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  • Sticky INDEX of Stories, Essays, Verse and Worse

    If you haven't yet stumbled over my creative writing blog and fancy a bit-of-a-read, here's the menu.

    Updates happen if and when new material is available.  Last update 02/04/11 - Man of the Soil.

    — • —

    SHORT STORIES:
      Man of the Soil - A humorous Norfolk anecdote.
      Two Slippery Piles of Dodgit - Comedy of Coalition.
      From Insults to Injury - schooldays, don't you love'em?
      Champagne and Cauliflower - a farrago of fine fare at a craft fair.
      Doctor Will See You Now - embarrassment in the waiting-room.
      Origami Seagull - true and imagined events in a child's mind.
      Mourning Star - an unexpected night, no memory, no light.
      The Forlorn Tree - mythology of an ancient oak.
      A Muscle for Everything - stone-age wisdom on the building site.
      Full and Final Circle - a love-loop among the minnows.
      Termites' Tomorrow - strange visions of the future.
      Dark Angel of Time - time given or times lost?
      Boy, Pike and Dappled Dace - a boy alone among the fish.
      The Momentary Aberrations - of Maude and Mundo.
      The Destiny Tour - desert island destinies.
      Anacondom - sex, snakes and comic revenge.
      Bando and the Spoon - a slimming story.
      Sublime Selfconfidence - a walk with the dog.
      Speed Bees - consequence of messing with nature.
      Face in the Woods - a look at woodland imagery.
      Z.E.N.I.A. - my attempt at Asimovian SF.
      Where the Brown Wind Blows - a surreal scrapyard.
      Accidents will Happen - saga of a mountain range.

    — • —

    VERSE and WORSE:

      LimerWiki - scroll through for lots of my Limericks.
      Noshed Nasturtiums - what ate my plants?
      G-G-G-Granville - listen to this!
      Ratatouille - just add oil and season to taste.
      The Butter Bet - get cool in the larder.
      My Brain and Orac - retro-futurist brains.
      Mundesley Pier - a Village of Culture.
      Noisy Recycling - the clink of glass.
      Star Matter - verse about string theory.
      Not so Nostalgic - the early days of parenthood.
      The Willage Inn - mine's a barley rhyme.
      Windy Bin-Day - a rhyme about rubbish.
      Daddy Daddy Daddy - lament to my brain.
      Pet Hates - a bad pun made into a worse verse.
      Mini Sagas and Hiroshima - 50 word exercises.
      Novelists Dream - a verse about authorship.
      Toitleshell heroes - an apology to Lewis Carol.
      Brenda Lee - nostalgic poem about past pop.
      Phillis's Fish-Shop - introductory offering.

    — • —

    All Poppy Land Poppycock postings are Copyright
    The Mundesley Hermit ©1995 to 2007 - All Rights Reserved

    If you do copy them, please give me a proper credit
    and include a link to my blog.

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  • Man of the Soil

    In my younger days, I used to visit a lovely old Norfolk Pub at Itteringham. It was the sort of traditional tavern where there was no bar, just a big nicotine stained room with a few seats and settles and a set of steps going down to a cellar, from whence the Landlord dispensed the beer.
    In the off-season, you weren't allowed in unless your party included at least one country dog, so I was lucky to include among my friends, a well mannered border collie.
    One of the regulars there was a old boy well into his nineties who cycled ten miles each day to a full-time job in another village. He claimed never to have been further than twenty miles from the village, in all his ninety plus years. This feat got him a lot of free beer from passing trade, particularly foreigners from London and the like.
    As we got to know him, he started telling amazing tales of adventures in places like Rangoon and Haiti, the Bronx etc. etc. - so we asked, how he could make his claim of never leaving the vicinity of his home village, and he explained that he'd been drafted into the Navy for two world wars, so that travel didn't count because they'd not given him any choice.

  • Two Slippery Piles of Dodgit

    JC and the Devil are sitting on rocks at the summit of Mount Ararat. Big D has just chucked a few souls in the pot with the words "I'll see ya!" With a beardy grin, JC spreads his hand and lays the cards on the flat rock between them. "Three of a kind," says JC. "Beats me!" mutters D.

    Just then a Genii pops in, literally and with smoke accompaniment. "I got this guy," says the Genii, "Wants a wish."
    "Well," says JC, "Don't bother us with trivia. You know what to do."

    "Can't grant," says the Genii, "Outside my remit. Might cause another harm."

    "Ok," sighs JC, glancing at the Devil "We'll give you a decision."

    "Don't look at me," says D, "You won the last hand."

    "Hum!" says JC, looking back at the Genii, "State your case."

    "A man slipped on a dog-turd," says G, "and dropped my bottle. I was obliged to offer a wish."

    "Or three!" laughs the Devil.

    "One!" glares the Genii, "I was feeling mean."

    "So what was the wish?" sighs JC, "The cards are getting cold."

    "He just wanted the dog owner to suffer a similar fate," said G, "but I was afraid of the consequences. I don't want to lose my Pubic Comedy Licence."

    "Oy Vey!" says JC, "Harm smarm! Just do it."

    A few moments later, the smoke has cleared from Mount Ararat and the cards are back in play. On a distant cliff path a little old lady in a smelly fur coat steps in the latest effluvia from her equally smelly and fur-coated poodle.

    For half a second, the poodle watches in disbelief as its mistress spins off in the direction of the rocks below, then it's yanked off the path by its pretty red lead and diamanté collar.

    Back on Mount Ararat, the Genii reappears. It stutters out the story, wringing its hands and squirting pale green tears.

    "OOPs!" says JC.

    "You forgot," says Big D, "After you made the decision, it was my turn to carry it out!"

    "Ha!" grumps the Genii, heading for the nearest bottling plant, "F*ckin' coalition governments!"

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit (C)2011

  • ARCHIVE of Postings to Just-a-Minute Blog Group:



    All Copyright 2010 The Mundesley Hermit.

    Falklands Flight - 2010-10-21
    Miguel was confident on his first mission. His jet was halfway to the Malvinas when he saw the homeward bound Harrier, a sitting duck. He attacked, afterburners flaming. Suddenly the harrier was behind him. He ejected as sidewinders smashed his tail. Later in the rescue launch, he remarked, "What you do? They stop in flight, sidestep and bust you ass."

    Genesis in 60 words? - 2010-10-22
    When Time and Space spontaneously came into being, something had to take the blame. That something is what some people call God. After counting to six, God, who was tired of just observing frantically whirling objects, decided that after Creation, should come Recreation and so built the Earth as his unique playground. That was when this tragic Comedy truly began.

    Fairytale Fertilizer - 2010-10-24
    Once upon a time, among a race of chubby cheeked men there arose a prince who didn't quite have enough of it to win the kingdom. Then one day the princess Cleggia came to visit Prince "Potato-face" Dave, and between them they had just enough of it. So they married and annexed the Kingdom. "It" of course was bullshit!

    The Four Pipe Problem - 2010-10-25
    Hoselock Soames glared at his sidekick Hotson. "The Marchioness has been robbed," he announced. It's a four pipe problem. Start digging trenches while I nip out for some pipes."
    Soon Soames poured out his solution. Fortunately it ran down the drain. "Aha! The butler!" He cried extracting the evidence. Hotson waved his rod to the Marchioness, who flushed with relief.

    Tales from the Garrett - 2010-10-27
    "Which shall it be?" said the starving artist, "Fat female nude, or still-life?"
    "When do I get paid?" muttered his model. "Er..." said the artist. She flounced out of the studio.
    Discarding his cannibal dreams, he ate the fruit while he sorted his paints; plenty of greens, he noted. Tomorrow's lunch would be viridian salad with linseed oil dressing.

    Give one for Christmas - 2010-10-30
    I'd like to call your attention to the practical uses of the common CowPat: when liquid, it traps the unwary; when solid, flies like a discus. But if you lift the crust off the soft centre, it makes a neat "coolie" sun-hat. spare hub-cap or far flying Frisbee. Sanded and varnished it makes a fine bowl for fruit and salad.

    Phantom of a Forest Felled 2010-10-31
    Close your eyes and follow my voice, said the hooded man. I followed until all that remained was the beat of rain on leaves. Scared, I opened my eyes. The dripping forest glowed around me with an unearthly light, deer fled before me. The man melted into the leaf mould. The forest fell, leaving only a prairie of arid plough.

    One is Not Enough - 2010-11-01
    Before space/time existed, there was nowhere/nowhen. To exist it required a location. Locations only exist relative to each other; one is not enough. Adding a second location requires an element of time, but again one is not enough. The addition of the second element of time, needs a location to exist. One for one, Time elapses as Space grows.
    (In "Genesis in 60 Words" I mentioned the spontaneous creation of the Universe. The above is a brief attempt to put that logic into words.)

    Aspiring Architect 2010-11-02
    Tap tap, like Blind Pugh, stone by stone, some sound, some marked for the masons. I looked down. The spire seemed to taper the wrong way. 200 hundred feet below me, like a stone needle it pierced the tower, pinning the Cathedral down among the lesser "moths" in that Close collection. Above me the windlass creaked as the rope swayed.

    Heroic Legend 2010-11-04
    By the Mark Stone, a basket of dragon's teeth at his hip, Hero watched the approaching hoard. Bronze swords drummed on leather shields. The sound swelled, overwhelming the agrarian peace of the valley. Casually Hero followed the plough, broadcasting that strange seed. Behind him growing spearheads thrust from the furrows as an army of mighty warriors sprang from the soil.

    Noah's Flood in 60 words 2010-11-05
    Noah had noticed that thriving communities tended to possess Great Wonders. His village was unsuitable for pyramids, so he began building an enormous ship.
    Visitors pointed out the lack of water. Noah replied that's what made it a Wonder.
    With tourist money rolling in, everything was going swimmingly, Noah congratulated himself on his acumen - Then pairs of animals started arriving.....

    Slartibartfast Strikes Again 2010-11-06
    Geologists investigating deep strata that dated from the primary solidification of the Earth's crust, decided to split off a thin layer. This uncovered an artificially polished surface, which to their surprise was incised with a fine grid of abstract symbols.
    After a year's head-scratching by symbologists, cryptanalysts, decipherers and decoders,it was found to be a Guarantee and Complaints Form.
    (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slartibartfast )

    Guffer and the Radox Pirate 2010-11-07
    Workdays, Guffer busked the market. At other times you'd find him around the Municipal Dump, where he'd a shelter built entirely of empty square Radox bottles.
    One day, returning from a night in custody, he was devastated by the disappearance of his home. Later at the market he was gob-smacked to discover one stall entirely filled with half-price Radox.

    Saint George and the Dragon 2010-11-09
    (I should really wait until the 23rd April to post this.)
    The Abbot decreed a Mystery Play for Saint George's Day. Initiates built the *Pageant. Novices wove a wicker dragon. The monks begged tabard and helm from a retired crusader and the Devil lurked in Brother Cuthbert.
    On the day of the play, Cuthbert bet on the dragon. When battle was joined, real fire was breathed and surprise, surprise, the Dragon won!
    (* Pageant: Originally a movable stage or platform on which medieval Mystery Plays were presented. It was built on wheels and had two floors; the lower used as a dressing room, the upper as a stage.)

    Secularly Transmitted Disease? 2010-11-14
    As the 1960s drew to a close, a terrible plague struck deep into the heart of English society. It's sign, a bright red wart, appeared on the façades of old friends. The shallowly fashionable took to it as a sign of modernity, like the Regency had with the "Beauty-spot." What was this fizzing keg-bound plague? Watney's Red Barrel, of course.

    Yesterday's Balloon: 2010-12-13

    I'm wearing yesterday's balloon,
    For the dawn has come too soon,
    The party has dissolved,
    With all our problems solved,
    But no one can recall,
    Our answers to them all.

    Beneath yesterday's balloon,
    My mind is out of tune,
    The balloon's now deflated,
    My soul's not so elated,
    Now all I need's a broom,
    To drive chaos from the room.



  • Noshed Nasturtiums

    Nasturtiums

    I love to grow nasturtiums
    So clean and crisp and bright
    But something comes and eats them
    In the middle of the night

    The leaves they are so green
    And the flower colours glow
    But as they eat them in the dark
    The pests will never know

    I'd put lots in my salad
    They're just like watercress
    But as something finds them moreish
    I must make do with less

    I eventually discovered it was cabbage-white caterpillars!

    — • —

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©1997 & ©2007.  All rights reserved.

    INDEX

  • From Insults to Injury

    Describing a story as ‘semi-autobiographical’ can be misleading.  People think you must be exaggerating as you convert possibly boring fact into hopefully entertaining fiction.  However, there are certain cases where the opposite is true; such as in the following tale, based on a certain string of events in my own schooldays:

    From Insults to Injury
    Rise and Fall of a School-age Rebel

    As a blond and blue-eyed toddler, I looked wide-eyed and innocent, some said positively angelic.  In my defence, this was probably because I was already suffering from a short-sightedness which was not properly diagnosed until I was about seven.  To everyone’s delight, my behaviour and disposition seemed generally appropriate to my looks.  Presumably, if you can’t see the target, there’s no point in throwing your dinner at it.  Life, it seems had cast me in the role of a perfect paragon, possessed of all the virtues.

    Such a reputation is hard to maintain, especially for an inexperienced child.  I became defensive, repressing my growing bent for mischief and where that proved impossible, learned the politics of deceptive innocence.  Thus, crafty in the extreme, heavily armoured against misguided compliment and thinking this was the worst that life could do, I was unprepared for the discovery of disparagement and insult.

    My first engagement with these new foes, was at the age of four and a half.  At the time, I was attending a small private kindergarten, confident in my bright red uniform.  It was towards the end of the spring term.  My favourite teacher, Miss Marjorie, the headmistresses' daughter, had organised a school play to impress the parents.  Her own adaptation of one of Enid Blyton's classics, in which my part was Mr Plod, the policeman.

    It was during our first wallow through, what is now often considered the mire of Noddy's affront to political correctness, that the unexpected insult struck.  I had two lines and a dramatic gesture during the arrest scene.  I delivered my first line, tapped the Golly on the shoulder, paused for dramatic effect - and was prompted!

    That was it! Gone were my precocious fantasies of painting water-colour flowers on the beautifully rounded cheeks of Miss Marjorie's twenty-two year old bottom.  Since the other female teachers, at my tender years, seemed irredeemable wrinklies, my only course of action was to transfer my interests to girls of my own age.  I came to the conclusion that teachers stunk, an opinion only slightly mollified by later experiences.  In metaphorical contrast, I rapidly discovered that my female contemporaries were really rather fragrant.  Although, to the misfortune of my innocently artistic ambitions, they failed to be fragrant enough to provide me with the necessary soft pink canvasses.

    Insult number two took a vicious bite at my ego a couple of years later.  I had bade farewell to those desolate scenes of my broken and disappointingly one-sided relationship with Miss Marjorie.  I was wallowing in yet another mire, that of my first year at prep-school.  The school was ‘Mono-posto’ as my best friend’s father, a motor-racing enthusiast, put it, that is boys-only, so my attempts at imaginative artistry had to be confined to paper.  Once I had been persuaded that backgrounds did not necessarily have to be skin-toned, my paintings improved sufficiently to gain a regular spot on the art-room wall.  The floral subjects disappeared, their places taken by galleons, tanks and motorcars, my transformation from romantic dreamer to rampant warmonger was complete.  Soon gold stars were adorning the corners and when it came to representing the school, I was promised that my work would gain me a place on the team.

    Eventually that moment arrived; the local council had announced a painting competition.  The subject was to be a road safety poster, there were various age ranges and it was open to all the neighbourhood schools, both fee and free.  The prize, apart from the dubious honour of taking part, was some small unspecified gift, plus attendance at an awesome event billed as ‘Tea with the Lord Mayor.’

    Unlike the council schools, where every pupil in a class was allowed to enter, only we chosen few at the top of the art-group were given that privilege.  At the time I was too young to appreciate this for the ploy it was; an attempt by the headmaster to keep the average quality of his school’s entries above that of the rest.  So, the select team performed and a batch of carefully vetted submissions were made.  My offering came third in its age group, from my point of view, a satisfying result for a first attempt at public recognition.

    In due course, the day of the much anticipated ‘Tea with the Lord Mayor’ arrived.  Proud parents delivered their winning offspring to the outsize bronze doors of the hallowed art-deco pile that was our City Hall.  As they left, us kids, shepherded by vague officials from the Education Department, were taken up the processional staircase.  I remember wondering, in all innocence, why they hadn’t trusted us to the lift.

    We crowded at the grand entrance to the banqueting hall, the front ranks suitably hushed but with the usual rearguard still chattering and testing the echoes of the stairwell.  Through the doors we could see the long table covered in starched white linen.  The ‘Tea’, or rather its substitute, huge jugs of incredibly weak orange squash, were spaced infrequently along the vast expanse of tablecloth.  Between the jugs were huge gilt edged china plates, their diameter quite dwarfing the neat heaps of tiny triangular sandwiches.  To the right of the doorway was a group of adults, presumably teachers, councillors and officials involved in the road safety promotion.  I assumed from the heavy gold chains, which we had been told to watch for, that the boring looking leader of this group and the nondescript woman standing at his side, were the Mayor and Mayoress.

    More interested in the grandness of the building and the disappointing contrast of the so called ‘Tea,’ I managed to accidentally ignore the Lord Mayor’s outstretched hand, this time an insult offered rather than received.  In fact, I was several paces past his paunch before he realised that one of his guests had alluded him.  I was called back and playfully accused of flouting authority, while at the same time having cigarette smoke puffed over me by his wife and my hand vigorously pumped by both of them in turn.

    With the politics of the occasion over, we were ushered rapidly to our seats and encouraged to investigate the food.  I soon discovered that the sandwiches had been made with slightly soggy, thin white bread and filled with an almost invisible pink layer of paste accompanied by thick, hard flakes of bright yellow margarine.  Having been brought up as a vegetarian, I did not recognise the taste and had to ask the second-prize winner sitting up-table of me.  ‘Crab paste!’ I was horrified to learn.

    For a moment, I considered refusing to eat any more, but having already embarrassed myself over the handshaking, I continued cautiously.  A decision I was later to regret, when, some hours later, I discovered I shared my mother’s acute allergy to seafood.  To this day I am convinced that I owe my survival to the meanness of the council's caterers, when their generosity might have killed me.

    Once our ‘banqueting’ was properly under way, the Mayor and his cohorts rose from their distant thrones to batter us with patronising speeches and dole out the prizes.  My turn came at last and I trekked round to the head of the table, expecting great things.

    The Mayoress' palm again enclosed my hand while she repeated the same speech she had used for all the others and pushed a garishly coloured cardboard box into my chest.  Dropping the lady's clammy hand, I took my eagerly anticipated prize, muttered a briefly rehearsed thank-you and began the long walk back to my seat.  I daren’t look at the prize.  Would it be a full set of professional quality water-colours, the sort that come in tubes? Something I had hoped might be the appropriate official acknowledgement of my artistic originality.  I reached my chair, sat down and gazed at the box....  It was a Paint-by-Numbers Kit! I was horrified, I had never imagined that such abominations existed.  When later, I recovered from the combination of the insult, the shock to my artistic sensibilities and the crab sandwiches, I complained to my parents.  The uncomforting reply was simple, ‘You can't trust City-Hall.’

    I threw away the canvasses with their stultifying discipline of blue lines, but kept the tiny plastic pots of numbered paints.  My fantasies of decorating female rumps upgraded from delicate water-colouring to brash invigorating oils.

    — • —

    With these two major assaults on my respect for authority and many minor ones too numerous to mention, I became immersed in the appropriate opportunities for learning provided by the prep-school.

    The major theme of my personal education at this time, consisted of discovering how to bait the prefects without getting caught.  My gang of like minded contemporaries were good at that and I was pleased to be able to take a leading role in their machinations.  Educational satisfaction was coming my way at last.  Mischief took over from painting as my ambition in life.  With my chosen learning process well in hand and enough native wit to cope with the school’s curriculum as some sort of annoying but necessary sideline, I sailed happily from term to term.  Then we gained a new form-master, not a cheerful, pleasant humorist, as we were used to, but a dour, sour disciplinarian.  Our original had led from the front, teaching for him was an invigorating swim in the sea of knowledge, a pursuit in which we gladly joined.  The new one was no leader, he drove from behind and rapidly lost our confidence.

    After the first end-of-term exams, we discovered his entirely different attitude to marking and his popularity dropped from poor to abysmal.  A good try was no longer good enough, the answers had to be perfect and not just correct, but exactly worded as previously specified.  Our reports reflected a failure to achieve this and made trouble for us at home as well as in the eyes of the headmaster.  During the following term, the class was bent on vengeance, the foolhardy tried all the various standard ploys, mostly stupidly obvious frontal assaults, like wolf-whistling, dropping desk-lids with a crash and wanting to visit the toilet at the most inopportune moments.  These failed, as they deserved to, fizzling to nothing under the rapid and accurate responses from his irresistible firepower.  The queues outside the headmaster’s study began to grow, Saturday afternoon detentions became overcrowded. 

    With all that flack about, I had to cut back on my secret torturing of prefects.  In the classroom conflict, I remained aloof, uninvolved, maintaining my long-term policy of avoiding trouble with the teaching staff, but there were insults in the pipeline which would change that.

    Despite my obvious neutrality in the crusade against the form-master, I was summoned to the headmaster's study.  Curiously there was no queue of miscreants, I wondered if I had come to the right place.  I knocked and was ushered in to be told I was to receive one stroke of the cane.  Coming from a family of lawyers, I politely asked for a list of specific charges.  The answer was simple, but not to the point, ‘Boy,’ he grunted, failing to remember my name, ‘This has been coming to you for a long time!’

    If that was not enough, the next outrage was to follow close on the heels of the unexplained caning.  As well as corporal punishment, it was the policy of the school to indulge itself in intelligence testing.  Looking back on it, I am sure their methods were intended to subvert the system, since we were always put through several weeks of intensive training prior to each term's exams.  I still have the relevant report.  Under the heading ‘Intelligence Quotient’ is the number ‘167’ double underlined, followed by a thick red question-mark and an equally red, biro comment from my hated form-master, ‘To be checked next term!’ it said.  Naturally I felt insulted.  Did they think I'd cheated in some way?

    My honour still smarting from the implications of the red biro comment and my posterior from the decoration, applied not in water-colour, nor even oils, but in shades of bruise blue turning to yelp yellow, I fumed.  The mood lasted all through the holidays.  Then, just as the new term began, it dawned on me, I was innocent on one count, that of the caning, merely a victim of the school’s undoubted policy to give every pupil at least one taste of rattan.  Of course there was still the matter of the IQ test, that other insult to my intelligence.

    The prefects gained a respite as my secret campaign focused on the unpopular master.  My fellow classmates’ dubious efforts had failed.  They too had been caned, but almost certainly for good reasons.  I checked and yes, they had been informed at length, just prior to getting the standard six strokes.  My conclusions relating to the headmaster’s gift of that single stripe were almost certainly confirmed.  Vengeance on the headmaster would have to wait, for the time being he was out of range, but the form-master was a different matter.

    Feeling secure in my anonymity, I planned the attack with care.  I wanted it to be original and subtle, I racked my brain, then I found a drawing-pin in the sole of my shoe.  Have you ever tried walking on a drawing-pin? After a while it gets quite uncomfortable and when the head wears off, the tine works its way through into your foot.  That was it.  A suitably deceptive torture, particularly if constantly repeated.  It also seemed extremely safe from detection, since boxes of drawing-pins are often spilt and as I had discovered, one can walk some distance wondering why the floor has suddenly become uneven, before discovering the truth.

    On the fateful day of the prank, I entered the room before class began.  This was against school regulations, but easily achieved since my form-room connected directly to the playground.  I had already collected my armaments.  Every notice in the school was now held in place by only three drawing-pins, each forth one resided in my pencil-case.  There were nineteen notices, so I had nineteen pins, mostly the sort made of high quality brass with thick domed heads and sturdy shafts.  I placed them like land-mines, point uppermost in front of the blackboard, then returned, unnoticed to the cover of the crowded playground.

    The bell rang for classes to begin.  We pupils entered first and sat in our usual places.  The usual idiots at the back began their usual chatter.  My desk was on the central aisle two rows from the front.  The master bustled in, clumping down the short flight of red quarry-tiled concrete steps that led into the form-room, a conversion of the semi-basement sculleries of the original Georgian house.  His eyes were targeted, as usual, on the back rows.  Under his gaze, the conversation faded to silence.  He approached the blackboard.  His shoes were out of my line of sight, but from his general position, I was confident that he was within the minefield.  Expecting him to notice either the pins on the floor, or their presence in the soles of his shoes, I held my breath, but there was no result.

    I had failed to appreciate that the well worn floor was already uneven and that this might negate the effect.  The pins remained undetected, I became perplexed, was the scheme a failure? Then, having set us the morning’s task, the master took the three paces necessary to reach the chair behind his desk, sat down, opened a textbook and stretched his crossed legs through the kneehole.  His feet came into view.  Poker-faced, I exalted, there were six of the domed-head pins in the heel of his right shoe and one of the flat-headed ones in his left sole.

    During the remainder of the teaching session, I waited for him to make the discovery, but all that happened was that he collected two more of the smaller ones in the same heel as before.  A bell sounded, break-time had arrived.  The master rose to depart.  Surely he should have noticed the unevenness of his tread? But no, he headed for the steps up to the door.  He mounted the first step, the second, the third, then on the final broader one, a sort of mini-landing, he turned the handle of the door and stepped back from the door-swing.

    Instead of dismissing the class and heading for the staff-room, as both he and we expected, his heel slipped and he took off, in a style unequalled by any comedians since Laurel and Hardy.  But his landing, unlike those of such black-and-white heroes, was as bad as it looked. 

    The whole class sat still, both we and he were silent, nobody moved to aid him.  This was not so much because of his unpopularity, but because we were conditioned not to stir until he gave the word.  A word which was not likely to come, since it was obvious that he was either unconscious or dead.  Eventually the boy nearest the door got up and keeping his back to the wall, warily worked his way past the crumpled body, as if it was some sort of dangerously unpredictable animal.

    Matron was called.  She phoned for an ambulance.  The ambulance men investigated, announced he wasn’t dead and carted him away to the local casualty hospital.  We didn't see him for a whole glorious week.

    Next day, a notice was sticky-taped to the classroom door.  It politely requested everyone to ensure that drawing-pins were kept under proper control and not allowed to fall on the floor.

    I gained no pleasure from the undoubted success of the prank, nor from the fact that my guilt would remain undiscovered.  I was piqued, it was just like him, the rotter, to spoil it by nearly killing himself.  That was when I decided to reform, subversion was much too easy to perform.

    — • —

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©1997 & ©2007.  All rights reserved.

    INDEX

  • Ratatouille

    Just add Olive Oil and Season to Taste

    Ratatouille

    Ratatouille Lou
    Lived where the sky is blue
    And in the warm and fertile soil
    A peasant plot and pleasant toil
    was all the life he knew

    Aubergines is what he grew
    Red tomatoes, garlic blue
    Onions with a golden sheen
    Peppers in yellow, red or green
    And Thyme the whole day through

    Ratatouille Lou
    Under that sky so blue
    Oh would it not be wonderful
    If all of us could be as full
    Of those simple pleasures too

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©2004

  • Champagne and Cauliflower

    or
    Mon petit dejeuner sur l'herbe et ‘gross’ dejeuner avec l'Herbert.

    It was like that impressionist painting of the picnic in the woods, except neither of the girls were naked, there were only three of us and I had forgotten my tasselled hat.  What we did have was champagne, a large bottle of quality fizz much too good for breakfast at a Craft Fair.  Misha was telling us, her friends, Jilly and me that is, how she had been forced to win it, when a pushy raffle-ticket seller had cornered her during a guilty moment at the home-made cream-cakes stall.  “I warn you,” Misha had told them, more for mischief than in truth, “It's always my number that comes up.” Apparently they'd been most unpleasant when her prophesy had come true.

    The Picnic by Manet

    The tree strewn pasture, where we were camped behind our host's stately home, was easily as beautiful as Manet's Bois de Boulogne.  The high summer morning held the promise of being a real scorcher.  Thankfully, a cooling breeze was keeping the flies at bay, a service we hoped it would continue to provide inside the huge marquees where we would be spending the rest of the day.

    Dotted around us, the other crafts exhibitors were also breakfasting, some outside their tents, others in their caravanettes or under awnings.  Seemingly, many were taking amused note of our bubbly substitute for coffee.  The three of us were old friends, mutual veterans of many shows, each with our own crafts and separate stands.  Misha made clocks, Jilly silver jewellery and I was just a potter.  The fact that we breakfasted together that day was mere serendipity, such was the social cohesion of the strangely cosmopolitan mix of people supporting the shows, the breakfast groupings could have been any of many possibilities.  What made ours special in the eyes of the observers was the champagne and that only in the light of what happened later.

    In those glorious days of the late-seventies, a well organised three day show such as that, with nearly four-hundred top-ranking exhibitors, would have attracted over ten-thousand people per day and more on the bank-holiday Monday.  It was going to be hot and busy, so we would be trapped at our stalls by the hoards of punters.  Being under such a siege was exhausting.  Fortunately our over-heated bodies usually substituted sweating for urination, so, so long as you kept up a steady input of good clean liquid, preferably laced with energy-giving fructose, you would survive.  I had two cartons of apple juice, but when I took them out of the van, discovered both of them had a manufacturing fault.  The threatened leakage would be disastrous.  I urgently needed containers into which I could decant them and immediately thought of the Champers bottle.  Misha was about to bin it when I caught up with her.  That coped with one carton and Jilly found me a scotch bottle for the rest.  So with preparation complete, I manned my stand.  We were in different marquees, so for the day our social groupings rearranged themselves.  Mine was a corner stand by the entrance, something I paid extra for.  Beside me were the candle-makers who always liked to be next to a potter, again we were old friends.  The crowds, queuing outside since nine o'clock, were unleashed and mayhem struck.  I reckoned to average a take of about ten pence per head of the gate, from an average sale value of two pounds fifty.  Transferring that weight of pottery and cash meant action, fast and hard, the level of my small change and wrapping paper soon began to fall, as did the level of liquid in the bottles.

    The morning was busy, but not so busy that I didn't have time to pour the apple juice from the scotch bottle into a plastic tumbler before drinking it.  Apparently, to my fellow exhibitors who were still gossiping about our champagne breakfast, this looked like alcoholism gone mad.  Of course I didn't realise what sort of impression I was giving, although I was getting a little worried at the odd way people were looking at me.  By two o'clock they must have been expecting me to start slurring my speech and reeling around, especially as by then I was swigging directly from the champagne bottle.  The candle-makers even went so far as to bring me a large mug of black coffee served with a silent sympathetic smile.  Then the show was over and I suddenly found myself, rather than craft pottery, the centre of attraction.

    “You're still feeling OK?” someone asked.  “I could never drink from the bottle like that,” said another.  “Are you sure you can manage to clear-up all right?” queried yet another.

    “Fine, thanks,” “I lost the glass,” and “No problem,” were my answers.

    Then Misha and Jilly came to the rescue, drawn by the crowd and spreading rumours.

    “He doesn't know!” they gurgled to each other, “We've got here just in time, a couple more minutes and they'd have been dragging him off to Alcoholic's Anonymous.”

    “Look here,” I said, “Would somebody please explain.  I've had a great day, lots of money, loads of happy customers and just enough apple-juice to see me through.”

    “Apple-juice!!??” came the chorus, “But...” - Curiously, despite the exposure of the truth, I kept the reputation.

    Notoriety, like rumour, travels on the wind and, as I was soon to discover, appears in rags and tatters hung on every unlikely twig.  The exhibition was finished, the marquees struck, clearing-up complete, my van was loaded and I was heading for the gate joining our camp-site to the main-road.  As I approached, Misha's van blocked mine.  “Jilly and I are going for a meal, like to join us?”

    “Great Idea, but where shall we go?” I replied.

    “Did you notice that vegetarian restaurant in the little town we passed on the way here?”

    “You mean ‘The Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ who could miss it with a name like that? I s'pose it must have started out as a pub.”

    “That's the one, shall we try it?”

    “See you there,” I agreed, following them out of the gate.

    When our two vans reached the small town, it was about seven-thirty and the place seemed deserted.  The restaurant car-park was empty and when we pushed open the door, so was the cocktail-bar and dining-room.  The place had the air of being rather more posh than the outside had suggested.  We suddenly felt rather out-of-place and had there been customers in evidence, we would probably have turned tail and looked for somewhere else.  I was wearing cut-off jeans with fashionably frayed edges and a Suzi Quatro tee-shirt, the two girls were barefoot and minimally covered by brightly coloured shorts and loose fitting halter-tops.  As a party we were sun-warmed fragrant, grubby and somewhat dishevelled.  We decided to brazen it out, custom was custom and we certainly had plenty of cash on us.

    A tall dark-haired man appeared out of the kitchen.  He looked remarkably cool in his three piece suit with napkin on the arm, but to our surprise his welcome was warm and friendly.  Perhaps it pleased him to indulge us, or maybe he was just desperate for human company and was prepared to accept us as a near substitute.  The best table was offered, although I was amused to notice that it was also the one furthest from the window.  We sat, the girls on one side, me on the other.  Menus were distributed.  The maitre offered the wine list, then withdrew it with the words, “Mais non, if you are who I think, champagne would seem to be more appropriate.” That set the bells ringing, did he really know who we were? And if not, who the heck did he take us for?

    “A carafe of house-white would be fine,” called Misha, to the man's departing back.  We looked around.  The standard comment at that point would have been “This is nice!” but nobody made it.  Companionable silence reigned as we scanned the menu.  The peace of the moment was wonderfully welcome after such a hectic day.  As our ears attuned, we became aware of a subdued argument coming from the kitchens, the maitre's voice pitched on the dangerous edge of defensive and an unbroken tirade from a female.  They were obviously trying to hold it down and because of the thickness of the kitchen door the words were too muffled for us catch the sense.

    “Do you think we should leave?” asked Jilly, just as the man returned, still cucumber cool, apart from a slightly haunted look behind the eyes, and playing the role of “mine host” to perfection.

    A carafe was produced and our glasses filled without the standard formalities.  Surprisingly, it was an excellent champagne, whatever was the chap playing at? Misha baffled him in turn by wanting to know if he was lucky in raffles.  Then we attempted to place our orders and all went normally, until we came to the choice of vegetables.  For some reason he seemed to want to sell us the cauliflower.  Never have I heard such poetic descriptions of how it had been lovingly grown, nurtured, humanely slaughtered and steamed to exactly the right toothsome texture.  “I've gone off cauliflower,” announced Misha, at about the moment he mentioned its slaughtering.  Jilly muttered that it was possible to over-sell a good thing.  I said, “Carrots, mange-tout, new-potatoes, yes.  Cauliflower, no, I don't think so.”

    We expected that to be the end of it.  The maitre returned to the kitchen and the distant argument resumed.  We were still in two minds as to whether to stay, or down the champagne and leg-it.  But while we were silently debating the subject, by means of gesture and eye-contact, the food arrived.  It looked and smelled wonderful, especially as the champagne had freshened up our appetites.  The problem was that the portions of vegetables were minuscule.  A lonely undersized potato, a finger carrot and half, yes half, a mange-tout seemed rather mean and this was well before anyone had thought of nouvelle cuisine.

    “I think we'd prefer larger helpings of vegetables,” I said, with a grin.  This was obviously some sort of joke, but by who against whom was yet to become clear.  Perhaps the presence of the unseen, but obviously malevolent, woman in the kitchen might now be making itself felt.

    “I'll see what I can do,” apologised the man, with a conspiratorial nod towards the service door.  He left us looking at each other in amazement.  If he had wanted to keep us guessing, he was doing jolly well, a wonderful air of anticipation was growing.  What would be next? We should have known, all this was a build-up for the entrance of the cauliflower.

    “I'm sorry, this is all we have,” the man was apologising again, as he produced a large willow-pattern tureen from under a white cloth with the practised flourish of a magician.  Once in the centre of both the table and our attention, he removed the lid and stepped back.  Misha dared the challenge, picking up a serving spoon she scooped a portion of the vegetable onto her plate and burst into laughter.  Beneath the pristine surface, tucked carefully between the florets, were several large, plastic bluebottles.  Misha's face was a picture and I thought the maitre was either going to burst or wet himself.  It was the first time I had ever glimpsed hysteria behind such a poker-face.

    “I'm terrible sorry,” he sobbed, still attempting not to laugh, “It's the wife, you know!”

    “You married a bluebottle infested cauliflower?” asked Jilly, in all earnestness.

    He did manage to collect our plates before his face broke and he rushed out.  The angry exchange beyond the kitchen door resumed as soon as it had closed behind him.

    “What the Hell are they arguing about in there?” asked Jilly, expressing our common feeling of intrigue.  Were the food jokes his or hers? Was this an honest attempt at providing an entertaining meal or a calculated outrage.  Which of the seven brides and brothers were we in the clutches of? Would we survive to tell the tale? Would he? Was the harridan in the Kitchen really his wife?

    Within moments replacement meals arrived, generous and wholesome, there were even helpings of fly-free cauliflower and another bottle of champagne.  After such a wonderfully orchestrated performance, what could we do but eat, clearing the plates of everything except the cauliflower.  The maitre, as soon as he was satisfied we were taking it all good-naturedly, had faded into the, by then, strangely quiet kitchen - what had he done with the woman, I wondered?

    The course complete, our entertainer returned with the sweets menu.  In the calm of considering the choice between fresh-fruit salad or summer pudding, I began to think the show was over.  Then I noticed the tears of stifled mirth in the girls” eyes, the rat still had one last trick up his sleeve.  The Herbert was standing behind me with two pudding spoons, holding them behind my head to make Bugs Bunny ears.  “It is a vegetarian restaurant, you know! Sir,” was all he said as I turned and caught him in the act.  I suppose I had to laugh, it was no more than I had been getting all day.  Which made me wonder whether he had been stalking us since breakfast.  Then he had the nerve to bring us a bill, which, since the champagne was charged as house-white, we paid exactly.

    “Don't I get a tip?” he asked.  “Certainly,” grinned Misha, who liked the old jokes best, “Treat your customers with more respect!” He smiled a sad smile, then held open the door for us as he sighed, “Where does one have to go for true appreciation?”

    Jilly gave him a consolation kiss and we waved goodbye.  He closed the door behind us.  Then we saw the sign thrown down behind the low wall between car-park and highway.  It was an estate-agent's board with a large red stick-on label, “SOLD by Order of the Official Receiver” it said.  So he had nothing left to lose, that explained his peculiar behaviour, but we never did find out what the kitchen argument had been about.

    — • —

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©1997 & ©2007.  All rights reserved.

    INDEX

  • Doctor will See You Now

    Embarrassing isn't it?  Waiting at the doctor's with the sort of problem others find amusing.  Even if your fellow patients don't actually know, you feel as if they must.

    “Sheer paranoia,”  I hear you say, “Most of them will be too busy worrying about their own ailments to notice.”  True, but some problems are more embarrassing than others, ones relating to odd parts of the body, certain orifices.

    On the day in question, mine was of the latter sort.  I fudged round it with the receptionist.  “I just need to see the doc,” I said and, since the problem wasn't obvious, managed to keep it secret throughout her practised questioning.  Officialdom had been thwarted and wasn't happy.

    I sat down, waiting to be overcome by boredom.  It didn't happen.  Inside me, tension was building; an irresistible, childish guilt at the possession of such an embarrassing problem.  It wanted me to stand up, in front of everybody, and blurt out every horrid detail.

    The waiting room filled, the urge grew, soon it was unstoppable.  I desperately needed a compromise.  My immediate neighbour looked trustworthy; a man who would smile tolerantly but still respect a confidence.  I forced my voice into a semblance of normality:

    “It's not painful,” I husked, “My problem, that is.”

    “So?” he muttered, adjusting his position.

    “I need to tell someone about it.”

    “Why me?” he grimaced.

    “Please.”

    “Well make it snappy.  I rather think I'm next.” - He wasn't, but I let it pass.

    “It's my nose.  There's something up it.”

    “What are you trying to tell me?” he asked, anxiously, almost aggressively.

    Not the reaction I expected.  Maybe his ailment was aromatic; I couldn't tell.

    “No,” I said, “I really do have something up my nose, left nostril, a small rubber-ball.”

    He eyed me in disgust, “I thought only silly kids did that,” he said, “Usually with beads.”

    My embarrassment flared; “Er, I didn't do it deliberately.”

    “You sure about that? How old are you anyhow?” - I ignored that one and sighed.  At least the urge to shout was fading, even if the colour in my face wasn't.

    Seeing my discomfort, he relented, “Go on then.”

    I continued gratefully, “It happened while I was reading a book.”

    “A book? What was it about?”

    “What? Oh, some heavy paperback or other.  It doesn't matter.”

    “I like books,” he announced, waving the thin volume he still had his thumb stuck in.

    “Oh, sorry.  I didn't know you were trying to read.”

    “In your state you wouldn't have noticed if I'd been nearly bleedin' dead.”

    “Sorry, er, sorry.  I'll shut up then.”

    The urge was back in the ascendancy.  I wondered if the woman on my other side would be more sympathetic.  Then, with a grunt, he removed his thumb from the book, replaced it with a comb and shoved it in his pocket.

    “So, how does a book give you Ball-up-the-Nose-Disease?”

    “I said it was weighty, didn't I.  Sort of book that makes you tired just holding it.”

    “Ah, that sort,” he grinned, “Never read that sort.  Makes your arm tired.”

    “I just said that.”

    “So you did.  How thick?” - did he mean himself, me or the book?

    I plumped for the latter, “Well over two inches, nearly two ‘n’ a half, I'd say.”

    “Yes, I'd say that was thick.”

    “Sorry?”  I hadn't heard him over the raised voice of the woman on my other side.  She was wondering, loudly, what had happened to the doctor.  If this was for the benefit of the toffee-nosed receptionist, I admired her pluck.

    A cough brought my attention back to the man.  He looked offended, having given up a lurid novel for my tale of woe, he had every right.

    “Sorry, didn't catch you.  The doctor is taking rather a long time, isn't she?”

    “You'll get used to that!” he muttered, expression clearing as umbrage gave way to grudging curiosity.  “But, I still don't get it.”

    “What?”  I'd lost my thread; perhaps the nasal blockage was effecting my brain.

    “I don't get the connection between books and rubber-balls up the nose.”

    “Oh, right!  It's a matter of thickness.  I thought we'd got that clear?”

    “Thickness and rubber-balls?”

    “Tiny rubber balls, small enough to go up your nose.”

    “Not to mention being big enough to get stuck.  Have you tried sneezing?”

    “I tried blocking up one nostril and blowing hard.  No good.”

    “You did block up th....”

    “Of course I did, I'm not a total idiot.”

    “Never doubted you!” - He was lying of course.

    “Look, I'm trying to tell you.  It was my patent eight quid book-prop that did it.”

    “Book-prop? A sort of holder, a Look-No-Hands, sort of thing?”

    “Exactly.  Trouble is, even at eight quid, it can't cope with thick books.”

    “I know just how it feels!”

    “You lean the book back on this sort of plastic lectern, with a pair of hinged wire things on the front.  You hold back the pages with the wire things.”

    “I see.  These wire bits, got some sort of springs, have they?”

    “Yes, that's the trouble.  Rather weak ones.”

    “Ah,” he exclaimed, “I get it now.  Drives you so mad, you just have to stick little balls up your nose.”

    “No, No, No!”

    I shook my head.  Felt something move in my nasal cavity and panicked.  Through the tears, the woman's face loomed in front of mine.  She offered me her asthma spray.  The man brushed her away, patted me on the shoulder, offered kind words.

    “OK, calm down.  Keep snorting like that and the doctor will lose a job.”

    “Or a patient,” said the woman, taking a precautionary puff from her inhaler.

    My breathing returned to half-sided normality, with the ball still firmly lodged.

    “Nasty things balls,” chuckled the woman, bending double in her attempt to look up my nose, “Are you sure I can't get you something, luv?  Glass of water, corkscrew?”

    “Have you been listening?” I gasped.

    “We all have!” came the chorus.  I glared at the jumbled faces, they stared back.

    The ball seemed to be growing, filling my head, the floor opening to swallow me.  However, I was confident that the ball would save me, by then my nose felt so swollen that it would never pass though any normal hole in the floor.

    “Well then? Finish the story!” - It was the bloke.

    “Err....”

    “Get on with it!” - That was the woman.

    “The d-damn pages wouldn't stay open,” I stuttered, “The wire bits were useless.  Every time I tried, the book flapped shut and fell on the floor.  I had to hold it on the stand.”

    “So?”

    “Makes your arms tired.”

    “You might as well have chucked it, then, this book-prop thing.  Written orf the eight quid and gone back on manual, like the rest of us.”

    “I was going to, then I had an idea.  Bulldog clips.”

    “Bulldog clips, on the wire thing you mean?”

    “On the pages, either side.”

    “Sounds good.”

    “Didn't work.  The book spine was too stiff.  Might have been OK if it had been hard-bound, but this was a paperback.  Even with the clips in place, I still had to hold it.”

    “There you are then!  Wot I said before, chuck it!”

    “I wasn't going to be beaten, not with eight quid at stake.  I experimented, discovered you could trap the wire prongs in the bulldog clips as well as the pages.  Magic!”

    “Still no balls!” said the woman.

    “It's all balls!” said the man.

    “Just one I'm afraid,” said I, pointing up my nostril.

    “So where did it come from?”

    “Off the end of the wire bit.  The book-spine was so strong it flipped them both off, one from each prong.  The right one whanged over my shoulder and judging by the splash, depth-charged the goldfish.  The other one….” - I hesitated, expecting mirth.

    But no! Most of them were nodding sagely, murmuring in sympathy.

    Then, from behind the counter, a choking sound caught our attention.  As we turned to look, it broke into a terrifying squeal.  The dragon-like receptionist was not, as first I thought, dying in the throes of sudden agony, but had erupted into sudden life and laughter.

    “W-with the things I hee-hee-hear, in hee-hee-here....  I've bee-bee-been wanting to explode for yee-yee-years.”

    It took her several minutes and half a box of pink tissues to muffle the hysteria.  The patients remained seated, too shocked by the unexpected transformation to think of offering assistance.  Soon everyone was talking at once.

    No longer the centre of attention, I sat back calmly and waited.  At last, fighting its way through the hubbub, came the long awaited buzz.  Over the surgery door, the red light flipped to green.  The intercom behind the counter asked what on earth was going on.

    The receptionist, shedding most of her dignity and many of her apparent years, waved girlishly in my direction, stood up and, leaning though her window, scattered crumpled tissues, like rose petals along my path.

    “Doctor'll s-see-see you now,” she giggled.

    — • —

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©1997 & 2007
    All rights reserved.

    INDEX

  • Origami Seagull

    It was November 1952, tomorrow would be Guy Fawkes Day.  The box of fireworks was safely stored in the bottom of the airing-cupboard, away from the damp that pervaded the old house with its coal-fires and draughty door-frames.  In the triangle of neglected kitchen-garden behind the back-lane garage, a pyramid of brushwood stood tall, awaiting only a priming of crumpled newspaper and the pyromaniac match.  At the dark end of the afternoon, school had been out for half an hour and most of the children, like Rob, were already home.  He should have been excited, rushing around with a torch, making final preparations, finding one more forkful of garden rubbish to thatch the bonfire, collecting long-necked squash bottles to launch the rockets and from somewhere in the attic, unearthing that old camping-stove to kindle the reluctant sparklers.  But since returning home from school, the ten-year-old had not been well.  His mother took one look at his flushed face, noted his listless collapse onto the old sofa in the alcove at the back of the breakfast-room, worried at the lack of clamouring hunger, then felt his forehead and sent him straight to bed.  At five o'clock she went upstairs to check on him, carrying a tray with milk, biscuits and a saved copy of the Eagle, usually issued several days late as an incentive to be good.  Rob wasn't interested, the bedclothes were scrambled, he could hardly speak.  The room felt as if a three-bar electric-fire had been left on for hours.  She checked his temperature - a hundred and two - then called the doctor.

    The doctor got there after evening surgery and examined Rob thoroughly, listening carefully to his complaints of strange flutterings in the stomach and pains in his arms and legs, then dispensed penicillin directly from his black-bag - something they did in those days - and promised to return in the morning.  Eventually the fretful and feverish night was over.  The doctor repeated his examination, took samples and went away.  For Rob, the day was a waking nightmare of burning fever, but, towards the end of the afternoon, his temperature dropped a little nearer normal and he rallied enough to show his disappointment at having to miss the fire-works.  It is difficult to refuse a poorly child, especially when a little effort makes a satisfactory compromise.  His parents decided that a limited Guy Fawkes celebration could be held.  The bonfire, so far from the house, was out of the question, but there was space on the terrace outside the French-window, to let-off the smaller fireworks.  Rob was carried downstairs wrapped in an eiderdown, then ensconced on the big old sofa and turned to face the window.

    Vesuvius, represented by several different sizes of gunpowdery cardboard cones erupted in unnatural ruby-reds, traffic-light-greens and magnesium-whites.  Roman candles produced either one more, or one less, soaring ball of light, than advertised on the packet.  Crackerjacks jumped unnervingly at mother's skirts, Catherine's sparkling spirals whirred on the fence-post and impatient rockets tried to whoosh-off father's hat.  Rob forgot his fever and watched the bright-eyed magic, but before the final rocket had flown over the oak-trees, he had fallen asleep.  Later, when he awoke, he was back in his room.  The doctor was standing by the bed, mother beside him, looking pale and worried.  Father again wrapped him in the eiderdown and carried him downstairs to where an ambulance was waiting.  The ride to hospital was strangely dreamlike.  The vehicle swayed, Rob's mind seeming to catch up with each movement in time for its dizzying reversal.  He didn't know who was with him, but there were comforting voices and a hand in his or on his brow.  Then, when they stopped, there was a sudden burst of frosty air, jolting trolley-wheels and a sharp instruction to ‘Hold the door’.  Bright light beat at his eyelids, turning the world a glowing red.  Hands pushed under him and lifted him onto a bed.  Then he was alone, the brightness gone, leaving a strange yellow twilight glowing above him He tried to move but found himself too weak.  The effort brought back the fever and his mind floated deliriously free in a maze of lingering, fire-ball after-images.

    They didn't let him rest.  In the early hours, light blazed again, just one bright white fire-ball, hovering above his bed.  He opened his eyes, but couldn't stand the dazzle.  His momentary glimpse of white masks and coats would have been terrifying, had he been conscious enough to care.  They pulled at him, pushed him from side to side, forced him to sit up and held him there, hit him on the knees and elbows, drew patterns on his stomach with sharp sticks, then did the same to the soles of his feet.  They muttered and grunted among themselves, ignored his moans of protest and eventually, like demons of the light-bulb, left him shuddering in the dark.

    For four days his only waking moments were when roused, either by the frightening white demons, or by a routine succession of nurses who helped him to drink or encouraged him to urinate.  In Rob's mind, a universe of stars, the deeps of the ocean, billowings of sun-stitched clouds and the groaning depths below the mountains of the Earth, held sway.  He soared high, tunnelled low, exploded with the galaxies or crushed himself to nothing under seeming tons of bedclothes.  Reality was reversed, it was his waking moments that were nightmare.

    On the fifth day, as night paled to dawn, he awoke.  The bright stars of his delirium had become screaming seagulls wheeling against the grey sky beyond the window.  For the first time he was able to see the detail of the strange room and the alien territories beyond his bed, the erstwhile domain of the light-bulb demons and land of starch encrusted nurses.

    He lay, curled-up on his side, facing the glooming sky where bits of it had become trapped between the slender bars of the tall sash.  Below the high sill, the space was filled with the massive cream-painted arcades of a cast-iron temple that radiated warmth into the sharpness of the air.  Above it, the glazing-bars swam in the rising current, exaggerating the movements of banshee gulls as they skirmished, shrieking past the window, diving out of sight, then reappearing with loaded beaks and rising amidst battles for possession.  To the left of the radiator, a huge rectangular china sink, with curious long-tailed taps, separated it from the door.  A heavy, green-painted affair, with panels in the lower third and nine grey-sky-and-seagull-framing panes above.  Whatever the birds were fighting over must be just beyond it.  Sudden silence heralded its opening; a harsh grey woman, like a fragment of that November sky, hauled down and stuffed into a tight, dark-blue uniform, bustled into the room.  ‘It's your breakfast, they're eating!’ she announced, ‘You should have been awake when we offered it to you’.  Rob, to whom these were the first words he had been consciously able to understand since the ambulance man had asked for the door to be held open, was frightened; he burst into tears.  The ward-sister called for a nurse to, ‘Sort him out!’

    The nurse, a wide-faced girl with fair hair and a pale-blue uniform, came in and sat down beside the bed.  There was warm tea in a spouted feeder; she applied it with a smile.  'Can you manage to hold the cup?' she asked.  Rob thought he could, that is until he tried and suddenly realised something was seriously wrong.  His left arm would hardly move and there was no way his head would rise above the pillow.  He struggled, trying to pull his right arm out from under him, but seeing his distress, the nurse relented and continued to help him drink.  As soon as the routine was over and the nurse had left, Rob wanted to return to the warm, wonderful dreamland of his recent delirium, but his retreat had been cut off by the end of the fever, all he had now was the pain of discovery to fill his head and the sharp cries of the gulls for company.

    By mid-morning, after another visit from the nurse, this time with the spout delivering orange squash, the door opened and a tall man strode in and stood by the bed.  Rob, fortunately not recognising him as the leader of the light-bulb demons, looked up from the pillow in silence.
    ‘Hello, young fella,’ said the demon-in-disguise, the words more friendly than the tone of voice, ‘I thought you'd like to know you're suffering from Heine-Maiden Disease, named after the doctors who discovered it.’ - for Rob, this was just another layer of confusion, another flock of feathers falling through the pillow of his mind.  Whatever reaction the doctor had expected, Rob failed to give it.  ‘You might have heard it called Polio, poliomyelitis, that is.’ The man paused - the child still had nothing to say - and continued, ‘I expect your parents will explain.  Now all you've got to do is rest and recover’ - Rob got that bit, he managed a wan smile.  ‘Is there anything you'd like to ask?’ concluded the doctor, hovering a moment before hurrying out.

    Ask?  Well, no doubt there would have been, had Rob understood what had actually happened to him, there was the problem with his left arm for a start, and why couldn't he sit up.  He was an intelligent, technically-minded sort of kid, nobody who had seen his Meccano set in action would dispute that.  What he should have been told, was that polio effects the nervous system; that parts of the body work a bit like model cranes.  That the bones are moved about their hinge-points by strings of muscle.  If there is nothing to tell the strings to move, then nothing works.  Polio attacks the cells that give the muscle-strings instructions; that was what had happened to Rob's arm and much of the nerve-structure down his left-hand side.  Muscles which do no work, fade away and leave bones unsupported, so they become unbalanced and grow awry.  Nobody told Rob any of that, in fact, apart from the junk about Heine and Maiden, nobody had told him anything, not even where he was.  He thought it was probably a hospital; but the isolation ward looked more like a prison than a hospital.

    The room, a cell about twelve feet cube, was divided on its two inner sides from other similar cells by five-foot of solid partition; the space above filled with glass.  The only access was that outside-door, the one besieged by seagulls.  Light came in through the tall window or from the single central light with its dazzling white-enamelled shade, or when he was alone, as a distant yellow glow from the glass-walled nurse's room, filtered through the intervening cells.  Apart from occasional items, such as the door and the waste-bin, where the pre-war grass-green paint had been retained, almost everything was painted glossy-cream.  Glossy that is, where it had been washed, the lower halves of the two solid walls were clean, but above that they were smutty, cobwebbed and discoloured.  The junction between cleanliness and microbe laden squalor was wavy, graded and banded according to the changing stature of subsequent generations of cleaners.  Apparently, the hospital's policy had been either to employ smaller and smaller people or supply them with lower and lower chairs to stand on.

    With nothing better to do - he was alone and locked to his pillow by the debilitating illness - Rob observed his surroundings.  Four walls, ceiling, red quarry-tiled floor, those portals to an outside world dominated by seagulls, a locker, the radiator, sink, two chairs and his bed, there was nothing else.  Curiously, the bed, despite being closest, was the last thing he examined.  It felt large, but that was because he was curled-up small.  It was hard; under the mattress his hand discovered a platform of boards, not an inner-sprung divan, like at home.  The ends were silver-painted metal tubes, a mixture of builder's scaffold and tiger cage.  At each corner were sturdy posts carrying an overhead frame.  Then he noticed something new, almost out of sight, hanging behind the grillwork of the bed-head.  It was a set of headphones.  He struggled a few inches across the acres of his pillow to get a view between the bars.  It was a headset just like the ones in every black'n'white war film he'd ever seen.  Beside it, in the centre of a metal plate, was a rotating switch, with ‘Off’ at the top and four numbered positions.  Here, at last, was a worthwhile target for investigation, he began to uncurl, take stock of his position.

    Until then, the pillow had been his life-raft, something to cling to, as if he was slowly drowning in a rumpled sea of hospital sheets.  The nurse was constantly complaining that whenever she came to tidy him up, all she could find was a heap marooned against the foot of the bed.  In fact, it was from that position that Rob began to plan his campaign, and from there too, the bed-head was a far shore indeed.  He scouted the distant coastline through a telescope of hollowed hand.  The shore was defended by the breakwater of the bed-frame.  Would that be help or hindrance? Behind the defences, a sheer and shiny, gloss-paint cliff loomed high, topped by the rolling landscape of part-washed grey hills supporting a filthy, smut-stained sky.  Here, unlike the real sky outside the window, he must imagine the seagulls and the gathering tempest he needed to complete his plan.  The mind-storm broke, calling up the breakers that helped him during the exhausting swim from the foot to the head of the bed.  The final effort, pulling himself one-handed as high as he could onto the life-raft pillow, nearly sunk him, but at last, he had a hand against the cliff-wall.  He walked his fingers up towards the knob, grasped and hung on, then clicked it one notch to the right.  Suddenly his imagined seagulls had gained a scratchy, twittering voice, but they were too high and far away for him to hear the song.  He subsided, satisfied and floated with the linen tide, as waves of crumpled sheets washed him back to his haven at the foot of the bed.

    When Sister came in with her favourite question about the opening of bowels, she was annoyed that someone had left the earphones switched on; she turned them off, fussed with the loop of trailing flex and centred the headband on its bracket.  ‘There will be visitors, soon,’ she said, following that with her second favourite sentence, ‘Sort him out will you Nurse’.  ’Visitors?’ Who could it be, he had asked for his mother, but had been told this was an isolation ward and epidemics must be contained.  But, wonderfully, it was his mother.  She had to stand by the door, not allowed to hug him; so she'd brought cheerful words, pencils, paper, heaps of comics and a jar of peanut-butter.  When, too soon, Sister whisked her away, he read the comics.  All his favourites were there: Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle, Film-Fun and Practical Mechanics.

    The drawing-paper he folded into a seagull, an origami recipe he was delighted to find in the Lion.  Now all he needed was some way to fix it in the smutty sky above his bed-head.  Nurse, helpfully, stuck it to the overhead frame with shiny pink sticking-plaster; it wasn't what he wanted, but it would have to do.  Later, Sister declared it both a collector of germs and an affront to tidiness, she ripped it down and dumped it in the bin.  He was angry and showed it.  She took away his comics, refused to switch-on the light and left.  The shadowy frame above his bed threatened like prison bars.  The gulls had already returned to the sea, leaving only a splatter of sleet and the mournful howl of winter's wind to rattle the sash.  He lay there sobbing, his comic lifeline from the outside world torn away.  Once more, he was alone, adrift in the frighteningly alien world of the mind.  Outside the sky darkened into night.  The distant yellow light came on in the nurse's office Nobody came near him and eventually he fell asleep.  Almost at once, the origami seagull stirred and rose, whole and haloed white, from the grave-like hollow of the waste-bin.  Rob watched as it circled amid the scarlet whorls of his unforgiving anger, trapped in the shadows of the room.  The pale reflection of the gloss-paint cliff attracted it to the bed-head and there it roosted, to await its fellows.

    Morning arrived, and with it, nurse and warm tea, bedpan, marmalade and toast - no sign of his peanut-butter.  He left the crusts, but Sister caught him before the nurse had time to give them to the birds.  She made him eat them, standing there, hip-handed to ensure obedience.  The origami seagull watched from the top of the bed-frame, unseen by all but Rob.  When Sister went to leave, it flew, beating strong, wide, wild, white-paper wings, then passed straight through the tall sash-window to rally a feathered squall of gulls from the high grey clouds of dawn.  As the door shut behind Sister, he watched the ravenous seagulls dive past the window, knowing they would be dining well.  Soon, screams and cries confirmed it.  After that, he felt a little stronger, more able to make the journey to the bed-head, and solve the mystery of the headphones in time for Christmas.

    — • —

    Copyright The Mundesley Hermit ©1997 & 2007
    All rights reserved.

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