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 ( ) 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 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. 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.