"Life is getting difficult, I'm not driving any more. Got to see a specialist bloke in London. Whatever, I can see your drawing has improved no end. That first one you did of me was pretty vile."
"You always were a bombastic old bugger!"
"You can't expect perfection from stellar nuclear waste - "
"Hang about! There speaks Fred Hoyle! We're the wrong stuff, we don't belong here. Can't stand this Big Bang rubbish. Orchestra and beginners please! Who opens the curtains, where are the clowns, that's what I want to know!"
"The God bunch. Has to be. Logic can't carry this through. So where did God collect all his stuff before He put a match to it? But an interesting bit of rubbish for all that. They say they can trace the echo of this primal pop back to its source. As a concept not even very interesting. Where the Guanche are concerned I think that what we have here are not the original Guanche stock, for their genetic pool was too meagre to sustain anything but aboriginal or bushman genes, and, as we well know, bushman stock cannot throw back. Any implant carries the invader, and we don't really know what the poor buggers looked like, for bushman stock dies back and eventually disappears, pushed out by new beautiful people, like mint pushes out nettle."
"So who do you think implanted the poor old Guanches - and it wasn't the Royal Navy! If we assume they were originally Cro-Magnon stock with long narrow heads, some early visitors must have re-formed them into the noble uncontaminated race of savages with all those super winning ways that Father Espinosa mentioned. Darwin was into gardening. Are we going the same way? Doesn't sound like you, Peter."
"Gardening is a branch of earth science don'cha know!" - he says with a dour smile that hints of irony - "Shirley wants to grow grapes. Well, I think birding is out. Depends what the quack says. But I'm taking my birding hat in case my brains get overheated. My grandfather lost his sight. An interesting corollary lies in the Guanches losing the urge for civilised progress. A corollary - a proposition upheld without the benefit of proof Alan, in case you want to look it up. It's like your oxymoron, a bit hard to pin down, but I reckon you've got that one sorted -"
"Sarcasm is not like you, Peter."
"Nothing is like me any more. So where does the proposition lie? We must start with a proposition. How about this: 'The Guanches are a separate culture placed here by God to measure progress by natural means' Put that in the dog bowl and see what happens. Whatever, genetic testing should throw some interesting light on the Guanche thing. Anyway we want to buy a house in Oxford close to my own people. As you know, our scheme for crossing the English Channel with a bridge got wiped out by Maggie who's gone for a stupid tunnel. We planned to use the tides to produce electricity. So we're moving the bridge project to another area. Pity, there's good hard chalk between Dover and Calais, would carry a bridge 75 metres in height at high tide on forty-nine supporting piers. We visualised an extra deck so that walkers and cyclists could cross. Too long for a pram ride maybe, though we could design a long distance pram and crash hats for infants. Maybe a bit too ambitious for Maggie, it would bring Britain and the rest of Europe too close for comfort. And I can't see the Chingford Skinhead going for it either. God! Can you imagine him as prime minister? And what about the Whitehall mob! I mean can you see them allowing the French to just walk across! Good God, no! Think about Trafalgar and the Nile, Crecy and Waterloo, we're British don'cha know!"
I have always thought development schemes were sideline stuff adjacent to earth movements and birds. Peter rarely mentions bridges apart from his wartime experiences as an army engineer, but now we're getting the secretive Peter opened up by trauma. I have a cold feeling he's not going to survive this. He goes on about the differing fields of science moving closer together for the prime needs of survival while the stupid politicians are holding it apart. He doesn't often hit the silly side but now he's contradicting himself.
So say something silly, meet him halfway:
"Peter, I wrote a poem once - sometime in the nineteen seventies - 'If wind lay around in untidy lumps/ some indignant voters - mindful of their public duty/ would take it to local communal dumps/ and burn it before it got too fruity.' - Erm, can't remember it all but it finished sort of 'Subtle Aeolians hung their harps in trees/ cunning millers and mariners used aerofoil/ What distant cornerstone of technology must we turn/ before we draw our energy by induction coil?' - And then - I'm going a long way back, Peter, then 'Our obstinate failure of imagination/ refuses to consider the possibility/ Only if carbon, oil and atom were absent/ would wind and tide submit to feasibility/ Then we could give with unequivocal conviction/ this blessing to the third-world have-nots/ and say with accuracy born of satellite prediction/ Here is your weather forecast for the next twenty-four hours - in megawatts.'"
A restless listener is Peter, yet polite enough to bear it out; I have no sense of smell to verify the notion that he has been drinking a touch over the top?
"Nice! But I'd stick to drawing if I were you! There's enough wind power driving across the great plains of America to power half the country. But winds are fickle. They have been known to stop blowing altogether which kills the dust but doesn't dry the washing!" - not like Peter to come out with a weak witty - "Tides, on the other hand, are ever constant" - Wet, wilful and deaf to pleading tides nearly drowned me once at Filey. I remember screaming, even when the man came with a boat, a hefty slap across the face silencing the small hysterical child, stern looks and hard words from worried parents adding weight to the sin of wandering off alone - "Tidal force is the only form of energy that comes directly from the relative motions of the Earth and Moon and from the Earth and Sun. Our problem was getting both governments to agree to the additional bonus of electric power with a bridge - which you don't get with a bloody tunnel! I mean, what happens when something goes wrong in a tunnel? People start fighting to get out. They kill, like moles do when they meet each other. No, dear friend, tunnels are savage and disgusting, fit for moles and earthworms. We're trying to move forward into the future - not like these poor bloody Guanches who were stuck in a evolutionary quagmire, God's will holding them there. You know, I find it amazing that these people didn't even have archery, a primitive weapon yet with some sophistication. What on earth held them back? This Father Espinosa bloke says they were a noble uncontaminated race and ready for the word of God. They were not discountenanced by visiting cultures more advanced than they were, for they had a certain tranquil introspection, similar to old people who don't really want to know anymore. You're a social worker, Alan. You tell me."
Tranquil introspection! Well, yes - and that poor old soul who thought her husband was just sleeping late! I backed out and let the community nurse deal with it. "Wake up, Jim," she kept on saying. I could have done more, but there were so many other cases to deal with, movement forms and reports. Now is a bad time for bad things to kick back, for this is Peter's trauma, not mine. His pendulum pipes, his trig points, put down and forgotten. I used to know about being a social worker - but it never rang true and is so easy to forget when health problems kick in. "The Guanches were not the sort of people who filled in questionnaires, Peter duck. They were an unchanging society, their matrilineal links very strong. They saw no need for change. And where there's no need to develop, it means death, right? You're a scientist Peter. You tell me."
"Well right! And Science can't stand still. It has to develop differently. We all must hang together before it's all buggered up. Money is getting scarce and we have to adapt. There are great problems ahead of us. Instead of crossing swords with each other over money we need to cross disciplinary lines; for example structural engineers need to consult with marine biologists over fish migrations from weeny eels to socking great whales. What I'm saying is - scientific bodies should join forces to meet the stampede of progress, otherwise, in twenty-odd years we shall be facing disaster - I mean dead serious, no bones, straight-up no kidding disaster! We need the sort of changes that routine research work cannot accommodate in isolation. And right across the whole scientific purview we need a financing system entirely related to earth sustainability."
"Well, Peter sweetness, we've come a long way since 1985 when there was still donkey-poo on the harbour road. And even now people-poo goes straight into the sea. Have you seen Pooh Corner recently, they are digging it up?"
"The bridge concept was designed to take all modes of transport. On two decks, the lower for rail, the upper for road traffic, and an upper promenade for walkers, cyclists - with proper poo-places. No. I haven't been down your end recently but I heard about those visitors who mistook the phone cabin for a public loo."
"How about land yachts, Peter duck! Dead spiffing idea! But I can see navigational difficulties when I get to the other end in my Merlin Rocket. I mean, wouldn't you be astounded to see land yachts sailing down the M20?"
"Idiot! They wouldn't allow land yachts."
"Why not for crying out loud! Land yachts could have a separate lane on the bridge, Peter."
"Have you considered the weight of twenty-three miles of an extra lane? And where do you change over from left to right?"
"At the toll gate at the centre, Peter duck! There'll be a bird station there too, with free perching and proper poos. No, you just luff up, cross over and shake out again."
"Naturally. You can have my shed if you like."
"Daft bugger! Where on the fourth floor would I put your old shed?"
"Well, the bike?"
"Nice of you Peter old cock. But I passed the motor-bike stage donkeys years ago. My first bike was a 250cc Royal Enfield side valve, ex desert army. That was in 1947 long before crash hats appeared on the scene, I came off it once coming down Taddington Hill. Happy days!"
"Shirley has her winemaking kit to dispose of and she still has half a dozen bottles of port. She says the secret of great winemaking is leaving it severely alone till it's fit to drink."
"The port would be nice."
"OK. Maeve can have a few bottles and the demijohns and stuff. The Adeje house belongs to my research people, and we've got another colleague coming out to take over... But we're not going back to renting. We've decided to buy a house."
"We shall miss you both."
"We've had some good times with you and Lizzie. We'll come and say goodbye. Then I'll leave from Mas e Menos. I'll get Marco to get me a taxi."
"I think Lizzie would prefer a posh farewell."
"No. Shirley's going back first. Family affairs. Don't worry. I can see well enough. It's just round the edges... No really. I don't want any fuss."
"Peter baby, it was Eugenio at the John Bull with his offer of a loan and you and your bird books who got us started here. We used to wonder how long it would take us to get established."
"Alan, for a man of your open and rugged charm, how could you fail to get established. You're cuddly. The ladies love you."
"And of course for Lizzie's wit and beauty -"
"Now you're talking!"
"Incidentally, talking of swords, did you hear about Manfred and the old sword? It was in the library at Laguna till the archeological people spirited it away. According to Fred it is a Nordic weapon, probably Viking. Seemingly in their battles with pirates and the Spanish, the Guanche carried weapons stolen from invaders, so you might see an attacking Guanche with his club wearing nothing but a Spanish breastplate and an iron sword taken from a fallen enemy. Purely circumstantial, of course, it's no proof that the Vikings actually arrived here."
"It would be here if they did. Los Cristianos is the only decent landing spot on the south coast."
"I mean, strange things in strange places! This is why I'd like you to have the iron horse and cart, the present I got it in Holland in 1944."
Sweet Lizzie is clearly upset. A pile of ironing stands unironed. Usually meticulously neat, it is difficult for me to tell the ironed from the merely folded; Lizzie can tell by the smell. Shirley's been, two tea cups on the coffee table, and there's been lots of things to talk about. "Our very first people. I really will miss Shirley."
I was about to say It must be hard for the Uffingtons - but thought better of it. This crisis has opened a door and let them through. And it has reminded me that it's about time Lizzie went home for a holiday to see what the kids are doing; with time for girlish chats, clothes and shoes, and shopping stuff. "We'll drink the port to absent friends and hope Peter gets through this crisis. Then I think we'll send you home for a break, sweetie."
"I knew something was wrong. He was always cleaning his glasses. Shirley has to move things away from him at the table. He is inclined to knock things over. She says Peter is very disillusioned, he's going to take up gardening. He's talking about thrift and husbandry, preserving apples, bottling fruit. I'd like to go home, my prince. We are going to be grandparents."
"I don't think disillusion will stop him working. He says they may move their bridge scheme to the Irish sea between Holyhead and Belfast. I asked him to do me a sketch but he said he wasn't part of the design team, he just told them where to dig... I do like the idea of land yachts though, an upper deck for walkers, cyclists and land yachts. Terrific! The prevailing westerlies would allow a broad reach of 21 miles from Dover to Calais. Did you say Lee's hoping for a girl?"
"I thought that idea would appeal to you."
"Do you mean the boating or the baby? I don't think I'm ready for the grandparent role. Babies are noisy, dirty and smelly - and there are millions of them! Never done land yachting. But I can visualise it. I'm trying to visualise you as a doting grandmother. And is there perchance a significant male life-form to occupy the parenthood role?"
"Jerry who runs the local tennis club."
"I'm sure we'll meet. In the meantime you can go and meet him. I expect a report two-thousand words minimum ok! A bit of creative writing for you. And don't speak to any strange men!"
The agreement was that Lee should inform us if she found a boy friend. But she has kept us uninformed. The notion of being the chatelaine appeals to her. Taking charge and pushing us into a corner fits her style of management. Mind you if we were sick she would take care of us, but her hectoring and abrasive manner is hard to live with. However we decide not to make an issue of it though Lizzie is infuriated.
Apart from lack of colour-sense my eyesight is very good. People could point out a vagrant post box in the distance, but I would see the shape not the colour. But round the edges. I well remember the panic of failing vision. I lacked the courage to drive into the car park at Chadvell Heath Police Station and admit that I was no longer fit to drive, having just missed a window cleaner and his ladder, and mad with myself because I couldn't clear my vision. Instead I went by humble bus to Eastern Avenue to see Dr Jestico at King George Hospital fearing that there was more bad news to come, for I had lost all feeling in fingers and toes, a loss that can be dealt with reasonably well - until things are getting really desperate and you can't find your fly. The fuzzy headaches added impulse to the fear that I had a brain tumour, the same affliction that killed our Juvenile Courts Officer. Peter is carrying this awful burden of not knowing. His world is closing over him. And it is in his family. I hear that this disorder may bypass several generations before decimation strikes.
But should I prepare to say goodbye? Very hard not to show leaping anxiety as Dr Jestico studied the X-rays: "Cheese does it for some people. Nothing to do with diet, Mr Mann, picture shows nothing, just middle-age migraine." I was so relieved I could have kissed him.
But yes. Best of luck Peter. We hope your family give strength.