By: Paul McKay
Contact: [email protected]
THIS WEEK, London basked in an Algarvean spring. The sun emerged early in the morning, shone brightly for most of the day, offering blue skies and temperatures of 18 degrees Celsius. Working here in London, the school’s central heating system belted out the heat regardless.
I arrived at school on Friday morning, a little uneasy to notice so few children dressed in regulation navy, wearing instead, an assortment of T-shirts and bright red pullovers. It took one or two with dyed red hair to walk into my room for the penny to finally drop – Red Nose Day. I made a mental note to remove the TV plug…
Cycling home, the sun still shone, so instead of following my usual route, choked in London traffic, I opted for the scenic route along the tow path, snaking by the River Lea. The Lea Valley, centre of London’s Olympic dream, is an unspoilt area of natural marshland supporting a wide range of waterfowl, gently flanking the meandering path of the river itself, flowing serenely towards the Thames. That’s the theory.
Two minutes along the tow path, I narrowly escaped being beheaded by a low willow tree. A little further on, I noticed a wreath tied to a gate post – no doubt someone was less lucky than me. I skirted around a gang of hoodies and, as I went under the Lea Bridge Road, I passed the second freezer I’d seen floating in the river, wondering if it had belonged to the same family as the floral sofa bobbing along near the Ferry Road lock. There was a surprising range of water fowl, including a family of moor hens quite proud of their makeshift home, built on a floating computer monitor.
Saturday I cycled off to my mother’s – a 35 mile journey. As I set off, the sun was rising, the birds were singing and my MP3 player was slowly making me deaf. After one mile, the MP3 player died. Undeterred, I veered off into a supermarket for top up batteries and enjoyed scaring the early morning shoppers with my tight cycling leggings and protective helmet.
Back on the road again, I was surprised by the suddenness with which the weather had become cloudy, cold and windy. With a stiff upper lip, I zipped up my jacket and continued on, singing along to Village People and Abba. One emancipating aspect of city life is that you can pass 100 people, who you will never see again, and you don’t spare a second’s thought about how they may judge you. I noticed some strange looks as I belted out YMCA, whizzing along the Romford Road, and am certain the passers by regarded me as deranged – perhaps I am.
Feeling exhilarated on the Eastern Avenue, egged on by Tina Turner, I was picturing myself cycling across the Pyrenees on my one man – UK to Algarve – cycle journey. Athletically fit, with tent on my back, surrounded by stunning peaks and golden eagles, I was raconteur, adventurer, athlete, private dancer – a superhero of our time. Abruptly the dream deflated. A sudden hiss brought me down to the Southend Arterial Road and the first puncture of the day.
Two punctures later, arrival at mother’s was heralded by a barrage of advice about cycling, puncture repairs and the best bus route to take to visit Nan. Something peculiar happens to people as they hit 70. For some unexplained reason, everyone feels the need to speak at the same time, very often repeating or echoing what somebody else has said a split second earlier – what is that all about? After an eternity waiting for buses in the English weather, which had now turned Siberian, mother and I finally arrived at Nan’s in Canvey. Inexplicably, my feet will not get warm – they feel like two blocks of ice.
Nan, who will be 95 this year, asked me my age (46) and then informed me I was two years younger than her. I quickly realised she was not quite as sharp as she used to be, which was further confirmed when I spent the next 30 minutes answering the same five questions that were repeated every two minutes or so. Despite this, Nan looks very healthy and appears to be incredibly happy – far happier than she ever was in her compos mentis days.
On a few occasions, she asked if George (late husband – deceased for over 30 years) was home, to which my mother (who I can only assume is 47) responded by shouting ‘Dad’ and nipping upstairs to have a look. The surrealism was only exacerbated by the inescapable fact that the dwelling in which this scene was being acted out was palpably a bungalow.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sheltering from howling winds at bus stops and dashing into cycle shops to source stronger, puncture resistant tyres. Back at the ranch, it was quite endearing to see that mother had gone to the effort to buy some of the flavoured water I like. All evening long I was encouraged to have another glass of Fruits of the forest.
Sunday was spent celebrating a friend’s birthday in a vegetarian restaurant in Greenwich. Typically, the weekend weather had worsened, giving way to freezing temperatures, icy rain and a biting north wind. Four of us had arranged to meet in Greenwich, so Dean and I scoured the area for a decent vegetarian (contradiction in terms) restaurant. We needed somewhere discreet, not too overlooked, somewhere we could arrive in and sit down very quickly and unobserved.
This subterfuge was driven by the impending arrival of Clarissa, one of the guests. Clarissa, a six foot tall, imposing transsexual, favours heavy metal attire and has a shock of bright blonde frizzy hair framing a rugged jaw line. Her four feet tall, 40 stone friend, Hayley, couldn’t make it, which was something of a blessing, as together they certainly turn heads. When everyone finally arrived, the waitress proudly assigned us a bright sunny table by a plate glass window at the front of the restaurant.
We opted for dessert in a tiny Olde English Café overlooking the Cutty Sark, which looked quite promising from the outside with an appetising display of scones, tea cakes and Danish pastries.
Upon entering the shop, one was confronted by a harsh sign announcing a 10 per cent service charge. One was drawn beyond the rather dingy counter to a sunlit room at the back. Upon entry, this room turned out to be a damp, dank excuse for a conservatory with dodgy Formica tables and the feel of an out of season guesthouse down on its heels.
Feeling trapped and committed, we did the English thing – smiled pleasantly, sat down and ordered. I ended up with a ‘luxury chocolate’, which turned out to be a Cadbury’s instant with squirty cream on the top, most of which was dripping down the side of the cracked mug – a snip at two pounds and 70 pence. On the way out (we had to queue to pay despite the service charge), 30 pence was added to my bill as my 10 per cent. I am ashamed to say that I had a full-blown stand up argument during my friend’s birthday celebration over the extra three pence and refused to pay. In the middle of this argument I noticed a little saucer by the till labelled ‘Tips – thank you’.
In one week’s time I will be back in the Algarve – how tame life will seem, perhaps my feet will thaw.
Teacher, Paul McKay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.