At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

The Conquering Hero Comes!

This is another day when I feel frustrated because I’d like to be out travelling, although I did get to have a great long walk on the South Downs on Saturday. But rather than post about that at the moment, I have a fancy to re-post this piece I wrote a few years ago:

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

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Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there over thirty years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal but if I don’t, it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

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My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

The Cold Caller (3)

Previous parts can be found here (1) and here (2)

‘What is it, Sahil?’

‘It was a threatening client, sir.’

‘So, you know how to deal with them, don’t you?’

‘It is not so easy. He is very difficult, he knows me.’

‘I do not think that is likely. Why do you think it?’

‘He knows my name, sir! And he calls me! Even on my mobile!’ My voice had suddenly got much louder, and a couple of my colleagues turned around to look at me. I found myself shaking and knew that the supervisor saw it too. I had lost control.

‘Take the rest of the day off, Sahil,’ he said at last, coldly. It was clear that he did not believe me. ‘Go home and rest.’

‘Yes, Sir.’ I got to my feet and headed for the exit without another word. What could I say? At the door I passed Raveena’s brother, who smiled and said ‘Hi’, but I just mumbled a hello and pushed straight past him, hardly registering his presence. Once outside, I walked towards the metro station intending to go straight home, but decided I could not face getting on a train at the moment – perhaps it was the thought of being in a confined space – so I walked past and went into the Botanical Gardens. I switched off my phone and spent the next hour or so just walking around the gardens, hoping to clear my head.

When I had tired of that, I began walking towards my colony, eventually taking a taxi for the last part of the journey when my legs began to feel tired. As I walked up the steps to my door, I remembered my phone was on silent, and fished it out of my pocket. Glancing at the display, I saw I had half a dozen missed calls. ‘It can stay on silent for now, then,’ I thought, and went inside.

I made myself some supper, and after I had eaten it I sat watching the TV, until I realised I had no idea what the programmes were I had been watching, and switched it off. Then I took out my phone and began to scroll through the list of callers. As I had expected, the majority were from a caller who had withheld their number, but there was also one from Raveena and, after some hesitation, I switched my phone onto normal ringtone again. I thought of calling Raveena but decided that I could not face speaking to her that night. Then, as I sat looking down at the phone in my hand, it rang again. Automatically, I answered it.

‘Hallo?’

‘I am losing my patience with you, Sahil. Do you want me to make things really difficult for you?’

‘I…’

‘My…colleagues, shall I call them, are not as patient as I am. They would like to deal with you differently. They are not as polite as I am.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ He had broken me, and we both knew it.

‘Go home, Sahil. Go back to Delhi. There is no place for you here. Take your things and go. While you still can.’ He rang off, and I sat holding the phone in my hand, feeling terribly small and scared.

I jumped as the phone rang again. For a moment, I did not answer it, but then I saw that it was Raveena’s number. Still I hesitated, afraid that this fellow might even be able to make it appear that he was calling from her phone, but then I told myself that I was being ridiculous, and I answered it.

‘Sahil,’ Raveena’s voice was urgent, ‘I heard Kiraat calling you. He was in the next room. What is going on? I could not hear him very clearly, but it sounded as if he was threatening you. Please, what is going on? I am frightened by this!’

‘Kiraat? It was Kiraat calling me?’

‘Yes, I have told you so, Sahil.’

‘Are you certain?’

‘Oh, my goodness, Sahil! How many times must I say it? Yes, it was Kiraat.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He is still in the next room, talking with our father. What has he been saying to you?’

‘Just…give me a minute, Raveena, to think.’ I sat holding the phone as things dropped into place in my head. It was so simple, really. Kiraat was a software engineer in my own company. It would all have been so easy for him to do. I took a deep breath. ‘I will tell you everything.’

Raveena said that it was too late in the evening for me to go over to their house, and to leave it until the next day. But it seems she then put down her phone and walked straight into the next room and confronted her brother. He did not deny that he had been the caller and said that he agreed with his parents that she should marry a man of their choosing, and that I was not that man. They had quite a quarrel, and it was only when Raveena declared that she was quite prepared to move in with me without getting married first, that her father said ‘Okay, let us meet this boy of yours, tomorrow.’

I had thought my job interview had been tough, but it had nothing on that interview. I was surprised, then, when Raveena’s father said ‘Let us see, then, how your job goes and if all is well in a year’s time then maybe, just maybe, we will give you our blessing.’

At work, my supervisor informed me I would be under observation, as he put it, for a while, but I did not really notice any difference. No sooner had I arranged my desk and switched on my computer terminal, than he had disappeared to another part of the office. I lifted the receiver and called the number at the top of the list on my screen.

‘Hello, Mr Cuthill? My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not!’ I caught my breath, and felt icy fingers creeping up my spine. ‘You’re probably called Kapil or Ravi or something like that. You’re in India, aren’t you?’

Slowly I released my breath.

‘Mr Cuthill, this is most important! I am calling you because your computer is running slowly and there is a problem with it that you must address!’

It was good to be back to normal.

If you enjoyed this story, you can find more in The Night Bus, my collection of short stories and poetry available on Amazon, along with Making Friends with the Crocodile, a novel about how society treats women in India. Both can be found here.

 

The Cold Caller (2)

Part 1 can be found here.

For a couple of days, the incident was always at the back of my mind, but slowly I began to forget it. It must have been about a week later, when they called me at work. I had just put down the receiver after making a sale, when the phone rang.

‘Hello, David? Or Sahil, should I say? I thought that you’d forgotten me.’

‘Who is this?’

‘Don’t you know? Can’t you remember? You called me last week. My name is Williams.’

‘I…’

‘I thought that I would call you to let you know that my computer is running absolutely fine.’

‘Oh…’

‘I really appreciate your concern, though, but it was unnecessary. So I’ve saved myself some money, haven’t I?’

We are taught that if we have a difficult telephone conversation, then we should try to take control, and so I tried that now, as if the caller was just another difficult customer.

‘Mr Williams,’ I attempted to sound far more confident than I actually felt, ‘might I ask where it is that you are calling from?’

‘Can you not remember? Oh, I suppose that you have so many numbers to call. Mine is a Delhi number, Sahil. Do you remember it now?’

‘There is really no reason why I should, Mr Williams…’

‘As I have just told you, I really do appreciate your concern, and I am pleased to find that you are so obviously such a kind and conscientious fellow. I am sure that, in turn, you will be pleased to learn that because of that I am going to be taking a keen interest in your career, so I will be keeping a close eye on you from now on.’

The line went dead.

Like every other line in the building, my telephone was simply an extension number, so there would not really be any point in my getting it changed. The caller might have asked for my extension, or they might have requested me by name. There was no way to find out which it was. For a moment, I thought of telling my supervisor what had happened, but decided it would sound foolish and he would probably not believe me, anyway. I’m not sure I believed what was happening at that point, either, but I did feel a little scared.

Two days later Mr Williams called me again. This time, his tone was rather different.

‘Hello, Sahil. This is Mr Williams here. Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘Look,’ I tried, ‘where did you get hold of my number?’

‘You are not answering my question, Sahil.’ His voice was soft but unpleasant. ‘Have you made many sales since we last spoke?’

‘I don’t think that is any…’

‘Do you know, Sahil,’ he interrupted me, ‘that many people do not like aggressive salespersons calling them up and trying to coerce them into making purchases? Trying to get them to part with their money for no good reason? I have been thinking about that, and I have decided that a nice fellow like you really should not be in this line of work.’

‘I am not going to be lectured at by you!’ I said hotly. ‘I demand that you tell me…’ I realised that the line that I was talking to was dead.

That evening he called me at home, on my mobile. Often, if the caller display indicates a number withheld, then I don’t answer. This time, though, I did.

‘Sahil,’ said the familiar voice, ‘I hope you are thinking about what I have said to you.’ Desperately, I stabbed the button to end the call, and then stood in the middle of the room, staring down at the phone. I couldn’t think clearly; I just felt an awful panic. ‘This is stalking!’ I thought to myself. ‘And no one would believe me if I told them!’ It was no good my thinking it was impossible for him to have my mobile number, for he clearly had.

My phone rang again maybe another dozen times that evening before I switched it off completely. Then, in the morning, I noticed that I had one voicemail message. Although I knew who it would be from, I still listened to it. It was very brief.

‘I wouldn’t want you to get hurt, Sahil.’

I tried my best to act as though there was nothing wrong at work, but I found it very difficult to focus. All went as normal, however, until the afternoon. I had been back at my desk for no more than five minutes, and just put down the phone when it rang again. I hesitated and then, as it might well be a supervisor calling, I knew I had to answer it.

‘Hello, Sahil. Do you think that you can hide from us for ever, then?’

Us! I shivered, and my mouth became very dry. I looked around desperately, noticed that a supervisor was nearby, and silently I beckoned him over. I thought that if I could keep the caller talking, and hand the phone to my supervisor, then ‘Mr Williams’ would at the very least say something incriminating. Unfortunately, though, just as the supervisor reached me, the phone line went dead.

Final part to follow.

The Cold Caller (1)

I was reading something about telephone scams yesterday, and it reminded me I wrote this short story a few years ago on that subject. Perhaps you will find it amusing:

The Cold Caller (part 1 of 3)

‘Hello, Mr Williams?’ I began. ‘My name is David, and I am calling you from the Technical Support department of Windows.’

‘No, you’re not. Your name is Sahil and you are in 142nd Cross Road, Bangalore, on the second floor of the Maheli Building. You have your back to the window, but if you were to turn around you would have an excellent view out over Lal Bagh Tank and the Botanical Gardens.’

There was a very long silence.

‘Hello? Sahil? Are you still there?’

I very softly put down the receiver, as though I were afraid to disturb something dangerous.

I have a first class degree in English from a very good university, but it is still very difficult to get one of the better jobs. There is so much competition. So, like many of my contemporaries, I have ended up working in a call centre. Here we are required to have a degree, and we are required to speak English like a native, so I am well suited to this job.

I don’t really need to know anything about computers although, like most of my educated peers, I actually know quite a lot about them. But there is always a script. We are trained for two weeks, during which time we have to learn our scripts at home, and then for the first week we always have a supervisor close at hand to help us. The pay is okay, although to earn any good money you must make a set number of sales each day.

How do we make our sales? The customer will buy a Download to fix their computer, which is running too slowly.

And how do we get our information? It is a fairly sophisticated process. Let us say that you are on your computer, and that you open an email that purports to be something that it is not. When you do this, you will download a Trojan – a cookie, really – that does no more than monitor things like speeds and C.P.U. usage on your machine. Don’t worry, that is all that it does. We aren’t in the business of infecting machines with viruses and causing damage to anyone. But this cookie will send us information on the efficiency of your computer.

If your machine is obviously running slowly, then we call you. Telephone number and name from your machine when it was originally registered, extracted by the cookie, of course, plus the machine number. A number and name comes up on my screen, and I call.

Our fix will actually speed up the machine a bit – enough for the user to notice, at least.

I had been doing the job for five months, and doing it quite well, when this happened. I admit that I was quite scared by the episode. After I had put the phone down I sat there for a while, staring ahead, but not really seeing anything. After a few minutes, my supervisor came over to ask me if there was a problem, but I just shook my head and said no, I was taking a couple of minutes’ breather, and he went away again. I went and got myself a coffee from the machine, and then I carried on with my work.

I like Bangalore. So much here is new and modern. It is symbolic of the new India. I’ve got no time for the old superstitions, and I hate the filth and poverty. I left all that behind when I moved here. My parents still live in Delhi, in the house that I was brought up in with my brother and my two sisters. It is in a nice area, but all around this area there is ghastly squalor; the streets are piled with mounds of stinking refuse, the gutters run with sewage and the houses are unworthy of the name.

My father has a good job in a bank, which is how he was able to pay for my brother and I to go to university, but otherwise I suppose that he is typical of the old India. Every morning he makes puja, the ritual laid out by thousands of years of practice, praying to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, for success in his daily undertakings. The flower petals, the bowls, the bell, the incense, the rice…everything has to be just so, otherwise the ceremony will have no meaning.

And this superstition pervades every part of our lives. My parents insist that they will choose a bride for me, as they have already done for my brother. I will have very little say in the matter; at most I can veto their decision if I can show good reason. But the traditions that still have a powerful hold over our society say that she must be of the right caste, of good family, and that our horoscopes must be compatible. And when all of that has been dealt with, she must bring our family a large dowry.

But I have insisted that I will marry the woman who I love, not somebody chosen for me by others. And, indeed, I have already chosen. This woman, my beloved Raveena, is the sister of one of our software engineers. We met when a group of us had lunch during Diwali last year. Her family, like mine, are traditional, but we represent the modern India; she also has a good job, in a telecommunications company, and between us we will have enough to be comfortable and eventually to raise a family. Of course, our hope is that our parents will come to soften a little when they have grandchildren.

At night, I look out at the lights of all the other apartments in my colony, and I imagine the day that I will bring my wife home. There must be a wedding, of course, for even in modern India that is the way. It may be, though, that ours will be a small affair, with simply a few friends and relatives present. We both know that there will be many in both of our families who will refuse to attend. This saddens me, I admit, for I would love a large, traditional, Indian wedding. We Indians do weddings so much better than anyone else.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow

Flights of Fancy (Birds of a Feather)

I always enjoy listening to the dawn chorus. The cheerful, uplifting sounds of birdsong greeting the new day always put me in a good mood.

And I was delighted to take delivery yesterday of a whole raft of new computer programs – voice recognition software, a language pattern analyser, and an ornithological behavioural speech identifier to name just three. So I loaded them all up and recorded a few minutes of the dawn chorus in the garden this morning. I think you’ll find it illuminating:

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‘Oi, what you staring at, big beak? You want some, eh?’

‘Who, me? Well, if you think you’re so hard, come over here and say that! If you dare stick your foot in my territory, that is.’

‘Your territory is it now? Since when? Don’t remember you being so beaky during mating season!’

‘No? Didn’t need to be. Well, I wouldn’t be after yours, anyway. I’m not that desperate. You should ask her where she’s been! She’d mate with anything in feathers, yours would! Wanna know why that scruffy feral pigeon’s been hanging around here, eh?

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘What do you think I’m suggesting? Weren’t you just the teeniest little bit suspicious at the colour of the eggs? We blackbirds are supposed to lay sort of bluey greeny eggs, not white ones!’

‘The colours vary, mate. You should know that. Diet and climate and all that stuff.’

‘Not that much, they don’t. Those eggs were a dead spit for…well, for pigeon eggs, basically. And what about your fledglings? Rather on the large side, your kids. Lot bigger than you are, already. Walk a bit funny, too…

‘I…oh, for goodness sake! Oi, shut it Red Tits! Can’t hear myself tweet around here!’

‘Here, you don’t want to antagonise that robin!’

‘He don’t scare me.’

‘He should. You know what they’re like – vicious little buggers! I saw that one take out a song thrush a couple of days ago.’

‘No!’

‘Yes. Straight up. Blood and feathers everywhere! I tell you, that thrush’ll be on soft food for a while after that.’

‘That’s mostly what they eat, anyway.’

‘Yeah, but they like their seeds as much as the next bird, too. That one won’t be back at the bird table for a while. Bit of minced earthworm and over-ripe blackcurrant is about all it’s got to look forward to at the moment.’

‘Poor bugger.’

‘Yeah. Um…I’m getting a bit bored with all this, now. I know. See that cat down there?’

‘What about it?’

‘Bet you I can crap on its head!’

‘Bet you can’t!.’

‘Can!’

‘Can’t!’

‘Right, watch this…er…left a bit…there! Mwaah ha ha ha!’

‘Okay, yeah. Good one. Hah! That’s one pissed off cat, that is!’

‘Love it when that happens.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Right.’

‘Mmm.’

‘Okay, that’s it, then. Sun’s up, now. I’m off to go and forage some brekky. Same time tomorrow, then?’

‘Nah, not tomorrow.’

‘No? Why ever not? Here, you having that problem with Avian Pox, again?’

‘No, no. It’s not that. Shh! Don’t let the whole neighbourhood know! No, to tell the truth, it’s just that I’m a bit fed up with all these early starts.’

‘But that’s what we freaking do! Why do you think it’s called the freaking dawn chorus?’

‘I know, I know. It’s just that sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind changing it to the slightly-later-preferably-just-after-coffee-chorus.’

‘We’re birds, you pillock! We don’t drink coffee!’

”Yeah, obviously. Of course not. Course we don’t. I’m just making a point. You know what I mean.’

‘Will you two shut up! Dawn chorus has finished!’

‘Who said that?’

‘That gull up there.’

‘What’s it to do with him? They don’t take part. And anyway, they never stop making a racket themselves. Nasty, loud, shouty buggers!’

‘Yeah. They’re called common gulls for a reason!’

‘Too right!’

‘How would they like it if we went and sat on their cliffs and shouted at them?’

‘Right! They’d hate it! Um…what’s a cliff?’

‘Eh? Er, I dunno. What they sit on, apparently.’

What, like a twig?’

‘Yeah, I expect that’s it. Some sort of a twig.’

‘Can’t think why they don’t call it a twig, then.’

‘Common and thick, then.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Anyway, this isn’t getting breakfast eaten. I’m off to that feeder with the coconut shell and the fat balls.’

‘Fat balls? Is that some sort of crude joke?’

‘I’ve no idea. You coming?’

‘Yeah, okay.’

An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

An Andalusian Adventure (1)

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It wasn’t my first trip to Spain, although it was a long time ago now. I walked into Malaga with a rucksack on my back and followed the signs for ‘Centro’ until I found myself in the crowded central district of older narrow streets with three- and four-story shops and cafes, guest houses and cheap hotels. The second hotel I tried offered me a perfectly adequate room on the third floor at a very good price.

The hotel was old. The wooden floors of the corridors were worn and polished by the passage of countless feet, and everywhere seemed gloomy. It gave the impression of having more nooks and corners where light never penetrated than it should. But the only light came from the occasional bulbs hanging from the ceilings, and other than by returning to the street, the visitor would only encounter daylight once they had reached their room and opened the curtains.

The bed was old, and sagged a good deal more than it should, and the furniture was so dark with age it was difficult to make out the grain. As a base for a few days, I decided it would suit me fine. As I unpacked and settled in, I suddenly heard a violin being played. It sounded quite close, and I opened my bedroom door to investigate. I had just decided the sound was coming from a neighbouring room when it stopped, and then a door opened. A man about ten years older than myself emerged and stopped when he saw me.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Did I disturb you?’

He introduced himself as a German who I shall call Matthias, although I am no longer certain that was his name, and who immediately invited me to go for a beer.

It would have been rude of me to refuse.

Matthias was meandering around Europe, he told me, and supporting himself largely by busking. Later that week I was to see him playing in the street and be surprised at just how many passers-by threw coins into his hat. It seemed a particularly enjoyable way to travel. Over those beers and then over a few more later in the week, we talked travel and philosophy, music and religion. When I meet someone while travelling, I find it interesting how I often have less constraint than I would when I meet someone for the first time in more familiar surroundings. Frequently, I will reveal things about myself I would never dream of doing to someone I meet perhaps for the first time at a friend’s house, or at my writing group. I presume it is the unspoken knowledge we will never meet again.

Beside the entrance to the hotel was a little café where I made it my habit to take a breakfast consisting of strong coffee, sometimes with slices of thick white bread dipped in olive oil, sometimes with fried eggs. It was a good place to sit and watch Malaga waking up. Its clientele were a broad mixture of workers all grabbing a quick breakfast on their way to office, shop or building site. Mostly they sat in silence, reading the morning paper and smoking, other than to give their orders to the waiter. On the bar a tiny transistor radio chattered away in speech too indistinct for me to make out more than the occasional word. In a way, though, that only added to the atmosphere. Despite it being a familiar situation, there was enough of the unfamiliar and the foreign to make it feel a little exotic.

I wanted adventure, I wanted to explore. I’ve wanted to do that for as long as I can remember. I travelled in those days with a few changes of clothes in a rucksack and a minimum of half a dozen paperbacks, which invariably included something by Hermann Hesse and at least one poetry book.

That, at least, hasn’t changed much.

I liked to travel light (other than the books, of course), so I had no camera with me and probably very few of the essentials most people would think to take on a Spanish holiday. No swimwear, for example. I don’t do beaches, at least not in that way.

But I had come to Malaga because I had a peripatetic nature, and my itchy feet were troubling me. After a few days I decided to take a walk out to the little town of Colmenar, to the north of the city. I would take a room there for one night and return to Malaga the following day. Any other destination would have done just as well; the purpose was the journey, and the journey was the purpose. I chose this route simply because while wandering around the outskirts of Malaga I saw a narrow road winding up into the hills with almost no traffic on it, signposted to Colmenar. The morning after I had made the decision, I packed my rucksack and checked out of my hotel immediately after breakfast.

Part 2 to follow

It’s Been A While

A few weeks, anyway. Over the years, most of you have probably got used to me just disappearing every now and again. There comes a point where everything seems to get too much for me and even reading and commenting on posts becomes too difficult and challenging. I ignore social media except to check occasionally to see if I have any notifications, and whether these can just be ignored. As for writing a blog post, my mind just goes blank.

No snidey comments, please…

But I have been reading – reading voraciously, book after book, for a week or two. Comfort reading, for the most part. Books I know I enjoy and which are not too demanding of the reader. In between times I have made good progress with my novel A Good Place, so I’ve not just been feeling sorry for myself, staring morosely into space, and eating too much.

I’ve done that a bit, though.

I’ve even managed, finally, to take my first visit to the South Downs since the pandemic began. I took a bus down to the East Sussex town of Lewes, and from there spent a few hours walking a big loop up onto the Downs, along the top for a few miles, then back to Lewes. It felt as good as a holiday.

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I’ve written a couple of new blog posts, too, at long last. Well, it’s a bit of a cheat, really – they’re actually a couple of extracts from a travel essay I’ve been writing. I’ll put the first one up in a day or two. But I still feel I need a lot of space to switch off and think, so I apologise now if I don’t do a great deal of visiting other blogs.

If I do visit, of course, I’ll be socially distanced and masked up, so you might not even notice me there.

A Yearning For Wilderness

Inhospitable deserts. High mountain passes. Hills or moorland in thick, blanketing fog or sudden treacherous snowfall.

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A situation in which I test my skills and resilience to the limit, aware of the consequences of a miscalculation or of taking my eye off the ball for too long. Certainly not a case of me fighting against the desert, or the mountain, because it’s not a battle. I have no need to ‘conquer’ anything, merely to respectfully request safe passage.

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At the moment I have to accept second best, walking in woodlands near my home. At least there are fewer people around while it is raining, although those who are include a posse of shrieking children – honestly, where are the wolves and bears when you need them? Two hundred years ago in Britain children would either have avoided all but the lightest of woodland, or passed through as silently as possible. Although the bears and wolves were long gone by then, the children would have been raised on a diet of nursery stories that taught them the dangers of venturing into wild places, the remnants of very necessary advice from those earlier times when careless children frequently got eaten.

Happy days!

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Don’t misunderstand me, I love these woodlands, and am very grateful I can get to them easily. Within them, for example, is this wonderful grove of oak trees. The oaks are not particularly old, probably around two hundred years I would imagine, but are stunningly beautiful. Some have branches thick with moss, all have wonderfully sculpted bark and all are home to huge numbers of creatures.

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Already one or two have a limb dropping to the ground for extra stability. And the grove as an ecosystem within the wider woodland is perfect – each tree is around twenty five meters from its neighbours, which appears perfect when I look at the size of the canopy of each tree: its branches just about meet the branches of its neighbours, but there is no sense of their growth being restricted. I wonder whether this is chance, the result of long centuries of naturally evolving woodland – when one tree dies and eventually falls, that newly-opened space exploited by another seedling, or perhaps intelligent planting by a long-forgotten landowner?

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Where the woods are managed, especially the cutting in those areas where the holly is spreading in dense swathes crowding out all other growth, there are stacks of cut logs and branches exploited by children (shrieking or otherwise) to make dens. None of them would keep out the weather, but that’s not really their point. What I particularly like about them, other than it’s good to find children who want to play in this environment, rather than just sit in front of a screen, is most of these dens end up resembling the skeleton of some fantastic monster. And although that hardly turns these woods into a wilderness, it does give them just the faintest frisson of excitement, especially in the gloom.

And reminds me I want to be in the wilderness…

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As is basic human nature, of course, the longer the restrictions (either imposed or of my own choosing) go on, the more I yearn for that wilderness.

Patience!