When it all comes together

Yesterday was a public holiday in the UK. Traditionally a time for trips to the beach, outdoor eating, or catching up with garden jobs before autumn arrives. Resorts are generally overcrowded, parking a real issue, and any pleasure gained from going out is often diminished by the frustration of traffic jams. Over the last few years, Julie and I have just given up on venturing anywhere on days like these, content to have a relaxing day at home.

But yesterday was different. Roland, one of my oldest and most cherished friends, was visiting Norfolk, from his home in London. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Christine, and the chance to find them so close to Beetley was too good to miss. He had sensibly let me know a few days before, and I had booked a table in a coastal restaurant for an evening meal, to guarantee we would not be disappointed. Once arrangements were made, the doubts and concerns began to surface. We had never been to this restaurant. It looked good on the Internet, but what if it turned out to be awful? The coast road on holidays is notoriously congested. Perhaps traffic delays would mean we would arrive late? Then there was the weather to consider. It is all very well eating inside, but heavy rain or a gloomy day can contrive to ruin the atmosphere. When you haven’t had the chance to catch up for two years, you naturally want it to be in the best circumstances.

I took Ollie out a little earlier, and gave him his dinner early too. We were both ready to leave here at 4 pm, allowing a good hour to drive the twenty-odd miles. They were coming from further east, but had a similar journey. The afternoon weather was glorious. Blue skies, fluffy clouds, and temperatures that were just right too. The back route that I had planned, taking small country lanes across to our destination, worked out perfectly. We saw hardly any traffic, and enjoyed a pleasant drive through attractive villages on the way. We got there at least twenty minutes early, parked easily in the car park, and found a table on the terrace overlooking the coastal marshes. Small boats were sailing all around, and lots of people were enjoying the chance to relax with a drink in the sun.

Then our friends arrived, having also had a stress-free journey, and looking happy and well. We reunited over a drink on the terrace, before retiring inside to go to our arranged table. The staff were attentive, the menu offered good choices, and when the food arrived, it was delicious. Our table was near a window offering panoramic views across to the coast, and the whole experience was simply marvellous. When it came time to leave, we all wanted to stay longer, so we did. Watching the sunset over the marshes was a delight, and following a short walk on the nearby path, we went back into the bar for a farewell drink. During that time, we received the great news that they are getting married next year, and we could not have been happier for them. That was the icing on the cake of a great day out.

Even the trip home was completely trouble-free, and Ollie was obviously very pleased to see us.

Don’t you just love it, when it all comes together like that?

(I will add this link to the place where we went for dinner. If you are ever in North Norfolk, it is highly recommended.)
http://www.whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk/

Rosie’s review

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1000 words. It is dedicated to all the Internet reviewers out there.

Rosie looked at the email again.

‘Please review your recent purchase. Help other customers make the right buying choices.’

She chewed her lip. Was it compulsory? Quickly logging on, she checked the terms and conditions. Scanning the unfamiliar prose for a while, she could find nothing that said she had to leave a review. She would have a think about it, and look again later.

The afternoon was bright, and sitting in the garden with a cool drink, Rosie went over her thoughts once more. What can you say about a broom? Surely everyone knows how to use one, and what they do? Perhaps there are some people who don’t. Maybe that’s why they need you to send in those reviews.

Unable to settle, she went back into the house and looked at the laptop screen. Scrolling down the product page, she could find no other reviews of the broom. She then noticed a line that stopped her in her tracks.

‘Be the first to review this product.’

Closing the lid of the device, she she sat staring across the room. Nobody else had yet reviewed this broom. If she did as they asked, hers would be the only opinion. This seemed like a real responsibility. What if someone bought one, simply based on her recommendation? It might break, or they might not like it. She would wait until tomorrow, then check back to see if anyone else had posted a review.

It was no good, she couldn’t get off to sleep. Walking downstairs into the living room, she fired up the laptop. Tossing and turning since midnight, wondering what to do. And it was now almost dawn. Taking a deep breath, Rosie hit the checkbox that asked, ‘Review this product.’ The first instruction was to add a star rating, from a choice of five. She hovered the cursor over, deciding on three stars. That seemed fair. After all, it was just a broom. When she clicked on that, it informed her that her choice was ‘It’s OK.’ She was unsure. It was more than OK, and very reasonably priced, after all.

Rosie regraded her rating to four stars, that seemed about right. Five would be excessive, but ‘It’s OK’ didn’t sit well with her. This time she was informed that her four-star choice meant ‘I Like it.’ Leaving it at that, she thought about what to type in as the actual review. If only she could have left it at the stars, that would be so much easier. As she clicked in the box, a suggestion appeared. It seemed that she had to look at the ‘Review guidelines’, before continuing. That was unexpected. They had guidelines. They were there in bold type, explaining just how to proceed. She had to say ‘Why’ she liked it, or didn’t like it. She must be ‘Specific’ about the features of that particular product. Most important of all, ‘Be sincere’. There was a limit on the number of words too, with a maximum of 5,000.

Rosie leaned back into the soft cushion. The number ran through her head. She had read books of less than five thousand words. How could she ever be expected to write anything that long about a bloody broom? She looked again, and was greatly relieved to see that there was a minimum of twenty words too. She spoke out loud to herself, her words echoing in the room. “Right, Rosie. Let’s get this done girl.”

Typing steadily for a few minutes, she soon ran out of suitable superlatives and descriptive phrases. After counting the words to make sure there were enough, she scrolled the text back to the start, and looked over what she had written.
‘This new broom from Jayco is very well constructed. The plastic handle is weatherproof, and a nice green colour that goes well with my other garden implements. The brush works well, and cleared all the grass cuttings from my patio with a few sweeps. It is also a very good price, even taking into account the delivery charges. I am very happy with it, thank you.’
It didn’t read right. She had another go.
‘After just a few minutes of sweeping with this new Jayco broom, my patio was clean and tidy again. It’s a lovely colour, and comes with a weatherproof handle in a nice shade of green. I am very pleased with it, and glad that I bought it.’
That was better. Friendlier, and more personal. She would go with that.

Before clicking ‘Submit’, Rosie thought again about the star rating. Could you really like a broom? Suddenly, that seemed silly. Who would ever like a broom? It would have been nice if there were more options to choose from. Something like, ‘It’s good’, with three and a half stars. Why didn’t they have that? She wondered. It then occurred to her that anyone could read this review, in almost any country in the world. They might think her very stupid, going on so about something as ordinary as a garden broom. She would have to try again.

‘This is a useful garden broom with a nice green handle that is also weatherproof. The brush head is large, and clears a wide area. The broom feels well-made, and is also excellent value. I can recommend this broom to anyone who needs one.’
That was it. Professional, not too personal, and offering a clear description of the broom, and its uses. Rosie altered the star rating back to three stars. ‘It’s OK’ was enough, she decided. As she was about to hit ‘Submit’, another box appeared. ‘Write a headline for your review’ A headline? How can you have a headline for a garden broom? What sort of nonsense was this? Her head was all over the place. What did they mean by headline? Something like, ‘Garden broom makes a clean sweep’ perhaps? That seemed too jokey though, bordering on sarcasm.

She closed the lid again. She needed some sleep, and would get back to this later.

Unforgettable films: Part Four

I have finally got round to the fourth part of this series. As it was so popular, I decided to continue it, at least for a while.

The definition of an unforgettable film means something different to everyone. It might be the first film you watched with your childhood sweetheart, or perhaps the film that set you on a lifelong love of Cinema. For many, it could be the first film they recall as a youngster, perhaps an animation, or stop-motion. In some cases, it might well be the film they watched most recently, or the one they came to late, after everyone else had raved about it. Some of the films that follow have been mentioned before on this blog, in different posts. As usual, I make no apology for this, as it just means that they have made a permanent impression on me.

When you have had a lifelong interest in The American Civil War, news of a new film on the subject is very exciting indeed. Not only that, but when it is a big-budget production with contemporary stars, location filming, and the use of hundreds of extras, any fan of the period will be anticipating it with relish. This was just how I felt in 1989, when I read about the forthcoming release of the film ‘Glory’. I was at the cinema in London the first week it came out, and already expecting great things. Was I disappointed? Not at all. From the outset, the film goes straight into the action. Matthew Broderick is near-perfect as the true character of Colonel Shaw, the Boston liberal who went on to lead one of the first black regiments. Able assistance is rendered by Denzel Washington, (In one of his standout performances) Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher. Appearing as the white officers, Cary Elwes and Cliff De Young both convince too.
The 54th Massachusetts regiment is on record for their bravery and valour in combat. At the start of the film, it is soon made clear that the coloured troops are only considered suitable for ‘mischief’. This involves looting, burning property, and instilling fear into the white population of the Confederacy. However, Colonel Shaw wants more for his men, and insists that they be sent into combat. The ensuing set piece battle scenes are nothing less than inspirational, culminating in the tragic battle in the sand dunes of South Carolina. I got the VHS copy, then the DVD, which has a documentary about the real characters, and is well-worth watching.
But this is Broderick’s film, and his transition from a cheeky teenager in his previous roles, to a responsible and committed adult, is a delight to watch. And it is very sad too. I have watched this film many times, and would happily watch it again this evening.

Another civil war, once again one that has always fascinated me. This time it is Spain, in the 1930s. Before he made ‘Land and Freedom’, British film-maker Ken Loach had already established his credentials in the area of social realism. Few English language films have been made about this tragic conflict that preceded the Second World War. Of course, there was the famous film treatment of Hemingway’s novel, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ (1943). However, despite the stellar cast, that film always felt studio-bound and stagey. Loach lets his cast free, onto authentic locations, and towns and villages that have changed little since that time. I would say from the start, that you perhaps have to have some knowledge, or at least an interest in the period, to get the most from this film. The different factions fighting Franco’s fascist rebels, and the machinations surrounding their part in the Republican Army can seem as dry as dust to those unconcerned.
Told in flashback, after the discovery of an elderly man’s letters and photographs in modern day England, this film seeks to address the convoluted politics and often barbaric fighting of that war. That Loach manages to achieve this is fantastic in itself, despite requiring some attention from the viewer. Ian Hart gives a career-best performance in the role of the main protagonist, a man who travels alone to Spain and joins a Union-backed militia to fight the fascists. The political and military infighting that ensues gives a considered opinion of just why the Republicans lost that sad war. One of Loach’s best modern efforts, this is a complete film that deals with a period rarely covered by mainstream cinema. When I went to see it in 1995, I was overwhelmed.

Some films that touch the heart are hard to explain. This film needs no explanation, for anyone who has a real love of cinema and film. Torantore’s 1998 film, ‘Cinema Paradiso’ is a complete delight, from start to finish. Starring the wonderful Philippe Noiret, alongside the young Salvatore Cascio, this is a wonderful tribute that gets to the soul of cinema itself. Young Toto is a small child in Italy, just after the Second World War. He spends all his free time at the local cinema, the ‘Cinema Paradiso’ of the title. The friendly projectionist, Alfredo (Noiret) takes the boy under his wing. He shows him how everything works, and allows the youngster to watch all the films from the projection booth. As Alfredo ages, Toto finally takes over the job he used to do. Now a young man at college, he forms a bond with the old projectionist. Using many clips from classic films, it tells the story of both Alfredo, and of Toto as he grows into manhood. Oscar winning, and simply sublime. Is it any wonder that I have never forgotten it?

As a youngster, I watched all the new films, and many of the blockbuster epics of the day. To be honest, I haven’t really forgotten any of them, so choosing one as an example seems almost pointless. Instead, I will go back to my impressionable teens, and choose a silent film, of all things. When I went to see this at London’s National Film Theatre, I was not yet sixteen years old. I already had an interest in politics, and had been watching films for more than ten years by then too. As part of a special event about the Russian Revolution, Eisenstein’s 1925 film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was being shown. I was enthralled from the start. Stark imagery, unusual cuts and edits, all gave this film the look of something special. Despite the age of the film, and occasional melodramatic performances by the cast, I was swept up in its re-telling of real events, as the crew of the battleship revolt over conditions on board. Set in Odessa in 1905, twelve years before the main revolution, the class differences are made apparent, and the plight of the ordinary people is plain to see.
This film has many famous set-pieces, not least the massacre on the Odessa Steps, something referenced in many films since, including Brian De Palma’s ‘Untouchables’. It still stands up today, and is one of the true masterpieces of film-making.

Another foreign film, this time from Germany. To this day, I have never forgotten the sad face of Brigitte Mira. I wrote this about the film in 2013, and still feel the same today.
‘Fear eats the soul’. This 1974 film, directed by Rainer Fassbinder, tackles not one, but two taboo subjects. The love of an older woman, for a much younger man, and the inter-racial aspect that he is an Arab. The reaction of the family is much as you might expect, and the whole story-line is set against a background of increased immigration into Germany at that time. What makes the film stand out for me, is the central performance of the lead actress, Brigitte Mira. This dowdy, middle-aged lady delivers a magnificent performance, as the woman who is prepared to give up everything for the chance of happiness.’
Looking back to when I watched this film, relatively recently, I have rarely seen an actress hold my attention for so long, or deliver a performance that feels almost like a documentary. Some films have looked at the situation of men who have married so-called ‘mail order’ brides, and others have examined the love of an older woman for a younger man. Few have ever done it so well.

French film star Vincent Cassel has had a varied career. He has been cast as a villain in Hollywood films, as a romantic lead in European films, and delivered a laugh-out-loud performance as the French suitor in the film ‘Elizabeth’. But back in 1995, he was almost unknown outside France, until the release of the remarkable ‘La Haine’. Following rave reviews, I trotted off to the cinema to watch this, expecting an above-average French modern thriller. I was rewarded with a mesmerising performance from Cassel in the lead role, as a young skinhead at odds with the police, and his surroundings in the seedy suburbs of Paris. Cassel convinces from the start, and the stark black and white filming only adds to the bleakness of the situation that he and his friends find themselves in. This was not the comfortable French capital of so many films. It was modern life, in parts of the city that few of us even knew existed. Covering a period of less than twenty-four hours in the lives of this young trio, the film keeps the suspense tightly wound, and the atmosphere dark and relentless. I guarantee that you won’t forget his performance.

I admit that I rarely write about happy films on this blog. To be honest, I haven’t seen that many, and have spent much of my film-watching seeking out conflict, or the darker side of existence. But I do have a brighter side, and have been known to laugh out loud at a film too. Sorry if that fooled you, but here is a simply marvellous film about a dark episode in history. Another film that I first watched at the National Film Theatre, and later bought on DVD to watch in detail once again, as I could not forget the first time I had seen it. The French involvement in Algeria is a sorry tale of colonialism that dragged on for far too long. Fighting a war against insurgents wanting independence, the French responded to that violence with great barbarity, and became embroiled in a modern war now almost forgotten.
In 1966, Italian director Gilo Potecorvo made ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Filmed in a documentary style, and in black and white, it tells of the real events that happened up to 1957, when guerrilla fighters occupied the Casbah area of the Algerian capital, and fought against the French troops occupying the city. To counter the resistance, the French bring in the hardened elite troops of the parachute regiment. They begin a relentless hunt for the leaders of the uprising, in a no-holds-barred operation into the heart of the Casbah itself, involving torture, summary imprisonment and execution, and the use of informers. Always exciting, often challenging, you are unlikely to see a better example of the genre. And the soundtrack is by Morricone too.

Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and a Japanese Akita dog called Hachi. Finally, a family feel-good film? Well, not really. This American re-telling of a true story that happened in Japan looked like a must for any dog-lover like myself. The 2009 film from Lasse Hallstrom is called ‘Hachi: A Dog’s Tale’. Gere’s character finds a stray dog, a small pup. Against the wishes of his wife (Allen) he takes it in, keeping it in a shed at the end of the garden. The dog is irresistibly cute, and soon steals the hearts of all the family. The problem is that the dog has bonded with the man, and cannot bear it when he leaves every day for work. He escapes to follow his owner, waiting by the station until the train arrives in the evening, so he can accompany his master back home. Eventually, they stop bothering to try to contain him, and Hachi becomes a well-known figure at the station, loved by the whole community.
One day, the man fails to return. He has collapsed and died at work, and the train gets back to the station without him.
The poor dog is inconsolable, and treks to the station every day, eventually refusing to move from his spot outside. The local people feed him, and watch out for him, as he spends every day in all weathers, waiting in vain. Even when the family move away, Hachi escapes again, returning to the station and watching the door patiently. What really got me about this film is that it actually happened, albeit in Japan, not America. A statue to the real Hachi exists to this day, outside of the station where he waited. I fell for it completely, and allowed the dog’s fate to break my heart accordingly. Even watching the short trailer makes me well up!

That’s all for Part Four. keep an eye out for Part Five, one day soon.

Just been watching…(18)

Locke (2013)

***Some unavoidable spoilers that are all revealed very soon in the film anyway***

Here’s an unusual idea. A film starring one person, filmed entirely in a car as he drives along a motorway to London. The only other cast members are just voices, heard over his mobile phone in the car. Not completely new, of course. Before this, we have had other films starring one person, the most recent of which I can recall was ‘Buried’, in 2010. In that film, Ryan Reynolds plays a man buried alive in a war zone, with the only other characters heard over a phone too.

With ‘Locke’, we have the redoubtable Tom Hardy as the only visible character, Ivan Locke. He is driving his car from some unnamed place, to visit a woman in London who is about to give birth to his baby. He spends the entire film talking to work colleagues about concrete, or to his wife about how their life is unravelling. He also occasionally talks to the woman having his baby, or her doctors and nurses. When he is not on the ‘phone, he is talking to his father; but as this is only in his imagination, we do not see that character either.

So to sum up, we have a lead character who is obsessed with his job, and the pouring of concrete into the building site where he is the manager. He has to try to calm down the woman who is having his baby, someone he hardly knows and has slept with just the once. He has the unenviable task of telling his wife this news over the telephone, whilst trying to act normally with both his young sons, who expect him home to watch a big football match on TV. In the middle of all this, he is also trying to motivate one of his employees to step up and oversee the pouring of the concrete the next morning. All this, as he drives his car down a busy motorway late in the evening.

For most sensible film fans this would be enough to make them lose interest already. Many of us might well have already stopped reading this review, and decided never to bother with the film. However, I have some startling news for you. It is actually very good. It works, and it works well, even though it shouldn’t. There are quite a few reasons why it works so well. For one thing, it is shot in real time. This is not only apparent, but adds to the overall sense of reality that pervades the film. Then there are the actors who voice the other parts. They are all excellent, and completely convincing. Given that these include Olivia Colman, Tom Holland, and Ruth Wilson, that comes as no surprise.

Most of all, the spellbinding Tom Hardy is very capable of holding the film together. He has a cold, he wants the concrete to get poured, and he knows that his marriage has been badly affected. Yet he is determined to do the decent thing by the woman having his baby. He refuses to repeat the mistakes made by his own father, whatever the cost to his life, which he seems to be juggling like spinning plates for most of this film. Not many films surprise me, but this one did.

And for some reason, Hardy also does it all in a Welsh accent.

(In case you were wondering about road safety, the scenes in the car were filmed as it was towed along on a trailer.)

Just been watching…(17)

The Paperboy (2012)

***Spoilers avoided***

A film I had never heard of, starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, and Matthew McConaughey? That surprised me, when I noticed it was being shown on TV. So I decided to settle down and watch it.

This is set in the steamy hot south of the USA, in rural Florida, during the late 1960s. It is narrated retrospectively by the excellent Macy Gray, (the singer) who also has a lead role. Straight off, I should state that the film has some violence, some sex and nudity, and a lot of racism, with the ‘N’ word used throughout. There is considerable effort to establish the time period and location, with small town vistas, swamps, everyone sweaty and hot, and all the usual ‘good ole boy’ staples associated with films about this part of America. If you have seen a John Grisham adaptation, and anything set in Louisiana, combine the two, and hold that thought.

To the story. After the killing of the fat old sheriff at the very start, local poacher Hilary Van Wetter is convicted of the murder, and faces execution. The owner of the local newspaper, W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn) suspects he may not be guilty. He sends for his oldest son Ward, (McConaughey) who is a successful reporter in Miami, to investigate the case. Younger son, Jack (Efron) also works for the newspaper, doing odd jobs and delivering the copies to local shops. He is ‘The Paperboy’ of the title.
Working at their house as cook, cleaner, and general servant is the doughty Anita. (Gray) She has seen the sons grow up, and gets on well with young Jack. She also gets to see the events unravel, hence her role as narrator, during an interview with someone we never see.

Not far away, lives Charlotte Bless. (Kidman) She is a flaky forty-something ‘white trash’ woman who lives in a fantasy world. She writes to prisoners all over the state, sending them photos of herself, and indulging in lurid communication with them by letter. One prisoner in particular appeals to her, and she becomes excited when he asks her to visit him. Of course, it is Van Wetter (Played by a suitably loathsome John Cusack) Meanwhile, Ward arrives in town, accompanied by a black colleague, Yardley Acherman. (British actor David Oyelowo) Yardley’s presence as a cultured and smartly-dressed black man, with a British accent, causes some confusion in the Jansen household, who are not used to entertaining black people as guests. They move Yardley and Ward into the family garage, where they begin their investigation of Van Wetter’s case. Young Jack is given the job of being their driver, and he is happy to be around his admired older brother.

The team decide to approach Charlotte, and ask to accompany her to visit Van Wetter in prison. On the way, Jack becomes overwhelmingly attracted to Charlotte, who is flirtatious and very attractive. Van Wetter supplies an alibi for the night of the murder, and they begin to investigate the case in more detail. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it there. To say much more would give away not only the ending, but most of the events leading to it. However, keep reading, as there is more of this review to come.

This film received average reviews. It is not that well thought of in the industry, or by critics. McConaughey plays his usual languid, confident self. If you have seen ‘Killer Joe’, or ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’, you know what to expect. Efron is ideally cast as the impressionable younger son, but anyone half-capable could have played the part. Scott Glenn looks great in his role as the owner of the newspaper, but gets very little to do. John Cusack relishes his part as the oily Van Wetter, lending a real nastiness to the role. Macy Gray holds the whole thing together as the totally believable Anita, and though Oyelowo gives his best shot as the angry and determined Yardley, you have to wonder why his character was even there. The soundtrack features some good music that sets up the time and place nicely too.

Now forget everything I have already written, because one thing makes this film worth watching. Nicole Kidman gives a simply captivating performance as Charlotte.Not only does she look amazingly sexy, and overwhelmingly attractive, the fragility beneath the surface is always on show. She steals every scene she is in, and I could not stop looking at her. Not only have I rarely seen her look this good, I don’t think I have ever seen her give a better, or more complete performance. When she made this film, she was forty-five years old, and let’s not forget she is Australian. Yet she totally convinced me as a southern woman, lost in her world of fantasy and casual sex. I cannot stress enough just how good she is in this film. Yes, it has all the stereotypes of the genre. Maybe we have seen similar performances, in very similar films. There is some downright deliberately offensive sex, and occasional, perhaps unnecessary, violence. Read a review, and you may well be thinking you have seen it all before.

But you haven’t, because Kidman wasn’t in it. And she made all the difference. I loved it.

Gordon’s lawnmower

This is a work of fiction. A short story of 1900 words.

Sonia watched as Gordon struggled to start the thing. His face was red, and he took off his stupid hat, to wipe his brow. He could have got one with an electric start of course, but Alistair at the golf club had recommended this model, so of course he got that one. It wasn’t as if he even needed a ride-on mower. Although the garden was large, the lawn only took up a small part, and it meant that he drove the noisy thing back and forth, adjusting the cut each time. Anything to justify the cost.

She walked around the spacious conservatory, looking out at the man who she was married to. Can it really have been almost forty years? The bloated individual at the end of her gaze couldn’t be more different to the confident young man she had met at university. Gordon had been a catch, so her parents thought, anyway. He was a financial wizard, a genius with figures, destined to enjoy a great career somewhere. She was by contrast an average student, her future better secured with an advantageous marriage. He had been nice to her, and she had liked him well enough back then.

Not long after he started at one of the country’s oldest and most respected merchant banks, he had proposed, and she naturally accepted. The alternative had been a mediocre job, sharing a flat with a friend in one of the least desirable parts of the city, and endless dates with eligible young men. Best to get it over and done with, thought Sonia. Right away, Gordon took control. He chose their first house, a nice Edwardian three-bed terrace, in an up and coming area of west London. He didn’t really talk to her about it, just showed her the agent’s leaflet. He did let her choose the furnishings and decoration though, as he would never have bothered himself with such details.

He didn’t want her to work. At first she didn’t mind, as life felt like a holiday. It was lonely though, with Gordon leaving the house before seven, and rarely arriving home until eight in the evening. With a cleaner employed, she had little else to do except shopping and cooking, both of which soon became tiresome and routine. When she announced that she was pregnant with Douglas, Gordon’s first thought was to buy a bigger house. He didn’t seem too excited about the baby, but he threw himself into house-hunting, spurred on by suggestions from his senior colleagues at the bank. One day he drove her to see the new home, a detached four-bed house with a garden that backed onto the Thames in Berkshire. It was lovely, she had to admit. Sonia had no idea what it cost, or what the payments were either. Douglas dealt with all such matters.

Those years were the good ones. Douglas playing in the garden, and Sonia soon pregnant with Isabelle. Gordon rarely had time for the children. Even when they took their holiday at a villa in Tuscany every year, he spent much of his time working on papers, or talking on the telephone to London. Back in Berkshire, she threw herself into small-town life. School committees, charitable organisations, and the annual fete. Her and Gordon were soon well-known, and considered to be a part of the community. As the children grew, Sonia made the house into a lovely family home, and Gordon spent even longer at work, with his commute by train now extended. He was also abroad a lot with his job, and even at weekends when he got home, he spent most of his time at the local golf club. She didn’t complain, there was little point. He had told her that as much business was done at the golf club, than at the office.

Both children soon escaped. Neither of them returned from university, choosing instead to move far away, to start their careers. Douglas went to Denmark, where he got a job working for the giant Lego toy company. Isabelle travelled even further, to the west coast of America, snapped up by a silicon valley software developer. They didn’t come home much, and Gordon could see little point going all the way to see them. Sonia began to live for Christmas, the only time she managed to have both children in the house at the same time. Even that turned sour. When Douglas announced that he was settling down with Arno, a man he had met at work, Gordon refused to accept it. He referred to Arno all the time as ‘the flatmate’, and made it plain that they were not welcome back in Berkshire. Isabelle didn’t fare much better. Two marriages in quick succession, followed by divorces just as rapidly. And Sonia didn’t even get to go to the weddings, which were both in California. Gordon said it was a waste of money to travel over, as they wouldn’t last. Well, he was right about that.

As retirement loomed for Gordon, Sonia became uneasy. Life was just about bearable with him gone much of the time, but the thought of him at home all day made her feel quite ill. They had adapted to distance, and proximity seemed terrifying to her. Then he went and sold the house. Her lovely riverside home, where she had known at least some years of happiness. The house he bought for them to retire to was even larger. More importantly, it was over one hundred miles away, and somewhere she had never heard of, let alone visited. Gordon threw himself into this new life as a retiree. They were wealthy enough by then, so he got one of the best houses in the village, and one of the closest to the golf club. Even though he no longer needed to do business, he knew where he wanted to be, most days.

The bigger house had some benefits. She had other rooms to escape to, including her own bedroom, which she occupied using the excuse of his snoring. It became her refuge away from the husband she could no longer tolerate being around. It wasn’t that he was bad to her, or anything like that. She had just ceased to exist. A mother to children she hardly ever saw, and wife to a man who hardly noticed her. The new village wasn’t to her taste either. Too far from any shops, much too far from any town of interest, and dominated by a gaggle of golf club cronies and church people who Gordon sought to ingratiate himself with. She watched him eat his dinner as he read the newspaper, then sat looking at him as he watched sport on the television. She never got to choose what to watch, and he never really conversed with her anymore, presuming she had nothing to say.

What angered her most was that he was right. She did very little, hardly went anywhere, and found it difficult to warm to any of the new people. She could just leave of course. Force him to sell up, take half of their substantial savings, as well as a good portion of his pension. After all, she had managed his dinner parties, suffered his interminable formal occasions at golf clubs, given him two very intelligent children, and maintained a lovely home. She was entitled, as she saw it. But she chose to wait. She would continue to live the pretence of a settled family life, devoted wife and mother. Her plan was to outlive him, then move back to her beloved Berkshire, reuniting with the children at long last.

Last April, he had arrived home with the enormous lawnmower on a trailer. He could hardly wait for the grass to grow long enough to get out on it. He reminded her of a small child on a pedal tractor, imagining some huge farm or estate under his tiny feet. Gordon was obsessed with this new rural lifestyle, going as far as to buy four-wheel drive cars for them both. Sonia hardly needed a car. These days, she bought her groceries online, and only ever drove ten miles to the closest station, to get the train to the nearest town. He had got rid of her beloved Mini Cooper without even asking her, and replaced it with some enormous truck thing, its tyres almost as big as her. She hated driving it, and found it almost impossible to park when she got anywhere. He had got himself a very swish Range-Rover, even though he only drove it two miles each way to the golf club, or the local pub.

She came out of her reverie as the engine of the lawnmower finally coughed into life, and Gordon climbed onto the seat. She might even have a chance to have a cigarette ouside the front of the house, if he was out there long enough. Six months ago, he had suddenly decided that he no longer wanted her to smoke, and casually instructed her to give up. Just because he had stopped twenty years ago, he thought that it was that easy for anyone. She had been forced to become a secret smoker. Walking up the lane by the house in all weathers, or driving pointlessly around the area to smoke in her car. She hated that, it made her feel like a naughty schoolgirl again.

As she went to find the cigarettes in her handbag, the engine noise stopped suddenly. She went back to check where Gordon was, and saw that he was by the side of the thing, pulling on the starter cord. He was puffing and panting, and his face was redder than ever. Too many years of company lunches, daytime boozing, and eating heavy meals at night. He had been left with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and gout too. Sonia was only surprised that he didn’t have Diabetes into the bargain. Every evening, he took a handful of tablets, and his appointments with the doctor were booked weeks in advance.

Gordon suddenly stood up. He staggered backwards, his hand clutching at his chest. After a few steps, he fell over, landing heavily on the uncut grass. Sonia walked out through the conservatory doors, her pace quickening as she approached the lawnmower. Gordon was looking up at her. His face was white now, devoid of colour. She looked closer, and could see his mouth opening and closing, like a fish out of water. Small bubbles appeared at the side of his mouth, and he didn’t seem to be aware of her presence. She turned and walked back into the house, making her way through to the spacious living room. Turning on the TV, she scrolled down the channels, finding an interesting film. It was about a young girl who was kidnapped, then held captive for fifteen years. She was having trouble to adjusting to life, after managing to escape. Not the sort of thing Gordon would like at all.

Sonia brought an ashtray from her stash under the sink. She lit a cigarette, and relaxed on the sofa, choosing one of her favourite chocolates from an already open box on the side table. Then she checked the on-screen guide, to see how much longer the film was on. Ninety-six minutes.

She would call the ambulance when it finished.

Just been watching…(16)

Flesh and Blood (1985)

***Contains spoilers, but they don’t really matter***

On a recommendation from film fan, writer, and blogger, David Miller. I bought this film cheap from Amazon. One thing you can say about Dutch film-maker Paul Verhoeven is that he tackles a lot of varied subjects. From the saucy titillation of ‘Showgirls’, to the camp sci-fi of ‘Starship Troopers’, and on to the solid WW2 resistance drama, ‘Black Book’, you could never accuse him of being stuck in a style, or genre.

This epic production from thirty years ago stars Verhoeven regular Rutger Hauer, alongside a 23 year-old Jennifer Jason-Leigh. There is also the Australian stalwart Jack Thompson, and a crop of British and American character actors, including the wonderful Ronald Lacey, and gangster-film star Bruno Kirby. Cast-wise, he got the whole planet covered with this one. If you like historical sagas, castle sieges, and some of the flesh and blood mentioned in the title, then this one is for you.

The scene is somewhere in Europe, circa 1500. A local lord has employed a mercenary group to help his army get his castle and lands back. The film goes straight into the action, as Hauer and his group assault the castle, spurred on by the promise of looting and pillage for a clear twenty-four hours. They succeed in capturing the place, but find themselves betrayed by their employer, and driven out by his main army. Hiding out, Martin (Hauer) and his band manage to capture the daughter of the same lord. (Jason-Leigh) He soon seduces (well, rapes) her, and not long after that, he falls in love with her too.

Later, this disparate band arrive at another castle, which they quickly capture, to use as a hideout and a base. But they are unaware that those inside already have the plague, (The Black Death) and not long after, Agnes’ (Jason-Leigh) betrothed lover, Steven, arrives with an army to rescue her. More battles ensue, and neither side can get the upper hand, as their soldiers succumb to the plague all around. Eventually, the castle catches fire, and the mercenaries that are still alive are forced to flee, leaving Steven and Agnes reunited at last.

The story hardly matters, and knowing the outcome won’t spoil your enjoyment of this rip-roaring Renaissance romp. It’s got the lot. Tough men, hard fighting, siege towers, explosions, rape and pillage, nudity, plague deaths, and double-dealing a-plenty. Very enjoyable, if dated now, and as few films are made about this turbulent period in European history, somewhat unique in the genre. I can really only think of the superior, ‘The Last Valley’, or the simply wonderful ‘Captain Alatriste’, both of which are set at least one hundred years later. Here’s a trailer.