Pens of the Earth: Ten Years Gone

By Richard Salsbury

I remember when all this was concrete. Well … and brick and stone and glass. But you get the idea – straight lines; beautiful, flat surfaces as far as the eye could see. They forget now what a comfort it was to be in an environment like that, where you knew that man had mastery and the chaos of nature was kept at bay.

Now the eco-mentalists have got hold of things it’s green everywhere. Plays havoc with my hay fever, I can tell you. If you go up the Spinnaker Tower you can see even more of it. Ever since the council decided to promote their green roofs policy the buildings look weird from above, like they’ve all been given a Martian crew-cut.

Our problems were supposed to be solved by ingenious engineering, weren’t they? That’s the way I left things when I retired in 2020, all of ten years ago now. What on earth happened? When did we decide that going backwards was the way forwards?

Still, one thing that’s eternal about Portsmouth is the sea. I always did like the sea. Not getting in it, or on it, you understand, but watching it from afar. It might ripple and occasionally rage, but it always returns to flat in the end. I’ve just about got a view of it from my table. At least the powers-that-be haven’t decided to plant trees all along the edge of Gunwharf and obscure your view of the sea; I’ll give them that.

This coffee’s actually pretty good – just a simple cup of the black stuff, nothing fancy, even though the cafe itself looks about as right-on as you could get, which is why I’m drinking outside. I didn’t ask if it was vegan because I didn’t want to know. Everything is nowadays, isn’t it? But what do they put in it to make it vegan? They don’t tell you that, do they?

My grandson’s late, of course. That goes without saying. I blame the changes in the work ethic. In my day you turned up to work at nine on the dot, and you didn’t leave a minute before five-thirty. None of this ‘I’ve decided that Tuesday is going to be my half day’ business.

They’ve got these collectives now – businesses owned by the workers. All sounds a bit communist to me. What was wrong with having a boss bawling in your ear about deadlines? Never did me any harm. Character-building, that’s what it was. Yes, of course, you’re always going to get one or two bad eggs, like that Jim Dalloway, or Tony Bench, or – God help me – Rob de Santo. He was a right tosser. In hindsight it was inevitable that a heart attack would get him.

Off to my left, all the way down the quayside, I can see the huge white sausage of the Cosham Zeppelin docking at the top of the Lipstick Tower. Now there’s a modern marvel – so elegant, so graceful, so precise. In a world where so much of our future seems to depend on mud and plants, it’s a reminder that there’s still room for good old-fashioned engineering. And they’re much improved since the days of the Hindenburg, of course. No flammable hydrogen, for starters – it’s all helium now. If there was a puncture, it would just settle slowly to the ground and a lot of passengers would start talking like Mickey Mouse. The cabin will even float on water.

I take another sip of coffee, a small one, because I’m trying to make it last. Come on, Aaron. Don’t keep your old grandad waiting.

I had my fingers crossed that he would go into engineering too. At one point it had seemed a possibility, given the GCSEs and A-Levels he took, but I didn’t put any pressure on him. Instead he ended up in the Forestry Commission, pouring over maps to identify places suitable for their massive reforestation project, sourcing the trees, organising the planting teams, sometimes even going out himself and getting knee-deep in mud for his troubles. Ah, well.

And suddenly here he is, lanky and smiling, hair all over the place, wearing a faded rock-band T-shirt and jeans. He plonks down in the chair opposite.

‘Hiya!’ he says.

‘What time do you call this, then?’

He checks his wrist-phone. ‘Ten forty-seven.’

‘And … ?’

‘And thirty-two seconds.’

‘Cheeky git. You’ve got a thing or two to learn about timekeeping, my boy.’

He grins. He’s spent too much of his life relying on that grin.

‘No, seriously, Aaron, you have to –’

He cuts me off by slapping two rectangles of card onto the table next to my coffee cup. I try not to gawp at them, but I can’t stop myself. Two tickets for the Isle of Wight Zeppelin.

‘You mean … ?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Today?’

‘Yeah.’

Of course, I know what he’s doing. Diversionary tactics – just like that disarming smile of his. He does this often, steering me onto a different line of thought, away from my criticisms and the advice he doesn’t want to hear. He thinks I don’t know he’s doing this.

And yet … those ten years since retiring have slipped through my fingers like water. Do I have another ten? Shouldn’t I be grabbing hold of every little scrap of enjoyment while I still can?

‘Aaron, you didn’t have to …’

‘Course I didn’t,’ he says. ‘I wanted to. I was thinking we could get off at Culver Down, take the bus into Sandown and have fish and chips by the sea.’

Oh, God, it sounds like bliss.

Why does Aaron still want to spend time with his old grandad? I can’t figure it out, but I also don’t want to ask; I don’t want to jinx it. My eyes prickle, the sort of sentimental reaction I vowed never to succumb to. I look for a way to distract him from my emotion, and notice the logo on his T-shirt for the first time – Led Zeppelin, one of my favourites.

I point at it. ‘Clever.’

‘I thought it would be appropriate.’

‘So, what are you doing listening to a band who haven’t released a single album during your lifetime?’

He shrugs. ‘I dunno. Stuff doesn’t have to be new; it just has to be good.’

And I wonder if he knows what he’s saying, whether it’s really the throwaway comment it seems.

He gets to his feet and offers me a hand. ‘You coming, then?’

Inspiration: The first line came first. I often like to subvert conventions, so the idea of a character who thinks the opposite of the well-worn cliché appealed. It also provided me with the conflict and humour, but I wanted to make him more than just a figure of fun. He is trying to find his way in a world that no longer makes sense to him. Even if the reader disagrees with him, I hope they can empathise with his situation.

Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be.

Read more at their website: www.pensoftheearth.co.uk.

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