Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Toilet cleaners and curiosity: a toxic combination

Courtesy of Simon Howden at

I’m at an age when I occasionally engage in life reviews, reflecting on my 56 years of meandering while trying to make sense of it all. In particular, I’ve ruminated on those times – rather more than you might think – where my actions have endangered life, either my own or that of others. One example of the former took place in the bathroom of my parents’ home 46 years ago.

As a 10 years old, I displayed an inquisitive mind; “why?”, “how?” and “what if?” were recurrent questions when faced with new situations or novel snippets of information. The brightly coloured bottles of bleach and toilet cleaners that lurked behind our lavatory had long since attracted my attention, particular that skull-and- crossbones warning about toxicity. So one afternoon, while I was home alone, I decided to investigate what all the fuss was about.

I picked up the “Domestic Thick Bleach” and “Ajax Powder” and proceeded to read the warnings on the two toilet cleaners:
Do not ingest – I looked up “ingest” in my pocket dictionary. Eating or drinking toilet cleaner! Did they think we’re all stupid or something?

Avoid contact with the skin and eyes – Fair enough; even as a young boy, I assumed that spillage on bodily parts might sting.

If accidentally swallowed, contact a doctor as a matter of urgency – I did wonder whether anyone would still have the power of speech to call emergency services in such a scenario.

Do not, under any circumstances, mix with other toilet cleaners – This warning intrigued me, triggering all my “Why?” and “What if?” queries. Frustratingly, no explanation was offered on the bottles. The labels’ failure to inform, along with my emerging interest in science, conspired to motivate me to conduct an in-house chemistry experiment.

I inserted the plastic plug into the bathroom washbasin and sprinkled a few layers of Ajax powder into the porcelain bowl. As I reached for the Domestos, my pulse accelerated with the excitement of discovery. I removed the red cap (the child-proof variety had yet to be invented), dispensed a few generous splashes of the viscous liquid onto the powder in the washbasin, and leant over to observe.

At first nothing happened and I recall feeling a sense of anticlimax. But then the mixture started to hiss, spit and bubble, while emitting a vapour which spiralled upwards towards my overhanging nostrils. The initial snort knocked me backwards, and I had to steady myself on the side of the bath. The bathroom filled with a dense fog. My legs crumpled and my breathing became laboured. In a daze, I crawled out of the bathroom on my hands and knees to reach safety.

Subsequently, I learnt that the green-white vapour was chlorine, one of the first poisonous gases to be used in warfare. My ad-hoc chemistry experiment had inadvertently transformed the family bathroom into a trench in the midst of the battle of Ypres in 1914.

By the time my parents returned, the chemical reaction had fizzled out. They said they could detect a stale smell throughout the house and accused me of smoking. I claimed that one of our neighbours had been burning rubbish in their garden and that this must be the source of the pong. They seemed to believe me; after all, it was a more plausible tale than the idea of some lunatic mixing toilet cleaners in the bathroom washbasin!            

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The day I almost killed my brother

Courtesy of Rawich at

Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past. Reflecting on my boyhood, it is astounding that I, or my sibling, survived into our teenage years, yet alone middle age.

My infancy was littered with stupid deeds, too numerous to list in their entirety. But a few remain at the forefront of my memory, not least because each could have led to a fatality. Like the time I nearly killed my brother.

“I wonder if I could fit inside that suitcase,” said Tony, as we both lay on the floor in our parents’ bedroom one rainy afternoon, wrestling with boredom.

Tony is my older brother, five years my senior, and (on the evidence of this story) just as dumb as me – perhaps stupidity is in the genes! The “can we fit in a suitcase” game seemed appealing to my five-year-old mind, so I squealed with enthusiasm at the prospect and instantly rose to my feet.

“No, I’ll go first,” said my commanding big brother; I knew from previous experience that there was no point in arguing with him. I watched, admiringly, as Tony climbed inside the suitcase, adopted an extra-coiled version of the foetal position, and asked me to shut the lid. “But whatever you do, don’t lock it.”

Perhaps a child psychiatrist would today label my behaviour as indicative of “oppositional defiant disorder,” but I often found that a request not to carry out a specific action immediately induced an urge to do so. I dutifully closed the suitcase.

“Told you I could do it.” The muffled sound of my brother’s voice, seeping through the lid, was almost inaudible.

“What would happen if I pressed this metal thingy on here?” I asked.   

Fifty years on, I think my brother’s retort was, “Nooooooo…,” but I can’t be sure, as the sounds leaking from the case seemed distorted and breathy. Anyway, I pushed one of the two metal fasteners on the case and it clicked into place. I immediately tried to unlock it but by my five-year-old mind did not have the wherewithal to realize that, to achieve this aim, I would need to slide the catch outwards with my thumb. Instead, I tugged at the fastener, but to no avail.

The indistinct sounds from inside the case rose an octave, and were accompanied by repeated knocking noises. I think I recall hearing “I can’t breathe” and whimpers that seemed to originate from miles away but were, in retrospect, coming from the locked valise in front of me. I tried lifting the unlocked end of the lid, and wafting my hand under its lip while repeating, “Have some air,” but the panicky cries from inside suggested my actions were not having the desired effect.

When my brother could no longer be heard, I ran downstairs to find mum who was washing clothes in the kitchen.

“I think Tony’s dead,” I said, standing guiltily in the doorway. Mum sped upstairs, immediately recognized what had happened – as mum’s do – and flicked the suitcase catch to release my brother. As he gingerly got to his feet, I recall his ashen features. Copious amounts of sweat and tears rolled down his cheeks, and he was panting in a way that reminded me of how our dog behaved after a long walk on a sultry day.

But mum seemed unfazed, as if her heroics were all part of a typical day – perhaps they were. “Keep out of the suitcases,” she said, nonchalantly, as she returned to her dolly tub and mangle (wringer).

As for Tony, he continues to have a fear about confined spaces; strange that!    

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A birthday to remember

I recently celebrated my 56th birthday. Maybe “celebrate” is the wrong word; once you reach a certain age, the central function of birthdays is to act as a reminder that you are another year closer to oblivion.

Throughout my life, I’ve never attached much significance to birthday cards, sending or receiving. On the occasion of my 56th, three of them landed on my doormat and it later struck me how their content seemed to capture – albeit in an offbeat kind of way - the essence of my current situation.
Courtesy of David
Castillo Dominici at

Card number 1 was from my 20-year-old daughter. The envelope was addressed, “To the old man”. Emblazoned on the front of the card was, “Happy 60th birthday”. I suspect she has always viewed me as her “old” dad since she popped into this world two decades ago. And at least she spared me the “old git” jibe that has decorated some of her previous communications.  

Card number 2 was from my parents, both now in their mid-80s. The picture consisted of a bright red racing car, the sort of card you might send to an 18-year-old boy-racer shortly after he’d passed his driving test. The age-inappropriateness of the birthday greeting indicated that they still view me as their youngest child, their baby, despite the fact that I’m not far away from drawing an old-age pension.

Card number 3 was from my wife. The verse within was beautiful, proclaiming her unstinting love for me over the 33 years we’ve been together. Reading it moistened my eyes. That was until I noticed that the front of the card read, “Happy anniversary to my wonderful husband”. She had purchased the card on the day we had been out together in Manchester city centre, wining and dining, leaving me in the pub while she nipped across the road to the card shop; a combination of moderate alcohol intoxication and long-sightedness had led to the error.

My 23-year old son didn’t send a card. When he (coincidentally) called round later in the day, he confessed that he had forgotten it was my birthday. “Happy birthday, paps”, he said, as way of atonement when I reminded him. “Are you going to treat me to a couple of pints?”

On the night of my birthday, just prior to switching off the lights, I gazed at my three cards on the shelf above the fireplace. In an inspirational instant it struck me how love can be expressed in a multitude of ways. I smiled, turned and went to bed. I slept well.     

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What does a 56-year-old man worry about?

Courtesyof pixtawan -
During infancy, my central concerns focused on the risk of humiliation at the hands of my school teachers, some of whom deployed bare-bottom spanking in front of the whole class as a punishment; even at the tender age of six, the prospect of botching the arithmetic test and my arse being exposed to 30 of my peers was a disturbing prospect. By the time I reached my teenage years my worries centred on whether I’d win the affections of a pretty girl in my class (and perhaps glimpse her arse) rather than losing out to one of my mates.

Early adulthood evoked anxieties about college examinations and career prospects. Then parental responsibilities arrived, together with ongoing fears about not having enough money to pay the bills at the end of each month. As my affluence increased, the day-to-day worries of a responsible job, alongside the toxic office politics, grabbed centre stage.   

Now at 56, and having recently opted for early retirement with a generous pension, what is there left for me to worry about? My 33-year-old relationship with Mrs Jones is stronger than ever. My two adult children seem to be maturing into decent, independent human beings. There is nothing around to disturb my mental tranquillity.  

But the human psyche, in its wondrous complexity, seems to find things to fret about even when life is good. Listed below are the top 10 worries that have pushed into my mind over the last month:

1. The inward journey of my toe-nail
Despite regular attention from the clippers, the big-toe nail on my left foot seems determined to get more acquainted with the neighboring soft tissue, and is burrowing into the flesh like a scene from Alien on reverse play.

2. My daughter driving her Mini-Cooper
The occasional disturbing image of my precious princess travelling at speed in such a frail shell alongside all the 4 x 4s and juggernauts, while casually twiddling the dial on her car radio.

3. The kink in my willy
It might have been my overly tight classic briefs, but when I was in the shower a fortnight ago I noticed that my most precious appendage had an almost 45-degree kink in it half way along its length. For a few nervous moments I feared that any future intimacy would require Mrs Jones to be out of sight and in a separate room.

4. My football club suffering a humiliating defeat
Following promotion to the Premier League of English football (soccer), my small-town club, Burnley, are this season competing against giants like Manchester United and Liverpool. More than once I’ve awoken abruptly from a nightmare as a 10th goal sails into the Burnley net.

5. Dying slowly with a degenerative brain disease
Sadly, my mother-in-law is afflicted with senile dementia; her faculties and personality ebbed away some time ago. I fear such a gradual, undignified demise. When it’s time to meet my maker, I hope for a sudden death; a massive coronary during one of my early-morning jogs would be ideal.

6. Whether my knee joints can hold firm
Speaking of jogging … throughout my menopause-fueled pursuit of fitness, my knee and ankle joints regularly creak and threaten to give way altogether. As such, I’m prone to catastrophic images of being wheel-chair bound before the age of 60.
7. Self-mutilation from trimming my bush
I increasingly like to keep my intimate vegetable patch neat and tidy, a practice encouraged by reading that shaving makes your manhood look bigger. But the ever increasing depths of the folds in my dangly bits means that completion of the procedure with my Remington 3-speed trimmer is fast developing into a bloody business; I fear one day that the process will leave the shower resembling the iconic scene from Psycho.

8. My son’s lungs
At the age of 22, for some inexplicable reason, my son Ryan decided to start smoking. At times I’m disturbed by the image in my head of his sooty lungs, spluttering to inflate.  

9. The passage of time
It is unsettling how quickly time passes: I’m not far off 60; my parents are in their mid 80s, and my “kids” are both 20-something. Bereavements are imminent. But perhaps even more unsettling are the little losses and endings: no more family holidays; no more teaching my children to drive; selling our house so as to down-size; and no longer in the role of my children’s taxi driver - all life chapters that will never be repeated.

10. My hemorrhoids
Despite previous assaults with ointments and the surgeon’s knife, my resilient little buddies continue to strive for daylight. Although painless, the blood-stained underwear can sometimes appear as if … … But I’ll spare you any more detail; I wouldn’t wish to worry you!  

And who said the life of a 56-year-old early retiree was an easy one?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A table for one

Courtesy of Debspoons -

Last Saturday afternoon, I attended a beer festival in a neighbouring town and, as it was a pleasantly warm evening, decided to walk the four miles home rather than order a taxi. As is often the case, my five pints of fine cask ale had induced a mellow mood and I welcomed the opportunity for reflection during the homeward hike.

When I reached the half-way point on my journey, around 7.30 pm, I passed an Indian restaurant. The sweet smell of chicken tikka masala caressed my nostrils and triggered a hollow, burning sensation in the pit of my stomach, so I decided I was in urgent need of a curry.

Despite the restaurant seeming less than half full, several minutes elapsed before the manager greeted me.
“Good evening, sir”, he said, while glancing over my shoulder, as if searching for my dining companion. “How can I help you?”
This struck me as a bizarre question; I resisted the urge to say that I’d like to buy two litres of matt emulsion and hog-hair brush.
“A table for one, please.”
“Have you booked?”
“No, I’ve dropped in on the off-chance” I said, while scanning the empty tables around us.
The manager seated me near to the exit, directly across from the ladies’ restroom. A swift swoop of his hand cleared away one set of utensils, leaving the undersized table set for one diner.

As I read the menu, I could not help but notice the reactions of other customers to me, Billy-no-mates, sitting alone. Two young women exiting the toilet seemed to stare at me as if I was a reincarnated version of Ted Bundy. A couple entering the restaurant looked, and looked again, as if they had observed something ghoulish. I reassured myself that I must be succumbing to paranoia, and that it was all in my imagination.

Once the food arrived, the process of eating only amplified my self-consciousness. The crunch as I bit into my poppadoms seemed to reverberate around the restaurant. Despite my best efforts, my lamb bhuna insistently dribbled out of the corner of my mouth. After all, eating out is a social activity, where food intake should be punctuated by conversation and the exchange of pleasantries; but without anyone opposite me, to distract and
shield, I felt exposed.

Towards the end of my meal, two children, a boy and a girl both aged about 6, appeared in front of me. I nodded and smiled; thankfully they smiled too. Suddenly, their mother appeared, glanced suspiciously in my direction and, without any word or gesture of recognition to me, grasped their hands and led them quickly away. I felt like the child-catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang intent on snatching children off the streets of Vulgaria! I stifled an impulse to scream, “Come along my little ones; come and get your lollipops.”

It is rare for me to eat out alone in a restaurant, particularly in the evening. My impromptu stop at the Jewel of Bombay provided me with empathy of how single people might feel when in the same position. I wont be repeating the experience in a hurry; thank goodness for Mrs Jones!


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Six things men dread to hear from their wives

Women are wonderful. Without a daily dose of their feminine charms men’s lives would be impoverished. But the mind of the female is a labyrinth of baffling complexity that is beyond the comprehension of the average fellow.

Mrs Jones has been my other half for over 33 years, so our compatibility is beyond doubt. Nevertheless, there are a number of her day-to-day utterances that continue to disturb me, crashing into my emotions like a brakeless juggernaut careering down a one-in-three incline and evoking some combination of fear, hopelessness and despondency. Here are the six comments I most dread to hear from my wife; I suspect the bulk of the heterosexual male population will concur.

1. “I need to get myself a new top”
Usually stated in the prelude to a night out, this innocuous-sounding phrase triggers expectations of imminent bankruptcy along with the immediate urge to convey all our furniture to the pawnbroker’s shop. Of course she can’t wear the expensive top languishing in the wardrobe as she’s worn it before and there’s a chance that one of our friends might remember it from an earlier social get-together. And we both know that the clothing bill will inevitably stretch to more than the cost of a blouse; matching skirt, shoes and handbag are absolute necessities. As I fumble on my laptop in search of our current bank balance, I seriously consider the various income-generation initiatives needed to fund the looming clothes-fest, including selling my body for sexual favors on the street corner (which might raise the cost of her pantyhose if the sailors are in town, the liquor is strong and the light is poor).

2. “What time did you get home last night?”
You’ve been out for a couple of beers with the lads, time flew and you arrived home a tad later than anticipated – OK, three hours later – crept into the bedroom and slithered into bed, unnoticed, next to the beautiful, snoring wife. Or so you thought. Her question belies the idea that she is ignorant of the previous night’s arrival time. She knows what time you got home and disapproves. Her question is a test to determine whether you will tell the truth. There’s no option but to come clean: plead guilty and hope for a less severe sentence – perhaps a disapproving glare rather than hours of the silent treatment and a suspension of sexual cooperation.

3. “Are these trousers a bit too tight?”     
Oh God, please don’t ask me! This puts men in a classic catch-22 situation. Any affirmative response ignites the fireworks of indignation: “Are you saying I’m fat?” While any attempts at reassurance, that the trousers don’t look tight at all, is instantly dismissed: “You know nothing; I don’t know why I bother asking you.” The optimal strategy is to pretend that you haven’t heard the question, and remain silent behind the newspaper.

4. “The bedrooms are looking a bit drab now; they need brightening up”
This is female code to inform you to cancel all further engagements for the next six months as throughout this period, with the exception of toilet breaks and an occasional micro sleep, you will labor with paint brush in hand splashing matt emulsion on an expanse of walls and ceilings. Once the upstairs rooms have been decorated they will, by comparison, starkly indicate that the downstairs rooms also require some attention. To add to the pain, the bank balance will probably take a further hit when she decides that new furniture is a must in order to complement the new color scheme. And as the fireplace is “so old fashioned”, brace yourself for major house surgery.

5. “Can we have a quick look around the outdoor market?”   
Outdoor markets are how I imagine Satan’s garden to be: grubby, noisy and inhabited by a raft of ex-convicts trying to sell you crap. But my lady loves “pottering” around them. And her utterance is not a question; it is a statement of intent. My expectation had been to nip to the book shop in town and then find a cosy restaurant for a slurp of wine and a chicken fajita. Instead, she spends the next 2 hours rooting through the junk on each stall while I walk three yards behind her, cursing under my breath, as I bob and weave to avoid being shunted by the multitude of prams and motorized wheelchairs.

6. “First, I need to wash my hair”
Courtesy of Vlado
The idea had been for us both to pop out, on impulse, to enjoy a couple of drinks at the local tavern. Of course, washing hair in this context does not solely mean washing hair, but includes: achieving the correct arrangement of towels; applying shampoo and rubbing to achieve a lather; rinsing with clean water; applying shampoo again; lathering again; rinsing again; applying conditioner; rinsing again; drying off with towel; blow-drying hair (layer by bloody layer); application of curling tongs; and faffing about in the mirror until it “looks right”. By the time we step through the front door I’ve grown a beard and seem to have aged ten years.

There you have it; six things no man (or at least no grumpy, middle-aged man) ever wants to hear from his lady. So come on girls, give your guy a break. Pledge to not use any of these statements (or derivatives thereof) for the next 12 months. You know you can do it. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A tribute to my willy

As I proceed through the sixth decade of my life, I’ve got to thinking more and more about my willy.
Courtesy of Ambro

I’ve tried to recall the first time I contemplated my most valuable organ. One contender is an early memory of when my father announced at a family gathering that, within days of my birth, when my naked baby-body was held aloft for inspection, uncle Ronnie gasped and said, “Bloody hell, he’s well hung; that boy will never be the first out of the shower!”

I was definitely aware of my dangly bits at six years old when our teacher insisted that her pupils, comprising both boys and girls, change into their physical education gear  in the classroom before proceeding to the gym. "Underpants and knickers must be removed” Mrs Fenwick would shout. Giggly and nervous, we all used our desks as shields as we shed our school uniforms and wriggled into our PE kits. I still recall the awkwardness at the prospect of a girl (God forbid!) glimpsing my willy while, at the same time, harbouring a stirring curiosity about the secrets residing under the desk of the blond girl sitting in front of me. 

Speaking of PE, it was during one such session three years later that I learned about the ecstasy my willy could deliver. Half way up the climbing rope, my legs wrapped tightly around that rough, braided helix, a wondrous sensation spread from my loins.  Eyes closed in rapture and, with chin crumpled against the rope, I hung there for as long as I dared, resembling a dog on heat humping its owner’s leg.

Then I entered the self-abuse phase. Between the ages of 12 and 14 my willy got more hand-hammer than a mechanic’s workbench. In my imagination I humped every girl in class, one by one on consecutive nights, even the big lass with yellow teeth and bad breath (although that one necessitated a southerly approach).

As an adult my willy seems to constantly demand attention, and I think about him every day. After showering I inspect him in the mirror, from several angles. I’ll be forever grateful to him for delivering the seeds that grew into my two beautiful children. In contrast, we’ve shared life’s most painful moments; the time I was struck full in the cockpit by a high-velocity cricket ball is particularly salient, as is the occasion I snagged my foreskin in the zip of my Levi jeans – I never went commando again after that mishap.  

Apparently, three quarters of all men believe their willies to be smaller than average. I’m one of them. I soothe myself with platitudes. Size doesn’t matter, as the lady’s tingly bits are on the outside. And, of course, your own always looks smaller in comparison to others as you only ever view it from above. Plus, not forgetting the maxim that sex is 90% in the mind and 10% friction, so physicality doesn’t contribute significantly to carnal satisfaction. Am I convinced? No, not at all. So when I stand in front of the mirror my first wish to any fairy godmother that might be brave enough to stray into my bathroom would be to grant me the todger of a Viagra-fuelled donkey.

But I shouldn’t speak too harshly about my most valued appendage. On most occasions he has successfully stood to attention, proud and dandy, as and when required. I forgive him for the occasions when, like a balloon without helium, it has refused to rise, most notably with a cougar in 1978 - but she did possess talons for fingernails and was carefree about which bits of me she scrunched.  

It might not be the biggest, but it’s mine. And although it sometimes seems to possess a mind of its own, inflating at inopportune moments - the vibrations associated with an internal combustion engine being a potent catalyst, resulting in some interesting moments on public transport - my willy and I have been intimately connected for 55 years. Barring any catastrophic accidents, it will be a partnership that will endure until I die, and that’s something to cherish.