Monday, 21 September 2020

Packet of Wonder by Owen Townend

 

On top of an antique bureau, I find a packet of crisps. This is not my bureau nor is it my packet of crisps. I turn to the owner of one or both.

            He is a little old shopkeeper with a fan of grey curls around the massive bald spot on top of his head. Only after I clear my throat does he take his slippered feet off his desk and come to my assistance. I point at the crisps. “Don’t you have a bin for that?”

            The old man titters. “Actually, you’ll find that this is just as much an antique as the bureau.”

            “How so?”

            “It’s Golden Wonder.”

            I shake my head, waiting for more.

            At last he holds up the packet for me. I don’t see it at first but then I begin to notice how plain the packaging looks: garish red text on a white background that is outlined in blue. The last packet I ate from was made of bright green foil with a more modernized version of the font. That is odd enough but then I glance up at the top right corner.

            I turn to the shopkeeper. “5p?”

            He nods. “5p Ready Salted Crisps.”

            “How old is this?”

            “Manufactured in 1960.”

            I take the packet out of his hands and examine it. “But this is still sealed. Are you seriously telling me that these crisps managed to retain shape for sixty years?”

            “I am.”

            “You’re having me on.” I toss the crisps back at him. “You’ve filled an old packet with stuffing.”

            “Seeing is believing.” The old man smiles, revealing yellow speckled teeth. “And tasting more so.”

            I smile back at him. Well, not so much smile as smirk. “Wouldn’t opening the packet invalidate the product?”

            “Yes, but that would be the private business of its owner.”

            “Isn’t that you?”

            “I think you’d like to own this.” He peers up at me through his dusty spectacles. “You seem very curious.”

            “You do too,” I sneer.

            “I am merely promoting my wares, young man.”

            “An antique salesman promoting crisps?”

            He taps the top of the packet lightly, making a slight dent. “Promoting an antique. A very rare and highly unusual one.”

            I can’t disagree with him on that. Still I don’t understand this situation at all. “How did you even come by this?”

            “Would you believe me if I said that I used to work on the production line?”

            “Not really, no.”

            He pulls a face. “I’ll have you know that this here packet of Golden Wonder crisps was one of the first ready salted ever made. You know what that means?”

            “A flavour?”

            “Crisps used to come with a little salt sachet that you poured in to improve texture and taste. Golden Wonder was the first English company to put the salt in beforehand.” He wiggles his wispy eyebrows. “Hence ready salted. What you hold in your hands is a very valuable artifact.”

            And it is still in my hand. For some reason I just can’t put it down. I examine the outside again. “The packet itself, you mean? I suppose but how much would it go for really?”

            The old man’s entire face darkens. “Look, miladdo, are you buying or not? You can’t just fondle my antiques all bloody day!”

            “How much are you charging?”

            “Twenty.”

            The packet almost drops to the floor. “Twenty pounds? For what?”

            “For history.”

            “For mystery, more like.”

            “Yes,” the old man speaks slowly. “That too.”

            For the umpteenth time I run my eye and hand over this bizarre little con. I really feel the packet this time, searching for telltale signs of stuffing or polystyrene inside. I hear something crack. It sounds like it might even be the real thing.

            The old man puts his hands on his hips. “You break it, you buy it.”

            Reluctantly I reach into my back pocket for my wallet. A crisp £20 note for antique crisps.

            “Shall I open it in the shop?” I ask.

            The old man wafts a dismissive hand. “You do as you like.”

            “And what if I release some noxious salty cloud? Wouldn’t want that in your antique shop now, would you?”

            He makes his way back to his desk, tapping every bureau and wardrobe along the way. “Please,” is all he has to say.

            I think about opening the top seal carefully but decide to pop it open with the palms of my hands instead. The old man barely looks up from his accounts book. I flip the packet over and peer inside the hole I made.

I can barely believe it. The crisps look like they have been made today. Still I just can’t believe they are fresh from the 60s.

“Well,” I say aloud, purely for the benefit of the old man. “These look suitably nutritious. Salt really is an amazing preservative, isn’t it?”

The shopkeeper slams down his book. “You have bought your antique. Kindly leave the premises.”

I resent both his tone and volume but leave all the same. I slam the door behind me, hoping that the little bell above comes clattering down in the process.

Out on the street, I peer into the crisp packet again. Golden Wonder. It has been a while since I last sampled a crisp. Still my hand pauses as I reach inside. The shopkeeper seems mean-spirited enough to put something into these crisps, possibly something toxic. Maybe that is what this whole antique crisp packet idea is about: tricking some poor dolt into paying £20 for the privilege of being poisoned. If so, why am I considering being that dolt? I should turn back right now and demand a refund. I might have a fight on my hands to get it but I will win.

Nevertheless, through all that negative certainty, I can’t help but wonder if what I hold in my hands is the real deal. What if these Golden Wonder crisps are incredibly well-preserved relics of a bygone era? Well maybe not that but what if they are something special? An odd little treat to find in an antique’s shop.

My fingertip touches the ridge of a small crisp. I see grains of salt bounce off as I bring the thing to my lips. I sniff it. It smells fresh but in an old way: the freshness of mint condition. Well, ready salted condition.

Curiosity brings the crisp to my lips before I know what I am even doing. I don’t even hesitate. I bite down on the past. 

Yuck...

Monday, 14 September 2020

The Domino Player by Ian F White


Four old friends used to meet regularly at their local for a few lunchtime pints and a ‘friendly’ game of dominoes.
Everything would have been great, were it not for the fact that one of their number, Fred, won nearly every game he took part in. He swore he wasn't cheating, but, “How else could he win so often?” the others mused.
Slowly but surely, the constant winning streak took its toll on their patience and they formulated a plan to sort spawny Fred out once and for all.
The next day, after a particularly long, yet inevitably conclusive game, the two larger men grabbed their antagonist and held him down while the other stuffed the plastic dominoes into every orifice of poor old Fred's anatomy he could find.
Dripping dominoes as he went, Fred waddled into town and headed for the doctors.

He slammed open the front doors, dashed past the startled receptionist, through the busy waiting room and barged straight into Doctor Smith's surgery without a pause.
Doctor Smith looked up from his paperwork and growled, “Don't you ever knock?”


My favourite joke of last Century, and probably this one, too. Can't recall where I heard it first, but it was at least twenty-five years ago. Hope you find it amusing. 

Cheers, 

Ian

Monday, 7 September 2020

7 September 1936 by Vivien Teasdale

 

Pacing back and forth, back and forth

Concrete not earth under his paws

The last thylacine craves freedom.

Striped bronze fur reflects the dying sun

Though his dying will have no glory,

no words, no laurels from the wars,

just: ‘Extinct’.


His prize - a day to remember

the massacre. We weep at his grave,

demanding action and cheap food;

demonstrate for change and more houses,

more space for humanity. Our species

triumphantly insisting, we will save

the world.

 

On 7 September 1936 the last thylacine, a marsupial species which had been in existence since the last Ice Age, froze to death in a zoo in Tasmania because his keeper forgot to lock him in the warmth of his den. The 7 September is now National Threatened Species Day in Australia. There is a short video clip of this animal on YouTube. What a loss to the world!

Monday, 31 August 2020

Below Mellbreak by Andrew Shephard

 


Below Mellbreak


Sheep occupy old oak wood

between farm, fell and water.

They stare like guards,

unsure if people are permitted.


Marking boundaries

with straggly tags of wool

here on twigs, there on wire,

they befuddle walkers,

lay false trails

by tramping back and forth

through seasons of fallen leaves

and rotting bark,

leave hard bullets

in every resting place

to prove their ancient right.




Sunday, 23 August 2020

To Beirut by Virginia Hainsworth


Amidst a maelstrom of threats, lurks the unseen enemy. It is transported on a whisper and contaminates the unwary.  It settles and spreads.  Breath by breath and touch by touch, it covers the planet.  A patina of anxiety rests over everything and everyone.

Your city, like others, is learning to dodge and weave around this nightmare, this unshackling of our worst fears as human beings.  And yet, you are noticing anew the small things in life.  Appreciating again what really matters – a skill we lost and are slowly regaining.

And then, devastation.  As if you don’t have enough to endure, an explosion of fire and what little security you think you had, is blown to the skies.  The dust settles and spreads.  More death.  More homelessness.  What is left to come?

And yet, through a window whose glass is shattered by the blast, net curtains flutter.  Amidst the broken contents of an apartment, a piano is heard.  Sweet notes fly abroad to settle and spread.  To soothe, if only for a moment.  The strains of Auld Lang Syne are lifted to the darkened skies.  A shaft of light, of music in the middle of desolation.  How beautiful a sound.

 

 Inspired by video footage of an elderly woman playing Auld Lang Syne on the piano in her devastated apartment, shortly after the explosion in the port area of Beirut.

 

August 2020

 

 

Monday, 17 August 2020

Time's a Stop-Out by Owen Townend

 

“What took you so long?” she asks me on entrance.

            I don’t know what to say. Eventually her hard stare provokes a response.

            “You know very well that’s a loaded question.”

            She rolls her eyes. “Had a lovely time with your mate then?”

            “Yes.” I throw down my tools, trudge further into the room. “Don’t we have the right to let off some steam?”

            “Of course. I just wish you two wouldn’t linger like you do.”

            “What do you mean?”

            She turns to me fully. “Well, you have to stop existing at some time.”

            I feel about set to pop. She doesn't take her words back so I scowl. “I’ll exist as long as I bloody well see fit!”

            “All I’m saying is you and your mate seem to live it large out there.” She gestures towards the entrance. “Beyond the Absence. The place we've made our home, I might add.”

            I bristle at this. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know my mate’s name! 

            She holds my gaze.

            "It’s Space!”

            “Of course! Your names are everywhere together!” She throws up exaggerated gestures. “Time and Space are doing it again! Creating dimensions willy-nilly.”

            “We’re doing nobody or nothing any harm out there.”

            “Oh really?" Something flares up within her now. "Do you think they want to participate in the games you two like to play? Do you think they enjoy your strict rules?”

            I scoff. “You can’t play a fair game without strict rules.”

            “You aren’t playing a fair game with existent entities that don’t know that they’re even in a game!”

            No words. I land heavily on a seat nearby but make a point of not sitting beside her. “I only ever wanted to kick back and relax.”

            She doesn’t reply. I throw back my head.

            “The Absence is the Absence. It’s no fun here! Don’t you ever get restless?”

            She sighs. “You know I do. I even pop out myself every now and then. But you two…Time and Space…you stay out far too long. You stay till the very end of life. Don’t you see how cruel that is?”

            I look down at my digits. They are well-worn and can’t quite close.

            “I do,” I eventually say. “It’s all over now for a while anyway. It’s just as dark out there as it is here. I won’t make as big a thing of it next time.”

            “You promise?”

            “Yes.”

            I move in for a kiss, glad that she doesn't pull away. We even find reason to laugh. There are things we can do that no-one else can but really it's all beyond us.

            “To be honest," I admit, "I’m getting a bit fed up with Space. Just goes on and on and on.”

            “And you?”

            "Me?" I wink at her. “I always know exactly when to finish.”

Monday, 10 August 2020

The Other Side of the Story by Vivien Teasdale

As writers we are always being told to look for the ‘other story’, the ‘other’ point of view and sometimes that applies to real life too.

During lockdown we’ve heard so much about Nature winning back access to nature reserves, parks and even cities. The National Trust properties have welcomed extra visitors in the form of peregrine falcons, stoats, weasels, lizards, little owls and hares. They’ve not paid much in entrance fees but have had online visitors entranced with their images.

Less international trade has led to a reduction in marine traffic, giving space for dolphins to swim up the Bosphorus and do some site-seeing around Istanbul harbour. Seals not only sunbathe on the banks of the Thames, but hitch rides on the back of paddle boards, hauling themselves up and looking at the paddler as if to say “Why have you stopped?”. Wild boar have been trotting through the centre of Haifa in Israel and wild goats have acted up in the streets of Llandudno.

Our roads have been quieter, so we’ve been able to hear bird songs we’ve never noticed before, seen more birds which suddenly have the confidence to out into our quieter towns. Our councils have stopped cutting grassy borders and hedgerows, leaving the flowers to be enjoyed by insects of all varieties and all of Nature (including humans) have benefited from the decrease in pollution. More bees to pollinate the flowers, more insects to provide more food for birds, and so on up the food chain.

So how could anything be wrong with all that? Well, nothing, really. Except that much of ‘Nature’ is now controlled by, and relies on, our activities.

The reduction in traffic has been of benefit to many creatures, who have been emboldened to cross the road. Strangely, there has been an increase in reported accidents involving bigger animals such as deer, foxes and boar as well as domestic cats, despite fewer vehicles around. Possibly the animals have become complacent (or young ones never learned) how dangerous roads are, leaving them more susceptible when a vehicle does come along.

Conversely, a red kite was found recently in Meltham, too underweight to feed itself properly. There could be lots of reasons, but the strong possibility is that there is less small road kill such as hedgehogs, pigeons or pheasants. Where at one time, the kites spent much of their time on moorland, hunting grouse and small mammals as well as eating carrion, now we have spread out our towns and the red kites have learned to feed on road casualties. When that source disappears, they have little to fall back on.

There are other species which are suffering during lockdown. Few of us would be too worried about rats, which rely on us throwing scraps away or dropping edible litter from picnics etc, but seagulls and pigeons also are suffering in the same way – although the pigeons in the woods near me are just as fat as usual and still have great difficulty taking off fast enough when chased by my dog!

It’s not only animals and birds which have been affected. Roadsides and hedgerows are not being cut as frequently, leaving the flowers to bloom and thrive. Unfortunately, invasive plants are flourishing too, crowding out and strangling our native species. Volunteers are needed to go out and clear the plants but many people are unable or unwilling to join the ‘balsam bashers’, even at a suitable distance apart.

Going further abroad, safaris and nature holidays had been rising in popularity. Now they have abruptly stopped. The animals may find life quieter but the people involved in the holiday industry have been equally abruptly thrown out of work. With no income, they may have to resort to hunting the very animals they have been showing off to wealthy visitors. Often the wardens, too, have lost jobs leaving the areas more vulnerable to poaching, which has increased considerably. Inevitably, some of this bushmeat will find its way onto a market somewhere – and that is not good news. Bushmeat is the prime suspect in the coronavirus crisis.

But not all is doom and gloom. Beavers, which escaped (or were deliberately, though illegally, released) on Dartmoor have been allowed to stay. They are a native species, but became extinct in the 16th Century. Now they are back and we can enjoy their presence again – if we can find them, of course. It’s not always easy to get up close to Nature.

The other side of the story is that we can sometimes get closer to Nature than we intend. Picnickers in Berlin were surprised (perhaps delighted) to see a naked man chasing after a wild boar which had nicked a bag containing his computer. His determination succeeded in recapturing his belongings, returning to the applause of all those watching. In Berlin, naturists (as against naturalists) are a common feature of their parks (apparently. Not been …. yet), the German for which is Freik√∂rperkultur (free body culture). Perhaps, this time, it was more a case of free porker culture.