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March 2, 2012 / Graham

Children of the Referendum.

I much prefer the word referendum to plebiscite; don’t you? I know they’re not exactly the same thing, but they can be interchangeable if you’re feeling lazy, and they both come from the Latin. Don’t we all? ‘Plebiscite’ always carries with it heavily loaded allusions to brutal fascist Europeans in the mid twentieth century seeking to make manifest their inevitable destiny and stuff like that, and ‘referendum’ calls to mind the er, nice liberal lefty Europeans of today getting people to vote over and over until the right result is achieved. And if it isn’t they just install a government who’ll jolly well do as they’re told. Isn’t history a wonderful teacher? And isn’t it a shame that we ignore our teachers and forget our lessons?

Anyway, it wasn’t so much a referendum or even a plebiscite that our town council called this week. They just sent a questionnaire out to everyone asking what we all think about a pile of development applications that are flying around the place. They can’t really decide what to approve among themselves, so they’ve taken the brave step of giving us residents the chance to help them make their minds up, so it will all be our fault when it all goes wrong.

The only trouble is, our council has a budget which just about stretches to emptying the rubbish bins outside the fire station, supplying a padlock but not a key to the door of the last remaining public lavatory, and supplying a tray of tea and buns for when the mayor of our twin town of Colostomy-sur-Mer calls in for a chat.

So they won’t have enough cash to pay anyone to open the envelopes and read the replies. I just ticked the ‘no’ box for every question, and in the tie-breaker, where you get asked ‘what do you like about your home town?’ I wrote in ‘It’s not Colostomy-sur-Mer.’ That should give the fuckers something to think about if ever they read it.

This is the world. Wish you were here.

March 1, 2012 / Graham

Shipwreck

Johnny Opera was going all religious on me. He’d sat there a while, nursing a slight attack of thinking and a toxic personality, deep in what probably passes for thought in his world as his coffee grew cold and this world grew older.

“Here. I was thinking. Looking around. If God created us all in His own image, don’t you think He must be some funny looking fucker? Or else He’s blind. I mean, look at you.” He smirked towards me.

“You’re being quite blasphemous there John,” was my first response, “and anyway, I think you probably meant to say ‘funny looking Fucker’. Show a bit of humility and all that why don’t you? Also, being a long term customer in my establishment you should love me. You should adore me. The feeling will never be mutual, but you should remember who extends you credit and you should be at least grateful and non-abusive. If God made me in His image then it can only mean that He’s pretty bloody gorgeous.” Ah, the conversations that we have. All nonsense but it passes the time until I can get a sane customer.

“I could work here, son. I’ve seen what you do. I could do it. Long term customer? I could run the place.” Johnny was obviously spoiling for a fight.

“Yes John, I expect you could work here. And when we all go on the works outing to deepest darkest Peru or somewhere, just bear in mind that at the very first hint of a transport disaster, you’d be dismembered, grilled and supplying the rest of us with nutrition long before anyone could suggest drawing lots as to who should make the ultimate sacrifice. And that applies just as much to a traffic delay before we get to the airport as it does to a full blown plane crash in the high Andes. So think on.”

That told Johnny Opera. “I could work here” indeed.

My grandad used to say that at the end of every sentence. “Think on lad”. He came from Lincolnshire. When he was in the army he used to shoot people. Only in wartime, I think. Luckily for me he’d left the Guards before I was born. Think on that.

I was reading an article in this week’s New Scientist which explores our future. That’s our future as in Mankind in general’s future. Not me and you. We don’t have much of a future, me and you. I’m disappointed. Very disappointed. And I think you know why.

Anyway, in the part of the article which dealt with the possibilities of how ‘we’ might be speaking in ten thousand years time, I was quite struck by a strange possessive sadness at the thought that our language as we know it now will very likely no longer exist in those far distant days.

None of us, least of all me, will be here to hear how people talk, but it’s still a sadness that twinges in the heartstrings. It’s a sense of loss that will now haunt me. Until I think of something else to worry about.

February 23, 2012 / Graham

Call me. Anything.

There was a pale glow over the hills behind my house this morning, in the still dark hour as I was walking my way along the drove road to work. I saw a familiar figure heading towards me in a shambling, damaged child sort of way; it was Du’Wayne, the son in law of Ethnic Kenny. Du’Wayne has been banned from most shops in the town, and he was heading for the out of town Sainsburys which has wreaked such damage to the old town centre. It’s the only shop where he hasn’t yet thrown things at members of staff, but I think there’s a good chance that the reason he goes there so early is to avoid the security man, who starts at eight. So he’s probably on the ‘to be banned pretty soon’ list and knows it. We all have them. It’s one of the things that makes a career in the retail and hospitality sector so fucking rewarding.

I drew my head into the hood of my gorgeous cotton weatherproof jacket, somewhat like a tortoise when confronted by a shower of ice particles. I hoped Du’Wayne hadn’t seen me or recognised me. As we drew alongside each other, I fixed my gaze firmly on the pavement and swept majestically past him, holding my breath in case he should identify me from my breathing patterns. It’s pretty fucking unlikely I know, but he may have a highly developed sense of rhythm which he uses to compensate for the fact that in all other respects he’s as thick as two short planks with two extra thick short planks glued between them with expanding polyurethane adhesive, and that’s one glue that you’re never going to shift.

I’d made it. I counted the footsteps, fading fast behind me. Then they paused. There was a bellow.

“Hey! Mistah Baker Man!” That’s what he calls me.

There was no escaping my doom. Last time we spoke it was when I was telling him that he was never to enter my business premises ever again. I’ve expected a sudden death, or at least a bloody good maiming at his hands ever since. This morning was obviously the day that my time ran out. And there would be no witnesses. The road was deserted. I was going to be found an hour or so later, my still, lifeless corpse disfigured and pathetic, slumped under a roadside plane tree and my gorgeous cotton weatherproof hooded jacket ruined with blood. My blood. It’s a light stone colour is my jacket, and today is the first day that I’ve worn it this year, having only last night decided that the warming February days indicate that I can put my thick winter coat, a deep blue number in waterproofed wool with a nice touch of padding and quilting, away for next winter.  A flood of deep crimson, unless discreetly applied in a deliberate and restrained manner, would absolutely destroy it.

Luckily for me, Du’Wayne obviously doesn’t bear a grudge pre-dawn. Or perhaps he just sees getting banned from every shop in town as a natural and inevitable part of life which comes as naturally as shitting his pants seems to, judging by the smell of him on a hot day.

“Hey, Baker Man! It’s you, innit?  What you doing here?” He said. I thought it would be rude not to acknowledge him, and politeness might just save me from a bloody good pasting, so I walked slightly back in his direction and screwed my face up against the sharp east wind and my own bowel slackening fear. He might bite, the ugly fucker.

“Morning, Du’Wayne. I’m walking to work. That’s a what I’m a doing here.”

“Why you walking to work along here then? You walk all this way to your shop every morning? Why?” Curiosity killed a cat once, apparently. Such a shame that it can’t have the same effect on the likes of Du’Wayne. I thought that I’d better explain, otherwise I might be there all fucking morning, and time was tugging at my sleeve cuffs as it was.

“I walk along here every morning Du’Wayne, because I live up there,” I said sweeping my hand in the general direction of Pigeon Mountain, which is where my house is to be found, “and my shop, as you very well know, is that way,” I continued, having swivelled the full half circle from the waist up and pointing towards the town. “So unless I want to take a three mile detour and wander windswept along the shingle beach yonder,” now pointing out to sea, “I don’t have any fucking choice in the matter. I have to walk this way. See?”

He stood there, digesting this information. He looked East, up at Pigeon Mountain. He looked West, back towards the town. He looked South where the waves crashed distantly upon the oft trod shore. he looked at me.

“Are you taking the piss?” He asked me. “You should get a bakery van, baker man. That’s what you should do.”

I love it when people like Du’Wayne come out with life advice for people who do happen to have a reason for existing. I think that’s why they fall for socialism; it’s the ideal system for the brutal and the ignorant to stand about, getting in the way, shouting and  spouting bullshit about things they don’t understand while the sensitive, the dignified and the worthwhile get on and actually do useful stuff.

This is my prison. These are my bars. I cope with the torment and despair of existence only by clinging to the hope that one day things will be better. Not tomorrow, I know, but one day.

February 17, 2012 / Graham

Maul the Doctor

Aha, there I blew. I was stood in the queue at the supermarket this morning, being grilled by Chirpy Val.

“Pinnot Gri-what’s that say Graham?” she queried, as is her wont.

“Pinot Grigio Val. Wine. I’ll drink it tonight. It makes me feel better after a day like today”.

“Why? What’s wrong with today? It’s only quarter past eight, I’m probably the first person you’ve seen today. Ooh, lamb. Cold roast lamb and mint sauce sandwiches. They’re very good you know. Hello Bernie!” Really. It’s like doing your grocery shop in the village of the fucking damned. I twitched.

“Yes Val. I’m fifty two years old. I’ve tasted cold roast lamb sandwiches. But I thought I might do something unspeakably vile with this bit of meat. I thought I might shove it up my-” and Bernie punched my spine.

“Hello Graham mate!” he said, “I went to the docks yesterday, about the dibeets.”

“The docks, Bernie? Why did you go to the docks? What the fuck’s the dibeets?” I asked him. Our docks have only hosted aggregate boats and scrap iron shipments in recent years. Once upon a time, in my lifetime, we were one of England’s leading ports for banana imports. Beat that, Rotterdam.

“The docks. The doctor. Doctor Right. About my diabeets. My blood and sugar and stuff.” Said Bernie.

“Pears.” Said Chirpy Val. “I like pears. But I prefer apples. Red ones. They’re sweeter you know.”

“Oh” said I. “Really?”

“Yes, mate” said Bernie. “He asked me ‘do you smoke, Bern?’ and I told him, what I do in the privacy of my home is nothing to do with him, that’s right, Val, isn’t it? Nothing to do with him. Asking me if I smoke. Then he told me I should stop, and I hadn’t even told him that I did. Who do they think they are?”

“Do you know, both of you, if lunatic asylums weren’t invented in this town they fucking well should have been. There’s a crying need.” I paid for my purchases and left. I heard Chirpy Val telling Bernie that she thought I may be tired.

 

February 15, 2012 / Graham

Cherry Baby

This is the time of year when I have to visit my accountant to finalise the shop’s annual accounts and sort out my tax liabilities for the coming months. In some ways it’s a painful time of year, only enlivened by the entertainment I gain by watching Dorian’s twitches. He’s a very fraught accountant and it’s quite an experience sitting across the desk from him, dodging the frequent showers of nervous spittle with which he dampens his desk, his office and his less alert clients.

I walked into his office and he wasn’t here. In his seat sat Sam, the senior partner. He told me that Dorian’s had to “er, literally, er step back. Yes, literally. He’s had to step er, back from the er, literally, the business. There were some things he er, literally really couldn’t cope with. The partnership, literally.” He shook his head. Literally, not figuratively.

“Fuck. No. No more Dor? Poor Dor.” I said. Not literally.

Do you know, if they weren’t so sharp at doing the books and if they weren’t so entertaining and unique as individuals, I’d have gone to another, more boring firm many years ago.

So, I told you about the venison I was given on Sunday. About my suspicions that I may be unwittingly transforming into a minor local deity who must be appeased by gifts and offerings brought to my door by acolytes and preferably hot looking women devotees. On Monday evening a friend of a friend came to the door and handed me a bag of Turkish Arpa Sehriye, the lovely little pasta grains that they call barley. I usually get it in Greece where they call it orzo or kritharaki, and you make giouvetsi with it. That’s made with lamb too. Or veal sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if I should get out a bit more, or at least stop obsessing about food. But then I’d get hungry.

“You like this, don’t you?” said Maryann, for it was she. You probably don’t know her. Fortune comes in many shades and colours. “I was in Brighton yesterday, in the Turkish shop in Western Road and I thought of you. Take it.” That was the gist of what she said, and then she was gone, leaving a small cumulo-nimbus of brusqueness and devotion in her wake.

Pasta barley. It’s good for cooking with a small joint of lamb that’s been roasted, you pour a cup of stock into the roasting pan with the meat, half a cup of pasta and let it simmer in the low oven for twenty minutes until the juices have been absorbed. Or mix it half and half with rice for an extra creamy risotto. Or fry it and use it in broths. It’s versatile. It’s gorgeous. But why? Why am I being donated to like this so much lately? If I was poor, derelict and hungry, no fucker would want to know me. And as it is they all seem to want to succour me, to cultivate me and to feed me. Let them, I say. Especially the succouring bit. Oh yes.

So on to the venison. I’m deeply attached to cherries at the moment, so I’d been thinking of a fruity type of dish. I’d marinaded the venison for two days in a deep dish with olive oil, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, cloves, herbs and a splash of good red wine, so I took it out and patted it dry. You don’t want to put too much wine in a marinade unless it’s a quick one of two hours or less. It was a whole saddle or loin, about 3 or so  pounds in weight, from quite a small beast. I rubbed it with salt and pepper, laid it on a fresh bed of celery and carrots, annointed it with oil and roasted it hot for just over an hour, which left it glazed dark on the outside and tender and pink within, especially the thick bits each side of the spine.

While it was roasting I simmered the marinade with an extra half bottle of wine and some water. Then I pitted a couple of dozen small dark cherries and softened them in butter with half a shredded red onion and half a teaspoon of sugar, sprinkled with a hint of cinnamon. Fifteen minutes before the deer was cooked I strained about a pint of the liquid onto the cherries with a good splash of Wisniowka and a spoonful of redcurrant jelly and reduced it down on a high flame for ten minutes to thicken it slightly, to give it more body, as it were. Wisniowka is a cherry flavoured spirit which starts out smooth in your mouth and then scorches your throat on the way down. It’s very good. I hadn’t heard of it until I tried it in Cracow this year, and I had to bring some home with me in the interests of pan-European fellowship. Polish booze, English liver; a good combination. You possibly haven’t heard of it either. Even Mrs Wisniowka said “who?”

Anyway, the venison was perfect and the sauce was too. We had it with roast potatoes, braised beetroot and some greens. I’m quite enjoying this ‘minor deity who must be appeased with frequent gifts of food’ business. I like the cooking and the eating.  More please.

February 12, 2012 / Graham

Medication Angel

Sometimes I wonder if I am seen as  some sort of local deity, to whom gifts must be given and offerings offered. Only this afternoon I was sitting in silence, meditating on the fire I had been burning in the burny bin up at the top of the snow sifted east lawn, when a figure appeared at the window. It was my brunette wife Anita’s redheaded friend Patt, with a smile on her face and a package in her hand.

I went to the door. Patt held out the package.

“Anita told me you like venison. There’s a fresh loin in there for you.” She winked, I smiled, I thanked her, she went. So are these brief transactions performed. Last time she came round, on Thursday night, she gave me a bowl of eggs from her hens. See? Offerings. The venison is now in the fridge, bathing in a marinade of herbs, the virgin oil and coarsely sliced vegetables. It will be roasted on Tuesday night. I like it when redheads come to the door and give me fresh loin.

I’d lit the fire early this morning, when the snow had eased off. Actually it had eased off to the point of non-existence. We’ve been sorting out papers in the house last week, and had realised that we had eight years worth of old bank statements, bills, expired contracts and other stuff that we don’t need to keep but that you wouldn’t necessarily want to put out with the rubbish. So the incinerator bin seemed the best place to put it. Along with a lighted match; and this morning had felt right for the act. It’s been mighty cold, so nobody in the neighbourhood was likely to have a window open. As if that would have stopped me.

So, the fire had caught and the papers were burning. There was little smoke, as the garden incinerator is a fine piece of kit, designed to minimise noxious clouds. And then a member of the noxious cloud walked across his garden and called to me over his fence.

“You could recycle that” he told me.

“Thanks for the welcome advice, but I am,” I replied. “I’m converting it into ashes and carbon dioxide and heat. That’s recycling.” We do shred some papers, but there was an industrial quantity here, and life is brief.

“We shred ours, Graham. Then we put it out with all our other sorted recycling.” Smug. I fucking hate smug.

“Well fuck me sideways with a wind turbine. Do you? Do you really?” I asked. “Well I’m a bit more adventurous in my recycling activities than you. I shred some, bin some, wipe with some and as you see, I like to burn some occasionally. And besides, I don’t have time for all that conscientious sorting. Some of us have to be out there earning your pension, remember.” I like to get that in. He retired two years ago at the age of 55 after a quarter of a century vigorously playing golf on behalf of the County Council. “Well you be careful” he said. Fuck off, I thought.

This got me in the mood for a bit of French. We’ve got some quite delicious cherries at the moment, so I thought of clafoutis. So I made one for this afternoon. You want a recipe? Okay, you dragged it out of me.

You take half a pound of cherries and pit them. Then you slide them sensuously around a shallow pan with an ounce of melted butter, until they soften and glisten, and throw in an ounce of sugar, which you allow to melt and turn to a rich red syrup with the juices of the cherries.

Meanwhile you make a lovely rich batter with a half pint of milk, two of Patt’s huge fresh eggs, an ounce of sugar and two and a half ounces of plain flour. You beat it like it’s an insolent stepchild until it’s smooth and compliant. Then you grease a good sized dish with butter, and heat it for five minutes in the oven. Tip in the cherries and syrup, pour the batter on and slam the oven door on it. Cook it for about forty minutes until the batter has risen and gone golden. Then eat the fucker.

I like Sundays. Mainly because they’re not Saturdays. It was a bit quiet yesterday afternoon in the shop and we’d pretty well sold out of bread and cakes, so I told the girls that we may as well close at two. They agreed, so we did the mad dash to close up before the non-existent hordes appeared. As the last chair was being stacked, Timmy the angry Buddhist burst in, conveniently ignoring the closed sign on the door.

“Are you still open? You’re not closing already? Is there coffee?” he looked desperate.

“Hi Timmy. No, yes and not for you, in that very order. Sorry.” I smiled, every inch of my being dedicated to selfless service of the paying customer. Just not at that moment though.

He turned and went. Little Alise observed that he’d looked angry. I told her that he always looks like that. It’s his religion. He spends his life striving to overcome his anger. So he was jolly well welcome to fuck off home and meditate himself back into a state of serenity, and enter that realm of the mind where all becomes none, where the darkness is not the darkness of shadow, but merely the absence of light.

You can get there via years of self abstinence and the use of iron self discipline to control your mind and prevent it wandering. Or you can take various drugs. That’s the best way. I always liked drugs better than alcohol. Drink just makes me giggle a lot and stumble occasionally although today it’s the only intoxicant with which I sully the pristine example of perfection which is the temple known to me as my body. Whereas drugs, particularly the naughty naturals, quickly and painlessly open your consciousness  up to the utter futility of existence and the vast bleak, featureless void that is the human condition. And yes, I like that.

January 27, 2012 / Graham

A new hat, broken feathers and the wrong words.

I got me a new hat while on holiday. It’s made of grey cotton, well padded and quilted, with fur trim and flaps which button under my chin for those awkward occasions when the wind strikes cold against the skin. You know them. I was showing it to my friend John yesterday when he came into my shop to collect his order of bacon baguettes and pecan danish pastries for his last shoot of the season.

Next week the birds will realise that the guns have stopped, so they’ll have to go back to hurling themselves under speeding vehicles again. They are driven by an ancient need to rush headlong into eternity. Fly fast, die young and leave a blood spattered corpse, that’s the pheasant credo. Then get eaten by a human. However, I much prefer spitting out the odd bit of lead from the flesh of a bird that’s been shot to the disgusting habit of  reforming disfigured and splintered limbs on a lump of roadkill before cooking it. Some people do that. I’ve even seen people go on the telly and admit to doing it. But I won’t. I simply refuse. Which is why it’s such a good thing that they’re available in the bag for a little while longer.

While John was outlining the prospects of short term future availability of birds strangled rather than shot, the strange woman who has recently made a habit of coming in my shop for coffee started singing ‘Be My Baby’, a wonderful song made famous when I was a young lad by the gorgeous Ronettes. Unfortunately the only line she seemed to know was

“I’ll make you happy baby, just come and see.” See? She couldn’t even get that one single line right.

After the third consecutive drone of the misquoted line with no sign of it going anywhere other than into the waste bin of tuneless futility, John remarked, slightly louder than was politic, “not with that fucking voice you won’t, love”.  We smirked. We sniggered. We’re mature like that. It’s something I admire about John. In his world, blank honesty and a cheap and obvious laugh will always trump sparing the feelings of the deluded. At least she’ll live. Which is more than his birds can say. But then they’re not drinking my coffee, so who knows what the future holds for any of them? Or us? Or, come to think of it, the coffee?

Thinking about singing inappropriately in public, the other week I was sitting on a bus to Brighton. The bus was moving. My spirit was still and apprehensive, as usual. I had an almost overpowering urge to stand up and sing ‘Tube Snake Boogie’ in the style of Matt Munro. Luckily my moral fibre was strong that day, and I resisted. Mainly because I had neither the time to grow a beard nor the opportunity to change into a tuxedo and wig.  Instead I just looked out of the window and ventriloquyed ”Yellow Car!” and pretended it was the lady sitting two seats in front by staring at the back of her head in a threatening manner.

January 23, 2012 / Graham

Cracow

As my Christmas present to Anita and myself I thought it would be nice to go away somewhere, so a quick unilateral decision on my part took us to Cracow. It’s somewhere wintry, somewhere I had long wished to visit, somewhere that isn’t here. I didn’t much fancy a pre-dawn start like we usually have, so on the Wednesday that we were going away I closed the shop early at two, and by six o’clock we were off the train and were checking into a hotel at Gatwick. Dinner and gin and a civilized wake up at six thirty on Thursday morning instead of four forty five.

After checking in at the airport we were informed that due to technical defects there had been a ‘slight change of aircraft’ so we’d be leaving an hour or so late. I just hoped that the slight change involved the bits that weren’t working.  Go wheezyJet. We got to Poland slightly later than planned and there was a man waiting with our name on a card at arrivals at the JPII airport, who whisked us to the hotel in his car. Anita’s very good at unpacking and stuff, so I left her to do that while I went for a solitary stroll along the banks of the Vistula, which flowed past our hotel. I passed the Dragon’s cave, guarded by a huge bronze statue of the dragon, which intermittently belches balls of flaming gas. We’d originally booked a hotel in Grodzka Street in the Old Town centre, but it had closed for renovation so we’d been transferred to its sister hotel which apart from all its other advantages had a beautiful view of the river and the Wawel castle hill.

The view from our hotel room.

We had our first Polish food in the hotel’s restaurant that evening, I started with a golden potato soup with wild boar sausages, and Anita had creamed chanterelles and we both had a lovely main of roast veal. Polish beer is good. It goes well with Polish food.

After dinner we had a wander together along the Vistula, which was like a glimmering swan lake, and crossed over the Grunwaldski bridge. We walked back again over the Debnicki bridge after not visiting the Manggha, which houses Poland’s largest collection of Japanese graphic novel and movie memorabilia. My life may not now be as complete as it might otherwise have been, but I can always watch the Seven Samurai again one day and imagine how my existence could have paused and changed direction on 12 January 2012 if I’d gone in through that door. But I didn’t.

We awoke on Friday to see small half hearted flurries of snow outside, so we showered and then thought it a good idea to go down for breakfast. If there’s one thing that always makes European city holidays in 4 star hotels worthwhile, then it’s the buffet breakfasts that they provide, and my friend, this hotel does itself proud.

We went for a walk around the Rynek Glowny, the main market square, and visited the Cloth Hall, with its arcades and its city emblems and its pigeons, St Adalbert’s, the Mickiewicz monument and we generally soaked up the Eastern European ambience. If you go there you must see the Kamienica Pod Obrazem or House under the Picture. There’s an early 18th Century icon of the Virgin painted on the wall of the building which is very beautiful. But I just love the way it sounds, me.

We had some sausage and coffee at a small stall and I wished I’d tried the bigos. The sausage was good, don’t get me wrong, but the bigos looked enticing. It’s a big flat pan of sauerkraut, white cabbage and onions, dosed with chunks of sausage and bits of dead bird, simmering day-long over glowing charcoals. Next time. Always next time I say. Then we went up to the Barbikan and the Florian Gate and walked down the Florianska and Grodzka, the Royal route the length of the old town down to the Cathedral and the Castle. It’s all very Gothic, with a touch of the baroque and a wide sweep of the Romance. I love it. We went underground to the crypt of the kings and national heroes. We climbed the tower to see the five centuries old Sigismund bell. We felt the icy blast of the winter wind blowing all the way from Russia across the plains of Europe, filtering its way throught the timbers of the cathedral tower. We went for a coffee.

I have a friend called Magda. She’s Polish. She knows Cracow. In a admirable display of patriotism and Polish national pride she recommended a Georgian restaurant to me, to which we found our way for dinner that Friday evening. Georgian wine is wonderful. To help the lovely Georgian wine go down, we had a plate of mixed pierogi, which are like large ravioli, not in a sauce but sprinkled with shreds of fried onion and cabbage. We had them stuffed with cheese and onion, and sauerkraut and mushroom. We still felt in need of food to help digest the wine, which was getting tastier by the glass, so we had pork steaks, Anita’s with a beetroot and cabbage coleslaw, and I had mine topped with grilled cheese and accompanied with Georgian ratatouille. They don’t call it ratatouille obviously, but Georgian is even more indecipherable than Polish and anyway I can’t remember the proper name from the menu. Chaczapuri is good too. It’s Georgian flatbread, dripping with melted cheese. Try it, go on. It was all good though. So was the honey cake that I finished with. The Georgian wine was good too. Did I mention that?

After dinner we went to look at the hotel where we had originally booked. Very nice, opposite the church of Ss. Peter and Paul, just around the corner from Mary Magdalene Place, and right on the main route through the old town. We saw a stag party rolling past and breathed a sigh of relief that our hotel room looked out on the swans gliding past and the odd tram rolling on the rails. Quietly though.  Cracow. What a wonderful place. We didn’t see any obesity. No ridiculous hair colours. No slag tags or bodily mutilations and piercings in place of  an interesting personality. The women are gorgeous. All of them. Lots of them reminded me of Hanna Schygulla. There was a wedding dress shop called Kowalski’s! I want to live there.

That evening we visited the exhibition of Szopki at the museum by the square. Szopki? Szopki! They’re nativity cribs, made by the Krakovians in a competitive spirit, and they are not restrained. They are all brightly coloured, they all include as many elements of local architecture, myth and legend as possible, and they are wonderful. Many of them have illuminations and moving parts.

Szopka

Szopki

So, Saturday dawned white and snowfallen. We had a good Polish breakfast and then went down to the Bulwar to take the bus to the little town of Oswiecim, fifty miles to the west. There is something truly surreal and disconcerting when you see buses and coaches with AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU on the destination panel. We boarded and rode there, quietly and full of our own thoughts.

What can you say about the place that hasn’t been said a million times before? We visited the brick prison blocks at Auschwitz I, we saw the exhibitions documenting over a million stolen lives. The rooms full of hair, the suitcases, the shoes. The childrens’ shoes. The once brightly coloured pretty womens’ shoes. The sturdy mens’ shoes. The boots. You can’t help but reflect on the stroke of fortune that decides who you are, where and when you are born, where and how you die, at whose whim. The weather was apt that day, bitter and grey. We saw the reconstructed crematorium, we saw the gallows where Hoess died, close by.

Execution Wall

After a couple of hours at the first camp you then go to Auschwitz II Birkenau, a cold, open and vast place, built for imprisonment and death. Many of the wooden blocks remain, but many more have succumbed to time and the weather, leaving only a stark landscape of brick hearths and chimneys, row upon row of them. We trod the path along the ramp beside the railway lines from where the selections took place to where the murders happened. The ruins of the gas chambers are still there, frozen in time. You walk on ashes, under the snow.

Chimneys

The strangest detail. At Birkenau, named after the birch trees which grow all around in the countryside, there was a long latrine block and a long ablutions block. People were brought here to be worked to death, to be stripped of all dignity and all that makes us human. In the ablutions block, where people had to wash in a stone trough which runs the length of the building, presumably in cold water, with no privacy, no heat, there is a soap dish moulded into every third tile. A soap dish.

We got back to town as dusk was falling and the snow was falling even faster.

Cloth Hall in the snow.

There’s a place near the town square where we went to eat that night. Gratefully and thoughtfully, I may add. We decided it would be a lovely place to go for Anita’s birthday dinner in September. So we’ve agreed to pencil in a weekend then for another trip. Ain’t life grand. Anita started with carpaccio with a garlic scented cream cheese, and I had spinach and pine nuts, creamed and wilted. Then my wife had lamb chops on a bed of roasted apple with onion marmalade and I had goose breast in a spiced red wine and cherry sauce, and we had buttered potatoes and braised beetroot on the side. We finished with plum tart and pancakes filled with sour cream. We had beers and coffee. And all for 200 zloty!

The next day, Sunday, we wandered out to Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, with yesterday’s visit still haunting us. There are still synagogues, now mostly in use as museums. We visited them. A whole ancient European culture was destroyed in just a couple of years, and now there are only ghosts. The old cemetery was blanketed in snow. It felt right.

Snow and stones.

   So we went back into town and after a while we wandered over the bridge, walking along the river awhile. Dusk fell and we couldn’t eat much. So later that evening I wandered up to the town square and got calzones and beer and took them back to the hotel, where we ate in our room and chatted the evening away.

Monday morning came and we took the road out of town to the salt mines at Wieliczka. We spent the morning down t’pit, where statues and tableaux have been carved by the miners into the rock salt over the years, and where the highlight is the St. Kinga’s chapel, a vast underground space which really does leave you breathless with its beauty and its mystery.

Altar, St Kinga's Chapel

You have to go there. You have to go there with a guide. We eventually got back up to the surface and returned to town.

That afternoon we went to the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Kosciol Mariacki as they call it there, complete with at least three diacriticals in Kosciol alone, which must be buried somewhere in my computer’s memory somewhere but I don’t know how to find them. And they say Polish is the awkward language. I’ve long wanted to see Weit Stwosz’s high altar in this church, so this was my moment, and worth the trip alone.

Stwosz' High Altar

We spent the rest of the evening in the cloth hall and in the Alkohole, getting souvenirs and stuff. Bison Grass Vodka. The elixir of life. And quite possibly sudden death. I jotted the word ‘pizza’ in my diary at this point. I really don’t know why. I can’t recall much about pizza, but there is a memory of standing in a queue of  Polish women in a bakery while Anita tried to get a cake using the twin media of mime and vigorous pointing. I know it was still snowing.

Anyway, we went back to our favourite restaurant for our last supper that night. You want to know what we ate? No? I’ll tell you then.

I had an aromatic fish soup followed by a saltimbocca of veal and parma ham on a bed of braised rocket and sage, and Anita had a chicken broth, then chicken breast stuffed with cream cheese and dried tomatoes with tomato pesto, and we had dumplings and braised cabbage with it. We finished with pear pancakes and cheesecake. We had a couple of bottles of wine. 211 zlotys this time. A true bargain! We’ll be back in September.

And that was it. Our Christmas present to ourselves. We got home on Tuesday evening eventually, after our plane was delayed again and then the train services from Gatwick got disrupted because of a jumper in Norbury. That’s when you know you’re back in England. Suicide and selfishness.

January 1, 2012 / Graham

Changes.

Late this morning I wandered wetly, squelching with every step through the driving rain along the drove road and across the bridge to my shop, just to make sure last week’s paint job still satisfied. It did. No streaks, no drips, no missed patches. The only time I had it done professionally, about twelve years ago or so, I went back to the painter afterwards with a snag list that would make your nipples bleed. So yes, I’m happy with my own work. Narcissistic, neurotic and anal, but happy.

Then walking home I remembered to buy a chicken. It had no feathers, it was quite still and lifeless. Which made things a lot easier than they might otherwise have been when I transformed the carcass into a stock for today’s chicken broth using the white meat, and the legs, well the legs are marinating overnight in lemon juice, cream, olive oil and spices. They’ll do tomorrow.

Stellar from the travel agents was in the queue, and she reminded me that our tickets for Cracow are ready for collection. And our original choice of hotel has had to close for repairs to its heating system. So am I sure I don’t mind being upgraded to a four star plus hotel? I can manage the disappointment, I assure her. Plenty of people are gently mocking about my insistence on going through a high street travel agent rather than booking online, but being the owner of  a small high street business myself, I see it almost as an act of displaced self-preservation. Also, you can sit and have a good chat with Stellar and Sian and the other girls. It’s all more distant and impersonal on the interweb thing.

I’ve got a strange mobile lump under the skin on the knuckle of the index finger on my left hand. It appeared a week or so ago. I can move it half way up my hand to the back of my wrist. Distant and impersonal. That’s me.

December 31, 2011 / Graham

There’s a Ghost in my Shop.

Now. I don’t believe in ghosts, although twice in my life I’ve experienced strange and inexplicable events which would be easy to explain if I did believe in them. I’d prefer to let them remain in the file marked ‘weird’ and leave it at that.

I spent twelve years working in the NHS in a hospital whose buildings began life as a workhouse in the 1830′s. So it was old, and had been witness to much in the way of human tragedies and misery. Both weird events that I’m thinking of took place there. On one occasion, I was punched hard between the shoulder blades while I was alone in a locked room. The other thing that happened was that I was climbing a narrow staircase in the back of the oldest part of the building on a sweltering hot August day, and standing on one particular step was like standing in the blast of an industrial chilling fan. The temperature dropped by at least ten degrees. There no windows, vents or hatches which could have let a draught in, not that there could possibly have been a cold draught anyway. As I told you, it was a sweltering August day. I have no explanation for either of these events. But I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t want to believe in ghosts.

I’ve just had to wander around the house to find out what was causing a knocking noise somewhere. The heating’s working perfectly well and there’s nobody at the door. But something was knocking on wood, and it wasn’t Eddie Floyd. I’m alone here.

Anyway, Mags, one of my employees in the shop, has mentioned a few times that she’s felt a presence there and a couple of times has thought that she’s seen a shadowy figure in one particular corner. And I’ve got to tell you, a couple of weeks ago, while in the kitchen on the other side of the shop I saw somebody walk through the doorway into the store room in that particular corner, and on going there to see who it was and what they wanted, I was met with a completely empty room. Shadows.

Every year I close the shop for the week between Christmas and the New Year, partly because there’s hardly enough trade this week to make it worthwhile opening, but also because it gives me the chance to get in there and do all the maintenance and tarting up jobs that (a)I can’t be arsed to stay on to do in the evenings after a ten hour day and (b) I’m too tight to pay someone else an extortionate amount of money to do, usually to a lesser standard than I’d achieve myself.

So this week I was in the shop alone, painting all the woodwork and wainscoting. I sand, I wash with sugar soap and a scouring pad, I rinse well with a soft cloth and several changes of clean water, and then, when all is dry, I lightly dust with a dry pad before applying two even coats of the chosen finish, gently abrading the first coat when dry with a very fine grade of abrasive paper in order to give a good key for the final coat. In this case a satinwood paint with the very apt name of  ’Cookie Dough’. It’s a bakery.  The Gods of colour naming were truly smiling upon me this year. And all the way along the long wall of the shop, out of the corner of my right eye, a shadowy figure occasionally appeared, outside the door of the store room in the corner. There were also lots of vague shifting, banging noises from the offices upstairs, where the tenants are away until next week, and no alarm was sounding.

What am I to make of that then? The paint job looks good anyway.

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