Friday, 29 November 2013


A few months into our relationship, some time around the end of 2005, my small, pushy girlfriend and I took a coach to the city of Oxford. A few months earlier she had informed me with characteristic charm that I needed to organise day trips, to think of places we could visit in order to stave off her becoming thoroughly bored of our association. This was to be my role in the relationship, it seemed. I was the entertainments committee. I was never quite able to pin down the nature of her contribution, but never mind.

I'd been planning to go and see my grandparents for a while. They lived in Clanfield, a village not too far from Oxford; and as the city had come up in conversation as being somewhere we both liked, it was an obvious choice. I found us a bed and breakfast because I was entertainments manager. I got hold of a National Express timetable, and phoned my grandparents to tell them we would be dropping in to see them.

We stepped off the coach in Oxford and Marian began to describe a previous visit when, travelling with a group of horticultural types, she had been to Waterperry Gardens and Garden Centre. This, she told me, was very near Oxford - although she was unable to remember quite where - and it was amazing. We would have to go. I listened as she gave further account of the wonders of Waterperry as I hauled her luggage along to the bed and breakfast. We checked in at around midday, by which time Marian had decided we must visit Waterperry that very afternoon. To do otherwise would be madness, plain and simple.

'But what about your grandparents,' she asked as though this spontaneous change of plan had been my idea. 'Do you think we'll get time to visit them as well?'

This was a familiar trap. Even the world's most optimistic moron would have had no trouble assessing the practicality of these options - two destinations in a single afternoon with Marian in tow, means of travel presently undetermined, and the location of one of these places as yet unknown. I offered a hopeful sounding possibly, knowing it was unlikely in the extreme. Marian did not respond well to no, or indeed to any conclusion which suggested she might have to tailor her ambitions in accordance with reality. Had I said no, I might still be there now, still listening to a speech about my negative attitude and the depths to which I would stoop in order to prevent Marian achieving her numerous goals.

It wasn't worth it.

We strolled back into the centre of Oxford as I pored over guidebooks and leaflets obtained from the tourist information centre, attempting to work out a route to this place so that Marian wouldn't have to do everything for herself as usual. Following what was apparently the quickest route, we took a bus four or five miles out of the city to the village of Wheatley, then walked across two miles of open field in the freezing cold to a large privately owned garden filled with plants that were either brown or dead due to it being November. It was dark by the time we made it back across the fields to Wheatley to wait an hour in the rain for the bus back into Oxford.

My phone rang. It was Madge, the woman who had married my widower grandfather back in 1977 and whom I had come to regard as my grandmother, roughly speaking. She'd been expecting us and wanted to know where we were, particularly as it was now dark. I explained that we were running a little late as though it was one of those things over which none of us had any control.

We eventually made it back into Oxford and went for something to eat in a restaurant. We were freezing cold, having stood in the wind and rain at a bus-stop for an hour. I ordered a mug of hot chocolate, and then phoned Madge to let her know that we wouldn't be coming after all as it was now eight in the evening. Marian had fallen quiet, but I was pissed off and not greatly concerned by whatever her latest imaginary problem could be. I'd just wasted an entire day visiting a patch of frozen organic mush in the middle of nowhere for no reason. Nevertheless after a little while she overcame her reticence, raging at my selfishly ordering hot chocolate, then drinking it in front of her in full knowledge of chocolate being forbidden by her current dietary regime. I had forgotten this detail as she seemed to change her diet every few weeks. It was difficult to keep track of what she could and couldn't eat from one month to the next, and on days such as this it was even more difficult to care.

That evening we managed to have a row over an unrelated matter. During the 1990s I'd written, drawn, and published a great many of my own small press comics. As a result I now had a sideboard packed tight with boxes of unsold copies of my work, with no idea of how, where, or to whom I might dispose of them, and I wanted my sideboard back. This was mentioned in passing as part of a meandering conversation in much the same way as one might make an observation regarding the weather.

'Well, what are you going to do about it?' Marian demanded to know in peculiarly stringent terms. I wasn't sure and said so, explaining that this was why I had raised the subject; I was thinking aloud. She didn't seem to understand this, but then I'm not sure she ever quite grasped regular human interaction outside the staples of bullying and appeasement, the currency of a power struggle. As subscriber to countless ineffective self-help philosophies, it seemed she was attempting some sort of intervention on me, some crap apparently born of the idea that the process of decision making is more significant than what decisions are made. She suggested I take all my self-published magazines to a paper recycling place. I said that given the work that had gone into producing this mountain of crap I found her solution unsatisfactory, which prompted an argument based on the question of why I'd bothered to ask her advice if I wasn't going to follow simple orders and change my life around completely according to that which had been sprung forth from the font of her wisdom. I'd had enough that day and for the first time in our relationship I was happy to let the bullshit evolve into a shouting match. It didn't go anywhere, but it felt okay.

We were only months into our relationship and I was still expecting things to settle down, even hopefully to improve at some point; but now, on some level, I understood that this wasn't going to happen. She had already told me to rearrange all of the furniture in my flat according to the principles of feng shui, and even though I knew feng shui to be the sort of mumbo jumbo to which only a serious simpleton could possibly subscribe, I did it because she had to get her way; and when she didn't get her way she would start on the tears and the blackmail about how she felt undervalued, as though her opinion didn't count for anything. There was no point in arguing, but sometimes it was nice to know that I still could.

The next morning I got out of bed and did my push-ups as I was then in the habit of doing on a daily basis. Marian, recognising an act of self-improvement, became excited as she sat up in bed and began babbling away like a small, hyperactive bird. The distraction was too much and my arm twisted behind my back in a moment of wrenching pain so profound that I screamed. It was agony, and months passed before I was once again able to do such exercises.

The rest of the day was spent in Oxford, visiting botanic gardens within the city, the Ashmolean Museum and Blackwell's bookshop on Broad Street, Marian as usual browsing for further self-help books. She had two shelves sagging with the things at home in London, but always seemed to need more, perhaps realising she was not yet perfect. I once saw her spend twenty-five pounds on a hardback entitled How to Spend Money More Sensibly or similar, naturally oblivious to the irony. The matter of visiting my grandparents did not come up again, and I said nothing because I'd realised I didn't want to subject them to Marian. She would only have made things complicated and unpleasant as she always did.

Later, once we were back in London she said, 'I feel like I'm partially responsible for the fact that we didn't get to see your grandad.'

I said nothing, and as it happens I never saw him again. He passed on about two years later.

There never was a happy ending to this one.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Lord of the Isles

I always had a thing for model railways, and at the age of forty-eight I still find it impossible to pass a toy store with tiny trains on display without my face becoming so firmly fixed to the window as to necessitate being chipped free with woodworking tools. The flames of this passion are quite naturally diminished, otherwise I'd still be fiddling around with OO gauge rolling stock right now rather than sitting here writing about it. Nevertheless they were once of such severity as to drive me to crime.

I was seven or maybe eight and our family lived on a dairy farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Alan, a teenager and the only other child on the farm, told me he knew where we could get more carriages and wagons for my train set. We went across the fields at the back of our row of cottages to a house on Redhill Bank just before the hamlet of Wimpstone. I vaguely recall being astonished at the meticulous state of the garden, bushes neatly trimmed to geometric shapes and the lawn mown into stripes like at a stately home. Whoever lived there had a lot of money, I guessed, and I realised that we were going to break in. I knew this was wrong and I wanted to turn back, but Alan insisted everything would be fine. I was way out of my depth and didn't fancy trying to find my way home on my own as it seemed like we had come many miles.

All I'm able to recall of our haul were passenger carriages, but they were strange - doors and windows printed on tin plate and quite unlike anything I'd seen in the Tri-ang catalogue. More disappointing was that Alan appeared to expect some sort of payment for whatever I was going to keep. I held onto the carriages a few days as I thought it over, and then the police showed up to decide the issue for me which came as a great relief. Alan was essentially a complete tosser, and burglary was the least of his crimes.

My own train set was a circle of track with three wagons pulled along by a little green engine with 27 printed on the tank, retailing as the Tri-ang Railways RS614 Pick-Up Goods Set. According to the Hornby Railways Collector Guide, the set cost ₤5.20 in 1972, which I assume would probably have been the year it turned up as the main feature of my Christmas presents, so I would have been six or seven. As train sets went, it was modest, but we were humble serfs and I loved it. My dad and I joined all the curves of track together, plugged it all in, and spent the morning watching my little green tank engine pulling its three wagons around in a circle. After a while, smoke began to issue from the engine, so we gave it a rest and made predictable jokes about the added touch of realism. From then on it became my ambition to own an enormous train set, a full layout like I had seen at both Rex Harding's house and at the model shop in Bourton-on-the-Water, trains, houses, landscaping, tiny people glued to plastic platforms, the works...

This proved difficult to achieve being as we were not a wealthy family and I hadn't quite got the hang of saving up my pocket money, so for the next few years I contented myself with drooling over model railway catalogues and compiling lists of what I wanted on my grandfather's typewriter. One such list was headed absolute necessities which I specifically recall because I remember asking my mother how to spell it. I would probably have bored my friends senseless with my train set related ambitions had any of them shared my interest, but none did which was probably a sign of changing times. Everyone was into Action Man or Dinky toys, specifically the Gerry Anderson stuff. The only exception was a younger boy called David Wild who seemed to be even more into trains than I was, but I found his enthusiasm strange and difficult to understand. We both loved our train sets, such as they were, but he went several stages further in owning Sounds of Steam record albums comprising recordings of actual steam locomotives chugging past a microphone, which was just weird.

David was from Wales and I suspected he had some sort of inherent cultural affinity with steam engines in the same way that native Americans are held to be closer to nature. He was the child of our headmaster, which must have been a tough job. In particular I recall his birthday party during which Mr. Wild angrily blustered and berated his son. 'You've ruined the day for everyone,' he raged as we watched, wondering what the hell was happening and feeling glad that our own dads were just regular people. Perhaps that was why David found comfort in records of loud atonal noise.

Eventually I somehow managed to save up for a second engine, a Hornby R354 Dean Single Locomotive and tender distinguished by a massive central wheel on either side and the name Lord of the Isles. It was amongst the more modest engines in the Hornby catalogue but I was fascinated by its distinctive appearance, and at least I could afford it. Something about that huge central wheel fascinated me, and despite the name, the engine seemed pretty, like something feminine which, to my mind, required protection.

Lord of the Isles was soon followed by luxurious Pullman carriages modelled on the chosen rail transport of people who lived in houses such as the one burgled by Alan and myself some years before. I took the carriages to school for the sake of showing off.

'That's the best one,' Neil Hargreaves grinned, picking up my OO gauge buffet car. 'That's the one with all the nosh in it.'

Years passed, we moved to Shipston-on-Stour, and I ended up at secondary school, still accumulating bits and pieces for the model railway layout towards which I was working; and yet somehow I never quite got there. By 1978 I was apparently old enough to cope with keeping a diary for at least the first half of the year, and every other weekend I would record the latest additions to my reliquary of trackside accessories - track, buffer stops, model trees, and a small town's worth of houses and buildings built from Faller and Pola model kits. On Saturday the 4th of March it seems I bought a massive sheet of chipboard from a local hardware store for ₤2.00. This was to provide the base of my proposed but poorly defined layout, and although I'm no longer sure of the exact size - particularly as I am now myself somewhat larger - it was too big to be carried up the stairs. My dad sawed it in half and then joined the two parts back together once we had taken them up to the spare room.

The strange thing is that I have no memory of actually having either of my engines by this point. The little green tank engine had long since cashed in its locomotive chips, and I had never actually got together any sort of set up on which Lord of the Isles could have run; or at least if I did, I cannot remember it at all. I have a feeling I may have swapped the engine long before that time, as that was what my friends and I did at the weekends, just swap stuff, more as social ritual than through any desire to acquire the other man's Spectrum Patrol Vehicle. Perhaps this was why my model railway layout never came to pass; like some compulsive gambler I would always end up swapping whatever I'd bought with my not-particularly-hard-earned pocket money before it was even out of the box.

With hindsight I believe I understand why I found David Wild's enthusiasm at such odd variance with my own. David was into trains, railways, and the whole deal. I myself couldn't really care less about any of that. I just liked the models, the idea of a miniature world crafted more or less by my own hand, a small universe over which I had absolute power. This is probably why I now write fiction.

For much of the twentieth century, a steam train would have been the largest, loudest, and most dramatic thing many people in England would see at least during the first few decades of their lives, and so the enthusiasm for model railways amongst my father's generation is not difficult to understand. For ourselves, by the 1970s we had film and television, and we had seen sights more awesome than even the Flying Scotsman at full pelt on its way up to Edinburgh, even if that awesome was achieved with a bottle of washing up liquid sprayed silver and suspended from fishing line; or at least that was what we believed, I suppose; and I guess I went from one to the other, roughly speaking.

So for all my efforts, such as they were, I do not recall any model train of mine ever running around a track since that circle with the three little wagons back when we had lived on the farm. I was buying the stuff, but just never quite getting there, presuming on some instant in the future when I would suddenly notice that I already had possession of everything I could ever possibly need and embark upon the task of making hills out of chicken wire and newspaper, then glueing little Swedish looking houses in place. I wonder now if on some level I knew that this future would be a disappointment, a poor second to its contemplation, to my savouring of this long term goal.

Living back on the farm, my mother had occasionally served as babysitter to Rex and Rosemary Harding, the family who lived at the foot of the hill. Rex was son to Mr. Harding, who ran the farm, and father to a very young daughter called Zoe. I always enjoyed the babysitting because Rex had built himself a massive model railway layout in his spare bedroom. It was a little neglected, but I got to play with it every time we went there. The layout had no concessions to scenery, but comprised spaghetti circuits of track all crammed onto a small baseboard, complete with remotely operated signals and points. Of course, impressive though this was, beyond hitching up various wagons and watching them go around and around, the world Rex had created was limited, as would be the one I myself intended to build.

My world would be green and hilly with at least two parallel circuits of track vanishing into the mountains at the rear. The houses of the town would be set in the middle, a peculiar brightly coloured mish-mash of European styles as determined by the fact that most of the kits were from either Faller or Pola, both German companies. It would look insane in the real world, but of course that wouldn't matter because only an insane person would choose to live in a town surrounded entirely by a self-contained railway line with just a single station. Not only would the noise drive you mad, had you not already arrived at such a state under your own impetus, but the area would be subject to terrible economic decline with the only service industry being a railway line doomed to go out of business because no-one in their right mind is going to pay for a ticket which brings them back to the same station roughly twenty seconds later.

I've a feeling the powers that be of Tr-iang had perhaps realised all of this in the late sixties when they began to jazz up their line with the Battle Space range found in old catalogues at Rex's house. The Battle Space range appeared to be railway modelling's attempt to cash in on some of that Gerry Anderson money, rolling stock from which one could fire missiles or launch helicopters, and strangest of all, the Battle Space Turbo Car, bright red and pointed with its massive propeller at the rear.

I wanted the Battle Space Turbo Car pretty bad, regardless of the fact that it looked ridiculous and would only have served to highlight the general absurdity of my notional layout. Were aliens ever to invade Earth, the military response would probably not arrive by rail. Were aliens to begin their invasion in my dream town of crazy people in their Black Forest style community with its pointless orbital railway, they would have to be pretty stupid and would probably blow themselves up anyway, and so the Battle Space Turbo Car would be surplus to requirements.

Perhaps I'd spent my childhood years in pursuit of something which I knew would prove disappointing and absurd whichever way one chose to look at it. Insisting on realism in railway modelling would result only in lengths of track upon which an engine could move back and forth, because circuits of the kind I'd intended to build cannot be found in real life. I recall once watching a railway modelling programme on BBC2 in which someone made a near perfect scale replica of a railway siding somewhere in Leicestershire or wherever, even building the signal box from scratch using wood and plastic. It looked like the real thing, but I couldn't see the point.

This is, I suspect, why I still find it so difficult to pass a model railway in a shop window. On some level I am still thinking of the Lord of the Isles, my beautiful little and slightly eccentric looking engine. She came out of the box - and despite the name, I can't help but thinking of her as somehow feminine - but I'm not sure she ever got to run or to pull carriages of imaginary passengers as intended, and all because my ambition was about momentum rather than destination. Like my little green engine running on its circle of track, the point was about forward motion, never about getting there. I wished for a world I could control, and yet deep down I knew it would be a dissatisfying and cranky world.

Please feel free to find a lesson in there somewhere.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Very Important Story

'He shalt be clad,' the voice hissed yet again in portentous close up revealing blackened bone beneath receding necrotic gums, 'in women's knickers.' The final syllables washed away on echoes of pseudo-Shakespearian eternity, fading, becoming one with the great ocean of the very important story arc. Then a blue square box appeared. It was not a box at all. It was TARDIS! The mysterious traveller in time and space known only as Doctor Who comes out and looks around. He frowns on his face and looked thoughtful.

'What is the matter, Doctor Who?' asked Amy. She was his friend and she had ginger hair. Just then Rory came out of the TARDIS. He imagined for himself a woman running, a woman with curly hair who looked like Dirty Den's second wife in the Eastenders show on television. The woman ran and roared, a great cricket bat held aloft ready for the killing swing, a great cricket bat just like the kind Tristan Farnam would have been into but with six inch nails driven through the end, become a weapon of death and harm. Tristan Farnam probably would not have liked that part, Rory thought to himself.

'Er um,' he said and shrugged.

The Doctor made his eyes go narrow as though he were suspicious of some fact. 'Very strange,' he commented quietly.

'I er...,' said Rory. 'I think...'

There was a noise, the noise of bells. It was the theme music from Are You being Served? mixed in with the grinding of gears and the wrench of a handbrake as the ice cream van drew to a halt. It had scary clown faces drawn on the side like in a Tim Burton film or an old video of a pop song by the Cure. The music sounded sinister as it tinkled away.

Rory pointed at the Doctor's head upon which was worn a girl's hat. The girl's hat was green.

'I wear girl's hats now,' beamed the Doctor. 'Girl's hats are cool.'

Amy stuck her chin out and made her eyes appear large and defiant. When she spoke it sounded like a person from Scotland or maybe from Edinburgh or one of those places. She sounded feisty and defiant. No man would tame this foxy yet independent wench.

'I would like an ice cream, if it's not too much trouble.'

'An ice cream,' the Doctor said wonderingly and his voice went up and down. He looked around then and saw the ice cream van. 'Well that is handy, and unusual.'

In the ice cream van there was Davros, but this was Davros from the future, a reformed Davros who had climbed over the great obstacle of genital confusion and was now secure in his sexuality and therefore no longer angry. He no longer wanted to get the Daleks to exterminate Doctor Who. 'Yoo hoo, Doctor,' he called out in his grating electronic voice waving his single claw-like hand. 'I must say, I do like your hat.'

Rory coughed and fell over, but no-one noticed.

Amy studied the display at the side of the window, allowing her feisty Scottish eyes to linger upon the representation of a Fab lolly with all hundreds and thousands on the end. 'I'll take one of those.'

'I'll have a vanilla cone please,' the Doctor beamed grinningly as he pulled some psychic space money out of his magic pocket.

The red electronic eye set into the forehead of Davros glowed faintly. 'Can I interest you in my nuts, Doctor?'

'No thank you.' The mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor winked at Rory to show that he had fully understood the joke and that it wasn't prejudiced or nothing. The joke referred to the nuts Davros might sometimes sprinkle over the ice creams he sold, although of course it sounded a little like he might be referring to male testicles. That had been deliberate. It was a joke.

'And what would you like,' - the Doctor Who Man paused to remember correctly the name of his friend - 'Dave?'

'I'll have a raspberry ripple, please.' Rory sadly shook his head and there was a sad trombone sound. What a loser! Ha ha!

'Och! Do ye remember those?' Amy laughed defiantly. 'I used tae love me a raspberry ripple, me! Do ye remember Spangles too?'

Everyone laughed nostalgically.

Rory laughed too, but his laughter was tinged with sadness.

'No!,' Mrs. River Song shouted as she came running out of nowhere in slow motion, but it was a long no with a lot of Os - more like noooooooooooooooo like in a film with Matt Damon. She swung the cricket bat with nails that Tristan Farnam would have regarded as blasphemous. She swung the bat and went through the air but you could see all the detail like it was one of those games or something. It was awesome. Doctor Who looked around in slow motion just as the wizened claw of Davros thrust forward from the ice cream van clutching a raspberry ripple. Amy was feistily diving to save Doctor Who with her arms but she accidentally got hold of his trousers and pulled them down instead of simply pushing him out of the way of the cricket bat that Mrs. River Song was swinging at his head and as they all fell over it was revealed that the Doctor Who was clad in women's knickers.

'I wear women's knickers now. Women's knickers are cool.'

'Um,' said Rory apologetically.

'Hello Sweetie,' said the annoying woman with the cricket bat.

'You will not move,' ordered the grating metallic voice. 'Woof. Woof.'

The robot was low to the ground, almost like an iron dog but with technological bumps on its side. It was not a Dalek, because all of the Daleks had been destroyed forever in Pagga of the Daleks. It was more like a dog version. It was a Doglek.

'Dogsterminate!' chanted the growing group of Dogleks all spinning around sniffing each other's computer interface bottoms. 'Woof. Woof. Woof.'

'He shalt be clad,' the voice hissed yet again in portentous close up revealing blackened bone beneath receding necrotic gums, 'in women's knickers.' The final syllables washed away on echoes of pseudo-Shakespearian eternity, fading, becoming one with the great ocean of the very important story arc.

They all looked at the Doctor turning red-faced in his women's knickers. Everyone moved his or her head up and down just a little bit then looked at each other with their eyes narrow as though to suggest that something hitherto regarded as confusing had begun to make sense.

'They're comfortable.' The Doctor shrugged like a small child with eyes full of wonderment and magic.

It started to snow. It was cold. It was really serious like in a song by Fields of the Nephilim. It was seriousness like when no-one understands you and you have a frozen soul and that.

Davros grunted like a grunting electronic machine as he reached forward from the rectangular serving orifice set into the flank of his ice cream van. He tried to reach forward but his one arm was not up to the task. It was much too short for what he was trying to do. There on the ground was his Dalek - Time Lord English translation dictionary, laying open as it had fallen at the page for the Dalek words Dav meaning Doctor and Ros meaning Who.

'My God!' Rory stared with his accusing eyes at Mrs. Song. 'You're him! You are the Master!'

Friday, 1 November 2013


On Monday evening as I chopped bratwurst and potatoes my phone rang. It was my wife.

'You need to call your dad right now.'

'What I—'

'Your dad called my phone. I don't know what's wrong, but you need to call him right now.'

My father lives in Coventry, England whilst I live in San Antonio, Texas. We speak fairly regularly but this seemed like something out of the ordinary, a moment I'd been dreading. Apparently unable to phone me at home, he had called my wife at work and wanted me to call him back seemingly regardless of it being near midnight in England. I felt ill.

My father sounded sleepy but not unusually distraught, which I immediately noticed with some relief. He told me that Madge had died in hospital. I suppose Madge would be my step-grandmother, if there is such a thing. She was ninety-three and had recently suffered a fall so it wasn't entirely unexpected.

Approximately forty years earlier, a knock on our front door had brought similarly grave tidings. We lived on a farm in rural Warwickshire with just one telephone connecting us to the outside world, and this was kept in the main office and shared by everyone. One of the other workers, or possibly even Mr. Harding himself had come to our door with a message. Being winter and early evening it was already cold and dark outside, and the news was that my grandmother had been involved in a car accident. My dad grabbed his coat and rushed out whilst I commended him on his haste, helpfully explaining that old people were frail and therefore less likely to recover from  accidents of this sort. I was probably about eight and I think it was the only time my mother delivered unto my person one of those clips around the ear you always hear about.

When I was growing up we tended to see more of my mother's parents than the Burton side of the family, which is simply the way it was. Arthur Burton, my grandfather, was herdsman on a dairy farm near Witney in Oxfordshire. Like my dad, he was the guy who milked the cows.

I remember my grandmother, the first Marjorie Burton, and I remember her well enough to recall her voice and her face without the need of a photograph, but sadly that's about as far as I get. I remember their budgerigar, their bungalow, woodlands full of bluebells behind the farm; and I remember that whenever we visited I would usually end up behind their sofa, chuckling at cartoons in the twelve collected volumes of Punch magazine dating from 1936 to 1941 which my grandfather had purchased after the war.

Regrettably the first Marjorie Burton didn't survive the accident, which quite naturally left my grandfather somewhat rudderless, and there was one year in which he joined us for Christmas dinner at the house of my other grandparents which, if not exactly awkward, seemed a little odd, like Batman turning up in an episode of Star Trek. I was too young to recall much beyond the usual seasonal haze of the annual toy frenzy, and I have difficulty imagining what they all could have talked about. Both grandfathers had served during the war, one in Egypt, the other interned in a POW camp in Poland. One was a dairy farmer, the other a structural engineer for Coventry City Council.

Saturday 26th March 1977 is marked in my Letts Schoolboys Diary as the day Grandad married Madge, short for Marjorie and  recently widowed. Madge became the second Marjorie Burton, and because none of us knew if there really was such a thing as a step-grandmother, she remained Madge. They were married at St. Stephen's Church in Clanfield situated at the end of Busby's Close where Madge lived with Cindy, her corgi. It was a fun day, although I don't remember much beyond that my uncle George refused to enter the church on the grounds of being an atheist, which struck everyone as both characteristically disrespectful and idiotic, because it was. Arthur took a job at a dairy farm in  Clanfield, a job which came with a farm cottage, although Madge kept her bungalow knowing they would have need of it when Arthur retired. We visited from time to time once they had settled into their cottage and Madge would serve up the most incredible Sunday roasts, although I only recall going to stay on one occasion, a week in January 1978 before the school holiday came to an end. I stayed with my other set of grandparents in Kenilworth every other weekend, but I didn't know Grandad and Madge quite so well, so it seemed initially strange to me. Nevertheless I had a fine time, pestering my grandfather as he milked cows, certainly eating well, going for walks, and finding myself shepherded around the cottage with Cindy snapping at my heels, unable to shake off her herding instincts or the suspicion that I was probably a sheep. Waking with a temperature one morning, Madge prepared hot fortifying drinks involving milk and whisky, then brought me something to read from the mobile library, a book I recall as being Neutron Star by Larry Niven. There was a spacecraft on the cover so it had struck her as being something I might like, which it was. Whilst staying at their house, I watched the first broadcast episode of Blake's 7 - which meant a great deal more to me then than it does now - and pleaded to be allowed to stay up late to watch Spike Milligan's Q8. By the time it came on, my grandfather had fallen asleep in his armchair but Madge continued to watch bemused as Spike grinned on the television screen in response to a series of boob jokes conveyed through the medium of women in lingerie. It seemed to go on forever. I pretended I was asleep, watching through half closed eyes and struggling not to laugh.

After a few more days, I was struck by a crushing combination of homesickness and guilt regarding the same, wishing for familiar surroundings whilst worrying I might appear ungrateful. I was probably a fairly cranky child, but Grandad and Madge both seemed to understand. Whilst nothing about Madge suggested that she suffered fools gladly, she was nevertheless a kind and thoughtful woman.

Many years later I went to stay with them a second time. It was summer 2001, Arthur had retired, and they had moved to Madge's bungalow in Busby's Close. I was in my late thirties and conscious of the fact that I hadn't seen my grandparents in at least a decade in conjunction with Arthur now approaching ninety. They were both significantly older and slower and more prone to spontaneous napping, but it was otherwise comforting to find that little had changed in their world. On a slow walk with my grandfather, himself moving at snail's pace with the aid of a stick, he casually pointed out the three enormous and adjacent allotments from which he continued to harvest a tidal wave of carrots, potatoes, beans, onions, and other vegetables, expressing regret that he no longer had the energy to maintain the fourth plot. He was as self-contained as ever, and I recalled that our previous meeting had been at a wedding in 1990 during which he'd regaled myself and two friends with a lengthy treatise on the cultivation of onions. It lasted at least twenty minutes and came in response to my asking how things were going with his allotment. He naturally assumed your interests to be the same as his own, a traditionally obnoxious trait which nevertheless came across as quite endearing when Arthur did it.

'Well, he certainly knows his onions,' my friend Carl observed, slightly dazed as my grandad trundled off to bestow his horticultural wisdom upon other unsuspecting guests.

Meanwhile in the summer of 2001, Madge was a little surprised when I explained that I could only stay for a few days, somehow having missed the detail of my staying at all; but she didn't seem to mind, her main concern being that I might be bored, possibly being more accustomed to the breakneck pace of life in that London. All I had really intended to do was enjoy their company, so that was what I did. In the evening we would watch Emmerdale as Arthur intermittently slept in his chair, or we would discuss the rest of the family, cousins I had not seen in decades and so on. At one point my grandad talked about when he would visit the cinema in Rugby during his youth, and it took me a minute or two to realise that he was referring to silent films starring Tom Mix and the like. It was a window into an older, quieter world, another detail of which was revealed in the framed photograph hung upon the wall - Madge in her twenties bearing a more than passing resemblance to Rita Hayworth and just as beautiful.

Although we weren't related by the usual definition of the term, Madge seemed like the perfect grandmother, warm but strong, and with a good head on her shoulders as the saying goes. Her voice alone, softly accented with rural Gloucestershire, seemed to offer the assurance of all being as it should be at least in her corner of the world.

Sadly the next time I saw her was at Arthur's funeral in 2007. I had attempted to get to Clanfield to see the two of them again a few years earlier, but Marian had derailed the visit with her characteristic penchant for making everything complicated, thus denying me the last occasion upon which I would have seen my grandfather alive. Madge being Madge seemed to understand, or at least didn't hold it against me.

The last time I saw her was just before I moved to Texas. She still lived in Busby's Close, soldiering on regardless in the absence of her beloved Arthur. 'I don't suppose I shall be seeing you again, Lawrence,' she told me, and I had a horrible feeling she was right, as indeed she was.

As I stood in a kitchen in Texas speaking to my father that Monday evening, I felt a sense of relief that at least nothing unfortunate had happened to either him or my mother. The world hadn't come to an end, but one small corner of it had lost someone that could not be replaced.

So it goes.