Wednesday, 28 November 2012

As the days are getting shorter


            I hate writing a blog. No, that’s not true at all. What I hate is myself for not writing them more regularly. The problem is that I won’t have any truck with a regimen for anything I do. I like to think that it’s spontaneity, but if I am being honest, it is just chaos. Hence, when I do sit myself down to bash out fifteen hundred words by stabbing the keypad of Gail’s laptop with my two index fingers, I find without fail that I need to review my diary, photograph album and my Facebook posts to remind myself what the hell it is that I’ve been up to since I last posted. Quite often I find out that I have completely forgotten whole adventures and have to remind myself that this isn’t fiction. If it was, the hero would be smart, brave, funny and handsome, unlike me. (And probably a girl! The jury is still out on that one.)

So how far did I get last time?

Did I mention Backaskaill ( http://www.bedandbreakfastsandayorkney.com ) where we went for dinner to celebrate twenty two years of marital bliss? No? Well, we did and it was very good indeed. Not so good for the duck I had, but if it’s any consolation to it, he or she tasted delicious. The very next morning, however, it was back to our friend Andy’s place for me to help him to finish the fence around his polytunnel. (Andy has already posted on the ‘Downsizer’ website that he was actually due to attend a hospital appointment that morning but when he went to put his ferry boarding pass into his wallet, he realized that he had forgotten it, so he handed his boarding pass back and drove home!) This time it was to nail up the black, polyester windbreak fencing to those massive posts. Each of the twenty horizontal strips needed stretching and then fixing into place with large wire staples. I tried really hard not to do too much damage with a hammer and still have all my fingers left at the end of it. When we’d finished, it was time to lop off the tops of the posts with a chainsaw. Like a fool, Andy offered to let me have a go. As someone capable of incredible feats of stupidity, I just laughed at him and I think he understood. Instead, I held the ladder for him as he wielded ‘Excalibur’ over my head, covering me in sawdust, and tried to deflect the chunks of lumber he’d removed. The one that he missed tumbled down the steps and twatted me on the knee. So I limped for a few days, but the sense of manliness more than made up for it.

The only things missing now are searchlights, guard towers and a staff car.
A lot like Grand Theft Auto. Only with much more roadkill.
After a few days, by which time I had fully regained my usual mobility, I got a call from the manager of the bus operator who asked if I was available to take over the driver duties for one day a week in order to give the regular driver, Kelly, a regular day off. After checking my appointments calendar and confirming with my erstwhile social secretary, I said that it would be a pleasure. The gig involves me taking the bus out every Thursday and making two trips to Loth pier to drop off and pick up passengers to compliment the ferry timetable. There is only one road from the pier to the middle of the island, but then it’s a bit of a run-around, picking up and dropping off at homes all over the place. It certainly is an excellent way to learn about the island and the folk on it. There are a few helpful tools to assist me. My site-centred, large scale Ordnance Survey map is pretty good, but it would seem that you are nobody without a copy of ‘Naggles O Piapittem’, a volume of hand-drawn maps of Sanday with every single house, bothy, bog, stream and field named and numbered for easy reference. Unfortunately, as it is currently out of print, copies are available online only for obscene amounts of lucre. I would draw your attention to http://www.amazon.co.uk/Naggles-Piapittem-Place-Sanday-Orkney/dp/0951344331 if you don’t believe me. It looks as if I’ll have to learn the old fashioned way, by getting out there, on four, two or no wheels, and discovering the place in my own inimitable style. The book’s out of date anyway. Our house isn’t on it for a start, but then it would not be too unreasonable to conclude that the shed didn’t qualify as a landmark of any note-worthy consequence. (Cue author being hit over the head with an M. C. Beaton novel borrowed from Orkney Library.)

One of my passengers is the wife of the captain of the golf club. As I dropped Ruth off at the gate, Ean asked me if I was available to help in repairing the fences around the greens on the course at the weekend. No problem, despite my aversion to sharp objects. The course is a farmer’s field, on which he grazes cattle or sheep depending on the time of year. During the summer, when the season is in full swing, there are no livestock grazing on it, so the fences are partially removed. At the end of the year, however, it’s time to put cows back onto the land, so the fences need to go back up and an additional, waist-high course of barbed wire needs to be strung. Some posts required hammering in and some of the existing ones needed support. If the animals don’t push them over, it is guaranteed that the elements will. Then it was a case of fixing the wire with more of those bloody wire staple things. The barbs tore my gardening gloves to ribbons during the afternoon. They were clearly not up to the job, but did enough to spare me from any bloody wounds, which likely would have had me fainting at the sight and further damaging any credibility I think that I may have with the locals. The course barely took a couple of hours to finish. It often takes me about that long just to play a round, in which time a small team of eight guys had completely re-fenced all nine holes.

Ancestry.co.uk was offering a free glimpse of WW1 records so I busied myself inspecting those this month. It was nice that I was able to find that granddad and Uncle Chris both served. The effect it had on them both I can only imagine, but it was interesting to view their records anyway. Imagine my delight to find that both had reprimands for minor offences. Granddad Arthur had turned up for ceremonial parade sporting a youthful beard and got canned for that. I wonder if it was quite as bad as the grief that I get from Gail when I don't bother to shave? I doubt it. My uncle on the other hand had made more of his home leave than was strictly allowed and forfeited some pay accordingly. I should imagine that it brought him no shortage of earache as well. As a pacifist as well as having just read a number of battlefield accounts recently, it’s about as much knowledge as I can comfortably tolerate. I can appreciate the torment, even of those that came home physically unscathed. The fact that we perpetuate, as a species, such horrors continues to appal me.
Don't you just hate nosy neighbours?
It's too dark for shots of the moon or aurora, but we get millions of these things.
It has been a month of firsts in the vista department. I’d never really noticed moon-bows before, but now I have I can saw that they are very beautiful indeed. I’ve seen a lot of moon-rings, the moonlight being refracted by thin, low cloud. The one the other night was unusual because the ring was a long way away from the moon itself. So far, in fact, that it took Gail an age to find it. What I had never witnessed before is the light of the moon-ring so dispersed that all the colours of the rainbow were visible. The red and orange were spectacular enough, but after a while it was clear that the yellow, green and blue were there too. Then, just a day or so later, I was sticking my head out of the door to wish the stars a good night, when I noticed that the clouds to the North were glowing green. The aurora itself was obscured, but it shone around the cloud very brightly. It was a tough decision to make, whether or not to wake Gail up and face the possibility of personal injury if it turned out to be the wrong thing to do, but so excited was she by our first glimpse of the Northern Lights that she ended up walking around the house in her pyjamas for a better view. A week or so later, we were due to attend the Sanday Development Trust annual general meeting and nearly missed it. We arrived in good time but found ourselves, instead, stood in the car park just gawping at an unobscured aurora, our first. We did make it to the meeting eventually, but it was a close call for a moment there.  Solar radiation is not something that you can easily turn your back to when it’s putting on a show for you!  

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Catching up with the rest of October


                 I had an amazing wildlife experience while walking along the beach at Bay of Lopness. After strolling for about half a mile West toward Newark, I turned around and saw an animal of some kind making its way along at the water’s edge toward me. My first thought was that it was perhaps Vicki, our neighbour’s dog, so I scanned the dunes for her either Barry or Sheila, but there was nobody there. Then I reached the conclusion that it was a cat, judging by the way it was bounding along. Not wanting to risk scaring it up towards the road, I headed to the dunes and sat down to wait. I took Gail’s Bloggie camera out from my pocket and snapped away. Then the penny dropped. “Stone me! It’s a bloody otter!” I pressed the video button on the Bloggie, but I forgot to press record. Idiot! The otter carried on, occasionally stooping to rub its chest in the sand, and reached where I had been standing only moments before. It stopped barely ten yards from where I was now sitting, completely oblivious to my presence. I could not stop myself from saying hello to it. Now fully aware of me, but quite casually, the otter trotted down to the water to complete the rest of his journey, where-ever it was he was off to. I had hoped to see an otter in the wild, but I never for a moment imagined it so close.

Some days the beach can get really crowded.
                Another animal with which we continue to have close encounters is the visiting Siamese. I had spent ten minutes playing with him on our doorstop just before my otter walk. He was back again the next day when we received a phone call from a lady living just down the road. She was asking if we had, by any chance, seen her missing cat who was overdue for his medicine. Not only had we seen him but we were looking at him right now! She asked whether we could keep him entertained while she drove around to collect him. We chatted to Ruth for quite a while, as her quarry, Leo, clearly unhappy at being imprisoned, shredded the newspaper lining his cage. It came as a relief that the handsome wee fellow wasn’t a homeless feral and had such a loving home to go back to. So can someone please explain why he was back again before the week was out? He arrived with blood around his mouth. Concerned that it might have been his own, I wiped his chops for him and found that it was not. He was scrounging for biscuits having just had his face buried in a rabbit carcass, the freeloading bastard! Since then, he has been a common sight on our ‘estate’, hunting high and low for his next wild meal. He has often been loitering right at our door as well, much to Smokey’s frustration as he often appears there just when I am about to let her outside. Only today, I saw him making his way away from the house toward the loch yet only a few minutes later when I opened the door to let madam out, there he was. Some hissing and spitting ensued before I could shut the door again. After an hour or so, she did get outside. She’d been out for about ten minutes before she went tearing off down the garden toward the road. Leo had returned again, as if he had an elasticated collar caught on our door-handle. Fortunately, there was no rough stuff and Smokey came back when she was called. Personally, I attribute her compliance to the fact that Leo didn’t seem at all intimidated by her, a reaction, or rather lack of one, I don’t believe she has ever experienced before. She frightens the bejesus out of me all the time.

                As the cold weather returns, the temptation to stay in bed for far too long becomes irresistible. And with the house constantly creaking, not to mention birdlife trotting noisily across the metal roof, it is too easy to not hear the odd knock at the door. Less easy to miss the ensuing phone call from the cavity wall insulation guy calling from the top of the driveway. Fortunately, he had another home visit to make just up the road, giving us time to make ourselves presentable. He was back though within five minutes. His other ‘client’ had gone shopping to Kirkwall for the day. I had to break it to him that the appointments that he was keeping were secrets known only to him and his co-ordinator, as they had clearly been made without any consultation with his proposed hosts at all. Gail had phoned them about having the walls insulated, but had heard nothing in reply to her enquiry for many months until a call out of the blue the week before. Provisionally they stated that an engineer was due onto the island on the Wednesday but failed to confirm the date or a time. That is, until this very moment. I barely had time to fetch him our ladder so he could check the walls out, when the phone rang again. Our friend Andy who lives between Kettletoft and Lady was looking to erect a windbreak fence around his poly-tunnel. I’d already helped him dig some of the post holes and today, in quite glorious weather, was the day he had chosen to set the posts in concrete and was I available? Gail assured me that she could deal with current visitor, so I got on my bike for the three mile ride to Silverhall.
Our friends Denise & Andy's polytunnel. Rainbows are an optional extra.

And again after we'd erected Valhalla around it.
                I spent the rest of the day humping barrowfulls of concrete around Andy’s garden and tipping the contents into the footings to create a henge of stout wooden posts surrounding his ‘Eden under plastic’. Andy’s other glamorous assistant, Dean, was in charge of the mixer, turning out load after load of sloppy goo and Andy busied himself with making sure that the posts were upright and in line. Never having done a hard day’s work before in my life, it was quite a struggle. A couple of rounds of cheese and tomato sandwiches kept us going all afternoon. I didn’t fall over or spill any so I guess I did alright. I even had enough puff for the ride home. It got a bit blowy over the next couple of days but he assures me that they are all still perpendicular. It should be noted that most of those couple of days I spent at home whinging about my back aching.

                Ten months after choosing which removals boxes go into which rooms, Gail has decided that it was time to search for her sewing machine pedal. I keep trying to get her to wing off an email to the removals company just in case, but she insists that we turn the house inside out first. I was adamant that we’d actually been through them all before, but after we discovered the missing Steiff and Ikea Billy bookcase bolts, it would appear that if we did then we had done an extraordinarily crap job of doing it. With all the shelf space now available, instead of searching a great many boxes, we actually got to completely empty them. It also freed a bit of floor space that, hitherto, had been obscured. Some of my fiction paperbacks had gone a bit mouldy and required some TLC which included a spell in the window to dry off. I must admit, however, that I got a little OCD and set about reorganizing our complete book collection by subject, author and genre. Needless to say that the Gail’s original purpose had taken a back seat and, to think, that that woman used to manage staff. She has absolutely no idea how to boss me about. No carrot and no stick. She’s hopeless.
This has sod all to do with the narrative, but is cute.
                Weekends. I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the concept. It seems very decadent indeed to do nothing productive all week but still celebrate the Capitalist Sabbath at the end of it. It can be quite a challenge to think of something even more worthless to do for two days when you already do sod all for the other five. Even so, it’s still not exactly heavy industry. Hurrah for sport on the television, especially when the sport is happening in the Far East so you have to make an extra special effort to stay awake for a whole forty eight hours to make sure you catch it all, whereupon  another week of slobbing can begin. I reckon that it’ll take until Wednesday before I get my body-clock sorted out. That’s all the excuse I need.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Popping to the shops, Sanday stylie


We found that the shelves were getting a little bare the other day, and filling them again was not quite the simple exercise that it used to be. We had to get ourselves organized. The first thing that we have to do is check that the weather is not going to be foul, even before we make sure whether there is available space on the boat. If it's going to be blowing less than 20mph, a short email to those jolly helpful people at Orkney Ferries does the trick. Within twenty minutes, Margaret replies with our confirmation and it’s all systems go. I go out  remove any extraneous items from the boot of the Skoda to allow for maximum capacity, check the tyre pressures and remove the gobs of bird-shite from the windscreen. At least I don’t have to check for nests in the engine bay at this time of year. We sort out loads of shopping bags, rucksacks and put the squidgy, liquid blocks for the cool-box into the freezer overnight in the hope that we’ll remember to take them out in the morning. Lists prepared, library books packed, wallets and purses sorted, it’s time to make sure to get a good night’s sleep for an early start.

"What time d'ya call this?!!"
                I remember when we used to get up at 5:45am every weekday morning. Well, Gail used to wake up at 5:45am. I on the other hand waited until she’d brought me a cup of tea at about half past six before I even lifted my head off the pillow. Then, about five minutes before we were supposed to leave, I’d run around like a headless chicken which often meant that I’d forget something in my haste, my wallet, my keys or more likely my brain. It’s a habit that has lapsed almost completely these days, unless we’re talking about 5:45 pm. We have never, as yet, failed to be up and about by then.

"And don't come back until you've got me a tuna."
                Smokey instinctively knows when we are about to abandon her for the day. She is usually quite ambivalent about our erratic time-keeping, provided that one of us takes the time to top up her biscuits or slop out a bit more tuna into her bowl at regular intervals. Both of us awake and dressed before 8:00am is all the evidence she needs to justify beginning the psychological warfare, meowing at us each in turn, purring theatrically the moment she is shown attention  and generally being in the way in an attempt to stall our departure. To compensate for our feeling of guilt, we shade off the end of the bed for her for when she sleeps and leave the radio on for her when she’s awake. If she had opposable thumbs, heck, I’d put the X-box on for her.

                We head off just after 8:30 to arrive at Loth pier by 9:00. You never know when you’ll find yourself behind a herd of cows being moved to fresh pasture along the road. There are so few roads on the island that there is no chance of making a detour so we would have been obliged to wait for them to reach their destination before continuing. Starting a stampede just because you’re running late is not recommended. As it transpires, our route is clear so we arrive in good time, joining the queue of vehicles already waiting at the assembly point. It starts to rain and there’s no sign of a boat. When there is an early morning sailing, a boat will have moored up at the pier overnight. Later sailings have a ten minute turnaround, disgorging its vehicles and passengers arriving from Kirkwall before allowing those of us leaving the island to embark. Our ship is the largest of the fleet, the Varagen, so there’s plenty of room for all. We make for the passenger lounge, sit down and wait for the scenery to move. The journey takes about eighty minutes, plenty of time to make it down to the cafeteria for a bacon roll for me and a tuna mayo one for Gail.

                Soon, Kirkwall homes into view. Well, it would have done if the lounge faced forward, but it doesn’t. Having watched the islands of Eday, Stronsay and Shapinsay slide past, the green bits ceased to have blue bits around them. That means that this is Orkney mainland. We’re getting close. We recognise Hatston Pier which means we’ll be on terra firma in minutes. A ship announcement calls us down to the car deck and we get back into the Skoda. On Sanday, vehicles drive on to the stern of the ship so that when we reach Kirkwall we can drive off from the pointy end. First though, and this still never fails to freak me out, the whole prow of the ship swings upward while we’re still moving. It’s just as if the Herald of Free Enterprise capsize had never happened!

                There are a few places in Kirkwall that offer free parking. The largest site conveniently lies directly opposite the supermarkets but it is presently closed for a travelling funfair. It was a race therefore to secure one of the limited spaces on the waterfront. We are lucky to find one and head on foot to the town centre, but we are distracted by more boats arriving. One of the ships is my favourite, the Shapinsay ferry, as it is a drop-fronted ro-ro like at the Normandy D-Day landings. OK not quite like June 1944, but the same principal. This landing was interesting as the slipway was currently being used to launch a rib that was stubbornly refusing to detach from its trailer. Fortunately, the ferry crew were aware of it and stopped in plenty of time. The ramp was lowered and those on the deck playfully teased those with the rib that they were holding up their passengers and should pull their fingers out. A good-natured dialogue ensued, avec hand gestures before the rib was launched and the 4x4 drove up the slipway before the ferry’s ramp rode up behind it.

The Shapinsay landing craft is thwarted by a congested slipway
                It’s a short walk to the middle of town. They have a Boots, a Euronics, an M & Co and a Co-op, but other than the banks and the energy company shop, the rest of the shops are independents. After a visit to the library and a little ‘high street retail therapy’ we stop for lunch at CafĂ© Lolz@21. It’s the calm before the storm of rushing around Didldidi and Tesco before filling the car up with unleaded on the way back to the pier. It all goes swimmingly. There was some initial disappointment when Lidl didn’t have any Paprika crisps, but the gods of fortune were smiling on me when the petrol station shop turned out to be a Spar, who make and sell their own brand paprika flavoured tube crisps. That was the ferry snack problem solved. It is a mystery why British crisp brands don’t produce a paprika flavoured version. It’s like being abroad without having to be abroad. It’s exotic. They taste a damn sight better than prawn feckin’ cocktail!

There's still one to pack on! Skoda is under the truck.
                Our boat for the journey North was the Earl Sigurd. The Earl Sigurd and her sister ship the Earl Thorfinn are both smaller than the Varagen, so it was a challenge to fit all the returning vehicles and a couple of huge trucks full of aggregate onto the car deck. Gail and the other car passengers had to bail out so the cars could fit three abreast.  It was a bit like a Krypton Factor puzzle, but the ferry crew were up to it. I made my way out of the lounge and onto the ‘deck’ in order to snap a few pictures of Kirkwall as it receded into the distance. I returned to the lounge and stuck my head into my new library book. The next thing I know, we’re back at Loth. We were behind schedule due to the kerfuffle loading in Kirkwall. It was gone five and the light was fading. I joined the back of the train of cars heading across the island, thinning as those in front of us each reached their destinations before us. To save lugging all our stuff down the driveway, I gave myself special dispensation to park right up at the house. There was no short-cut to putting all the goodies away though.

                Then it was tea, coffee and faux Dickmanns. Feet up, catch the last rounds of Pointless and relax. Repeat this process every five weeks. Fin.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

September in a page

Now the whole world knows. (If they happen to be passing.)

                On an early September walk along the beach, in improved weather, I espied a pile of building rubble and, when I checked it out, found a great big slate roof tile that was practically begging to be ‘recycled’. It took me a while to lug the thing home. It made scrambling up the shingle onto the dunes particularly hazardous. After chipping all the flakey bits off it, Gail painted the house name on it and then coated it with waterproof PVA to seal it. While she was busy with that, I made a staked frame for it to stand on. It was a pile of crap, I admit. It didn’t even stand up to being whacked into the ground with a mallet so I very much doubt that it will survive the Orcadian elements for very long. For the time being, however, it looks pretty neat, even if we do say so ourselves and at least visitors will be spared having to phone up for directions having driven straight past. That is unless it rains, apparently. It doesn’t look as if the PVA is properly waterproof. When we arrived home during a ‘peedie’ storm the other day, it had turned to foam and rendered Gail’s artistic lettering, in careful ‘papyrus’ style font, completely illegible. If it wasn’t for the horsebox, I’d have missed the gate and driven past. Maybe not.  
     
"To get to the lighthouse, you have to get past us first."
                Gail and I finally went on one of the walks organised and hosted by the islands ranger, Rod. It was to Start Point lighthouse. I’d been there before, on my own, but this time we were going to get inside. We still had to scramble across the rocks to the island and then yomp another half a mile the other side through quite heavy ground. It was knackering just getting there. There was not much left in the tank for climbing all those steps. In addition, the fact that they wound round and around made Gail very queasy. The ladder to the light itself was a journey too far for her. Our guide explained the operation and history of the lighthouse before letting the rest of us climb another short ladder to the balcony. Stonking views were denied only by misty weather, but I took pictures anyway in the hope that something could be discerned from the fuzzy images. The light itself was powered by gas for many years and given the difficulty we’d had getting ourselves here, it was hard to imagine the nightmare of carrying over a hundred cylinders to such a remote place. More about Start Point at http://www.nlb.org.uk/LighthouseLibrary/Lighthouse/Start-Point/

                Gawping out of our windows remains a primary occupation.
I can see you, you little bugger!
Leo waiting for his dinner to arrive.

A racoon bird. Really?
               I took a bike ride up to Scuthvie, where the tarmac ends, in the North-East corner of the island. Eventually, I want to try cycling from one end to the other so I wanted to see just how far it was from my gate. Mapometer says it’s three miles. Adding the twelve to Loth Pier, it’s not a journey I intend to try any time soon! (http://www.mapometer.com/cycling/route_2379071.html). On the way back, I detoured around the North Loch. Hundreds of geese and swans were happily floating around on the water, occasionally taking noisily to the air, circling around and landing again. It’s a full life for a fowl. This ‘road’ led me to the edge of the bay on the opposite side of the island to the Bay of Lopness. It’s called Bay of Sandquoy, but it is part of a larger stretch of coastline called Otters Wick, which is a clue to what beasts frequent the area. And it didn’t disappoint. Just off the rocks, an otter was swimming along, parallel to the shore line, diving and breaching frequently. My first sighting.

                My Makita drill got another outing when a couple more curtain poles needed putting up. Buoyed by the success of those projects, it was time to try getting through two courses of breeze block to get the aerial cable fed in. Even with the bit extension attached, it was necessary to go at it from both sides, creating the problem of making both holes align. It also meant that I couldn’t quit halfway through the gig, despite the temptation. Leaving holes in external walls is not clever, apparently. I also learnt that spade bits are meant for wood. When used on masonry, the point breaks off and the spade blades wear out, leaving the idiot with the trigger bashing his way through concrete with a fast-spinning spoon. I am just amazed that the feeling in my hand eventually came back. Thankfully, persistence is rewarded, even when common sense is completely absent. Now we can watch TV without the window open. It’s like we’ve evolved or something.

                 Gail has requested my signature dish, haricot and olive bake, a couple of times now. I’ve also made bread dough for some homemade pizzas. I’ve even knocked up a very passable carrot cake, with carrots from our own garden. Also, Gail trusts me to do veggie ‘fry-ups’. Apart from that, other than breakfast porridge every morning, meals are primarily Gail’s responsibility. She’s an absolute diva at opening cardboard boxes and putting containers in the oven. To her credit, she makes a damn good biscuit. If this paragraph makes it through her ‘edit & proof-read’ I will be very much surprised.

                The islanders running the Sanday bus got in touch with me and invited me for a ‘ride-along’. This meant an early start if we were to pick up ‘Northenders’ on the way across the island to Loth Pier for the first ferry of the day. It made a pleasant change to be the passenger for once and I’m afraid that I wasn’t much help, nor a very avid trainee, as all I did was rubberneck at all the amazing scenery. I get away with a little bit of that in the Skoda, but I usually get shouted at or smacked very promptly. With the higher elevation of the minibus, it was even more spectacular. I made a second trip two days later for the evening run and made sure that I was more attentive. It must have worked as I was asked to do the following evenings run solo. I brought the bus home and parked it by the gate. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. Unsure as to whether the accents, rabbits in the road, single-track carriageways, the ticket machine or the vans temperamental clutch would prove my nemesis, I played every disastrous scenario, including driving the bus off the end of the pier, in my head a million times. The gig itself was an uneventful success. The only exception was the local owner of the self-catering cottage at Park (near Start) telling me off for not stopping right outside the door. When I told him that I had been warned not to do any off-roading and that it was my first day, he was most understanding. I’d carried six passengers, seven if you include the kitten, and taken nine pounds in fares. It then struck me that that was my first work in twenty months. Well worth the wait!

Thank you to the copyright holder, whoever you are.
                At the pool, we finally met the lady in charge and put our names down for lifeguard training and duty. You do sod all for a year and a half and suddenly you get two jobs at once. The lifeguarding however is purely voluntary. Actually, I’ve just remembered that we’ve lined up another one as well. An archaeologist on the island is working for Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE) to identify ‘at risk’ sites on Sanday. We’ve contacted her to express our interest in the project. She’s keen to find volunteers who are willing to photograph the current condition of the sites in the hope of obtaining funding for excavations and then to help with the digging. We’ve watched all the episodes of Time Team so it’s about time that we got our knees dirty. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Oh well. That's Summer over then


                    I suspect that, after only about ten weeks of relative calm, winter is already returning to Sanday.  One of the most obvious signals of a chilly night is the sight of steam rising from the small loch beyond the bottom of the garden and the geese there arguing with their mates about when will be the best time to head off. It’s that time of year when the locals start walking around their property to look out for anything that they’ll need to have nailed down before the winds come. Whereas I, on the other hand, tend to harbour the opinion that if it managed to survive last winter then it’ll continue to be fine. I never was very bright. If I’m able to pick up some corrugated plastic sheeting, I might repair the shed roofs, although I don’t suppose the local avians will be too happy about it. Furthermore, the thought occurs that if, then, it were to get blow off, there will be no way to deny that it was MY fault and that if I’d just left it the hell alone it would likely have been alright. Prevention cannot always be guaranteed to be better than the cure, especially if I have anything to do with it. Presently, I’ve resolved to let all hell break loose and then any effort I make is assured to be an improvement on whatever carnage the storms may leave in their wake. I’m quietly confident that I can manage to pull that off.
It's a lake and it's steaming. That's just wrong.
                Although the turbine is still offline, there continue to be matters arising. The guy who is paying for it, and for a couple of others at sites on the island, dropped by to get the necessary leases signed. Jonathan and his dad were a great laugh, so we certainly don’t anticipate any problems in the future. They’d driven up from Leicester in Jonathan’s smart BMW and he was in no mood to rally it across our wild ‘garden’. They’d explored the island and very much liked what they saw. Sure, they’d come on a nice day but senior was seriously threatening to mislay his return ticket. Within days of their visit, Scottish Hydro had changed the old token meter for a flash new one and ever since then we’ve been straining at the bit to get it turned back on. To their credit, they sent an engineer straight out to us late on Sunday night. Rick, for ‘twas his name, was staying on the island overnight to work a full day on Monday and came out to us before he had even been to his B&B. Our hero. When he switched it on, however, it was clear that something was wrong. It was making far too much noise and when we went to investigate, the whole foundation was shaking. He shut it down quickly and admitted that there was nothing he could do today, in the dark. It was pitch black out. Nothing will get done now until the 18th when they’ll likely have to bring the head down and see what the blue blazes is going on.

                The island development trust advertised a vacancy for a bus driving job, only the second post to arise to my knowledge, so I applied for this one too. The interview went pretty well but the post went to the current relief driver. But at least I’ve shown willing and the operators appear keen to get me on board in future, to get involved by taking minutes at their meetings and training for any driver positions that may come up later when they implement a planned expansion of the service. I think I may have a foot in the door at least. First aid training is high on the agenda and what with us looking to start lifeguard training at the pool, it all seems to be coming together quite nicely.

                Conversely, I’m not doing very well at becoming a more determined vegetarian, as I had planned. It doesn’t help when Gail herself suggested trading vices, her penchant for coffee treats for my legendary, and dare I say hereditary fondness for ‘dead animal’ ones. Her need for cappuccino meant that I was able to celebrate international bacon day on the first of September in style. On shopping expeditions previously, I have been not only permitted but openly encouraged to reacquaint myself with tinned corned beef and spam, black pudding, beef burgers and a range of tasty sausages and hams. At least I haven’t made another order from the German deli in London, but I must confess that cost is the primary de-motivator on that front. I’m far from happy with my weakness for it all. My waistband isn’t happy either. But I can hardly tell the missus that she can’t enjoy her beans so, I’m afraid to say, cute little critters will continue to come a cropper.

                Nothing seems to be able to curtail Gail’s enthusiasm for life on Sanday. I dragged her out on another walk with me but after only five minutes heading along the windswept beach we got absolutely drenched so headed back home, laughing our socks off. The very next day we had to return some books to the mobile library parked outside the school. It was still more than a tad breezy and the truck was being pitched around quite severely. Gail was getting seasick and within minutes went the same colour she had gone when we crossed the Pentland Firth in December. There is a distinct lack of sick-bags aboard the library, so she picked out a couple of tomes in double-quick time and hastened back to the relative security of the car. Now things are beginning to look up for her. She has joined the choir. They are meeting up regularly down the pub and getting some voice coaching. As her chauffeur, I am left at the bar nursing a couple of bottles of J2O during the proceedings. I kicked myself for forgetting to take my i-pod along, but I must admit that it was not that much of an unpleasant experience while I read. She very much enjoyed herself, too. There certainly was a lot of rather unmusical cackling going on.

Andy has to hide his wallet when Gail sees something that looks like fun!

                Earlier in the year, I disturbed a feral cat that had been sheltering in one of the stables. He’s a cute Siamese that doesn’t wear a collar. Gail cannot believe that he is fully feral, but when he next appeared he had an abscess on his leg that did not look as if it was being treated. He still has the flappy bit of skin on his leg, but he otherwise looks very healthy these days and is still gorgeous. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to feed him as he has started to drop by fairly regularly these days. There was quite nervous moment when I opened the front door to let Smokey get some fresh air and the pair came almost nose-to-nose in the hallway. To their credits, neither chose to engage in fisticuffs. Smokey was too shocked to do anything other than stare for a few moments before starting to hiss. The Siamese growled in an almost canine manner. I’d heard that the breed were quite gobbie, but not actually witnessed it for myself. Smokey was kept indoors and our visitor was evicted as gently as possible, with a bribe. There are also a couple of predominantly black cats wandering around. I’ve caught them both sheltering in the stables at times recently, but they are very shy and run away quickly when they see us. Their hunting prowess beyond reproach, as the number of fresh rabbit carcasses testify. One of our neighbours is associated with Cats Protection in Kirkwall, so it may be that we'll soon need to get them captured and neutered before we're falling over even more fluffy bundles.
              

Sunday, 26 August 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time


Having planned it months in advance, the weather was at last perfect for a trip to the island of Hoy. As a result of the ferry timetables, we had to leave the house before 7.00 am in order to have sufficient time reach Loth pier, dump the car and ride onto the boat. A calm crossing, which boded well, brought us to Kirkwall just before 9.00am. Gail would spend the day in town, hopefully not spending too much, whereas I had about an hour to cycle to Houton about ten miles down the road on the Northern shore of Scapa Flow. When you look at a map, the route looks quite innocuous however I can assure you that there is quite a bit of geography on the way. Knackered, I was grateful to be able to chain the bike to a lamppost and stroll down the jetty onto the waiting boat. In no mood for sightseeing, I opted for a sit down in the lounge beneath the car deck. (There wasn’t a view.) The ferry arrived at about 11.00am, giving me three hours on Hoy before I had to catch the return boat at 2.00pm.
One of the guns of the B98 from Lopness

Lyness pier lies directly in front of the Scapa Flow visitor centre and museum, a small relict of what had been a sprawling Royal Navy base for forty years between 1917 and 1957. Admission is free and the site occupies the old pump-house and some of the larger exhibits are housed in the last remaining of sixteen fuel holding tanks, which felt like I’d entered the torture scene in ‘Brazil’. There is a massive amount of history on display. They were, after all, quite turbulent times.  There was just too much to take in on such a brief visit, mainly because I was keen to attend the naval cemetery up the road. Having been to Normandy recently, and visited the military cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize, I was already aware that they are beautiful and contemplative places, but nothing really prepares you for the emotional tidal-wave that hits you. As a shameless Boche, I was there to pay my respects at the graves of eight of the nine German sailors ‘murdered’ during the grand scuttle at the time of the armistice of June 1917. Tucked away in a corner and with noticeably fewer blooms, I found them. It was still a magnificent place to be. Much of the cemetery is empty. Long may it stay as such. Having made my way on foot back to the museum, I barely had time to nip back in and make a donation before having to run to catch the ferry.

Royal Naval Cemetery, Lyness
 The weather turned ugly on the trip back to Houton from Lyness, via the oil terminal of Flotta. Big clouds rolled in, the temperature plummeted and while I didn’t get wet, Stromness and Northern Hoy definitely very much did. Having seen nothing on the way out, I was determined to stand out on deck while we crossed Scapa on the return. All the other passengers were wrapped against the elements and I must confess to feeling a bit exposed in my tee-shirt. I was relieved when Houton emerged from the mist and I went inside to put another layer on for the return cycle ride back to Kirkwall. The less said about that particular torture the better. An hour later, I arrived at Didldidi expecting to find Gail shopping prior to catching the last ferry of the day to Sanday. The mobile that Gail insisted I carry on my trip tweeted into life as I was busy with the cycle lock. By the time I’d dug it out I’d missed the call. I called Gail back to find that she was already at the harbour. I just had time to rush around the shop for a basket full of naughty treats before meeting up with her again. It was a relief to be out of the saddle. It let the ship’s compliment wheel my bike to stowage and they could have pitched it overboard for all I cared! Almost twelve hours we’d been away for a poxy two hundred minutes on Hoy. I’d certainly look to spending a night away in Kirkwall the next time I plan the trip. Hopefully, I’ll have some company with which to share the experience. For a taster you can visit www.scapaflow.co.uk.

The brains of the wind turbine. It's got my name on it!
Needless to say, a good number of days of rest and recuperation were in order. We had to keep an eye open, however, for visitors in connection with the turbine. The concrete had set and workmen came to dig the cable trench to the house. Then an electrician turned up to fit the gubbins in the storeroom. Then he had to come back to install another fuse-box after Scottish Hydro insisted. Then they turned it on and we watched as it generated power. Then they came back to turn it off. It was just as well, too. I had just noticed that our electricity meter was running even when everything was turned off. Apparently, the stupid machine couldn’t tell which way the juice was flowing when the turbine was spinning, just that it was, and decided that it was going to charge us accordingly. Not only were we feeding the grid, we were paying them for the privilege. We have a date from Scottish Hydro for when they intend to plug us back in again. We’ve told them to change the meter while they’re about it otherwise we’ll be broke within weeks.

Four months after sowing a few rows of carrots in a raised bed, back when I wondered if winter was an all year thing, I lifted a few stalks to see how they were coming along. They were a bit on the small side but, as both of us are fans of baby veg, it was time for my first harvest. I did the digging and Gail did the blanching and freezing. Furthermore, the vegetable box that my little sister bought for us, that I planted much later, also produced yummy carrots. Some peas, beans and even a couple of tomato plants emerged as well. The carrots went in the freezer with the rest and I thinned out the other plants. I’ve dug a fresh bed just outside the door for the ailing squash (I didn’t know that the vine needs to touch the ground). That leaves the leeks and courgettes coming along nicely. Indoors, a dizzying variety of peppers are currently flowering. I’m not counting my allegorical chickens, but it may just be that we don’t starve this winter and what's more, we've hopefully learned a few things for next year’s calendar.

The Clogg channel at Tres Ness (before it got 'difficult'.)
We continued our exploration of the island when I managed to persuade Gail to come on a walk with me. Having failed to reach the chambered cairn at the Southern tip of Tres Ness in April, I thought it about time I had another go. Yet again I failed to heed Gail’s warning that things are farther away than they appear. The sign insisted that it was a mere 1.7 miles, but that was complete tosh. The first leg was around Cata Sand to the house, Tresness. The sight of heavy machinery made us pause while I sought permission to pass. The owners were happy to let us through while their reconstruction workers were on a break, but couldn’t be sure that the area wouldn’t be a dangerous place later in the day. I assured them that we intended to make our way back along the beach, bypassing the house altogether. Of all the remote places on the island, this must be the remotest. It is unlikely that anyone else had passed this way all summer. We waded our way through tall wilderness, past a pond and reed-bed where we startled a heron into flight and finally reached the rocky Southern tip of the spur. The cairn was a disappointing mound in the earth and does not appear to have been excavated. A lintel was visible on one side and part of the roof had collapsed to confirm that it was a manmade feature. The return journey was hellish. Faced with towering grassland, we chose to struggle over boulder beaches instead. It was a scramble and was not without sprains, pains, cursing and tears. I managed to find a big stick and a skull, so I was happy, but I was certainly the only one having any fun. There was brief respite when our progress was the subject of close scrutiny by an inquisitive seal, just yards from the shore. This gave Gail the idea that wading through the shallow water had to be smarter than tripping over rocks. She was right as well. It was. Our tired feet welcomed the chill. After that, the remaining mile or so back to the car was in much better humour. I can only hope that my ‘Sunday Best’ Merrells weren’t ruined as a result!

Friday, 24 August 2012

No golds for literature, I'm afraid


The day after our splendid repast at Backaskaill, if you remember, we had an appointment to keep. I duly packed the acoustic bass into the back of the car and drove up the road, (the weather was abysmal), to Heather and Tony’s house, avec cake. We chatted together for quite a while and things were indeed going quite swimmingly until the time came for the gentlemen to retire to the studio (garage). Apart from being very self-conscious in such esteemed company it was an amazing experience to hear my host play the keyboard. For example, he explained that, as a jazz musician, it’s pretty much ‘anything goes’ so long as it gets back on track before the do hits the fan. As well as advocating that “if you don’t make mistakes then you’re clearly not trying hard enough”, he stated a penchant for dropping a few bars of a different song into the proceedings just for the hell of it. Now that’s the sort of confidence in one’s ability that so frustrates those of us that can only dream of emulating it. All that I could reply with was to play him a short riff that somebody with talent had taught me. I clearly have some homework to do. He did take the time to share his passion for the songs and musical stylings of Tom Lehrer. We enjoyed a little sing-a-long to ‘The Masochism Tango’ and ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’. Now I have to go through all his songs on i-tunes to find a favourite. Then it’ll be a case of breaking out my bass chord book and my copy of ‘Bass Guitar for Dummies’, which I fully expect was very much written with me in mind.

Back in the garden, I continue to be an angel of death of horticulture. Our first tomato plant was becoming pot-bound and given that the pot it was in was practically a small skip, it needed to go outside. Now it’s dead. Miraculously, we have peas, not from the tomato plant, obviously, but all the varieties of beans that had flowered so promisingly have since taken a chronic turn for the worse. But the most frustrating of our ‘children’, is the squash plant. There is a creeping vine from which beautiful, yellow rosette flowers blossom at regular intervals. At the base of each bloom, a fruit swells. However, it is a cascade of disappointment. Each young squash seems to prosper until the moment the next flower along opens up. Then it seems that all the plants energy is focused on the new fruit and the old one withers and rots on the stalk. I had trusted Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ who asserted it was all a case of “we sow the seed, nature grows the seed and we eat the seed.” He at no point intimated that nature is a fickle bitch who will tease you with rampant swathes of inedible flora all around but kick you in the ‘happy-sacks’ if you try to grow anything useful. I used to be an advocate of organic food but if it takes shit loads of chemicals to get the selfish bitch to allow us to feed ourselves then she’s the one responsible for massacring my green credentials.

On a lighter note, I scored my first birdy on the Sanday links. But it’s a golf story and you don’t want to hear it. I told Gail and it garnered the same response as Rimmer got from relating his ‘Risk’ story. Fair enough. It’s not as if it had gotten me into Irkutsk.

Bifrost in all its glory. Shame someone's getting wet.
As well as the weekly good walk ruined, I’m still trying to get some proper exercise. I don’t like it when Gail is feeling a bit poorly, but whenever she’s not up to joining me at the pool it does mean that I get the chance to leave the car at home. I’d think about trying out all of the triathlon disciplines but running is for masochists and fortunately I don’t have the knees for it. (Running, not masochism.) Last Friday, I jumped on the bike, rode five miles, swam another mile in the pool and then rode six miles home. I should perhaps stress that the house hadn’t moved further away but that I had just taken a circuitous route home that meant that I could buy some eggs on the way. My weather predicting hasn’t improved. I thought that the rain-bearing clouds on the horizon wouldn’t reach me before I got home. I thought wrong. The only positive to be had from the inconvenience was that two showers in one day meant that I don’t have to have another one now until Hallowe’en.

I have to confess that the Olympic Games had me utterly transfixed for seventeen days. It made me proud to be a human being and I don’t very often feel that about my species. There are times when it all got a little too jingoistic and the mingling with the crowds and sticking microphones in the athlete’s faces I found incredibly annoying, but the endeavour and spectacle was beyond reproach. I feel obliged to compliment the well-recompensed organisers and offer my congratulations to those policing the circus for not murdering anyone as I was pretty certain they would. Bugger me if the nation didn’t do a better than half-arsed job at something for a change. As an idealist I like to think that the whole world was overcome with the Olympic spirit and that, primarily, is why the thing went off without a hitch but part of me can’t help thinking that there are warehouses around the country full to the brim of ne’er-do-wells that G4 have been sitting on for a month. If there are, do you think it possible to persuade them to keep them there for a while longer?

The new Skoda is short on hp but more fun
The first weekend in August was when the Sanday Industrial (sic) and Agricultural Show took place. I suppose farming is an industry so I’ll let them off. There are not very many farms on the island and consequently some of the livestock classes were thinly contested. It needs to be respected that the value of the livestock is largely dependent upon the rosettes awarded so it is hardly just a ‘butterfly’ competition. For added drama, I was stood beside a qualified butcher who was very excited about what cuts he’d like to take from each animal. The lad was positively salivating! Our main interest however was in the horse and pony arena. It certainly got me thinking about the time when I could finally turn my back on the despised internal combustion engine. Most of you know by now that, in my opinion, the word ‘progress’ is just a term  to describe a new way we’ve found to screw the planet up and that I openly confess to being a Luddite of evangelical proportions. After the showground events, it was inside for the arts and crafts exhibits. Fortunately, one does not need to be talented to recognise it in others and conclude that competition promotes quality. The lace work was as exquisite as it was baffling. Not to my personal taste but very beautiful. The art and photographs were good too. A more cynical individual might suspect that the winters are long and boring. Having been forced to dance at the last shindig, needless to say that, this time, we gave the evening knees-up that followed a miss.

The climax of the show was a fishing competition the next day. It’s not much of a spectator event but a large crowd did gather at Kettletoft pier for the weigh-in afterwards. Our friend Andy had gone out on a boat that morning and was rather chuffed with his 68lb of mackerel and coalfish (Pollock). As it was barely a week after his hernia operation, I made sure that I was on hand to carry his catch to his van. He let me help myself to a couple of the smaller fish so that I could test Gail, who had previously assured me that she could gut them. Having donated the remainder, those that he had neither time, freezer space nor inclination to fillet, to the open-air barbecue, he headed off and I took my little beauties home with me. Alas! While Gail was indeed up to gutting and filleting, her dislike of being stared at by her food meant that the removing of the heads was my domain. As we are yet to discover where the chef’s knife was packed, the chore had to be performed with a breadknife, which necessitated a sawing action. It all looked and sounded very gory and I had no idea that the little critters had so much blood in them. We had to wait until the advent of amnesia before we had the courage to cook and eat them. Preparing the chips was far less of a drama.

Monday, 13 August 2012

With apologies for lateness


               Anybody who knows me, even if they don’t know me particularly well, will know that I only have an ‘A’ game. It’s only as good as a great many peoples D, E or F games or worse, but every single thing to which I apply myself is always sure to get my fullest attention and every last mote of my exceedingly modest talents. So when it comes to demolishing the shower cubicle, all sensible suggestions are along the lines of a rather debonair complete gutting and rebuilding from the wreckage. However, that is not in my nature and I can only choose instead to delicately remove the existing structure piecemeal, retaining as much of the material as will continue to serve a function and in as good a state as possible. Only I, I suspect, would willingly trade smacking the whole lot to pieces with a mallet for gouging tiny chunks out at a time with a Stanley knife.  The project continues at a steady if rather pedestrian pace.

                It is not the only item on the agenda. Another job benefitting from the same approach is the wood-staining of the facia boards. Of course I only brought some small brushes up with me, a tiny bit of sandpaper and it doesn't help when the building is getting on for fifteen metres long. I am also extremely cautious on ladders, with the exception of a suicidal urge to step back to admire my handiwork. Reluctant to do much by way of reaching too far across and upsetting my balance, the steps need to be moved along at rather pathetic increments.  Upon reflection, I suppose I could or should have decanted some of the wood-stain into a smaller container that I could hang at the top of the ladder, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. Also, as the wood was so dry, it was positively sucking the fluid off the brush, so that it would only cover a small area at a time. Feeling my aches today I can only conclude that I was up and down that ladder more times than there are grains of sand in the bay. It’s a wonder that I haven’t worn the treads away. At least now there are only three more sides to go! (I’ll remember to take that small pot up the ladder with me next time.)

                They say that, in adversity, you discover things about yourself that you never knew before. It transpires that I am truly fearsome. As I was doing my watering rounds the other day, a rabbit was hiding in a clump of nettles as I walked past it. The next morning, it had changed position a bit but was stone dead. I plucked up the courage to pick up the corpse and leave it in the stable where the feral cats occasionally hang out. Needless to say, it was never seen again. Within days, I startled another bunny as I walked around the house to set the TV aerial up. It froze, trying its best to remain unseen, even though it had practically no cover at all. When I returned to collect the aerial late that night, when the little white dot appeared in the middle of the screen after closedown, Thumper had shifted position but had definitely curled up his toes. I had my hands full already so I left the body where it lay. The next day, something with an appetite for a fresh carcass had kindly carried it a short way off and disembowelled it. Next time I was passing that way, it had completely gone. Just call me ‘Bunny-killer’.

                But it’s not one-way traffic on the wildlife front. One of my golfing partners got crapped on by a zealous parent seagull as we wandered too close to some fluffy brown chicks. However, the most sinister creature is actually one of the smallest. Flies are my primary nemesis. They are everywhere and insidious. I am obliged to have a grudging respect for them however. While it was obvious to them that I wasn’t carrion, they appeared to appreciate that if they could scare me into falling off the ladder, then I easily could be. If anyone has any advice on how to get the upper hand with the blighters, I would be most glad to hear it. I am already looking at fly nets, lavender scents and whatever insectoid napalm our friends at ICI and Bayer can come up with. My respect and compassion for the animal kingdom does not extend to invertebrates.

Only receiving terrestrial broadcasts? Poor you.
                I must confess that setting up the aerial outside every day was getting a bit tiresome. Gail decided that she’d get a replacement that we could mount on the old satellite-dish pole attached to the outside of Goat-room 2. What I didn’t expect her to buy was the massive, high-gain monstrosity that she’d ordered over the internet. There is a scene during the opening credits of ‘The Flintstones’ where they go to a drive-in restaurant and the brontosaurus ribs that they’ve ordered tip their car over. That is the image that goes through my mind every time I see this huge contraption, that wouldn’t look out of place at Jodrell Bank, bolted on to the side of the house. One good gust, we know that there’ll be one along sooner or later, and we’ll be lying on our new windows and examining the grass at very close quarters. It does work though, so all in all it can be seen to have been a wise investment. I need now to grow the stones to drill a hole through the wall to feed the cable in.

                One reason for my hesitation to do so is the experience of erecting the new curtain rail in the living room. Another of Gail’s purchases was a bargain, a brand new 18V Makita drill with every accessory under the sun. Armed with this manly bit of kit, I marked up where holes were required and set to work. Even though I only needed to drill deep enough to fit the raw plugs, the walls mounted a stubborn defence. I can assume that it is to that same stubbornness that we owe our continued occupation in the face of often quite hostile tempests. It does however, make DIY a monumental challenge.

                Ever ones to fail to appreciate the fragility of our finances, we continue to deny our impending destitution by treating ourselves to meals out. Jayne and Geoff at Backaskaill hosted an evening of Chinese cuisine. Over dinner, we enjoyed a lively, informative conversation with our fellow dinners. Bill, for example, is a wonderful artist and a shark fisherman and Tony is an amazing musician and a keen archaeologist. Things turned ugly, however, when Tony mentioned that he’d heard that I play bass guitar. Not satisfied with my own frank assessment of my meagre talents, he invited Gail and me around to his house the following afternoon. The fare, by the way, was bloody excellent, even though I am no fan of Chinese, be it politics, hokey medicine or food. I have it on good authority that they know a fair bit about masonry.

            

Friday, 13 July 2012

"It's a funny old game."


It wasn’t until we wanted to watch the first semi-final of Euro 2012 that we discovered that the new windows blocked the television reception. I was almost tempted to phone Everest to get them to put the old ones back in. Fortunately the weather was still pleasant, so we set the aerial up outside, gaffer-taped to a microphone stand and stood on an upturned barrel. Typically, the weather deteriorated on Thursday, so we were forced to go into Kettletoft to watch the other semi-final in the pub. I donned my Germany shirt and regretted it as soon as we arrived to find the bar packed with Dutch workmen. We sat in the corner and were soon chatting to a couple holidaying on the island and another couple who have recently taken up residence. Andy (I know! Another one) and Karen run Ferret Education and Welfare (FEW) and invited us around to see their animals, including a skunk. If we don’t see them before, they are holding an open day in mid July that will definitely be on our ‘to do’ list. Alas the game itself went with tradition and my interest in Euro 2012 ebbed.

A serious bout of ‘man-flu’ decimated my weekend. A consequence of not making it to the swimming pool on Friday and Assen never racing the Dutch TT on a Sunday meant that I spent the whole of it not knowing what day it was. I just knew that it ended with a football match, so I looked out for that, if for no other reason than I knew that that would be the night I had to stay up late and put the bin out.

Gail decided that the new week would start with her painting the shower cubicle. It is only fair that if I do the outdoors stuff then she has to do the indoors. I was asked to assist, however, with taking down a rotten, wooden shelf. I was thus engaged, employing nearly all the expletives at my disposal, when the cavalry arrived. Our friend Andy still insisted that he owed us a day from our polytunnel exploits. Today he turned up in his van to see if there was anything we needed done. With his help, indeed it was he that did most of it, we put up a curtain rail in the bedroom and rearranged the kitchen worktops to accommodate the cooker. Then, while extracting the snapped screws of the stubborn shower shelf, we discussed the cubicle itself. It is located in the corner of the room, is partitioned from floor to exceptionally high ceiling on one side and likewise above head height on the final side. This means that there is a large, unventilated space above in which plumes of steam hang around, peeling the paintwork and generally making everything soggy. I was hoping to drill some holes in the partitions but, in the end, we agreed that it should be possible to remove both of them above six and a bit feet. That would cure the damp and improve the light in there, too. It would also save Gail some painting. I just need to develop the hero blobs to have enough courage to take the unwanted sections out. Watch this space.

After Andy had left us, we hung up the new blackout curtains that Gail had ordered over the internet. Smokey took full advantage of the darkness and slept all afternoon. It was amazing. Not only because we weren’t getting meowed at all the time, but knowing that there was a place where night was a genuine possibility in the land of, to all intents and purposes, the midnight sun. After six nights at the mercy of pale skies and a sun that refuses to be a stranger, not for a few more months at least, we were looking forward to a good long sleep. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know we’ve overdone it.

Photo courtesy www.itsnature.org
I’d been spending far too much time moping around and feeling sorry for myself with my stubborn flippin’ cold. Consequently there was absolutely shed loads of weeding for me to do. Yeah! Grubby knees and fingernails coming right up. I’ve been remembering to water all the plants in the shed, which is quite good for me as I’m usually an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ kinda idiot. Before I get to go inside, however, have to let the house-martins know that I’m coming so that they can fly off out of a broken window. They circle about outside while I’m busy in there and, after I’ve left, they gradually swoop closer and closer before returning inside to roost. Some of the plants are beginning to outgrow their pots. Some just need thinning out and re-potting. The squashes are starting to flower. I’ve replanted some of the carrots to give them more space and so it’ll be interesting to find out if my interference has been of any benefit or if those I’ve left crammed together in the old bed will do better. Interesting to me at least. 

After swimming and shopping, we sat down and watched Andy Murray get through to the final at Wimbledon. I hate tennis, but British successes in sport are less frequent than Halley’s comet so it’s one of those ‘being there’ (in front of the TV at least) moments. Having seen first and second practice from Silverstone I was surprised to see that they were playing at all. I had already gathered from news and friend’s FB comments that the weather has been quite nasty again in the old place. We had a gorgeous day. Gail snapped over fifty shots with her camera and I had to babysit the cat as she had her wandering boots on in the sunshine. Everything changed at about six o’clock. It had been quite breezy all day, but it was suddenly obvious that some very low cloud was scudding across from East to West. It was like watching time-lapse. Gradually, but consistently, the fog grew thicker and thicker until visibility was down to only a hundred metres. That means that we lost sight of the neighbours. I still don’t understand how it can be so foggy and yet windy at the same time. I should have taken my Geography studies a bit further, I suppose.

Snapshot image from video footage. Want one!
After watching final practice from Silverstone, we headed out to Lady to visit the ferrets at the open day. Those creatures are so cute. We were given a little talk about ferret history and ferret care. We got to watch ferret races but most of all we got to watch a ‘gang’ of ferrets frolicking about. We even got to stroke a skunk and even though it sounds more like it’s a euphemism for something else, we actually did the literal thing. It got me thinking about how there are no predators, other than the feral cat population and some guys with guns, to keep the rabbit population under control. Perhaps ferrets are the answer. Well, ferrets, a big sack and a rock. And maybe someone else can handle the sack and the rock bits. Knowing us, we’d be weaning our ferrets onto a vegetarian diet.
  
Marsh orchid having a jolly time on my 'lawn'.
                The grow box that I’d planted months ago suddenly leapt into life. I’m assuming that it hadn’t really and it was just that I hadn’t checked in on it for a while. I had no idea what the plants were, but it certainly looked like some of them would benefit from a little more space and something to climb up against. A bit more digging and weeding later, what I am reliably informed are broad beans were happily trained to something sturdy and the little shoots that I’d left behind have been able to collectively loosen their belts. But the activity had upset the locals and I was chased indoors by a swarm of angry, hungry flies. It will be a while before I am confident enough that it is safe to get the washing in but as it’ll be light until about 11, I’m sure the little bastards will be asleep by then. The clothes line is out the back of the house and we tend to spend most of our time there looking around at the wild flowers that are flourishing. There is a huge abundance of marsh orchids. There are so many that it would lead one to assume that our back garden is in fact a marsh. Actually, that sounds entirely accurate and explains a lot.    

Friday, 6 July 2012

The longest day and other stuff


My problem is that I’m more of a spectator than a doer. It means that, while I know too damn well that there are loads of things around here that need doing, I am all too easily distracted by things like music, books and TV. It is not to be unexpected either for me to be so captivated by my new surroundings that it completely slips my mind that I’m supposed to get my fingers stuck into them for my subsistence. Then, of course, stick a Grand Prix or a football competition on and I’m lost. I commonly suspect that I am fit for nothing and there is plenty of evidence to show this to be the case.

It is therefore, quite obvious when the distractions run out. The twentieth was the first day in a fortnight when there was no football on the television. While initially distraught, having already finished reading my library books and not allowing myself another i-tunes download for another few days, I had to search for a release for my modest amount of pent up frustration. Satisfaction arrived in the shape of an eight pound lump hammer and a rusty cement mixer. 

Pleased to still have toes after this episode.
The dolly that it was attached to fell away as I but the drum itself and the motor were more substantial bits of kit. If I was to use it as a flower pot in future, then the motor had to come off and some drain holes made. I naively assumed that the metal would be rusty enough to be holed by a nail, but after bending the nail and twatting my thumb instead, I realised that the thing was still pretty solid. I turned my attention instead to the motor attached to the base of the drum. Fortunately, a few well aimed tonks, not to mention the myriad of poorly aimed ones, broke the motor off and left a nice big hole in the base. I love it when a plan comes together. I had already started digging a hole for a firepit, a while ago now, before realising that it wasn’t the best place for it, so now I’ve sunk the bottom half of the cement mixer in it instead. Content and a little tired, I went indoors to find a more relaxing distraction.

Mark Twain referred to golf as a good walk ruined. While it is not to everybody’s cup of tee, it is exercise and some fresh air. As a ‘gentleman’ of mature age, it is now one of the few sports that I can participate in without serious threat of serious physical harm. (For me, sport and psychological harm are synonymous.)  As a regular player in the Tuesday handicap competition, where I proudly prop up the league, I like to think that my game is coming on a little. At least I’ve found one club in the bag that I can get a reasonable return with and anyone with a passing knowledge of the film ‘Tin Cup’ will guess accurately that I have adopted the ‘single club’ method of getting around. I also find it useful to only hit a ball a hundred yards or so at a time as I can often see where lands.  It must be remembered that Sanday Golf Club bears no relation to the neatly manicured fairways of Augusta or The Belfry. Often, it is only by observing the direction from which the wildlife is fleeing that you get an idea of where your ball has ended up. Even then, if it has rolled into a rabbit warren or under a ‘coo-scone’, you could stand within five feet of it and still not find it.

I am a glutton for punishment. Even in ideal weather, nine holes at Sanday is a challenge enough. It has been a notion of mine, ever since we arrived on the island, to test the legend that it is possible to play a round at midnight during the shortest night. A few people celebrate the solstice. As an astronomical inevitability, I try not to get too excited about it, but it deserves to be acknowledged and observed. I chose to acknowledge and observe it by leaving the house at half past eleven and trudging up the road to the clubhouse. There was no moon in a predominantly clear sky. The Northern horizon was aflame. The road was empty and I cursed myself for not riding my bike instead of taking ‘Shanks’s pony’. I grabbed my clubs and headed for the first tee. I could easily read the scorecard but I must confess that the uneven ground was full of dark shadows. I teed up a bright orange ball and addressed it armed with a three wood. I didn’t see the ball leave but I knew that I hadn’t middled it. I next set up a white ball and dug out my ‘old faithful’ seven iron. A clean strike this time, but I couldn’t make out its flight. All I could do was grab the clubs and set off toward the pin. If I didn’t fall over the ball within a hundred and twenty paces then it would be lost. After about five minutes of searching, I gave them both up and resigned to just have a go at the short, par three third. What could go wrong on such a short hole? I hit two balls toward the green and set off in pursuit. I had no luck in finding them until I saw that one had found the green. It certainly wasn’t the first place I’d thought to look. Just a few weeks earlier, not a single member of the club had managed the feat during a ‘nearest the pin’ competition.  It was satisfying therefore to be able to two-putt for a par in the middle of the night. I even found my other ball on my way back and took a more familiar eight strokes in getting that one to the flag. I can now boast that I have tried it and found out that midnight golf is a really stupid idea. I got home at a quarter past one and turned in.

It was nice to get back into the routine of a Friday swim at the pool. I’ve been regularly attempting to swim a mile each time but trying to count up to one hundred and eight, for some reason, I find incredibly difficult. Although the upside of my amnesia is that it allows me to go and play instead of pounding relentlessly up and down. I often berate myself for not making more use of the beach just across the road, but even though it’s free and pretty much endless, it is undoubtedly those few extra degrees centigrade that make a whole world of difference and worth the expense. When we arrived home from the pool and the shop, we found that part of the cabling trench had been dug from the turbine site toward the house. Neither of us recalled seeing it there when we’d left just a couple of hours earlier, nor were we expecting any more work on it for about a month. Not that we are complaining. It’s not as if we were at risk of falling in. We just hoped that they hadn’t scarpered because they’d hit a pipe or a cable. Fortunately, we checked and were still connected to the services we had that morning.

This is how the old windows looked. Nasty!
The following week started with a call from Everest. They were finishing up a job in Orkney a day early and could they make a start on ours? That prompted a flurry of activity. All the houseplants were vacated to the shed that I’d partly ‘mucked out’. We also took down the curtains and ugly plastic curtain tracks, moved some bookcases around and generally improved accessibility around the place. (Our properties tend to become one continuous series of tripping hazards!) The boys arrived punctually and began working their way around, removing the metal-framed, nadger’s thick windows and fitting huge-paned, double-glazed sealed unit jobs in their place. The transformation is nothing short of spectacular. I often criticise Gail for wanting to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but in this case it must be conceded that the views are wonderful, the exclusion of the elements is very pleasant, it’s lighter and they can actually be interacted with. Previously, any attempt to open or close the windows would have involved the removal or application of considerable amount of sealant. The fitters overnighted at the private residence of an islander who previously had run her house as a B&B and was persuaded to take visitors due to a shortage of accommodation on the island as there are presently lots of workmen in Sanday doing all sorts of major infrastructure works. 

These are the new ones. Nice!
They arrived just after half past seven the next morning to do the last three windows. They were booked onto the 18:30 ferry to Kirkwall so that had to finish up that day. I helped them a little by retaining nearly all the windows they had taken out and most of the timber. I am fairly certain that I would have been escorted off the island if I’d let that much salvageable material get chucked into a skip. As it was they were done by lunchtime, so we gave them directions to the Kettletoft Hotel and gave them some money for drinks until they needed to head off for their boat. We on the other hand just walked around the house saying “Wow!” a lot.