12. The magnificent swollen exploding nipple

Peter dropped me off at Derby coach station. We’d looked up times earlier but hadn’t bothered to book in advance. We were too busy talking and listening to music. It was Saturday, late afternoon and the coach was fully booked. I thought about hitching up to Leeds, but wasn’t really up for it. I bottled it again realising I wasn’t 22 anymore. My romantic Kerouac inspired trip was just all puff and no substance: more On the Buses than On the Road, The Railway Children rather than The Road Less Travelled.

So I dropped the hitching plan and did a short hike instead. I walked to the train station through a pleasant park blighted by the roar of traffic and snog-happy Goths. Didn’t they realise they were meant to be miserable and downcast? But were they actually being subversive by not conforming to their stereotype? I found the station and bought the cheapest ticket to save money – a local train to Sheffield then another local to Leeds. It was slower than the express train, but far more interesting. Small rusting, post-industrial towns passed by my window, punctuating the beautiful countryside: blots on the landscape or burst bubbles of enterprise depending on your point of view.

I was heading to Leeds as I studied there from 1988 to 1991, and two of my friends from those days, Ollie and Sarra, still lived nearby. As we pulled into the station it was obvious how much the city had changed over the last 20 years. Sadly, The Tetley Brewery no longer made beer. But there were gleaming new flats by the canal in The Calls, which used to be the red light district.

When I first went up there, the first thing that struck me was the row upon row of redbrick back-to-back terraced housing. You don’t get that in the Home Counties. It felt foreign, slightly intimidating, but exciting. It was new, not like home, which was cosy and nice. This was what I wanted at the time: a new experience in a new place, my own Wild West, or in this case, West Yorkshire.

So it was good to be back, and great to hook up with Ollie and Sarra. I found their house. No one answered the front door. So I let myself in through the side gate guided by the sound of chatter and laughter coming from the back garden. I announced myself and was rewarded with a lovely hug from Sarra, and an even better man hug from Ollie. Ollie always was a cheerful bastard. We used to share a flat together in Kilburn. And he was always far too happy in the morning for my liking: singing a jolly show tune from The Sound of Music or South Pacific as I retched from drinking, stress or both in my sad single room.

I was introduced to their friends and offered a sausage. Titters were suppressed around the table. I was missing out on something. I’ve never enjoyed being the only sober person in drunken company. But this was fine. It was summertime in God’s Own County, Yorkshire: the land of booming voices, proper chips, and the best pint of bitter in the whole wide world.

I soon found out the source of the hilarity. It turned out that one errant nipple had been doing the rounds all evening. It was huge and swollen. It was disgusting and horrific – awe inspiring even. Every time the magnificent malignant specimen went on show it was accompanied by gasps of horror followed by seagull squawks of laughter. Then, ten minutes later, pleas for, ‘One more time… just once… go on’. The owner, Marvin, gladly obliged and the more alcohol we consumed the more hilarious it became. And, it seemed, more swollen – probably the constant chafing as Marvin’s shirt was raised and lowered on demand for us, the baying mob.

Poor lad, he had to go into hospital the following week to get it lanced before it exploded like Mount Vesuvius swamping Pompeii, destroying everything in its path. So of course it would’ve been wise for us to run away, or cower indoors with the kids, but we stayed outside, drinking, talking, and laughing – demanding repeated viewings. It kept us amused. Marvin enjoyed his time in the spotlight, and I hoped he fared well on the operating slab under the surgeon’s knife.

Cape Wrath, 12/25

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11. Derby day

I woke up with John Lennon…

… George, Paul, and Ringo too. Mick and Keith were there with Bill, Charlie and Brian. The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks all greeted me a cheery ‘Good Morning’. The sun shone through a gap in the curtains throwing a heavenly light onto my bed covers. Was I in heaven: no, just Peter’s spare bedroom, which also doubled as his recording studio. He had a sweet little 12-track mixer, three guitars, two mikes, and framed posters of his favourite bands on every wall.

Peter was a huge Beatles fan. We met at college through a shared love of the Fab Four, early REM, and Aztec Camera. Peter had a guitar and I had a Badminton racket. He was still a musician but made his living as a teacher.

I got up and met Peter’s six-year old daughter, Daisy. She had a lovely smile and a close relationship with her favourite cuddly toy, a tiger called ‘Tiger’. I asked her if I could borrow him, as I would be far away from my family way up high in the chilly north. She refused point blank, but minutes later, came back with a doll that she said I could borrow. I was touched. She said it was her least favourite toy and the dolly was going spare. Peter’s wife Alison joined us shortly after and plonked a great big smacker right on my lips. There was no fake two-cheek air kissing up here.

Alison and Daisy were going camping but Peter had refused to go. So once the girls had set off we had the whole place to ourselves. And what did we do? Well, not much at all really, and we both agreed it was one of the best Saturdays we’d had in a long time. Why, because sometimes nothing’s better than sitting on the sofa, listening to music, and watching football on TV. And that’s exactly what we did for most of the day. Apart from one interlude when we walked into town to visit a basement record store. We spent a happy half-hour flipping through obscure 70s vinyl; in the same way I spent my lunch hours and spare cash at Charlie’s Records in Watford Market back in the 80s.

While we were together Peter said one great thing and one silly thing. We were complaining about our wives complaining about us. Peter said they didn’t realise that relaxing was an activity. I agreed. And I hope Peter imparted that knowledge to his young charges. His job, he also said, required a lot of ‘behaviour management’. I laughed. Could he have seen himself saying that back in 1988, in his student bedroom, showing me the chords to ‘Radio Free Europe’? On the other hand, could I have foreseen my beloved record player rendered inaccessible by my kids’ maths and spelling books stacked on top of its protective lid? No.

We all grow up. And the more we learn, the more we realise the truth of the saying by the late, great George Melly that ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ Mine went too fast, but I had my fun. And now, I have to say, I’m glad to be grey.

Cape Wrath, 11/25


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10. A helping hand

I stayed longer in Canterbury than I’d intended to. I’d planned to hitch up to Derby in the early afternoon, but it was too late for that – the next coach wouldn’t get there until nine. My host, Peter, a good friend from college days, was expecting me around five. I decided to go by train instead, got to King’s Cross, then realised it was too expensive.

So I went up to Golders Green to hop on a coach. It was nice going back. My mum had grown up there, in pleasant flats that backed onto the tube servicing yards. As kids, my brothers and I ran around the spacious shared gardens where my mum had put on plays and pretended to be a pirate when she was a girl. It was all very exotic to us, growing up as we did in semi-rural South West Herts. And my earliest memories of London are very much framed by our family visits to NW13. The Northern Line tubes screeching, their siren calls beckoning me to head south to Hampstead and the West End.

As I left the Underground station at Golders Green, a coach heading up to Nottingham pulled in. And I thought I might as well jump on then transfer over to Derby when I got there. The driver did have room, but couldn’t take a debit card, and I didn’t have enough cash. I was only £2 short, and luckily he took pity on me, and said I could pay when he stopped at Milton Keynes. I put my rucksack in the hold. But in the meantime a woman, obviously concerned about the potential loss of revenue to National Express, let the driver know that there was no cash point at MK. The driver was cool though, and said I could pay him the difference in Nottingham. I thanked him, and smiled sweetly at the nice public-spirited lady, as I made my way up the coach to try and find a seat.

It’s always interesting climbing on board a coach that’s well into its journey. The incumbent passengers have settled, and marked out their territory with handbags, magazines, and soft cuddly toys. So it’s rare to find two free adjacent seats. I worked my way up the aisle looking for potential road chums. I couldn’t decide who I wanted to share this leg of my journey with, and found myself getting near the back, and running out of options. I settled on a seat in the aisle, which is good for my long legs. The only problem being that the window seat was taken by a young man, he was sleeping, and his legs stretched right across my seat. I tapped him on the shoulder: he grunted, I sat down, the coach pulled away, and I was heading north.

The guy next to me was still half-asleep, and shoved his left hand down his trousers, and kept it there for the rest of the journey. I think he just needed some comfort. Maybe it was like sucking a thumb; protection against the perils of the open road. In this instance, the M1, horribly busy on a Friday night. Commuters and weekenders spewed out of the city – looking forward to the weekend with family, pets or just a cold tin of soup, and a single, hopeful lottery ticket.

We finally pulled into Nottingham at nine-thirty, thirty minutes after I would’ve arrived in Derby, had I taken the coach from Canterbury. Peter, being a gent, insisted on picking me up. We cruised out of the city on Brian Clough Way, and listened to the World Cup on the radio as Ghana crashed out to Uruguay on penalties. We arrived at Pete’s neat, modern townhouse, drank Peroni and ate Lasagne. I crashed out too, exhausted, but this time in a freshly made bed in my very own room. Would Kerouac have approved? I doubt it. But I was cosy, comfortable, and in good company. It was time to dream.

Cape Wrath, 10/25


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9. The sinner’s tale

It had been 25 years since my last confession. And I hadn’t been to mass in that time either, apart from weddings, christenings, and funerals.

So as soon as I realised what the Service of Reconciliation was, I promptly turned around and fled. Not for me thanks: especially as the Anglican chapel was open to all-comers, and I used to divulge all my youthful indiscretions in a Catholic confessional box. This was shielded from the outside world by ancient carved dark wood. You were also safely partitioned off from Father Hellfire & Damnation by a latticed window. This was designed to preserve anonymity on both sides, but served to make the priest appear mysterious, otherworldly, and slightly demonic.

I paced up and down outside the chapel and considered my next move. Why not confess? What did I have to lose? Before I left, I’d developed a mantra – be curious and fearless. I was being neither. What the hell, there was a lot of fetid water under my spiritual bridge, so I could do with a divine colonic irrigation. I re-entered the chapel and there was a priest waiting patiently. Was that my confessor? No. She came in soon after and I immediately felt comforted by her presence. I tried not to listen in on the priest’s woes, so rehearsed my top ten sins in my head while I waited.

When it was my turn I thought it was best to be upfront and honest. I admitted to being a lapsed-Catholic and an existentialist, partly in the hope that she would send me away. But that was fine, she said. Most people she saw were from other faiths or just inquisitive. Many were shoppers who found their way there by accident: unburdening their troubles, as they set down their bulging plastic bags, lightening the load.

Her name was Claire, she was warm, wise and far from sanctimonious. I liked her and was happy to offload my many moral transgressions onto her very broad shoulders. We sat side by side, a cosy fireside chat, far was less confrontational than the Catholic model. And when I was finished she gave me a blessing. I kneeled for this and she put her hands on my head. I thought of Lizzie the hairdresser, and the old men she told me about who came in for a hair wash, but really, all they wanted was a head massage.

This was spiritual though, rather than sensual. I asked if I had to say 100 Hail Marys as penance, but she let me off with a simple but uplifting instruction for the rest of the day. I came to use it throughout my trip, and still do now. All she asked was that I noticed the good in everything and everyone. To seek it out and recognise it when I experienced it. And to see what a difference that made to my spiritual wellbeing. It was a wonderful idea, and it worked. What a remarkable woman. And what a strange morning, it was not what I’d planned at all.

I thanked Claire and roamed around the cathedral feeling incredibly light and content. But it had been an intense morning, so I found a pew and sat down to rest. Soon I heard the voices of angels. I was charmed and beguiled. So I followed their seductive sounds down to the cloisters. There I found a gaggle of tourists, in brightly coloured cagoules, enraptured by the King’s School choir. They were practising for a service that evening under the astute and supportive tutelage of their choirmaster. I found a place to perch and floated away.

I’ve always loved music but had never been moved in such a deep way before. Perhaps it was the confession, or just something magical in the air. I welled up, and let one solitary tear trickle out the corner of my left eye. It’d been bottled up for weeks. I thought it might’ve popped out to say hello when I said bye to everyone at work. Or when I left home on the first day. But obviously I’d been saving it up for this one perfect moment.

After they finished, I told the choirmaster how intensely moving an experience it had been. The music of the gods descending from the heavens, sung by spotty teens to one thankful, mixed-up, middle-aged man – redeemed now, and clean.

Cape Wrath, 9/25

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8. The sinner’s prologue

I have a confession to make. In my haste to catch the train on the first day of my trip, I left a few vital items at home, all of which would’ve undoubtedly come in handy on my journey north:

1. Camera – SHIT
2. Reading glasses – DOUBLE SHIT
3. Michelin map – SHIT CUBED
4. Addresses and contact details of friends I’d be staying with – SHIT, SHIT, SHIT, SHIT

Never mind, I would simply rely on the kindness of strangers and my fairly good knowledge of mainland Britain. I learned this through play: a jigsaw map of England, Scotland and Wales from childhood, each county having its own separate coloured piece. I loved it. But you can’t really get lost in the UK, can you? It’s not that big. We’re not Greenland, Texas or Siberia. And surely, all roads lead to everywhere, don’t they?

After I left the hostel, I found my way into Canterbury. It was 10am and the locals were revolting: the Wetherspoon’s pub was open, and a shaky handful of people were sitting outside in the sun drinking cold pints of discount lager. They had been there since 9am according to the shop assistant in the newsagent opposite. I was impressed and appalled at the same time. I thought Canterbury was going to be wholesome.

I wandered into the ancient city centre, and I thought how everything seems fine on a sunny day. Canterbury was wonderful. I love history. I’m a sucker for crooked old buildings, cobbled squares, and children with rickets selling lark’s tongues. To add to my general feeling of well being, the busker outside the cathedral sang a neat version of Waterloo Sunset, so I threw him a shilling for his troubles.

I should’ve hung on to my money because entry to the cathedral was £8, which was too much of my budget for the day. But I was determined to explore this medieval masterpiece, so I asked the nice spindly lady at the gate if I had to pay to attend a service. This is always a good way to avoid entry fees to great churches. ‘No, that’s fine’, I was told, and next up was a Service of Reconciliation in the chapel at Noon.

It would’ve been crazy to go to Canterbury and not see the inside of the cathedral. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s stood the ravages of time and is an outstanding work of architecture, and a beautiful, ethereal light-filled space.

I felt I had to at least attend the start of the service having conned my way in for free, so I asked for help in finding the chapel. An officious WI-type lady led me there. She strode off at an unholy pace, before summoning a subordinate to take me the last few hundred yards to ‘my place of destination’. I thought that was an odd phrase for a place of worship. I assumed it came from ‘destiny’, and started wondering what mine might be: lonesome traveller or homeowner, shirker or earner, man-child or doting father.

My new guide was nice and pleasant and I arrived with a few minutes to spare. This was lucky, as it turned out that my destination wasn’t hosting a ‘service’, it was time for confession.

Cape Wrath 8/25

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7. First night nerves

The youth hostel in Canterbury was a fine old building. I felt strange at first, like being in a time blip. I’d turned 22 again: the dorm room smelt of old socks, BO, and deodorant. But I wasn’t in my twenties any more: I felt old, down, and out of place. At first there were only young people lurking in the corridors, but then, gradually, families and grey stoic ramblers appeared, and I no longer felt like dad on the dance floor.

I met Jacky in the room. He was from Canada, but originally from Hong Kong. He worked in finance but wanted to be in the music business. We were both wearing Slazenger t-shirts. The brand used to be cool in the early 80s, at least in the pub where I drank. I had a yellow V-neck Slazenger jumper that I got for Christmas. My parents couldn’t afford Pringle. Everyone in our pub wore Slazenger or fake Lacoste polo shirts. You knew the Lacoste were fakes as the alligator faced the wrong way, and all the shirts, illegally smuggled in from Thailand, ripped under the arm after their first outing.

As Jacky and I were talking, a red-faced unshaven drunk man came stumbling in, climbed up onto a top bunk, and fell asleep fully clothed with his boots on. He soon woke with a start, and announced to the dorm that his girlfriend was cooking him a chilli. He needed to get to her place. So he dropped down with a thump from his bunk and headed off in search of her. He tried to open a locked partition, gave up, and set off the fire alarm when he failed to get out the Emergency door. It looked like we were in for a long and interesting night. My heart sank, and I felt uneasy.

He came back five-minutes later. I was going to pretend I was asleep but we got talking. He wasn’t a bumbling drunken fool. He was articulate and well spoken. I was intrigued. It turned out he used to be a management consultant in Latvia, then Lithuania. He did this for ten years, but quit for reasons he didn’t go in to. We wished each other well as he crashed out to sleep again, boots still on. Our stories were actually quite similar. Perhaps we had more in common than I cared to admit. Was he an alternative version of me?

Have you ever wondered what you’d be doing if you’d made a different set of decisions in your life? I often do. One version of me is a manager for the Nationwide Building Society, probably based in Norfolk. He has a small wife and a big garden. Another is a librarian, full of suppressed rage. He drinks heavily at the weekends and bets on the horses, to relieve his frustration and the feeling that life has passed him by. My favourite me went to art school and has a small studio in Siran, Languedoc-Roussillon. He lives in a tumbledown house with fading walls and a ricotta roof. He makes enough money to get by, drinks moderately, and is very happy. He’s married, with five children, four goats and an olive tree.

Another person wondering ‘what if’ that night was Estelle. Estelle was an elderly Dutch woman I met in the lounge. I told her she had a pretty name, and she launched into a well-rehearsed monologue. I wondered if she was an alternative stand-up comedian trying out new material, but no one was laughing. Estelle was worried by men with long hair and earrings, ‘they are loopy, surely? I had to ask a policeman why they did that’. She’d been looking for the right man for the last 20 years, but was still on her own. She admitted to being ‘very fussy’, and as she ‘was hot and bothered’ she tootled off to bed.

I crashed too after a suitable interval. My new red-faced drunk friend was still asleep and snoring, and did so for most of the night. I woke up early the next morning. I was tired, but looking forward to my day. I filled up on cheap breakfast before heading into the ancient city centre. I was a pilgrim, but on a literary rather than a spiritual tour. Or so I thought.

Cape Wrath, 7/25

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6. Away with the fairies

I got back on the train. And, because I’d enjoyed the journey down to Dungeness so much, I went all the way up to Hythe. I was glad I did. The train hurtled through bright green fields bemusing the locals: cows, sheep, and waving kids. There was an ethereal interlude when my carriage was filled with tiny fluttering flowers: fairy-wings, blown through the open door, then just as quickly, blown out again. I felt both exuberant and philosophical. I took the fairy-wings to be a good sign, that the trip would be illuminating, lift me up from the doldrums, and change me in some way for the better.

At Hythe, I jumped on a bus to Folkestone, so I could get another one up to Canterbury. At Folkestone bus station I bought the £1.99 Sandwich of the Day at Subway. I was back within budget. The lad behind the counter thought I’d been hiking due to my rucksack. I told him about my train trip to and from Dungeness. He knew it well from childhood, and had happy memories too. We parted temporary friends, and I waited for the bus up to Canterbury where I’d get my head down for the night.

It was another great ride. Up from Folkestone to Canterbury I zoomed, on grey, patched-up roads carving their way through the lush Kent countryside: narrow roads bordered by hedgerows instead of pavements. I sat on the best seat in the bus. Top deck, front left, loads of legroom, which is wonderful when you’re 6ft 5inches tall. The bus was almost empty, and it felt like I was riding in an oversized light-filled taxi, my very own magic carpet ride. I felt stupidly happy, just like a child. This was turning out to be a brilliant first day. Nothing major had happened. I was just more in tune with everything around me. More than I had been for a very long time.

Travelling by local bus is not the fastest way to travel. But it’s better than express train or motorway journeys by car if you want to see more of what you’re travelling through. You cut right through towns and villages. Peep into front windows and spy on families arguing, reading or playing Scrabble, Monopoly and hunt the thimble. You get to look over hedges into gardens and see men washing cars and mowing lawns, content in their solitude; office men asserting their masculinity by building up a sweat. Enjoying physical toil at the end of the day as a foil to endless hours pushing paper, pressing buttons, mesmerized by dim-lit work screens.

I was pleased that Dungeness was ticked off my list and surprised at the tranquillity I found down there. But now I was properly on my way, heading north to Canterbury where I’d rest up for the night having decided against Margate by bus lottery; first bus equals best bus. Sorry Tracey Emin and J.M.W. Turner, Chaucer won the day. And choosing Canterbury was the best single decision I made on the whole trip.

Cape Wrath, 6/25

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