NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition – The Buttonologist

A taste of success!

Trident Edge Update

Its’s been a while since I wrote about my writing! Since we got back from Barbados I have finished the first draft of Trident Edge (the sequel to Wait for Me) and it is currently with my editor (Get It Write UK).

Prior to that, I went on a road trip with my fellow writers in JAMS to check out some of the real-life places that feature in the book. We visited Fineshade Wood, RAF Coningsby, Kirkham Priory and RAF Menwith Hill, all highly significant locations in terms of the plot, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

After that I made a few tweaks and sent it off to my beta readers who, as ever, gave me some great feedback that I incorporated before finishing my final edit. It should be ready for my final edit in early October with a view to publication in time for Halloween.

Short Stories

In the meantime I have been working on building up a “bank” of short stories and entering a few competitions. I’ve been working through a book called The Very Short Story Starter by John Gillard. It contains some exercises and ideas and 101 Flash Fiction prompts. I also did a week long Short Story course with Arvon. So far, I have written seven short stories, some of which I like considerably better than others!

I am also starting to think about my next novel. I am pulling together all my Covid-19 blog posts into a non-fiction journal style book called Viruses and Volcanoes and that is an ongoing project. However, I’m starting to think about what my next fictional book will be. I think my Zombie Apocalypse series has reached a natural conclusion and I’m ready to start something new. My options are; to stick with the post-apocalyptic theme but do something different with the genre; or to pick up my original idea from years ago, The Ice Factory; or to have a go at something else entirely. I’ve bought a workbook called Ready, Set, Novel and so far it seems to be taking down the post-apocalyptic road but this time in a climate change scenario. So, we will see …

The Buttonologist

One of the competitions I have entered is the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. For round 1 my genre was Comedy, the location had to be a Meet and Greet, and the story had to feature a Diploma in some way. I came up with a piece called The Buttonologist and was delighted (especially as I don’t think I’m very good at being funny – not intentionally anyway) when it came second in my group giving me 14 points to take in to round 2!

Here is my (almost) winning story. I hope you enjoy it!

The Buttonologist

Peter pushed his small, round, wire-framed glasses up his nose. He squinted again at the flyer that he’d picked up from the counter in his local grocery store. It was advertising an opportunity to meet Maximus G, one of the country’s leading buttonologists, and to receive a signed copy of his latest book. He checked the address on the flyer against the street name and number on the signage above the smoky, mirrored glass frontage of the large, modern building. A glittery, rose gold logo on the door read B Hub. It wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting, but he was definitely at the right location.

He looked up and down the street. In his experience, button collectors, or buttonologists as serious collectors now referred to themselves , tended to meet in locations that comfortably mirrored both their personalities and the nature of their pursuit. Small, aging, unobtrusive buildings, tucked away in quiet, lonely corners of narrow, cobbled side streets that, when you entered, were bursting at the seams with a cornucopia of ancient miscellanea.

B Hub, on the other hand, was big and tall and shiny and minimalist, and located bang in the centre of the busiest street downtown. While this was highly unusual, and mostly made him feel wary and decidedly uncomfortable, a small part of him was pleasantly surprised and tentatively hopeful that his field might finally be beginning to emerge from the shadows into the warm light of mainstream concerns.

He took his diploma out of his briefcase and smoothed out the plastic document folder. He smiled as he traced his finger over the elegantly hand-inscribed calligraphy on the delicate, creamy parchment:

The World Society of Buttons

has awarded to

Peter Anderson Wilmington

The Diploma in Advanced Buttonology

Maybe it hadn’t been the ‘big waste of time and money’ that his parents kept telling him it had been. Maybe it wasn’t always going to be something that everyone who heard about it laughed at. Maybe this was the day he would at last meet someone who felt the same as he did about buttons. Maybe this would be the first step towards finding a job that would allow him to do what he loved and actually get paid for it. Maybe this was the day when his obsession might finally start to become a blessing and not a curse.  Maybe this was the day when his dyslexia and hypernumeracy would start to work for him and not against him. Maybe this was the day when it was finally all going to come together.

A woman brushed past him, her elbow colliding with his and almost knocking the diploma from his hands.

“Hey, be care …” he started. But the words froze on his lips as his gaze came to rest on what had to be the biggest backside he had ever seen in his life. No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t the biggest, it was just the most … pronounced, and it was grossly – no, magnificently – out of proportion with the rest of her lycra-clad, athletic frame. It appeared to have a life of its own, each buttock moving independently of the other and the rest of her body, as she sashayed towards the door.

Her movements were slow and exaggerated, as if she knew he was watching her and was luxuriating in his attention. When she reached the door, she placed her hand on the glass as if to push it open but instead, turned to face him. His mouth, already slack-jawed in astonishment, dropped open even further as she gave him a full-on, languorous wink.

“Come on, Baby. Don’t be shy,” she said, her voice as sweet and rich as honey. Then she opened the door and slipped inside, her backside entering the room several milliseconds after the rest of her.

Peter scurried after her. This was going to be even more interesting than he had hoped.

The interior consisted of one vast, high-ceilinged industrial space. The walls were lined with mirrors making the small crowd of people queuing to meet Mr. Maximus appear like a multitude. Harsh strip lighting illuminated every detail of their features and clothing. Like the woman outside, they were all wearing bright shades of skin-tight lycra that clung to every inch of their finely honed physiques. There was a preponderance of well-defined buttocks and above the buzz of general conversation he heard words like ‘glutes’, ‘implants,’ ‘squats’, ‘enhancements’ and ‘lifts’. As well as ‘maximus’, people were talking about ‘medius’ and ‘minimus’.

He looked down at his worn, baggy corduroy trousers. He was suddenly aware of his own concave gluteal muscles and his generally puny frame. Something wasn’t right. He pulled the flyer out of his pocket and looked at it closely. He read the words again:

Sunday October 6

10 till 4

at

B Hub

17- 23 Reede Street

Meet and Greet and Book Signing

with

MAXIMUS G

The Country’s Leading Buttologist

Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A struggle!

A Little Life purports to be about a diverse group of four young men, all recent graduates living in New York, who are about to begin their adult lives. The book follows their development into a group of, sometimes troubled, but ultimately immensely talented and successful men. However, what the book is really about is the life of Jude, a mentally and physically damaged and severely traumatised individual.

I found it a deeply disturbing and depressing read.

The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015 and has won countless awards and received multiple rave reviews from a variety of sources. Yanagihara has been compared to Donna Tart, one of my favourite writers. I feel as if I ought to have enjoyed it, or at least appreciated it, and expected to. But, honestly, I struggled to finish it, let alone enjoy it. It was a relief when it was finally over.

Maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m just not worthy or intellectual enough to “get” a book like this. I feel slightly nervous about sharing my opinions, which are in such stark contrast with those of so many literary experts, but that is what they are. Just my honest opinions. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it. However, for what it’s worth, it did leave me weeping.

What I liked:

I loved some of the descriptive prose and beautiful scene setting.

I loved the loyalty and kindness of Jude’s friends and family.

What I didn’t like:

The length – it was way too long in my opinion. I don’t mind a long read. In fact, if I’m really enjoying a book, I often don’t want it to end. But A Little Life was long in a rambling, repetitive way. It almost felt self-indulgent at times.

The chronology – The book twisted and turned in time and space, leaving me lost and confused on multiple occasions, as to who was talking and where and when they were. Sometimes I would be drawn into a scene that was interesting and intriguing, then it would drift into the past or the future for so long that I couldn’t remember whether the scene I had been enjoying had been concluded or what its meaning or relevance was.

The style – the book was very much all tell and no show. It broke all the supposed “rules of writing” about showing through dialogue and action, and being concise. When it did show, it did so largely through thought and memory. We always seemed to always be inside the head of one of the characters and never present in the moment itself.

The message – it was just so damned bleak, miserable and depressing. I can’t wait to read something more fun and uplifting.

I know I must seem shallow, irreverent and controversial, and maybe I am, but A Little Life just wasn’t for me.

Thursday, July 8th, 2021, Year 2 in The Time of Covid.

They think its all over …

Leaving Barbados

Well, we’ve been back in the UK for exactly a week today! Last Thursday we landed at Heathrow at 11 am. We had a good flight and, apart from an almost anticipated 2 hour delay at immigration, a pretty straightforward transit home. The car picked us up at 1pm and we were home by 2.30pm.

Flying in the Time of Covid is different from before, but not dramatically. You get the usual meals and drinks etc. after departure and before arrival, but for the majority of the time you don’t really see much of the cabin crew. If you want water or anything else during the flight you have to ask for it and obviously masks are mandatory throughout.

Our thoughts are very much still with Barbados. Tropical Storm Elsa upgraded to a hurricane just as it hit the country, wreaking devastation across the island. Thankfully, it appears that no lives have been lost but hundreds of trees are down, houses have been damaged and destroyed, roads blocked and many people have been without power or water for several days.

The airport was closed for a few days due to storm damage and, once again, we can’t believe quite how fortunate we have been. We missed it by just 24hours and would have had to change our flights and re-do our Covid tests etc. if it had hit before we left. Our whole Barbados trip has been marked by an uncanny series of lucky coincidences; when we first arrived we missed the need to quarantine in a hotel at our own cost by 4 days and when we departed, we missed the need to quarantine at home for 10 days by 24 hours, and that was only because Virgin moved our flights back by a day!

Home at Last

The past week has been a whirlwind of seeing friends and family and getting the house and our lives back to normal. Various pieces of equipment are revolting in an expression of their disgust about having been left unloved and unattended for 9 months; the shower in the ensuite and one of the radiators in the spare bathroom have both sprung a leak; the printer isn’t printing properly; the motor for the power shower has blown; the back gate, which was sticky before, is now refusing to budge; the gas and electric meter isn’t working; and the whole of the garden and outside space is in need of a good jet-wash and tidy up. I can’t remember where anything is in my kitchen and I have a list as long as my arm of admin type things to attend to. My priority was to do our accounts for 2020/2021 and I finished these yesterday and am slowly getting through everything else. By Monday, I think we should be on top of things.

It’s a weird feeling being back after being away for so long. It’s almost as if we’ve just been on holiday for a couple of weeks, but then it isn’t. In some ways it feels as if nothing has changed – we are seeing the same people, driving around the same streets in the same car, shopping in the same shops, watching the same TV, sleeping in the same bed, seeing the same views from our windows etc. etc. – then, every now and again, something takes us by surprise – new shops and bars on our village high street, a humungous new Marks and Spencer’s at the end of the road, new houses that have sprung up all over the place and grandchildren that have grown by several inches!

It is wonderful to be back though. So many people have taken the time out to stop and welcome us home. I’m enjoying our lovely kitchen with all my amazing gadgets and my big shiny range cooker; our gloriously comfy cozy bed; and my writing desk with my huge monitor that doesn’t give me eye strain and neck ache. I can’t believe I wrote a whole novel with my laptop balanced on my knee on a cushion!

Covid Today

With regard to Covid, it all feels vastly different from the dark days when we left the country last September at the start of the second wave. People seem to be going about their normal lives with just a few restrictions still in place. Table service has become the norm in bars and restaurants, indoor mask wearing is generally adhered to (although we have both noticed a distinct lack of rigour in regard to hand sanitising and contact tracing compared to Barbados, and absolutely zero temperature checks) and there are restrictions on the number of people you can have inside your home. It very much feels as though these restrictions and Covid itself have become part of everyday life and something that we all just have to learn to live with.

This is largely due to the fact that despite the increasing numbers of infections, that indicate the start of a third wave, for the first time this is not being matched by increases in hospitalisations and deaths. Essentially, the vaccine is working! I have to admit that we feel much safer in the knowledge that we are “double vacced”. To an extent, it feels as if we have re-started our lives to where they were at the start of the outbreak back in March 2020, and I must admit it feels good!

Summer of 2021

We have a long summer to look forward to. We have lots of things planned with friends and family; Sunday lunches with our kids and grandkids; lots of catch-ups with friends over a coffee or a glass or two of wine; numerous belated birthday celebrations; a trip up north to see my parents and sisters; a trip to Sweden to see my son and his girlfriend (no quarantine for double vacced travellers returning from amber countries announced today!); a Trident Edge road-trip with my fellow writers to check out the locations that I have used in the book and see if I have adequately captured them in my minds eye; Granny play-dates with my friends and their grandchildren; and a weekend in Stratford on Avon with some friends. On top of all that we have an endless summer of sport to enjoy; Euro20 -deferred to 2021 – (football) is currently underway with England progressing to the final just last night; the British Lions (rugby) tour of South Africa is also in progress; we are entering the second week of Wimbledon (tennis); the Tour de France is almost half-way through; and the Tokyo Olympics start on the 23rd of July.

I have lots of writing projects on the go as well; after the road trip I’m going to edit and write the second draft of Trident Edge then get it beta-read, edited again, proofread and edited again before publishing; I’ve entered the NYC Flash Fiction competition the first round of which starts tomorrow; I’m preparing a submission for the fall edition of the First Line Literary Journal; I’m going to turn this Time of Covid blog into a book; and I also have an idea for a new non-fiction project called I’z a Bajan.

The Final Chapter

All of this, combined with the fact that the government is going to lift all restrictions from the 19th of July, tells me that this is good place to end this particular blog project. It started as a lockdown diary back in March 2020 and then evolved into an account of our Covid experiences in Barbados. My intention was always to bring all these posts together into a book, so that one day our youngest grandchildren will be able to read all about what it was like (for us at least) at the start of The Time of Covid.

It’s been a crazy 14 month rollercoaster of experiences and emotions; fear, disbelief, anxiety and confusion at the start; boredom, frustration and isolation in lockdown; hope and disappointment about ever falling and rising numbers; anger about the behaviours of governments and people (remember the covidiots?); making the big scary decision to leave the country; stress and tension about whether we would even get to Barbados and get there safely; taking risks; having the adventure of a lifetime; being overwhelmed with joy and relief when we got there Covid-free; relishing the warmth, the sunshine, the sea and the beaches and the overwhelming feeling of safety; experiencing a Bajan lockdown, a volcanic eruption, sargassum and a super-storm (which has since been dwarfed by Hurricane Elsa).

Who knows whether Covid-19 will ever go away, and who knows what remnants of our new way of life might persist into the future lives of our grandchildren. I know it’s not going to disappear overnight and that we are all almost certainly going to have to learn to live with it for many years to come, if not for ever. But, in terms of our lives and this diary, we have reached point that definitely feels like a natural point of closure, if not an end.

Keeping with the football theme from last night, forgive me if apply the words of BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme (when England won the World Cup in 1966) to the Time of Covid,

“They think it’s all over,”

– who knows when we will ever be able to complete the comment –

“It is now.”

Sunday, June 27th, 2021, Year 2 of The Time of Covid.

Time to go!

Well, our time here in Barbados is nearly at an end. We leave for the UK on the 30th of June, arriving back into Heathrow on the 1st of July. We’ve booked a chauffer driven car through Virgin to drive us from the airport straight home – its sounds expensive but it isn’t going to cost us much more that it did to hire a car for 24 hours, as we did when we left in September last year, and we won’t be squeezing into a minibus (aka Covid capsule) with a load of strangers, for the transfer to the car hire depot from the terminal.

It’s incredible to think that we have been here for 9 months! During that time we have experienced; a lockdown, a volcanic eruption, a glut of sargassum, a super-storm (this occurred a couple of weeks ago), I have published one book (Wait for Me and written the first draft of another (Trident Edge), I’ve had a column published in the Nation News, as Key Ways Consulting, we have done some Insights Discovery coaching and workshops with the Barbados Davis Cup tennis team and the Ministry of Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Commerce at the Barbados Government, we’ve met loads of wonderful and interesting people (this is going to be the subject of my next non-fiction book I is a Bajan), we’ve been to a multitude of new (to us) bars and restaurants and explored almost every beach on the island.

Thank you Barbados! It’s been a blast!

There are a number of Covid related things we have to do before we leave on Wednesday. On Monday morning, we have to go and get a Covid PCR test at the Barbados Testing Centre at the Garfield Sobers Gymnasium near Bridgetown. That evening we need to complete the UK Government Passenger Locator forms and book another Covid test for after we arrive back in the UK.

Until just a couple of days ago, were were expecting to have to quarantine at home for 10 days, and do tests on Day 2 and Day 8 before we were released because Barbados was on the UK Amber list. But, last week the country was placed on the Green list and we are no longer required to quarantine and only have to do one test on Day 2. This is fantastic news indeed! It was going to be strange and frustrating to be back in the UK and so close to family and friends but still unable to see them.

So as we move into the next phase of our personal Covid experience, there have been 181 million cases and almost 4 million deaths worldwide. India, Brazil and the USA are still seeing extremely high rates of infection. The countries with the highest deaths rates are Peru with 5,732 per million and Hungary with 3,111. Countries with over 2,000 deaths per million include; Brazil, Argentina, and Columbia in South America, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro in Eastern Europe and Belgium, and Italy, San Marino and Gibraltar in Europe.

Here, in Barbados, the numbers remain low with a total of 4,074 cases and 47 deaths. The rates per million population are 682 cases and 22 deaths. New cases were almost down to zero a couple of weeks ago but we have seen another small spike over the past few days. And, while they accept that Covid will remain an ever-present danger for many months and probably years to come, things are almost back to normal apart from strict social distancing, hand sanitising and mask wearing.

And in the UK, there have been a total of 4,717,811 cases and 128,089 deaths. The rates per million population are 69,139 cases and 1,877 deaths. They have been battling with increasing rates of infection due to the Delta variant and the plan to open up fully has been delayed by another month. With over 18,000 new cases today, the daily numbers are more than double what they were when we came out to Barbados in September last year, when they were just over 7000. If we hadn’t been double vaccinated we’d be very apprehensive about our return!

The big news at the moment is that Matt Hancock the Health Minister has been forced to resign after photographs in The Sun of him in an intimate “clinch” with a woman he was having an affair with, demonstrated a hypocritical breach of Covid protocols (as well as outing his affair to the nation).

So, as we start packing and clearing out the apartment, we have mixed feelings about our departure. It’s sad to be leaving and we will miss all the lovely friends we have made here, and the sunshine and the beaches, and all the wonderful people of Barbados. However, it is also so exciting to be able to see our children and grandchildren again, and to be able to give them all a big hug and a kiss. It’s been so long.

For me, after nine sweltering months of sleeping under a mosquito net with only a sheet to cover me (and sometimes nothing at all), I’m really looking forward to feeling cool enough to snuggle up under my fluffy duvet in my big cozy bed!

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021, Year 2 of The Time of Covid.

Guest Column in the Nation News

A significant period of time has elapsed since I last posted about our Covid-19 experience, and that is a good thing! It means that things are going fairly well, both here in Barbados, and back home in the UK. Apart from a few blips in the UK with the ‘Indian Variant’, numbers are going down and things are slowly starting to open up.

Barbados has had a few consecutive days with no new cases at all, and the UK has had a few days with no deaths! Vaccinations are going well, with the first wave of second vaccinations almost completed in Barbados (we had ours on the 17th of May), and first doses now being offered to people 3o years and over in the UK.

We are going home on the 29th of June. As Barbados is on the UK’s ‘Amber List’, as well as all the usual tests and documentation we will need to complete before we leave the island, we will also have to quarantine at home for 10 days after arrival, and pay for tests on days 2 and 8 before we are released. A small price to pay for 9 months in a tropical paradise, instead of being shut up in our house all winter.

I have been so impressed and thankful for the way Barbados has handled the pandemic that I felt compelled to write a ‘Letter to the Editor’ of the national news paper, The Nation News. I was surprised (and delighted) when they gave my little piece an entire page and categorized it as a “guest column”!

This is what I said:

“On the 29th of June we will be leaving Barbados after spending the last nine months here. For medical reasons, we left the UK last September, to avoid the second wave of the pandemic back home. Before we leave, I feel compelled to share my feelings about how impressed we have been with the way Barbados, as a tiny country, has handled this global crisis.

At the time we left, we had barely left our homes for over six months apart from to exercise or buy groceries. We knew there was a chance that we could face lockdowns and other restrictions in Barbados but were prepared to take that risk. Whatever happened, having to “stay at home” in the warm sunshine of Barbados where we could spend a lot of our time outdoors, had to be better than facing a long cold winter locked up in the house in the UK.

The day we set out for Heathrow we were nervous and fearful of contracting the virus on the journey. We hired a car to travel to the airport to avoid the need to interact with others on public transport but were horrified when, after dropping off the car at Heathrow we were transported to the terminal in a small mini-bus with several other strangers. We tried to keep as far away as possible from other people in the check-in and security queues, but no special precautions were being taken to ensure social distancing, and, other than being asked to wear our masks for the entire flight, and being offered a reduced meals service, no other measures were in place to help us keep our distance from our fellow travellers.

The moment we arrived in Barbados we heaved a huge sigh of relief. Now, here was a country that was taking this thing seriously! We were taken by bus to a special part of the airport where our temperatures were taken, we were “sanitised” and our negative test results re-examined before we were even allowed into the terminal.  We were given clear advice and instructions about what to do over the next 10 days from the public health team at the airport before we were allowed to leave. Once we got to our accommodation (we had rented a house in St. Philip) we were required to take our temperatures twice a day, record them on a form we had been given, and send them through to the Public Heath team by text message.

Although we arrived before the travel quarantine protocols were in place, for those 10 days, we tried to avoid close contact with other people unless it was absolutely necessary. We did have to go out to buy groceries and get a thermometer and were reassured further by the checks and precautions that were in place in shops and businesses. Hands were sanitised, contact details taken and temperature checks performed everywhere we went. Sadly, I can say that we had not witnessed such rigorous adherence to sanitising and social distancing procedures back in the UK.  Even mask wearing was not widely enforced at the time we left home and was not compulsory for children. In Barbados everyone was wearing a mask, from the octogenarian on his early morning walk, to the tiny tot on her way to school.

 It was clear from the outset that the people of Barbados were treating the virus with the degree of caution it warranted, and were respectful of, and compliant with, the guidance and advice of Prime Minister Mottley and her government. For us, this was a massive relief and we felt safer and more relaxed than we had done for a very long time. In those early days, I lost count of the number of times we congratulated each other on our decision.

And so, it has continued. Numbers have gone up and down. Crises have come and gone. The country has faced its own second wave with increased death rates and various clusters and outbreaks, including the now infamous “Boxing Day Bus Crawl”. There have been curfews and lockdowns and other restrictions that have been followed by one and all, almost without exception. Then, as if to add insult to injury, just when it was almost all over and things were slowly starting to return to normal, the country was hit by a devastating ash cloud from the La Soufriere eruption on St Vincent.

Throughout it all the people of Barbados have remained cheerful and positive. Smiling and joking. Making light of what was in reality, a very difficult situation for many. Just getting on with what needed to be done without complaint or excuse. They are truly one of the most resilient and strongest nations I have come across and I am both grateful for the way they have made us feel welcome and at home during our time here, and proud and privileged to have borne witness to their fight against Covid-19.

One thing that I began to think might have been the only negative aspect to our decision to ride out the second wave in Barbados was a potentially missed opportunity to access the vaccination. My husband is a Barbadian citizen and has a medical condition which placed him in one of the priority groups for vaccination during the early days that it became available in Barbados. Unfortunately, I am and too young and too fit and healthy to be eligible at this stage in Barbados but would have been offered it in the UK. I have applied for citizenship by marriage and, while this has been approved and I paid the fee back in March, I am yet to receive any documentation that would enable me to obtain an ID number. So, I just assumed I would not be able to get the vaccine until I got home.

I could not have been more wrong. The day my husband went to the David Thompson polyclinic to get his vaccination I stayed at home, only to get a call to say that, to avoid wasting the contents of the vial that had been opened for his dose, they wondered if I would like to be vaccinated as well. I jumped at the chance. We received our second vaccinations on Monday the 17th of May so are now fully vaccinated and hopefully immune for our journey home.

So, I just wanted to say; a huge THANKYOU to Barbados and that you should all be proud of your people and your government, who have by far punched above their weight in the global fight against Covid-19.

Video Trailer for Wait for Me

My incredibly talented young nephew, Geordie Bottomley, recently graduated from Leeds Beckett University with a 1st Class Honours in Fine Art. He now works as a freelance artist, video editor and filmmaker.

I cheekily asked him if he could make me a little video trailer for my novel, Wait for Me, and this is the result.

Check out some of his work at geordiebottomley.co.uk

Book Review – Absolutely Barbados by Julian Armfield

Absolutely wonderful!

I first picked up this book from the pile under the TV in Tamarack, the beautiful apartment we have rented for our last three months in Barbados during The Time of Covid. It looked interesting and I made a mental note to read it when I had finished the three books I had on the go at the time (Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood, Cell by Stephen King, and Life after Life by Kate Atkinson).

I picked it up again and put the other three to one side for a few days, when I found out that it was written by the husband of the sister of our lovely landlady, Jane, who lives in the apartment downstairs with her equally lovely husband, Elton.

I absolutely devoured this book. What a wonderful read! Entertaining, informative and utterly engaging, it tells the story of – I quote – ‘one man’s mission to discover the heart and soul of [the] Caribbean Paradise’ that is Barbados. Believe me, he does!

Written in an upbeat and humorous anecdotal style, it provides the reader with an insight into the history, customs and culture of Barbados and it’s people, from the perspective of a middle-aged (sorry Julian) Englishman who made the island his home a few decades ago, when he met and married Jane’s sister, Sue.

I loved reading his colourful perspective and thoughtful insights on places and experiences that we were already familiar with, just as much as finding out about other things to do and places to go that were new to us. I learned things I didn’t know, I nodded in agreement with things I did, and laughed out loud, at least once every couple of pages, at the laser sharp accuracy of his observations, constantly interrupting M from his own reading to read him a paragraph or two that had us both in stitches.

As well as a hilarious succession of amusingly instructive anecdotes, the book provides facts and figures about the history of Barbados, the do’s and don’ts of living (or visiting) the island, some tips on how to ‘talk like a Bajan’, and the author’s ‘Magnificent 7’ beaches, wonders, views, attractions and recipes.

In addition to being crammed with funny stories and observations from Julian’s experiences in Barbados, the book is also peppered with ‘flashbacks’ and anecdotes from Julian’s travels around the world during his lengthy career as a BBC racing correspondent for the World Service, and his fond memories of his former life in a sleepy Berkshire village.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is planning to come to Barbados, has been before, or is already here. It literally has something for everyone!

The Kindle Edition of Absolutely Barbados is available on Amazon for £4.57.

I was only halfway through Absolutely Barbados, when, just last week we were honoured to be invited to join in the author’s birthday celebrations at Chicken Rita’s, with Sue and Jane and a few of their friends. It was strange to meet the author of a book I was reading, especially as it was a biography! Even though we had never met, I felt as if I already knew him. It was such a relief to discover that he was as funny, sweet and charming in real life as he was on the written page! It was also lovely to see how, even after all his years here, he is still completely infatuated with his Caribbean Paradise.

Thursday, April 22nd, Year 2 of The Time of Covid.

Viruses and Volcanoes

If it wasn’t for the volcano, it might almost be safe to say that things are looking better than they have for a long time on both sides of the Atlantic, and even the growling, ash-spewing monster across the water seems to have lost some of its fury for the time being at least.

Viruses

Covid restrictions are being lifted here in Barbados and in the UK. Our social media feeds are crammed with beaming faces and images of enticing alcoholic beverages sitting on pub tables ready to be imbibed, as people back home meet up with friends and family for the first time in months (and in some cases years), and enjoy an outdoor drink or two. It’s a happy time!

Here, we now have no curfew on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and an 11pm one on Thursdays and over the weekends. Bars are allowed to open, albeit at 50% of capacity (although I’ve not seen anyone counting), and indoor dining is permitted (not that you’d want to eat indoors here if outdoors is an option!) But, most important of all, the beaches are open all day again!

As far as we are concerned, it doesn’t feel as if we have any restrictions being placed on us at all anymore. We can pretty much do everything we were doing before Christmas, apart from go to the Drive-In Cinema and stay out after 11pm at the weekend – but I can’t recall many days when we weren’t long tucked up in bed by then!

But we don’t want to get carried away! We’re not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination. The steady decline in the UK has slowed, and it has just added India to it’s “red list” of countries due to concerns about highly transmissible and virulent new variant. Barbados has seen a recent new cluster based around a church in the north of the island, and this has been linked to an outbreak in the island’s main hospital. The US, one of the remaining sources of visitors to the island, has now banned travel to Barbados, deeming it a high risk destination (a tad ironic if you ask me).

Further afield the virus is still raging across the world with a total of almost 150 million cases and over 3 million deaths. India is experiencing a horrific surge of infections at the moment, with hundreds of thousands of new cases every day – and those are just the ones that are being tested!

Volcanoes

As far as La Soufriere is concerned, she finally slowed down about six days after the first eruption. It’s not over though, as we are repeatedly being told. It’s just that she’s lost some of her energy and her eruptions are not reaching the high-level air streams that carry the ash east over to Barbados. Instead, it is being blown west into the Caribbean Sea by the surface winds that travel from east to west.

The long dark weekend is now well behind us, but it is one I will never forget! Life now is gradually getting back to normal apart from the endless sweeping, washing, and mopping required to sustain a modicum of comfort in our living space. The problem with the ash is that it doesn’t actually go away, it just blows around from one place to another. You can sweep your balcony one day and the next day it’s back again.

People are hoping for rain that might wash it away and into the soil, but rain will potentially bring its own issues. When ash is wet it clumps together in a thick black sludge that blocks gutters and drains. If it’s still hanging around when the rainy season starts in a few weeks’ time, there is a serious risk that this could lead to significant flooding. For this reason, we have been asked to gather the ash up in sacks and not to wash it down the drains.

Last Sunday (the last Easter stay-at-home Sunday) was declared a national clean-up day and everyone in the country was asked to clear the roads around their properties of ash. M worked with another local man to clear our area, and together, after several hours of hard labour, gathered well over 100 kg. of the stuff.

 I’ve been working inside the house. Ash gets everywhere. It blows off roofs and trees, and plumes up in clouds as vehicles drive through it. It settles on all surfaces; the floor, the kitchen counter, the dishes drying on the drainer, food and drink left uncovered, toilet seats, computers, books, and bedding. It’s even in the fridge! It sticks to your feet when you walk from the car to the house leaving black footprints on your freshly mopped floor. We keep a basin of water at the top of the stairs and a path of damp towels leading to the front door of the apartment. More towels strategically placed inside help prevent it being transported into the bedroom and bathroom.

It’s tough stuff to shift. The best way is to sweep and gather the worst of it then hose or jet wash the rest. But this is a problem in itself as water is a scarce and precious resource in Barbados. With every resident in the country hosing down their properties and cars, and businesses jet washing building and car parks, water supplies soon became depleted. Residents in St Lucy were without water for the entire week following the eruption weekend. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for them. We’ve been having two or three showers day just to feel human! We’ve filled a number of containers with clean water for washing and the fridge is stacked with bottles of filtered water for drinking, just in case we too are affected.

Until a couple of days ago opening the windows was still impossible due to the amount of ash blowing around. Believe me, the nights in Barbados are very hot and sticky with all the windows closed and no air con. The fan gives some respite, but M finds that the noise disturbs his sleep. But, even as the amount of ash in the air lessened, it became apparent that we still couldn’t open the windows due the piles of ash on the windowsills, and caught in every nook and cranny of the shutters. As soon as we opened them it would all blow inside.

So, I spent an entire morning painstakingly cleaning the shutters so that we could once again enjoy the heavenly feel of the Atlantic breeze blowing through the house. It’s still bringing in a little ash and everything is covered in a film of it, but it’s worth it just to feel cool again. Besides, we’re kind of getting used to feeling a bit “dusty” all the time.

We’ve started to get out and about again too. My first excursion was to the supermarket on the Tuesday after the eruption. As we had no warning or time to prepare, we hadn’t stocked up with food etc. and were badly in need of supplies. We were completely out of fresh vegetables and the contents of the freezer were rapidly depleting.

Driving is another new challenge. The car always is like a furnace in the Barbados heat but now you can’t use the aircon or open the windows due to the ash billowing around. So, you just have to sweat it out under your protective mask, hat and glasses. It’s a mind over matter thing!  The supermarket was incredibly busy with long lines and crowded aisles, but it was gloriously cool and clean. I would happily have waited in line there all day, browsing on my phone and humming along to the latest tunes being played over the tannoy system, rather than face the sweat and grime outside!

On the Saturday – a week after the eruption – we took a break from cleaning and went out for drinks with some friends to a somewhat dusty beach bar. It was crowded with people “letting off steam” and discussing their various ash cleaning experiences. Every few minutes a gust of ash from the beach would blow over us, causing us to cover our faces and don our masks until it passed and we resumed our conversations. We went home filthy but happier and more relaxed than we had been all week.

The beautiful beaches have been a sorry sight. The once golden sand, dark and dirty with a mixture of ash and the rotting remnants of the sargassum that hit in the week or two before the eruption. The normally crystal clear, turquoise blue water, grey and murky. But, once it became clear that the ash had stopped falling and the high priority locations like the airport and the highway had been cleared, the government soon focused on clearing the beaches.

And now things are getting better every day. Every day there is less ash to sweep up on the balcony and stairs. Every day we feel confident enough to open more windows wider and for longer. The roads are better, and we can now drive with the car windows open. The beaches are looking better. The sea and sky are blue again. Yesterday we went for our first swim since the eruption.

Through it all the people of Barbados have been amazing! Smiling, cheerful and unfailingly resilient, they just “get on with it”. Farmer’s crops have been wiped out, animals have died, business have lost yet more trading days and revenue, people are exhausted and aching all over. But people get back to work and their daily business as soon as they can. They don’t moan or complain. They help each other. They continue to be thankful for what they have and enjoy life on their beautiful island whatever she throws at them!

Last night we were kindly invited to the birthday celebration of Julian Armfield, a local author (The Aintree Legend, You Win Some You Lose Some and Absolutely Barbados) and retired BBC racing correspondent. It took place at a little local place on the far south-east tip of the island called Chicken Rita’s. It’s basically a rum shack where “Rita” serves arguably the best fried chicken on the island, with chips with salad which you eat outside on plastic tables and chairs alongside scrap-hopeful cats and chickens. There was no salad due to the ash, but nobody gave a damn, and a great time was had by all, including the cats who managed to get into the box containing the leftover coffee and walnut birthday cake for a moment before they were spotted, and the cake was rescued!

This weekend, to celebrate M’s birthday, we were due to spend the weekend in a little luxury at The Beach Houses on a mini staycation. Sadly, it was cancelled due to the ash but we have re-booked for a couple of weeks’ time – fingers crossed. Instead, we have booked a late lunch at Tapas, a highly recommended south coast Mediterranean restaurant with beautiful views of the sea and hopefully a spectacular sunset! Again, fingers crossed and third time lucky and all that! We have booked this twice before. The first was cancelled due to the infamous “bus crawl” outbreak and the second due to the eruption! Let’s hope it’s not us that’s jinxing it!

Writing

I’m not getting much writing done what with all the cleaning, and resting and recovering after cleaning, and comfort drinking in between cleaning and resting and recovering! But I am cracking on with the sequel to Wait for Me. I’ve had such great feedback and reviews that it feels really easy and actually quite exciting to write the sequel. I can barely contain myself when I think about where I am going to take Lisa and Anita this time and what I have in store for them! When I do manage to take the time out to write, I can’t get it down quick enough. It’s only when my neck and shoulders are aching from sitting at my laptop for too long, that I am forced to stop or pay for it later! I’ve already written over 20,000 words and five chapters.

Sales for Wait for Me have been good but do seem to be tailing off, particularly for the paperback. By the end of March, I had sold 78 copies and 44,000 Kindle pages had been read under the Kindle Unlimited scheme. My first month’s royalties came in from January’s sales at £128.21. They will be considerably less for February and March. I need to think about doing some more promotion. I did a Face Book ad in March which might or might not have paid for itself in sales, or “washed its own face” as our son the aspiring property mogul would say about one of his well-performing rentals. I’ve experimented with an Amazon ad campaign for April but have yet to see any real results from that. I’m going to wait until that is over before I try anything else.

It’s lunchtime, a cold beer is calling me from the fridge and my neck is starting to ache. Fingers crossed, between now and my next post, things continue to improve for everyone both here and at home.

La Soufriere Eruption – April 2021

A dusting of icing on the covid cake.

As if the past few months haven’t brought enough challenges to the people of Barbados, mother nature has now well and truly iced the cake with a liberal sprinkling of volcanic ash!

La Soufriere is an active volcano in the north of St Vincent that has been showing signs of increased activity for the past few months.

On Friday the 9th of April, she finally blew, in an explosive eruption at 08.41 in the morning, sending clouds of ash miles into the sky and all the way to Barbados, 100 miles or so across the sea to the east.

Before I go on to describe our experience here in Barbados, I have to say that, first and foremost, my thoughts go out to the people of St Vincent. Anything we are experiencing here can be nothing compared to what they are going through. There have been images circulating on social media of people walking down streets covered in ash, homes and cars engulfed by ash, people fleeing in tiny boats with smoke and ash pouring into the skies behind them. So far, we have not heard of any casualties, but I understand that thousands of people are still huddled together in emergency shelters, all over the island, as I write.

On Friday, we first heard about the eruption, on social media in the middle of the morning. At the time, it appeared that most of the ash cloud was going to pass us by to the north. By midday this seemed to have been the case, so we cheerfully headed down to the beach thinking that we’d dodged a bullet! Little did we know …

from windy.com

As we enjoyed a beer at our favourite little beach bar, the skies to the west began to darken.

I logged on to social media to discover a stream of posts about subsequent eruptions, bigger than the first, and more ash clouds heading our way. We headed home to get under cover. But, again, it veered north at the last moment, provoking jovial claims that Barbados has her own field force!

So, Friday night we went to bed wondering what all the fuss was about. A tiny part of me was a little bit disappointed. I’m going to be completely honest here, so please don’t judge. I think I’ve said before, I have a morbid fascination with the power of nature. I think it’s linked to my equally morbid fascination with all things apocalyptic. I feel guilty, because I know that these events have devastating consequences for people, that I would never wish on anyone, but I still can’t help being strangely excited by a really big storm or high winds and torrential rain. I have never experienced an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami and of course I hope I never will. But a part of me has always wondered what it would be like to see mother nature venting at her worst!

And now I know. Saturday we woke up to more darkening skies. The sun could barely peek through the ash-laden clouds that filled the sky. More massive explosions had occurred overnight and in the early morning. Neither of us heard or felt anything but we didn’t sleep well. Dogs were barking and howling on and off all night and M was calling out in his sleep, dreaming that ash was falling on him, every time the mosquito net brushed against his leg. As the morning progressed, a soft film of dust was settling over anything outside, and we decided to move indoors.

And that is where we have been ever since. Indoors with all windows and doors tightly closed and the fans on. We spent Saturday afternoon watching TV – a first in Barbados – and consoled ourselves with a tot or two of rum. It was a very strange day, as wave after wave of ash passed over the island and the deposits on the ground got thicker and thicker.

Each ash cloud reaches us about and hour and a half after the explosion on St Vincent. Skies get dark in the west as the cloud approaches, and the skies in the east take on an eerie yellow glow. At 3.30 yesterday afternoon, day turned to night. Birds stopped tweeting and all other sounds were muffled by the thick layers of cloud. Even the sea was quiet. You can smell the sulphur in the air. Your skin feels dirty and gritty. It irritates your eyes and throat causing sneezing, nose-blowing, and throat-clearing – no actual coughing yet. We went to bed on Saturday night, not knowing what the coming day would bring.

And, so far, it has just brought more of the same, actually a little worse. During the night, the wind picked up. It too, had been unusually quiet yesterday. It blew ash in at the bottom of the east facing shutters in our bedroom. I’ve blocked them up with towels now and the other rooms seem ok, but now we have a light film of ash over everything in the house. Not a lot, but you can feel it when you walk barefoot on the floor and, when you pick up your phone or kindle, you have to wipe it off. There is a film of ash on my keyboard as I type. Fingers crossed all our “devices” will survive this!

This morning at 06.30am, we went outside, during a gap in proceedings, to see what things were like, and were so shocked by what we saw, that we let the door slam behind us! Locked out, on our balcony at 06.30 on a Sunday morning with another ash plume rapidly approaching. We decided it did constitute an emergency, albeit of our own making, and sheepishly called the owner downstairs to see if she could let us back in! Of course, she did, and was very understanding.

It’s now just after 9am and another cloud has just hit from an explosion a couple of hours ago, with another to follow. I’m tracking them using a service called windy.com. doesn’t seem as if anything else has occurred since 7am. Fingers crossed! Nevertheless, it’ll be another day snuggled up in front of the TV in 30 degrees. We have thunderstorms forecast for tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll rain and wash some of it away.

In the meantime, spare a thought, and if you can maybe a donation, for the people of St Vincent.

Courtesy of UWI Seismic Research Centre

https://www.gofundme.com/f/saint-vincent-volcano-disaster-relief/donate

Barbados Lockdown – Wednesday, April 7th, Year 2 of The Time of Covid.

Is the end nye?

Well, it might actually be starting to feel as if this is finally coming to some sort of end. Not “the end” – we’re a long way from that – but “an end”.

Here in Barbados, we have just had the Easter Weekend. Normally, we are told, a massive celebration of festivals, fish fries and parades. This year we were under a “Stay at Home” directive for the Sundays before and after Easter, and Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday.

However, under a slightly bizarre (but hugely welcome) anomaly we were permitted to travel back and forth to restaurants. To drive straight there, and straight back, and maintain social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitising at all times (except when eating of course!) I suspect this was largely to minimise further disruption and anxiety for the struggling hospitality industry on the islands, who, as you can imagine have been very badly hit.

We took advantage of this and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a restaurant on the spectacular northern most tip of the island called the Animal Flower Cave (it’s attached to some caves that are normally a popular tourist attraction, but which have been closed due to the pandemic). The food was fantastic, the views magnificent and we were even lucky enough to see a few whales passing by!

Barbados has a vastly different feel to it, so far as we are, into the Time of Covid. Other than the Welcome Stampers (a one-year visa for people who can “work from home” from here), and the usual retired long term visitors, virtually no-one is coming into the island for a vacation, in the traditional sense of the words. Canada and the UK, two of the main tourist markets, are not permitting vacation travel at the moment. The US still does (surprise, surprise) and we have had a recent spate of Americans on the beaches, some of whom are openly flaunting the social distancing rules in a way that is more than disrespectful to local people, who have had their traditional Easter family beach parties, exercise classes and “limes” all forbidden.

The beaches remain closed, apart from the two slots for exercise between 6am and 9am and 3pm and 6pm. The 9pm to 6am curfew has been expanded by one hour to end at 5am. I’ll be honest, that’s not really affecting us much! I’m not feeling any desire to leave the house at 5am, at the moment anyway. Bars are still closed, unless they serve food which most do, and most places will serve you a rum punch or a cold beer, as long as you have a snack at the same time. Tourist attractions are still closed, team sports are forbidden, and pleasure craft trips are not permitted. However, the numbers look good with new cases in single figures for over a week now. Schools are due to reopen on the 20th of April. We are hopeful that the beaches might be opened again soon, as we have seen a few cricket pitches being made ready for play, which could indicate that team sports might be about to resume.

Back in the UK, restrictions are starting to be lifted again. People have been allowed to meet up in small groups outside. Businesses are reopening and people are going back into the office. I’m not totally up with the details as I’ve been focusing on what’s going on here. But fingers crossed for everyone back home that all goes to plan. The high vaccination rates should help prevent a third wave, as is currently happening across Europe, where many countries, like France and Germany, are all going back into lockdown for the third time.

Sometimes, it just hits you how utterly dystopian and futuristic it all seems. At the Mall closest to us, on entry you have to present your face to a small screen that takes your picture and temperature at the same time. A robotic female voice then tells you that your temperature in normal and you are permitted to enter. It feels as if we are living in a sci-fi movie.

So, on the basis of all this, we have booked our flights home for Tuesday the 29th of June. We will have been here for nine months! There will be test on departure, and more tests and quarantine on arrival and only time will tell we will see if the flights are still running by then. It’s beautiful here. Hot and sunny all the time, relaxing and safe, but I am looking forward to getting home.