Sunday, 18 June 2017

Running to Stand Still

A solitary lucid thought raced through my mind as I crossed the finishing line of the Skye Half-Marathon the Saturday before last. At that precise point, seven minutes under two hours after I had set off running from almost the exact same spot outside of Portree High School, it was the only part of me that was able to speed. Nor was it anything specifically to do with the torture that I had just inflicted upon myself. Not, 'When will any sense of feeling return below my knees, and how much is that going to hurt?' Or, 'What is the correct spelling of defibrillator, and where might I find one?' Rather, in that flash I determined that this was the very week that we had truly arrived upon Skye, and in the sense of putting down roots, both real and symbolic.

The half-marathon had for me been a totemic event, something that I had challenged myself to do but only once we were actually domiciled here. Four years had passed between me formulating this conviction and joining one-thousand other souls on the start line, and ten months since we had moved up here from England. What's more, that very same week, ground was also broken on our plot in Fiscavaig and meaning that our house-build has begun in earnest. The picture above is how the site looks just over one week later and having been levelled, the foundations dug down, and with what those of us - very tenuously - connected to the trade refer to as 'Big-Bastard Bricks' being delivered.

In truth, I don't actually know what the 'B-BBs' are specifically meant for, but then neither have I quite yet got to grips with any aspect of how things have, or will continue to progress, and because no-one connected to the build has told me. In fact, in the best case scenario a collective decision appears to have been taken among these various parties that Denise is our person in charge and as such that just she should be admitted into their circle of trust. Denise knows everything from the angle to the sea at which the house will be sited, right down to the cubic volume of our septic tank. I don't get these memos. This much I can understand and even appreciate, since whenever it is has been in my adult life that conversation has turned to matters practical or DIY-related, I have never failed to drift off and think of something else instead. The B-side of Motorhead's first single for just one example. I don't 'do' jobs requiring manual dexterity and craft, and as anyone proficient in the same can tell from the merest study of the vacant and/or clueless look on my face.

The worst case scenario is more troubling to me. This is that they haven't even realised, or troubled that I am part of our family and much less the house that we will eventually live in. Unfortunately, two developments have made this option seem all the more likely. Firstly, in all correspondence that Denise now receives from the amorphous mass that is 'them', I am referred to, if at all, as 'Mr Jeffrey'. Clearly, this is not my name. It is instead Denise's maiden name, and the one that she has retained, but the use of it in this context means that I may as well not exist. I am Denise's someone else, otherwise invisible and wholly unimportant.

In the second instance, just last week Denise and I took two friends with us up to the see the plot. The two men working on site that day greeted Denise warmly and as a pleasantly familiar face. Our one friend is also a builder and so was soon talking shop, whilst his wife, who is unarguably more attractive than me, was at the same instant on nodding and smiling terms. I may as well have not been there. Indeed, after fifteen-minutes of small talk had passed between the five of them, everyone looked surprised that I still was and when I happened to sneeze. The builders especially regarded me as if I had appeared out of thin air, and like a remedial sprite.

All that being the case, the pace of on-site developments has taken both of Denise and I by surprise. There we were one minute prevaricating over whether or not to have an IKEA kitchen and a concrete or wood floor, and the next these decisions have to be made now, this instant. Along with the precise amount and position of plug sockets, lighting tracks and OSB-walling that we want, and the confirmed size of our hallway recess cupboard, window sills and toilet. In short, there is all of a sudden so much to do and in what seems to me like double-quick time.

I happen to do better and happier at a steadier, more considered pace. That much was also demonstrated by the half-marathon. For the first six miles of the race, vaulting hills and all, I was going along at a decent, if unspectacular clip. Then the local pipe band appeared on the scene, as they are ever wont to do. I love a pipe band in all the ways that I don't the English variation of a trad-folk grouping, Morris Dancers. And which is to say that I have never yet wanted to do the members of a pipe band serious physical harm. The combination of pipes and drums, I find, stirs the soul and quickens the heart. Mostly this is a very good thing, but not in the middle of a long-distance test of endurance and when they are belting out something bracing. Up till then I was, in proper athlete speak, 'managing my run'. Straight afterwards, and in perfect time to the whir of the pipes and tattooing drums, I lengthened my stride, lifted my knees and was off up a steep incline like a man possessed. I sustained being out of my comfort zone for as long as it took their sounds to fade into the wind, and by when I was left so depleted that I lumbered the rest of the way home with all the assurance of a one-legged man in an arse-kicking context.

This, I am now afraid, will go on to become a metaphor for the next three-to-five-to-who-really-knows-how-many months that I am to spend as our build's spare part. Inevitably, I will try to carefully consider each option and decision that is thrust upon me, only to get overwhelmed, panic and require Denise to act as our energy gel and get us over the line. It really should not be this way and I know that. In the days when I went out to work, I did educate myself to multi-task and to manage such things as deadlines, budgets and teams of people. I may even at one time have been mistaken for someone diligent, organised and capable. What's more, what passes for the professional me can still pull off the same act of transformation whenever required.

I have someone to thank for this being the case, and that is Madonna. Yes, that Madonna. I had been Editor of Q for not more than three months when Madge, as we never once failed to refer to her, wheeled what was to be her ninth album, American Life onto the launch pad. Part of the promotional campaign scheduled to lift it off was a Q cover interview, and which Madge herself stipulated be conducted by whoever, or even whatever was then Editor of the magazine. Our meeting was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles and fatally, in advance of it I listened all too keenly to office gossip pertaining to grilling the erstwhile Queen of Pop.

One particular tidbit stood out as news to me. This was the revelation that Madge would have her personal assistant on standby and close at hand whenever it was that she did an interview. This doubtless cossetted and over-praised individual would be instructed by her boss to enter the scene after it had been running for precisely thirty minutes. If Madge was finding the exchange ordinarily tiresome, she would instruct her minion to bring it to a close in another ten minutes and not more. If, on the other hand, she had found herself taking against her inquisitor, Madge would up and leave right there and then. A predecessor of mine had fared so badly with Madge that she had actually shouted out for her PA after just fifteen minutes of being sat with him.

Off I went to LA and consumed with thinking how this odd little dance would play out. Madge and I were due to meet in the restaurant of the Beverley Hills Hotel at 4pm on an atypically wet California afternoon. I got there ten minutes early and was shown by a liveried waiter to a table and chairs at the very far end of a room roughly the size of a football pitch. It could seat hundreds and would normally have been heaving with Hollywood's movers, shakers and poker brokers, but Madonna had got it emptied for her personal use. She arrived twenty minutes late.

The fabled PA, a young, officious looking woman in a business suit. accompanied her to the door and was then dismissed. Madge was still at that time married to Guy Ritchie and affecting to be an English Lady right out from the pages of Country Life. As such, she was wearing a tweed jacket, jodhpurs, riding boots and of all things a flat cap. She walked the hundred yards from entrance to me at a slow, deliberate pace and ramrod straight, her boot heels clicking on the tiled floor like gunshots. When she reached our table she stuck out a hand and said, 'Hello, I'm Madonna'. I refrained from saying, 'Of course you are.'

Like all exceptionally famous people, in the flesh Madge looked just like herself, only more so. She was softer featured than I had anticipated, prettier too. Her eyes were unwavering and as dark and unfathomable as plunge pools. When she spoke, it was in an accent that veered, all in the same sentence from LA Valley Girl to New York hipster to Sloane Ranger, and back again. She didn't even bother to make small talk, but got straight down to business, instructing me, 'Shoot.'

There was so much that I could, and had intended to fire at her. For example, just then a new generation of pneumatic divas had emerged to challenge Madge for pop-tastic dominance, the Britneys, Christinas and Pinks, and for perhaps the first time she was in real peril of being made to look out of touch and grasping. American Life wouldn't help her on that account either, since it was one of her weaker efforts and on it she had made a risible, cack-handed attempt at rapping. Then there was her stuttering acting career and recent adoption of the ancient Jewish religious teaching, Kabbalah, and this after she had outraged the members of the religion that she was born into, Catholicism, by boffing Jesus in the video to Like a Prayer. And also that accent, her horsey garb and the fact that her movie director husband was widely perceived of as being a one-trick posh-o who had lucked out.

About all of which I proceeded to ask her precisely nothing. I froze, stunned by being in such close proximity to her sheer Madonna-ness, and instead allowed her to waffle on unchallenged about such things as yoga, reincarnation, karma, English beer, her horse and much else that was bollocks. I was so fearful too that she would prematurely summon her power-dressed foot soldier that I sat largely mute. Right on cue, the PA did indeed appear, but Madge waved her airily away. Of course she did, she was enjoying an uninterrupted conversation with herself and about herself. Eventually, she filled up more than an hour of tape. Barely one word of what she said would have interested anybody but for Madonna and the fault for that was all mine, so badly had I failed to run the interview.

Even then, I somehow conspired to make her not like me. Attempting to fashion a silk purse out of my sow's ear of a piece, I resorted to observational detail and recalled how Madge had turned up that day with a sniffle. At one point, she pulled a tatty looking tissue out of her jacket pocket and into it blew her nose. I had made a mental note of the fact that Madge, like all of us, took a quick glance at what she had expunged before returning the tissue from whence it came, and committed that to print. Soon after the interview was published, Madge was an afternoon guest on Chris Moyles' Radio 1 show. Moyles raised with her the tissue incident and as I had reported it. She groaned and sighed audibly, and then in that see-saw accent of her's snapped: 'Not true. That guy was an asshole.'

Since when I have made sure never to go into an interview unprepared, and as far as is possible to dictate the direction that it takes. Such was the genesis of the better me. However, outside of actual or virtual office hours, the other me, hapless and intermittently hopless, has remained the dominant force. Of late, I have liked to think that our builders, architects and project manager have somehow detected the more assured, ballsier me, and assumed that I am able to take a back seat and delegate duties to others. Far closer to the truth, of course, is that they actually have appraised me drifting off at the mere mention of 'self-levelling concrete', 'untreated Larch panels' and the like and a solitary lucid thought has also occurred to each of them, and that being just the one word: 'Eejit.'

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

The National - The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness

Terrific return and the video also features what I like to think of as a completed wooden house, built to budget and without undue stresses having been brought to bear on its owners...

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