Monday, 30 July 2012

Viva Fluffy

My phone rings.

It's my brother.

My spidey-sense immediately tells me this means trouble.

"Hi Weez. How are you? Good. Right, listen. Last night, I had to sleep downstairs on the sofa because Mia wasn't feeling well and she got into bed with Deb. Fluffy was outside the French doors asking to be let in, which is not like him at all. I told him in no uncertain terms to go and use his cat flap. I even put my hand through it to see if it was working. But he was still outside when I went to sleep. Then in the morning, he was lying down just inside the back door..."

He falters, takes a breath, continues.

I listen to his hurried, throat-constricted outpouring with a sinking heart. There are no prizes for guessing where this is heading.

Yes, the king of beasts, Fluffy the Great, Fluffy the Terrible, is no more. Sleek and beautiful and blessed with a monstrous personality disorder that could whisk him from tender and loving to A&E dangerous in under a second, he in came through his cat flap while my brother slept, lay down, and died.

"Not a mark on him," my brother says. "He'd been fine that afternoon, watching me build a fence. He looked so peaceful lying there in the morning with his little paws crossed - I didn't realise. I thought he was sleeping. He always slept like that. He wasn't even that old..." His voice cracks. "I need your advice, Weez. How do we tell Mia?"

Why he is asking his childless younger sister how to break the news of a bereavement to his 5-year-old, I don't know, but I am deeply touched.

"I mean, do we just bury him and tell her later, or do we do a little ceremony with her there? Would that upset her more? Fluff was her absolute favourite person in the world."

I think back to when my childhood pets died. I didn't witness any of the garden burials, but Dad meticulously carved gravestones out of breezeblocks - "Blackie 1957-75", "Tigger 1976-93", "Billie 1981-91". It was one of the nicest things he ever did.

"I think it's good to have some sort of ceremony," I say. "She's old enough to understand about death, right? I mean, she lost her grandad last year, so she knows what it's about - that that person's never coming back? So a proper send off's a nice idea, and I can't see any harm in including her in it - in fact she'd probably feel a lot worse for being left out now. This is what rituals are for - to help you deal with the big stuff that happens. It's a good way of saying goodbye. You can make it really lovely. It's also a great way of showing her it's ok to be sad about sad stuff."

(This is a lesson I'm only just starting to learn.)

"Yes, yes, you're right. Good, that's what I thought," says my brother. "Ceremony it is then."

"I'm really sad about Fluffy," I say. "He was awesome. I'm so sorry."

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

I email a few days later to ask how it went.

He replies:

We had a lovely thank you ceremony for him and put him to rest in a lovely white casket tied with white ribbon and decorated with pictures and words from Mia and all of us.  He never like to be far from us, so we chose a quiet corner of the wild field near our house where the dog walkers never go, and laid him to rest in a very deep grave which took me several hours to dig (thick hay grass & roots, stones, clay etc).  Very sweaty work.  I will try to make a stone for him like Dad used to, but am suffering from cat grave digging exhaustion. 

He had a good life, he was loved, despite viciously scratching the kids for no reason and pooing on the lawn (not to mention the fleas).  Maybe having such a long tail makes you have a short life?  Who knows?  My cynical side says him going this way saved us a lot on vet bills.  But we miss him and things feel a bit empty and lonely around here without his funny character.

Mia was sad for her Fluff, despite his faults, despite being directly on the receiving end of Fluff’s issues.  He seemed like one of those odd gifted people who have no common sense, but are highly intelligent.  He really seemed to love us all and bond with us in a way unusual for a cat.  He never lost his inner kitten.  She would play with him with string and would collapse with laughter.  She also thinks cats come to the shops with you, run around the block in a race against your scooter (always winning in the last furlong),  she thinks they always sit near you, but not on you, wherever you are inside or out.  

It was really right to do the ceremony.  She seemed to really respect this tribute and it eased her sadness, was a happy time, not sad.  We're all looking around the house, missing him being there and wishing we could have known, so as to not take him for granted, made more of a fuss of him, made him feel special, which he was.

Peebro X

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

My brother's fantastic.

This is a tribute.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


No two ways about it - the first half of 2012 was shit.

Working six day weeks, when most of the time I didn't feel like leaving the house at all.

Dad's car being stolen from outside my flat in February, then turning up three weeks later burnt out. With three boxes of Dad's books inside, an irreplaceable collection gathered over a lifetime - his bequest to his brother. I'd been meant to deliver them, but hadn't found the energy.

Easter weekend, when I abruptly found out Tesco's Guy was, in fact, a very treacherous friend, the kind of person a Weasel wouldn't choose to hang out with at all.

The subsequent adjustment to life without a playmate. Rebuilding shattered trust. And, with a sudden lack of pleasant distraction, the shockwaves of bereavement finally hitting me like a punch in the gut.

Alone, alone, alone, and with a horrible 'ashes scattering' weekend looming.

Did I need a holiday?

Fuck yeah.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Day One:

Job's finished until September. Working for a university ROCKS.

Get in my new car and get the hell out of Cardiff.

It is raining - hard - and I wonder if there is a word for that moment's lull you get in the rain-noise when you pass under a bridge on a motorway.

First stop - Travelodge Warrington.

It is nicer than my flat: there is a vast bed, a telly, a bath. You can walk distances in here.

Ponder the feasibility of living in Travelodges for the rest of my life.

Day Two:

Brief detour to explore Warrington. Don't actually make it into the city centre as distracted by a bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal. It is fascinating. Stop to take photos. Worry that I am unusually excited by bridges.

Onwards up the M6. It's still raining.

Tiredness can kill. Take a break.  Is it just me or do those signs loosely translate as Buy stuff in our shop or YOU WILL DIE?

The CDs I made specially for the journey are skipping.

I'm sure the M6 didn't use to be this long. Now it is raining even harder. If it carries on like this I will need an ark, not a Suzuki Ignis.

Arrive in the Lake District. Am meant to be camping but instead go straight to the hostel whose details I'd prudently jotted down before leaving Cardiff. The road there is flooded, but passable.

Phone call from my brother - his tent has blown away. He is not happy. He is shouting. He has no trousers on.

In the background, the kids are crying, his wife is hysterical. He claims a small hurricane whipped through their campsite. Everything they have is drenched, all their clothes, everything. His trousers are too wet to wear and his spare ones are soaked. Without trousers, the holiday cannot continue. They are going home immediately.

I suggest they stay at the hostel tonight in order to utilise the drying room. He concurs, grudgingly.

I lend him my tracksuit bottoms. A nice cup of tea soon fixes everything.

Day Three:

The family have gathered, today's the day.

Mum died in 2005, Dad in October last year, but due to the family's lack of imagination and failure to properly communicate, there are no memorials and instead we are just going to throw them into a lake.

Dad's parents had a house nearby in the 60s and early 70s, so most family holidays were spent here. Dad loved it (free holidays!); Mum less so, seeing as she didn't care for Nana, hated the rain, hated the cold, hated the hiking and the bugs and the poor-man's picnics, and would much rather have been propping up a bar by some hot exotic beach, but she didn't get a say in the matter.

The Lake District is NOT my choice of location to scatter Mum. Nor is it entirely Dad, as I feel, what with him being a Gillingham-born Customs & Excise man, part of him belongs in the River Medway. Mum, I feel, should be with her parents. And a little bit of both of them should be buried in the garden of the house in Kent.

(I have got round this problem by secretly asking my brother in law to decant some of their ashes into separate jars for me to deal with later. He doesn't mind, as he is currently driving round with half of his dad in the boot of his car while the other half is in his sister's cupboard in Scotland.)

At a car park by the lake - about 20 people have turned up for this event, so parking is an important consideration - we discreetly do the deed.

Dad turns the water a strange milky colour, then quickly disperses. Mum clings grimly to the bank, like she's trying to get back out.

There are too many people there to say goodbye properly. The atmosphere is too lighthearted. I find myself wondering out loud what it'd be like if the water rehydrated them and they started to reform, like a Grow Your Own Parent kit.

We linger for a bit, then go and wander round Keswick in the rain.

Later, we retire to a pub for a meal, where the language barrier prevents the person from Bristol from having a conversation with the Cumbrian barman.

Day Four:

Sick of the rain. The roads are flooded. My coat is not waterproof after all and my hat smells of wet dog.

Everyone goes home.

After waving goodbye to my brother and his family, the last to depart, a sense of relief spreads through me - I am alone here in Cumbria: my holiday starts at last!

Drive around aimlessly, feeling miserable. Park at the top of a dramatic mountain pass and cry a bit. Being alone here in Cumbria is not as much fun as I thought it was going to be.

Have a nap. When I wake, the sun has come out. That's more like it.

Revisit the scene of the scattering, and am appalled to see the lake has receded and while Dad has mostly gone, Mum is now quite literally high and dry in the middle of the car park.

Go and climb Cat Bells to stretch my legs and think about this problem.

Watch a sheep take a prolonged and clearly deeply satisfying scratch on a rock. It helps settle my mind.

But then am startled to be flashed by an elderly man who stops to engage me in idle chitchat.

I have never been flashed before, especially not half way up a mountain, and am not sure if my eyes are deceiving me. But yes, that's definitely his cock, and yes he has definitely manipulated his shorts during our brief conversation to ensure his entire Benedict Cumberbatch is in full view.

Some people are really fucking weird.

Rattled, I take my dignity to a pub to watch England crash out of Euro 2012, then spend the night in the car, keeping Mum company by the lake.


Day Five:

There is no such thing as Monday morning here. I breakfast in the sun outside a cafe surrounded by peaks and soak up the tranquility.

Bid my mother farewell and drive the long way, via Seascale, to Barrow-in-Furness.

The sun is still out and I fall in love with the big sky above Walney Island.

Idle the day away there, mooching by the beach.

At a remote and deserted layby next to the sea, I watch the evening fade into night. There is a lovely sunset. Stars come out. Two young rabbits emerge to play in the road.

It is peaceful. I like it.

Day Six:

Time to head east. I have a ticket for Stewart Lee tonight in Hull. I bought it because I have to be in Scotland on Friday and Hull is sort of on the way to Scotland and Stewart Lee is brilliant and I have never visited Hull before.

After a pleasant drive through Kirkby Lonsdale, where I mistake Yorkshiremen for Italians because I can't understand what they're saying, and York, which I would stop and walk round if I didn't hate paying for parking, I arrive in Hull.

It is Tuesday, mid-afternoon. The sun is out, and every pub's beer garden is doing a roaring trade.

I check into my hotel - not a Travelodge, unfortunately, but similar - and enjoy the facilities (electricity, running water) the way only a person who has slept in their car for two nights can.

At the Stewart Lee gig, I laugh so hard I spill my Bovril.

In the foyer afterwards, he is signing books, but I am too scared to go and talk to him as he is too clever and too beautiful.

 Day Seven:

Steal as many pastries from the complementary breakfast buffet as possible.

On checking out, decide to ignore the art galleries and other multitudinous cultural offerings of Hull in favour of visiting the Humber Bridge, thus fuelling my fear that I am overly enamoured with bridges.

Imagine my delight when I get there and realise you can not just walk under it, you can also walk across it.

Walk across it.

Walk back.

This comes with an added bonus. Having set myself the mission of visiting every county in mainland Britain before nicking back off to New Zealand (for nicking back off to New Zealand is what I will surely do, one day), that's Lincolnshire done.

Cruise up to Bridlington in scorching sunshine. Why did no one tell me the Yorkshire coast was so beautiful?

At Flamborough Heads, a family are just leaving and offer me their £3 parking ticket, which is good as I hate paying for parking.

"We thought this place were somewhere else," the man explains. "Somewhere with a ramp down to t' sea."

"But we've 'ad an ice cream, so it wasn't a wasted journey!" his wife adds brightly.

It is a lovely spot, high on a remote cliff, all wheeling seabirds and crashing surf, but I feel miserable and unsettled. Restless. I want to move on, but I don't know why. Hell, I don't even know where.

At a roundabout on the road heading north, I'm distracted by the sight of a group of travellers, complete with horses, and head down a side road I didn't mean to take. The road leads me to an RSPB reserve - Bempton Cliffs.

Hours later, as the sun dips below the horizon, I leave, tired, sunburned and totally blissed out.

This place is my new favourite place in the world. There are gannets and guillemots and kittiwakes and razorbills. And, from a distance, I have SEEN MY FIRST PUFFIN.

A lifetime's ambition fulfilled, by accident, because of a group of gypsies camped by the road.

I drive to Scarborough, high on life and elegant seabirds, get a Chinese takeaway, and bed down, en voiture, on North Bay.

Day Eight:


I love waking up by the sea.

I love waking very early, climbing out of the car, and going for a brisk walk under a blue sky along a long yet well-maintained yet deserted stretch of seafront in order to find the nearest toilet which happens to be in a charming and picturesque harbour, then buying a bacon buttie wrapped in a paper napkin and a steaming hot coffee in a polystyrene cup, and walking back again. It really perks you up in the mornings.

Scarborough is lovely. Almost too lovely to leave.

Back on the road, the rain starts at Saltburn.

Entering County Durham, the welcome sign says The Land of the Prince Bishops. Wonder if they couldn't do with a catchier slogan.

By the time I reach the Angel of the North it is absolutely pissing down.

Am faintly underwhelmed by Gormley's metal masterpiece, until I pause to read the information board on my way back to the carpark. For some reason, the diagram depicting its immense foundations moves me to tears.

Detour through Newcastle city centre solely to drive across the Tyne bridge, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Alnwick. Is this the prettiest place I have ever seen from the safety of my car while the rain is lashing down? Yes. Wish I had the fortitude and the wet-weather gear to stop and explore it.

It is also too wet for Lindisfarne.

On the A1 towards Berwick, traffic slows to a crawl as a sheet of pale brown water submerges a long flat stretch of road. All jolly fun and exciting, until the point where the road dips and the water is as deep as the headlights of approaching cars.

Hold breath, cross fingers, and plough on through, praying not to stall.

I am very relieved to make it, although the steam coming off the engine is alarming.

At the border, I pull over and wait for this stupid weather to stop. When I wake up, the sun is back out. Not only that, but I am abroad, IN SCOTLAND!

Consult the map, and work out a route that bypasses Edinburgh but takes me over the Forth Bridge. I've never seen the Forth bridges up close and find the prospect exciting.

Admit am maybe getting a bit too excited about bridges now.

Stop under the rail bridge and take lots of photos.

At Falkirk, as I gaze with admiration at their splendid Wheel, I am struck by a revelation - it is not just bridges that I love. It is structures. Feel reassured.

Stop for supplies at the huge Tesco at Bonnybridge. Ask the checkout lady what the weather forecast is for the next few days.

"Shite!" she replies, with far too much gusto. Her enthusiasm takes both of us by surprise and for the next few minutes neither of us can stop giggling.

Halt for the night in a layby overlooking Loch Lubnaig but it's raining too hard to see it.

Day Nine:

Arrive in Oban too early to check into my hostel. Park up on a free bit at the edge of town, and do some exploring.

Instantly rewarded by the sight of a man in a kilt striding up the main street. The kilt is inadvertently tucked into the back of his knickers.

This is so brilliant I don't even care he's not being traditional.

Oban is not what I was expecting. It is meaner, and larger. It has a disturbing amount of metered parking. There are no free toilets.

But wait. What is this? A huge Tesco, just round the back of the railway station, hidden from the tourist hordes by Oban's unnecessarily complicated one-way system. Not only does it have free toilets AND free parking, but the cafe sells a perfectly acceptable mug of latte for a measly £1.40.

I know instantly this Tesco will be not only an emotional crutch but a spiritual home for my three days here.

When it is time, I check into the hostel. I have reserved a single ensuite room with a TV, which is in a separate building.

I go to the wrong building, and get the key stuck in the front door.

Later, I complete a driving recce of the wider area, and find the peaceful Ganavan Bay. Park there and read a while - Oban has worn me out with all its hustle and bustle.

At one point, look up to see there is a rabbit on the beach.

Repeat, a rabbit on the beach.

In the hostel I spend a fitful night, kept awake by the sound of drunks, speeding traffic, and loud vomiting in the street.

Day Ten:

Today is a tennis day, but first there is the small matter of a Tesco cooked breakfast (including OJ) for only £4.75, plus a mug of latte for only £1.40, followed by a comprehensive examination of the charity shops in the high street.

Retire to single ensuite room with TV for a full afternoon and evening of Wimbledon, and it is bliss.

Afterwards, go for a stroll in the rain and find some hot pussy action.

Can't sleep, for the previous night's reasons, and also because the whole point of this holiday is approaching - my pre-booked puffin trip.

Am very excited.

Day Eleven:


Up early so have plenty of time to get to Tesco before the ferry departs for Mull.

The rain has stopped and the crossing is scenic. Impressed by the fact not only does the Tesco open at a decent hour on a Sunday (unlike the ones I frequent in England and Wales), but the captain of this ship is, at just gone 10am, exhorting everybody via loudspeaker to have a whisky at the onboard bar.

I suppose it makes a change from the ubiquitous Irn Bru.

At Craignure our tour group transfers to a minibus and we are driven at speed across the island to the Ulva ferry landing. It is remote and pretty. We pile onto a brightly-painted little boat, and under blue skies chug to our first stop, the island of Staffa.

Staffa is lovely - a little lump of green in a sea of sparkling blue.

Unexpectedly, in Fingal's Cave, a man whips out some bagpipes and starts playing. The sounds it makes, with the sea, and the echoes, makes the hairs on the back my neck stand up. I am all a-tingle.

On top of the island, I bask in the sun and enjoy a picnic.

Staffa's not the main attraction, though. Staffa is merely a prelude to the main event. I am itching to continue the trip and cannot wait until the boat sails to the next stop - Lunga.

Let me put it this way. Lunga = puffin central.

Yes, there are other birds on this remote Scottish isle, but those other birds don't stare curiously at you from an arm's length away with their comedy markings and doleful expressions. Those other birds don't waddle around looking adorable not caring in the slightest that you are so close you could reach out and prod them. The other birds AREN'T FANTASTIC, LIKE PUFFINS ARE.

I have wanted to see a puffin up close with my own eyes ever since I joined the Puffin Club, c.1974. I loved the books, I loved the badge. I couldn't believe a bird could actually look like that, with that sad clown face and the weird Day Glo beak.

But they do.

Two hours, 300 photos.

Puffins are very addictive.

The rest of the day doesn't matter. I SAW PUFFINS.

Day Twelve:

My waking thought at the Hostel of Doom is 'Let's get the fucking fuck out of Scotland'.

Pack up the car in lugubrious rain. A German couple get on the motorbike parked behind. They fire up, roar off, and a split second later topple into me and my car with an enormous bang.

The man looks sheepish and undoes the bike's front wheel lock.

I too hit the road (after a farewell trip to Tesco).

Wonder if there is a word for that helpless rage you feel while stuck behind a lorry or camper van for miles and miles of narrow, winding Scottish road.

Pass Loch Lomond, and drive down through Glasgow, failing to cross any bridges of note, so there.

On the M74, am so smitten by the loveliness of the surrounding countryside that I decide to stop at the junction 13 services to look at it properly.

The services are packed. The car park alone has the feel of a bustling resort. Do people come here on holiday?

Scan the map and decide on a route south-ish through the Mennock Pass.

Good decision - it's the most stunning place I've seen so far. Gorgeous, even in the rain.  Loads of pretty little cottages line the main street of Leadhills, and I make a mental note to check property prices when I get home. I could live here.

Wonder what all the people who do live here do for a living. Maybe they work at the services?

Dumfries: a shocking traffic jam.

Lockerbie: the smartest, cleanest, nicest public toilets in the known universe. And a quiet dignity to the town, like it took a collective decision to simply put the past behind it.

Carlisle. A petrol stop to fill the car, and the pump clicks off at £41.00 exactly.

I stare in disbelief.

The time I've spent fiddling around trying to round petrol pumps up to .00 pence exactly must amount to years, like sleeping does, or sitting on the toilet. This is nothing short of amazing.

Overcome by the urge to tell someone - MUST TELL SOMEONE - but the dour face of the woman at the till forbids me blurting this sensational news to her. Approaching a random stranger with the news is tempting but would surely class me as proper mental.

Decide it'll have to wait until I get home, where I can tell my colleague Scott, who I know will be just as impressed as me by this wondrous event, and will probably even be able to calculate the statistical likelihood, perhaps drawing a little diagram to help explain it better, and that is why I love working at the library.

Continue cross-country towards Keswick. It's all new to me from this direction and it's lovely.

I go straight back to Mum, and she's right where I left her, in the middle of the car park.

There's nobody about. I wish I had a shovel, but I don't have a shovel, so there's no other option but to scoop her up by hand.

It takes ages. The thing about cremated remains is that there is a lot more of it than you'd think. My fingers are sore (it's a gravelly car park) and they're freezing. But finally, she is all in the lake.

I construct a little stone heart on a sticking-out rock, with pebbles from the lake bed.

Sit and think a while.

Skim a few stones, until the rain comes down again.

Wade back out into the lake, and standing in the icy clear water, say goodbye to my lovely mum.

I get the feeling she's still sad about being abandoned in such a cold, wet, lonely place, but acknowledges it is at least better than a car park.

I start to cry. It's the first time I've cried properly for her since 2005.

I know she's not really sad about anything. How can she be? She's not here. It's just a bunch of ashes. They both are.

It feels good to shed uncomplicated tears of simple, straightforward grief. Everything before was tangled up with anger for my dad. He treated her so cruelly towards the end. What a bastard he was.

I cry until the tears stop. This is what I needed to do.

And it's done. All that - all this - is over now.

I walk back to the car and let my feet dry off.

Wonder where to go next, now I actually have the heart for it.

Head to Blackpool, of course.

Why not?