A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

Grinding Doors

First let me say mine is a small, humble dwelling, though of infinite variety.  If I further divulge that one source of variety is the incidence of different door designs I may provide a clue concerning my week’s activities, and possibly be drawn into admitting to one of the challenges of advancing age.

Doors various – below stairs (that’s the ground floor, of course, but I like to imagine I have servants and that’s where they live) the internal doors are all of glass panels, the frames of which, though naturally finished, fail to meet any standard of uniformity, although I have endeavoured to standardise the handles (in brass, I fitted the last one just in time to be told that brass had become ‘so last year’).   Upstairs, and yes, I promise I will use the proper term ‘door furniture’ from now on, there are four internal doors in four patterns, none of which are glass, and none of which bears even a passing resemblance to its siblings.  Siblings???.

Gripping, so far, isn’t it?

Irreproachably, the Memsahib gave notice that conformity needed to be established, so I ordered three doors of identical design to the last one I fitted.  On Saturday, after keeping vigil before my tools through the night, I set about preparing Door One, which incidentally is the door to my ‘airy nest’.   The Vale of Despond yawned open before me, but undeterred I removed the old door, used it as a pattern, and trimmed its replacement neatly to size.  Then I cut recesses for the hinges into the new door…

Yes, I cut them on the wrong side.  I swear I studied all the possibilities for an hour before I made the first incision, turned the patient – sorry, the door – over and over in my mind, but I still got it wrong, and I still don’t know why!

It’s a spatial awareness thing, I know that; the condition of being unable to reverse images and angles in the brain – but I never used to suffer from it:  where did it come from?  Oh, and the door doesn’t fit, in spite of all my careful trimming, but that is down to latch revenge, and a separate issue.

So, in summation:  there are those who will persuade you that old age has not affected their abilities, or impaired their mental function.  Maybe they are lucky, or maybe they are delivering a brace of testicles, but I do not count myself among their number.  I can measure my deterioration in units of door.  A task I could achieve comfortably in a couple of hours not many years ago now detains me for one-and-a-half days (two if you count the afternoon I spent sitting here with an ice-pack on my head, muttering incoherently).  The thought that two more doors await me before I can claim to have performed my mission fills me with dread.  I may need counselling.

 

 

 

 

Into the Sunset

As months go, September went.  And October came – momentously.  Two things, two life-altering things, have happened in October.

Firstly, and quite devastatingly, I finally lost sight of my feet.  Aged BloggerLet me explain this.  When you become older in a comfortably furnished sort of way as have I, you can no longer actually reach your feet, so observing their presence becomes important.  You need to know they are still there, for a start, and knowing, be able to place them accurately.  You don’t want to be forced into reactive mode, as for example, in falling down stairs, reflecting whilst flying towards an inevitably bumpy landing that you must have missed the tread.

The bathroom scales surrendered long since: instead of recording my weight they offer a short letter of resignation, yet I still use them as a matter of ceremony, and after many reassuring years throughout which, by perching on them and leaning my head forward, I could always see my toes peeking cheekily out at me from beyond the hill, last week they (my toes) finally vanished.  The tip of my big toe has set behind the mountain.  And now darkness comes.

It is not weight gain that is the problem, my kind friend tells me, but rather an absence of weight loss.  With the burden of advancing years the foothills have become one with the central massif and the whole range has moved south.  It is the same principle as that by which Mount Everest gains in height by as much as a meter a year – though on a reduced, more personal scale, of course.

In practical terms there are advantages:  after a quarter of a century of constant trouser-hoisting my pants now stay up.  My waistline is moving north, to a point where it will eventually meet my neck.  This, my friend says, is nature’s way of helping by putting things in easier reach.  In future years I may look forward to using my trouser pockets as panniers for my daily batch of pills, for example; or to disguise a necessary search for an irritating bit of navel fluff.  Not that I need attach any importance to my mode of dress these days.

Not now that I have retired.

Oh yes, that was the second thing, wasn’t it?  I forgot to mention it.  I’ve retired.  No more teaching sessions, no recalcitrant teenagers or over-anxious parents cluttering the horizon.  The horizon, in fact, is conspicuously bare.

That’s it!   I have finally, definitively, given up the day job.  I am a full-time pensioner with nothing to do but write.  When I look in my diary I see acres of white space, when I look at my doctor’s expression I see acres of quiet resignation:  nothing can surprise him now.  There is no symptom I can offer which does not attract the one diagnosis.

“I’ve got this ache in my back.”zimmer

“How old are you?”

“My elbow hurts.”

“Tennis elbow.  It’s very common among men your age.”

“My finger’s falling off.”

“You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

I am getting wishes, I am even getting cards!  Happy retirement!  What does that mean?

My well-wishers deliver their sentiment with sad eyes and a sort of fond, distant expression reminiscent of mothers and friends on the quayside, waving wistful goodbyes to their nearest and dearest as they sail off towards a distant, final destination; calm seas lapping at the bow, a golden sunset, a skyline littered with icebergs.

Overnight I have transformed brutally from a sentient, perhaps, dare I say, sagacious elder counselor to an obstinate, obviously incapacitated old fart.  My default setting is now officially ‘incapable’.  I have to be ‘cared for’.   I find myself referred to in the third person:

“Is he alright?”

“Does he need a chair?”

What?!!

I am also inescapably ‘there’.   My wife is being extremely democratic.  Every time she trips over me she accepts the blame:

“I’m so sorry!”  (Look of intense concern)  “Did I hurt your foot?”

“My foot?  Oh, so that’s where I left it…”

Her eyes are filled with sympathy as she recalls the years when I bought shoes with laces and climbed hills without assistance, when she still bought underwear for me without the word ‘surgical’ on the packet.  Those two years of advantage she has over me in terms of age have become vital in her calculations to the first wheelchair and the last box.

I’m going to be buried under a tree, by the way; I am quite decided upon that, and I have told my wife exactly what I want done.  She asked if she has to wait until I am dead.