I’m a conversational vampire.
I absorb snippets of conversations from total strangers that later find a home in the mouths of fictional characters or the middle of a City Jackdaw post.
It’s not intentional. It’s not as if I’m a professional eavesdropper or anything. It’s just that I seem to pick things up when out and about that stay with me. The people out there are just great.
‘This train is the Northern service to Leeds.’ That was the announcement that kicked off the latest episode.
Then, despite the next statement stating that the next stop would be New Pudsey, one half of the young couple sat facing each other at the table opposite mine, on the other side of the aisle, jumped into life.
“Shit we’re in Leeds! Is this Leeds?” she asked in alarm. Betraying zero trust in her male companion, she turned wildly to catch my eye.
I shook my head. “This is Bradford.”
“Well, where are they goin’?” she asked the lad, now dismissing me as I’d served my purpose. She was referring to a group of girls that had just left the train and were walking across the platform outside of her window.
“On holiday?” he replied, sounding bored.
“On holiday? Dressed like that? They look like they’re goin’ to a festival!”
It was obvious that that was where these two were going. The Leeds and Reading festival was about to start, and she was sporting the festival look. Doc Martins with stockings, topped with a garish, tie-dyed shirt and silver-sequinned wings stuck to her forehead. Her boyfriend (I presumed) had similar artwork studded above his eyebrows.
“Who would actually holiday in Bradford anyway?” she continued. “No – they’re dressed for a festival.”
If that was the case then those girls had exited at the wrong station, despite this carriage being crowded with other young . . . what? Was there a term for these kids?
I googled what do you call a person who attends a festival?
Answer: one who attends a festival.
I tried to get on with my book but now I couldn’t help feeding. Like I said, I’m a conversational vampire.
“I’ve read they’re gonna have stalls set up where you can have your Covid jab while you’re there,” she went on. “Are you gonna have it?”
He shrugged, still looking disinterested. I began to suspect he was hungover.
“I don’t know either. I mean, I get it if you’re old and that. If you’re a certain age, say over forty, it’s a risk. But we’re young. Nearly everyone at the festival’s young so what’s the point? And you know that it can make your kids disabled? And it alters your DNA. Apparently.”
Old – over forty? And that last bit, like a disclaimer: Apparently.
I realised I was shaking my head and tried to immerse myself in my book once again, re-reading the same lines in an attempt to drown out this endless soliloquy. I slowly began to build up a wall of resistance and finished my chapter by the time we rolled into Leeds station.
I left the train and that young couple somewhere behind me to join other commuters on a busy escalator. We rose up to a walkway which took us high over the railway lines to then get another escalator which took us down to the ticket gates.
Those should-have-been unremarkable seconds were enough to feed again. It was a male voice, immediately behind me.
“Social media has given people too many mental issues, man. There’s men dressing up as women, women dressing up as men, aliens dressing up as children. Everyone’s lost their identity. They don’t know who they are.”
Well, of course I was curious. Who would be pursuing that line of reasoning, most of which I could go along with? Except . . . aliens?
Turning around would be too obvious, so instead, after reaching the end of the escalator, I took a few steps and then hung to the side on the pretence that I was getting my e-ticket up on my phone. I had a quick glance as they passed. These weren’t two young naive festival goers, they were a couple of professional looking men around my age.
Totally not what I was expecting. It just goes to show that you can never predict the type of thing that goes on in a person’s head.
As often happens when in a transitory place, I wondered where these two were heading, and more beguilingly where their conversation would lead too. But I had to let them go, I had my own destination to reach. And anyway, by now I was fully sated.
While we were sat around talking heatwaves, Autumn came tiptoeing in.
After two days of heavy rain there were flood warnings throughout the country. I’m fortunate that I don’t live near to any river unlike those unfortunate people whose homes always seem to be at risk at this time of year.
I was sat with a coffee, watching the rain outside the window.
It reminded me of the time I was on the island of Rousay. I’d had some time to kill before the ferry arrived to take me back to what is known as mainland Orkney and so sought out a cafe overlooking the jetty,. I was sat with a coffee then, too, again watching the rain that had behind it the force of an ocean wind. The last of my coffee drained, I’d then ordered a hot-buttered bannock. Very Scottish, I know. When in Rome and all that.
Panoramic though it was, that view didn’t include an ornamental giraffe like mine did now. A giraffe which, if you look very carefully, you’d see is missing an ear thanks to Bryn, our Welsh Springer Spaniel.
Scottish, Welsh, for the interests of inclusivity I think my next drink should be some nice English tea.
Who’d have thought it? After forty-eight hours of heavy rain winter blew in during the night and we were moved to make the most of it. Heaving on boots and heavy coats, we went out into a blast of cold air, even though it was 10.40pm on a school night. School night- that’s a laugh. They are now known as stay at home and do school work nights.
Millie walked ahead, giving an unsuspecting Bryn his first experience of snow.
With Millie’s arms aching we changed over and she managed to catch a second’s worth of our expedition.
The night wore on, the snow continued, and as we decided to head back we spotted a bus crawling up the road towards us. On the rare occasions that we get a considerable amount of snow around here the bus services are often cancelled as we live on a hill, but this one made an admirable job of it, its lights carving through the gloom as it succeeded on its way past us to its frozen destination.
We got in, dried the dog, dried ourselves, closing the blinds on that cold January night. The next morning I drew back the blinds in great anticipation on what would be waiting for me, ready to go again. Wrapped in layers and past experiences for reference.
from 2013: the things you hear and the things you see.
By the way, the film The Gunman that was being filmed on Tower Bridge?
It was all a lie! When the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who aired I saw the helicopter flying around the bridge, carrying a superimposed Tardis. “I was there!” this Whovian exclaimed. All cloak and dagger stuff.
Well I had an idea about a post I was going to do on here about my recent trip to London. But everything has gone pear shaped due to me losing most of the photographs that I had taken on my phone.
Nostalgic thoughts of Polaroids.
So, instead, from what I have salvaged, I will just post the shots that I do have along with snippets of conversation heard along the way.
Boudica hopping on.
“Hi Millie, it’s Dad. I got that photograph of the Queen’s house for you.Was she there?No, she was putting her wheelie bins out around the back”.
“King Charles had a crane with a wooden leg“.
“If you don’t like your personal space being invaded, do not go on the tube“.
From St.Paul’s Cathedral
“If you don’t like heights…
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While you are in Middleton get some black bags
It was a text from my wife who was in work. How the hell did she know I was in Middleton?
I swear she has some kind of track and trace programme that the government should look into because it just blows their billion pound effort away.
I did as I was told. I got the black bags.
That’s the secret of a good marriage.
Then I called for a coffee in McDonald’s where I could hear a man complaining to himself in the booth next to mine.
Fucking sick of this now. Where’s your mask? Stand here. Stand there. We don’t do that. Put your mask back on. Sit here. There’s no ketchup. Wait there. If you can’t taste salt on your chips it’s a Coronavirus symptom bollocks.
The last line rose in volume as it neared its end. I couldn’t help smiling in private at his public fatigue.
I think a lot of us are losing the stamina for this now, and some are really struggling.
There was an elderly man in there, crying and apologising for being a nuisance. The prospect of another lockdown had filled him with dread, for he had only one family member to speak with who would have to isolate. This was the only place he could come for some human contact, and embarrassed by his tears he made to leave.
The woman who was seating the customers tried to reassure him:
“You’re not a nuisance at all. Sit down and I’ll get you a drink. Ignore what the government says, as long as you’ve got your gloves and your mask on you’re alright. You need to keep coming in every morning to see us.”
That was true, but if this place was forced to go delivery only again that option would no longer be open to him. It’s a trade off, catching Coronavirus v your mental health. Not everyone had the fortitude and the people around them to cope with this once again.
I left the restaurant and made my way home along a path that gradually rose away from the town centre in a steep climb. At the top of the hill, where the slope evened out, was a tree well on its way to its autumn transformation. I paused a while to both take it in and get my breath back.
There were still many leaves to fall, and those that had were stirring in a cool breeze.
Although it looked familiar, we’d not seen an autumn like this one before. But they will keep coming around and there’s a reassurance in that, even as they age us.
We are still here, all of us, doing the same old things, climbing hills, gasping for breath, and little by little shedding our leaves.
Blackpool 2020. I’ve been to this northern seaside town countless times since I was a child, but in 2020 even the familiar is different.
I was there with my son, James, last Saturday to watch a football match, staying overnight on the Friday. It was busy, but not pre-Covid busy.
As James was walking out on the beach, I walked along this promenade, keeping apace so I could keep an eye on him.
There was a car to my left, stopped at a red light, and a guy was shouting through a rolled down window “Hey mate, improve your social distancing!”
I looked around. Was he addressing me? It appeared he was.
“Improve your social distancing!”
There wasn’t anybody within at least fifty metres of me. James was about a mile out to sea. The lights turned to green and he drove off, shouting the same message to other pedestrians that he passed. He wasn’t anyone official, and he didn’t look like, you know, a loon. It seemed that he had made it his own personal mission to prevent the town having more Government measures imposed upon it.
Blackpool seafront is breezy at the best of times, if bearing rain a destroyer of plans, and this day was really windy, as is evidenced by these bending tulips. Or, as they are better known- ‘giant spoons’.
I was feeling my age.
While my son walked freely across the beach, I found numerous windbreak-walls to sit against while watching him.
Then, hood on, hat on, mood on, I joined him to walk beneath one of the old Victorian piers, the sea being out, spying the tower between the supports.
This caught my eye and so my camera. Emerged from the depths to breathe once again in light, like barnacle-encrusted cootie trees, shaped like a St.Andrew’s cross.
Halt-who goes there? A shoed adult, a barefoot child, and a gull. It wasn’t volcanic ash in the Cretaceous period forever preserving a passing sauropod, but I liked it.
If you squint, or maybe do that thing with your thumb and index finger to enlarge this photograph, you’ll see my lad out there-far enough away to give my wife a heart attack if she’d been there with us. I assured her by text that he remained in sight at all times. I didn’t tell her that I had binoculars.
The day wore on, the light grew dimmer, the wind grew colder. This gull was gliding effortlessly in,similar to how we freewheel on a bike, coasting in to find a place to settle for the night.
There were starlings, too, around the pier. If it was a murmuration, then they were murmuring above us, turning and wheeling perfectly in unison like a shoal of fish.
Twilight – a liminal time, and James was on the edge, as the tide rolled back in and my thoughts began to turn to that warm room back at the B&B.
Before the sea had started to return to shore, there’d been the odd person out there on the beach, hundreds and hundreds of yards out, walking alone and wearing face masks. Unless it was a way of keeping their face warm I just didn’t understand the thinking behind it. The guy in that car would have been proud of them. And still tell them to improve their social distancing, by megaphone.
Evening was coming on, autumn was coming on, exhaustion was coming on.
The sun sank into the sea, a final flash of fire engulfed in its repetitive end, and still the wheel on the pier turned, around and around, everywhere we looked – the same old cycles.
This gull seemed reluctant to leave, allowing me to come closer to observe it. One final photograph and then we sought the sanctuary of our room.
It’s a nostalgic place for many of us, Blackpool, with long memories of family and old friendships. Away from this attractive seafront though, I think it is quite a deprived town.
Whenever my wife has been here with us, a common question of hers is uttered with an expected regularity while observing the members of numerous Stag Nights and Hen Dos staggering out of the promenade pubs:
I wonder how many marriages are being wrecked tonight? How many babies being conceived?
All out of the hearing of the children, of course, for they see nothing but magic.
That’s her astute understanding of human behaviour, but that kind of stuff can’t go on this year, can it? Not in 2020, when we’re all social distancing.
He was aware of the season’s arrival, was conscious of the changes, but only in a rudimentary way.
For he didn’t know the names of the trees, nor of the birds, but he knew that those geese were preparing to leave, without him even knowing that they were geese.
They were obeying the same instinctive compulsion that they always did, long before anyone named them, and those birds didn’t even know that they were geese, either, for they just recognised each other, as they did in the times when other people, long gone, called them by different names, names now forever forgotten and lost.
But the days remain the same, the signs remain the same, it’s the language that rises and falls. It has always been our wont to label the landscape and creatures around us. Make things familiar and relatable.
He watched them go, taking to the skies, never knowing where they would alight, but trusting deeply in the way of things, and the day that they’d return.