Renowned holistic guide, Rupert Alves is currently hosting The SandPaper. He feels it is best read in chronological order, beginning January 2015 (click Archive above). If you’d like to respond to any issues raised in any of the monthly issues, or read other readers’ protests, here is a link to the GuestBook
I feel blank, so I sit here doing nothing. I do nothing, so I feel blank. It’s a type of perfection. An elderly man calls. Am I Rupert Alves? “I am” I remember. “Good” he says. “I’m George Appleby.” “Good” I say. “How can I help you?” There is a long pause. He says he’ll call me back, shortly. Moments later, the phone rings again. He wants to book an appointment.
Taking a walk in the garden, I find myself staring at a tree stump I’ve become rather fond of. I’d like to sit on it, but I know it sticks into you. From one moment to the next, a wonderful urge envelopes me and, grabbing tools from the shed, I start to sculpt it into something more comfortable. As I cut away the rot, I begin to appreciate its beauty and strive to shape it in such a way as to realise its own special loveliness. It must be years since I worked with my hands like this. I stand back, looking at it. Nice.
I still have that blank feeling, as if nothing ever happened before and this is the start of my life. I feel as if I know nothing. Yet I know beauty when I see it and it makes me happy. So, whatever happens, I’m going to be happy. Because of the beauty of everything. Nice.
Our housekeeper Megan is staring at me from the kitchen. Now she’s staring at me from the veranda. Now from the grassy verge just above me. It strike me that even nasty things are nice, if you see them through rose-tinted spectacles. She wants to know what I think I’m doing. Am I mad? I smile. I probably am. She runs off, letting me know she’s going to find Michelle. I get to work with a small chisel. I want to retain the tree stump’s soul, it’s character, its tree stumpness.
Old Mr Shoebridge, our gardener, admires my work. He tells me the stump is a quercus robur, commonly known as the English oak or pedunculate oak. Some pedunculate oaks are over 1,500 years old. I want to know more, but Mr Shoebridge says he’s worried about Aiden. He tells me that Aiden’s dad, Alf Winkley, is in hospital. I say “I’m sorry to hear that”. Mr Shoebridge says “He fell down the stairs” adding “if that’s what really happened.” “Didn’t it really happen?” I ask. “Well, Aiden reckons Luke Chapps must’ve pushed him, and I wouldn’t put it passed him. Have you seen him?” “Luke Chapps?” “Aiden.” I haven’t. Mr Shoebridge says “keep up the good work” and wanders slowly away.
I carefully saw off the rotten edge at the front, so it won’t cut into my knees when I sit on it. The back of the stump is high, almost throne-like. Needs some shaping. Looking up, I find my wife Michelle staring at me. “What are you doing?” “I’m sculpting the quercus robur.” “Why?” “So it’s comfortable.” “Haven’t you anything better to do?” I think about it. “I don’t think so.” Michelle says that, unlike me, she has too much to do. Apart from running about trying to keep her company afloat, she’s being courted by potential clients she’s not allowed to reveal, who want her to work exclusively for them, which would be extraordinarily lucrative and prestigious should the deal go through. She’s happy and excited, so I’m happy and excited. She also reminds me that Susan’s almost due. “Susan’s coming here?” “No, she’s almost due to give birth. We ought to visit. What about next Tuesday?” I frown. “What day is it today?” “Put it this way” she says “have you got anything planned in the next week or two?” “I don’t think I have.” “Tuesday it is.” I ask her if she’d like to sit on the throne. She allows herself to be seated in a queenly way but jumps up quick. I’ve forgotten to remove the chisel. She gives me a look and goes off into the house to sort herself out.
I start gluing loose bark. I’m going to douse the whole stump in wood preserver when it’s done. Loads more chiselling, planing, sanding and whatnot before then. As I work, it gets more and more beautiful. As shadows fall, it looks proud, ornate, self possessed. I chat with it as I work. “You’re a beautiful tree stump” I say, to encourage it, so it will radiate with confidence. Aiden appears, like a ghost beside me. He’s scared to go back to his parents’ house. He hasn’t been back since I kindly employed and housed him. But he’s promised to mend the bannisters. He believes that his dad, Alf, tried to stand up to Luke Chapps who then pushed him down the stairs.
He tells me that, years ago, his mum had a fling with Luke Chapps. “Dad found out and mum promised not to see Luke anymore. But dad wasn’t himself after that and ended up doing his back in, while carpenting. So he couldn’t work and there was no money coming in. So Luke Chapps offered to provide for us, as long as mum showed her gratitude. And mum went along with it, for the sake of the family. And dad went along with it, being so ashamed that he couldn’t work any more. Luke’d turn up anytime and he and mum would go upstairs and, although my brother and sister won’t admit it, we’d hear the bedsprings. No one would admit it. We’d have to pretend it wasn’t happening. Anyway, that’s when I got ME. And I was in the room next door, so I heard everything.”
Grace appears through the twilight and slides her arm about Aiden. “We better get going” she says. They’re off to the Winkleys. “Can I come with you?” I ask. “I could help with the bannisters.” They’re happy for me to tag along. And I’m happy. I like working with my hands. “Will I need my tools?” I ask. “No” says Aiden. “Dad’s a carpenter. He’ll have all the tools we’ll need.”
On the way, Aiden is concerned about his mum’s state of mind and worried about encountering Luke Chapps. Grace calms his fears. I enjoy the walk, the twilight chorus, the smells and murmurings, the people on their way home, as we cross the village green, and the huge lorries rattling past the Winkleys’ little terraced house.
Aiden knocks but no one comes. He knocks again. He’s sure his mum, Molly, must be in there. He starts to get upset. Grace suggests he use his keys. As soon as he puts the key in the lock, Luke Chapps appears. “What do you want?” Aiden is immediately nervous. Grace says “We want to see Molly”. Luke says there’s nothing to see. Grace says “We’ll be the judge of that”. She’s having none of it and barges past, into the tiny dark living room.
Aiden switches on a light. Molly Winkley is sitting in the corner behind the tiny kitchen table. She seems frightened and doesn’t respond to her son’s greeting. I see the broken staircase and start to assess the damage. First we’ll need to get the broken handrail off. Grace has slid into a chair opposite Molly, who averts her eyes. Luke Chapps is prowling about, saying how distraught Molly’s been since Alf’s accident. He stares at Molly as he describes how she was upstairs having a lie-down. Luke himself was down here innocently reading the papers when there was a great crash as Alf tumbled down the stairs. “That’s what we told the ambulance men and that’s what happened.”
Aiden looks as if he might explode. I ask where the tools are kept. Aiden goes out to his dad’s workshop. Luke asks me what I think I’m doing. “Mending the stairs.” “How long’s that going to take?” “I don’t know” I admit. “First we need to assess the damage, what we need to replace. Like this handrail. If I could only separate it from the post.” Aiden comes back with tools, hammers, chisels, plane, drill, extension cable. I start banging the post to get the rail to come off. Luke is furious at the intrusion. “We were having a nice quiet chat, weren’t we Molly. Shall I ask them to leave, Molly?”
I notice that the hammer’s only making gouges in the post. The rail isn’t budging. I step back to reassess the problem and overhear Aiden whispering to Grace that he wants to accuse Luke. “Why don’t you?” she whispers back. I realise I could saw it off, but can’t get back to do it, because Aiden’s in the way. He faces Luke. “Dad didn’t fall, did he! You…” Molly cries out “Aiden!” Aiden stops, seems to crumple. I start to saw. Mrs Winkley says she wants to go to bed. Luke helps her upstairs. Grace comforts Aiden. I continue sawing.
Aiden phones his sister Sarah, putting her in the picture. Afterwards he’s angry. “She says it’s none of her business. She’s got herself to think of, now that she’s engaged.” He rings his elder brother, Noah. He likewise wants none of it, won’t even admit that their mum had an affair in the first place. Aiden reminds him of the night when “you came back drunk and woke us all up and we found Mum and Luke… It never happened? None of it happened? Luke didn’t give mum money in return for… What?” Aiden chucks the phone at the wall and turns to Grace. “It never fucking happened.” She embraces him. I realise I’m almost through the rail and saw furiously.
Something bashes against my hip. I look up. Luke Chapps has kicked me. He wants to get down the stairs. I squeeze up, leaning against the rail which gives way, causing me to fall. I pick myself up, grinning to reassure everyone. “It’s alright. No harm done.” Luke is at the front door. “Now leave her alone” he says. “And don’t go meddling.” The front door slams.
Grace asks us if we want a cup of tea and we settle around the little breakfast table. I realise I need advice in order to do a good job on the bannister. This ground floor is just one room and it’s very small and dingy, like where mice might live. The teas come. We drink. “Your dad’s a carpenter, isn’t he?” I say. “I’d like to ask his advice.” Aiden says he wants to visit his dad in hospital, but doesn’t like to leave mum. I offer to stay, to make sure Mrs Winkley’s alright. Grace says “No. You two go together. I’ll stay here just in case.” Aiden gulps back his tea and stands up. I realise the fallen hand rail has made a mess. Grace says not to worry. She’ll clear up. It won’t take a jiffy.
The hospital is crowded with relatives and friends sitting around patients. A bulky African nurse with pebble glasses is squeezing her way through. All the patients are recovering from spinal surgery. One shrivelled old man, who has no visitors, is held in a neck brace that makes him look Elizabethan. The remains of a tudor nobleman. Alf Winkley hasn’t got a brace, but he’s not allowed to move as he’s just had an operation to fuse his vertebrae. So he has to stare at the ceiling. The good news is, they’ve said he’ll probably be better than before the fall, because he did his back in all those years ago and never had it seen to.
The nurse is getting cross with a middle-eastern family. There are too many of them. They shrug. Where’s the harm? A corpulent chap holding a bag of urine stumbles. The nurse rushes to his side and guides him back to his bed. Only it isn’t his bed. It’s the shrivelled old man’s and the nurse doesn’t notice. There’s a sudden dry croak. The nurse realises she’s got the wrong bed and hoiks the big chap up and over to his. I hope the old man is alive.
Aiden is trying to get his dad to admit that the reason he did his back in, all those years ago, was because he found out what was going on between Mum and Luke. Alf doesn’t seem to hear his son, just keeps looking at the ceiling. Aiden can’t understand. “You know I know, so why can’t you admit it?” Alf murmurs “Your mother’s been through enough.” “But it was her. She went with him. And you knew.” Alf asks how Molly is. Aiden says “She’s alright. Grace is with her and we’ve made a start on fixing the stairs.”
I say I’d like some advice. “I’ve sawn the handrail off but all those dangly bits are still stuck to it.” “The spindles? Have they snapped?” asks Alf. “Some.” “How’s the newel?” “What’s that?” “The post at the bottom that holds the rail.” “A bit battered. I banged it with a hammer.” “Never mind about that. Here’s what you do.” “Hang on. I need to write it down.” The nurse’ll have a pen and paper.
She’s leaning over the old man, telling him to wake up. “You must wake up or I will have to call a doctor.” “Have you got a pen and paper?” I ask. She turns. “What are you asking me? Why are you wasting my time?” “I need to write down the instructions” I explain. “I have no instructions” she insists. “I mean how to repair the stairs.” “The stairs are broken?” “Yes. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.” The nurse rushes off. “I must see for myself. People might fall.” The ancient man suddenly sits up, crying “Where are my shoes?” I search for his shoes but can’t find them. An Arabic man lends me his gilt-edged notepad and pen. I scribble Alf’s instructions. The nurse returns. She’s furious with Aiden. “There is nothing wrong with the stairs” she says. He says “We used the lift.” I return the pad and pen. The nurse notices the old man getting out of bed, rushes over and pushes him back down. “Lie down. You’re ill.” Aiden has a word with his dad, turns to me and says “Let’s get out of here.”
Michelle is driving into London, specifically Dulwich, guided by satnav. “In 200 meters, keep right.” She’s spent the weekend being wined and dined in Paris by her prospective exclusive new clients. She would be responsible for the entire network. She’ll need a brilliant staff. I find myself considering how to get the spindles to the exact height, so they’ll slot in perfectly to the hand rail and not fall out. Michelle can’t wait to see Susan, she tells me. “Greg is dull, but never mind. Come to think of it, Susan is dull. Perhaps pregnancy will make her more interesting. What I’m really excited to see is the house. Do you realise that we own half of that house? I mean, we paid for half of it. Not to mention what’s been spent doing it up.” “True” I say. I wonder how I’m going to get the rail into the newel at the same time as getting the spindles into the rail, without having to remove the newel itself. The satnav man tells us that, when we turn left, “then you will have arrived at your destination”.
We are gliding between formal flowerbeds, towards an imposing Georgian double-fronted property. A handsome brown gentleman in white gloves welcomes us. He is wearing a dress shirt with a white wing collar, black tie, grey waistcoat, black morning coat, grey striped trousers and, if I were a lady, he’d make me feel weak in the knees. Once up the grand steps, we’re escorted through the Doric entrance into a hall with gleaming parquet flooring, turquoise walls above a dado rail, an ornately moulded ceiling and told to wait. A little round woman in a maid’s costume, replete with pinafore and cap, scuttles out of the room into which the charismatic butler has disappeared. “Why are we waiting?” asks Michelle. “I don’t know” I admit. We can hear Susan’s voice. She seems to be upset about something.
A face is staring down on me from a dark painting. The man has a thin face, with a pointy nose, moustache and beard, supported by a thick white frilly ruff. But it’s his eyes that mesmerise me. Calm, intense, imperious. This man does not doubt. When he looks at you, you know you’re not his equal. So why can’t I stop looking? Footsteps. The cool butler returns. “Her ladyship will see you now.” “Her ladyship?” blurts out Michelle. “Has she turned into a ship?” The butler gives a polite smile and an almost indiscernible shrug. “What are we to call her?” asks Michelle. Again the shrug. “What are we to call you?” she asks, with a flirty grin. The butler leans in and whispers. “My name’s Jeremy, but I’m to be called Jerome.” “Is this her ladyship’s idea?” whispers Michelle. Jeremy nods. Jerome bids us enter.
The drawing room is dazzling. Canary yellow walls, the floor a polished mirror, winged armchairs, sofas with scrolled arms, gilt-framed paintings of idyllic pastoral scenes and, in the midst of this splendour, our lovely daughter Susan, looking like the Queen of Sheba, lying pregnantly upon a huge chaise longue, in a halo of cushions, drapes and a tray of buns.
I’m so beguiled, I find myself bowing, kissing her hand and retreating with my head inclined. Michelle is less formal. “Hi darling. Got you some flowers.” “Jerome? Put these in water.” Susan is cross. She says “I sent Greg out to buy some things and he isn’t back. He knew you were coming. He’s supposed to be here.” “Your home is lovely” I say, looking around. Susan wants to know what her mum thinks.
Michelle says “its extravagance is almost sickening, darling. But you can’t bring a baby up here. One flip of the hand could send that standard lamp down on it. All the furniture has sharp edges. Those low shelves with vases. They’ll topple and smash. I mean, what are you thinking? There are baby hazards everywhere.” I find myself pondering how to make this place safe for my grandchild. A guard on the fire. Higher shelves certainly. Michelle is talking to me. “Tell her.” “Tell her what?” “Tell her she needs to make this place safe for her baby.” “I could do it” I say, smiling at Susan. She accepts my offer. “No trouble. Happy to help.”
Susan snarls. “Where have you been?” It’s Greg. He’s puffing, he’s abject. Waitrose was closed. He had to go all the way to… Susan isn’t listening. She’s watching the little round maid, carefully pushing in a silver serving trolley. Susan snaps at her. “Be careful Chloe. You’ll spill it.” Chloe looks up, jolting the trolley and hot tea splashes her hands. She just stands there. “Well get a cloth!” roars my daughter, followed by a short sharp “Jerome!” who comes running in, swerving to avoid Chloe running out. Susan issues instructions. The trolley is to go there. The chairs placed here. Greg and I give Jerome a hand. Michelle is to pour. Everyone is to have a tiny cup of tea and a biscuit.
Michelle asks Susan if being pregnant means she can’t move a muscle. Susan rubs her tummy. She’s just protecting baby. I tell Greg I’m going to make their home safe for their child. Michelle reckons that, if Susan keeps eating those buns, the child will be too big to get out. Susan says she has an itch. Instinctively, Michelle goes to her daughter’s aid. “Not there, there!” Susan informs her. “No, higher.” I turn to my son-in-law. “I’ll need to get a measure of what needs doing. Fancy showing me around?”
There are six double ensuite bedrooms all with unprotected sockets and freestanding furniture that could fall. A stunning conservatory with potted plants on low ledges just ripe for yanking by some small innocent mite. An enormous kitchen containing low level draws full of bleach, detergents, knives and other baby killers. Not to mention the basement games room brimming with workout machines, weights and open swimming pool. Greg seems quite oblivious to the dangers of asphyxiation, electrocution, burning, crushing, poisoning and drowning. I tell him “A baby could fall down the stairs, plummet into the pool and drown before you can say Jack Robinson. We’ll need hundreds of safety gates, fire doors, high shelving. Bolt everything down and lock it up. Not a small job. But I think I’m up to it.
Back in the hallway, I notice the painted eyes staring down at me and ask Greg. “I’ve been looking at this picture, Greg. Who is it?” “My relative.” “Is he still alive?” “Of course he’s not still alive. He’s Admiral Sir John Hawkyns. Naval commander, navigator, shipbuilder, merchant and chief architect of the Elizabethan navy.” I’m impressed. “And he’s your relative?” Greg nods, adding “Hawkyns designed the fleet that withstood the Spanish Armada.” “Goodness.” “His cousin was Sir Francis Drake, you know.” “Gosh.” “He was also the first slave trader.” “Really?” “Yes, and not ashamed of it either!” “How exciting.” “Yes, he made the first English slaving voyage to Africa. In all, captured over twelve hundred Africans and sold them as goods in America. Amazing fellow. He was knighted for gallantry.” “I should think so too. All round good egg.”
“Would you care for a glass of very special single malt whiskey?” Greg asks. “How very civilised” I observe, feeling rather posh. “I’ll get it” he says. I hang about outside the drawing room, where Chloe is polishing the floor and Michelle is massaging her daughter’s shoulders. I hear Susan’s echoey voice proclaim that she doesn’t intend to return to work as an accountant. “Greg would prefer it. He wants to be the provider and lavish me with lovely things. I said I would, as long as we employ nannies so I can fully enjoy the experience of motherhood.” I hear Michelle’s angry voice squawk “What? Do nothing? Is that what you’re going to do with your life? Nothing? Your grandmother, Anthea, was a very prominent and proactive feminist. She fought for the rights of women to forge their own destinies, to play their part in this world. Not to be their husband’s plaything and sit around stuffing themselves with cream buns.” Susan pops a final bun in her mouth, in quiet defiance. Michelle grips Susan’s shoulders in rage. I find myself drawn into the room. Susan squeals. “Ouch! You’re hurting me. Get your hands off my neck.” Indeed Michelle’s hands do seem to be encroaching upon her neck. Chloe looks up from her polishing. Jerome is observing discretely from the fireplace. Proving that she can still move, Susan wrenches herself free and, turning, slaps her mother hard across the cheek. Michelle stares around at the faces staring at her and, seeing me, says “We’re going.” As I run through the hall, to catch up with her, I see Greg with our drinks. “I’ll be back to do the DIY” I promise.
Silence all the way home, except that Michelle vows never to return and drives so fast I just hang on for dear life.
I’m at the Winkleys. I’ve got the new hand rail and spindles all pretty much cut to length. It’s dark now. Aiden was going to be here but he isn’t. Grace is serving Mrs Winkley tea and sandwiches. But Aiden’s mum isn’t saying anything. The tap’s dripping. I’ve been cutting a slot in the newel post, so that the hand rail will be able to slide down into it. That should mean I can adjust the lengths of the spindles, till they fit perfectly. Then I can glue the lot together. Easing the rail into place, without the spindles, it just about fits. A bit tight, but that’s probably good. I’ll try with the spindles. I wish that tap would stop dripping.
Grace is trying to get Mrs Winkley to talk. She says “I can see that you’re in distress Molly. Please let me help. Don’t blame yourself.” Mrs Winkley’s face turns from mouse to shrew and she speaks. “What have I got to blame myself for? If my stupid husband gets himself thrown downstairs, whose…” “Thrown?” asks Grace, quietly. “Fell, thrown, what difference does it make? He shouldn’t’ve said what he said. Luke’s been very good to us. After there was no money coming in because Alf done his back in and was useless. And whose fault was that?” “Well I think Luke Chapps is a bully and you’re all scared of him” says Grace. Mrs Winkley says “Mind your own business” and turns on the TV, where a family sitcom blares out waves of helpless mirth.
Some of the spindles are a bit long, so the rail stands proud. Hard to tell which. Certainly the middle ones. Just have to sand them down, one by one and check. I could get it done tonight, if I don’t make some silly mistake. Then I could concentrate on Susan’s house. Hard to think with the couple on the telly screaming at each other and the audience in fits.
Grace comes and sits beside me on the stairs. She tells me that the reason Aiden isn’t here helping, is that he’s started getting symptoms of his ME again. I’m sorry to hear that. Grace thinks it’s coming back here that’s done it. She thinks this house is full of fear. She wants to break the spell. She helps me lower the rail onto the spindles and newel. It fits. None of the spindles rattle. Tight as a vicar’s arse. Okay. Where’s my tube of UniBond Invisible No More Nails?
Grace is pacing. She looks like a caged animal, as I watch her through the spindles I’m gluing into place. All of a sudden she stops in front of Mrs Winkley, obscuring the screen and thumping her fist on the table. “I know you had an affair with Luke Chapps. I know Alf found out and did his back in. I know Luke’s been paying your bills in exchange for you know what. The whole village knows. And I know you hate it!” Molly erupts. It’s all I can do to keep gluing and whistling so they don’t think I’m listening. “So I’m an evil woman who betrayed her husband, am I? Alright, I’ll admit it. Satisfied?” “No. Do you love him?” “Who?” “Luke Chapps.” “I don’t love anyone.” The canned laughter roars its approval. “But Alf loves you” pleads Grace, putting her arm around Mrs Winkley. “He wanted to know how you were. He’s in the hospital, Molly.” Mrs Winkley shrugs her off, growling “you can’t change human nature” and glues her eyes to the screen, where a comedy marriage is heading for hilarious divorce. I’m standing back, admiring my work. The tap is still dripping. Fix it next time I’m here, when I come to seal the new wood. “Well. I’ll be off then” I say, letting myself out.
Autumn is here and with it, new clients. Fierce gales blow in from the sea. Petals and leaves whistle away and in gusts Christine, wearing a long waterproof trench coat, which she doesn’t remove. “Are you cold?” I ask. “Do I seem cold?” she asks, accusingly. “Of course not” I say, with a cheerful laugh. “What would you like to talk about?” “I hate men” she says. “Ah” I say. “I can see your point of view.” “I didn’t start out hating them.” “No.” “No, I used to be really horny, couldn’t wait to get married, have babies and a family of my own, like you’re supposed to. I wasn’t some born-again feminist, pissed off because men have more power, money and boo-hoo it’s not fair. I started hating them because I wised up.” “Good.”
“I mean, putting their fingers everywhere at once like you’re some kind of church organ. Telling you how beautiful your eyes are, and then ejaculating in them.” “No!” “Or when you give them a blow job and they push your head down, like you don’t have a gag reflex and you vomit all over his dick and he gets angry.” “Angry?” “Yes. Or some Welsh rugby player says he’s seen these pictures online, of what you can do, and you end up twisted into a knot and breaking your ribs. I mean, I don’t want chocolate spread rubbed all over my body.” “No. Of course you don’t. Who would?” “I don’t want some fifteen stone slob on top, doing sixty-nine with his nob in your gob, till you suffocate.” “Dear oh dear!”
I can’t really remember what you’re supposed to do as a therapist. I know you’re supposed to listen and be nice. But aren’t you supposed to do something? I can’t think. Christine’s mouth is going up and down and I need to decipher the sounds flying out. “You think you’re going on a date and you end up in the gutter with sperm all over your face. You think you’re marrying a strong sensitive man and he turns into a wife-beating cheat, off down the road being sensitive and strong with your best friend from school.”
“My goodness you’ve been through some traumatic experiences, Christine. What can I do to help?” I ask, hopefully. Christine says “Not much probably. You’re the ninth therapist I’ve been to. None of them were any use.” “How come?” I ask. “They were men” she says. I can see her point. I’ve an idea. “Have you tried a woman therapist?” “Are you kidding? That’d be like preaching to the converted.” I realise she’s right. “No” she says. “I want to let men know what they are. Do you know that one in five women in England and Wales has been sexually assaulted?” “No. Really? One in five?” “Do you know how many rape victims there are, each year, in this country?” “No.” “Between sixty and ninety-five thousand.” “That’s terrifying.” “An incident of domestic violence is reported every minute. Two women a week are killed by their present or ex-partner. Not to mention that men kill two hundred-thousand people a year in wars. They’re controlling, aggressive, violent and stupid. Men are ugly. With genetic engineering, it should be possible to reduce them to a few mindless organisms in sperm banks.” “Best place for them!” I say. Christine seems pleased. She thanks me, books more sessions and leaves.
I’m in Susan’s house in Dulwich, creating high shelving. A layer of wood dust lies upon every kitchen surface and hovers in the air, suffused with late afternoon sunshine. So peaceful. Out in the garden a blackbird is singing. I’ve got the bolts in place and now I’m crafting each shelf into beautiful shapes. My sander is buzzing and a miasma of wood dust flies off, as the shelf begins to take on its natural form. I love doing this. I love to do things beautifully and Alf has given me lots of advice. I hear Greg pull up in his sleek black Lexus, back from Lloyds of London no doubt. I hear him call “Susan darling?” as he sweeps in. I hear a row develop between them. Young people, I dunno. My little sander drowns them out. Only ten more shelves to go.
Greg taps me on the shoulder and I almost sand the skin off the back of my hand. He needs some help. He’s just found out that his parents are intending to visit, and to stay over for the birth. He’s chuffed. Susan is furious though. Says it’s an invasion of privacy. “But she can’t very well refuse. They own half the house. Anyway, the guest suite is in an awful pickle. For one thing, the bedroom door needs remounting. Could you do that? Not one of my skills, I’m afraid” he admits. “The door’s not safe and I wouldn’t want my mother or father having an accident.” I grab my tools and follow him to the guest suite.
It’s very grand. Regency furniture, walls a powder-puff pink, four poster bed that Henry the 8th might’ve slept in and a door hanging off its hinges. Chloe, the little round maid appears. Greg is wanted by her ladyship. Alone, I get to work. Some of the screws are loose and come out easily. Someone screams “What?” in my ear, causing the lower edge of the door to drop onto my big toe. Susan wants to know what I’m doing here. I explain about Greg’s parents and the dangerous door. She’s having none of it and tells me to return to the kitchen. She can’t have dust and half-finished shelves lying around her kitchen. I agree and grab my tools.
The shelves seem to sculpt themselves into perfection. I run my palm down one I’ve just sanded. Nice. Once they’re bolted in, high on the walls, they’ll seem to float like angel’s wings. Greg interrupts my musings. Why have I abandoned the door. “You can’t leave a door hanging like that.” I grab my tools.
The last screw is torture. I’m trying to get it out, while supporting the door on my feet. Suddenly it gives way and I topple back, just managing to grab the door before it makes a mark on the powder-puff pink. I lay it carefully upon a Persian rug and consider how to remount it. A humungous row billows up from below. They’re really at each other’s throats. Jerome, the Barbadian butler, glides up to me. I’m required downstairs.
In the drawing room, Susan tells me that I’m to listen to her and her alone. She’s my daughter. I’m her father. I’m to finish the shelves and clean the kitchen. Greg disagrees. His parents own half the house “and they’re coming the day after tomorrow, whereas the baby’s not due for a week and a half!” He insists that the door needs rehinging first. I have an idea. “I could do both jobs at once.”
I’m waiting for Aiden and Grace on a warm wet night on the steps outside the hospital. Jet black sky with a sprinkling of rain. Patients slipping out for a smoke, others chatting. Visitors arriving, cars swishing by, puddles wobbling with reflected light, bus headlights looming. Grace descends. Aiden takes an age to get down. Grace turns to help but he waves her away. She hurries up to me. She’s worried about his health. “Worried sick” she says.
“This morning he could hardly get up and emotionally he’s not handling things well, Mr Alves. The other day, I was round at the Winkleys’ and Luke Chapps swaggered in like he owned the place. He had his hands all over Molly and when she didn’t respond, he kicked back a chair and accused me of turning her against him. I didn’t say anything and he finally left, but I can’t be there all the time. Anyway, Molly won’t talk to me, just sits there crying. And Alf can’t come home to the same situation, can he, Mr Alves? I’ve told Aiden he has to do something. But he won’t!”
As Aiden reaches us, Grace neatly changes subject and mood. “Aiden’s not feeling too good, are you, darling” she says, putting her arm around his waist. “His ME’s come back. I think it’s all this worry over his mum and dad.” Aiden admits that returning to his parents’ place and re-entering their lives, makes him want to give up again. He can’t bear what’s happening. Grace says he should go to the police, he’s got evidence. Aiden says he’d never go to the police. He doesn’t believe in them. Grace says “Luke Chapps has been abusing your mother and father for years. Report him.” Aiden says “No! It’d shame the whole family” and struggles up the steps. Grace gives me a look.
The ward is full of visitors like last time, families from different cultures, some of them having picnics. The large African nurse is on duty again. Her pebble glasses make each of her eyes look bigger than her face. She peers through them. What does she see? A bunch of young blokes in the corner are joshing and kidding each other, chucking a ball across the bed, when she’s not looking. A jolly Irish family having a picnic, are being serenaded by an plum-faced chap, singing a country and western song in a broad baritone. An orthodox Jewish dad sits quietly with his elder son, feeding grapes to the younger son in bed.
Alf Winkley says the physios have been at him. “They’ve got me standing up straight. Straight as a rod I was. First time in years. They’re going to get me walking tomorrow.” Alf has a craggy face, but I’ve never seen it open before. And his eyes keep changing emotions all the time, as if there’s a lot going on inside. “How’s your mum?” he asks Aiden. Grace buttons her lip. Aiden reassures his dad. “She’s okay” he says, lowering his head. Alf understands that she isn’t, nodding in dour acceptance. “Have Noah and Sarah been round?” he asks. “No” admits Aiden. “They’ve been busy, but me and Grace have been taking it in turns to be with her.” Again Alf nods. He reaches out a hand, laying it on Aiden’s arm. “And you, son. You alright? Only I noticed you’d a bit of difficulty getting in here. Your illness flared up again?” “I’m alright dad.”
Alf cares deeply about his boy, you can tell by the way he looks at him. He cares deeply about his wife, the way his voice shakes when he mentions her. He’s very emotional, but he holds it in, keeping his own council. An honourable man, perhaps too honourable. Locked in by it, waiting for others to behave honourably. That is also Aiden’s catch 22. In fact Alf is who Aiden is trying to avoid becoming. “It’s like I can’t get through to her, like there’s this cold barrier” he blurts out. “You mum’s been through a lot and, whatever she’s done, she’s held us together through thick and thin” says Alf. “And now we’ve fallen apart” adds his son.
I notice a cubicle curtain coming off its track and stand on a chair to thread it back on. “The plastic’s cracked, you see” I explain, though no one notices. I can see everything from up here. The young lad in the corner is held in a steel and perspex exoskeleton. Around him, his mates are chucking a ball about, telling ‘Mikey’ about who went on to win the motorcross trials on Sunday, after he crashed out. Mikey is trying to keep up with them, a wide grin plastered across a bruised face. Apparently the winner skidded and slid round the course, wheels spraying jets of mud, in an incredible time, given that it was chucking it down by then. Incredible. Mikey repeats “Incredible.” His mates stare at him.
“So” says one. “They said you broke your back.” “Yes” says Mikey. “So, er, how long’s it going to take to fix then?” “The doctors don’t know” says Mikey. “Maybe it won’t fix.” “Wow” they murmur. “So, what’ll you do then?” “Stay here, lying like this, I guess” says Mikey. None of the mates seem to know what to say to this, except a particularly goonish chum, who thinks it’s a joke and laughs. Someone chucks the ball at him to shut him up. They sit there, trapped in an uncomfortable silence. The goonish chum says Ruby’s been seen with Ned. Others chime in. Ruby’s been seen with others too. They agree that Ruby’s a slag. An athletic youth with a soft face, turns to Mikey. “Sorry mate.” I realise Ruby must be Mikey’s girlfriend. They start chucking the ball across the bed again.
Nurse Goggle-eyes doesn’t notice. She has become cross with the jolly family having a picnic. I hear her say “This patient has already eaten.” The country singer interrupts his song to explain that “it’s us who are hungry. We’ve come straight from work.” The nurse spies a squashed pork pie on the floor. “What is that?” she cries. The offending pie is removed. But the nurse is not appeased. “This is a hospital. It must remain sterilised or the patients will die. That is the rules.”
The motorcross mates call across, telling her to put a sock in it. Like a bull to a red rag, she’s over there, telling them they must take their feet off the bed. The patient is very sick. “If he moves, he can break and then he will die and you think this is funny?” she shouts, as the lads cackle and jeer.
The Jewish father rises and politely asks the nurse to stop shouting. Picnickers agree. “Yes, chill out, for Christ’s sake.” The crooning cowboy takes the opportunity to grab the large nurse, sit her on his knee and sing her “a real lovin’ Nashville song.” Everyone is loving it except the nurse, who is fuming, building up a head of steam. If she doesn’t take it out on him, she’ll take it out on some poor bastard. Meanwhile, the motorcross mates troop out, clapping in rhythm, leaving their friend lying silently on his own, not clapping.
I notice a woman arrive. A small mouse-like woman. I know I know her, but can’t quite place her. My eyes follow, as she searches among the multitudes. It’s Molly Winkley. When she sees Alf, he’s only a few feet away. She takes his hand and squeezes it. He turns from chatting with Aiden and looks at her. They stare at each other for an age, as if time is standing still. She bursts into tears. Alf starts crying too. They’re gazing at each other, sobbing their eyes out. Aiden lets out a great sob. Grace comforts him and then she sobs. I can’t stop blubbering.
Nurse Goggle-eyes is staring at me. “What are you doing up there, Mr Robinson? Get down from that chair immediately and get back to bed.” I find myself in a hospital bed and a catheter rammed up my jacksie. The Jewish man offers me a grape.
Gloriously sunny day and we’re off to Susan’s. I’ve brought Aiden, so we can do two jobs at once. But Susan puts us on two different jobs. Before I know it, I’m halfway up a ladder in the hall, clearing cobwebs, because it’s autumn and all the spiders come in. I can’t find any spiders but the oak frieze is filthy. Obviously hasn’t been cleaned since all the building work. In the kitchen I fill a bowl with soapy water, find a stiff brush and some cloths on a very high shelf. Butler Jerome flies in. Maid Chloe asks what her ladyship wants now. “Oh, it isn’t for her” explains Jerome. “No, it’s jellies and cakes for the baby.” They laugh about this. “After all, her ladyship is eating for two. Or possibly ten.” Noticing me and realising that I’m her ladyship’s dad, they go quiet, scurrying about for cakes and jellies, as I carry the soapy water back to the hall and negotiate my way up the ladder. Mustn’t spill any.
I can scrub the dirt out of the intricate carvings but it sprays in my eyes and dribbles down the walls, if I’m not careful. Below, Jerome and Chloe flutter in and out, at Susan’s beck and call. Funny how their voices change from angry to unctuous as they enter Susan’s realm. I gather that the reason for all this nervous activity is because Greg’s exceedingly wealthy parents are due to arrive. I’ve never met my in-laws, because Greg and Susan got married secretly. I wonder what they’ll be like.
Aiden retreats from the drawing room backwards, bowing. He’s to chop firewood. His every movement is slow and I know he’s not feeling very well. “Shall I help you” I ask, balancing the bowl. “No. I’ll do it. Do you know where it is?” I don’t. He staggers off to search. Greg rushes down the stairs, sees me and waves. “What are your parents called?” I ask. “Mum and dad” he says, whizzing by. “No” I say. “Their names.” “Oh, Zachary and Imogen Blake” he calls back. At the foot of the stairs, he stops and asks “What was I doing?” He turns one way, then another. He’s completely forgotten.
The doorbell rings. he dashes to answer it. I watch with bated breath as the front door opens and in step Zachary and Imogen Blake. Zachary is tall with a pointy beard, reminding me that he’s related to Elizabethan Admiral, Sir John Hawkyns, except that Zachary has forgone codpiece and doublet for smart denims and check shirt, open at the neck. Imogen Blake is almost as tall as her husband. She sports beige slacks, a print top, loose cardigan and no makeup. Jerome stands by, to take their coats, but there are no coats to take. Zachary shakes his son’s hand. Imogen kisses his cheek. They are ushered into the drawing room.
Chloe and Jerome fly out with orders and back with drinks and small eats. But Susan is insatiable and out they fly again. It’s like Clapham Junction out here. I seem to be making a habit of hanging about in high places, watching the goings-on. But I feel happier, keeping out the way. Imogen Blake appears, looking around, as if for guidance. I’m about to ask if I can help, when Jerome appears. “Do you know where the laxatives are kept?” she asks, slightly flustered, adding “They’re not for me. My daughter-in-law says she’ll have no room for supper if she doesn’t take them now.” The butler leads her to the kitchen.
Next one out is Admiral Sir Zachary Blake, who almost collides with his wife. He’s damn well not putting up with it, he says. They discuss their daughter-in-law’s bad behaviour, her unreasonable commands. “She’s so rude.” he whispers. “And so vulgar” says Imogen. As Chloe and Jerome appear, weighed down with platters of cakes, jellies, tarts, trifles and puddings, Zachary waylays them, asking if their employer is always so rude to them. They are loath to say, but finally admit that they are on the verge of walking out. Chloe says her ladyship had her up most of the night, fulfilling her culinary whims. Butler and maid list their complaints. The Blakes are aghast. They wouldn’t dream of treating their staff that way. Jerome and Chloe lay down their platters and fold their arms. I realise they no longer have any intention of delivering the cakes.
Looking up, Imogen spies me. I wave. Zachary asks me what my take is. I almost spill the water, trying to get down the ladder. Putting down the plastic bowl among the platters on the parquet, I introduce myself. “Hi” I say, shaking Zachary’s hand and smiling at Imogen. “I’m Rupert, Susan’s dad.” They’re embarrassed, after what they’ve been saying about my wonderfully bossy daughter. Aiden lopes past, very slowly, carrying a pile of logs. We watch him enter the drawing room. “Who’s he?” asks Zachary. “He’s Aiden” I say. Imogen observes that “He’s very slow”. “Yes” I say “but he’s a really nice person.” Zachary apologises for having got off on the wrong foot. It’s just that he can’t stand to see people mistreated. I remember how, as a child, Susan, being the youngest, always got her way. Imogen suggests that might have been a mistake. “No one could be bothered to argue with her” I recall fondly.
Susan’s voice rings out. “Not in the fireplace you idiot. We can’t burn all that wood at once. Not on the carpet. Not there, there! Oh you fool!” Zachary storms into the drawing room and everyone follows. Aiden is scrabbling around on the floor, trying to gather the firewood. Zachary explodes at Susan. How dare she speak to a member of staff like that. She says Aiden isn’t a member of staff. “Well, who is he then?” thunders Zachary, turning to Aiden. “Who are you?” Aiden explains that he’s come with me, to help me. He’s not met Susan before. Zachary turns to Susan and says “So he’s a guest? You order your guests about and hurl abuse at them?”
Susan is pursing her lips. I know that look. Like the goggle-eyed nurse, she’ll give as good as she gets. Watch out, I think. Zachary is telling Aiden that he should stand up for himself. “Never let people push you around, get it? Never!” he roars. Softly, and with great tenderness, Imogen asks Aiden why he moves so slowly. “It seems like such an effort. Is it an effort?” Aiden admits that he suffers from ME. “I’m so sorry” she says and, turning to Susan, hisses “despicable”.
Susan shrieks that we’ve to get out. All of us! Now! Greg is mortified. He prostrates himself before his bride. “They’re my parents. You can’t turf them out, darling. They own half the house.” But Jerome and Chloe step over him. Jerome announces that they’re leaving forthwith. Chloe adds “I wouldn’t stay if you paid me.” Susan goes into meltdown, screaming at us, that we’re killing her baby.
Seconds later, we’re all outside, with Susan’s voice still shrieking within and Greg trying to placate her. The Blakes offer the staff a lift and they accept, whizzing upstairs to grab their things. Zachary and Imogen confide that they’ll not be back. I confide that my wife Michelle has also vowed not to return. Driving away, Aiden is incredibly impressed by the Blakes. He thought, because they’re so rich, they’d be snooty. But they stuck up for him.
The garden bell tinkles. Opening the gate, I discover an old school country gent, in tweeds and brogues, doffing his derby. “George Appleby” he says. “Rupert Alves” I say. “Welcome.” Ensconced in my dome, he says “This didn’t used to be here did it?” “Not before I built it” I reply. “I haven’t been here since I was a lad” he says, staring out the window. “We used to climb over the wall, me and Osbert, scrumping apples. Is the orchard still here?” “Yes” I say. “I should so like to see it” he says.
I take the path down to the grove of fruit trees, helping George, who’s not so steady on his pins. He regales me with tales of his youth. Everything here reminds him of his boyhood. Coming back, up the lawn, I’m looking for somewhere for him to rest. At the sight of the old house, he gasps. “Are you a Gladwish?” he asks. “Not me” I explain. “But my wife is a Gladwish.” “Not Anthea?” “No. Anthea’s daughter, Michelle.” He shakes his head. “We moved away when I was ten.” I notice my tree stump and guide the old gent over. “Do you have children?” I ask. He tells me they had two, but one of them died and his wife has recently died and their daughter lives with her family in Toronto. “Mind you, even the kids are grown up now.”
He gazes at the house. “Used to imagine I lived here” he says and turning to me, asks “What is your name again?” “Rupert” I say. “Ah yes, I remember. Don’t let me forget to pay you. I’ve got the cheque ready. Only I get these blanks when I can’t remember anything.” I tell him I’ve been feeling blank, as if nothing ever happened before and this is the start of my life. “That’s it!” he says. “As if nothing ever happened before. Maybe you’ve got Alzheimer’s, like me.” “You’ve got Alzheimer’s?” I ask. “Early stages, early stages” he assures me. “Only thing is to write everything down.” He shows me his notebook and gets engrossed in reading it.
After a while, he says “Here it is, ‘Remember cheque’. And I’m to remember to ‘book next appointment’. Have I done it?” “Not yet” I say. He puts his hand into his breast pocket, pulls out a cheque and gives it to me. I thank him. “And how do I book another appointment?” he asks. I guide him back to my dome. He wants to come same time, next week if possible. I book him in. He writes a clear message to himself in his notebook.
As I lead him back to the garden gate, I’m feeling awful. How can I charge him money? At the gate he gets nervous. “Have I given you the cheque?” he asks. “Yes, but it doesn’t seem right” I burble. “About the money?” he asks. “Yes” I admit. “Oh the money’s no object. But the very fact that you mention it, confirms that you’re someone I can trust.” I nod, helpless. “We can reminisce” he says. “If you don’t mind.” I shake my head. “Of course not.” “Till next week then” he says with a warm smile. “Till next week” I repeat. George Appleby doffs his derby and leaves. Back in my dome, I can’t help thinking about him. What a lovely old man. I wonder if I have got Alzheimer’s.
The Winkley’s abode is full of jolly neighbours. Who knows how many? This place would be crowded with three. I squeeze my way over to Aiden, who’s nervous. Alf’s coming home and has insisted he’ll make his own way. Also, his brother Noah and sister Sarah are coming. “They never went to see dad in hospital, never lifted a finger to help.” He’s very angry with them, which makes him feel weak. Grace says Noah and Sarah can’t help being who they are. Aiden says Zachary Blake told him to stand up for himself. ‘Never let people push you around’ he said. Grace agrees, but says “stay cool”. She has to go up to help Molly.
Cyril and Ethel Shoebridge arrive. Guests squash to the sides to welcome these extremely senior citizens. Cyril is slow. Ethel is loud and hearty. Cyril introduces me to his wife. By way of conversation, Ethel tells me she’s glad that that horrible Luke Chapps isn’t here, confiding that “once, years ago, I must’ve already been in my sixties, he tried to get his way with me. Imagine! I certainly gave him what for” she chortles. Cyril looks at his wife with admiration and confirms the story.
A great brawny bloke, laughing and splashing his drink about, swings his arm over Aiden, almost flooring him, saying “How’s my little brother, then?” Aiden wrenches himself free and asks Noah “Why didn’t you go and see dad at the hospital? Why didn’t you help?” Sister Sarah, neat and prissy, says Noah couldn’t help anyone. He’s been on a bender since getting sacked from the agricultural suppliers. Noah hoots. “Drove a feed-spreader into the river.” Sarah herself has got a raise. Yes. The owners think the world of her. She not only manages the store, she runs the business. And she’s engaged. Her amazing bloke can’t be here, only he’s watching the rugby. Aiden says “You know Mum’s been going through it. Why haven’t you been round?” Sarah says “It’s none of my business”. Aiden says “Then why are you here now?” Sarah says “That’s none of your business.”
Ethel Shoebridge’s voice booms out. “Not you. What’re you doing here?” Luke Chapps appears, pushing his way through to get to the stairs. Aiden stands in his way, but Luke pushes past, up the stairs. Aiden rushes up after him. There’s a god-almighty kerfuffle and everyone squashes to the sides, as Luke Chapps flies through the bannisters and lands in a heap on the floor.
A shadow falls across him. Alf Winkley has arrived, unnoticed. His back is straight, his eyes are clear, as he peers down at Luke. Luke scrambles to his feet and looks about, as if undecided. So Ethel Shoebridge whacks him with her handbag and Luke scarpers, pushing his way out, slapped and kicked by enthusiastic neighbours. Molly appears at the top of the stairs, somehow both regal and vulnerable. Aiden and Grace, arm in arm, stand behind her. Alf goes up to Molly. There are cheers, wolf whistles. They embrace. I’m going to have to fix those banisters again.
We’re arriving at Susan’s. I’m astonished that Michelle wanted to come, having vowed never to return. I’m further astonished to find Jerome at the door and Chloe serving drinks. Furthermore, the Blakes, who also vowed never to return, are here. I introduce Michelle to Imogen and Zachary. While the two women chat, I see my son enter. “Hi dad” says Jason. I hadn’t expected to see him. We hug. I tell him that Susan chucked everyone out. He says he knows. I say “I don’t know why everyone’s back”. He looks at me like I’m stupid. He’s my son, so I don’t disagree.
Greg appears. “They’re here!” Madonna and child are wheeled in. Susan needs everyone’s help, getting from the queen-sized wheelchair and onto the chaise longue. She needs help getting the cushions and drapes around her. She doesn’t want anyone holding her little girl, who’s so swaddled, we can’t see her. Susan has many needs and everyone is eager to help. For one thing, she’s starving. Michelle and Imogen rush off with Chloe into the kitchen. She needs a backrub, which Greg immediately provides. She needs the baby crib brought down. Jerome and Zachary stride off to get it.
All sorts of foodal delights start arriving. In the midst of it all, my eldest daughter, Alicia appears, looking like an Amazon goddess. Without asking her sister, who squawks, Alicia takes the baby and holds her aloft. Everyone swoons. I hear Susan say “What about me? I want raspberries” but her voice is drowned out, as the gushing throng clamours to touch and to hold the blessed infant. I’m quite overcome. As Jason says “It’s a baby”.
Apparently the Chinese are going to be building nuclear plants all over Britain. Greece’s Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing Syriza party have won a second general election, so there’ll be more punchups about bailouts with the Germanic Merkel. Leftist loony Corbyn is now leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. Europe’s being invaded by hundreds of thousands of poor people, while arctic melting will cost the global economy £33 trillion by the end of the next century. What do I care? I’m a granddad and I’m sitting on my tree stump. Nice.