Adrian Sturrock: ‘The best way to defeat terrorism? Take away everybody’s shoes’

     ‘Thank you for your cooperation,’ says bag x-ray man, having, in my opinion, frisked me a little more than comprehensively. To be honest, I’m feeling slightly violated. ‘Have a pleasant journey,’ he says, as he finishes touching my trousers, and steps away.

     ‘Phone me,’ I mouth, glancing back at him as Nat drags me from the scene. I’m miming at him the placing of my phone to my ear. Sarcasm without words. I’m quite proud of myself.

     ‘It’s always you who gets frisked,’ she says. ‘Every time.’

     ‘You say that as though I put in a request along with our booking,’ I say. ‘… In other news, do you think I have a terrorist’s face?’ I catch my reflection in the chrome pillars to our right.

     ‘I’m not sure what a terrorist’s face looks like,’ she says, ‘but you clearly have a face that courts suspicion at airports.’

     ‘I’ll take that as a compliment,’ I say, thinking that maybe I do stand out in a crowd after all.

* * * * * * * *

Suspicious that I might still have more to say to the security officials who appear perched on either side of us like a row of jaded chancers surveying potential prey, Nat takes the black plastic tray containing my hand luggage, electricals, wristwatch and stated pieces of clothing from the conveyor belt of the x-ray system and places it firmly into my hands before using it as a handle with which to waddle me speedily away from the area. I say waddle because my belt is still sitting in the tray, forcing me to walk with a much wider gait than usual, lest my trousers falls down. I’m wondering whether anyone can see my underpants at this point. I’m also wondering which ones I put on this morning. I hope they’re nice ones, just in case.

     ‘Style it out, baby,’ Nat says to me, ‘Style it out.’

     Eventually, she parks us in a corner of the room and places my tray on a high stool so that I can collect up my things.

     ‘Why did you do that?’ I ask. I look at her, then back at the x-ray machine man, then back at her.

     ‘In case you were about to start up a conversation that you might come to regret,’ she says.

     ‘I was only going to say that if I was thinking of becoming a terrorist threat, there are a number of ways in which I could probably outsmart security.’

     ‘Exactly.’

     ‘Just because I have a container that says Aqua de Gio on the bottle, it doesn’t mean that I actually have Aqua de Gio in the bottle.’ I’m holding up the little plastic pouch that the airport provides for all flight passengers to cram their cosmetics, toiletries and various other bits and pieces into. Aqua de Gio is my new perfume; a Christmas present from Nat. I quite like it.

   ‘Yes, I know,’ she says, ‘they probably make a fortune out of handing out little plastic bags while stealing all of our possessions that don’t fit into them, in order to make us re-buy the same things in the pretend duty-free shops.’

     ‘Bastards,’ I say.

     ‘Bastards, indeed,’ she concurs.

     We are now standing in WH Smiths. It’s pretty much the first shop that we come to as we enter what used to be called Duty Free. These days, there is no discernible difference in price between items bought here and any other captive-audience rip-off retail opportunity, except that, here, they also want to see my boarding card before accepting payment.

     ‘Why do you want to see my boarding card?’ I ask, knowing that Nat is currently in some other part of the shop, with my boarding card tucked safely in her bag.

     ‘It’s the rules, sir,’ says the check-out guy.

     ‘Whose rules?’ I ask.

     ‘I don’t know, it’s just the rules,’ he says.

     ‘It’s a bit intrusive, don’t you think, demanding to know where I’m about to run off to with a copy of Esquire magazine?’

     ‘It’s just the … rules.’

     ‘And if I say No?’

     ‘Then I’m not allowed to serve you, sir.’

     ‘So, for the sake of finding out where Sean Penn sits in this year’s list of ‘Best Dressed Men’ (I point to the picture on the magazine’s front cover) I am required to forfeit personal information about myself? Do you not sense a certain unreasonableness about this?’

     ‘Just get on with it,’ says the man queuing behind me.

     I turn around. ‘It’s your rights I’m fighting for too,’ I say. ‘As Malcolm X said, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything”.’

     ‘What are you talking about?’

     ‘… I don’t know, I don’t think that was the quote I was looking for.’ I turn back to the checkout guy. ‘Anyway, I think this is a breach of GDPR.’

     ‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ he says.

     ‘How much is it? Here, take this.’ Nat has found me amongst the commotion of the queue and hands over her boarding pass and her credit card for my magazine.

     ‘Thank you, miss,’ says the checkout guy.

     As he bags my purchase, Nat turns to me and whispers, ‘I may very well decide to become a Miss if you continue to make a scene wherever we go.’

     ‘Do you think I look pretty today?’ I ask.

     She stops and glares at me, but her glare doesn’t last long and soon turns into a smile. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘you look pretty today.’

     I turn to the man behind me in the queue. ‘I look pretty today,’ I say.

     Nat takes back her boarding card and my magazine and leads me out of the shop. ‘Let’s find somewhere to sit,’ she says.

     ‘Why did you pay for my magazine?’ I ask. ‘I was about to refuse it on ethical grounds.’

     ‘Well, it was partly because I know you actually want it, and partly so that your mouth doesn’t have to keep moving when we get on the plane. Now I come to think of it, it was mostly the second reason.’

     ‘I see how it is,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

I’ve told everybody that we are flying to Andalusia. I’ve said Andalusia because if I say Costa del Sol anybody reading this will automatically think of high-rise apartments, English bars (and Irish ones), and the tourist triteness that Nat and I take great pains to avoid at all costs.

     Once on the plane, Nat passes me my magazine.

     I point to the picture of Sean Penn on the cover. ‘He was great in Dead Man Walking,’ I say.

     ‘He’s pretty good in all his movies,’ says Nat.

     ‘Yes, but any actor who can make me feel so acutely sorry for a murderer and rapist gets my vote.’

     ‘Tea or coffee, sir?’ asks a concerned-looking hostess whom, I fear, may have caught only the last pieces of that sentence.

     I decide to move us on from this unfortunate tableau as quickly as possible. ‘Did you know that Semtex now comes in pastel shades?’ I say.

     Nat kicks my ankle. ‘What did we agree before we left this morning?’

     ‘I, Um, do you have a hot chocolate?’ I ask the hostess. ‘And maybe a Twix?’

* * * * * * * *

On the day of our return, I do my usual reconnaissance of the airport, dreaming up ways to circumvent security (much as I have done since I entered my first airport, aged thirteen), only to be picked on by security because of a loose bottle of Aqua de Gio that is sitting in my hand luggage. I’d forgotten to put it into the appropriate little plastic bag.

     ‘For security purposes,’ our new X-ray man tells me.

     He directs me to a coin machine where I can now purchase two plastic bags for one Euro. Not wishing to be parted from my Aqua de Gio, I comply, though I don’t have any change on me so Nat now has to help rescue the same perfume that she has already spent good money purchasing for me.

     I thank her, but also feel the need to enquire how me putting my Aqua de Gio into a little plastic bag will render the 300 passengers on our easyJet flight to Malaga somehow safer. I can’t help wondering why the UK spent £222 billion on defence last year when a job-lot of little plastic bags would have sufficed. Someone’s taking a generous back-hander, I think to myself.

     ‘These are the rules,’ he tells me.

     ‘There’s a lot of rules,’ I say, though I don’t point out the questionable nature of this lunacy, partly because I’m in good spirits after a week away from the bland worlds of work and British weather, and partly because I’m standing in my socks on a cold tiled airport floor while holding my trousers up because my belt is currently busy saving the world from terrorism, in a black plastic tray, in an X-ray machine, in front of me.

* * * * * * *

 

 

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* * * * * * * *

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Apparently, while I’m stuck at home, everybody’s out phishing’

I’m sitting in my office at home when the phone rings.

     ‘… Good afternoon, sir, I’m phoning in relation to your recent accident.’

     Me: ‘What? Oh my God! I’ve had an accident …?’

     ‘… I’d just like to clarify a few details with you, if I may?’

     Me: ‘Am I OK? I mean … I had no idea …’

     ‘… I’m pleased to inform you that your claim has been successful and that we have now been authorised by our underwriters to deposit the agreed compensation directly into your bank account. This should only take a few moments so, if you could just confirm your account details for me, sir, I can then ensure that the full amount is transferred to you today.’

     Me (pretending to shout across the house to my wife – who’s currently at work): ‘Nat! It’s the man from the accident shop … I don’t know … probably somewhere in India … or Nigeria … he didn’t say.  Anyway, apparently, I’ve had an accident. But it’s OK because we’re now rich. Don’t bother with cooking this evening, we’re going out to eat!’

     Directing my attention back to the voice on the phone, I continue.  ‘Forgive me,’ I say, ‘it’s clear that I’m still suffering a little amnesia from the trip or fall at work. How bad was it?’

     ‘… Sorry, sir?’

     ‘Well, between you and me, it occurs that none of my family has thought to discuss the accident with me, which leaves me wondering whether it’s more serious than you’re letting on. I mean, is it terminal? Just tell me that …?

     ‘I … um … I think you’re going to be OK, sir. If you could just confirm your bank account details with me, I can transfer the full amount today.’

     ‘Are you sure you’re not just trying to be kind to me? If not even my wife can bring herself to talk about my accident, then things can’t be looking good.’

     ‘Sir, if you could just confirm your bank account details …’

     ‘There are so many things I still want to do; so many places I haven’t visited. How long have I got left? Can you at least tell me this?

    ‘Sir, please …’

     ‘Did you know that three percent of the ice in Antarctic glaciers is made up of penguin urine? I really hoped that, one day, I’d get to see that for myself.’

     ‘Sir …’

     ‘Yes, I know. And, apparently, ducks have regional accents. Did you know that? And I’ve only heard some of them. I have so much left to do … Hello? … Are you still there? …We seem to have been cut off … Hello?’

* * * * * * * *

A few hours later, Nat arrives home. ‘Hi,’ she calls, as she’s hanging up her coat in the hallway, ‘How’s your day been?’

     ‘Hi,’ I shout back. ‘I’ve had an accident.’

     ‘What!’ She’s now in the room with me. ‘What happened?’

     ‘I’m not sure. But a nice man from the telephone called to let me know that he’s going to pay me for it. Who knew that having accidents could be an actual job. If only my careers advisor at school had told me this, things might have been so different.’

     ‘And all he wanted was your bank details, right? So he could put the money straight in?’

     ‘No, I think my careers advisor just wanted to get through his day. To be honest, I don’t feel he was really committed to his job.

     ‘No, the guy on the phone.’

     ‘Oh, yes.’ I smile. ‘How did you know that?’

     ‘… You didn’t, did you?’ Nat seems to be frowning at me.

     ‘I might be stupid, Natalie, but I’m not stupid … And anyway, he rang off before I could give them to him.’

     ‘My dad usually just tells them that he has something boiling over on the cooker, and asks them to hang on for a moment while he goes to turn it down. Then he wanders off to read his paper.’

     ‘I like your dad,’ I say.

     ‘In some ways, I seem to have married him,’ she says.

     ‘I’ll take that as a slightly creepy compliment,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

The next morning, I find myself reading an online report about phishing scams in the UK. According to the police website, Actionfraud, there has been a 41% rise in telephone scam calls over the past year, amounting to £23.9m in losses. In my head, I compare this with a recent Guardian article I read that stated the current average UK salary to be £28,677. No wonder my careers teacher opted to leave ‘deception intended to result in financial or personal gain’ off his list of possible career choices.

     ‘Typical of a state school education,’ I say to myself. ‘If only I’d gone to Eton.’

 

* * * * * * * *

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Adrian Sturrock: Flying is like riding a bike .. . except you’re cycling at 13,000 feet while sitting on a canister of highly flammable liquid.’

I’m sitting in a tiny cockpit with a guy called Ben who, despite looking like he’s just started secondary school, informs me that he will be my flight instructor for this session.

     I look at him. ‘How long have you been flying?’ I ask, trying to sound as casual as I can.

     ‘Pretty much since I was twelve,’ he tells me.

     ‘And have you flown much over the two years since?’

     ‘He smiles. ‘I got my pilot’s licence when I was seventeen, and I’ve been teaching people to fly for the past eight years. I also do aerobatic display flying in my spare time.

     ‘That’s, uh … that’s good then,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

I’ve never sat in a two-seater Cessna before, let alone flown one. There are a handful of dials in front of me, none of which suggest much. I also can’t help noticing a distinct lack of steering wheel, which means I don’t know what to do with my hands. When I push on either of the two footbrakes, all that happens is that the flippers on the wings wiggle at me. I wiggle back at them.

     ‘They’re called ailerons,’ says Ben.

     ‘What are?’

     ‘They’re not flippers, they’re ailerons.’ He points.

     I look back across at the flippers. ‘Of course they are,’ I say, and smile at him.

     ‘They work in opposition to one another,’ he continues, ‘they allow one wing to generate more lift than the other, which, in turn allows the plane to ….’

     ‘Did I leave the oven on, this morning?’ I think to myself.

* * * * * * * *

After a five-minute briefing, Ben hands me a laminated card with a list of pre-flight checks printed on it. ‘Read these out as we run through them,’ he says.

     While I read each in turn, Ben flips the corresponding switch or points to the dial in question and comments on it.

     Between us, we agree that the ‘Idle cut-off’ is checked, that the ‘gyros are uncaged’, that the ‘high rpm’ is checked, and that ‘cowl flaps – open right – open left’ are also checked. To be honest, Ben lost me after asking me if my seatbelt was tightly done up, though I’m totally back with him at the end of the checklist, where it mentions ‘cabin heat: check’ – it is, after all, December.

     Finally, having ‘checked’ whatever the hell the ‘magnetos’ and ‘Trim’ are, Ben tells me to taxi the plane up to the end of the runway.

     ‘Are you sure?’ I ask, knowing how disastrous putting me in charge of his plane could be, even while it’s still on the ground.

     ‘In your own time,’ he says, pointing in the direction he’d like me to go.’

     ‘OK,’ I say, ‘but don’t blame me if …’

     ‘STOP!’ Ben grabs the lever and brake from me. ‘Always pay attention to the wingspan,’ he says, ‘so you don’t damage them … or that shed on our left, there.’

     ‘Oh, yeah,’ I say. ‘Sorry. I’m more used to … well, a car. My car doesn’t have wings.’

     ‘No, neither does mine,’ says Ben.

     I’m sensing sarcasm.

     Having manoeuvred us away from any sheds, and past some trees that are blowing in the breeze ahead of us, he gives me back control and we slowly taxi to the designated point at the runway’s edge. At this juncture, I’m a little nervous. I’d expected Ben to say that he would be taking charge from this point on, at least until we’re in the air, but he hasn’t said this yet. Instead, he is telling me to point the nose of the plane at a selected spot at the other end of the runway and to give the aircraft full throttle.

     Harnessing my inner nihilism, I do as I’m told, and the plane instantly picks up speed along the airstrip. ‘Fuck!’ I think, but I don’t say this out loud; I don’t want it to be the last recorded word that leaves my mouth before my death.

     Once we’ve hit top speed, Ben says, ‘I have control,’ and lifts the nose off the ground. We are instantly in the air and climbing. ‘You have control,’ I say, for no other reason than to attempt to sound professional about things.

* * * * * * * *

Once I’ve acclimatised to being in the air, and have had a quick look at what we can see below us, in order to help orientate me, it occurs that one of the things that wasn’t listed on the earlier checklist was ‘parachute’. I discreetly look around the tiny cabin but see nothing to indicate that we have one, let alone one each. I lean forward and, as inconspicuously as possible, feel around under my seat.

     ‘We don’t need any,’ says Ben, seeming to read my mind. ‘If for any unlikely reasons the engine fails, this plane becomes a glider, and we’ll just head for a nearby field for a gentle landing.’

     I’m glad to see that he’s considered this, and that he has a contingency plan in place for it, as I sure as hell don’t. I also inwardly commend him on his use of the word ‘gentle’.

     It’s quite pretty flying over the Hampshire countryside. It’s mostly rural, with occasional breaks in the cloud illuminating the various greens and yellows of farmland below.

     ‘On our left, just up ahead of us, is Downton Abbey,’ says Ben, pointing.

     ‘Cool,’ I say. ‘It looks very much like …’

     ‘It is,’ says Ben, ‘It’s the Highclere Castle Estate.’

     I look at the distinctive and familiar shape of the building’s façade, and am instantly reminded of how rich I’m not.

     ‘How much does it cost to get a pilot’s licence?’ I ask.

     ‘That depends,’ says Ben, ‘You’ll need to complete a minimum of forty-five hours flying time, plus there are nine exams to take. The whole thing usually costs around £10,000.’

     ‘I look again at the Castle Estate as we now fly directly over it. I think about the fact that my wife’s ancestors lived in a house like this. I’m also aware that I’m about four generations too late.

* * * * * * * *

Over the next forty-five minutes, Ben talks me through how to execute smooth turns to the left and right. Very occasionally, I manage them. But the important thing is that every time my manoeuvres are not so smooth, I at least understand why. I’m beginning to really enjoy this.

     ‘Would you like to get above the clouds?’ he asks.

     ‘Absolutely.’

     We discuss optimum speed and how to maintain it as we climb. This is easy. I’m beginning to wonder why I’d need forty-five hours of flying to get this right, but then I realise, as I look down, that only one person in this cockpit knows where we are and in which direction we’re flying. And that person isn’t me.

     Above the clouds is shimmering gold and orange. It’s quite beautiful up here.

     ‘And this is why I do this job,’ says Ben, nodding at the stunningly ethereal environment around us. ‘And, also, because it’s so peaceful up here. What do you do for a living?’

     ‘I coerce teenagers into doing things they don’t want to do,’ I say.

     ‘Sorry?’ I sense a change of tone in Ben’s voice.

     ‘I mean, I teach.’

     ‘Oh, I see,’ he says. ‘Do you like it?’

     ‘It’s a bit like herding cats,’ I say. ‘Except cats are cute.’

     Ben laughs. ‘I suppose it pays for things like this, though,’ he says.

     ‘So does organised crime,’ I say. ‘I’m currently weighing up my options.’

     After a few more attempts at controlled manoeuvres, Ben points into the distance. ‘See that building over there, at about eleven-o-clock?’

     I follow his line of vision and point too. ‘That one?’

     ‘Yes. That’s Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s estate.

     I look at the outline of the main house, and the other buildings and land that make up the estate. ‘His house is bigger than mine,’ I say.

     ‘Whenever we fly over his house, he files a complaint about noise nuisance,’ says Ben.

     ‘Really? Does he type it in ironic sans font?’

     ‘The last time he complained, my boss sent him a whole file on aviation law, pointing out that we are operating well within our legal parameters.

     ‘And what are the legal parameters?’

     ‘We must keep to a distance of at least five hundred feet above the highest structure at any given point.’

     ‘OK,’ I say. I imagine the plane having to take a sudden arc over Lloyd-Webber’s inflated opinion of himself. I’m also thinking that I wish I’d brought my sunglasses.

     ‘What would you like to do now, asks Ben.

     ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I think we should probably not waste the opportunity to cause a noise nuisance over Andrew Lloyd Webber’s estate. It’s only fair, Andrew Lloyd Webber has been creating a noise nuisance for years.’

     ‘Good call,’ says Ben. ‘Bear left.’

* * * * * * * *

Before making our way back to the airport, Ben asks if I’d like to experience some aerobatic manoeuvres. I say yes, and so he takes full control of the plane and abruptly lifts the nose into a fast ascent, followed by a dramatic drop from the sky, and finishing with a few 360-degree spirals. I’m aware that my excitement at this point is equalled only by my intense sense of nausea.  

     For someone who has difficulty travelling in the backs of cars, I quickly realise that ‘Yes’ was the wrong answer. I’m hoping I can regain some colour by the time we get to ground so that Ben doesn’t get to see how lifeless I now look. I bite my lips so as to encourage at least some colour back into them

     After a moment or two of further erratic manoeuvres in which he tells me that what I’m currently experiencing is gravity x 2, he hands me back the controls in order for me to bring the aircraft back level, and at a more leisurely air speed. ‘OK, let’s head back towards the airfield,’ he says.

     I look out of the windows on both sides. All I can see are fields and miniature clusters of both civil and Ministry of Defence buildings. ‘Where’s the airfield?’ I ask.

     He guides me in via a pond in the distance that we use as a turning point, before having me take a straight line as I lower the plane’s nose. ‘That’s it, keep this line, and don’t be afraid to give it more throttle,’ he says.

     Shit! I hope he’s not expecting me to land this thing. I’m likely to damage more than his wings.

     Luckily, as we come in closer, he says, ‘I have control.’

     ‘You have control,’ I say, again, for no other reason than to attempt to sound professional about things.

     We land safely and park up/dock – or whatever other word pilots use to describe how they leave their planes – before Ben walks me back to the main office. I’ve warmed to this guy. I’ve also warmed to flying. I look at the price list for hourly lessons attached to the wall above his desk. ‘Ouch!’ I think to myself. ‘Forty-five times this? Plus exams? Plus learning materials?’ On the other hand, this might be a thing worth getting poor over.

* * * * * * * *

I find Nat sitting outside the airfield’s small café, where she’s been waiting for me with a book.

     ‘How’d it go?’ she asks. ‘You’re looking a bit pale.’

     ‘I didn’t kill myself,’ I say, smiling.

     ‘So I see. I keep buying you these experiences and you keep surviving them.’

     ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘It might be cheaper in the long-run to just offer a one-off payment for a hitman.’

     ‘Yes, but where’s the fun in that?’ she says. ‘I’d thought I’d have done away with you when I bought you those racing circuit sessions.’

     ‘Perhaps your parents’ gift will do the job for you, when I climb London’s 02 in a few months’ time.’

     ‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘By the way, I forgot to ask, is your life insurance up to date?

     ‘Nope.’

     ‘Shame.’

     ‘You’ll have to just inherit everything, instead of everything plus insurance pay-out.’

     ‘Shame,’ she repeats.

* * * * * * * *

 

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IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING IT ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA PAGES FOR OTHERS TO ENJOY TOO.  (Even us poor writers have to eat!)

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘I’m a strong advocate of the health benefits of being ill.’

I’ve been ill this week. Yesterday, I remained unconscious through pretty much everything that Richard Curtis has ever done only to wake up to the fact that, while I was asleep, the world lost a TV chef, an Australian journalist/presenter, and a British writer/stage director. And these were just the celebrity deaths. Shit! What have I contracted?!

     On the other hand, having spent the last three days consuming only water and rich tea biscuits, my stomach is now completely flat. I think I can work with this.

* * * * * * * *

I’m a strong advocate of the health benefits of being ill. It cuts down on stress, for a start. Since Monday, there has been an acknowledgement by pretty much everybody that not only can I not be expected to take up my usual responsibilities, but that I must not, under any circumstances, take up my usual responsibilities. This in itself makes projectile vomiting worthwhile. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.

     Then there’s the detox value of not being able to keep anything down (or in). Apparently, fasting has all kinds of medical benefits, from moderating sugar and cholesterol levels, to improving brain function.

     ‘That’s the last time I’ll be leaving my car keys in the microwave, then’ I say to Nat.

     She appears less confident, however. ‘We’ll see,’ she says.

     What makes vomiting so intrinsically valuable, however, is that it totally legitimises not going to work.

     ‘Yes, I understand,’ says the cover supervisor, when I phone in to explain, ‘but we’re already a teacher down in your department …’

     Thing is, diarrhoea …’ I say.

     ‘Definitely don’t come in,’ she says, and hangs up.

     Who knew that abracadabra and diarrhoea were synonyms? Two words that work like magic.

     This get-out-of-work-free card is, itself, worth a vast amount of health points and quite probably contributes to both prolonged life expectancy and anti-wrinkling. I’m only 53 but this retirement-lite taster session is bloody lovely. Imagine how much lovelier it would be if I wasn’t so regularly having to hug a toilet.

* * * * * * * *

A further advantage of being unwell is that I’m currently the sole beneficiary of Nat’s maternal instinct (which she denies having but for which I have the lolly wrappers as proof). I’m receiving regular texts from her while she’s at work, to check how I’m doing, and a phone call at the end of each day to see if there’s anything I need from the shops on her way home. This is actually quite nice, and makes me feel cared for. I don’t generally need anything but I always request something, just to see if she means it.

     The cat, on the other hand, is watching me cautiously, no doubt sizing me up in my new horizontal state. I’m maintaining eye contact with it, just to remind it that I’m still the dominant male around here. It has already decided to test this theory by throwing up in the hallway. I’ve ignored him, so he’s thrown up again. We are now laying at opposite sides of the room, silently plotting against each other. I feel obliged to keep the eye contact up, but I’m getting sleepy. This might not end well.

* * * * * * * *

The only real disadvantage with being ill is from Nat’s point of view. She has to share a bed with me. Being I’ve been asleep for most of the day, I’m probably less sleepy than her right now. This, together with the fact that my body temperature rises at night, has made me a little more wriggly than usual. This isn’t good when she has to get up at 5.45am to catch a train into Birmingham for a conference.

     ‘Will you stay still!’

     ‘Sorry … Ouch!’

     ‘What now?’

     ‘I just accidentally punched myself in the face while trying to pull the duvet up.’

     ‘Well, that saves me a job.’

     I think maybe I should drag myself and my pillows into the spare room.

* * * * * * * *

I made the mistake of thinking I was better this morning, so I had a shower and ate grapes. Lots of grapes. I’m not feeling as better as I did.

Outside my window, it’s currently sunny but zero degrees. I can hear people scraping ice off their windshields. I, on the other hand, am sat up on my bed, bathed in warm, ambient lighting, clutching a hot drink while trying to decide which movie to watch. Life doesn’t get much bet… Oh, excuse me a moment …

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.’

It’s cold outside. And wet. And grey. Did I mention grey? The decaying corpse of my lawn that scrubbed up so well last summer is now partially hidden, like a rushed burial, beneath the mouldering litter of late autumn, and sticks to my shoes like putrefying road kill whenever I make the mistake of swapping cabin fever for a breath of fresh air. I think I may have also stood in fox crap. That means there’s foxes out there. And they’re crapping on my lawn.

     ‘Bastards!’ I shout from the patio, as I hop in one shoe while trying to take off the other before re-entering the house. ‘Oh, not you,’ I add, noticing my next-door neighbour hovering near our fence.

     He says nothing, just opens his patio door and disappears inside. He’s like that. I shrug and do the same. We’ve lived within feet of each other for over thirteen years and I still don’t know his name. I doubt very much that I could even pick him out of a police line-up. Hopefully, I’ll never have to, though it wouldn’t altogether surprise me if I did.

* * * * * * * *

There’s a lot to be said about Christmas – and most of it is far too positive. This season of obligatory fun and mandatory wallet-rape, all thinly wrapped up as ‘good will to all men’ (and, presumably, women), is just another poke in the face after they’ve gone and made night time turn up half way through the day by screwing with the clocks again.

     ‘Stop moaning!’ says Nat. She apparently likes what she so casually refers to as ‘the seasons.’

     I’m not ok with them. I’d much prefer one perpetual summer. If it wasn’t for the fact that we’d all probably float away, I’d suggest doing away with global rotation and just park the planet up nicely against a rational season. Like summer. There’s nothing cosy about the damp British coldness that clings to your bones and traps you indoors. And did I mention the perpetual grey? And just as you’ve worn yourself out coming to terms with ‘the seasons’, the threat of Christmas happens at you.

     ‘For goodness’ sake, where’s your festive spirit? The house down the road already has its Christmas tree up.’ I think Nat is getting tired of me following her around the house, whinging.

     I don’t feel that this even deserves an answer. On the other hand, I can’t help myself. ‘Take a look at your watch,’ I say. ‘It’s November. In fact, It’s barely half past November. Christmas might be a tradition, but do you know what tradition is? Do you?’

     ‘Go on …  and on … which I’m sure you’re about to.’

     ‘Tradition is merely peer pressure from dead people; that’s what tradition is.’

     ‘I think you’ll find that Christmas is all about the little baby Jesus,’ she says.

     “But why on Earth did they make him a Capricorn? Everybody knows that Leos make the most enigmatic leaders. Look at Mick Jagger.’

     ‘… Nope, I have nothing,’ she says, and leaves the room.

* * * * * * * *

The first hint of Christmas slapped me in the face the day after Bonfire Night, when I heard Paul Mc – shut the hell up – Cartney inviting me to have a ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ through the sound system of my local Next store. ‘You’re shitting me,’ I said to the shop assistant, as I pointed at the speaker in the ceiling. ‘I know,’ he said. Next lost a customer that afternoon.

     I’m told Christmas is ‘cosy-up’ time with family, but most of us know that trying to coordinate a family Christmas is like trying to drag a full drum kit up a car park stairwell. Ok, Christmas doesn’t smell of wee (we tend to get a real Christmas tree) but the point, along with the frustration, remains the same.

     And then there’s the usual festive racism: ‘We can’t even call it Christmas anymore, for fear of offending someone’ is now the annual Daily Mail reader’s chorus of choice, which has become every bit as traditional over recent years as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, as it pours into and bounces off every corner of social media. This claim isn’t remotely true, of course, but why let truth get in the way of perfectly good bigotry. Most disappointing in my opinion is that these people are still allowed to vote. But as Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’.

     To add insult, I’ve just received an email falsely describing me as ‘a valued customer of Christmas Letters from Santa’.

     ‘I think they might have mixed you up with a different idiot,’ says Nat, as she begins to read my email. ‘Hey, you can get a whole £1.00 off your Santa’s letter if you order before 18th November,’ she says. ‘“You can also include with your letter a token certificate for an extra 50p, which rewards your child for good behaviour and being kind to others. Another great keepsake from Santa Claus himself!”’

     ‘You mean I’ve got to pay Santa in order for him to write to me? It’s true what they say, absolute power really does corrupt absolutely.’

     ‘Poor Santa,’ says Nat, ‘Perhaps he’s suffering from the falling pound and the burden of corporation tax.’

     ‘Then perhaps he should register his business in the United Arab Emirates, and his domicile in Estonia, just like any other self-respecting tax exile, instead of reverting to charging for autographs.’

     ‘That reminds me,’ says Nat, reaching for a faded note that is sticking out of the back of the letter rack, ‘Remember this?’ She holds it up. ‘I found it stuck to the fridge door last Christmas morning when I got up.’

     I try to take it from her but she’s too quick. ‘And I quote,’ she says, ‘“Dear Santa, I’m writing to you to let you know that I’ve been naughty this year, and that it was worth it, you fat judgmental bastard”. Do you have anything to say about this?’

     ‘I think the note speaks for itself,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

In the meantime, my local supermarket has already moved the easy to grab wine from the front of the store to make room for Christmas cards and Twiglets.

     ‘Who on earth buys Twiglets?’ I ask.

     ‘Everybody,’ says Nat.

     ‘But who on earth eats them?’ I ask.

     ‘Nobody,’ she says.

 

Still, it could be worse, it could be … oh, it is. I reach for my umbrella.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: For obvious reasons, I’m publishing this article on a Sunday.

There is a place called Hell in Norway. And every winter it freezes over. It’s a small village of only 1,589 people, which leads me to believe that all those threats I received at Sunday School as a child were mostly exaggeration, and that you have to do something pretty fucking extreme to be sent to Hell. To learn this in later life, I’m filled with both relief and the feeling that I’d been played all those years ago.

* * * * * * * * 

As one might expect, Hell has a retirement home (read ‘has’, not ‘is’), as well as a petrol station, a grocery store, and a fast food stand for passing truckers. There really isn’t a lot to do here! Most significant, however, is that Hell’s railway station is not an end-of-line stop. A sign on its outbuilding reads, ‘Gods-expedition’, an archaic spelling of the Norwegian, ‘goods handling’.

As temperatures can be as low as -25 degrees in winter, one might be forgiven for assuming that sitting in the waiting room of Hell’s station would amount to purgatory, but, as everybody knows, Purgatory is in the United States. Maine, to be precise. (According to TripHobo, there is ‘little to do in Purgatory. It is a small place which is generally used as a rest stop before moving on to better things.’ Pretty much text book then!)

Unsurprisingly – and as I’d already secretly suspected – they play the Blues in Hell. The ‘Hell Blues Festival’ started in 1992 before being changed to the ‘Hell Music Festival’ in 2006, in an attempt to attract a more eclectic crowd. The result of this, only one year later, was bankruptcy. (Not even Goths go to Hell, it seems.) The following year, ‘Blues in Hell’ was re-instated and success returned as Hell reconnected with its true demographic. Last year, British singer/songwriter Jo Harman headlined here. (Having been born in Luton, Hell must have been an almost ‘back-to-the-womb’ experience for her.)

Those who know me understand that I’m not a fan of Blues music. In fact, I place it alongside war crimes and Morris Dancing in my list of ‘Under-No-Circumstances’. However, at a squeeze, I’d still place Blues above the questionable genre of Church Hymns, which leaves me in somewhat of a dilemma regarding my preferred afterlife destination. (Have you noticed how AC/DC fans can instinctively sing along to the entire back catalogue, while church-goers who attend their event every single week still need the hymn books? There is definitely a point to be made here.)

* * * * * * * *

One of the benefits of living in the 21st Century is that one no longer has to rely on biblical supposition when it comes to the realities of Hell – not now that Hell has its own listing on Trip Advisor. A simple click of the computer mouse will tell you that Hell “wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be” and that “the train station […] is only serviced if you flag the train down.” This latter point, I feel, throws up its own existential questions.

The problem with Hell, of course, is fundamentally an ethical one: that its existence for the punishment of souls is inconsistent with a just, moral, and omnibenevolent God. On the other hand, according to lifeinnorway.com, “despite its proximity to the E6 motorway and an international airport, the village itself is remarkably peaceful. Typical Scandinavian wooden houses, well-kept gardens, lots of cyclists, kids playing in the streets: not what I expected at all!” As some schools of theological thought define Hell as specific to the individual (rather like Orwell’s Room 101), perhaps this particular town is set aside for those whose idea of torture is a recurring suburbia.

If this is not your Hell, however, don’t forget that there’s another one in Michigan, USA, another in California, another in Montana, and further Hells in Slovenia and Grand Cayman. They’ve even installed one on the moon, a lunar crater named after Maximillian Hell. Just like the song, Hell really is all around. (I am, of course, paraphrasing.)

I looked to see if Hell, Norway © has been internationally twinned with any other towns but, as yet, there haven’t been any takers despite the fact that the town can boast the honour of having produced the 1990 winner of both Miss Norway and Miss Universe (though I’m not sure how ‘The Beauty Queen from Hell’ reads on the world stage).

Hell doesn’t have a lake of fire but it does have a river and, until 1995, there was a highway to Hell, but it now goes around the village instead. And for those of you who have ever laid awake wondering, Hell is actually 14 metres above sea level. Now, that’s something the Apostles neglected to mention. 

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘It seems that it’s one rule for Johnny Depp and another for Captain Birdseye.’

     ‘Explain yourself,’ says Nat, taking off her coat as she closes the front door behind her.

     ‘Well, I’m quite simple, really,’ I say, ‘albeit in a convoluted sort of way.’ I’m standing at the bottom of the stairs with an armful of laundry. ‘I’m the usual bag of delightful contradictions that one might associate with post-industrial man. Of course, I mostly put this down to having had to untangle myself psychically from the belief systems of the 1970s, which, in many ways, can be said to be the font of my general ineptitudes. Can you believe that we once thought that orange shirts with brown collars and cuffs were something we shouldn’t be put to death for …?’

     She’s standing there waiting for me to stop talking, her body language and expression confused in equal measure by what even I am realising to be my directionless monologue. ‘I was looking to be more specific,’ she says.

     ‘Go on.’

     She reaches into her bag. ‘You’re a man; explain this.’ She slaps a copy of today’s newspaper onto the hallway table.

     I read the headline looking up at me from the front page. ‘Paul Gascoigne?’ I say.

     ‘Yes. Paul Gascoigne. …Well?’

     I’m not sure how to respond. So, I don’t.

     Nat picks the newspaper back up and quotes at me: “The ex-England star, who denies sexual assault by touching, told police he had “kissed a fat lass” to give her a “confidence boost”, jurors were told.

     ‘Wow!’ I say.

     ‘Not good enough,’ says Nat, accusingly, ‘Explain yourself.’

     ‘What? Why me? What have I got to do with this?’

     ‘You’re the only man in the room, so you’ll have to do.’

     ‘Wow!’ I say again, but for very different reasons this time.

     ‘Any insights at all into why men are so batshit stupid?’

     And then it comes to me. ‘If I had any insight into this type of ridiculous male outlook and behaviour,’ I say, ‘I very much doubt you’d want to be with me.’

     With that, Nat’s expression softens and she leans over to kiss me. ‘I’m very lucky,’ she says.

     ‘Nailed it!’ I say. ‘Totally nailed it.’ But I only say this in my head. Only in my head.

* * * * * * * *

Later that evening, Nat and I are in the living room, watching TV. Or rather, she is watching Master Chef, while I’m busy ignoring it with a magazine.

     ‘Why do you have your fingers in your ears?’ she asks, looking over at me.

     I don’t want to say that I’m currently thinking something very loudly and don’t want anyone to hear. ‘Hmm?’ I ask.

     ‘Is there something wrong with your ears?’

     ‘Oh, them. Yes. Itchy.’ I take my fingers out and pretend to scratch them.

     ‘Are you thinking loud thoughts again?’ she asks.

     ‘No! … A bit!’ I say.

     ‘…And?’

     I think for a moment. ‘Well,’ I say, reluctantly, ‘that Paul Gascoigne story …’

     ‘Go on …’

     ‘If the woman in the article hadn’t been non-consensually kissed by a northern drunk but had instead been kissed by a proper celeb – say, David Beckham, or Matt Damon – might she still have considered it an assault?’

     Nat instantly turns down the volume on the TV, which is never a good sign. ‘Do you not understand the word consent?’ she asks.

    ‘Yes, but if, say, Johnny Depp walked across a room and kissed you? No ‘Hi, how/who are you?’ If he just kissed you because he thought you might like it, would you really be all ‘See you in court,’ about it?

     ‘Well that’s not a fair question,’ she says.

     ‘Why not?’

     ‘Because it’s Johnny Depp. The consent is implied.’

     ‘And right there is the slow puncture in your feminist stance,’ I say.

     ‘No, it’s not.’

     ‘Of course, it is. Same scenario, but if he happens to occasionally dress like a pirate, it’s suddenly not assault? It’s one rule for Johnny Depp and another for Captain Birdseye.’ (I’m not sure if my argument is technically still on point at this juncture, but I think my overall theme is still intact.)

     The pause that follows results in Nat turning the TV volume back up. I’m off the hook. Or ignored. Or both.

* * * * * * * *

A few days later, the BBC news informs us that randomly kissing strangers on trains is not actually sexual assault if you are a wealthy ex-footballer and can come across to a jury as adequately stupid.

     ‘And there you have it,’ I say, ‘a jury cannot prove the guilty mind element when the mind in question hardly exists at all.’

     ‘Disappointing,’ says Nat. ‘We’re clearly still living in the Middle Ages as far as women’s rights are concerned.’

     ‘I don’t think I’d have got away so easily with kissing women on trains,’ I say.

     ‘To be honest, I doubt your case would even get to court.’

     ‘Why not?’ I ask.

     ‘Because I wouldn’t be reckless enough to bury your body where it might be found.’

     Though the world outside my front door might still be considered a patriarchy in many ways, in here I’m happy to allow the matriarchy to continue. It just seems easier that way.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘Next week’s blog will be sent telepathically, so if you think of something funny, that will probably be me’

Today, I received an email from an anonymous lady referring to herself only as Medium Theresa. In my mind, that makes her a size 12-14.

     Beyond displaying that she knows my first name (and, clearly, my email address) she wastes no time coming to the point of her message: “Between waking and sleeping,” she tells me, “I am susceptible to the visions that the Higher Powers want to share with me.” While I appreciate the candour of her confession, I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be talking to. On the other hand, though I’ve never been much of a drinker, I think I understand enough to empathise.

     “Last night I saw that you needed my help. I have rarely had such a powerful vision,” she informs me, before inviting me to “Click here and discover what I saw about you.” Not wishing to risk Medium Theresa harnessing the spirit of my entire laptop contents, I choose not to “click here” but, instead, continue reading. I’m only human; if someone, no matter what their dress size, tells me that I need their help, I am likely to draw up a quick audit of any bad stuff that might be currently occurring in my life.

     Other than the facts that I don’t like my day job, that I had to shave using shampoo this morning because I’d forgotten to buy shave gel, and that, occasionally, the water turns cold while I’m showering (I must remember to phone a plumber about this), I feel that everything is pretty much on point in my life at present.

     Theresa begs to differ. “You are struggling with certain important matters,” she corrects. “You know intuitively that if you did not have these problems, your life would look very different.’

     Are there any niggles that I’m subconsciously burying? All I can think of is the fact that I’m still a little jealous of the guy on the news who won £117 million on the Euro Lottery this week. With £117 million, I could quit the day job, get my shave gel delivered in bulk, and keep a plumber on retainer. I wonder, however, whether Medium Theresa is perhaps being a little over-sensitive on my behalf.

     “I know you have not always had it easy in your life …” she continues. I stop to consider this. I’ve been on the planet for 53 years; shit happens, but nothing so far of the magnitude of war, famine or Cadburys going out of business. In many ways, I consider myself quite lucky.

     “The Higher Powers have brought me on your path. I feel that I must help you,” she persists. ‘It’s not me who’s hearing voices,’ I find myself whispering as I scroll down the rest of her message. I instantly feel bad for saying this and find myself whispering, ‘I’m sorry,’ at my laptop screen, as way of apology.

     ‘Who are you talking to?’ asks Nat, entering the room behind me.

     ‘Medium Theresa,’ I say.

     ‘That would make her a size 12-14,’ says Nat.

     ‘That had occurred,’ I say.

     ‘That’s a 38-40 in European sizes.’

     ‘Or an 11-13 in Japan,’ I add.

     Nat stops what she’s doing and looks at me. ‘Why do you know this?’

     ‘We’ve all got a past,’ I say, smiling. ‘I used to work for the Geisha Secret Service … the GSS, if you will.’

     ‘… Anyway, who is Medium Theresa?’

     ‘She wants to save me from myself.’ I point at my screen.

     Nat scans down the email. ‘… You only have three days to make use of my message,’ She quotes. ‘Does her higher power buddy go on holiday after that?’

     ‘Well, I’m a little disappointed to find that her proposed friendship should come with conditions,’ I say, ‘but she does point out that I’m (I highlight the words), “a very special person.” And despite the glaring fact that she’s never met me, I’m going to let her have that one.’

     ‘Special can be a very loaded word,’ says Nat, smiling at me.

     Later, during dinner, something occurs to me. ‘Have you noticed that, of the people who have won the lottery over the years, none of them has claimed to be psychic?’

     ‘That’s probably because of insider-trading laws,’ says Nat. ‘Did you reply to Medium Theresa?’

     ‘I didn’t feel it necessary,’ I say. I think she could have foreseen that my response was going to be a lack of one.’

     ‘That won’t make her a very happy medium,’ says Nat.

     ‘I see what you did then,’ I say.

Adrian Sturrock: ‘I recently achieved the first item on my bucket list – I now have the bucket’

It’s 2007. I’m sitting in a country pub in Buckinghamshire with a new date. This is our first meeting together. We’re making small talk and enjoying the sunshine. To be honest, I’m starting to suffer from dating fatigue. I think I’ve been overdoing it. My record so far is two separate dates in the same evening. I’m probably not going to do that again.

     ‘You shouldn’t treat dating like shopping for shoes.’ says a friend of mine.

     ‘Most shoes on sale tend not to be to my taste,’ I say. ‘And being shoe shopping is so boring, I try to get around all the shops as quickly as possible.’

     ‘Maybe shoes is the wrong analogy,’ he says.

* * * * * * * *

By the time we’ve ordered our second drink and something to eat, small talk is already getting strained. How long does one have to sit through a date before one can leave without appearing rude, I wonder?

     ‘What are your ambitions?’ I ask, clutching for something to keep momentum going.

     ‘What?’

     ‘What would you most like to achieve in life?’ I persevere.

     ‘Well, I’d like a proper manicure,’ she says, ‘And I’d really like to kick a pigeon.’

     ‘Sorry?’ I’m clearly not hearing her correctly.

     ‘Well, look at them, they’re all cracked.’ She holds her fingers up at me.

     ‘No, the other one,’ I say.

     ‘I really want to kick a pigeon,’ she repeats. ‘You know, it’s difficult, isn’t it. They move so quickly.’

     I check my watch. Twenty more minutes should do it. I’ll just have to eat faster.

     ‘I feel that you’ve thought this through carefully,’ I say, smiling at her to test whether or not she’s actually just teasing me. She isn’t.

     ‘It’s been my ambition since I was a child,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve tried all sorts; sneaking up on them from behind, and to the side, but just as I go to take a swing at one of them, it’s like they’re psychic or something, like they know what I’m going to do and fly away. It’s so frustrating.’

     ‘Yes, it must be,’ I say, staring directly at her. I’m aware that this is the first thing that she’s talked animatedly about.

     Our meals arrive and I dig into mine as quickly as possible.

     ‘What about you?’ she asks.

     ‘I can honestly say that I’ve never had the urge,’ I say, using my wine to wash down a large mouthful of pasta.

     ‘No, silly, I meant what are your ambitions?’

     ‘Oh. Well, I’d really like to one day earn a living as a travel writer,’ I say. ‘I’d also like to learn a new language and, at some point, perhaps retire into Europe. And, though it sounds silly (though not as utterly ridiculous as your pigeon thing, I think to myself), I’d like to get published in The Guardian.’

     ‘She looks at me with a degree of disappointment. ‘You’re a bit posh, aren’t you,’ she says.

     ‘Am I?’ I say. (I’m now most of the way through my meal. Eight or nine more minutes at most, I think to myself, surveying my plate.)

     ‘… Do you mind if I pop to the loo?’ she asks, after a short pause.

     ‘Of course not,’ I say.

     Five minutes later, she returns to the table, though doesn’t sit down. ‘I’m really sorry,’ she says, ‘but my friend just phoned me to say that she’s having a bit of bother with her boyfriend. I’m going to have to go and help her out. Hope you don’t mind, do you?’

     ‘Not at all,’ I answer, not believing a word she’s saying, ‘You’re clearly a good friend. Go do what you need to.’

     We do the obligatory not-quite-hug thing as she grabs her jacket and handbag and disappears out the door.

     I sit back down, unsure which is currently my dominant emotion – relief or disappointment that I didn’t get to escape first. I pour the rest of her wine into my glass and finish my meal at a more leisurely pace.

 

Not long after I get home, my phone rings. It’s my friend.

     ‘How did the date go?’ he asks.

     ‘I don’t think I really need a new pair of shoes at the moment,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

It’s 2019. Nat and I are out having breakfast.

     ‘A quoi penses-tu?’ she asks.

     I’m thinking about bucket lists,’ I say. ‘What’s on yours?’

     ‘I’d really like to go to the Galapagos islands.’ 

     ‘Interesting,’ I say. ‘Any form of birdlife you’d like to kick?’

     ‘What?’

     ‘Good answer,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

 

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