A right good listening to….

Zoom (other videoconferencing products are available) is all very well, but it’s no substitute for seeing people in the flesh. Yes there are advantages, I can wear my scruffy old gardening kecks and multi-coloured paint-spattered Crocs with my Reiss blouse and jacket. And I only need bother to re-colour the front of my hair, hey, no-ones’s going to see the back, not unless I flounce out of a meeting in disgust – and that’s not happened before, well not very often anyway.

But when it comes to knitting and nattering, only the real thing will do. The clicking of needles and clinking of china cups on saucers, the gentle chatter and of course the scoffing of cake. Usually this happens in our village library, but nothing’s been going on there for months. Leeds City Council abolished fines for late book returns late last year, so at least the books we all borrowed before lockdown won’t be costing us, but we are desperate for the doors to be opened again, not least because there’s a stockpile of wool in the store room. It’s not just a library, you know.

With an average age of about 80, the Knitwits knitters have been confined to home, and I’ve missed their company and the stories they tell about our village and the people in it. For me, the fortnightly get-togethers have always been an entertainment. Not gossip or scandal, heaven knows social media can spit that out 24/7, but good old-fashioned stories. I’d take my knitting needles along and give them a right good listening to. Sometimes I’d be the youngest there, but only sometimes as young Violet would often join us after school, bringing her knitting bag and a keen ear to hear stories from what to her must seem like another world.

It had been too long since those days in the library. Chief Knitwit Bev had kept an eye on them all, especially those living alone. But while solo knitting had been going on, there was no nattering. Bev and I agreed, nattering was needed.

Fortunately, as manager at the allotments stores, I have keys, which means we could put the kettle on and set out a socially-distanced tea party outside. Bev insisted on adding a touch of class and bringing a tablecloth and the best china, she even brought a milk jug and cake forks. All we needed was good weather, a few cushions to pad out the wooden benches and cake, knitters would bring their own wool.

It was the best afternoon I’ve spent for some time, just sitting around and chatting (or in my case listening). Betty, our oldest member and best baker, brought two cakes, orange and lemon polenta and chocolate raspberry meringue. We wanted to photograph them for the virtual village show, but she wouldn’t let us, saying they weren’t up to standard. I had to have three slices of each to test them out, I’d have given them first prize, Betty’s cakes are the best. It beat Zoom hands down for company, content and cakiness though I couldn’t hide my half-coloured hair.

Sunflower village

Over the winter, there must have been some kind of sunflower symposium in our garden. It’s the only explanation for what happened in the spring as the seedlings beat back the borage, which takes some doing, I can tell you. Now summer’s here, everything’s yellow. And it’s spreading.

I do love sunflowers, they come in all shapes and sizes, but mainly they’re big, bold and yellow, occasionally orange, sometimes brown, but always beautiful.

Last summer the garden was left to its own devices as we spent most of our time going to and from hospital. I’d scattered a few sunflower seeds where I hoped they’d grow, but there was a backlash from the borage which puts in an annual appearance, much to the pleasure of the bees. It was everywhere, and I don’t even like Pimms.

Many of our garden birds love the sunflower heads so they were, quite frankly, a bit miffed at the seed shortage over the winter, though we didn’t scrimp on the feeders. Maybe they were the ones who arranged for a bumper delivery, as those sunflower seedlings just kept on emerging.

Lockdown meant the Calverley in Bloom planters all around the village stayed unplanted. The small army of volunteers, plus my mate Bev and I, usually pull up the winter pansies and replace them with big, blousy summer flowers. Unfortunately that small army has an average age of 72, with everyone either self-isolating or shielding and there were no flowers to be bought, because nowhere was open.

I had more sunflowers than I knew what to do with, they were everywhere. It was like the scene from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice where the brooms just keep on dividing. Not that I objected, but I was running out of garden space and the borage was starting to complain.

There was only one solution, and that involved me digging up all the spares and hoiking them around the village to be re-planted. Bev, who has a bit of a thing for nasturtiums and tomatoes, did the same with her spares and, hey presto, we have a village full of sunflowers, other flowers and tomatoes. Even better than that, they were free, which suits us Yorkshire folk and our Yorkshire birds, right down to the ground as we do like to get owt for nowt.

Come autumn and winter I predict our village will look like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds as they all bring their mates from as far away as Lancashire to enjoy millions of choice sunflower seeds. And who knows what’ll happen when the uneaten seeds start to germinate, we may be renamed the Sunflower Village.

A rude awakening

When the doorbell goes at 2.30am and you can see flashing blue light reflected in the eyes of your startled, newly-awoken husband, you know it’s not going to be Interflora with a basket of roses and box of chocolates.

At that time of morning, elves have removed all clothing from the bedroom and shifted the light switch a few centimetres to the left. Or is it right? Hence me thundering down the stairs in odd running shoes, Noel’s dressing gown and a small scarf. Well, it may have been cold.

The elves had also changed all the locks so the key wouldn’t fit in the door. Fortunately Noel appeared, looking rather fetching in my robe, and helped open the door, which was damned impressive seeing how he wasn’t wearing glasses, not his at any rate.

To his credit, the ten-year-old policeman maintained professionalism and didn’t laugh at the strange couple framed in the doorway. ‘Bad news, I’m afraid,’ he said. Hey, youngster, it can’t be as bad as the #bastardcancer news we had a year ago, I was thinking, and I was right.

He stood to one side and we could see a hole where our car window used to be. The pavement glittered with broken glass, the car seat was like a jewelled throne, an uncomfortable jewelled throne. There was another hole, where the radio used to be. I was quite proud that we managed not to swear, though I’m sure they’ve heard it all with those very young ears. The car alarm went off on cue.

There was a time when car radios were highly prized by thieves. Consequently the manufacturers made it so we could remove and carry them like a handbag. The thieves just stole the car instead, then the manufacturers fitted immobilisers. Now radios are part of the dashboard, but it seems VWs have special chips, valuable chips, nickable chips.

Our highly active and hoodie-phobic village vigilante Facebook group had alerted us to this new thievery after a couple of VWs were broken into. But surely ours would be safe outside the house, with our alert and ferocious guard-cats continually on the prowl, in their dreams at any rate.

Our neighbour across the road is a very light sleeper and witnessed the lads, for they were lads, have two goes at breaking the window, then climb in through it and do the deed. They even had time to firkle through the glove box and no doubt wonder why anyone would carry a red cow bell around with them. Or maybe they didn’t, as they just took the radio and fled, no doubt heading to the woods to drink Red Bull and chortle.

I’d like to think we had the last laugh. They must have been very excited to find my genuine RayBan case, the contents would fetch at least half a crown at the pub where they would no doubt try sell them. But the sunglasses were safely in the house, mwa ha ha….. And then there was the radio, or rather its precious chip, which has value because it’s an integrated satnav. Except ours is an old model and doesn’t, so it’s worthless to them. The little bastards.

Of course we didn’t have a very big last laugh, it’s cost us £175 on our insurance excess and no doubt an increased premium. We’ll be without the car for a week, not that we go much further than the shops at the moment, and will no doubt be picking glass out of our clothes until we trade it in.

But at the end of the day, it’s only stuff. Things. Possessions. A car. And it’s only money, not that we’re rich or ever will be. But we have friends, and family, and cats, and our health, they are far more important in life. Though I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to mete out punishment to the little chip stealers, I’m thinking a winter’s worth of digging on the allotment, that’ll learn ’em.

Can’t you just switch it on and it works?

Noel is in his element, he has two screens full of ones, zeros, curly brackets, incomplete words and no pictures, there isn’t even any binging, bonging and buzzing, just the sound of his brain cogs clanking and whirring. He’s also balancing on one leg, but that’s another story.

This story is about programming, or cyber witchcraft as I have come to call it. And it all started because we couldn’t hold the village show, not a real three-dimensional show at any rate.

Life has become very two-dimensional during this dreadful pandemic. We see just the heads and shoulders of most people, along with their book collection. Everyone is moving in rectangles, like the pictures in Hogwarts, except they can’t cross the frames.

Calverley Show is due to be 99 this year, and we’re having a big build-up to celebrate the centenary in 2021. We’ve commissioned an artist, booked the marquee and ordered in the flour for the massive cake, so there’s no way we’re postponing it for a further year, we couldn’t stand the stress!

With the show hall closed and trestle tables stowed away, there was no way we could go ahead as usual, clearly the answer was to move our show online. It was just a case of uploading photos of giant cabbages, monster runner beans, blooming blooms and the usual handicrafts. We decided to create a few extra classes, including baking and sharing the recipe of a flourless cake and celebrating all we’ve done during lockdown, including creating beautiful gardens. My wine judging services wouldn’t be required, you can’t taste a photograph, but at least the show would go on, easy peasey, eh, Noel? Just switch on the computer and it’ll work, won’t it?

Evidently not. Computers need to be told what to do, but you have to do it in a special language, a language Noel speaks fluently, though it’s all gobbledegook to me. He took this task very seriously, even investing in a standy-uppy desk so he didn’t get a stiff neck from hunching over his old desk. After many hours of curly brackets and Matrix-like ones and zeros tumbling from the screen, he had an announcement to make. The show would go on! And actually all you have to do it switch it on and it works. I’m rather proud of the old fella.

Now all we need are people to submit entries, so off you pop, just register on the site and enter one – or more – of the 38 classes. Easy peasey, thanks to Noel.

The wiggly wigglies

The allotment has been my salvation and source of sanity during the 100plus days of lockdown. When the Prime Minister told us to stay at home and save lives on that Monday evening back in March, I was straining to hear what he had to say about allotments. Please, I said to the cat sleeping contently on my lap, her belly full of chicken, keep our allotments open…. She opened one eye and made a little farty noise. Cats, eh?

Boris had nothing to say on allotment matters, I think he had more on his mind that my Maris Piper chitting in the conservatory, onion sets waiting patiently in their little net bag, and seeds sprouting in the greenhouse. If push came to shove and allotmenteering was banned, I had a contingency. I could head down to the lot at midnight and plant the potatoes and onions they could get on with their growing while I dug up the garden at home for the peas and beans.

Fortunately it didn’t come to that, lockdown allotmenteering was allowed and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Social distancing is never a problem there, sometimes I’m the only one, with nothing but the birds and badgers for company. The birds sing and the badgers dig up the plants and leave their poo, there’s a lot of poo.

During the past 100 days or so, it’s been a place to find normality. Nature has got on with its thing, growing, flowering, multiplying, and that’s just the weeds. I take my flask and radio, dig a bit, plant a bit, chat a bit to neighbours at the prescribed social distance, or just sit and stare around. It’s as if the world hasn’t gone mad after all and that the times are not strange, they are just times.

Unfortunately this year we’ve all had unwelcome visitors in the shape of the allium leaf miner, or wiggly wiggly as I know the little buggers. I thought my onions were just being creative when they started to send their leaves into curls. But no, the little mothy thing which came to this country 18 years ago, is sucking up the sap of our spring-planted onions.

It’s bad news for the onions, though good news for my work-out regime. I’ve had to dig them all up, which has worked up a right sweat, I can tell you. They’ll have to be burned or put in my hot bin to make sure they are gone, another workout, eat your heart out Joe Wickes.

Looking around the lots, most of the spring-planted onions have the wiggly wigglies, we’ll all have something to chunter about and we do like a good chunter, it’s all part of allotment life. We do like a good chunter, in fact we’re a bit disappointed if everything’s going well, we are from Yorkshire after all, chuntering is what we do.

In the grand scheme of things, the arrival of the wiggly wigglies isn’t a massive problem, just something else in the great Book of Allotment Learning. I for one have just ordered autumn onions, you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, mothy things.

The sofa saga

I remember the day very well, we were up at stupid o’clock, anxious, nervous, more than a little scared. Thursday December 19 2019 was the day Noel was to have surgery to be rid of that Bastard Cancer. We knew it was going to be a long day. I decided to buy a sofa.

There was a certain method in my madness. For a start, sofa-buying would be a distraction. Noel was to be in surgery all day and I didn’t want to sit around fretting and eating Marmite flatbreads, my binge of choice. Oh my goodness they are crunchy Marmitey heaven, I polish them off a box at a time and hide the empties in next door’s bin, I don’t think she notices, I bury them under the empty dog treat packets.

There was also the post-surgery recovery which the consultant had warned us would be long and require a lot of lying down. Not one to mince words, he told it how it was and it, meaning the surgery, was serious. Noel would need to rest a lot, but on the upside, with all that running, climbing, skiing and healthy eating, he was good protoplasm to work with. Seriously, he said that and it’s now his LinkedIn tagline Noel Akers, Programming Guru – Good Protoplasm to Work With.

What better aid to recovery, then, than a luxurious, squashy sofa, long enough to take Noel’s full 6ft 1in as opposed to our 20-year-old sofa which wasn’t? He could ligg around all day, ministered to by the cats, and me of course. Something lovely to come home to.

So I hot-footed it from the hospital to John Lewis who, according to my extensive research, had some most excellent sofas on offer. OK, so the research wasn’t extensive, I looked on the John Lewis site and saw one I thought would fit Noel.

I could have ordered it online, but where’s the fun in that? I wanted the full sofa shopping experience with swatches and bouncing on the cushions, followed by something tasty and expensive in the cafe, like we used to do in the old days, the days before lockdown. Turned out they didn’t have my sofa on display, so there was no bouncing, just a swatch book to fondle and make my choice. Ten minutes later I was in the cafe, our bank account several hundred pounds lighter, looking in vain on the menu for Marmite flatbreads.

It turns out sofas are made to order, with a lead time of 12 weeks. Ah well, I thought, Noel would still need to to ligg around, it would be something to look forward to as he started his recovery squashed into our old two-seater. But then lockdown and no-one was going anywhere, least of all a delivery driver with our sofa.

In the meantime Noel recovered, he didn’t need to lie down, in fact he got a stand-up desk to do his programming. That’s good protoplasm for you. I forgot what my rather expensive purchase looked like, couldn’t remember the colour, lost the order and receipt and even wondered it I’d dreamt it. I was also slightly worried that it wouldn’t fit through the door.

Finally, six months to the day after the order was placed and on our 20th wedding anniversary it arrived, fitting neatly into the place vacated by the old sofa and now looking like it had always been there. It came with a free mug, in a box, in a cushion, I have no idea why, it’s an upholstery mystery.

Noel can stretch out on it, so can I, so can the cats. It’s fabulous. Marmite flatbread anyone?

I want to….

I want to hug my friends for so long and so tightly and give them such big, sloppy kisses that they’ll long for the days of social distancing.

I want to shake the hand of every person I meet, one of those double-hold shakes, clasping their one hand between my two, with eye contact and a smile so big that my face will look like it’s going to fall off.

I want to meet every friend, their partner, their children and their pets and treat them to coffee and cake, listening to every detail of what they’ve been doing during lockdown and enjoying every single word.

I want sit for hours in cafes drinking coffee, eating cake, then sandwiches, then more cake, a different sort of course. I’ve missed cafe cake. This will be my personal contribution to kick-starting the coffee and cake economy.

I want to drive to the Greasy Sausage Sandwich van, parked on the dual carriageway layby and buy the greasiest sausage sandwich they sell and wash it down with a pint of builders’ tea in a chipped mug.

I want to sit next to total strangers in the cinema and share their popcorn, even if it’s sweet, then brush past them all as I go to and from the concessions, searching for Kia Ora and the singing crow.

I want to join the round-the-block queue to the Apple store for the latest iPhone release, even though I don’t and never will have an iPhone. When I get to the front, I’ll ask for the latest Samsung Galaxy, then run away sniggering. Just because I can.

I want to get in the car and drive the length and breadth of the country, then cross over to another country and another, stopping at service stations and using every toilet. Twice. The purchase of coffee and cake is a given.

I want to climb 6b+ at the climbing wall, thrutching and huffing and puffing as I try and fail to reach the dirty, smelly, sweat-stained holds, then crawl to the cafe for chips with extra chips, soaked in vinegar. I’ll share them with all my mates.

I want to pop into a shop and buy flour, so I can make cake.

I want to put on my running kit and not run alone. I want to pin on my race number and be shoulder to shoulder with hundreds, maybe thousands of other runners in the start funnel, chattering nervously, or maybe shivering with cold, then watch as they all sprint off, and leave me plodding along, grinning, crying with happiness.

Most of all, I want to parkrun. I want to wake up on a Saturday with that ‘it’s parkrun day’ buzz and get there super early to greet fellow parkrunners as they arrive. Yes, I want to parkrun, it’s what I’ve missed the most during these lockdown times. The friendships, the stories, the pure joy of seeing so many familiar faces who I may or may not be able to put a name to, the setting up and taking down of the course, the short walk to the cafe afterwards, and of course the coffee and cake. Oh and the running, mustn’t forget that. Afterwards, hours later, returning home with a buzz and grin that lasts the rest of the day. Yes, parkrun. I want to parkrun. Please let it be soon!

I’ll name that tree with tea

‘How do you know what tree that is?’ The young dad with his wife and children had spotted Noel circling a fine old tree with string as I held a home-made sign. Beech, it said. And it was.

‘I’m not clever or owt,’ he said ‘I don’t know what tree’s what, so how do you know?’ I wanted to tell him it was nothing to do with cleverness, in fact as far as I’m concerned, I have PG Tips tea to thank. The tea of trees.

We were in our local Calverley Woods, part of which is owned by the Woodland Trust and designated ancient woodland. We’re very fond of our woods, we’ve walked there, run through them, even climbed and abseiled in the quarries, though the green, slippery rock hardly made it classic climbing. I love the woods and feel quite protective towards them, they are for everyone to enjoy. I’ve regularly plogged there, chuntering and tutting as I’ve picked up litter, which included more than its fair share of Red Bull cans, and mounted my own little arty protest with litter mosaics

During lockdown it’s been a regular haunt for us, as it has for many others, including quite a few who have never been before. There are children discovering what it is to be explorers and adults enjoying all the delights offered by the woods including wildlife ranging from honey bees and badgers to roe deer. And the trees, not forgetting the trees.

I’ve always loved trees and wild flowers and know many of them by name, thanks to Brooke Bond adding little information cards to its 4oz boxes of PG Tips, the loose leaf type, none of your new-fangled teabags. For about 40 years they produced collections on everything from cars to famous people. But it was the trees and wildflower collections that taught me most of what I knew and spurred me on to learn more. The little cards had a colour picture with a description on the back . You could put them in an album, or stick them on a chart, oh the sheer joy of sticking a rowan mountain ash on the corresponding empty space and revel in that exotic name. I dreamed of seeing one and was thrilled when I did.

As we walked through the woods and I spotted a little rowan I asked Noel, who wouldn’t want to know the name of a tree or wildflower? Yes, there are apps, but wasn’t the idea of a woodland walk to escape from gadgets, looking around at nature and not down at screens. Wouldn’t it be good to add a few name labels to inform people? I recognised the look of resignation on Noel’s face as he realised that the only way labels would find their ways to trees and flowers would be for someone to put them there. He had a sneaky feeling he knew who that someone was. He was right.

It wasn’t difficult to make a few labels, slightly more so to fasten them in the relevant place, some trees are VERY big. It was as we were hugging the beech tree with string that the dad and family saw us.

‘So what’s that?’ he asked pointing to an elderberry. ‘And that?’ waving at the nasty invasive Himalayan balsam. I had labels for those. ‘And this,’ I told him, pulling the skinny stem off my leg, ‘is goose grass.‘ And then looking at the children I told them in a serious voice ‘or sticky willy’. The youngest sniggered, so did I, that wasn’t one in the PG Tips collection.

A tough time for extroverts

I’m on first name terms with every cat on my regular run route, apart from Mr Fluffybottom at no 17, he insists on his full title, he told me that himself. I also have a nodding acquaintance with Biffo the St Bernard, who sports a trendy harness which confirms he’s Friendly, and there’s a parrot that squawks at me as I wave at her through the window, she’s yelling ‘hello’ and ‘dig IN!!!’ The cheek of it.

I’ve not yet struck up a conversation with the plants and trees as I pass, but give us another couple of weeks of lockdown and I’ll be there, debating with the daisies, chatting with the cherry tree, laughing with the lady’s mantle.

Of course I exchange a word or two for every person I socially-distance pass, usually to comment on social distancing, or the strange times we’re living in. If I had a euro for every time I’d used the words ‘strange’ and ‘times’, I’d be buying that alpine chalet in Chamonix.

It’s a tough time for extroverts. We’re gregarious, chatty, we love being with other people, going to parties, where we are usually the life and soul, it gives us a buzz and irritates the life out of everyone else. Being isolated and alone doesn’t work too well for us, we get bored easily, mardy even, we need people, real people, not Zoom people, we need NOISE, we need ACTION and MOVEMENT!

Noel doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, when we did our Myers-Briggs he was as far on the introvert scale as I was extrovert. I can go out for my chatty run, head off to the allotment to talk to the fruit and veg, bother a few strangers on the way home with cheery words and a comment on the strange times, stop for a conversation with all the new friends I’ve made on my well-trodden path through the village, burst through the door and call out ‘did you miss me?’ only to be met with the clicking of computer keys from the Man Cave. No, he didn’t, nothing personal, he was programming, he was In The Zone, the same as he did before lockdown, is doing now in lockdown and will continue when the drawbridge is lowered.

‘But didn’t you go for a little walk, or phone a friend while I was out?’ I ask. The computer keys carry on clicking. ‘Or have a potter around the garden and chat with the neighbours?’ More clicking. ‘Maybe dance a jig to the radio tunes….? Converse with the cats….? Sing along with an online choir….?’

The clicking stopped, an eyebrow raised, Simon Templar style. I think he must have run out of curly brackets, 1s and 0s. No, he assured me, none of these. In fact, not only had he not spoken to anyone, he hadn’t moved from his Programming Seat, not even to stop the cats fighting and he was absolutely fine with that. More than fine in fact, he was happy, in a way only programmers know how, happy on the inside.

I was clearly flabbergasted. He did that Simon Templar eyebrow thing again. ‘It’s a tough time for extroverts, isn’t it?’. It certainly is, I said, it certainly is, then went down to the greenhouse to chivy the tomatoes along.

Noel’s blue phase

Noel looked serious, he’s always serious, even when he’s laughing on the outside, he’s serious on the inside. But his words weren’t serious, in fact they were downright frivolous, I had to lie down afterwards with a severe case of the vapours.

I remember the date, time and place, it was Wednesday 29 April, 10.30am, he was in his Man Cave doing clever programming with his two screens full of coloured text with lots of 1s, 0s and curly brackets. He’d had his first double espresso of the day and I can only assume the caffeine was hitting his neurones hard, it’s the only explanation for what he said next.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. O-ohhh, I thought, he’s going to explain to me what that line of code is he’s just written. He’s done it before, it didn’t end well, I fell asleep instantly and hit my head on his Java Script book, it’s a big thick book and it’s not about coffee.

“Do you think people would pay to see me with blue hair?” he asked. That latest batch of coffee is REALLY good. “For charity, for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders)….and because it’ll shock people…”

The blue hair idea didn’t just come out of the blue, he’d talked about it many years ago when we went climbing with our mates. It was the sort of thing climbers did then, though not that climber, he remained blond. And serious.

Of course people would pay to see you looking silly, I said, It doesn’t happen very often, in fact it never happens. Until….now.

He set a modest target, a Covid 19 nod plus a zero, £190 would be enough to persuade him to take to the hairdresser’s chair. Not that he’s actually ever sat in a hairdresser’s chair of late and he’s never had anything to do with hair dye. It’ll wash out quickly, I told him. In fact it’ll fade by evening, how my nose grew, just call me Pinocchio.

It took a little while, well there was programming to do and more coffee to drink, but he drafted a social media post, doubting anyone would pay for such silliness, he is very serious after all.

Within hours I was ordering the dye, denim blue for starters, but as the £190 target had been achieved, more colours were called for, so I added alpine green, turquoise and plum.

Even the cats sniggered as the colours started to go on, and within half an hour Noel’s head was cooking under clingfilm and then it was back to the salon, I mean bathroom, for a rinse, shampoo and set.

Noel couldn’t believe his eyes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The neighbours couldn’t believe their eyes. The cats thought Noel had been replaced by a member of a 70s new romantic band, they know their music.

The good news, particularly for MSF, is that people have been more than generous, the original target has more than doubled and there are still friends reaching for their credit cards (thank you). Quite a few say the blue look suits him. But her remains serious, in a silly kind of way.

Noel’s Just Giving page is here.