Saturday, March 27, 2010

Drinking to the past

Drinking at work is fraught with danger.

I'm not talking about alcohol, because what's dangerous about that? It's just a hobby.

I'm referring to hot drinks, made with water, like tea and coffee.

These drinks are prevalent and important in the workplace. They are used as a psychological crutch, or as an eye-opener, or as an excuse to chat with your mates, or as a substitute cigarette for those people without the willpower to continue smoking, but still want the fag break they've got used to.

And it's important to stock up on a decent cuppa before going to my place of employment because they don't do tea or coffee, just steaming cups of hot-brown. We don't know what it is, but it's hot and brown.

Our glorious leaders, or at least the myopic scrooge-like creatures in charge of the finances, have decided that, because they provide dried hot-brown to us free of charge (unless you count the cost of kidney and cerebral cortex damage, but who does that?), then they have fulfilled their duty as a compassionate, caring organisation who want to improve the working lot for their valued underlings, and so do not provide milk.

No milk?

We argued.

"But . . . " we cried, "We're British!"

The British tend to put milk in everything. Tea. Coffee. Hot Chocolate. Cows. You'll find milk in them all.

But they were not for the turning. You must take your hot-brown without milk, they told us.It will still be hot, but black instead of brown. We also received an accompanying memo telling us not to call it hot-black because of a) copyright reasons from Douglas Adams and b) it's racialist against bovril.

From now on, it would be hot-dark-brown.

We wailed. We gnashed what was left of our undissolved teeth, and there was much greeting and wearing of black armbands. We choked down the hot-dark-brown, grimacing and shuddering as we did so, so no change there then.

"You could buy your own milk." The managerial types suggested.

After the walkout, we came back to work a few weeks later (because we were thirsty) but they were adamant in their miserliness. We were, at the end of the day, milkless.

Maybe we would get used to it, we wondered. After all, we can change. It's been done before. Remember when everyone in the country, and I mean everyone, took two sugars in their tea?

Well we don't now do we?

It's only toddlers and builders that spoon the white stuff in there these days.

When did that happen? Sugary tea has gone the way of Texan bars and white dog poo, relegated to a bygone era when cars came in orange with brown velour seats and the weather men on the telly stuck magnetic clouds onto wobbly cut-outs of the country.

The past, in other words.

So maybe, just maybe, we could change our milk habits as well.

Actually, we already have done.

Once upon a time, when semi-skimmed and skimmed milk were specialist diet drinks, we all drank only full fat milk?

You had to shake the bottle to mix in the layer of cream that had settled out at the top. If it was delivered, you would often have to fight off lactose-addicted blue-tits who would peck the thin foil lid off the bottles whilst staring down cats who knew better than to interrupt them before they'd got their hit.

Then you'd wonder whether it was safe to drink the milk, what with the little holes in the lid and the droppings on the side of the bottle. You invariably did drink it though, because these were the days before salmonella, when the worse thing you could catch off a bird was an STD.

Now the only ones who drink full-fat milk are old ladies in Jersey and calves.

For the next few weeks we choked down the steaming brews of hot-dark-brown, each cup making Sisyphus's labour with the big marble seem like a summer job stuffing envelopes in comparison, yet we persevered because . . . it was free!

Some of us fell by the wayside and brought in small labelled tupperware containers of instant coffee, or maybe a tea-bag sealed in a sandwich box and hidden from others as if it were the most precious of treasures.

And yes, friends, even I was tempted to take some comfort in that plan, but that would mean they had won, which would be a taste more bitter than that of the most mug-melting works beverage.

Then, one day, the skies darkened and a creature representing the financial department descended on bat-like wings into our workhouse. We scurried like rodents 'neath a raptor, running for cover as we knew what such visits invariably meant.


But there was little to be done, so we left the financial demon perched in a supervisors office and tried to look outrageously inconspicuous.

In a moment of audacious bravery, someone gave the visiting incubus a cup of hot-dark-brown, and he absent-mindedly took a sip before the steam from it made his eyebrows fall out.

And then it happened.

His face turned inside out, as if he'd sucked the suckiest of lemons, and he retched a little. His neck went a slightly blue colour, and tremors gripped him. His quill and ink-pot (balanced on his laptop) toppled unnoticed to the floor.

A strange, unfamiliar expression drifted across his ravaged features. His eyes moistened slightly, and his head dropped. A sigh escaped his toothed beak, like a wet fetid breeze emanating from an ancient flooded tomb.

It was, we realised, compassion.

"We . . . didn't know . . ." he croaked in a voice like a strimmer blinding a hedgehog. "We didn't know."

He looked up.

We had all put on hats so we could line up in front of him, take them off and hold them in two hands in front of us like serfs, and we stuck our trembling bottom lips out.

"Very well." He said, picking up the uniform checklist he had been using to record how many boots we had, and in his opinion how many we actually needed (two and one respectively), and stood up, half drunk cup of hot-dark-brown left on the desk.

We held our collected breath. One of my colleagues whimpered "Milk?" expectantly.

"We shall send you something to lighten this . . ." he sneered at the cup, the handle of which was sliding off into a puddle of liquid ceramic, " . . . abomination."

And then he spread out his wings, let out a screech, and flew back to HQ.

And he was true to his word.

Just a few short months later, a parcel arrived. We saw the word "MILK" on the side, but the rest of the words were covered over by mysterious runes and incantations used by the financial department to ward off auditors. Still, that single word excited us, and caused anticipatory shivers up and down our oesophaguses.

We opened the box like children on christmas day. Like children opening a box on christmas day, not us opening children on christmas day because that is wrong. And messy. And frowned upon.

Inside, as I have previously aforementioned prior to this, was our employers "gift". Sure enough, it was something that would take away the deep bitterness of the hot-dark-brown, and turn it once more into the hot-brown we had become accustomed to.

But it wasn't milk:

Tastes Like Fresh Milk?

That's actually what it's called. It's resemblance to milk stopped at the word "milk" on the lid, because the closest this has ever been to milk was when it drove past a field of cows whilst on the M5.

'Tastes Like Fresh Milk' is just its name, so it doesn't have to be accurate. Mars bars aren't the size of a planet. A Ford Escort doesn't look like a prostitute. Eminem isn't small, yellow and bad for you. Actually, scratch that last one. It's fairly accurate.

We tried it, and sure enough, our hot-brown looked like it always had done. Hot and brown. We tasted it, and it resembled having ones tongue removed with sacateurs, placed in a rat, buried in an old dulux white emulsion tin, dug up after a month, seived back out through a pair of tights worn by bank robbers on a hot day (and not over their faces), before being surgically reattached into your mouth by a man called Olaf who made his name sewing ears back on Russian mobsters in the eighties.

More or less.

Like a deal made with a minion from the atrium of the bowels of the arse end of Hades itself, we got what we wanted. But at what price?

What price indeed.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Babbling on

I live in a world dominated by poo.

If you're new to The Gravel Farm, don't worry. You haven't accidentally stumbled upon a blog dedicated to the arguable delights of coprophilia*.

I have a baby:

A hairy one.

We shall call her "Bonobo".

Now, I don't particularly want to write a blog about babies, because there are lots of specialist blogs dedicated to the hormonally challenged which are far better at depicting cutesie sprog pics and gushing prose about Juniors every move, but at the moment it's all I know.

So forgive the momentary lapse into goo territory.

There are only a few things babies are good at:

Crying. Doing an impression of a tortoise on it's back. Slow blinking. Weeing like tiny racehorses. Grabbing their own eyes. Hiccuping.

And poo.

They are very good at poo.

You get obsessed with the stuff.

Is it there? Is there enough of it? Is there too much? It's black! Is it supposed to be black? Is it black enough? Is it too black? It's green! Is it supposed to be green? Is it green enough? Is it too green? It's yellow! Is it supposed to be yellow? Is it yellow enough? Is it too yellow?

You get the drift.

This is the second time I've been through this and, although I'm definitely a bit more relaxed about it now, I still worry.

My nappy changing skillz are phat, mind.

You start off gritting your teeth and panicking about the tiniest crumb of potential contamination, and you end up changing a full nappy with one hand and not putting your doughnut down with the other.

Like I said, skillz.

Of course, the other thing babies are good at is making your chest swell and your emotions run high, so you're happy to stare at them like a soppy hawk for no reason at all and run to attend to their every need.

Conniving little critters.

*If you were looking for such a site can I direct you to this purveyor of specialist hot tubs. No need to thank me. Each to their own. I'm not one to judge. Mind if we don't shake?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Knocked up for six

I wrote this over a fortnight ago.


For the last 8 or 9 months, Mrs The Jules has insisted on being pregnant.

Attention seeking, if you ask me.

Still, it worked, and I have been thus engaged, for the second time in my life, in attending to the multitudinous needs of a heavily pregnant lady.

When I look at other critters on this infested little rock we call Earth, I note that gestation and birth seem to go relatively smoothly. Especially for the males.

Unless you're a seahorse, because their males are just sooooo modern and reconstructed, giving birth to the kids for the girls. They probably frown upon the antics of other species who's menfolk practice the wham, bam, not even a thank you ma'am method of rearing their young. It would explain their long faces.

You can tell they're just a bit judgemental. Always looking down their noses at other sea creatures.

"Look at us, with our swollen man-wombs, bursting with multitudinous offspring. See that, turtle? Shark? Octopus? Get a load of my belly, all you other fish. Not you Siamese Fighting Fish. You're all right you are, apart from all that fighting and what-not."

Chuff knows what they'd think of cuckoos.

Anyway, the critters of this world keep the process relatively simple. They get knocked up, they get bigger, they go into labour, they give birth.


Well, there's back-to-back presentation, dodgy placentas, cord prolapses, huge heads, shoulder dystocia and generally being bipedal which is just silly because it means the . . . er . . . exit, points straight down.

Even gravity is agin us.

In true human, troublesome style, our little pre-bundle of joy is breech presentation and is steadfastly refusing to turn over into the normal upside down position with a stubbornness more typical of a donkey in a flower shop.


I was talking to a midwife who said that these days, only 55% of pregnancies are complication free. Nearly half have some sort of problem!

That doesn't sound good.

But it's not just us that have obstetric difficulties, but it's also the species we've become responsible for. Domesticated animals have become infected with similar problems. How often do wild critters need a hairless ape to wrap a rope around their unborn child's hooves and drag it out onto the floor of the savannah?

Rarely, that's how often.

What have we humans got against problem free pregnancy that we inflict our own limitations on other creatures? Were we jealous of their easy entrance into the world and so thought we'd bugger it up for them as well? Let's artificially select for obesity, hyper milk production, short legs, dodgy respiratory tracts and abnormal sizes, and watch them suffer as well. Misery loves company yay!

So, because of our child's recalcitrance in not playing by the rules, we are booked in for an elective cesarean section next week. By we, I mean Mrs The Jules. I'm showing solidarity in saying we. I say "We're pregnant" and we both went to antenatal classes.

I even developed cravings, albeit it for beer and blue cheese.

We have a date. We have a method. We have a consultant.

It all makes me a little on edge.

We have a week of chewing our fingernails down to the humerus in nervous anticipation. At the end of the cliche, the only thing that is of concern is the safe arrival of number two child and the safety of Mrs The Jules, and it doesn't really matter if the have to use the side entrance.

So here we go. Deep breaths.

And the wife . . .


Since then, three weeks early and by emergency cesarean after my wife's waters broke in the car, I am now the proud owner of a healthy baby girl.

Strangely, depsite my rationalistic and strictly anti-woo psyche, I refrained from posting it when I scribbled it in case something went wrong, maybe jinxed it. Hence it's placement now. Shows how base and animalistic we are when it comes to our kids.

Right, it's bedtime. I'm off for three solid hours of kip now.

I am very tired.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Plumbing the depths

The dishwasher has been playing up.

It's still under warranty so a chappy comes round, unclogs it and mutters something about half a chicken and some rabbit fur in the filter, before telling us that the plastic waste water pipe is tortuously convoluted, "Like the the very Labyrinth inhabited by the bipedal tauroid Minotaur himself, guv." were his exact words. "Get a plumber in and have it shortened."

A plumber?



It's a piece of plastic piping, I think, affronted at the mere thought that, just because I occasionally boil a chicken in the dishwasher, I don't know about plumbing.

Of course, there is the fact that what I do know about plumbing was learned from watching Calgol adverts and eighties pornography. And I haven't even got the appropriate moustache.

Still I thought, I can do that, and promptly manhandle the washer out of its niche and begin poking about at the various orifices with a screwdriver. After 30 seconds staring at the ends of the pipes, (which look like something out of star trek) I realise I couldn't. Well, not without going to night school for the best part of a year anyway, and that seems impractical.

The Wife wanders over at me, still staring into its white rear.

"Go to Plumber Tim at Number 8," says The Wife. "He is a plumber. He can fix it."

"But . . . I haven't even googled it yet", I counteract.

"Go to Plumber Tim at Number 8," The Wife retaliates. "He is a plumber. He can fix it."

"But . . . I could probably get the part for 4.99 and a special tool that all plumbing jobs require, called something like a splinker I expect, and do it myself within a timescale of less than one Gregorian year." I expectorate.

"Go to Plumber Tim at Number 8, The Wife corroborates. "He is a plumber. He can fix it."

Compromising, I then go over to Plumber Tim's at Number 8, him being a plumber and all.

"Is Plumber Tim in?" I ask his wife querulously.

"Yes." She looks at me all squinty like, perhaps trying to see if there was any residual trace of testosterone in my body, but like a metal detector on an incontinence sheet, found nothing desirable.

Plumber Tim is in his basement. He has an eye patch beneath a green card-dealers cap. The basement is a tangled lair of copper pipes, radiators stacked against the walls like huge, white, metal, corrugated dominoes used for heating, and one side taken up by a gigantic boiler with more parts than the Large Hadron Collider.

In the centre of it all, a poker table sits like an island, cards flat on its surface like the losers in a gunfight, a pall of cigar smoke hangs over everything like a curtain of carcinogenic attitude. Plumber Tim sits at the head of the table, a pile of washers in front of him, smiling around a cigar the size of a table leg.

He strikes a match on his stubble, lights his stogie, and then nods at me to approach. I creak off the bottom step of the stairs.

I remind him who I am, of our neighbourly affiliation, and that I need a favour.

He has three friends with him. They all wear headpieces. One a sombrero, another a stetson, and the third a dinosaur mask.

"There are mah buddies" Plumber Tim takes his giant cigar out of his mouth and indicates them one by one, "Mex, Tex and Rex." They look at each other and hiss when I mention the word "favour", as though it is a word of great power, a magical incantation the very utterance of which defines the difference between professional trade and mates rates.

"So what's this . . ." Plumber Tim stretches out arms that are so heavily muscled and tattooed they look like rolled up Persian rugs stuffed with coconuts. He only has one hand, the missing one replaced by an adjustable spanner rather than the traditional hook. It looks very useful. " . . . favour?" he finishes.

I tell him.

Mex, Tex and Rex shake their heads in derision.

"You tried doin' it yerslef?" plumber Tim grins at me.

"Well . . ." my voice quavers. "You know how it is, I'm sure I could, but time is short, and I've got . . . you know . . . bears to wrestle, knife fights to have, that sort of thing . . ." I tail off, having made my point on my manliness.

They are an eclectic bunch, Plumber Tim's friends, and I momentarily wonder how Rex can play cards with the limited visibility through his mask, and his tiny, tiny arms.

"You ain't got no cojones, friend!" Tex laughs at me. I see from his tattoos that he is Corgi registered. He spits a brown glob of tobacky into a spittoon, where it makes a 'klidonk' sound. Shortly afterwards, there is a small flush, because this is, after all, a plumbers lair.

"Yeah, no cojones gringo" Mex agrees.

"Raargh!" Rex confirms.

"I do so have cojones." I growl in a high pitched tremor, desperately trying to remember if cojones is slang for money or a type of olive. I decide on the first, as it seems to fit. "I'll get my wife's purse and show you!"

After the laughing dies down, Plumber Tim unwinds himself from his chair and pushes the green see-through visor of his dealer's cap back on his head. A moment later, he stands up, his head knocking the bare light bulb aside as he walks a few steps towards me, looking me up and down like a monkey examining a banana.

"Tell ya what." He growls, and his cigar moves from left to right across his scarred mouth, as if pushed by an invisible hand. "I'll come over to yer home. I'll help yer out. And I'll get me a look-see at yer sweet, sweet wife, maybe show her a few . . . plumbing tricks, eh?" He glances back over his shoulder as he says this, and his compadres guffaw and spit, their hacking coughs and laughs applauded by the tiny flushes of conveniently located spittoons.

"Well?" Plumber Tim leans forward and looks me in the eye with his own single one. "What do you say to my little . . ." He looks back over his shoulder again, and a couple of stifled laughs erupt from behind " . . . offer?"

"Super." I nod, and look back over my shoulder as well, which sort of confuses the issue. "Would Thursday be okay for that?" I ask.

Of course, some of the above might have been my imagination. My wife insists that Plumber Tim actually said "Sure, but it might have to be in a week or two because I'm a bit busy till then."

He also has two hands, is actually quite skinny and speaks with a pleasant bristolian lilt.

But he was thinking about my cojones.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Street walker 2 - The Continuing!

As I cross over the canal, I like to imagine it in it's hey day when, during the 1700s, it was a vital artery for the local wool industry, before becoming a popular tourist destination for narrow boats intent on exploring the Cotswold's. In the 1960s, the M5 motorway was built and cut it off, so now it lies like a very long, very thin lake, which has it's own attractions.

Now, it has grown lush with vegetation, sometimes leaving just a stream-like trickle between the encroaching banks, and this in turn attracts wildlife. In one short stretch, right under the road bridge, I see a family of swans, moorhens, coots, three species of ducks, screaming gulls, rats, yappy terriers and old ladies trying to brain them all with week-old bread.

It's like a David Attenborough production.

Of course, the growing vegetation, pleasing to the eye as it may be, has recently had an adverse effect on the living conditions of nearby residents. Instead of acting as a drain for excess water, as canals often do, it now acts as a river, swelling with the rains. Last year, for the first time in my estate's history, it finally overflowed and flooded out a lot of the houses round here.

I caught a baby perch by hand at the crossroads!

I recall this because, continuing my thoughts about community spirit, we were all up till about one in the morning bailing out the bungalows which got hit hardest, and walking elderly folk to their relatives cars so they could be taken away and dried out.

It was heart-warming, in a damp, inconvenient, and insurance heavy sort of way.

A few weeks later, the choking weeds were trimmed back following public outcry (a stern letter to the council from Les), and the canal has been retamed a little since.

I have to get to the Pet Shop for the bunny equivalent of crack, if I am to rest easy at night knowing our house rabbit won't jack my car and sell it for his habit, so I continue on.

The GPs surgery is busy, as per usual. Folk demanding antibiotics for their viruses and complaining that the doctors haven't cured their colds yet. I am rather taken with the sign on the front door which says, caringly, "If you have, or suspect that you have swine flu, please go home."

Onward past the very well established and rather expensive private school, which caters for teenagers from rich families across the globe, but particularly lots of boarding Japanese for some mysterious oriental reason. They huddle together as they walk, staring at the low rise buildings, grey skies and gaps of more than two metres between pedestrians, obviously wondering what sort of strange place their caring, rich, doting, rich and above all rich parents have banished sent them to.

The locals mutter as approaching herds of Nipponese fail to make way on the pavement for old, frail or pregnant people, not realising that they will, but only when the gap is much closer than the socially acceptable norms a small UK town expects. The Japanese seem to have a much smaller personal space than the average English person, which isn't surprising because anyone within the rough striking distance of a thrown cricket ball is considered getting a bit too cuddly for the average pasty gaijin round these parts.

As I'm on my own, I consider popping in to The Woolpack for a cheeky pint. Putting the word "cheeky" in front of it makes it sound like a positively good thing to be doing, like a little treat, and definitely not like drinking alone at lunchtime.

The thought depresses me, so I carry on. I'll be sensible and have a coffee with some brandy in it when I get home.

The uniquely named High Street is unusual in that it has a lot of shops which are owned by local people, including the hardware shop, the fruity seller, the chippy, the pizzeria, a couple of cafes and the butchers.

I like the butchers. It could be used as a template for butchers shops everywhere. Big, open window garnished with pieces of animals, all stainless steel surfaces inside, and the iron tang of blood as you pass. There are a couple of butchers inside. One is your classic ruddy-cheeked knife maestro, all thick forearms and barrel chest, a man who could probably reduce a cow to a neatly stacked pile of bones in the time a flock of pirhanas takes to sharpen their claws.

I totally do know what a pirhana is, actually.

The other butcher is not as butch as the butch butcher. I'm not sure why, and I don't want to be campist, but you don't expect butchers to be camp. Sort of the equivalent of having a hairdresser doing an elaborate bouffant whilst wearing oil-stained overalls. Just out of place.

Anyway, what he lacks up for in terms of classical butchering poise, he more than makes up for in his enthusiasm for double entendres.

Really bad double entendres, where he over enunciates the word with the sexual connotations, in case his bemused audience misses it, and accompanies each utterance with a strange, painful looking head wrench which may, just may, be some sort of friendly wink.

Examples include, after an old lady has asked for a small number of sausages for her tea; "What's that love, you want some of my SAUSAGE Eh?" Headwrenchheadwrenchheadwrench.

Or when someone orders some beef; "Eh? Good choice love. I've got the best MEAT in town!" Headwrenchheadwrenchheadwrench.

Or when someone buys absolutely anything else from the shop; "Would you like me to put my PENIS in your VAGINA, eh love? Eh? EH?" Headwrenchheadwrenchheadwrench.

I pass my favourite cafe. The owners opened it 6 years previously and continually produce great food from a tiny kitchen, from cupcakes to entire roast dinners. It has a loyal customer base and never fails to please.

As I pass, the owner, Heather, is evicting someone. No mean feat as she is small, delicate and almost pathologically averse to confrontation. The evictee is Cider Ron, and he is being kicked out because he's very . . . well, cidery.

There is a strong smell of booze, stale urine, and body odour which accompany a vast array of stains on what once might have been an expensive blazer, bought twenty years ago by a thinner man with some money and style.

He starts swearing and shouting about what he perceives as an injustice, not recalling his abysmal behaviour just a couple of days ago when Heather had to call the police to have him removed. At least we presume he's swearing, but it's all in fast german, so it's hard to tell. Wisely, Heather simply tells him she's not arguing and retreats, flushed but victorious, back behind the pretty bay windows of the cafe.

Tragically, Cider Ron used to be a linguistics expert, with a good job and associated income, until he discovered alcohol and learned that his favourite language of all was "Blaargh! Sharrap! Oof!"

A moment later, Ron has forgotten why he's standing there, remembers he's hungry and begins to walk back towards the cafe. He's turned around at the door by an exiting* customer who points him in the direction of the chippy, who will no doubt be grateful for the custom.

I eventually make it to the pet shop. Another locally owned premises, it is staffed by an amazingly knowledgeable and caring bunch of ladies who I would consult on matters of small animal husbandry before most qualified vets. They know us well, having sold us our rabbit in the first place and boarding him when we go on holiday, so I'm usually in there for a good twenty minutes, even for just the smallest item.

They let me play with some of the domesticated rats they have in stock, and I once again wonder what the wife would think if I came home with a couple of dozen. The forecast would be for ructions, a rapidly descending cold-front and withheld affections.

Sensibly, I decide that a junkie bunny is enough for the moment, and purchase two bags of rabbit treats before saying goodbye.

The door bell chimes behind me as I leave to go home. It's a short distance, but a journey nonetheless.

*That's 'exiting', not 'exciting'. Alhtough how cool would it be if an exciting customer came out of the cafe? Possibly with a jet pack and a pet bear. Oh yeah . . .