered past. Such diversity might have informed our spiritual nature, our secular philosophy – things to be celebrated, built upon, for there can be no surer path to greatness, than by the hybridisation of faith and ideas. And what did we do? We chose the path of the tabloid, of the angry old white crustacean.

Or was it more a case of two fingers to a plutocratic establishment that had done nothing to solve the problems of a lost decade, and looked willing to sacrifice a whole generation of non-privileged youth upon a bonfire of perpetual austerity?

The reasons are complex, but tending in the same direction and manifesting in abject poverty for millions.

And what of women? That much maligned species, scorned, dismissed, defiled by the repugnant male ego. This is strange to me, for I have only the experience of women in my own circle to go on, and they are of strong character, organising, nurturing, building, and gifting love.

So, in the Sea View, we meet strong female leads, not out of any gender political motives – I wouldn’t dare go there – but more simply because that is my experience of women. They are my my aunts, my sisters, my mothers, my grandmothers. Helena Aynslea, Hermione Watts, Carina and Nina and Anica. These are tough women, while remaining entirely feminine, and I hope I’ve done them justice. They carry the Sea View, as they have carried my entire life.

And so what if two of them take a fancy to the same guy, and each other? Let them both have him, and themselves  – all at the same time and be damned – because I hope this is more than a romance, more than a trite polyamory fantasy on my part.

Thus we move beyond the conventional narrative, explode the hell out of the world in order to find ourselves anew. We have to hard-wire it into the collective that it’s okay to be different. Gay, coloured, bisexual, Muslim, Christian, Jew. Female. Intellectual. Shy. Red-haired. In short, diverse. And what we have to code out is the idea we can in any way advance ourselves at the cost of others, that anything which increases ourselves at the cost of diminishing someone else is not only wrong, it is also, ultimately, self-destructive. The young seem to get this and it’s in them I dare to hope.

These are strange times. They haunt me, as they haunt the Sea View. Either they are the end of times, or they’re the rallying call to radicals and progressives everywhere to seriously challenge the archaic and archetypal evils that seem to have snuck in under the radar.

The answer? It’s with all of us.

Awaken.

Oh, I almost forgot, do read the Sea View Cafe if you can bear it! Unedited, unprofessional, and riddled with sneaky typos. It won’t change your life, but it might cheer you up in the mean time! I know I’ve had a lot of pleasure from writing it.

 

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