Monday, 28 May 2012

"Thank you kindly". ('Due South'. Get it?)

                My journey South began, like many do I suppose, early in the morning. The first ferry of the day left Loth Pier just after seven and that’s the other side of the island to us. It was difficult to come to terms also with the fact that I was going on my own. Gail has been my ‘sensible grown-up’ for so long now that I have become lazy and reliant. It is very seldom these days that I intentionally leave home without beaver.

'Beaver' is my keyring. What were you thinking?
                The sleepy little island became more congested as cars and vans converged at the pier like flies ‘round a coo-scone. The boat had ‘overnighted’ at Loth and made ready for sail while we waited. The cars were loaded first, then lorries, mostly empty but not any less imposing for that, followed by some stragglers who turned up, barrelling down the hill to catch their ride after the scheduled time of departure. I had already made my way to the lounge and watched the Krypton Factor organisation of the car deck beneath me. Soon we were on our way and I contemplated how welcome a hot bacon roll would be for me about now.

                An hour and a half later I was in Kirkwall, but only for as long as it took to get out again and on my way to Stromness for my next aquatic appointment with the MV Hamnavoe. This is a much bigger ship and though I expect it gets pretty full in Summer, it’s cavernous car deck looks ominously hollow with only two long lines of cars in it. I sat down in the lounge for another ninety minute crossing. It hadn’t really crossed my mind that it was a calm crossing and that the ship would not go the same way round as it had when Gail and I had arrived in December. Then, in pretty nasty weather in the Pentland Firth, we’d made straight for the sheltered water of Scapa Flow. With this in mind, I picked up a copy of ‘The Grand Scuttle’ by Dan Van Der Vat and started to read. After a while, I look up and see ‘the old man of Hoy’ out of the window, so I dump everything on my seat, i-pod included, and headed out onto the optimistically named ‘sun deck’. A spectacular view and one that I have to confess I would not have enjoyed more from closer range in a kayak.

                I arrived in Scrabster at lunchtime and filled up the Skoda with petrol. An expensive exercise but not as much as it would have cost me on Sanday. I saved myself about seventeen pence a litre, though still paid nearly ten pence more than the national average. When you take into consideration the proximity of the oil terminal on the island of Flotta less than thirty miles away, it’s pretty criminal really. Gail, who has about the same level of confidence in me as I have myself, made me promise to phone her at regular intervals to check my progress. It would have surprised neither of us, I think, if I’d got back into bed earlier that morning with some excuse or another. But here I was, back on the actual mainland, sans ‘sensible grown-up’, on time with all my papers intact and all prepared for anything the A9 could throw at me. I had no idea at that time that I had stowaways and how close to disaster I was to come.

                The roads were still fairly empty. I was doing my most restrained, economical driving speed, in other words ‘painfully slow’, but still only a handful of cars overtook me. I was shovelling wine gums down my neck like nobody’s business and trying not to spit them out singing along to the CD’s I’d brought with me. Without a navigator, I saw a little more of Cumbernauld than I’d intended, but, with the aid of a decent sense of direction and good fortune, arrived at the Travelodge from the opposite side. The sweets had given me a god-awful, splitting, sugar-rush headache and the noisy navvies down the hall did nothing for my health. I had an awful night sleep and was not looking forward to another four hundred and fifty miles.

                It pissed down just about the whole way. I must confess that I actually prefer it that way and also, given revelation that would occur the following day, it was very fortuitous. Despite the weather and the additional mileage caused by taking the M5 route around Birmingham, I made Emsworth without a hitch and in fantastic health, especially considering my state in the morning. Invigorated, I took a stroll around the millpond and waved to my kind hosts on the A259 roundabout as they made their way home. Dave and Ania made me very welcome, fed me like a king and gave me a bed. It was my own bed, actually, but they had brought it in from the container and assembled it for me. They made no assurances that it would last for the two nights of my stay however. I had more faith in them and Ikea than they had in themselves.

                I knew I was going to hate Friday. I dropped the Skoda off in Fareham for its MOT and walked to ‘the old house’ (that I am not allowed to call home any more). I called a locksmith to change the lock on the garage and sat down to read my book while I waited. When I get a dog, I’m going to name him 'Reuter’. My hero, Paul, arrived and affected his work without complaint, even though it was a fiddly bastard, compounded by the door counterweight being broken. We took it in turns to hold it open while the other operated in semi-darkness with a little spanner. He confessed that he was afraid of spiders and we concurred that he was probably in the wrong line of work.

                Then it was a walk back into Fareham to buy lightbulbs for the tenants. Don’t ask as I most definitely don’t want to talk about it. That was followed, after a happy meeting with a friend, Sam, in West Street, by the walk back again for my appointment to fit them. Crawling around the loft space, I was thankful again for all the weight I had lost. I replaced the bulbs in one fitting but would have to return on Saturday for the other. Following that, I found that I couldn’t shut the garage door, so begged Paul to come back and help me, which he did at no extra cost. (Always use a checkatrade artisan!) Fixed, I continued to wear out the pavement to West Street to collect the car.

                “How often do you check the oil?” the guys at Fastway asked. I admitted to being too scared to even pop the hood and that reply came as no news to them. They showed me the starling’s nest they had removed and the dead chicks that had been in it. If the catalytic converter hadn’t been soaked on the journey I’d have become nothing more than a scorch-mark on the tarmac. They reassured me that they’d seen worse, but it was little comfort.

This was the second nest the starlings had built under the bonnet, this one within four days of my return. The original, which I had driven for over seven hundred miles, must have, I can only imagine, been much more extensive. 
                I drove back to the garage to fill it with as much stuff as I could, whizzed around Sainsbury’s for grocery essentials and more go-go juice and then back to Emsworth.  The next morning I had to leave, without taking my leave, to find more bulbs and to fit them and make it up to my first home, in Uxbridge, in time for Mum’s birthday. I left Dave and Ania a note and apologised by phone later.

                I love my family very much, but I never tell them. They never criticise even though I know I’m an idiot. I am thankful, always, for them. Margaret made me check the car before she’d let me leave and there we found that Fastway had only removed the most dangerous part of the bird’s nest and left an awful lot of it behind. Bob helped me pick and hoover the rest of it out as best we could. Over an hour after my intended departure time, I headed for the M40 and the first leg of my three day journey back North and an overnight stop at Lancaster services on the M6.

                I found myself torn again, by wanting to be in three places at the same time and wishing that the world was a much smaller place. Adventures are all very well and good but there is no place like homes.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

"Better a moose in the pot than nee maet ava".

                It’s May and it’s still cold. The light streaming through the bedroom window at four o’clock in the morning suggests that it’s going to be up for plenty long enough to take the chill off, but it’s a tease. I go out into the garden and open up another couple of raised beds but I’m afraid to plant anything for fear that a late frost will kill it off. Instead, I come indoors and open a propagator kit we bought in Kirkwall. Starting off with courgette and sweet pepper, it’s well watered and put in a South facing window. In some pots covered with plastic bottles we sow a couple with chili peppers and two more with winter squash. Time will tell how successful we will be. I’d hate to have to be eating compost and flower pot stew in a few months.

                The Sanday Soulka events kicked off on May 4th. I returned to Hjelsa Fjold, the unhappy venue for my job interview, for a seminar on the Orcadian dialect. A handful of children from the school also attended this fascinating and interesting lecture. Some of it dealt with statistical analysis of dialect usage but we also got to play a game where we tried to guess what some of the more obscure Orcadian words meant. Even the natives had no idea. The best bit was the introduction to Orcadian tales that not only served as a learning aid but also described what life is like on the island, if you can understand it. There is a good one on the orkneyjar website and I’ve since borrowed a book called ‘Benjie’s Bodle and other Orkney dialect tales’ from the library in Kirkwall. (Kirkwall, we learned, should be Kirkwaa having been derived from the Norse ‘Kirkjuvagr’ but the English have a penchant for sticking ‘ll’ at the end of place-names they can’t understand apparently.) The example on the website and read aloud to us went:

 “Hid wis a time whin some folk couldno deu without haein some dry tang tae burn tae keep thir fires gaan.
Weel hid wis puir times right enouch, whin wae hear thir sayings that hid wis "better a moose in the pot than nee maet ava".
Weel, of coarse, the pot on the fire hid tae be keepit gaan teu, as weel ais whit wis under hid, for aa the grain o' money they hid wis keepit for mair needfu things for thir livin and tae keep the hoose gaan.
Weel, the Guidman and Guidwife, wha lived in the peedie hoose o' Linn, wir a pair o' island wirthies if ever thir wis, livin a kindo near-be-gaan wey o' life, wae no miny comfirts tae enjoy bit a guid gaan fire o' wid and tang and dried coo-scones tae warm thir feet as weel ais thir herts whin night time cam.”
Other than the meat in the pot and a fire for burning seaweed and dried cow-pats, that’s pretty much how we’re living up here. OK, so we probably don’t qualify as ‘goodman’ and ‘goodwife’ either. (The whole tale can be read on if you’re feeling brave.)

The next day we attended the opening of the historic crofter’s home at Lady village. It was very well supported, probably as many of those in attendance had had a hand in the reconstruction of this turn of the last century family home. I have to say it was very ‘des-res’ and I wanted to move in. The smell of the open fire and the fresh, local cheese on home-made bere-loaf were as intoxicating as the wine. You’ll be disappointed, no doubt, to hear that I wasn’t in any of the photographs of the event (as I was the one holding the ladder steady for Rod the ranger as he took them).

Panic at the crofter's house when half the island turns up for tea.
                That night we endured another series of power cuts. Not funny when we are so reliant upon electricity to keep us from freezing. A call to our supplier informed us that engineers were on site to remove a crow’s nest from a pylon. A few more outages later, they called to let us know that they had removed the nest, even though it had been partly made with barbed wire! However, it had not resolved the problem and they were now trying to locate another nest further along the line. We had juice within the hour. They even called again the following morning to ensure that everything was back to normal.

That the avian population had mastered the use of barbed wire was, if not a surprise, confirmation of suspicions I’d had since our arrival. The fear I have of the indigenous wildlife was now fully justified. To my shame, I’ve found that, yes, I truly am petrified of most of it. For example, considering it’s been such a horrible winter, there are significant numbers of bees buzzing around and they all seem intent on chasing me around the island. I’ve never been stung and I don’t want to be now. I know they don’t want to sting me either but they sure as hell make it clear that they could if they had to. I don’t need that. I know wasps are fair game, but tell people that you twatted a bumble bee with a seven-iron and they look at you like you’re Charles Manson or something. I’m sick to my stomach for doing it but the lil’ feckers just refuse to listen to reason. Maybe I’ll look for a beekeeper's suit on ebay and wear it whenever I go outside. How dashing and stylish I’ll look. I just hope that nobody will think I’ve joined the Klan!

Our first ‘harvested’ meal came when Gail made a gorgeous rhubarb crumble. Needless to say the flour, sugar and other ingredients came from the shops, but it’s a start. I honestly thought we’d be eating the grass before we managed to produce anything ourselves, but finding those two plants in the garden were a real bonus. And in fine tradition, we enjoyed the first half of the crumble so much that we had seconds almost immediately afterwards and made ourselves sick! You really can have too much of a good thing.

The rest of the opening week of May was filled with making plans for my journey South for Mum’s birthday. Additionally, our troublesome tenants complained that they were unable to change some light-bulbs, so I would have to pop ‘home’ to do that for them. I’d also have to get the car MOT’d, get the lock on the garage door changed and then fill the back of the car with as much stuff as I could to bring back. I’d also try to cram in a visit to Sainsbury to get some items we can’t get here or at least pick them up for considerably less loot. Before I could set out however, I needed to book four ferry trips and three night’s accommodation online. I should also have plotted a route using AA routemaster, but having made the journey once, I naturally assumed that I was now a navigational diva. Finally, I wasn’t permitted to leave Gail on her own for six days until we had stocked the larder and paid for a TV licence. God forbid that she should have had to leave the house for any reason at all!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Funny money and other stuff

                Hello! What’s this then? I hear you ask. This, my dear friends, is a one pound NOTE. Did you know that they still use them up here? The tricky bit is they are not legal tender. Actually, there is no such thing as legal tender North of the border. Money here consists of what are called ‘promisery notes’. Therefore, I’m not sure if they can be used South of the border. Our sub-postmaster in Lady thinks that shops would be reluctant to accept them mainly as they don’t have a space in their tills for them anymore. Tough.

                A very talented Orcadian band visited the island late in April, playing at the Kettletoft Hotel. 'The Condition' are a great covers group and played a wonderfully eclectic range of rock and alt. rock songs. Some of them, such as The View’s ‘Same Jeans’, were even better (imho) than the originals. Gail was well chuffed when they played Green Day’s ‘Holiday’. The only regrettable parts of the gig were firstly when someone in the audience fell over and smacked his head on the floor and secondly when we, as old farts, ran out of steam at half past midnight when the band took a drinks break. There is no way that we were up to staying out until two or three in the morning despite the quality of the entertainment.

                My German Deli order eventually arrived. I was concerned that the fresh sausages had spent six days in the post so I was obliged to eat them all rather quickly. This was my last ever order from them as the posting costs are prohibitive. It has been pointed out to me that it’s also rather indulgent behaviour for a serf.
                The weather is still being erratic and frustrating. There has been no return of what are supposed to be ‘prevailing’ SW winds as the Easterlies appear to have become a permanent fixture. After it brought with it some torrential rain, it began to howl through the front door and carried the considerable volumes of precipitation with it. Some flooding occurred. This prompted an urgent call to Orkney Builders to hurry up with our door. They promised to make it a priority and to their credit they were soon around to fit it. A stonking good job they did of it too. The hallway is now weatherproof and Gail and I have started a little routine every time we go out into it. There is an involuntary giggle, an embarrassed laugh and we announce to the other: “Look. We’ve got a door!” Don’t know how long it’ll be before it gets boring, but it appears to have plenty of miles in it yet.

                I managed to walk to Lady to do some essential shopping. It wasn’t such a chore although it is rather disconcerting that I can't think of a single footpath on the whole island, even in any of the villages themselves. My plan to time the trip to show to Gail that it isn’t such an unreasonable proposition was dashed when Ean pulled up in his ‘workhorse’ Peugeot 207. He got out to move a spare wheel into the hatchback and I sat in the back seat beside a cement mixer as he drove me the last two and a bit miles home. Gail suspected that I’d cheated to have got home so quickly so I had to tell her of my good fortune. This gave me time to check up on our leek and cabbage seedlings in the goat room. While they were coming up nicely, I suspect that outdoors I’ve killed the previously healthy beans that downsizer Andy donated to us. What I wouldn’t give to have inherited Dad’s green fingers.

                I had a mixed end of the week. An unsuccessful job interview blotted the first part of the day but the Backaskaill restaurant tasting evening more than made up for it. Geoff had planned some new dishes for the coming season and a trio of each of each course was presented for our criticism. Everyone in attendance agreed that it was all absolutely delicious. We overstayed our welcome (again) by chatting in our host’s foyer, to some more islanders we hadn't previously bumped into, for an absolute age before leaving.

                The next day there came a strange visitor to the door. A bloke driving along the road caught sight of the water filled plastic barrel standing just inside the gate. He walked all the way down our drive to find out if he could buy it. I umm’d and ahh’d about it for a while so he offered me a fiver. My reply to his offer was “Really?” This prompted him to take the largest wad of twenty pound notes I have ever seen out of his pocket and admitting that he probably didn’t have anything smaller on him. He then dug around in his ‘shrapnel’ pocket to fish out a blue note. Never understanding the true value of anything, I let him take it away for that. It was all I could do to stop myself blurting out that we had a bigger and better one in the shed. He walked back to his van to load up his aquisition and we had some income. It looks like that my Sage accounting City and Guilds might come in useful after all. I wonder if I should make an asset list for future reference but when I take a look around I am convinced that it’s all just rubbish. But then, what do I know? (Everybody tells me that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘nothing’.)

                Gail hadn’t been off the island for at least three months and so our inability to find a suitable present for Mum’s birthday prompted a shopping expedition to Kirkwall. Her continued good fortune afloat meant that the crossing was very smooth. We dropped in to Odin Stone and found a really pretty card and a fabulous, 20’s stylie woolly hat. They certainly have some lovely stuff but we managed, uncharacteristically, not to treat ourselves to any of it. We ate lunch at ‘Skippers’, the casual eating bar on the ground floor of the Kirkwall Hotel. Gail insisted that she had no idea that it just so happened that they serve Orkney beer. In the afternoon we found a homeware shop and then filled all the shopping bags we could carry in Tesco before struggling back to the pier to catch the return ferry. Our haul included some treats for Gail to enjoy while I was away South in mid-May. I, on the other hand, had assumed she’d just be glad to see the back of me.

                The weather was calm again the following day and prompted another impromptu cycle ride. I found myself being beckoned to the Quoyness burial cairn. My previous failure to reach the cairn at Troyness doubled my resolve to succeed this time. The signpost hinted that it was only a short way from the main road. It wasn’t. A rough track led around the expanse of Little Sea. Of course there is even less than a little sea when the tide is out. Across the sand was a great view to Andy and Denise’s house so I took a series of photographs that have been stitched together below to form a panorama.

The software's not great (it shouldn't kick up to the left) but you get the idea. View across Little Sea.
 I rode on determinedly. The rough track became sandier and flatter until it reached a house at the top of Els Ness. Beyond the farm gate there, the track onwards is very deeply rutted and while I assume that some brave souls have driven along it fairly recently, I wouldn’t risk it myself in anything short of a military Hummer these days. Even riding was fraught with danger and I was sure that, at any moment, a pedal would dig in and I'd be pitched over the handlebars. It got so bad that after barely a hundred yards, I left the bike leaning against a wall while I continued the journey on foot. This gave me the time and the confidence to enjoy my surroundings. A small boat was creel fishing in the bay of Sty Wick, an abundance of St. George’s mushrooms were growing in the fields, it's a pity that I didn’t have any carrier bags with me, and a couple of cows with young calves eyed me suspiciously as I traversed their turf. I passed plenty of evidence of the dangers of driving to the cairn too, losing count of the number of scattered bits of car bodywork I came across. The cairn is an impressive feature. Some torches have been placed in box beside the entrance. Unfortunately the entrance to the chamber is only about two feet high so a crawl on hands and knees is required to get inside. It would be more useful in my opinion if, instead of the torches, some knee pads were provided. Inside, it is an impressing edifice to be laid to rest in sure enough. The trouble is that one man’s grave is another man’s archaeology. I guess no one gets to sleep forever. I hope I’m wrong as I fully intend to challenge that assumption and I don't intend to wait until after I'm dead to start either!

Period home, in need of modernisation, featuring one reception and six bedrooms.
Quoyness Chambered Cairn.