|24-30 September 2006|
|Mon, 25 Sep
Last week's heroic struggle to install broadband in Stonegallows Hall resulted in a short-lived victory, as the 1920s, hamster-powered PC reacted to the presence of a 2.2 megabytes per second connection by spewing out such vast quantities of unsolicited data into the wild blue Internet that the machine all but seized up. The only processing power and memory it could spare was devoted to hijacking the browser and producing pop-ups. I pulled the plug on the contraption and dragged it out into the back garden, pausing only to pick the shotgun off the wall. It breathed its last on a patch of rhubarb.
I am trapped in a house with nothing but a newspaper's Sunday colour magazine for amusement. I open it and start to read We Gave Birth In A Tepee, about a couple living less than a hundred miles from here. “I spend the evenings spinning and listening to the wind-up radio,” says the trendy mother.
So today's task is to avert insanity by doing what I suggested (but what do I know?) several weeks ago from Hong Kong when I first heard that broadband was in the offing – get a post-Alan Turing computer. This involves a trip to the small big city, which proves harrowing. The taxi drivers are even more aggressive and irritable than usual, this being the second day of Ramadan. And the main IT supplies store offers a reasonable deal under one condition. “It'll be ready in two weeks,” says the salesman, a spotty, early 20s specimen in a cheap suit. “Or three.” He looks at me in the slightly inbred way people do around here. “Actually, officially we say nine working days, like? But...” It is his great fortune that I have left the trusty 12 bore at home.
Eventually, I track down a place that can put one together in six hours. It is now back at the family seat, up and running, and an initially skeptical aged P is jumping up and down like a delighted schoolgirl, phoning all the neighbours to announce that she is the proud owner of a PC with a flat screen and a black mouse – both unheard of in this late medieval village. A hum of amazement drifts from the parish hall to the pub and on the cider-scented breeze across the hedgerows, and the church bells start to ring. I will keep quiet about the fact that it also has six USB ports on the back as well as two on the front – that's more than the locals could comprehend.
Wed, 27 Sep
Under a bright sun at exactly noon I approach Chez Dougie, an unassuming self-styled bistro in the northern outskirts of the little big city. The sign says 'closed', but the door is open. I stroll in. A quick glance around the dark interior confirms that I am the first customer of the day. In a far corner near the kitchen a table is occupied by a plump, bearded man with longish but neat hair chatting to a bleached blonde in leather. He rises and approaches me smartly. “Can I help you sir?” I greet him and ask if they have a reservation in the name of Natalka Nesmith. He regards me with a strange, very slight smile. “Yes,” he eventually replies. “We do.” And he stands there motionless, just looking at me expectantly. After a few seconds of silence, I look over at the only other person in the small restaurant. Spiky hair, loud red lipstick, dark glasses, a dozen silver bangles on each wrist, she looks like an actress who's finding it harder to get roles these days. A woman preparing to do battle with middle age by deploying no-holds-barred glamour. No-one I've ever met, surely. But I'm wrong. She grins broadly at me and gets up as I walk over to her.
“Hemlock! Long time no see!” We hug and stare at each other. “This is amazing!” she shrieks. The restaurant manager comes over to us, laughing. “You remember Antonio,” Natalka says. “Antonio Pappalardo.” I look up and down at him. The fat boy who used to sit at the back of the class and hiss “That's rubbish – he's lying” as the teacher imparted yet another vitally important piece of knowledge. And now, 20-something years on, we are reunited, courtesy of the BoresComeBackToHauntYou.com website.
A few minutes later we are joined by Bernadette O'Looney, or Berg as she now is. “I'd have married anyone to get rid of that name,” she admits as we catch up after all this time. It transpires that Antonio wishes he could have done the same. His brother's two sons are renowned heroin addicts, and whenever he has to deal with local law enforcement he has to roll his eyes and say, “yes – those Pappalardos.” Natalka (born Osinchuk) has a five-year-old daughter who eats the carpets at home. “I'm always lifting up rugs or looking behind furniture and finding she's gnawed another hole.” I suggest they serve her pieces of carpet on a plate for dinner. “Tried it,” she sighs. Over lunch we reminisce about the evil Nazi nuns who would suspend us from the ceiling by our thumbs and whip us bloody for not eating the gristle and gruel served up by the alma mater's canteen. I hear about people I had forgotten existed. One lives in a house full of rabbits. One was last heard of in Prague. One trained his small boy to be a burglar and did time in prison. One is a politician. Most apparently classify their life since school days into first marriage and second marriage. It all sounds so alien and exotic that I agree to a similar gathering on my next visit from run-of-the-mill Hong Kong.
|Thurs, 28 Sep
With some trepidation, I open the email in-box. I haven't looked inside it since leaving Hong Kong over a week ago, and I brace myself for a seething mass of missives pouring out and squirming all over the desk. But it's not that bad. Some admirers from around the world, obviously unfamiliar with the effect of the apple juice in these parts, complain about a few trifling typographical misdemeanours. Others express disappointment with the lack of illustrative material – so I make a point of capturing a few of the more photogenic local features while venturing out to buy a bottle of MucoHack for my wheezing mother.
“Does she have a dry cough or a chest cough?” asks the young Indian woman in the pharmacy. When I was a kid, there was just one variant of this foul-tasting syrupy medication. Today, it comes in any number of flavours, for several specific bronchial conditions and in 'non-drowsy' as well as normal, alcohol-laden form. The harder I try to resist attempts to sell me the 'non-drowsy' version, the more I sense a certain mistrust on the part of the pert shop assistant. She scuttles off to the small dispensary and confers with an older colleague. “Mrs Hemlock's son,” I hear her whisper. “Trying to put her to sleep.”
I lean over the counter. “Not permanently!” I protest. But the ageing, sour-faced, blue-rinsed manageress emerges in her white tunic and will have none of it. The traditional concoction is now considered dangerous, she tells me, especially if the user is operating machinery. And yes, that includes a Kenwood Chef. My polite request for a small quantity of laudenum meets with an ungracious rebuff. I depart comforting myself with the knowledge that in Hong Kong, where pharmacists have the good manners to provide customers with absolutely anything they want, the old sow would have retired to a life of luxury decades ago.