At the weekend Petronela and I had a shock: we were told we should stay in our flat for 12 weeks!

We had already been observing a 2 metre distance between us for a week because, as a teacher, my wife brings home any bug circulating and had another week to go to be reasonably sure she hadn’t brought home the coronavirus. Maybe she did and we both had really mild symptoms but we have no way of knowing that.

Oddly enough the 12 weeks ‘order’ was not because of my health condition but because my wife has medication (a self-administered injection every two weeks) which evidently lowers her immunity even more than the steroids I take to boost the effectiveness of my cytotoxic ‘wonder pills’.

So lucky to have the NHS and ‘wonder pills’

I’ve commented here before, long before the present pandemic, how lucky we are to have our NHS and everyone who works within it.

My ‘wonder pills’ cost, I understand, about £2,000 a month if picked up from a pharmacy, even the hospital pharmacy, less VAT if delivered (how crazy is that?). Petronela’s recently introduced medication – something like a ball-point pen which, rested on a thigh and pushing the button, inserts a small needle to administer the medication – cannot be cheap.

Both are delivered to us by another great organisation; super reliable on both delivery and reminders when a delivery is due, it is called HealthCare Services Pharmacy, based in Featherstone, West Yorkshire. So far we have picked up our more ‘normal’ medication from our village pharmacy but now they will deliver it.

First hospital internment

Having never been in hospital before my first visit (to A&E then a recovery ward) some six years ago, I was of course apprehensive. In fact apart from the usual childhood illnesses I had hardly seen a doctor since 1957 (?), when I had so-called ‘Asian ‘flu’, which made me really ill for a couple of weeks.

Following the visit to A&E I had three visits for surgery, an experience  which made me appreciate particularly the over-worked, underpaid, nurses,  the healthcare assistants and all the backup staff and volunteers.

I’ve blogged about these experiences, and a more recent visit for surgery, in the past, likening my stays in a six bed men’s ward at Airedale Hospital to a ‘holiday camp’ despite the inevitable pain.

Returning NHS staff and volunteers

The thousands of retired NHS health care people offering to return to work was no surprise to me. Nor were the hundreds of thousands of people volunteering to help support people confined to home.

Our wonderful young neighbours

Before the call for volunteers was made our wonderful ‘upstairs’ neighbours, a young couple relatively recently moved in, had knocked on our door offering help and had already done some shopping for us. When I rang them yesterday to tell them we had been told to stay in the flat for 12 weeks and perhaps that was too much they said “no problem”!

Phil is working from home; Grace is furloughed from the dentists where she usual works and has already signed up to the ‘volunteering army’.

The good

So, we must remember the good which has come from the current tragedy.

  • A firm reminder of the good in the human race

  • A firm reminder that money and the acquisition of it is of relatively little importance once your basic needs are covered

  • How good it is to have clean air (many have never experienced it before) and so how important it is to get rid of polluting activities which destroy our planet

We must remember them

I’m afraid the lessons will not be learned:

  • Nurses and other health care professionals will continue to be underpaid and overworked

  • Money, “the root of all evil”, will rapidly assume its place governing us all

  • We will rapidly return to our polluting ways

There are others but this post is perhaps already too long, but I think for me it had to be said!

Members of our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, were disappointed when it became clear that we could not meet for the next scheduled meeting in the village library on 28 February.

Screen shot of the six club members in the video chat

Our first video chat. Trying to do a screen shot I obscured most of the picture of me but it’s a matter of learning on the job!

Our founder and leader, Ruxandra, who gives up nothing without a fight, suggested we try using a video chat group meeting on Messenger. We did and after a few small hiccups it worked perfectly. Six members took part, reading their contribution on the set theme of Addiction. Apart from the nonsense poem I posted here earlier (already circulated to club members) I wrote a kind of blog post.

It’s tongue in cheek, but not entirely!


Addiction

My village has an addiction: dogs.

I don’t understand this addiction.

It is certainly an addiction; the more ugly the dogs are the more of them there seem to be.

I’m not sure whether the owners come to look like their dogs or the dogs come to look like their owners. Some biological chemistry seems to be working to ensure that the more ugly the dog, or the owner, the more this is true.

For myself, not only do I not have this addiction but I dislike most dogs. I dislike their stupidity, their slavish adherence to what their human master dictates.

Distorted, expensive results of the pedigree system have become the penis symbols of today.

Do the owners, particularly men, realise how ridiculous they look strutting with their expensive acquisition or behaving like a sergeant major on the parade ground barking orders at their poor, distorted (sometimes abused, by cutting tail, ears and heaven knows what else) purchase.

The distortions of nature are either indulged by their human owners so they behave badly most, if not all, of the time. If well behaved they are either so anxious to please, rewarded perhaps by a tidbit, they do precisely as they are told, or cowed by the instant displeasure of their owner.

Cats

Let’s compare with cats.

Totally self-sufficient, if fed they will eat but never lose their hunting instinct. If not fed they will find a mouse, bird, anything small which moves and will eat it. If fed, they will do the same to hone their hunting skills.

Of course the felines also suffer from human intervention, pedigree breeding, to produce ridiculous examples of their kind but even they, if not imprisoned and cosseted, will revert to the wild.

Cats will be affectionate if they feel like it, ignore you if they do not.

Some dogs are excepted

I do have some exceptions to my dislike of dogs.

First are the guide dogs for the blind, mostly labradors and, as an extension of that I quite like most labradors and other soft-mouthed types, like spaniels.

Other exceptions to my dislike are wild dogs – foxes, wolves, dingos and the like – for similar reasons that I like cats.

But my dislike of domesticated dogs reaches its summit with small, pretty examples which insist on disturbing an otherwise pleasant audio environment with frequent, if not constant, yapping.

I yearn for a rifle to pick them off one by one until tranquility is restored.


I know some of the ugly distorted dogs are ‘rescue dogs’; of course I approve of this. Having brought them into the world as living creatures, we should certainly look after them.

Petronela (my wife for those who don’t know) and I have confined ourselves to our flat for at least two weeks, until we know whether she, as a teacher, picked up the virus at school.

Our writers’ club has become virtual but the theme given for the next  meeting on 28 March is ‘addiction’. Here’s what I sent to club members.


Here’s something ridiculous to amuse you, I hope, while I think of a more sensible response to Ruxandra’s theme of ‘addiction’ for the now virtual meeting on 28 March.

It seems some people still don’t accept as fiction
That anything less than total restriction
Will wave a welcome valediction
To the current widespread affliction.

It’s also a widely believed nonfiction
That any eventual bronchoconstriction
Will be banished by a benediction,
Having resulted from some malediction.

I also have a firm conviction
Even something of a little prediction
That even if my throat condition is no longer in my jurisdiction,
It will not, in future, affect my diction.

I say that because my throat already has a little constriction,
Caused some months ago by the eviction
Of a giant tube not shortened by magnetostriction,
Not by any kind of vasoconstriction.

Even so, there was no interdiction
Nor any kind of dereliction.
(So far I couldn’t fit in depiction,
Not even a bit of crucifiction.)

It’s just some nonsense, even a contradiction,
But I can end up with a bit of metafiction:

You guessed it, words and true rhymes are my addiction!

The Library

They were surprised to find a library in the castle. They had almost not come in; the entry fee of 40RON (about £8) for the two of them would usually have put them off but it had begun to rain heavily and the car was quite a walk away so they made an exception even though it was near to closing time.

There did not seem to be the usual supervisor in each room and when Smaranda saw a lot of books on shelves in a distant darkened room she hurried towards them. Libraries, particularly old libraries, had a special fascination for her as a history teacher.

I don’t think you should go in there,” Michael, her English boyfriend, cautioned. “That red rope across the doorway obviously means we’re not supposed to go in there. Anyway, it’s too dark to see much.”

I’ve got that little torch on my keyring so I just want to see what books they’ve got. They all look super old. I’m going in.”

Michael reluctantly followed.

It doesn’t look as though any of the books have been moved for years,” said Smaranda. “I can hardly see any of the titles,” she added, wiping a finger along one row of volumes.

Hey, there’s one here called Wallachia,” she called. “Oh, another has the word Vrăjitoariei on the spine, and here’s one titled Strigoi.”

I don’t know any of those words,” answered Michael.

Oh, it’s really exciting. Wallachia is the southern region which joined with Transylvania and Moldavia to become Romania. Vrăjitoariei is witchcraft and strigoi are spirits which can transform themselves into horrible animals. I’ve never seen a Romanian book on witchcraft or strigoi before, though of course we studied the history of Wallachia at university so I’ve seen plenty of books on that.”

I’m surprised you haven’t heard of vrăjitoariei before; you’re always complaining about how superstitious we Romanians are. As for strigoi, I thought you knew Latin pretty well: striga – evil spirit. Pretty much the same in Romanian, strigă. Strigoi is plural though sometimes used as singular too.”

Smaranda pulled out the volume titled Vrăjitoariei and was enveloped in a cloud of dust. When she was able to catch her breath she opened the book at a random page and called out excitedly, “This chapter seems to be full of vrăji – spells – mostly to cure all manner of ailments.”

She continued to leaf through the pages. “Good heavens, there’s a spell here to stop Jews killing new-born babies! What’s that about?”

“I think you should put that book back right now and we should leave. We’re not supposed to be in here anyway.” Michael sounded worried.

Smaranda ignored him and continued to turn the pages. ”Oh, there’s a spell here to summon a strigă. It says it’s only to be used on the eve of St. Andrew’s day or the eve of St. George’s day. Isn’t that odd? It’s St. Andrew’s day tomorrow I think, thirtieth of the November, isn’t it?”

I don’t know, St. George’s day is in April but I can’t remember the day.”

Shame on you, he’s your patron saint! Anyway, I’m going to try this one, the spell I mean.”

I think you should just put the book back; anyway, you shouldn’t mess about with such things, though of course I don’t believe a word of it.”

Oh, it says the spell needs a fire so that’s no good.” Smaranda sounded crestfallen, then suddenly shouted excitedly, “You’ve got a lighter, maybe that will do. Let me have it please.” Michael reluctantly  handed it over.

I don’t know whether I can get this right. It’s very old Romanian language: it reminds me of trying to read Ion Creangă’s ‘Childhood Memories’ but it seems even older.

I gave up with that having not understood a thing,” Michael said sullenly; he was proud that he’d mastered reading and speaking modern Romanian, though he still had difficulty writing it.

Smaranda clicked the lighter and with the flame in front of her began to chant some words, reading from the book.

Michael understood not a word.

§

He saw it first.

A pale light behind Smaranda which began to swirl around, as though stirred by an invisible spoon, until it began to take on a recognisable form, vaguely human but as it became more recognisable, hideously distorted, limbs sticking out in unnatural directions and a face like a foam latex mask pulled in all directions around a mouth open in what seemed to be a scream, though inside just black, as though it had no end.

A wild eerie shriek behind her made Smaranda turn around, just in time to see the horrible form solidify into an owl. She had time to recognise a barn owl, often wrongly known as a screech owl because of its call, before the bird flew onto her shoulder.

No sooner had it landed than Smaranda shrieked loudly herself as she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The owl spread its wings and flew around and around her head, shrieking continuously till the shriek turned into a scream, familiar to many Romanians as the cry of the fattened pig as its throat is cut to kill it for winter meat.

At the same time the owl began to take the form of a much distorted pig then alternate between pig and owl, each transformation being more horrendous than the previous one.

Finally it was the owl which settled on Smaranda’s shoulder again, sunk its beak in the bloody gash it had made previously, its breast pulsating like a fast beating heart. Smaranda became ever more pale before dissolving into a vague distorted form resembling the strigă which Michael had first seen.

Michael tried to grab Smaranda’s hand to pull her from the room but there was nothing of substance to hold on to.

One of the strigoi began to fly faster and faster around Michael’s head, alternating between the vague distorted form of the strigă and a pig, which soon settled into the form of a boar which sank its fangs into Michael’s chest.

§

The police forensics team, called in the next morning, were baffled. The male, with two deep incisions near to the heart, had clearly died from them almost instantly but there was no weapon.

Even more baffling was the body of the young female. She had obviously died from exsanguination but there was not a sign of blood on the library floor.

A lighter lay near her right hand and a book near her left.

The policeman examining the body called out “This book is open, she seems to have been reading it. It’s open at a chapter titled Vrăji. Anyone know what that means?”

No one did.


This is the first time I’ve tried this. Usually in the writers’ club we each read our own contribution. So here is me reading the above story. I’ll get better!


I don’t usually pick up on the theme often given as a writing prompt at our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, preferring to write about whatever comes into my head. This time the given theme of ‘libraries’ appealed. It gave me an opportunity to explore Romanian legends less well known than Dracula and vampires, which are more modern anyway.

You can blame another blogger and a writers’ club member for the above story. Ailish, whose first novel I sort of reviewed here and here, planted witches in my head; Jo – whose stories I always enjoy when read in the club, surprisingly even the horror stories as it’s not a genre I usually enjoy – has somehow got me trying to write ‘horror’.

Notes:

In the past there have been trials of ‘witches’ in Romania, similar to those in Aberdeen described by Ailish Sinclair in her novel The Mermaid and the Bear. Gypsies and Jews seem to have been particularly targetted in Romania.

True screech owls are confined to the Americas. Barn owls, plentiful in Europe, make a screeching sound rather than the ‘tewit tewoo’ usually associated with owls.

I really like the ancient Romanian female names so chose one for this story. The founder and ‘leader’ of our writers’ club has another, Ruxandra, so I never shorten it to ‘Ruxi’ as most club members do. Another I like a lot is Ilinca.

I enjoy today, International Women’s Day, as I have many more female friends than male ones and always have had.

So, to all you ladies who follow my blog or happen upon it accidentally

Have a great day and keep on pushing for women to be treated equally to men in absolutely everything.

There’s still a long way to go!

Women’s Day

I first heard of ‘Women’s Day’ when I arrived in Romania on 8th March 1993, but it was not about ‘International Women’s Day’; Romanians have been celebrating women on 8th March for longer than that.

I soon learned that in the part of Romania I was visiting for a six month voluntary project (which turned into 11.1/2 years!) had a rather different tradition to the rest of Romania.

The 1st of March is widely celebrated as the day of Marțișori, (and the first day of Spring) when small tokens with a bow of red and white threads are exchanged. However, the way I learned this when I arrived in Bucovina was that the women gave the men Marțișori on 1st March but the men gave the women Marțișori on 8th March, almost always together with flowers and often with another gift.

If you’re interested you will find an earlier post about the day and the tradition

here.


Apologies – this post is much later than intended. Internet has gone crazy, dropping out every couple of minutes. A trip to the local supermarket for two or three items was equally crazy: usually almost deserted at opening time the car park was full. I can only only assume people were ‘panic buying’, which does not help at all of course.

Our local Sainsbury’s supermarket has a charity book table. The idea is you take a book, make a donation (and perhaps return the book, as I intend to do). Having got myself in ‘reading mode’ recently, seeing the name Tom Clancy I picked up the thick paperback, ‘Command Authority’, as when I read his first, ‘The Hunt for Red October’, more than 30 years ago, I was gripped from cover to cover.

A half way ‘review’

I’m only a bit more than half way through this novel now (page 409 of 772) but I’ve decided to do another ‘half novel’ review, as I did in my post before the previous one. One reason is that I think I’ve learned an important lesson, maybe two lessons, for my own writing.

Another is that I’ve been bored by the majority of what I’ve read so far, so I may not finish it. However, the Tom Clancy I expected began on page 332 and may well have finished now, after keeping me gripped for 69 pages (but having skipped two chapters, 14 pages, as  I was certain they would add nothing to the story. I’d done this earlier too).

Lesson one – information overload

One of the things which made the majority of the book boring for me was the information overload: information which added nothing to the story. I think it is there only to demonstrate the author’s knowledge. I wonder if that came from Clancy’s collaborator on this novel: Mark Greaney.

I’ve come across this closer to home and it always makes me shut off.

Linked to this are the chapters I skipped, prefaced ‘30 years earlier’. I’m sure I missed nothing which added to the story.

One lesson learned.

The second lesson

The second lesson is do not waste words stating the obvious. There are so many instances of this that they became irritating.

Other dislikes

I really disliked the appearance of diagrams showing layouts of, eg,  buildings. I believe that, for any worthwhile writer, words should be enough.

Another irritant for me is the long list of characters prefacing the novel.

Would Charles Dickens have needed such things? I don’t think so.

Cover of The Mermaid and the BearIn my previous post I commented on the first half of Ailish Sinclair’s first novel, describing it as “having all the charm and magic of a good children’s story, wrapped up in an adult fairy tale.”

I do like a novel which surprises. The Mermaid and the Bear had plenty of surprises for me.

Sexy

Not far into the second half it became pretty sexy! I didn’t expect that, not from the first half of the story nor from Ailish’s blog posts. She slipped easily into an insight into an eighteen years old young woman’s discovery of the urgency of physical love when prompted by ‘true love’. I suspect few eighteen year olds experience that now.

The role of women deftly interwoven

Another surprise was how the author managed to get so much modern thinking about the role of women in a story set over 400 years ago, without it jarring. It will be no surprise to anyone who has read my posts for some years that this was a pleasant surprise for me; it’s been a regular theme for me (how little far we’ve come in 400 years!).

Stone circles

The stone circles of Aberdeenshire, of which I’ve learned a lot from Ailish’s posts, feature. I’m not sure whether Ailish really believes they are magical but she’s pretty much convinced me.

Witches’ from fact

I liked the way Ailish wove the Aberdeen witch trials of the 1590s in to the story without it becoming a ‘historical’ text book, fictionalising real people and events, mixing them up with invented characters (as I am wont to do).

Enjoyable

I really enjoyed this novel on multiple levels. It’s not the kind of story I’d usually read, detective thrillers are what usually tempt me – my Kindle library has a few of those and my physical bookcase contains only the complete works of Dickens.

The historical notes at the end of Ailish’s book are really helpful but I’d urge you not to read them until after you’ve read the story.

The Mermaid and the Bear is published by GWL Publishing and available on Amazon and in some book shops.