Old Harry

“Old Harry? Yes, he was a soldier in the Great War, wasn’t he? He never said, but by his bearing and manners, I’d always had him pegged as an officer, but it was hard to tell, he being a down and out and all that.”

It turned out upon investigation, that Old Harry wasn’t quite so old after all, having died on his fortieth birthday, slumped behind the dustbins in the service alleyway between Cork and Old Burlington Streets, just on the edge of Mayfair, on the more exclusive side of London’s West End.

Harry was something of a mystery. In early middle-age he may have been, but he could easily have passed for a man twenty-five or even thirty years older, hence the nickname.

Of course, war will do that to you, especially if you have spent biggest part of four years in a variety of trenches, up to your knees in mud and corruption while you and the boys traded death and damnation with the Boches. More to the point though, no-one could quite remember when Harry first started spending his days marching determinedly up and down the Burlington Arcade, one of those covered and gated Regency thoroughfares lined with odd little shops which cater to the taste for expensive fripperies of those members of the aristocracy and nouveau-riches with more money than sense. You know the sort of place: no prices displayed, because if you have to ask, you can’t afford to shop there.

Nobody knew Harry’s surname, but if he’d died at the age of forty, then he must have been thirty when the Armistice was called ten years ago. That age, together with his bearing and general demeanour clearly suggested a man of officer class and clearly of some education and -at one time at least – money. Old Harry seemed to have been there forever, although patently he had not. Ask anyone who worked or frequented the arcade and they would tell you that Harry was a fixture, and one who seemed to belong. Despite his obvious poverty and reduced state, it never seemed to occur to anyone to object to his presence, nor to the constabulary to move him on.

No. Harry, in his scuffed boots and clean but threadbare army greatcoat, with its empty left sleeve neatly folded and pinned to his chest by a campaign medal was always let be. Harry, who marched solidly, all day, every day counting out the numbers as he did so and who was unfailingly polite when spoken to attracted so little attention as to blend into the background.

At worst he was local colour.

Old Harry was obsessed by one thing, and he would tell you his secret for three pence, the price of a cup of tea and a slice of cherry cake. Burlington Arcade is exactly one-hundred and sixty yards long. No more, no less. Old Harry had measured this precisely by borrowing a tailor’s pole from one of the shops (how he persuaded them no-one knows, it was just Harry). He had confirmed his measurement by measuring the tiles that lined the arcade floor, and counting them.

One hundred and sixty yards precisely. Not one inch more, not one inch less.

And yet it seemed that Old Harry had found a conundrum he could not answer, and it tasked him. For Harry was a tall man, and as stated, of military bearing. His marching pace involved steps of one yard. Indeed, being the thorough man he was, Old Harry had measured his pace, too to be on the safe side. He was convinced and could likewise convince anyone who cared to listen that this was the case. His marching pace was precisely one yard from heel of his one foot to toe of the other.

In and of it self this fact is nothing remarkable. What is remarkable, was Old Harry’s assertion that the arcade was precisely 160 paces long in a northerly direction, but only 158 in a southerly.

This is of course madness and he was frequently told so.

But now and then, he would find someone with both the requisite curiosity and leisure time and demonstrate. And always the result was the same, no matter how the measure was started, or with which foot the march commenced, 160 paces northwards, 158 south. One-hundred-and-sixty yards measured. Always and invariably the same.

Of course, many people dismissed it as some kind of trick, even if they paced it out themselves, and willingly gave Harry his three pence for his tea and cherry cake. Sometimes a little more, counting the entertainment a good trade for the charity.

But it was no trick and it tasked Harry, and now Harry’s dead.

“They say that when they found Harry, he was wearing a fusilier captain’s uniform, 1916 issue. They say he had a holster with his service revolver in it, and his muster whistle in his mouth. He was covered in mud and it looked as though he had just lost his left arm to a shell. They say his eyes were wide in shock. A thousand yard stare…”

There’s a mistake somewhere. Something obvious that I’m missing. I’ve walked the arcade and it is countably shorter in one direction than it is in the other. I’ll bloody crack this if it kills me.

(c) 2019 Bryan Lea

I Close my Eyes and Count to Ten…

For Halloween, a slight rewrite of a story I wrote 10 years ago. Inspired, inappropriately, by the title of a Dusty Springfield song.

The spade breaks the sod. The ground is waterlogged where the roots hold the rain. The blade catches a stone and I feel the crunch of the jar in my elbow joint. Immediately it is warm and I know that I have strained a ligament or something.

It will ache later.

I cut the turf into squares so that they can be re-laid afterwards, once I have finished my work. I dig deeper. Spades full of earth pile up to my right. I’m deeper down now and the loam turns to wet clay, sucking at the blade with every cut, every push, resisting as I press down and then sucking at it as I try to dig it out: backbreaking. The water runs into grey pools shot through with red-mud tracings washed from above. I feel sweat running under my collar and down my back. I am over-hot despite the coldness of the air. It is raining.

The going is slow, heavy; exhaustion gnaws at my bones, clawing at my muscles and scratches my eyes. Each gasping breath of air is an agony of dragon breath floating in my vision. Each lungful a cold dagger, but in the rain, the cold, muddy slime and icy rivulets I dig.

The hole I have dug is now deeper than I am tall, so it is the end for me. The water is nearly up to my knees even when I stand upright.

As I pull myself up, white and black spots swim across my vision and the edges of my sight redden.

I know without looking that the man is still there watching behind me, as he has for days. His face indistinct, grey and infinitely sad, eyes dark and empty: I know this, though I do not know how I know. It takes me an age to drag myself from the pit I have excavated. The sides are slick and wet and only by grasping hands full of root can I gain purchase. There is a hungry sound and I realise that my left shoe is still in the mud, held fast.

Wrapped in rags is the wretched bundle that I have to deposit; the sum remains of an existence curtailed, bones now, and knotted with a gold ring, a talisman of lost hope. They weigh nothing; I knot a couple of rocks into the rags, drop them in the water and mud.

Then I pause.

My fatigue is now almost beyond endurance as I start tipping the mud back into the pit, but I know it will please the grey man. The clay falls with splashes and eventually, as the pit fills, with wet slaps. Finally, the task is finished. I mark the spot with a fallen hazel branch and then lean on my spade to regain a semblance of strength as the rain leeches my body heat.

I fancy that I can feel the grey man fading as this business is finally put to rest.

I close my eyes and count to ten and when I open them, he’s still there.

(c) 2009, 2019 Bryan Lea

Initial Impressions of the 50th Anniversary Remix of Abbey Road

81e4Ks5AM7L._SX466_Now, I’m not saying that I have a pre-digital temperament, but well, I clearly do have a pre-digital temperament.

I took delivery of the Super deluxe (3CD+1 Blue Ray) edition of the 50th anniversary remix of Abbey Road a couple of days ago, and I’ve been grumbling that I wouldn’t be able to give it a listen until Friday at the earliest – or more likely Saturday.

Well, my ageing brane has just reminded me, somewhat belatedly, that I have Spotify on my iPhone, headphones and a good Wi-Fi connection. So now, finally, I am having my first listen to the remixed album.

My initial thoughts are that the sound is clearer, punchier and more three-dimensional. Giles Martin has given more thought to the sound separation; it is no longer half the sound on one ear and half the sound on the other. The new mix puts the main vocals more generally in the middle, along with the drums. The bass goes to the right with the backing vocals and the rhythm guitar off to the left. The overall effect is to make each part of the track easier to hear. There is less lost in the mix, to the point that I now hear things that I’ve not noticed in the previous fifty years (or more precisely, closer to forty-five years – I can’t pretend I owned a copy of the album before I was about fifteen).

I think that one of the revelations of both this and earlier remixes (Sergeant Pepper and the White Album), is that on many tracks I can finally pick out the vocal harmonies on more tracks than I ever realised had them in the past. The Beatles’ harmonies were a very big part of their game in the early to middle years of their career, and I had thought that they had largely dispensed with them after perhaps, Revolver, but no. The harmonies are there, but they weren’t as obvious (at least to my cloth ears) in the original mono and electronically separated mixes. In the recent reworkings, those harmonies are there and clearly to be heard.

It now feels as though you can shut your eyes and place each of the band members in front of you.

What I need to do now, of course, is sit down and listen to the album track by track, in its original, 2009 remaster and 2019 re-mix formats, just to hear how the evolving technology has allowed more to come out as time moves on. In fact I should do that with Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road. It’s a huge task, but I think I’m up to it. Especially now that I have remembered that it’s 2019 and not 1999.

Well, THAT’s what can possibly go wrong…

Well, after a fair amount of faffing, I have managed to couple up my iPad with a monitor – in this case the office monitor.

It works well enough, everything that appears on the iPad appears on the monitor, but…

I have a keyboard and mouse attached to the monitor (we do a lot of hot desking, so carry our *Microsoft* tablets/laptops around and plug in as required), so I can work as if at a desktop. These are great with the office-supplied kit; I mean who really likes typing on a laptop keyboard, or using those shitty little trackpads unless they really have to? Unfortunately, these are just paperweights when combined with an Apple product. I’d have to get a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse combo to work with the iPad, and frankly, that’s too much effort and expense.
Effectively, then, I can stream TV and movies – though not necessarily via proprietary apps – on to a large monitor. But I can do that with the PC anyway. So my quest was fruitless.

Tech can be really annoying.

Into the Unknown…

I should be working, but I am distracted.

I have been poking around on my office monitor and I see that both the keyboard and the mouse connect to it directly, rather than via the Microsoft Cloud tablet/keyboard/pencil combo that I carry around and work on. The tablet connects separately via a USBc connector, and it all communicates nicely so that I can use double screens and a full-size keyboard and mouse when I’m in the office.

I own a series of cables that would, in theory at least, connect my iPad Mini to the monitor, via a USB adaptor for the Thunderbolt cable that fits in the iPad, allowing me to then connect the USB to a USB-C to USB adaptor. That’s four different plugs, and they have to be snug enough to transfer the data between devices. Ironically for a person so embedded in the Apple ecosystem, I am hoping to make apples (hah!) talk to oranges. This would be a lot simpler with an Android device, but I don’t much care for Android; there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but I prefer Apple and iOS. My days of mucking about in the innards of computers were dealt their death blow sometime around the introduction of Windows 98 and despite my efforts back then to get more involved in IT at work, opportunities kind of dried up and what little knowledge I had quickly became obsolete. These days I just like the IT to get on with it for me, so poking around under the bonnet (or hood, for my North American audience – if any) is not for me.

That is not to say that I don’t try wiring devices together in the hope that there is some degree of compatibility. I mean it’s got to be easier than making the English see eye to eye with the French, right? I mean even if the different tech doesn’t communicate, at least one device won’t get snarky with the other? Right?

Plus, given that everything works over the Cloud, and that I can download Office 365 onto the iPad (I already have Outlook on it, so I can get my office emails when I want to), it should mean that I can work off the iPad instead – provided that I have Wi-Fi access. The Cloud version of Office 365 isn’t as flexible as the actual apps downloaded and installed on the machine, but it will do in a pinch (provided I’m not trying to do something too clever on an Excel workbook). I mean, what could go wrong?

Well, I’ll be trying it a bit later today, once I have the iPad more fully charged.

Like I said, what could possibly go wrong?

 

Edited to add: Well, what could go wrong is the fact that despite the monitore routinely taking its data through the USBc, if I want to use an iPad/iPhone, I need to feed it through the HDMI input.

And I can’t be bothered to spend the money on an adapter.

Taut

I am no longer sure whether having pets is a good idea. I expect that I’ll get over it, but right now, I’m unsure.

I realised this morning as I was commuting to work, that my nerves were stretched taut. I know that we’ve been stressed since we lost Peppers last Saturday, but in some ways the initial grief is fading at least insofar as I can think about him without welling up almost immediately. It still gets me when I wander down the garden to check that the foxes haven’t got to his grave (they haven’t).

The stress and worry now, is for Moneypenny.

It’s hard to know what a cat is feeling, but it’s clear that she’s a little spooked and still baffled by the fact that her brother isn’t around. She goes outside a lot more than she used to (she hard started to go out more before he died, but it’s ramped up a lot since). We kept her in for a couple of days, but we can’t really do that forever, it wouldn’t be fair. She has also got more vocal (though they had both belatedly realised that we are more likely to react to sound than we are to distant, silent staring).

We’ve tried to keep her routine as close to the way it was before, but we have installed a cat bed in our bedroom and she is no longer confined to the kitchen at night. She can come upstairs with us if she wants company. But we get stressed when she is out of sight for any prolonged period. In recent weeks, she had taken to hiding somewhere in the house and staying there for hours. I thought I’d found that nest, but she clearly has a choice of them and I haven’t found the rest.

This morning she was clearly availing herself of one of these hidey-holes, so I didn’t see her at all between getting up and going to work. A week ago this wouldn’t have made me fret, but now it does. I don’t want (and probably couldn’t anyway) to stop her having her quiet spaces, but it does make me worry unreasonably when I don’t know where she is for an extended period of time.

The nerves have returned to normal now. I got a text telling me that she had suddenly appeared from *somewhere* upstairs about half an hour after I’d gone.

I’m sure that things will normalise over time, but for now I find myself wondering if pets are worth the stress.

Sad

We’ve had a sad few days here at the Gin Palace.

When I awoke on Saturday morning, my biggest concern was that we had to take the cats, Peploe?*, more generally known as Peppers, and his sister, Moneypenny to the vets for their annual check up and booster jab. Always placid, last year he was so nervous that he left sweaty little paw marks on the vet’s table. I wanted to keep him calm this year. That was what I was fretting about.

We picked up both cats (two from the same litter) just a fortnight shy of four years ago, so they are just under five years old. Moneypenny is small and was doing her best to make herself smaller and hide in the back of her travel case. It took her a week to become tired enough to finally zonk out and sleep properly when we got her home, and she’s always been a little nervy. Peppers, by contrast was larger, but in the rescue home, he was shaking with fear. I stuck my hand into his travel case to pet him and he came over and immediately calmed down. He just needed a bit of fuss.

I think it’s fair to say that we bonded there and then, so while we had intended to buy just one cat – preferably a middle aged lady or gentleman, who liked a bit of fuss and sitting on people’s laps, we ended up with two young adults, of about a year old. They were both lovely cats, with quite different personalities, and we’ve been very lucky. But Peppers was my special little buddy, in the same way that Moneypenny gravitates more to Elle.

At about 9.25am on Saturday, while we were still wondering how best to deal with the trip to the vet’s, Peppers was hit by a bus. There are only two consolations: it must have been immediate. The poor little soul literally would not known anything about it, and from our point of view, we *know* what happened and were able to retrieve him. There was no disappearance followed by weeks of frantic poster pinning and leafleting.

Peppers was the only cat I have ever known who loved belly rubs. He would hawk for them and berate you if you came up short. He would drop his shoulder and roll onto his back ready for a tickle. He loved having his chin tickled. His right upper fang always stuck out over his bottom lip in a rakish fashion and he could look like a slightly roguish kitten when he had a mind to. When he’d had enough fuss (for now), he’s bat your hand out of the way with his back legs, or of you were tickling his chin, he would gently push your hand away with his paw. There were never any claws involved.

Peppers

He loved to sleep on our wheely case that we keep on top of the wardrobe, where he thought no one could see him. When he went out of the cat flap, he *never* quite managed to get his back leg in properly first time. And he nearly always tried to bury his food the first time around, before relenting and having a few mouthfuls.

We have buried him in the garden, in a nice shady place behind the camelia and places some small slabs over him so that scavengers can’t dig him out.

It’s broken my heart to put down just one helping of food the past couple of nights and we’ve not let Moneypenny out while she gets used to the new normal of being an only cat. You can never quite tell with them as they are such guarded creatures, but I swear on Saturday evening she kept going outside to see if she could find her brother.

Peppers was our lovely, affectionate, daft cat.

But he was also my special little Buddy and I miss him.

*Always with the question mark. You will understand if you’ve read Alexander McCall Smith