Just one of 699 – Paul Hugh Derek

A cousin living in Pembrokeshire has been searching online for an obituary. No obituary is there. There may not have been one written. The death was on Tuesday 14th April in Edinburgh, one of the 699 total recorded (although we know figures, and reporting of statistics, vary) in Scotland up to 15th April.

The deceased was a widower, having married, in his middle years, a woman from the Isle of Mull. He left no children. He was half-Welsh, a quarter English and a quarter Indian. He was a former translator who worked freelance from 1979, translating from French, Spanish and Italian into English.

According to a website for the translator community – there are communities on the web for everything you could possibly imagine – Paul, the deceased, specialised in the legal, financial and mechanical engineering sectors, with expertise in reports and patents. He worked for companies and agencies including Renault, Goldman Sachs and the EEC.

He was my first cousin, another cousin, and he died of Covid-19.

I hadn’t seen him for decades. The retired and retiring professional man I’m reading about is not the 19 year old who blew into and through our lives, when he had been sent on a ship from the antipodes by his exhausted mother. She had hoped my father would be able to connect with Paul, talk sense to him and ‘sort him out’. Our little nuclear family admitted defeat after a year or two of trouble. According to snatches of rumour and anecdote I heard across my early years, Paul remained restless, rootless and unsettled for years until he found his vocation, his life partner, religion (again) and somewhere which felt like home.

We were in touch occasionally. The last time with any depth or meaning was a few years ago, when he flew to Western Australia to donate a kidney to his younger sister. This was not the act of the feckless chancer I recall from childhood. Paul outlived his sister.

He was my first cousin, a man of talents and contradictions,  and he died of Covid-19.

 

Bravery reveals itself variously

My dreams have been peopled with sideshow freaks, circus acts, feats of wild bravery, shrieks and gasps, but right now, the big top has gone and it’s a grey Saturday morning. There are new sounds – distant, homogenised creature noises, and small, purposeful rustlings beside me.

Something is being constructed out of an A4 sheet of paper. Is it a plane, boat, bird – duck or swan? Is it origami practice or a rehearsal for the world napkin-folding championships, (to be held, of course, online)? I can’t guess. Turns out it’s a template for a little piece of lead needed to complete a window repair. This morning’s project, up on scaffolding.

Sweet peas are potted on. The companionless spaniel is cajoled to walk the fields just with us, his brother gone. And another bold act unfolds, live on my phone, as a cousin’s wife in the West Country shaves her head – a glorious red bob – raising money for the NHS. Heroism everywhere.

16th April – asses, loss and lemons

Yesterday marked two weeks since we lost Dougal. There is still a very large Spaniel-shaped hole in our lives but, fortunately, his brother and litter-mate seems less bewildered now.

Yesterday was also our anniversary, an oddly low-key day although, since low-key is the new normal, it shouldn’t have been surprising. The twin highlights were donkey-rustling and dessert. Donkeys are cunning. Donkeys are clever. They lull you into a false sense of confidence when you occasionally relax security measures. On one such occasion, yesterday, they took themselves off to explore greener pastures and to evade capture for the day.

Now what you don’t want is an over-indulged donkey grazing unchecked on lush new growth. You don’t want a donkey (or two) having stomach-ache, or colic, or laminitis. You also don’t want a donkey (or two) getting out into the lane and meeting traffic. At this time of lockdown however, there is almost no traffic to worry about and the two escapees seem unscathed by their adventures. They were relatively easy to catch after hours of gorging, and happy to be led home late afternoon, with no dawdling or hedgerow foraging en route.

I mentioned pudding. Having discovered a really simple vegan recipe for lemon posset back in January, the husband has made it for me many times since. Last night’s pudding surpassed superlatives. We over-indulged too!

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister
is a splendid specimen of woman, lady
of a certain age, not old enough
to be at risk, not at leisure and so,
alas, furloughed.

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister
is fine in style and substance, efficient,
proficient in many areas. No shirker. She is
a grandmother, and she keeps a flat in Hove
with a view
of the promenade.

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister,
deskbound for decades, now footloose, fancy-free
but for how long? She has signed an official piece
of paper. Latter-day landgirl, she must
make ready, hold steady, join willing ranks
who’ll plug the labour gaps
this summer.

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister
will be a classy fruitpicker, in eyeliner,
bright blue, in cropped white linen slacks, a panama hat,
red painted toenails, practical walking sandals.
Decrees say she is needed; she must dirty her hands
for this country’s good.

For my daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister
must go down to the fields, a trug just hung
carelessly at her elbow. No shirker,
she’s a wonderful worker. She will toil
and labour and save the day
this year’s harvest.

My daughter’s mother-in-law’s sister.

No Visitors

This Easter no cars pulled up filled with hot, tired children and pooches, with couples who’d had words about directions, with tales of nose-to-tail M4 jams. This Easter there were no visitors to greet, meet, feed, water, talk to, say farewell to.

There were no visitors.

This Easter no one came to ask for an extra key, more logs, or kindling, matches or firelighters. This Easter no one needed directions, or a restaurant booking, or a taxi. There were no visitors.

This Easter there were no recommendations sought for pubs, beaches, places to walk. This Easter no one asked for the hot tub, or an extra blanket, or BBQ coals or a plaster. There were no visitors.

This Easter the children still hunted for clues, but by themselves. This Easter the only cooking smells were our cooking smells. This Easter the only noise from children was from our children.

This Easter there was still chocolate and over-indulgence; the children feasted stickily. This Easter we were favoured with fine weather and good health.

This Easter there were no visitors.

Cheating, scandal and milking the media

We’ve just been watching ‘Quiz’, a drama based on true events – the supposed cheating , mostly in the form of strategically placed coughs, which enabled someone, a Major Ingram, to win a million pounds in a TV quiz show Over three nights the story unfolded of the build-up to the contest appearance of Major Ingram, his win and the subsequent investigation, persecution, trial and conviction of the contestant, his wife and a co-conspirator, ( a man with a tickly throat irritation).

This furore dominated the papers and TV – headlines, gossip and editorial – late in 2001 and beyond. The flames of public interest were fanned further by an ITV documentary about the scandal.

What struck me, and the husband, yesterday evening was that this story wasn’t even glimpsed on our radar at the time.  In September 2001 we were staying at the airport in Atlanta when the Twin Towers were hit. There was a brief lockdown and our return to the UK was delayed. In the following weeks and months we were totally focussed on trying to deal with the dramatic downturn in the fortunes of our little airline-related business.

Did they do it, and does it matter were questions we didn’t consider, until last night

I won’t underline any parallels but here is a poem I wrote called “12th September”.

 

On grooming…

I’m thinking I’ll be scruffier when this is over. Due to Covid-19, perhaps, the hairdressing salon in the village, (let’s call it ‘Scissors’), is closed. For ever. The cutting is not the issue. My daughter-in-law has said she’ll give me a trim, sort out my fringe before it becomes a health and safety issue – I will trade with her so no problem there. But am I going grey? For ever. Will I let myself? Or will I grasp an alternative out of the bag, a hair dye bunny out of the hat? I’d have to order it online and I’d need an accomplice.

Will I embrace purple, or is that too obvious?

I’m thinking I’ll be scruffier when this is over. There’s a suggestion, more than a suggestion of can’t- be-arsed right now. Why file my nails or pluck my brows? Who’s there to see my efforts? Why bother? I shaved my legs for the first time in weeks and thought – what’s the point? We’re banned from beaches and pools are closed. Short, summery skirts are not practical attire for breezy, brambly smallholdings. I’ll leave my lilywhite limbs unexposed. Thighs can be rediscovered another day. Or not.

I’m thinking I’ll be scruffier, contentedly scruffier, when this is over.

Faradiddle – what a firkin!

Yesterday, mid-afternoon, the incident of note was a minor explosion. It must have been about four p.m., and I didn’t actually hear it. The conservatory where I was sitting, writing lists, is across the other side of the farmyard from our little rustic bar. More of a phut than a bang then.

‘Y Bar Bach’ is of course not currently graced by punters, but the door to the bar also leads to our laundry area, so when I unlocked to take a pile of washing out of one of the two machines, I was met by an unmistakable smell – earthy and sweet. The floor was sticky, in parts treacly; the plug was absent and there was a slight dusting of scum on the top of the last plastic firkin of local beer delivered before lockdown. I wiped it, revealing the label – ‘Amber Ale, 4.0%, duty paid on 39.35 litres.’

My immediate thought was that it was gone, wasted, useless, yet another casualty of the current chaos. And then I wondered if 39 or so litres  could be poured onto the compost heap, or could I hive a little off first for some sort of smelly hair treatment? But two of the menfolk appeared and a pint glass was found to test it. ‘Absolutely fine’ said my son-in-law, who knows a thing or two about beer. ‘But it won’t keep. It’ll be spoilt within twenty-four hours.’ What a shame.

I needn’t have concerned myself. The firkin was propped on its side on the wall by the farm gate, next to a charity pot and a packet of disinfectant wipes. One-by-one the husband, son and son-in-law, plus a few locals from the hamlet, (meticulously observing hygiene and social distancing rules), turned up with bottles, jugs, flagons and buckets. Within forty-five minutes, it was emptied.

Not everything that happens in lockdown is grim. There are occasional serendipitous plusses.

Born to Race

Technically, this was before lockdown but Covid-19 was the reason this year’s Cheltenham Festival almost didn’t go ahead. I was asked to write a poem for ITV for the start of the Cheltenham Gold Cup race in 2020. The poem which was broadcast on March 13th was a lot shorter than my original but…

Like a duck to water

You almost didn’t make it, just out of view
of the humans who sat, chatting, downing
cups of tea, amused by a clowning puddle of pups,
tussling and tumbling on new Spring grass.
You scrambled up a ramshackle pile of bricks,
stacked against a plastic butt, and somehow must
have toppled in.

Alarmed by sounds of splashing, we found you
doggie-paddling in blissful unschooled circles, ears
dipping, skimming then skirting the murky surface.
You learned fast – this first watery mishap
transformed into a story, your story –
the discovery of the aqueous element
you made your own.

Adventures in, on, across, through water
populate our memories of you. Your chest built
for swimming, ears spread wide, steady, bubbly breathing:
your pelt liquified. Sometimes we’d panic, light failing,
scanning the horizon or bank, and no dog visible.
Would you get washed away, tire and drown
or simply carry on,

forget to turn, your easy strokes pulling you
out into the Irish Sea,
the sunset,
West?