Sunday, 30 April 2017

THE WAY TO FILL A DOG-SHAPED HOLE IN YOUR HEART

Lhasa lad

There's only one way to fill that dog-shaped hole in my heart. A dog! Or two!

I lost my soulmate Sheltie some years ago. I never once imagined living without a dog for the rest of my days. But chronic ill health, enforced early retirement and the financial restraints that brings had other ideas. I can no longer afford to give a dog the life with me that faithful friend deserves.

Instead, I dogsit. 
Just for friends, for family, sometimes for charity. 
The owners are people who know me, trust me totally, share their precious pets with me while they go on holiday.

Like me, these friends would never put their furry family member in kennels. So they bring them to me. I never ask for payment. The dogs' company's reward enough for me! Yet owners often insist on payment in kind, or whatever the going rate at a kennel might be, or a donation to my favourite charity, like INVEST IN M.E. RESEARCH

My long garden's big and secure enough to let dogs run and play to their hearts' content. The woods and walks are round the corner. I still have my old lad's toys and blankets to supplement their own if needs be.

Sometimes I'm just too poorly for a while and have to turn down prospective dog-sittings with regret. Of course, the various special regulars in question understand. But at times when I'm not house-bound or bed-bound, I take this delightful opportunity to put a little bit back into the doggy community, put a little piece of my heart back in place for a while.

This is one of those blessed times.

Here they are! My special VIP guests! (see pictures)

Mustn't keep them waiting.

As author Dean Koontz says:

"Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one, is a life diminished."


Lhasa lass
Me and my own Sheltie lad,
Pinch Mill Beck, South Yorkshire c 2004.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

BUM PANCREAS MOMENT #79657435205


Every day has those moments, doesn't it?

After 33 years of being a Type 1 diabetic, every day usually has several moments. Or more.

Today's turned out to be this: that moment you're hypo (low blood sugar) so you neck a bit of sugar (for me these days, that's usually dates, rather than jelly babies) to bring you back into the land of the living.

Then you've got Rita (my blood glucose meter, paired as a handset with Humph, my insulin pump) shrieking and clanging her "ooh, look at me with my smartphone ringtones" fifteen minutes later, nagging you to retest, before you've had chance to recover or wash your pin-cushion fingertips after the sugar-fix imput!

So then, Rita all like:

"Oh, my stars! You're 17.8! Hyper alert!"

even though you're still hypo and drunkenly trying to type an explanation on her miniscule internal keyboard:

"Not hyper - just sugary fingertips after hypo" just so Reet won't record it as a true record and dob you in wrongly to the endocrinologist at the next diabetic review!

That!

As you were!

Humph the insulin pump and Rita the glucose meter,
when they were new and Rita was still
wearing her glam screen  protector!





Friday, 28 April 2017

RENT-A-PET (Short Story/humour)




 “I told her she was talking to the organ grinder instead of the...what's the other one? The oily rag one?”
The engine driver. Or is it the monkey you're after?”
Shireen doesn't look up from her magazine. No change there, then. Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga have got one over on me as usual.
I said, what with the recession, we'll just have to tell them we can't fulfil.”
Fill what?” Shireen does look up for a minute, but she's still planning the evening's viewing and what to download on her iPhone and she's not connecting with my dilemma.
If pets were properties...”
Pardon me?”
If our pets were properties, it might make sense to rent rather than buy in the current climate. That's all I'm saying.”
Take these five words and put them in order: thought, haven't, this, you, through,” Shireen is raising her eyebrows in that way she does when I'm having one of my brainwaves. “Have you, though?”
I've lost her to media mindless again, if she ever came back from there in the first place. But now I'm firing on all cylinders. It makes perfect sense to me. The customers could rent a pet, say, a shoal of guppies, a dog, a chinchilla, a guinea pig and have all the advantages of not owning it. We could offer monthly food subscriptions, vet insurance, all that day-to-day stuff. We could have a dog-walking service for if they're too busy for the pooper-scooping malarkey jazz. Virtual pets were all the rage a decade or so ago, so it's a small step to this, really. A little bit virtual, a little bit 'a dog's not just for Christmas.' Best of both worlds.
Shireen doesn't look that convinced, yet.
I print out some flyers and stick them in the shop window after lunch. Shireen shouts to me while I'm mucking out the gerbils. Sounds like she's taken it in this time.
What's all this, 'Recession-Busting Pet Rentals' business?”
What I said. Here comes our future. Well, for the present, anyway,” I say, trying to work out whether she's digging it or about to phone for the men in white coats.
Then a woman comes in with a little kid. I'd say grandson, because, I'm not being funny or anything, but there's dentures involved, to be honest and quite possibly mint imperials.
I go straight in for the hard sell. I know Shireen is barely resisting a surreptitious head-bang to 'Applause' because I can see her doing that Gaga swan-neck thing off the video, inside her head, so she's probably not going for the big sales pitch any time soon. The little boy is fingering the counters and eye-balling the Bearded Dragon. I don't anticipate that becoming a sale in real terms, so I do a bit of a redirect.

How would your little lad like to rent that Beardie Weirdie for a month to see how it goes, madam?”
He's not mine, love, he's our Linzi's. Stop touching the glass, our Callum, you'll frighten that lizard thing.”
I was going for a smidgeon of flattery, there, but she doesn't seem to be biting. So I try again.
We're offering a try before you buy, madam. You can do a rental of the Bearded Dragon on a month by month basis. For an extra premium, we do the feed thrown in. Can't say fairer.”
Callum!” The woman seems more bothered about him picking his nose than getting him the best bargain this side of Animal Magic.
Has he had a pet before?” Now it's time to focus and do a spot of compare and contrast, swings and roundabouts, checks and balances. Need to get Grandma going for the renting rather than buying scenario.
He won a goldfish when he was little. It only lasted about a month. I think it got fed up of going round and round. Mind you, it came from a stall just next to the roundabouts, so I suppose it should have got used to that, by the time our Callum chucked his quoit over the plastic duck. You're a right little marksman, aren't you, our Callum?”
Callum's glaring through the glass at the Bearded Dragon and sticking his tongue out. I think he thinks it's trying to insult him but we're here to educate and inform.
How long do you think Callum would like to rent the Pogona for?” I say, wondering if going for the Latin name's maybe trying to blind them with science a bit too soon in the seller-client relationship.
It's actually a Pogona vitticeps,” Callum has transferred his glare to me, “This one's a Central, or Inland Bearded Dragon. It basks on rocks and is found throughout semiarid regions of Australia. Why does this label say 'female'?”
I can see Shireen has pulled one of her soundproof earbuds out. This could develop into better entertainment than Big Brother eviction night, in her book, who knows?
Well, because it is. Female, I mean.” I'm just a tad on the defensive now, because, from Callum's tone, I can tell this could get personal.
It's a male,” Callum sounds like Chris Packham when he's doing that thing where he sets himself up as a connoisseur of all things mammal poo. “I can understand your mistake. They aren't very strongly dimorphic.”
I might be getting a bit flustered, as I haven't got time to Google, but I'm keen to keep my end up.
It's hard to tell the difference, you'll find, Callum, as the male and female are very much alike.”
This doesn't wash with the bastard offspring of David Attenborough and Michaela Strachan. I'm a bit distracted by that image of genetic pick-and-mix, so maybe I take my eye off the ball for a moment, because Callum's straight back in under my guard.

You can tell them apart, actually. The male has a wider cloacal opening and if you really look at the tail, you can see it's wider at the base than a female's would be. This is a male because it also has too big a head to be female. See the big black beard?”
I want to stay aloof from what is developing into a lecture, but I feel obliged to keep swimming. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Shireen has taken her other earbud out, like she thinks it's the final of Britain's Got Talent and I'm the unpopular one singing songs from the shows, pitted against the dancing dog.
He knows his stuff, does our Callum. Don't you, our Callum?” Grandma looks like she's about to go into that 'back-of-the-net' pose from Alan Partridge.
Plus, the clincher is that the male has a hemipenis.” Callum points this particular feature out. I'm ashamed to say, Shireen starts giggling, which rather lets the side down.
Lovely,” I hear myself saying, “so if you know all about it, you'll be eager to get your hands on this fine specimen, then.”
I turn my attention to Callum's grandma again, who looks as though she could march him off for a nutritional sit-down burger treat at any minute, so the stakes are pretty high, at this juncture.
Shall we say three months rental at twenty-five pounds a month, per calendar? That will be seventy-five pounds in the first instance. I could do you a nice little package, including food, for another tenner per month, taking us to a hundred and five pounds. For fifteen pounds extra, we can do Callum a nice little printed certificate with his name and the Beardie's on, to say how well he looked after it for the quarter. All for one hundred and twenty pounds, no hidden extras. What do we say, madam?”
What's the name of the Pogona vitticeps, then?” Callum is looking at the label and I'm already seeing a fly in this particular ointment.
Well, as you can see, its name's Veronica, at this time, but as a special concession to you, we can call him Veronic instead.” My mind's going down the same route as Fred the Blue Peter tortoise metamorphosing into Freda with a lick of white paint.
I wanted a female. The label said this was a female. I didn't really want a male,” Callum is saying. My mind wanders onto Lulu the Blue Peter elephant, with me fulfilling the role of her hapless handler sliding about in the...
She tells me it comes with a nice hutch.” Grandma is looking at the cages section with Shireen who seems to have laughed herself out of her catatonic stupor.
It's a vivarium, Grandma,” Callum says. “We'd want something off for it being a male when I didn't want a male, wouldn't we?”
Grandma nods.
I could do you the three months for, say, a modest knock down price of one hundred pounds.”
Would that be with live insects to feed it with?” Callum is really pushing it now.
No. We do pre-packaged sealed boxes of insects dusted with vitamin and mineral powder.”
That's not actually like it would be in their natural habitat. We'd want something off for that, wouldn't we, Grandma, for it not being fully authentic nutrition?”
Callum is taking the proverbial, surely, but Grandma nods sagely. My options are swimming off up the Swannee without a paddle.
You said ten pounds a month for food, but that's not the proper food, so that would thirty pounds off, like only seventy quid. Then we'd have to be using Granddad's aphids off his roses and taking moths out of Uncle Ian's moth-trap and everything, to keep it healthy. That'd be us feeding it, so we'd need thirty quid like you said.”
I make that,” Grandma's got her mobile out and switched on the little calculator under 'organiser-apps', “forty quid.”
I see Shireen putting her earbuds back in, trying to look like she's not really listening any more, but she's not fooling me, because I can see she's got Lady Gaga on pause.
The other pet shop we went in, Animal Magic on the High Street, was offering a package of special reptile-safe disinfectant for all our hand-washing and hygiene needs, for fourteen pounds ninety-nine for a big spray.”
I'm beginning to lose the will to live, but Callum's on a roll.
Plus they were offering us a really good book on 'Caring for your Bearded Dragons, Lizards, Terrapins and other Exotic Reptiles' at half price, that's ten quid with loads and loads of full colour plates. On top of that they said we could have the latest DVD of 'Vivariums: Reptiles in da House' Region 1 and PAL for just twenty smackers.”
Our Linzi's bloke calls them smackers, doesn't he, Callum?” Grandma turns to me and adds, “I think that's a fiver you owe us and you can put Veronic in the back of the car. We're just parked round the corner. Bring him back the last day of August, shall we? Callum will be back to school soon after then, so he'll be wanting something he can take for walks.”
I let Shireen fill out the paperwork while I walk round to the car with Callum and a bloke who comes in with tattoos up to his neck. That's Linzi's bloke, apparently. He breeds Bearded Dragons. Says he could flog me one cheap if he's got any going when they bring Ronnie back. That's what Callum's wanting to call his new temporary pet.

I probably won't be going ahead with Rent a Pet, just at the present time of asking. Seemed like a good idea at the time.


Thursday, 27 April 2017

SITTING ON THE FENCE



It would be sunny sitting on the fence.
There you can swing your heels above the mess and mud.
From there you can see the filaments parting inside split hairs.

There, you are rocked to sleep by the tip and swing
Of the scales nodding to right and left extremes.

But these times are storm and hail, dismay
Like drumming, urgent rain.

Time to get off the fence,
Nail the freak flag to the mast,
Let myself down from the silent tower
By a skein of my own hair.

Nothing was built or bettered by folded arms.

Stepping from the fence's shadow

I stagger, but find myself standing.

So *deep breath*

I stand with bee.
I stand with badger.
I stand with fox.
I stand with dolphin.
I stand with kittiwake.
I stand with forest.
I stand with underdog.
I stand with sustainable.
I stand with outsider.
I stand with difference.
I stand with diversity.
I stand with colour.
I stand with courtesy.
I stand with humour.
I stand with gentle.
I stand with wind.
I stand with ocean.
I stand with cyclist.
I stand with walker.
I stand with introvert.
I stand with peacemaker.
I stand with refugee.
I stand with misfit.
I stand with spiritual.
I stand with science.
I stand with vulnerable.
I stand with other.
I stand with broken.
I stand with compassion.
I stand with no label.
I stand with love

large enough

not to have to prove itself

too

tough.




Wednesday, 26 April 2017

ANXIETY: PALE ROBBER



(This one's for all my friends struggling bravely in so many upsetting situations at the moment. Thinking you're alone. Please know you're not.)


A mirror distorting joy into a gargoyle.
A telescope bringing terror close as skin.
A magnifying glass of grief's despairing.

Anxiety.

A doubling of fears, a blank forgetting
A tripling of turmoil numbing drives and dreams
A well of weeping drags tomorrow under

Anxiety.

A deafening to birdsong and love's murmur
A toiling twice up every harrowing hill
A thief of calm, a churning, an abyss

Anxiety.

Hope? Oiled perfume drizzled on dry dead feelings
Hope? Soft palms cupping the frayed and fraught
Hope? The return, rebirth, the restoration
Of all that pale robber plunders from the heart.


(The photos here hint at the truth that I find my personal hope and comfort in the natural world and wonder of creation and creativity. May you bless yourself as you deserve to, by allowing yourself to drink from the fountain of your own deepest joys, to heal your heart when it feels lost in that fog of anxiety and helplessness. Thank you so much for stopping by!)


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

WAITING FOR WINGS


Up in the attic with the window ajar in implausibly glacial late April.

A wafer of ice has made sorbet of the bird's water dish and the bee-bath. I shatter it when I'm out scattering mealworms, filling feeders, dispensing lard and suet. Back up in my den I nudge the window wider. The chill's going to be worth it.

This morning I'm listening for something special.

I'm waiting for wings.

The Red Arrows are staging a fly past from RAF Scampton. Scheduled to pass over Robin Hood Airport at Finningley quarter of an hour later, they're flying east as far as Humberside Airport before heading back to Scampton.

Aircraft out of Doncaster regularly cruise low over my roof, at hundreds of feet instead of many thousands. Thrilling yet unnerving. Imagining their wings against this stainless blue sky, anticipating the rumble as they soar over, was what set my fingers notching the window sash onto the latch.

Through the open glass can I hear goldcrests zithering in the conifers over the road at the old farm, rippling further off in the grounds of the Grange. A chaffinch is doing his impersonation of a cricketer running up to the wicket to bowl a spinning googly, the fall of notes at the end of his trilling phrase bouncing down from the Ash tree through the budding leaves. Greenfinch tops the linden, whistling nasally in long coils of whoop. My ear catches the cross tutting of Blackbirds fighting over supplies of sustenance on the patio. Dunnocks are flying off the handle. Robins are in a song contest knockout against their rivals with a medley of their hits where the lyrics always sound like "Do you know who I am?"

There are already babies to feed. I've not seen any in feathery person yet. I only know because their parents' gathering outweighs their grazing. I'm hoping the frosty night hasn't taken them by surprise. You can't throw on an extra heated blanket when your bed's a few twigs in a draughty hedge.

I never do see the Red Arrows, after all. The clock hands sweep past the moment of their homing. The planes must have headed out to the coast and back without darkening these inland skies. The tilted roofs with their aerials sucking signals from the sky, the telegraph wires swinging liquorice skipping ropes in the playground of nippy air are satisfied with the sunshine.

With the window open, I can see sparrows giddying along the eaves, inches from my upturned eyes, skippy shadows fluttering, overwound clockwork automata driven by the ceaseless chivvying of their hungry youngsters from their playpens in the roof.

I think I got the best of it.

I know I did.

It was worth the wait.

I witnessed the wings that make the future brighter.

Young Wood Pigeon - more wings to watch for in Spring

Monday, 24 April 2017

IT'S A RAT TRAP & YOU'VE BEEN CAUGHT


You know what they say:

'You're never more than six feet away from a rat.'

'Rats desert a sinking ship.'

Or what they sing: 'There's a rat in mi kitchen, what am I gonna do?'

Whether scientific truth, song lyric or urban myth, rats gravitate to human habitation.

No wonder. Humans, who throw away perfectly nutritious scraps as waste, feed birds, scatter seeds, must seem generous, even extravagant hosts to your average hungry rat.

Round here in South Yorkshire, the Brown Rat (Rattus Norvegicus) is our most frequent guest.


As regular readers know, I grew up in a nineteenth century railway cottage sandwiched between two farms, surrounded by farmland in a little mining valley. No surprise that rats featured in our daily lives.

We once found an overflowing nest of rats wriggling under my dad's garage where his motorbike and sidecar lived.

I'd read a storybook where the Rat King was a villain. The name "rat-king", I later learned, referred to a mysterious ring of rats stuck together by their knotted tails. Mythologised in folklore, preserved in museums and cabinets of curiosities, a 'rat-king' was once thought to be a cryptozoological phenomenon, taken by the superstitious as a bad omen.

These baby rats in the nest didn't seem very villainous to me.
Just tiny and vulnerable.

But for adults, they seemed much less welcome than other wildlife. The rats were disposed of without recourse to ratcatchers or environmental health. They had lives and needs and stories just like every other creature in the garden and fields beyond. It's just that humans recognise rats as a source of disease and danger. We discourage their residency, unless they're "fancy" and so kept as pets. We reject wild rats as enthusiastically as we welcome other animals to share our living space.

Our cat, also a refugee from a neighbouring farm, would often arrive at the back door, making that eerie gargling yowl of sadistic menace every cat owner recognises. She had a trophy in her mouth, preventing her from making a more musical miaow. If it was still fluttering, it was a bird. If it was small, a mouse, shrew or vole had met its fate in her jaws. Anything more cumbersome was invariably a rat. The birds and smaller rodents were rescued and freed. A captured rat was more likely to meet the wrong end of the coal shovel before being disposed of in the dustbin.
Much to the cat's disgust.



In my garden today, I see all sorts of welcome wildlife. Bank Vole, Field Mouse, Hedgehog, Grey Squirrel.

Then there's the Rat.

His arrival is less an occasion for reaching for the camera and notebook, and more for clapping and shooing. He's quite large, but predictable. He always follows the same course, his "rat run" between my garden and the neighbours'. He stops to feast under the bird feeders until he sees me move. Instantly he's off, often before any serious clapping and shooing can ensue.

One day I hurried to the spot under the hedge where he'd disappeared. I stamped my foot and did my best impression of a strangled cat, followed by what I hoped was a bloodcurdling growl. Then I became aware that my neighbour was out washing the patio and decided that strategy might well get me certified. Still, the rat didn't return. For half a day.

I'm quite envious of my mother's rats. They seem to live fast and die young. She lives in a middle terrace in a row of two-up-two-downs in a mining village ten miles away, not far from where I was born. No farms now, but more people. Rats are thriving. Her loft, where the electrics and water tanks are, joins on to the houses on either side. The rats have a clear run along the length of the terraces, at roof-level.

Most of the time they leave no evidence. No obvious droppings. No sounds of scratching or scampering. Their shenanigans are only exposed when the lights go out. When the electric cuts out altogether, that is.

Three times over the past couple of years, when the electric has unexpectedly gone off, a local workman has climbed up to see what's caused the power cut.

Short circuit?

Surge in the electric current?

No. There on the rafters lays the culprit.

Dead.

Electrocuted.

A rat with its teeth still clamped onto the wire it had been chewing.

Recently the firewalls between the old loft spaces have been plugged, the electric wires reinforced. The rats will have nowhere to run.

But like us, rats are evolving.

They'll be gathering round in their mysterious rat-king huddles, having a quick snifter from the birdbath and plotting their next move to outwit those pesky humans.

Still have no idea how this little rodent ended up dead in a hanging feeder.
I suspect it might have been dropped by an owl or other flying predator.




Sunday, 23 April 2017

SCRUFFY THE BLACKBIRD - RUN RAGGED!

Scruffy the Blackbird, run ragged!

We all have those days.

Boss is on your case.

Kids need feeding.

House looks like a tip.

Can barely snatch a moment to do the supermarket run.

Tempers fray.

No time to breathe.

Let alone put a comb through your hair.


It's that time of year again for the birds!

Scruffy the Blackbird's run ragged. Literally.
Feathers mussed up in a mad mohican. 
Dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards style.
Nobody notices.
Nobody gives a flying feather!



Everybody's about their own business, grabbing all available food for their own families.
If Scruffy's lucky, he'll get a moment between foraging trips to have a bite himself.

By Summer, I won't even recognise Scruffy.

Maybe I should have given him a better name.

All those extra mealworms will have to be my apology, for now!

Scruffy the Blackbird rests for a second in the Lilac while Mrs S does her shift gathering baby food

Saturday, 22 April 2017

I OWE IT TO THE BUTTERFLIES

Green-veined White (Pieris napi) kissing its reflection

Butterflies are beautiful. Moths are magnificent.

I've believed that with all my heart since I was little.

As a kid I'd find caterpillars everywhere; furry ones, stripey ones, wriggly ones, ones that dangled on threads from our Hawthorn tree. I gathered one gently and let it make its chrysalis and cocoon inside an empty Jaffa Cake box. I monitored its stunning transformation into a flying fascinator before returning it to enjoy the sunshine and drink the nectar in the garden.

Comma (Polygonia c-album) sunning itself

My joy in learning about them knew no bounds. I made friends of all the creatures that thrived in our garden, in the valley and the fields beyond the railway line and station where my dad worked as shunter and porter. I loved all nature and taught myself to recognise the birds by their calls and songs.

But phobias can spring up out of nowhere and mess with your head when you least expect.

One of my phobias, believe it or not, is moths.

Mottephobia to give it its Sunday name.

Moths, and butterflies, too, when they become trapped indoors. The sight of a moth, especially the big flapping cigar-bodied type that seem bent on self-destruction, hurling themselves into light bulbs and candle flames, can send me into a gibbering state of irrational panic.

I shudder. My stomach knots. My heart churns. My flesh creeps. My palms tingle and sweat. The impulse to shriek and to run is overwhelming. Fight or flight.

Why? Where did this phobia come from, suddenly, when I was about ten?

I can pinpoint the exact moment.

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

I was playing outside with an older girl one summer day. For many children "playing out" in the sixties and seventies, summer holidays weren't complete without a butterfly net.

For me, an only child, happy to spend hours alone exploring the nearby countryside, that meant a very gentle approach. No scooping or lunging for me. I would place the net, hooped onto its long cane, close to the butterfly, so it could enter of its own accord. A butterfly would be guest of my net just long enough for me to observe and learn a bit more about its secret life, before letting it flutter on its way.


Not so this other lass.


"Come on, I've got this off my nannan!" she said, flourishing a glass bell jar she'd borrowed from her grandmother's larder.

That day, she and her net took butterfly-hunting to the level of an Olympic sport. There could be only one winner. At first, I had no inkling that the winner wouldn't be the butterflies. Or how the sight of their capture would affect me for so many years.
Small White (Pieris rapae)

We saw mainly "Cabbage Whites" that day, as we called them, from the way their caterpillars would munch their way through the leaves of that vegetable. Large Whites (Pieris brassicae) and Small Whites (Pieris Rapae) were abundant back then in South Yorkshire, compared to today in 2017.

Each Cabbage White in my net was soon soaring back into the blue or hovering along the borders of "Billy's Field" with its bomb crater from World War II, now mossy and overgrown. But the other girl put every one she caught into the bell jar, now hot as a furnace from the summer sun. When I returned from wandering, my friend had ten or twelve butterflies in the jar. I could see them flexing their wings, still sunning themselves and having a rest from their labours.

Again and again she went off with her net to catch another one. And another. Each joined its fellow captives in the confines of the bell jar. Soon there must have been twenty or more. Most were calm and still. One or two fluttered to get a purchase on the sheer sides of their transparent prison.

"Shouldn't you set them free, now?" I think I said. I only know it was what I hoped. What happened next haunted me for the rest of my life.

I only remember her throwing down her net on the grass, crouching for a moment to gloat over her trophy jar, crammed with a cloud of white wings. So beautiful. So perfect.

Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) inside
conservatory with me

Then she shook the jar with the lid clamped tight.

 She shook it up.

Shook it with all her might.

She unscrewed the lid.

She tipped up the jar and poured out what moments before had been butterflies.

Out onto the gravel and the grass.

Torn wings.

Broken bodies.

Flapping.

Blundering.

I recall the slight breeze, welcome in the heat, tugging at them as they fluttered helplessly along the ground.

Maimed.

Dismembered.

Dying.

A few survivors flew off, low, disoreintated, into the long grass.

Out of sight.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

I don't remember saying much. I was a shy thing back then, less likely to challenge somebody older and bossier. But my shocked senses never quite recovered. I had glimpsed how casually the dust and scales can be brushed fatally from the wings of fragile creatures.

Female Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana)
on inside of front door (no, really! Inside, though!)






That dread of seeing them harmed, left me fearful of seeing them at all. The phobia grew. Not just butterflies, but large moths too. As soon as they come inside, skittering against windowpanes, frantic to be free, I imagine their broken wings with the old dread, trapped in their hellish chamber of death.

I've not been in contact with the older girl since those childhood days. She'd be pushing sixty now. She moved away. Married with kids. Her grandparents are dead. The railway cottages are demolished. The gardens, Billy's Field, the old mossy bomb crater that was my nature table and my playground, all under the houses of a new-build estate. I don't suppose she'd even remember now. A forgotten game. A way to pass a few boring hours on a summer's day.

Me? It's taken me till my mid-fifties to decide, with the help of my camera, that forty years of phobia is forty years too long. Now, zooming in with my lens, I'm gradually challenging myself to conquer the revulsion that was never in my heart, only in my brain. To reclaim that unclouded enthusiasm for lepidoptera hidden in my heart. I know only I can tackle this with a bit of backbone and gumption I maybe lacked back then.

So when a butterfly comes inside into a confined space with me, like the conservatory, I take a deep breath, grit my chattering teeth and focus. When a moth spirals in at night, mistaking my laptop screen for the light of the Moon, I root myself to the spot, though all my damaged instincts and ugly associations are screaming through my nerves to flee, in case it falls apart again. I grab my camera, switch to macro and capture their beauty and uniqueness to share with others who care about them as much as I do.

I owe it to myself, after all these years.

I owe it to the butterflies.

Peacock butterfly (Aglais io)

Friday, 21 April 2017

SUPERMARKET SWEEP (Short Story/Humour/Crime)


Chillax, grandma!
Cheeky monkey! Found his comment under my Facebook status this morning. I’ve got this new friend online, you see. Jack Hoodie Honeytrapp. Not his real name. Obviously. He looks in his early twenties from his profile photo. I added him when he requested because I thought he must be Phyllis’s grandson. He has about nine hundred Facebook friends; makes my thirty-five look a bit threadbare, doesn’t it? I’d say “ROTFLMFAO” but apparently that’s a bit saucy for silver surfers like me! A bit like admitting to watching “Shameless” or listening to “Slipknot”! That caused a bit of a ripple. I usually settle for doing a bit of this “LOL-ling” business instead. They can’t touch you for it!
This morning I’m doing one of my “sweeps” down the supermarket. Usual place, different time, because you don’t want to get too predictable for the CCTV. Not that they staff the cameras, really. Just dummies – staff and cameras! Last Tuesday I came away with a whole bag of kumquats in my big plaid shopper. Don’t even know how you’re supposed to use them! They didn’t seem to go with my boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce. I ended up throwing them away.
I always religiously take a snap of the “sweepings”, as I call them, before I get rid, to post on my Facebook. I love how you can set your privacy so only certain friends can see certain photos. I post all my “sweepings” so the other lasses-“Silver Sweepers” we like to tag ourselves- can compare, compete, and pick up tips from each other. Bit like a knitting circle, but with purloined goods instead of purled ones. “Nick one, purloin one,” that’s what I put under one of my photos, and I got loads of thumbs up on Facebook for that one.
Watch and learn, sisters, watch and learn!” I put on as a little title under the snap of those kumquats. The other Sweepers were green with envy! Phyllis had only managed to post a really blurry photo of the packet of desiccated coconut she’d just pinched. Desiccated coconut? I ask you! That’s not even imaginative! She even nicked a pot of glace cherries last month. Lois texted me this short video of her in the magazine section shoving “Viz” magazine down her skirt (elasticated, naturally, with “inserts”).
Put it on the website,” I texted back. No good just showing it to me. We all want to see what the others are up to, or where’s the fun? Anyway it was out of focus and you couldn’t see whether the assistant was nearby or not, so where’s the challenge? Lois is a bit of an amateur, to be frank. Fancies herself as a bit of a Quentin Tarantino, I reckon. Style over substance, I say. Just my opinion, of course, but as I started the “Sisterhood of Sweepage”, I think I’ve a right to my two penn’orth.
These little tables in the supermarket restaurant are very handy. I can park my shopper trolley up against the table just where they have that little tray-rack thing attached and as soon as my cappuccino and my pensioners’ portion of liver and onions with peas and mash gets brought to me by the waitress, it’s in goes the tray, down the side of my plaid swag-bag, no bulge, no stretch, onlookers none the wiser. Today there’s already a tray actually waiting in there, in the rack with its rim stuck out! I had that as well, no messing! It’s a tight fit, but a wiggle and a bit of manoeuvring, and job’s a good ‘un.
I’m sitting here and I’m wondering now if I should maybe have gone for the textured featherlite condoms instead. What if the trays won’t impress the girls when I post the photos after I get home? I do a panning sort of shot on my mobile showing the girl on the till and the waitresses beetling up and down only a few tables away. Pretty daring, but even I feel a bit flat just bagging a couple of melamine trays to show for a day’s sweepage.
When I get up to go, I can tell nobody’s even looking in my direction. I’m in my seventies and I joined Invisibleville, society-wise, quite a few birthdays ago! Every cloud, and all that. Back on the bus, the driver actually shouts back to a young mother with a double pushchair and asks her to budge up for the old lady with the tartan print trolley, and a young man lifts the front over the step for me as the bus isn’t one of those with the let-down hydraulic super-low floors. Young people today! No backbone!
When I get back home I put the trays in a good light on my kitchen worktop, pop my bill for the meal on top as a little in-joke for the girls, (they all love the liver-and-onions), then I take some good full frontal shots of myself sort of hovering in the background, on automatic timer, and then I put them all online with the footage from the restaurant.
More notifications and updates on my homepage: Phyllis’s grandson Jack has just become a friend of half the Sweeper girls on my friends list, including Lois and most of the others. Lois has been busy uploading too, I see. There’s a new photo album on her profile showing her in the store, grinning and pointing at some support stockings still in the packet, poking out of her coat sleeve – not poking out very far, mind, so you can’t really tell one way or the other. Then there’s another couple of photos of her putting on some of that under-eye miracle roll-on stuff. Then some pictures showing how much they’ve ironed out her wrinkles and that “under-eye area” we used to call “bags”! Except they haven’t, of course; her mug looks just as saggy! All that gurning and grimacing for nothing!
Lois usually misses the point, bless her. Maybe the wrinkle stick is a step in the right direction for her. I keep telling her the rule is supposed to be that sweepings have to be things we couldn’t possible have any use for. That way, if anybody starts to suss out what we’re up to (allegedly!), we can put them straight, tell them we couldn’t possibly have taken these items for ourselves. What, me? Your cuddly old gran? Kumquats, condoms, lads’ mags, they fit the bill, but half of what Lois sneaks out is too like the stuff she has on her shopping list anyway! That’s not cricket. That’s common or garden shoplifting!
I decide to do the double today. A morning-and-afternooner, as I call it. I have my cuppa and a digestive around two, then I’m off down the little chemist on the precinct. I can’t get my plaid trolley into the chemist, so I just take my ordinary bag instead. It’s even more challenging, in here, as it’s more hands-on, face-to-face. There’s always an assistant around, doling out advice on which cough medicines you need for tickly, dry or phlegmy, or they’re offering to reach you down the incontinence pads from the top shelf. Why do they put them there, for goodness’ sake? You’re blinking well weeing from having to stretch up there! Too much information, as they say. Still, today, I’m here on a mission, so I’m on the look out for something more unlikely. I go up and down the aisles, very slowly.
Just browsing, dear,” I mutter, “thank you very nicely, forgotten my list.”
The assistant goes back to shelf stacking and I shuffle round the other side, furthest away from the dispensing counter. That new pharmacist always comes out glaring over her half-rimmed specs, asking people their address as if they couldn’t make that up! Amateurs!
I look on the bottom shelves. Gift items, false eyelashes so you can look like Cheryl Cole, Kylie perfume, hair straighteners. Lots of potential, but they leave me a bit cold, this afternoon. I want a real biggie to impress and inspire the girls. Even Phyllis seems to be lowering her targets lately. Desiccated blooming coconut, indeed! You can’t get slack, or what’s the point?
I feel a bit creepy, like I’m being watched. There’s a young man who came in after I did and he’s still hanging around. I can’t get into my stride with him malingering there like a bad smell. I think I might go with the eyelashes after all, or maybe now is the hour of the textured featherlite? Suddenly I decide to go for both. The false flutterers slip into my side zip compartment. The security camera’s on the other side of the shop. They have one that looks out into the street, too. I move off in pursuit of the condoms, but they are right opposite the counter. The young man in the hoodie’s still dithering about just behind me. Has he seen me go for the lashes? She who hesitates is lost! I’m just about to reach out for man’s best friend, when he’s leaning over my shoulder. He grabs a packet of some very boring looking Mr Averages, and then he’s at the counter, blushing and coughing as he pays for them. Quit while you’re winning, Rene! Don’t push it. I leave the shop while the assistant’s dealing with reluctant Romeo.
My mobile battery’s running down to the red bit, but I didn’t get chance for any photo evidence on this job, anyway. I could stick on the eyelashes back at home and get some shots that way. I watch the young man come out of the shop. I know what you’ve been up to, but you don’t know what I’ve been up to! He looks vaguely familiar now I come to have a proper look, but I can’t place him. I watch him till he’s back in his car. There’s another bloke in the driving seat with a policeman’s uniform on. Is this why we pay our taxes?
When I get home, there’s a private message on my Facebook from Phyllis. She says no, Jack isn’t her grandson, where did I get that notion? She thought he must be Lois’s grandson. But Lois says not. Lois has been asking Phyllis, “What are privacy settings, anyway?”
GR8 2 C U 2DAY.L8R G8R,” Jack’s posted on my wall again. Unintelligible but sweet, as ever. More pressing, I’d better check up on Lois and her privacy settings! Apparently, she’s showing her sweeper’s gallery to her whole friends list, or everybody, more likely.
I’ve been in for a while when my flat’s intercom doorbell buzzes. I ignore it for a minute while I glue on my phony eyelashes with the special non-toxic adhesive provided. Still time for an upload or two to get the girls giggling before suppertime. I have my camera at the ready and I’m just thinking up a snappy caption for it, like: “The cashier didn’t bat an eyelash,”or maybe “Granny’s Allowed,” when the doorbell buzzes again, a bit too insistent, for my liking. At this time of day! Don’t they know we’re all pensioners in here?
So I open the door with the eyelashes half on, semi-sighted cos I can’t get my specs back on in the rush. It’s two young men with a warrant to search my flat.
Mrs Irene Garland?” one says, and I can see he’s the spitting image of young Jack off Facebook, and the other chap’s suspiciously like the policeman in the car this afternoon.
I don’t say much. What’s the point? They show me reams of printed out photos they’ve downloaded from Lois’s sad little collection. They’ve already got Phyllis’s particulars. I haven’t heard that word since I last listened to Gilbert and Sullivan on my iPod!
My case comes up before the magistrates in a couple of weeks. They give me time to unglue my Cheryls before they take me down to the station. They are very decent and a bit apologetic for duping me into a sense of false security. Jack Hoodie Honeytrapp. He didn’t fool a pro like me for a second! Sitting in the back of the unmarked police car, I have a bit of time to do some serious chillaxing.
Leader of a criminal internet web ring” is a tad erring on the side of overkill, IMHO, but it’ll look good on my CV! The other sweepers will have to settle for supporting roles. The boys in blue don’t seem to notice the lumps in my Damart thermals, even when they go through my handbag for contraband goods. In fact I chillaxed all the way back to my flat with a regulation clipboard, a couple of pencils, a small roll of “Crime Scene-Do Not Enter” fluorescent tape and pair of standard issue handcuffs, no key, but who’s counting?

I think I might give all this social networking a miss tonight and have a night in with the soaps. Or maybe “C.S.I.”

Thursday, 20 April 2017

PUMP ASSAULT AND BATTERY LIFE


Don't panic! Don't panic, pumper! Oh, wait...you weren't panicking, were you?

What a daft and daffy crazy world we live in.

Received an email from my insulin pump manufacturer today. About the insulin pump I've had connected to my Type 1 body for the last ten months, replacing the pump I wore for several years before that. Humph, he's called. Humph the pump, and the blood glucose meter/handset Humph's paired with is Rita. Rita the Meter. I know, I know. I'm a fine one to talk about it being a crazy world.

It's just that this email, with all that red lettering, alarmist klaxons blaring, sirens shrilling, kind of got my heart hammering. Before I had chance to read it, that is.

Was I in mortal danger of imminent pump-tastrophe? Was Humph starting to interfere with the gravitational pull of the Moon? Was Rita's Bluetooth deflecting the flight-paths of aircraft passing overhead and threatening national security? Was some emergency menacing my health or the state of the nation? Not quite.



The email's just telling me, in over-the-top watch-my-lips detail, that I can - *drum roll*- extend my battery life. How? By using only lithium AAA batteries of a certain brand. The very batteries that are the only ones available from the pump company. The only ones they issue with the rest of the pump supplies like cartridges and cannulas.

So I climbed back down off the ceiling, took off my tin hat and got back to what I was doing before my inbox exploded with scarlet scaremongery.

Of course, as an insulin pumper I need to understand the risk of dodgy batteries. Their sudden failure might well put my life at risk. But it's a bit late to tell me after such a long time. Plus, this is the same advice given by the company when the pump was first "fitted" at the hospital. Nothing to see here.

A single battery lasts me anywhere between 32-37 days before I notice any deterioration in performance. I usually change it when Humph and/or Rita start nagging me that battery charge has fallen to 85 or 90%. Any longer and I'm likely to realise my blood sugars are inching up towards double figures (in UK mmol/L) until the penny drops that I've forgotten I need to change the battery. Not recommended, but common sense wins the day. Rita's battery's rechargeable, flattering her self-image as a kind of tardy budget smartphone with added buffering while she calculates bolus amounts. Maybe one day Humph can go a bit more green as well!



In the body of the email, I discover that in spite of purporting to want to help me maximise battery life, they insist in bold that:

It is vital to change the lithium battery every 2 weeks, regardless of the battery indicator.

So I'm supposed to discard the battery, then, when it's only half exhausted.

I'm supposed to waste, not maximise, these non-rechargeable resources.

What's the point of the sophisticated battery indicator in the first place?

The battery indicator was the one thing I was most delighted about with this pump. The previous one, my first, didn't have that. It was all guess work, and no terror-alert emails back then, either!

What was I saying about it being a crazy world? Humph and Rita wholeheartedly agree!




Wednesday, 19 April 2017

MAD ABOUT MAGPIES, CRAZY ABOUT CORVIDS!

Corvid controversy.

That's a given if you're a fan of these amazing birds!

I can guarantee that whenever I post a photo of a Magpie (Pica pica) on social media, there are going to be polarized reactions. Some, like me, adore them. Others get hot under the collar just seeing them. Like Marmite, the Magpie knows no middle ground. Rather than click "share" with a Magpie pic, I might as well throw a tea party for a bunch of Brexiteers and Remoaners and expect balanced adult debate!

I love corvids. Magpies make my heart jump for joy.

There. I've said it. Feels as bold a statement as standing up in a room of strangers to admit I've never watched Star Wars all the way through!


"But they eat birds! Little chicks!" someone will comment, as if I didn't know.

"They destroyed all *my* Wren's eggs in the nest three years on the trot!" someone else adds, whipping up the outrage till everybody has a Magpie Murder Casefile episode to share.

My own garden's no stranger to Magpie mayhem. Round here, Wrens, Collared Doves and Long-tailed Tits flap themselves into a frenzy of alarm-calls to ward off what they rightly count as a threat to their nesting babies, as soon as the Magpie glides in all butter-wouldn't-melt from the Ash tree.

I've witnessed angry Blackbirds gang up to warn the world of potential predators, whistleblowing on Magpies and Carrion Crows. Once a mob of Blackbirds here ejected a Grey Squirrel, another visitor rather partial to eggs and nestlings, from the garden in Spring. They successfully froze the furry invader in terror on a branch by disorientating him with their relentless cacophany of alarm-calls as they gathered from nearby gardens and woodland to join in a wall of sound. Yet there seem to be as many people complaining on message boards about rowdy Blackbirds these days as about Cockerels crowing!



Make no mistake. I understand how Magpies use their sparky corvid brains to devise all sorts of devious ways to feed themselves and their own young. Including supplementing their diet with small and accessible bundles of protein like songbird chicks. So will other corvids, birds of prey and mammals. It's just that as Magpies thrive and move closer into our gardens and back yards, they have come under the scrutiny of human judgement.

Photos of Kestrels, Sparrowhawks or those silent assassins the Barn Owls in all their cuddly anthropomorphic glory don't seem to attract such vitriol as the Magpie. Superstition and lugubrious rhyme has done him no favours! Even if he turns up alone as a Billy-no-mates, he's accused of being "One for Sorrow"!

We all have our favourites. Our avian heroes and villains. That's human nature.

But Magpies have been on the naughty step for far too long, to my mind. Magpieism from the Anti-Magpie League is alive and well, so I find myself on the defensive on behalf of one of my feathered favourites.

After all, that's the nature of nature. That's survival. That's birding for you.


We don't have to look very far from home to spot the species who genuinely do lasting damage to songbird populations on this fragile planet with our wasteful, polluting stewardship of Earth! Magpies don't come close to rivalling us in destructive lifestyle choices! But that's enough controversy for one blog post!

I'll go on treasuring every close encounter I have with these particoloured jesters, loping across the lawn, using their wits to forge their future, yet still jumping back theatrically as if shocked by their own shadow.

I'll go on posting photos of them, too. So freedom of speech can prevail, differing opinions can be aired and everyone, from Magpie-sceptics to Magpie-philes like me, can enjoy the drama these birds bring into our lives!




Tuesday, 18 April 2017

SALT ON YOUR TONGUE




You wanted salt on your tongue
Without the wrecking sea spill

You wanted time to fly
Without earth's tilt and spin

You wanted warmth of empath
With neither kiss nor touch

You wanted soft connection
Without fingertip's brush

You wanted unspoken knowing
Without creed or troth

You wanted the steady flame
Without the spiralling moth

Monday, 17 April 2017

WICKERSLEY'S HISTORIC BUILDINGS: IN REALITY AND IN FICTION

The Round Houses on Wickersley's historic Morthen Road near Rotherham, South Yorkshire, UK



Above are the Round Houses on Wickersley's Morthen Road as they are today.

I used the local geography as one of the backdrops for my novel 'Goatsucker Harvest' set in 1855.

These gorgeous buildings, once used as a place of worship and a shop, now private dwellings, are the ones that catch our heroine Thirza Holberry's eye and fire her imagination as she is waiting for Lucas to collect the new millstone from the quarry to cart back to Thirza's grandparents' windmill on the outskirts of Thorne and Hatfield Moors near Doncaster.

The quarries were one of lovely Wickersley's claims to fame, once renowned for their high quality "Wickersley Rock" sandstone. Their excellent grindstones were in demand for Sheffield's cutlery industry and exported worldwide. You can still see grindstones scattered around Wickersley and in the village there are still many beautiful old houses and walls built of the local stone.

"To while away the time, Thirza set out to stroll the length of what she imagined was the main street, back towards the parish church of St Alban. She gazed at a pair of unusual bow-fronted cottages and puzzled how the occupants chose furniture that would bend to the shape of the room. Or did they design their own? It must be like living in a windmill, only a windmill cut in half." - Joyce Barrass 'Goatsucker Harvest' ch 25 "Grindstones and Goatsuckers."

Here's St Alban's Parish Church. As Lucas says in the book, the top of the tower is the highest spot between Sheffield and Bawtry and used to have a lantern lit on top to guide travellers by stagecoach in the nights before streetlamps made night like day!

St Alban's Parish Church, Wickersley, from Church Lane

In the story, Thirza is hoping for a quick getaway from the stifling summer heat as she wanders around the village, but Lucas has met his friend from the Old Hall and is getting more than a little merry and incapable of driving their carriage, as he takes more than one drink at the Needles Inn (now Wickersley Social Club, still an excellent venue for a pint or two!)

The former Needles Inn, now Wickersley Social Club
The Inn stands alongside what used to be the main road between Bawtry and Sheffield, before the dual carriageway (Bawtry Road) was built just to the north in more recent memory.

The Gazebo in the grounds of Wickersley Grange beside the Inn, is a listed building reputed to have been where passengers would wait for the stagecoach, dating from the early eighteenth century. More info here on the Historic England website.

The listed Gazebo, just east of Wickersley Grange

Wickersley Old Hall is still standing proud nearby on the opposite side of the road from pub and gazebo, the road across which Lucas staggers dangerously drunk in my novel. Today, it has been converted into flats.

Wickersley Old Hall, south face