30th December 2020.
Should a fat candle have been lit to burn through 2020 it’d now be guttering.
So I’ve taken stock. Of the so far unnecessary crammed into the impulse buy wardrobe. Hmm. Box of face masks. Box of rubber gloves. Cans of baked beans and chopped tomatoes. Packets of polenta and pasta. Sachets of Borș Magic and miso. Jars of sauerkraut and vine leaves… Vine leaves? Sell by dates all fine and dandy. Good until summer 2021, minimum. Better safe than sorry. Up till now the big cog in the Bailiwick that chose being antisocial to all and sundry Guernsey’s been a lucky wee island. Still, the number of times fingers got crossed and re-crossed led almost to collective tenosynovitis. Such has been the C-word effect.
As islanders raise the two-fingered V for vaccine sign, wind-shred waves from Guernsey to Sark raise whitecaps to Storm Bella. Who’s chucked about sodden branches in the raw. Blossom petal confetti has flown from the twig. Yet despite this yellow bright gorse is smelling of exotic coconut. The sea pink’s pink as pink four months ahead of itself. Our neighbour, Daisy Man, meantime, persists in mowing his garden’s obvious. To maybe pretend things are as they should be. Just for a day or two.
Don’t be fooled. It’s gone bonkers here on this dark, mouse-scuttle, rocky microcosm. Actually, it’s not even that dark. Ignore the fact Jupiter and Saturn have aligned for the first time in eight centuries to achieve a damn fine impression of the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Down almost every country lane garden installations blaze coloured light. It’s blinking dazzlius. Strings of brights bulb weigh heavy on throttled trees, electric reindeer shine silver and white, and giant orange bows illuminate privet. Bella’s made the Island positively tinkle.
She failed, though, to shift the eyesore. So I’ll confess to public spirited trespass. Better still, civic duty. If I’m called before the beak. Sorry gov, I’ll plead, but filthy trash can’t add to an already blighted future.
Gloved, and armed with my Brasher stick, I’d braved the snaggle-briars, and clambered the nailed shut, ‘No Admittance’, meadow gate to grab last August’s storm gift: a large shard of black besmirched polystyrene embedded amongst the now profuse Pyrenees butterbur. How Daisy Man’s wife had gawped at me before a thin smile twitched as if it were a whisker!
Then again, the chuckle-bundle Portuguese lady who works the deli counter had caught my eye too. Spying the Guernsey butter and paw print shopping bag in my Waitrose basket, she seemed to have thought I might be interested in the uncertain future of her friend’s cat.
Her friend, she said, had moved at the beginning of the month, but ‘le tronquet de Noel’, the traditional Island Yule log, was proper aflame when the friend’s grey mog, on its first night out from its new home, hadn’t returned. Despite its paws having being buttered.
“Buttered paws?” I ventured.
“Yeah, sir. Don’t you know butter on paws helps removes smell of old home? Helps find way back to new home. My friend says that.”
“Better to use brandy butter,” I suggested. “Least it would’ve made the mice taste festive. Has your friend checked out Guernsey’s Cat Community Facebook page? It’s very practical.”
“It gives advice about paw-buttering?”
“It’s more a a pussycat lost and found.”
“Maybe I tell her. How many turkey slice you want… sir?”
I guess slinky paws and Yule logs are as much to do with olde custom as a somewhat pagan rite which, although sadly defunct, is worth a mention.
Once upon a gurnard, Guernsey lads had scooped out turnips to use as lanterns, dressed up a freaky effigy called ‘Le vieux bout de l’an’ (the end of the year) – I’m assured it was an effigy and not some bod’s virgin uncle – and on New Year’s Eve a mock funeral procession traipsed through the Island’s streets. Its purpose? To bury the ‘end of the year’ on the beach.
Apparently the Bailiwick’s Royal Court, after much Church wheedling, put an end to the shenanigans. As it oddly did to the poor and hungry begging from house to house that same eve. The fine or whipping doled out for breach, I’m led to understand, has never been rescinded. Oh Guernsey does so keep its feudal niceties tight to its little chest! Like a hubby having the legal obligation to sign off his missus’ annual tax return. “Outrageous!” chums of mine exclaim elsewhere, which right now may as well be Brigadoon.
The Island’s owls, mind you, don’t give a hoot. That I’ve come to be sure of. I mean Guernsey has been ‘home’ for twenty-one months and not once have I heard, let alone seen, a blessed owl. The missus, meanwhile, has earwigged a couple.
“Quelle surprise,” I’d said after number two. “Easy when you’re a night bird yourself.” I might have added that unawareness of strigiformes in my orbit was due to me primarily being a dawn-rising worm-tugger. But my brain warned ‘Nooo! Too risqué. An unfair charge of crudity would await.”
‘Course, my personal dearth of owls has, like the polystyrene, nettled. But it’s worse than that. Wishing for the presence of an owl has morphed into obsession. Call it homesickness. You see, around proper home in Wiveliscombe owls are ten a penny. To the point my son once yelling at a super-articulate tawny to “pissing shut up!” being run of the mill.
Fate, however, took a funny turn in Guernsey’s darkest depths on the night of Flat 1’s party. The ‘Dancing Queen’ karaoke missed by the missus and my call to work. She on home visits. Me, her chauffeur, pootling her from one to t’other in Poopsie the Smart.
First summons was to the arse end of Rue des Fauxquets. Which translates as ‘Road of Fakes’.
Beyond it’s ivy threatened name plaque, des Fauxquets is a narrow, Castel parish, deep-cut lane through the Island’s middle offering mud and mush, tumbled rocks itching to grind off a car exhaust, and a half mile of skeletal tree arch. There’s also a tiny smattering of homesteads sans gaudy jollity. One being the address of Roquette Cider, whose guddle a novice might mistake for a prime Somerset offering. And it’s where, I like to imagine, woozy mice in residence within wrinkly, stoic-stalked scrumpy apples when I should be concentrating on the bloody road.
Des Fauxquets fortuitously survived without undue incident, we arrived, bar a single light, at our pitch black destination. Gawd it was quiet. Dutifully I waited and waited for the missus to do her doings. Eventually impulse overwhelmed. I slid down the car window and sucked in the chill air. “C’mon Universe, deliver me an owl!” I implored. “Please. Please. Please. And may its sound be the omen of a happy new year!”
“Doh,” sighed my brain, “You’ve only gone and bunged your hopes on a mouse murdering bundle of feathers.”
Five minutes later and the missus and I were on our way back the way we came. Buttered tyres not required.
“OWL!” I exclaimed, ramming on the brakes. Wow, the power of pleading.
“Be cautious of rash conclusions, my love,” choked the missus, nimbly adjusting her seatbelt. “This is des Fauxquets.”
Sure enough, sat on a bare branch, staring straight at Poopsie’s headlights, a splodge of taloned white. A barn owl. Then a turn, a glimpse of tail and away down through the skeletal trees it ghosted. Noiselessly. “Thank you, owl,” I said.
“Amazing,” breathed the missus.
And that’s pretty much where she and I are at as we soothe our souls with Bailey’s chocolate liqueur and mince pies. Should I see a grey cat, sure, I’ll give it a pat. That surprise dumb owl worries me though. What did it know that it wasn’t prepared to say? In another world the C-word’s upping its game and full on Brexitdom’s mere hours away.
But of 2020? Had there been le vieux bout de l’an they’d shortly be a heavy stamping down of burial sand.
Enough of mithering, I’m returning to ‘Carpathia’ the recipe book the missus’ gave me for Christmas. Sarmale in foi de vita (vine leaves stuffed with sticky rice and sultanas) requires a studious eye. Although the missus licking her brandy buttered paws offers further distraction as she meanders her way back from fridge to sofa.
Illustrations & text © 2020 Zum Beamer/Charles Wood.