gentlyfirm.co.uk

Other-Chilli-Shop-Ocalypse

Things look scary outside but I have no food. I’m going to have to face Aldi… and London Road. But it’s early, surely there won’t be too many ghouls around.

I was right, it’s empty and navigating the aisles is quick and easy. I’m feeling happy until I see there is only one cashier… the moody Italian girl who seems to have developed an irrational hatred towards me and almost definitely wishes me dead. I put on a brave face, knowing the encounter will be short. Then, complications; I need to ask for £2 cashback.

“You do cashback don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a lower limit?”

“Well I don’t have very much cash in the till so no more than maybe £20…”

“No I want a small amount, how small can I go? £2?”

“Sure. I know why you want it… for the bus isn’t it?”

“No, for chillis. There are cheap chillis down the road.”

She smiles knowingly (although I think she’s probably mistaken), gives me the receipt and shuts her till without giving me my £2.

“Can I have my chilli money please?”

“No, I’ll keep it for myself now.” she laughs loudly and dementedly. But eventually does give me the money.

The encounter cheers me. Maybe Italian girl doesn’t want me dead. How refreshing. She’s just a bit weird/normal. Brilliant! Today’s going to be good.

If only… if only.

At the chilli shop there’s a new man on the till. New man: new regime. I hand over my chillis for weighing,

“These are the £4.99 ones, the little green ones”.

“No. Those are £9.99 a kilo.”

“No they are £4.99, I come here for them all the time.”

“NO. £9.99!”

“No! Ask pre-existing man… I see him every week, he’ll tell you — £4.99. I come here every week for my chilli.” Not any more.

“Then I no longer come here every week not any more either then.”

We glare for a very long time, then wrestle to the floor. He squirts chilli at my eye but I wince heroically, batting away the corrosive juice. An old lady drops her hat in panic, rummages hurriedly in a box and rushes out wearing a banana on her head. She’ll fit well in Brighton — but maybe not on London Road.

“Don’t MAKE me go Other Chilli Shop,” I drool in his ear… but he does. We wish each other a good day, knowing we must never meet again.

Now what? I have all the ingredients for a chilli, except the chilli. Other Chilli Shop it is. But the weather’s so harsh. And Other Chilli Shop is miles away. But I AM A MAN. I stop off back home, coat up, put two Aldi-fake-mini-Snickers into my pockets and Bob Dylan in my ears. I say my farewells to the neighbours (waking up the ones who work a night shift so as they don’t feel left out) and head for the sea.

On the way I see a fellow explorer, rugged and defiant, windcheatered… clearly a man who climbs mountains; waiting for the bus. He stares at the bus, steely, his eyes say “I will conquer your peaks just like the mountains I am generally more at home climbing” (I actually think he does go up to the top deck).

“The winter wind is a-blowin’ strong… my hands a-got no gloves. I wish to my soul that I could see…”

The sea is a beast today. Exotic monsters of the deep are long-strewn, not just on the shingle but right up to the curvy, paved footpath. The usual fishheads and spiky seaweed corpuscles abound, but also new creatures… a strange puffer-fish-looking thing… dozens of broken, spindly crab-fingers as long as my arm. Have I missed the apocalypse? I’d been looking forward to that.

A hundred gulls huddle until my feet rattle the pebbles amongst them, then they all rise and fly into the wind. It’s so strong it blows them right back, leaving them hovering surreally. Burnt meringue froths up from the sea’s surface and lands on my skin. I laugh, almost frolick until a small chunk of my flesh falls away, melted by polluted chemistry.

Wild dogs patrol the paved area, looking for heron or human babies to eat. There are no bare, walking humans, every body is encased in a metal vehicle of some kind. It’s like Mad Max but… cleaner and somehow more boring. These apocalyptic survivors have chosen Vectras and Corsas over steam-punk rocket cars. Eyes in a white van peek over The Sun, outwardly mocking but inwardly fearsome “Why is he out there, walking, today?”. A Yodel delivery driver, looking for an address in Yeovil, tries to run me over.

“Let me die, in my footsteps… before I goooooo down under the ground.”

Bob sings. I sing. The sea shouts over us both, a bit rudely. Finally I see another walker coming towards me, aiming to follow me along the surf. I think he’s heard my song, noted my proximity to the sea and put me on some kind of citizen’s suicide watch.

Preston Street goes uphill and I’m not looking forward to it after a long stomp along the shingle. But I needn’t have worried, the wind gets behind me and pushes me to the top effortlessly. I want to express my gratitude but I don’t know how. A goggle-eyed customer at Other Chilli Shop stands, staring at vegetables, pointing, alone. This makes the trials of the day worthwhile — I love that kind of shit. Also the chillis are only £4 a kilo.

The cashier is happy. A bit too happy actually. I ask her if she’s put on weight — to restore cosmic balance. She seems to appreciate the gesture.

The wind on the way home is so powerful I can’t breathe. I’m thinking I might die when a loud crash distracts me, loud enough to be heard over Dylan’s harmonica — and I have those earbuds that block your ears right up so it must have been very loud. I look down the road to see an RAC van has smashed into another vehicle. I enjoy the irony (no animals were harmed) and wonder if there’s some kind of meta-RAC service which might come to the driver-animal’s aid. I don’t help because I am not a meta-RAC driver and I know nothing about cars and I’m nearly dying because of the wind, remember?

I stick to the curvy paved inland area for the homeward journey. I walk on green marble tiles. I’ve never seen them before, despite having walked this curvy path many times. Strange.

“And the crowd, they gathered one fine morn, At the man whose clothes ‘n’ shoes were torn, There on the sidewalk he did lay, They stopped an’ stared and they went their way… “

Just as I’m about to give up my treacherous journey and live in a bin the wind whips up perfectly and pushes me in the direction of home. I angle my coat as a makeshift sail and assume a kind of semi-crouching position. In this fashion I’m able to make my way home without expending any further energy, as if carried on invisible skates.

“I heard some foot-steps by the front porch door, so I grabbed my shot-gun from the floor. Snuck around the house with a huff and a hiss, saying ‘Hands up, you communist!’ It was the mailman. He punched me out.” I told him I loved him. I see a pretty girl from one of the other flats and, desperate to impress her, try to juggle some tins of tomatoes. But in my haste I forget that I can’t juggle and unfortunately accidentally chip one of her front teeth. She takes it very well indeed.

Tin-Pot Explorer

Thick undergrowthI just walked a walk that has instantly entered my All Time Top 10 Insane Walks. Read on at your own risk.

I’ve mentioned the long boggy walk on the track through the fields to Asda before. Perilous in the darker seasons with its deep thick sinking-mud, the thin track is flanked left and right by reens: agricultural drainage channels full of a green murky juice. 4-5 ft deep, you’d have trouble drowning in one but trying would lack fun. It’s been weeks since I last walked the track. I’ve fallen into an optimised routine of bus trips into Newport for its Lidl, Asian jaggery-stockist and English-hating, prison-tattooed ’80s wrestlers (who woman all the tills).

Round my way if it’s not raining the sun’s roasting like a pizza oven. Good weather for gardeners. I expected the track to have grown over since my last walk. I underestimated it.

I VASTLY UNDERESTIMATED IT.

Ten minutes in, the nettles are up to my chest. The edges of the reens are murked by huge, strange, B-movie plants. The track has gone. The sun cooks my head. Knotted, uneven ground already has me stumbling. I feel slightly sick and a small panic tells me to turn back. But this is my only way to get food — otherwise I’ll be without for 4 days until my gas gets refilled and I can cook again (the cupboard contains only food which requires cooking). And the effort I’ve put into coming this far will have been wasted.

Menacing nettlesAnother 10 minutes in. Shit. I’m in a full ocean of stinging nettles and monstrous thistles. The shortest are 5 feet high, the tallest easily 7. I tell no lie these things loom high over me. Surrounded by dark foliage I can’t see to get my bearings. The only option is to remove my rucksack and use it as a lumpy snowplough, push onward, try to carve out the old path from memory. Nettles whip me with each step until my bare arms are entirely smothered in sting. They go up my shirt and sting my belly. They can’t get through my jeans.. but the thistles can; hot, sadistic tickles creep all over my shins and thighs, sometimes my chest. They claw for my face but I weave. Long grass and brambles grab at my ankles, try to topple me into the unforgiving depths of this sea of hurt where I’ll be lost forever. I carry no flares, nobody knows I’m gone. There will be no rescue mission.

For a full 20 minutes the nettles and thistles continue, me a sinking breadstick in some green, diabolic soup. At any point I might go into a hidden reen. I’m hot and tired but there’s no place to rest, I try stopping but the stinging plants immediately fan inwards. Bees threaten, angry that I’ve shoved their workspaces aside. Unseen ancient amphibians make bizarre sounds, heard to me as laughter.

After 40 minutes I exit this wilderness, alive. But now the hardened road of civilisation rattles my bones, my knees tender from an old, unhealed injury. Every step twangs my ligament like the violent punch of a doctor’s toffee hammer. My reflexes are fine, Doc — but hurty.

Deep vegetationThe return fight through the foliage is even worse. By now I’m exhausted… overheated. Sweat flushes my eyes with salt until I’m half-blind… overseasoned. My knees want to crumple. I want to crumple; once, the brambles get me and I do. I lump to the ground, folding, tendons snapping. I want to stay down here. Eventually, nature always wins.

But not today.

Finally, the home straight. As I inch towards shade and water, maths messes with me. The infinite divisibility of a line. Every step brings me closer while at the same time the remaining distance somehow increases. As I turn the final corner, powered by will alone, I meet the mother farmer. This is a great woman, but oh my can she talk. A sentence from her can be as long as one of my Facebook posts. We talk of the track. Of the railway line. Of cows pinning farmers to fences, bulls goring farmers to death. I stoop, grimace, rub my knees. There’s a bad bull at the farm yonder. He’ll have someone, only a matter of time. I angle my feet away to indicate I need to leave. I love to chat but this is a matter of urgency. I become light-headed. My vision whitens and I tap out, leaving her mid-sentence:

“I’m so sorry. I have to go and sit down”.