St Martin’s Day

NIGEL SIMON’S MEMORY LANE

Shooting Script: “Accidental Tourist”/Asturia (Episode 1)

  1. GVS:  THE FARMHOUSE, SHOTS OF NIGEL EXITING VAN, WALKING UP DRIVEWAY, GREETING OWNERS IN YARD, VIEWS FROM TERRACE

NIGEL (VO)

It’s been twenty years since I stumbled upon this beautiful spot in the Asturian countryside.  Indeed,  ‘stumbled upon’ is the right phrase; it was a broken van and even more broken Spanish which led us here in the first place.  I remember that we were a crew of rag tag, sweaty English blokes in rugby shirts and jeans, grumpy and hungry from one too many wrong turns, but, despite our appearance, Xurde and his family welcomed us in to their home for the night and served me one of the most memorable meals of my life…

  •  INT: VERANDA

NIGEL (TO CAMERA)

 Sitting here on the veranda, the word serendipity comes to mind. (Raising glass)

I’m in the old kitchen. The fabas are steeping in a cream plastic bucket with a cracked rim, which I find on the sticky shelf behind the old deep fat fryer. I give it some attention, folding kitchen paper in to an arrowhead to scrape up the mealy brown glue which rimes its lip.  Then in go the beans and water from the tap.  And that’s it. Fabada isn’t cooked under heavy, black skirts in silence; it’s made wearing jeans, sound-tracked with fuzzy jingles on the radio, rasping men with opinions who phone in to shout at the DJ. I smoke a cigarette. A hair clings to the thick surface of the bean water – one of mine – and I push it under.  The water is silky and I think of the cloudy surface and what my face would look like from beneath. 

They wanted to film me preparing the dish but I said no – and something in my voice at that moment made my grandfather nod and close his eyes and smile, nod again. Then he took the man with the clipboard and the headphones away, away to the orchard, the farmhouse extension and the little blue tiled, kidney shaped pool which is to be used only by the guests, because they paid for it, after all.  Everything we do now is for the guests, including that new kitchen, which is all metal dials and silver chrome and reminds me of a robot lying down on its side, dead to the world.   It’s not like the one that I’m now in, which is our kitchen, where I am thinking of my face from under the water. This one is small and square and dark and the shelves under the scarred old counter top are crammed with twisted vines of tomatoes and aubergines that contort and gleam like bodybuilders, onions bound to one another with twine. Knives cling to a metal strip on the tiled wall in front of me – the handles, some blue, some oak, some rubber – show their allegiance to different masters and times.  This is the kitchen where I will cook, where they will not film me. 

Even so, I want to be just like our special guest, so I’ve laid out the ingredients in little bowls; the garlic in an olive dish, pimenton in a saucer, black pepper in the pestle. I pick saffron strands, crisp and brittle like a mummy’s hair, and rub them hard and slow between my thumb and forefinger.  I feel the alchemy of heat, pressure and my own essence, distilled in the oils from my fingertips, as I wear those threads down, down to a biddable dust.

There were so many rules when I first moved to the farm, and most of them were about St Martin’s Day and the pigs. My grandfather kept me away from them, told me not to feed them, play with them, name them, because it would make it harder when they were slaughtered. I followed his advice because I was a good girl and I was five, so the idea of betrayal was vivid to me then. But I risked encounters wherever I went on the farm because they, the pigs, had license to roam as much as me.   Even now I remember one time, one time which has come to stand for the whole, when I looked up from the rigours of a day shift as chief surgeon at the doll hospital I had established underneath an acorn tree into the keen eyes of one of our sows, in close up. I stood and walked away on bamboo legs. And I never went back to get those dolls. 

But then I found out who I was when I was twelve and since then I’ve looked forward to St Martin’s Day.  My grandfather holds the animal still, but I bring my knife to its neck. I offer no words of consolation or comfort.  I offer nothing. In that moment I’m a butcher, not a priest.

In my small dark kitchen, I unwrap the meat for our special guest. I can tell that it came from a good pig because the chorizo is the colour of my lips and spattered with beads of fat which weep in the heat.  And the morcilla gives itself willingly to the pressure of my blade, revealing a face so purple that it’s black to me.  I place my hands on the chopping board, either side, just for a second, then I switch off the radio.

I have only seen the programme twice, on a video cassette that I found when I moved in to my mother’s old room.   In it, there’s a young woman who looks like me who crosses the veranda carrying a terracotta dish. Her head shakes and dips like she is singing a song to herself and she smiles at the floor.  She stands next to the special guest while he eats.  Then he starts to make big eyes, still chewing and, dabbing his mouth with a blue silk handkerchief, he pushes back his chair. Wow, he says.   He looks at her hair when he says it.  This is what he does in all his programmes, I’ve watched him. 

Six months after that day, that moment, that wow, that smiling nodding girl left Asturia to stay with my aunt’s family in Murcia.  Five years later a little girl, me, returned alone.

But the dish is ready now.  The man with the clipboard and headphones comes in with my grandfather, who is wearing a maroon cummerbund under a black jacket which has faded to green at the shoulders.  I place the cazuela dish in his hands – it is hot and his hands tremble and drop a little under its sudden weight. I think of him standing next to his ‘friend’, nodding like my mother did, watching him speak to the camera, but I don’t dwell.  There’s cleaning up to do.

That night I go to our special guests’ room.  I ask him if he enjoyed the dinner, my dish, but his eyes are looking at my hair (he doesn’t see the him in me) and his mouth is smiling and he is already pushing closed the door to his room and pouring a second glass of wine.

‘That isn’t what I came for’ I say. 

‘Well, now.’ He replies softly and his light changes again and he sinks to the bed and pulls me close.  It’s the one thing I let him do.  I pluck off his shirt and grip his hair.  It’s crisp and brittle like a mummy’s.   His eyes are the colour of my lips.  I take the knife from my apron and sure enough he gives himself willingly to the pressure of my blade. He reveals a new face then, and it’s pure black.

I offer nothing.  I’m a butcher –  not a priest – and every pig must have its St Martin’s Day.

Field Study

Here’s something that I read at a charity event in support of A New Leaf, who do incredible work towards greening the centre of Manchester,   I tried to write in the style of an eminent Victorian Lady Botanist (if I had more time or brains I would give you a specific name) and in this guise, imagine what she would discover on a journey across the city.

Field Study – An Exploration of Shudehill to Cornbrook, April 9th, 2018-04-09

Weather:  Cloudy, inclement showers.  I ascend the tram at Shudehill, a place which seems to be  a bustling interchange.  My first green sighting: a Broadfoot Plantain (Plantago Major) insinuating its way out between two paving slabs beside a small peach doily of vomit which itself lies in front of the ticket machine, as if waiting its turn to purchase passage to Crumpsall or East Didsbury.  I am shocked – was the vomiter unaware as to the supreme medicinal qualities of Plantago Major? If they were, they may have avoided such a distressing and public ejaculation.  I journey past the pile: A large, stately bush of Rubus Fruticosus Aggregate, enmeshed in a merry dance with Leontodon Autumnalis and Glechoma Hederacea  resides spreadeagled behind a wire fence.  I am pleased to see that it is being protected in this way.

I traverse the road and continue towards the eponymous Market Street, a semi formalised trading post, consisting of established stalls selling goods such as communication devices, shoes and something referred to as ‘sportswear’. But I digress, perhaps because there are so few green sightings here until – Oh wonder!  And I would invite all botanical enthusiasts to lift their inquiring gaze up away from potential terranean treasures and seek new bounty from the heavens above!  On the roof of a somewhat brutish building I see a whole shrub, Ligustrum  Vulgare.  It is mostly  leafless and squat, I must confess, yet it is beautiful and unexpected and it reminds me of my own dear mother at my wedding, wearing the most artful concoction of feathers and netting  atop her stern, square, naturally inscrutable face.

So there is nature in the city and it moves me.

Further along, I come to the city’s rich green centre piece – Picadilly Gardens.  Perhaps it is the season and weather (remaining cloudy and inclement)  but there is little of the conventional sense of garden to its presentation. There are trees – bare or brown leaved, there are trees -scattered about, like sobre guests at a drunken party, their feet in concrete.  As to their genus I am confounded.  They defy identification! Is it the lack of foliage that leaves me nonplussed? I request clarification from five different passers by and the responses are enlightening as to the nature of the denizens of Picadilly Gardens but irrelevant to my enquiry.  I will write to the council when I return to my lodging.  I can be sure of a prompt reply.

Exhausted and in need of succour, I return to the tram and continue my perambulation through this elusive city. I’m ashamed to admit that I am in the doldrums, and in a fit of absolute despair I almost slam closed my encyclopedia of trees (travel edition) – when I see it.  White blossom in the gardens of the Art Gallery! The glimpse is fleeting, but whose heart does not quicken at the sight of Purnus Serulata! And in full bloom – nary a petal discarded! I experience the same wonder upon every sighting – it’s transience reminds me again of my own dear mother and I remind myself again to find such wonder in all living things for we, and they, are but passing through.

I am still musing on this as we reach the river, and it gives me, as rivers often do, renewed pause for reflection. I re-open my notebook to record my observations;

Salix Sepulcralis – two fine example genuflecting at a bend in the water

A bridge – one side, framed in Ipomoea Alba, the other Hedera Helix.  A fabulous, verdant conjunction.

And then crowding the far side of the bank, a battalion of fluttering Narcissus Poeticus, craning their necks for better view of the joggers and prams and canal watchers who are out in force on this full and vibrant day!

Nature in its diverse forms and richness has revived my spirit and I arrive at my destination fortified, as demonstrated by the wild flourish with which I close my notebook and nod with firm cheer at my fellow commuters.    As I exeunt, I mark a crowd of Budleia pushing and jostling at the sides of the tracks.  Nature’s lonely trainspotter.  Their flowers are brown and crusted and the leaves are shrivelled and the weather remains cloudy and inclement and yet it prevails and we prevail and will no doubt, revive.  Such is the nature of the city.

 

Stag Party

 

I returned the handset to its brass cradle and looked at the man, who hovered near the only open doorway in a rectangle of yellow light.

‘Thank you.’

He shrugged.  It’s a good job it happened when it did.  There’s nothing for quite some way. “

‘I know.’

“How long did they say?’

“The standard. Within four hours.’  I rolled my eyes, but he just nodded. Of course – an old man in a castle had probably never needed the AA.

 

‘Do come through – keep warm.’ He’d already turned away and headed out of view.

Well, that was settled, then.  I licked something from my lip into my mouth. It had a mealy texture – a small fly?  Too late:  I’d swallowed it, so I grimaced to myself and headed across the flagged floor tiles towards the yellow rectangle.

 

Pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse: I’d belted it out all the way down that gravel path, mainly to drown the rasps of a dying engine but also in to summon up whatever gods or demons might exist in the nether regions of this nethery land.  Serendipity (the goddess of shouty singing it would appear) repaid me with a country estate slap bang at the end of the driveway, one which had broad steps tapering to a mahogany door, a façade like a wedding cake and a curly crest embedded in stone above the first-floor windows.  Two wings either side retreated into darkness, like stepsons, knowing their place.  It was in to one of these wings that I now headed, along a narrow stone corridor, feeling like Scooby Doo and thrilling at the reality in which I now found myself.

 

‘This is a beautiful house.’ I whispered. ‘Do you live here?’

‘Yes.  It’s been in the family since the 17th Century.’  His voice was soft, a low blend of highland burr with a drawl inherited from a public schooling south of the border.  I’d seen it in his face when he opened the door; the soft chin, the downturned mouth, satisfied as if savouring a good vintage. Be-yond posh.  So, when he stopped short ahead of me I dropped a curtsey, a girlish maid in a mansion.

 

He flicked a light switch and turned to face me.  ‘Here we are!’  A lupine smile before he retreated into a small room, a room dominated by the smell of damp digestive biscuit and bum-worn horse saddles. It took me a while to adjust to the dim wattage, but even when I did, the room stayed murky and brown and orange, so stuffed with belongings that I was thrown back through the years to desultory days with my grandad, mooching around on the outskirts of cobbled towns looking at bric a brac in fading shops, German exchange trip weather purging all vitality out through the ends of my fingers.

 

In light of what happened afterwards, the details are hard to recall, but I remember seeing the man with his back to me,  hands plunged into a white plastic bookcase, fiddling between a food processor and an old Encyclopaedia. Next to the bookcase there was a pan of congealed baked beans on top of a small camping stove which was slumped across some floral photo albums.  Other details swam up through the soup; a brood of blown glass piggies on a rusty dumb bell doorstop, a badger’s head on the wall wearing a purple baseball cap which bore the logo: ‘Dunny Construction’; plates and paintings of horses, fruit bowls, country cottages, all hung too low to be anything but in the way. Tin huntsmen rode a disconnected car radio.  Doilies!  On the other side of the room, almost hidden beneath piles of newspapers and sleeping bags, was a camp bed. There was a pottery pug on the floor beside it, its concave belly filled with dark yellow piss.  I noticed it just as the man turned, holding a silver tray, a crystal decanter and glasses which he placed on a scuffed tapestry footstool.  What had happened here?

 

He swept a pile of papers from a camping chair on to what may have been a piece of gym equipment and gestured for me to sit.  ‘There –  whiskey – no ice, I’m afraid.’ He poured the drinks, then, pulling up the knees on his rust brown cords, settled back into the deck chair opposite.  He beamed at me, then remembered why I was there and shifted down a gear to serious-face. ‘Four hours, you say?’

‘Could be.’ I raised my glass and we drank.

‘Where are you headed?’

‘Inverness. I’m interviewing a band up there.’  His eyes followed the movement of my face, his mouth open. He licked the creases at the corners of his lips before he spoke.  ‘Music?’

‘Yes.’

‘What sort of music?’

‘All kinds’.  This wasn’t true, but experience told me that explaining would force us down a strange route.

‘Aha’.

We drank again. The window rattled.  And then I remembered what I’d heard.

 

‘Do you live here alone?’ It was the only way I could think to raise it.  He looked frail; I could feel his bones lurking, pressed up close to the skin’s surface, waiting to break through.

‘Yes’.

‘And – do you own the – whole bit? I mean the land?’

‘Up to the high road.’

‘Okay’ I puffed out my cheeks, but had to hold back a smile at the sheer camp of it all – in a creepy mansion with an old posh man – I thought of Scooby Doo again, then straightened my face. ‘I think there’s someone out there.’

He kept smiling, so I kept going.  ‘When I came up the track, I mean I was singing to myself but still – I heard something – from the thicket on the left.  It was quite close to the house. And it sounded like laughing.  Like men laughing.’

‘Right.’ His voice was clipped, no inflection to suggest concern or alarm.  It was a cautionary full stop and it irritated me; I like to supply my own punctuation.

‘Was it an animal?’

‘No, no, probably not an animal.’

‘Well – what was it? ‘

‘We have guests at the moment.’

‘Right. Is it an event or something?’

‘Yes.  They’ve rented the house for a stag party.’ He smiled.  ‘Would you like some more whiskey? Ah no!  You have your concert.  What sort of music is it this time?’

‘I don’t know.’  I was exasperated by his politesse; I meant to offend, yet he showed no sign of withering.  He drank.  We both drank. We both looked at our glasses, and then the party came to us.

 

I think I heard it first. Maybe he dozed off, though in light of what he was expecting to happen, it seems unlikely. But I heard it: a bundle of man-noise, rasping and burbling with alcohol, most of it shouts and hoots, but assembling sometimes to produce a surprising melody in a way that only random mob sounds and a fertile imagination can.  Bloody men.  My ear traced their movement across the lawn, then the gravel and then the final act: a strong slam on the front door.  At this, the man pitched forward.  ‘Do excuse me.’ He left and shut the door behind him.

 

I put down my glass. There was an egg stain on the corner of the footrest and this, of all things, made me uneasy, so I looked at the bookcase, which is when the funny thing caught my eye.   Up close, I could see what it was: a pair of antlers, shaved down, the edges exposed and sharp, to about half a metre in height. They were glued and then stitched on to a red woollen beret, which had little bells hanging from its brim.  It was beautiful and strange and the fabric felt soft and the antlers cool and clean.

 

The man returned.  ‘There we are – all sorted’

‘I was looking at your hat.’ I said brightly.

‘Sorry?’

‘Your hat – are they real antlers?’ I held it out in front of me.

‘Yes.’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

He moved closer to me then. He was actually very tall when he stood close. He crooned in my ear.  ‘It’s a silly thing, isn’t it? We played with it as children. It made us feel like clowns.’  He tipped his head to one side in a coy gesture of curiosity.  ‘Do you like it?’

‘Ha.  Yes.  Yes, I do.’ I turned it around in my hands, but kept one eye on the man’s face, which had grown large next to my shoulder.  His breath was shallow and rapid against my collarbone.

 

‘Well– would you like to try it on? There’s no one else to – see – you know.’ His voice was a thin needle of a whine, a man child, pleading with nanny.  I should have gone then, right then, but a combination of things was acting upon my will; the whiskey, the hat, that crusted yellow egg and finally, the need for something to happen in this house.  I probably wouldn’t make the gig, but I would have a terrific bit on the crazy upper classes for the website.

 

So I put on the hat and felt its weight.

 

Reader, there was no thunderbolt; I didn’t vaporise into blue smoke and return as Artemis – I remained a woman in a shitty room, just with antlers on her head.  But the man took a step back and clapped his hands together, once.  From man child to boy child, he was transformed.

 

‘You look majestic!’

‘Yes, I feel noble.’  I did not feel noble.

He brightened.  ‘I know – would you like to see a painting of my father with the stag.  With – your stag?’

Not really, I thought.  ‘Ooh yes!’ I said.

He guided me by the elbow out of the doorway and back down the corridor, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as he walked before me. I realise now that I had, in that moment, become his queen, he a gleeful supplicant.  But I was the one with the bells, which leapt and danced and made merry about my head –was I a jester?  I’d decided to definitely leave by the time that we arrived in the hallway, where he led me to the painting.  He stepped back.

‘My father – with your antlers.’

 

The painting was hard to see, because the gloss of the oil bounced back the light and obscured the surface.  But there he was.   The stag, my stag, was eye height, his head, poor slack eyed thing, slung back over a small mound on the sandy earth beneath him. The hunter, wearing tweed and a familiar dreary expression, stood alongside his quarry, thinking about teacups and velcro for all I could surmise from his expression.

 

‘Those are my antlers?’

‘Indeed.’

‘Oh’.  And suddenly I didn’t want a dead animal on my head.  And I didn’t want to be in the house at all.  I moved to take the hat off.  He put a hand on my shoulder to stop me and shook his head.  I had to leave.

 

‘I should call to see about the car people.’

‘But it could take four hours, couldn’t it?’ A glint of the tooth in his voice.

‘I might peep out and see if everything is okay’. A whisper.

He unbolted the door.

‘Good idea, my lady. You might get it going again, might you?’ His voice grew to a cackle from a bubble, the manchild – boychild – devilchild – his full form revealed. I was just too late to see his face.

 

He opened the front door and thrust me through with such force that I stumbled, the antlers pulling me forwards down the steps.  I yanked the hat and threw it, poor thing, away from me – again too late – I’d been marked.  Torchlight blinded.   I turned to see the man, but he was mahogany again. Incantations rose out of the dark and antlers or not, I knew that I would have to run and soon.

 

 

 

The Joy of (Box) Sets

I am the mothership of mucus, a goblet of gobbets, a ball of cool green phlegm hurtling through the universe. When horizontal, a wave of rhumy fluid finds respite in my forehead and sinuses; when I stand up it swarms down to my throat where it sticks, like shit, to my vocal chords.

 

I am a snot see-saw.

 

I am so ill.

 

Sorry, dear reader, it had to be said. I can only hope in retrospect that you weren’t having breakfast while reading the first few phrases, unless you are a doctor and can diagnose me from the accurate and empirical description of my symptoms that I gave.

 

It sucks to be me today, on a Saturday of all days!  I realise that the best thing for it is to be still and …what?  My restless ‘should’ brain tells me that I should go back and look at the big thing I’m writing, but I feel defeated at the thought.  Do you know how many writers completed great works while convalescing?  Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, Goethe, John Buchan, Marcel Proust, Hemingway, John Donne; illness seems to foster the white male creativity particularly well (probably because no-one else could afford the luxury of a good long lie-down ….)

 

So, I think to myself, let’s do some good old fashioned writing.  Put some stuff down.  Write.  Yeah.

 

And then I press play and watch the five final episodes of The Sopranos back to back.  And then it’s time to sleep.

 

In my defence, I have never seen the finale before.  I have enjoyed an intense relationship with the show over the past few months, a relationship which had become toxic.  It needed to end.  So I gorged myself on the tragedy of the last series, feeling every last beat of Tony’s decline as I stuffed loo roll up my nose.  For me, it was over when Adriana … well with what happened with Adriana (no need for a spoiler alert).  Watching the entire series in such a condensed time frame means that my brain is permeated with the Sopranos; I have had nights where I haven’t been able to sleep for figuring out the origins of the term ‘goomah’ or wondering what happened to Furio from seasons 3 and 4.  Like it’s real.

 

Oh my God.  Like it’s real.  This is the problem; box sets make you believe again.  They allow you to develop an intense relationship with a programme. Because we are so used to the medium and so able to suspend our disbelief as viewers, with box set viewing we can engage with whole story arcs in an afternoon’s viewing and feel as if we have lived it.  Defying the conventions of season finales, we merge whole series together and better see the links across time; characters stand out, relationships crystallize in our minds in a way that they didn’t when we were confined to sticking with one episode a week, sustaining our interest with water cooler chats.

 

I understand that Tivo and Sky Plus facilitate a similar thing; that a viewer can record a whole series and watch it back to back or store it in perpetuity should they desire, but I think that there’s still a difference between this and the box set.  Raymond Williams wrote about ‘flow’, the way that channels hold our vague attention while we move about the house, making tea, cooking dinner, working.  I readily admit that I will switch the TV on when I come in from work, get on with life and, come bedtime not be able to recall a single programme that’s been on   Television is an unheeded companion in the corner.  It babbles away and we enjoy the sound of its chatter in the background, but we don’t pay attention anymore.

 

I wonder if those TV record options work in a similar way, a semi-automatic flow. Obviously there is a level of selection involved; you have to choose to record it as much as you have choose when to watch it back.  But once its on, its on. And you’re free to roam once again.

 

A box set is closer to vinyl somehow and probably verging on the archaic now; they are both physical objects for a start. There is so much stuff to have we have no choice but to make it invisible; downloads, streaming, epics stored on thumbnail USB keys.   I like the luxury of a box set, the choice of a commentary, a deleted scene, the biography.  I control it and I choose when to watch and how to watch.

 

I imagine that most WordPress readers will think that I have travelled forward in my Delorian from the late 90s and I have to agree with you.  I probably have.  Box sets take up space and then you only watch them once and then nobody wants them anymore.  But all luxuries should involve a little inconvenience or effort.  It lasts and that’s a good thing; when my Sopranos collection is gathering dust on the shelf it will serve to remind me of the many worthwhile hours I spent appreciating it.  If it’s virtual, it gets deleted and it might as well never have existed for me.  I’m that limited, reader.

 

Now on to the novel.  Or maybe just watch that final scene again.  There has to be a way to explain that sudden fade to bla-