04 July 2023

This is your central task

The British false autumn has come early this year, even though June was, I am told, the hottest month on record. The false British summer had already come once before, in May, after I ran the London marathon and was walking more than running. I could notice it, crossing the field in Shenley Park and thinking about how my time walking from Harborne to Bartley Green, to Newman, was now coming to an end. May is too early for it to feel like summer has passed, but once you have two or three warm days, a cool day feels slower and comforting, like the day is shorter even though it is longer, empirically.

Two seemingly unsolvable problems plagued me for most of the spring but particularly in May. The first was a problem with the car. There was a series of issues starting with what I was told was a leaking shock absorber that failed my MOT. I had to pay some amount of money to have this fixed but the fixing of the shock absorber resulted in a new problem, a rattling that had appeared somewhere around the wheel hub, but no one could resolve what it was exactly. I was dealing with the mechanic on Ladypool Road, a man I met during the pandemic and who had been very helpful to me, but the more work that he had done on the car, the less positive the relationship became. Nothing ever happened on time. I had to miss meetings as I sat somewhere in Moseley waiting for him to call me only to be told at some point in the evening that the car couldn't be fixed and it would take another day.

I ended up back at the garage within walking distance of our house, the one in Harborne which was more expensive but always managed to get the car done on time. They also tried on several occasions to fix this shock absorber, telling me repeatedly that the previous person had made various mistakes, and charging me more money to undo the previous problems. This didn't make me feel better about them or about the decision to stay with the man on Ladypool Road, particularly when every time they promised that they had fixed it, the rattling came back. The third time I went, the mechanic, the guy who I assumed owned the place and whose kids I was talking to on every other occasion, asked to ride with me in the car because he was sure they had fixed the problem, and I felt like a little boy with my father in the passenger seat, both of us listening for some sound to emerge. We sat in silence as I rode up the road toward Asda, me assuring him every thirty seconds that it would come and that he would hear it eventually. For a while, for two minutes at least, there was nothing and he seemed sceptical and then finally after I hit one bump and then another and then another the sound came back.

The other problem was mice living underneath our stairs. They've come and gone over the years but this one seemed to have decided to make their nest in our house and I was maddeningly trying to fill up holes on the outside and block redundant pipes. A good vegan, I first set humane traps that the mice managed to avoid and we could hear them nonstop at night running around inside the cupboards. One Saturday morning the boiler stopped working, and I realised that the pipe that I had blocked up was actually a pipe from the boiler and that I feared I had created some terrible damage and would need eventually to have some big repair done to the boiler. I called a man who came within the hour on a Saturday and he told me as he looked at the problem that I hadn't done something seriously wrong and it was not really a problem and then I needed to get a cat to kill the mice. He was going to charge me £200 to reconnect the pipe but after doing that the problem wasn't fixed and having looked more into the boiler he pulled out the regulator and showed it to me and said I've never seen this before but it appears the mice have chewed the regulator. This made me feel slightly better actually, even though it was nearly £400 more than it was going to be because the problem wasn't due to my stupidity, something I reiterated as I showed Yoko the chewed wires.

On June first, the day we were meant to go to the American and Japanese embassies to do various expatriate paperwork, I came into the kitchen just after four in the morning and I could hear them in the rubbish bin. I opened the drawer and there they both were, terrified and I slammed it shut. I grabbed the butterfly net that we had out for some reason and opened it up and both of them were there and I managed to catch one of them while the other ran to the toilet. I shouted for the kids to come and help, and while I was doing that the one that I had netted managed to get out and run underneath the washing machine. I went into the toilet and with a little bit of work managed to catch the other mouse in the net but as I was trying to bring it down on the floor, I did it too severely and looked like I had killed it in the net. I put it in a bucket and took it outside and then went back inside to look for the other mouse, but I couldn't find it. As I rummaged behind the washing machine, the door outside still open, I heard the other mouse starting to move around and came out just in time to see it stumble out of its little bucket and got caught behind the rubbish bin outside. I tried to net it again but I couldn't and it managed to run away into the garden, and I stood there in the early morning grass, the two girls watching from the door,

I found myself this Saturday, fifteen minutes before I needed to be at an Open Day, crying in front of my computer. It was just after re-reading something short and obvious I had just written, about how I'd realised my task is to assure the people who depend on me now, that they will be fine without me. Of course, they will be fine without me, but the acceptance that I'm not needed and indeed will not be needed in the future has created the softness that makes some men in their forties more palatable. It's hard to accept your own redundancy and come to accept thoughts that you would have never accepted ten years ago. The worst punishment of judgement, of having been a judgmental person, is to become the thing that you've judged. I used to judge men in their forties who behaved like their best years were ahead of them. Now at forty-one, thinking about my future and thinking about what I can and cannot do anymore, the things I'm able to say to myself to keep going in the things that I can't say anymore. I could do the things I never got to do when I was younger when I stopped myself because I was worried about what other people would think. When I thought time was running out and God would judge me if I didn't act quickly enough.  

The problem with the mice was solved when our neighbour put out poison and the sounds stopped one night. I was in Sweden when this happened, and came home to the smell of death in the house. We had to wait it out but every day the smell seems to have diminished. It's gone now, for me at least, although there are still essential oils in the cupboard under the stairs. The car too seems to be working, the rattling gone for now after I found out what the problem was, something with the brake pad blamed on the mechanic on Ladypool Road. Whom to believe: everyone will tell you something. What is really true, nothing is every really true in the sense that you want it to be true. I turn at the door to say goodbye to whomever is there. I need to get used to this, I think to myself, to being alone. You are alone a lot more in your forties than you are in your thirties. It's the nature of things, of the kids getting older, of marriages breaking down for a time, of work and whatever other commitments you have. Everything comes back, that's the promise at least. You can be alone, it's okay. You won't always be alone.