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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Breaking into Alcatraz

I'd meant it to be mildly amusing. Wry. Possibly even sardonic. But I hadn't expected Susan to laugh so hard she hurt herself. 

The paroxysms that shake her body, in a corner of the King's Arms, Fenwick, where we've been having a pleasant lunch, remind me of Garrison Keillor's comment that the highlight of his childhood was making his brother laugh so hard that food came out his nose.

Susan is way too elegant and sophisticated to do something like that. But she is coming close to cracking a couple of ribs, if you ask me.

"Calm down," I tell her. "It wasn't that funny."

"It was," she says. "Go on, tell me again."

"I said my ex-wife is texting me a lot these days and you asked why."

"And you said maybe she wants to get back together," she says and laughs again, so loudly that other diners dart looks of disapproval and clouds of dust fall from the rafters.  

"That's the funniest thing you've ever said," she tells me.

"I'm going to pay the bill then I'm leaving," I tell her.

"What was so hilarious?" I ask in the car, five minutes later.

"Your ex-wife wants to get back together?" she says. "You cannot be serious. You're forgetting that she and I are soul sisters. I've sat in her lovely living-room, making polite chit-chat and sipping her tea. I know how she feels about you."

"No you don't," I say. "Once a woman has known me she never gets over it. She yearns and pines. She haunts the night, beneath a waning moon, wailing for her demon-lover."

"Haunts the bars, beneath the neon signs, laughing like a hyena, more like," Susan says, and pats me patronisingly on the leg. "Take it from me son, she doesn't want to get back together."

"I have another theory then," I tell her. "She likes to keep tabs on me, using a mix of modern technology and witchcraft. She knows my every move. She went over to the dark side years ago."

"Don't be ridiculous," Susan says. "Have you got everything you need for the flight tomorrow?"

"Course I have," I say. "Been flying since long before you were born."

"There's been a few changes since then," she says. "Jets. Monoplanes. Airports."

"Look I know how to get from here to London. It's not hard."

"Humour me," she says. "Tickets?"


"Address you're going to?"






"Where is it?" she says.

"Back home, in the top drawer of my filing cabinet, in a black travel wallet you tuck inside your trousers, with a little loop your belt goes through, so you can never lose it or have it stolen."

She turns briefly to look at me, shakes her head, shifts down to fourth and takes the slip-road to Kilmarnock. "Who are you flying with?" she says. 

"Flybe down, Easyjet back."

"Flybe takes various types of photographic ID. Easyjet are stricter, I think. It's not obvious from their website what they accept, apart from a passport."

She shakes her head again. "So much for a relaxing evening. You're going to have to drive back to your house and dig out your passport. You do know where it is?"

"Certainly. Of course. I think so. Maybe."

"Oh for heaven's sake," she says. "And your ex-wife wants to get all this back, does she?"

"Well no," I say. "This is what you might call the downside." 

She pulls into her drive and stops the car. "I do," she says.

"There is an upside," I tell her. 

"There is?" she says.

"There is," I say. "There is charm, wit, sex-appeal, suaveness, sophistication and intelligent conversation."

Her phone makes the new-text sound, so she lifts it and reads.

"Your ex-wife says 'No there isn't'," she tells me. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Farming is science these days

After Adam has saved me from the folk singers (and viewers of a nervous disposition should not click that link), we head back to his Hampshire farm and he shows me his latest investment, a Massey Ferguson MF8600, which still has that lovely new car smell from a hundred volatile compounds that give you brain damage. 

"You fancy a spin?" he says.

"Define spin," I say. 

"Three miles an hour," he says. "I want to show you the computer system." 

Farming is applied science these days, he tells me, as I climb aboard, and he slips the beast into the lowest of 24 gears and indicates the bank of instruments inside the comfy cab. 

"First I get a detailed soil analysis on every field," he says. "That tells me how much of each crop nutrient is needed where. Then I feed that data into the tractor's computer. So it then throws exactly the right amount of the nutrient I'm spreading, for wherever we are and whatever speed we're doing."

"That is clever," I say. "How does it know where you are?"

"GPS," he says, tapping the instrument on the windscreen. "I also get a weather report updated every hour and displayed on this screen beside my head. It's smart stuff."

"So basically you sit up here reading the Guardian while the tractor does all the work?" I say.

"Wrong," he says. "You can't rely on automation. The human brain is needed to take lightning-fast decisions when the unexpected happens. In farming you have to expect the unexpected."

"Gimme a break," I say. "It's hardly Silverstone, is it? We're doing three miles an hour through a field of corn." 

"Wrong again," he says. "It's not corn. That just means the main cereal crop of wherever you happen to be. In these parts it would be wheat. In the frozen wastes you come from it would be barley. I grow both. Also oats, rape, lavender and vines."

"So what is this?" I ask, looking down on tall, green grass, rippling in the breeze.

"Barley," he says. "It goes to make beer."

"How much beer?" I say. 

"I can grow 3 tonnes of barley an acre," he says. Each tonne gives enough malt to brew 15,000 pints of beer. This is 25 acresDo the sums.

Since he seems to be keeping a keen eye on the tractor track, in case Jenson Button tries to overtake, I use my fingers. "Half a million pints," I say eventually.

"Wrong again," he says, easing up on the throttle and pulling on the handbrake beside a fenced-off section of field, containing a dozen rows of vines. "It's over a million. Jump out will you, but watch your feet on the organic fertiliser."

The organic fertiliser turns out to be a huge heap of waste from the back end of several thousand cows that smells way worse than the sterile grey pellets of nutrient we've been scattering so far. I'm wondering how modern technology is going to handle it, especially when he tells me what has to happen next. 

"Every hole that's been dug for five new rows of vines gets exactly two spadefuls," he says.

"You'll need very precise GPS to do that with your tractor," I say.

"Wrong again," he says, reaching for the shovel beside the dung heap, which seems to be growing larger and smellier as a terrible suspicion forms in my mind. "For this job we're going to use a traditional farming implement known as the Mark I muscle."

"Please tell me you don't mean it."

"You see in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend. Those with shiny new tractors and those who dig."

He throws me the shovel. "You dig," he says.

"Aw shit," I say.

"Correct," he says. "First time today."

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Manly, frank and fearless

So I've been getting complaints about my recent prostate postsThey're too personal, friends tell me, too revealing and "not a suitable subject for humour". 

I don't agree. If you can't laugh when a woman sticks her finger up your arse, when can you laugh?

Also if nobody talks about prostate cancer, it's going to keep on killing men at the rate of one an hour in Britain120 of them get diagnosed with it every day. That's not far short of breast cancer's 130. 

But you know more about breasts than prostates, don't you pal? Like where to find them, for a start. And why is that? Because women talk to each other, while men get this powerful message to man up and shut up. 

I tried to talk to Al last week about the dreaded prostate biopsy. "What happens is this guy shoves an ultrasound probe up first, and waggles it around, none too gently. Then he starts sticking needles ...."

"Did you see the game last night?" Al says.

"Great game," I say.

"Helluva game," he tells me.

So here is what we want, guys - less strong and silent, and more manly, frank and fearless. 

If you're over 50 and your flow rate or frequency changes, or you get pain when pissing or in your perineum - the part between your scrotum and anus - go see your doctor. Lecture over. 

It occurs to me that Manly, Frank and Fearless sounds like the singers in one of those vocalist groups from my youth. Warbling wankers in woolly sweaters, who sang ballads when I was trying to listen to rock 'n' roll. 

Frank was the tall one in the middle. Fearless sported a pencil-thin moustache and a bad attitude. Manly had a gold medallion on a hairy chest. My sister thought they were sexy.

I mean ballads for god's sake. After two or three tracks of real music, with drums and lead guitar, the DJ would go, "Let's take the mood down a notch or two, and listen to Jim Reeves telling us his heart is broke in pieces and he'll never love again."

I used to shove things in my ears, but these soppy singers' voices were pitched at those low frequencies that travel hundreds of miles under the ocean. So two fingers and a pillow had no chance of stopping them.

What puzzled me was that the vocalist had usually died in a plane crash two years earlier, but was still making records. How could that be? I figured the music companies must be digging them up, all maggots and broken bones, and forcing them to sing. That's why they were so sad and their women kept leaving them. 

But I could be wrong. Maybe they were just miserable bastards even when they were alive.

I dunno if you saw him, but one of the most dismal of these droners was Engelhump Dinkerdonk, who I thought must long since have been murdered by a music-lover. But there he was last week on Later, accompanied by Jools on piano, singing Please Release Me, Let Me Go, and looking the size of a small Scottish island. 

Come rock-climbing with me son, and I'll release you all right. But I have to admit, the guy has a great voice. Not just for a 78-year-old, which is what Engelbert is now. He has a great voice, period. It's just a shame about the shite songs he sings.

I mean the Blues is real music born out of genuine pain. But these ballad singers would burst into tears if a seagull crapped on their sweaters. Until yesterday I thought they made the most horrible noise in the world.

Then in the Junction Inn, Southampton, I was having a quiet pint with my old pal Adam, the arable farmer, when a sound smote my ears with the force of a hundred hammers. It wasn't loud but it was exceedingly dreadful. 

"What the **** is that? I ask, my head buried in my hands. 

"Folk singers," Adam says. "They come here every Tuesday."

"Can nobody stop them?" I say. 

"I'm afraid not," he says. "We have a law that you can't molest Morris Dancers or interfere with folk singers. It's one of our basic English freedoms. Goes back to Magna Carta."

"I think there's blood running out my ears," I tell him. So Adam, who is a big, strong guy with hairy forearms, takes pity on me and leads me gently outside, and down to the far end of the beer-garden, where the folk-singing fades to the faint squeal of faraway souls in the ninth circle of Hell. 

"Last time I heard a sound that bad it was coming from me," I tell him.

"Good heavens, why?" he says.

"I was having a prostate biopsy and this guy shoved an ultrasound probe up, none too gently, and waggled it around. Then he starts sticking needles ...."

"Did you see the game last night?" Adam says.

"Great game," I say.

"Helluva game," he tells me.

Men United

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The pit, the pendulum and the prostate

So I have good news and bad news, and I'm guessing you want the good news first, though I probably shouldn't, since studies show that most people prefer the bad, as then it's out of the way and things can only get better.

But I remember, even if you don't, that Things Can Only Get Better was New Labour's theme tune in 1997, which just shows how wrong you can be, if you're a cockeyed optimist. Whatever that means. 

So here's the good news first. 

Contrary to expectation, Bridget the digit, the queen of the oohs, was fast, pleasant and efficient in examining my prostate. Going in anyway. She lingered longer than I liked, for reasons we'll come to in a moment. 

Before getting to the nub or bottom-line of the examination I first had to imbibe vast quantities of water and wee them into a bucket which, I discover when I'm sat across a big desk, behind which the white-coated Bridget is comfortably sat, was instrumented.

"This is what normal flow looks like," she says, passing me a couple of charts of flow-rate against time and pointing to the first, which resembles a Poisson distribution with a lambda of about 4. 

"Yours was similar," she says, indicating the second chart. "So it doesn't tell us much and we now need to examine your prostate."

"Who's we?" I say, wondering if six medical students with big fat fingers are hid behind the screen. 

"Me," she says, reaching for the rubber glove. "Drop your trousers, climb on the bed, facing the wall and pull up your knees." 

I do so and ask how long it's going to take. "Two seconds," she says, going in smoothly and painlessly. Then she hits a tender spot and I give a sharp but not unmanly whimper.

"Hmm," she says. Which is the one sound you don't want to hear, with your trousers at your ankles and a finger up your bum. Though I wouldn't be happy with 'Clear the building, there's a bomb!' either, come to think of it.

"Do you mind if I get the doctor to take a look?" she says. 

Yes I mind, but what can you do? "Go ahead," I say and she slips round the screens and confers quietly with her colleague. 

"Mumble, mumble ... maybe he's just a big girl ... mumble, mumble, mumble."

A slim, blonde woman appears, tells me her name is Dr Penrose, inserts her finger gently and feels around. "Is that sore?" she says, pressing lightly in one place.

"Not particularly," I say.

"Pull your trousers up and have a seat," she says.

"The tenderness is unusual," she tells me. "There is a small nodule but you don't obviously have prostate cancer. That would feel rough and hard."

"You don't obviously have prostatitis either," Bridget says. "That would be soft and spongy. So now we'd like to send you for a biopsy, which should rule out anything sinister."

This is a word I always associate with Vincent Price. So I get an instant image of him and his torture implements in The Pit and the Pendulum, which makes me wince.

"That's bad news because I've heard a prostate biopsy is painful," I say, and they exchange a glance that says, "big girl for sure."

"Not really," Bridget says. "Rather like bee stings, they tell us."

"See that is precisely the part of my anatomy I want to be stung by a bee," I say, attempting a little levity.

"Try twelve bees," the doc says, with no trace of a smile, and I wince again.

"There is no alternative?" I ask and they shake their heads. 

"One last question," I say, as I'm leaving the consulting-room. "Which finger does a prostate-poker pick to prod with?"

They both raise the index finger of their right hands, and hold them there.

"No offence intended," I say, raising a finger of my own. "But it felt more like this."

Bill Bailey and Men United

Saturday, 17 May 2014

One grunt or two

I like engineers. Always have. They do stuff. They make things happen. They change the world. Social conscience drives them, very often, rather than personal gain. 

When I was in industry, I spent a lot of time with high quality engineers, and was even employed as one for quite a while. Being a physicist gets you into classy company. But it doesn't mean you know what you're doing. I've got good intuition and methods for mechanical systems, but not for electronics.

That’s because solid state physics lectures were at nine in the morning, when my brain cells were still struggling to get their feet down different trouser legs. And even when you thought about them later the lectures were pure horse manure. Electric charge is carried by holes? Gimme a break.

Funny thing is I think I get it now. That's because I've been having long chats with my son about modern art and philosophy. This whole business of holes, it seems to me, is just the aesthetic concept of negative space. 

So my theory is that I couldn't understand electronics because it's modern art that makes it work, not physics. If you look close, the charge carriers in semiconductors are little unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde and Yoko Ono smiles. 

"Don't be stupid, Douglas" I hear you thinking. "If that's true, why has no one ever seen them?"

Well I'll tell you, pal. 

You only see what you're looking for. If 50% of people fail to notice a full-size gorilla playing basketball, what's their chances of spotting little beds down a microscope? None. That's right.

So anyway here's my problem. We've now got funding to teach engineers to communicate, using Three Minute Learning methods. But it's not just Scottish engineers. The funding is from a UK institution, and we were down in London yesterday, at their headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, learning how to design the project and evaluate our efforts.

It was right in the heart of the British establishment and it made me ponder yet again the fact that some Scottish humour doesn't travel well. I mean the kind that uses creative insults for bonding. It's not part of English culture, except in a few places up North, and you can't rely on it even there.

So I'm going to have to purge all that stuff out of my system, so that I don't stand in front of a class of keen, young English engineers, and mortally offend them. And who better to do that with, and get feedback on our project plans, than my old pal and top engineer, Al?

"So how are you going to teach engineers to communicate?" he asks me over a pint of Ruddles in a comfy corner of the Burnbrae hotel.

"I was thinking we'd start with the basics and move slow," I say. "Maybe one grunt for 'No', two grunts for 'Yes'. Then a bit of groupwork, where they solve simple problems together, like tying their shoelaces. You want to sign up?"

He grunts once for 'No' and sips his beer.

"Over the next few sessions we'd cover hand gestures, marks on paper, emails, joined-up writing, talking to women and using Facebook," I tell him. "If we plan it well, it could be really good, I think. Do you agree?"

He grunts once for 'No' and sips his beer.

"I mean you don't need to tell me I'm not the world's greatest communicator," I say, starting to hear a hint of desperation in my voice. "But that's not the point, is it? In this project I'll be a catalyst, a facilitator, a channel, if you like, for bringing the innate but unformed skills of the young researchers out into clear view, so they can be honed, polished and perfected by their own continuing efforts."

Al puts his pint down on the table and considers me a moment. "You are seriously out of your depth on this one pal, aren't you?" he says.

I grunt twice for 'Yes' and sip my beer.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Fat bottomed girls

Stanley steam car in Riverside Museum (photo Dug Blane)
"You know you've had two beers, so you can't drive home?" Al says half an hour later, with the sun still shining on his garden and his daft dog shut in the house for a while, so the humans can discuss space travel and the Sorites paradox, without getting their legs humped.

"Course I won't," I say. "You got me for the night. But when I was young, people would regularly drive with several beers inside them." 

"When you were young the speed limit was four miles an hour," he says. "And a man with a red flag had to walk in front of you."

"Two miles an hour in towns," I tell him. "And I wasn't born till years after 1865, when that law was passed."

"That can't be right," he says. "Benz didn't patent his motorwagen, driven by an internal combustion engine, until 1886. So there weren't any cars in the 1860s."

"There were," I say. "But they were driven by external combustion - the steam engine. The Red Flag Laws kept them pretty much off the roads in this country for 30 years. It was even worse in some of the States. 

"Pennsylvania passed a bill saying motorists meeting cattle had to stop and disassemble their vehicle, then 'conceal the various components out of sight behind nearby bushes', until the cows calmed down. I'm not making this up."

The sound of a prop-driven plane passing overhead, bound for Glasgow Airport, draws our eyes upward. "You ever get blue ice falling in your garden, since you're so close to the flight path?" I say.

"Giant flying frozen turds in Bearsden?" he says. "The residents would never allow it. There'd be an international incident. You want to know why I never use a plane or even drive a car nowadays?"

"Oh god, global warming," I say.

"Never mind oh god global warming," he says. "It's the most serious threat to the world since the atom bomb."

"I know," I say. "You keep telling me. So we should cover hillsides with huge turbines that only work with 10.65 mile-an-hour winds from the south-west?"

"Nah, wind turbines make no engineering or economic sense," he says. "I've done the sums. They're a commercial con-trick. Bikes are different. Cars and planes are killing the planet."

"So you riding your bike is going to save the world," I say. 

"Didn't you tell me once that the basis of all rational ethics is Kant's categorical imperative?" he says. "Behave in such a way that if everyone did it, the world would be a better place."

"True enough," I say. "But why bikes? Cyclists are selfish louts and bikes give you scrotal abnormalities."

"Only if you put them between your legs," he says.

"There must be something better than a bike," I say. 

"There isn't," he says. "A man on a bike is the most efficient creature on Earth."

"What about a woman on a bike?" I say.

"You're not going to distract me with thoughts of women on bikes," he says. 

"I think I am," I say. "You remember that Queen song and the video that went with it?" 

"Shut up," he says, lifting his pint of chilled lager and pressing it against his forehead. "Cycling uses the least energy of any form of transport, including walking. A hundred calories will take a cyclist three miles, but move a car just a few hundred feet. And the more cyclists on the roads the safer they seem to be for everyone."

"You're forgetting an important scientific fact," I say. 

"What's that?" he says. 

"Cattle are reckoned to cause more global warming than all forms of transport combined. We need to stop the carnivores and their farting cows, not just the cars."

"That's fine by me," he says, lifting his glass and clinking it against mine. "What do we want?

"Cycling vegetarians!"

"When do we want them?"


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Survival of the softest

So I'm sat in Al's back garden, having a beer and admiring his unnaturally large vegetables, when his dog wanders up with a squeaky rubber bone and drops it at my feet. 

"Don't throw it," Al says. "He'll expect you to do it again a hundred times."

"See that's selective breeding," I tell him. "Artificial evolution. Thousands of years ago, a cavewoman kicked her sleeping husband in the ribs and said 'Get up Fred. Every time the kids throw a squeaky rubber bone, your bloody wolf runs after it and rips it to pieces.' 

"So he chose a pup that took longest to kill the bone and he bred from it. Then he did the same with its pups, and so did his kids and their kids. So now today's dogs, the distant descendant of the Stone Age wolf, have forgotten that squeaky rubber bones are the enemy and god meant them to be torn to pieces."

"And that's evolution?" Al says.

"It is," I say. 

"So how do you explain that?" he says, nodding towards the dog, which has given up on the bone and is getting frisky with an ornate leg of the garden table.

"You often get that with evolution," I say. "It's trial and error, hit and miss. It's not design. It's like engineering before physicists showed you guys how to set up and solve mathematical models. And use the bathroom."

"Have a nut, Albert," he says, offering me an elegant crystal bowl, containing an upmarket mix of cashews and pistachios.

"What's with the suave hospitality?" I say and he looks kinda furtive.

"Just trying to be civilised," he says.

"Where did you get the bowl?" I say.

"Present," he says.

"You got a woman?" I say.

"Never mind that," he says. "Tell me about evolution." 

"Just remember I'm here for you," I say. "Anytime you want to share your feelings."

"Wouldn't take long," he says. "I've only got three."

"Happy, miserable and asleep?" I say.

"That's them," he says, choking on an unfortunate pistachio and taking a large pull on his pint to help restore normal respiration. 

"Fucking nuts," he says. 

"A technical term used in evolution, funnily enough," I tell him. "It's what happened to some dogs after thousands of years of selective breeding. They gained soft brains along with their soft mouths. So now they can't distinguish their own species from inanimate objects." 

"And they hump the furniture," he says.

"They do," I say.

"How many equations would a physicist need to solve to get from here to the fridge and bring us a couple of beers?" he says. 

"None," I tell him, reaching down and trying to detach the mutt, which has got bored with the table, from my ankle. "I'll walk in one direction with my eyes shut till I smack my head against a wall. Then I'll turn. It's the engineer's way."

"Maybe so," he says, picking up the squeaky rubber bone and tossing it into his giant broccoli bushes, which sends the mutt scampering after it. "But if you want a horny dog off your leg, the engineer's way is best. 

"You got five minutes before he finds his way outa there. Go!"

Monday, 5 May 2014

Perfect world

"In a perfect world you wouldn't have to lug heavy cat litter around," I tell my sis, as I'm climbing the steps to her house, with one bag grasped in my right hand, one in my left and a third wedged under my arm. "They'd use the toilet like everybody else.

"I've just realised what men are for," she tells me, as she opens the front door. 

"Being handy around the house?" I say.

"More specific," she says, leading the way through to the little room at the side, designed as a coalhouse in all these council-houses built in the 1950s, and now used exclusively by her ageing cat. 

"Lifting heavy objects," she says.

"You must have found other uses for men over the years," I say, dropping the bags in the place she indicates and rubbing my left shoulder.

"Of course," she says. "But they come at too high a price. You'll be wandering around in the morning and you'll trip over his legs, because he's rootling under the sink for his snub-nosed sprockets or something. 

"Then you have to consult him if you want to go to an antique fair, and it turns out he'd rather go to an old steam-engine rally. I can't be doing with joint decisions."

She shakes her head briskly, switches the kettle on and pulls a couple of mugs out of the cupboard above the cooker. "Marmalade jars," she says.

"Pardon?" I say.

"They're also good at opening new jars of marmalade that are sealed too tight for me," she says. "And punctures."

"What?" I say.

"I've had loads of punctures over the years," she says. "What happens is I get out and look at it, projecting a subtle air of helplessness, then I rummage around in the boot, then I go back and look at it again. By this time six guys are pulled up on the verge, arguing about who got there first and who can do it best. I've never changed a puncture in my life."

"That's exploitation," I say, taking the mug of hot coffee from her hand and reaching for a chocolate chip cookie.

"It's division of labour," she says. "Men change tyres, open jars and do the heavy lifting. Women raise kids and do the planning and thinking."

"Companionship," I suggest. "You must miss having someone to talk to on long, cold winter evenings."

"I miss having someone to warm my feet against on long, cold winter evenings," she says. "You can't talk to a man. You have to listen to him. They tell jokes, for heaven's sake. Jokes and stories. Again and again. The same ones. I think most men are slightly brain-damaged. Probably from banging their heads on the pipes under the sink."

"I had no idea you hated men," I say. 

"I don't," she says. "I like men. They can be sweet and cute and handy and helpful - at the right time and the right place. But that is not inside my house."

"Unless you want cat-litter lifted or jam-jars opened," I say.

"Exactly," she says. "So what I suggest is we stop letting men wander all over the place, getting under people's feet and making a mess. Instead they should be kept in storage and brought out only when you need them."

"Good thinking," I say. "You'd have one in the boot of your car, stowed away in the spare-tyre compartment, which you'd have to sound-proof so you couldn't hear his stories on long drives."

"That's it," she says. "And one in the shed at the bottom of the garden, for when you wanted the grass cut and the hedges clipped."

"And one attached to every new jar of marmalade," I say. "Who you'd recycle with the jar when it was empty." 

"And he's six feet tall and wearing a fireman's uniform," she says with a dreamy smile. "Now that's what I call a perfect world."

Devil's Gate

So I answer the door and Postman Jim is stood there with a handful of envelopes, a small parcel and a dopey smile on his pleasant features.

"It's time you cut your front lawn," he says, handing me the bundle. "Spring has come, the grass has grown and you haven't noticed. But get the lawnmower out quick, pal. It's going to rain in an hour."

He sounds confident and I'm puzzled. Jim has had many jobs but weather forecaster is not one of them, I'm sure. "Look up son," I say. "See all that blue? That's a cloudless sky. It will not rain today, Jim." 

"It will and I'll tell you how I know," he says. 

"It won't and I got to get back to work," I say, making to close the door.

"It's postman's lore," he says, reaching out and sticking his foot in to stop me. "Centuries of walking the streets and watching the weather. Two things tell us rain's on the way. One is when the wind gets up out of nowhere. But plenty of people know that. The other is stranger."

"Tell me," I sigh.

"You're walking along and suddenly you start to sweat. An hour later the rain begins to fall. Always. We can't explain it. But centuries of delivering the mail, in sun, hail, rain or snow, tell us it's true." 

"You are starting to sound mystical and mysterious," I say. "But you are only a village postman on a bike."

"I'm more than that," he says. "The postman is the unsung hero of the age." 

"You are not unsung," I say. "I can think of three songs about postmen without trying."

"Don't give me Postman Pat," he says. "Or your letters are going next door for a month."

"Return to Sender," I say and break into song. "I gave a letter to the postman. He put it his sack. Bright and early next morning, he brought my letter back."

"You have a rare talent," he says. "But it's not singing. Any others?"

"There must be some word today," I sing. "From my girlfriend so far away."

"Please mister postman look and see," Jim sings back. "If there's a letter, a letter for me.

"Good song," he says. "But it's about a lovelorn guy and his letters. The postman is peripheral. Gimme one song where the mailman is the main character." 

"I can but I don't want to," I say. "It's lyrical and romantic. I know you. Listen to this song once and you will wander forever with its words in your head, yearning for a past that never existed."

"Lemme hear it," he says.

"I glide along these trails like a falcon in the sky," I sing and he smiles. "I'll get this mail to California or I'll die. Over the mountains with all the speed that I possess. I carry the pride of the Pony Express."

"I love it," he says. "That is me."

"That is not you," I say. "You are a village postman on a bike."

"Only if your eyes are misted by too much reality," he says and sings the verse. 

"I miss my darling Eleanor. She's back in Kansas, bracing for the war. If I can keep on riding, and not end up lame or dead. I'll have enough saved up so we can finally wed."

"So you do know the song," I say. 

"It is my song," Jim says and turns to leave as the raindrops start to fall.