Socialising again

I worked in the office on Friday, but only because I had an appointment in the city.

Travelling in on the train, I peered out the window. It was a cold morning. The sky was cloudy, and a low mist hung over the land, but visible through it was a glowing circle of the moon, as if someone had punched a neat hole through the sky. It was mysterious and distant and another reminder of worlds beyond ours.

The city is quiet these days. It may be livening up, but it’s still far behind what it used to be, and Fridays, strangely, seem to be amongst the quietest.

I walked through the streets towards the office, the air cold against my exposed skin but warm in thick woollens. Because I never wear a suit anymore, I decided when I dressed to put on a pair of my old work shoes – a pair of Brando tan-leather lace-up ankle boots – and they rang with a satisfying click on the pavement. I felt smart.

The office was quiet. I expected that. Throughout the day, there were no more than 3-4 others sprinkled around the floor. It seems hardly the point to be in the office by yourself, but I enjoyed the solitude, and come the afternoon, found myself in a patch of great productivity.

In the morning, I had my appointment, which I walked across town to reach. I sat opposite the doctor, answered her questions, was given a scrip for some tests, made another appointment, and paid out $400. I was back in just over an hour.

For lunch, I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. This is one of the bonus’ in working back in the city occasionally. Pre Covid, we would have lunch every fortnight by clockwork, generally in the same groovy cafe in one of Melbourne’s hip laneways. It’s been so long that now it seems strange and foreign, and as I sat down, I felt a sense of nostalgia at being back at the same place, but in very different times.

I was early and was surprised to find the same waitress from before still worked there. She stood at my table, and we chatted about how strange it was and how we had survived it all and here we were again. And then my friend arrived and, as before, we had lunch and caught up on everything going on.

I left the office at about 4.45 to catch up for a drink with JV. The first place we tried (Curious) was full, so we walked a little then hopped on a passing tram that took us to the other end. We found a cocktail bar where we sat by the window and had a couple of expensive cocktails each.

It was dark when we left, and we tried a few other places before settling at an outdoor table in Meyers Place. It was happening, crowded and festive and colourful. It was a mild night, and the outdoor heaters kept us warm regardless. We had a couple more drinks there, and it reminded me of old times. One thing we both observed as different is that we are older now. There was a table of women that once we might have visited – now, we wonder if we’re too old for that, or seen to be too old for it, or unwelcome in any case. Things change.

We had dinner across the laneway at the Waiters Club – a bowl of pasta, some old-fashioned garlic bread, and a bottle of eye-watering Italian plonk. It was crowded and messy in there, loud and untidy, good cheap food and fast turnover and efficient waitresses threading through the crowd and managing the queue at the door.

We might have called it quits then. It was a bit after nine, and it had been a fun evening – but, one more, we thought. We went by the Supper Club and the European, but both were full. We ended up at an old favourite, Punch Lane in Little Bourke Street. We found a corner table and were served by a jovial sommelier with a beard and an attitude – very Melbourne hipster. We got an excellent bottle of Rioja over which we had a series of deep and meaningful conversations before finishing off with a sticky PX because we’re hedonist.

I got home at about 11.30 to an expectant Rigby, keen to be fed. No sport on TV, and so to bed I went, to slumber like the intoxicated.

I’ve been taking it easy, but it was good to be out and socialising again.

Night thoughts

I lay in bed last night with lights out trying to sleep and wondered if I might not be better off giving it all away – job, lifestyle, easy habits, lazy routines. It triggered a reflection – where did it go wrong? And so my mind went back, searching for the moment when I went left instead of right?

They were dire thoughts and the product of pain. My whole mouth ached and throbbed, and I wondered if I would manage to sleep at all. Chronic pain is diabolical because it attacks the mind as much as it does the body. It makes pessimists of all of us. When you can’t get away from it comes to cloud your mind and judgement.

I shouldn’t speak too loud, for I managed to sleep soon after, and mid-morning the day after, I feel better than I have for some time. By now, generally, I can feel the ache resonate through my jaw (it seems to have spread), building towards something I can only manage with painkillers. Today, I have awareness, but it merges into the background if I turn my mind from it. Let’s hope it stays that way and continues to improve.

The day after, I still find myself pondering the scattered and hysterical thoughts of last night. I recognise their provenance, but I still wonder if in extremity there is some wisdom to be gleaned?

Work has been on my mind for many months and the source of anger, frustration and disappointment. To some degree, I’ve also been working under duress – from the psychological impact of my despair and battling the combined physical ailments dragging me back.

The simple thought came to me last night: if it causes you so much unhappiness, why do you keep doing it? It seems a very sensible, clear-headed question to ask. The obvious and conventional response is if not that, then what? I can’t afford to live without working, and who’s to say the next job – or any job – will improve my state of mind? It was a tempting notion last night, though, and it is today also. The answer is: I don’t know.

When you’re feeling crook and having such thoughts it’s easy to get into a depressive spiral. It’s very easy to wonder where it all went wrong. How did I get here? And so, very thoroughly, I went back in memory to find where I took a wrong turn.

It’s very easy to nominate some of the big-ticket events, even though not all of them were in my control. There were things that had a catastrophic impact on my wellbeing – mum’s sad death, being embezzled, the loss of my family, and homelessness ultimately. But mum would have died no matter what decisions I made, and I’d likely have lost the other half of the family just the same. As for the others – who knows?

To my surprise, I happened upon a decision I made back in 2004. I was contract consulting at the time and had just come off a job where I had travelled to Hong Kong and NYC to implement a new finance system for a client and remotely supervised the roll-out in Auckland, Singapore and Dublin. I was lauded for the successful completion, and my name must have gone around the traps, for soon after, I got a call from the head of a consulting firm offering me a job – in Brisbane.

To put it in perspective, I wasn’t the conventionally ambitious type, but I was hungry – hungry to do it my way, have fun, and maintain my individuality. I was a bit of a machine and hard at it, and I wanted riches and fame, but I was also focused on living well and enjoying the journey along the way. I wanted only to do interesting things, to soak up life and experience, and learn. Paradoxically, for a guy without a formal qualification, it was a philosophy that had served me very well.

I probably ummed and ahhed and debated the decision, but it seems to me my mind was made up pretty early. It seems surprising now, but I thought I was making the sensible decision. Sensible! I’d never had any concern for that! I figured once I got into a permanent consulting role, I’d be set. I thought it would underwrite my career from that day forward. It was, I figured, the strategic move – but it was also the conventional move, and that wasn’t my thing.

In reality, I left my family and friends for a (dull) city where I knew no-one, the job was boring, and I suffered under the constraints that professional services place on you – every billable minute, every mercenary concept, and a conservative mindset. I wasn’t made for that – I was better being free-range.

I returned after a year and was glad of it. My career didn’t suffer from it – I went on to flourish and make many more dollars doing things my way before I crashed and burned. You could argue it was no more than a blip in the scheme of things, but it was the wrong call, and I wonder what might have happened had I chosen to stay?

Back in 2021, perhaps I face a similar choice. It feels closer than you think. I have 7 weeks of leave up my sleeve, and just the thought of tossing it in and getting myself right, body and soul, before the next challenge, is enticing.

Misaligned me

About six weeks ago, I started feeling pain in my upper right gum. It wasn’t a toothache exactly as the pain wasn’t in the tooth but rather in the bone and gum around it. I speculated that it might be referred pain from the sinus, which I was experiencing also. I had tightness across the bridge of my nose and filaments of pain around my eye socket and even into my ear. The pain was all on the right side of my face.

I took some antibiotics and felt as if the condition eased before returning to the previous state. At that point, I went to the dentist, hoping they could do something. By now, the ache was constant and had spread across the whole side of my head.

For $450, the dentist examined me and found there was nothing wrong with my teeth. It was probably sinus, he confirmed, and I should see my doctor. He also suggested that it might be a case of grinding teeth causing the pain. There were signs that I was a teeth grinder. Also, my jaws were slightly misaligned.

A previous dentist had told me that I grind my teeth, but it had never caused any discomfort. I went to my doctor, who was as useful as ever but prescribed another course of antibiotics nonetheless.

I had two courses of antibiotics now, and the sinus is much better than it was (it’s semi-permanent), but the pain remains and seems to have got worse. The side of my face feels swollen – it isn’t – and the front teeth on the bottom feel sensitive and on edge always – the sort of residual pain when something icy has numbed the teeth. I’m getting headaches from it all – sometimes the sense that my skull is cracked, and at other times as if it was in a vice. For the last few weeks, I’ve been just about living on painkillers to get by.

I’ve concluded that the issue is likely grinding my teeth, though the sudden onset is confusing – I wonder if my jaw has become misaligned somehow? The other night in bed, I caught myself clenching my teeth, which seemed a give-away.

It’s very inconvenient. Continuing pain like this begins to wear you down, not just physically but mentally also. Since discovering my teeth clenched, it’s got inside my head. Lying in bed, I’m conscious of relaxing and not clenching my teeth, but the effect of it is that I sleep even worse than before. And the pain remains.

As far as I know, grinding teeth is often a stress reaction. I can believe it, though I’m surprised it’s taken so long to become evident. I’m now in a situation where I’m unsure what to do about it. My most optimistic hope is that the grinding stops once I stop stressing – but as most of it is unconscious, how do I manage that? The other option is back to the dentist and being fit for an expensive – and uncomfortable – mouthguard.

Something has to give. The pain isn’t intense, but it’s uncomfortable and never goes away. A headache pill will take the edge off it, but there’s still a sense of numbness. It’s been like that for most of the last 6 weeks, and the thought it could go on for another 6 weeks, or more is awful.

It’s very much the sort of thing I’ve had to deal with the last year or so. I feel as if it’s one small thing after another. Nothing serious in itself, but taken altogether uncomfortable and annoying.

For other reasons, I’m seeing an endocrinologist for the first time tomorrow morning. It feels quite mysterious – I’m not sure exactly what they do or how they can help me. I go to them with a list of ailments and the narrative that the system is misfiring – that my physical entity feels misaligned and out of sync.

Saturday morning

I woke this morning to a surreal landscape. Even with the blinds closed, I could sense something different. I stepped out the front door. It was cold, the wind blowing and the clouds low in the sky. Through the clouds came a sepia-tinted light that seemed otherworldly. I stood there taking it in, once more given to wonder at the strangeness of the world we live in.

By the time I left the house, the strange light had dissipated, but it was a gloomy landscape. I got in the car to drive the short distance to check out a potential property. The roads there were strewn with leaves and small branches, and when I got out of the car, the wind whipped at my hair. It felt the first truly wintery day of the year, but I was dressed for it in a turtle neck woollen jumper and a topcoat.

The property was a bust. It was in an area not far from where I live but less salubrious. I’m close to the beach here, and cafes and bars and shops are five minutes walk. Everyone has a dog just about, and if not, then a bike, or both (like me). It’s an easy place to live. I’ve just outgrown my home.

The place I looked at was smaller. I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed. Over the back fence was a dog park that Rigby would have loved, but the place itself was scruffy, and, as usual, the rooms were about 25% smaller than what they appeared in the photos online. About 20 other people were checking it out, but I was gone within three minutes.

It was earlier than I’d normally be out on a Saturday, except to walk our dogs with Cheeseboy (who returns to two weeks quarantine on Monday). I didn’t want to go home. I was in the car, it was the weekend, and I felt sort of free.

I drove and parked near the shops that usually I would walk to. I ambled down the main drag. It was bitter cold and the wind came and went in gusts. Other than the odd guy all rugged up walking their dog, it was quiet.

I crossed the railway line without a firm plan, but thinking perhaps a coffee would be good. A few minutes later, I found myself sitting in the window of the Brown Cow nursing a flat white and looking out at the traffic pass by, and the people emerge to do their Saturday shopping, or walk their dog, or find somewhere warm to sit with friends over breakfast. And soon enough, my breakfast arrived, poached eggs on toast. It was all very ad hoc.

I was in a state of mind, brought on perhaps by the strange light earlier, or perhaps because I’d been reading poetry in bed before I left the house. That probably makes me sound like an aesthete, to put it kindly, whereas it’s an infrequent event. Still, it puts you in a mood and, in my case, puts me in touch with the feelings I’m too busy to worry about mostly. And I felt so aware of myself as a physical entity – a body in a turtlenecked jumper, tall, wavy-haired, an aching tooth from sinus, a man alone.

I looked at people as I ate my eggs. I wondered at their life. So much is routine. We do things by rote. I also. But then something jumps you out of that rut, and you see it for what it is. It’s not something bad or wrong, but perhaps it seems disappointingly small. Where is the poetry? Where is the wonder? But then, isn’t that just life? And life as it has been in some form for hundreds, probably thousands of years in some form?

I sent a message to a friend. What would you think, I asked if some bloke told you he had masturbated thinking of you? Flattered, disgusted or scared? It was what I had dreamed of, someone doing that. My friend is a sport, and I knew the question would engage her; obviously, the answer would depend on the man and her relationship with him, but I was curious for her reaction.

I set the phone aside, restless inside. The wind blew. The world passed by. I sipped at my coffee and declined another. On the bench table beside me lay the rolled-up topcoat. I felt as if I needed to understand something, but I didn’t know what it was.

I made my way back towards home, stopping for milk among the other shoppers in the supermarket. I wanted to see into someone’s eyes, but everyone was too busy. I bustled away myself in the end, back to the car and the short drive home. I still don’t know what there is to understand. Perhaps nothing.

The virtues of shit cracking

After the disappointment last week with work, things have moved quickly.

As I said I would, I scoped out a bunch of potential new jobs. There’s quite a bit around, actually, and I found about a dozen without going too far. So far, I’ve applied for one and would’ve applied for more but for developments at work.

I was pretty unhappy on Friday when I was told the pay rise and promotion long-mooted now seemed less likely. I caught myself before I swore all together, but something may have slipped out. My disappointment, even my anger, was clear.

In retrospect, I reckon my manager went back to his manager and said, Houston, we’ve got a problem. They may have thought they could get away with low-balling me, but the fact of the matter is that they can’t really do without me – for the next 6 months, at least. I made it pretty clear that I’d be looking elsewhere if I didn’t get something acceptable, and I reckon the message was passed on: H has cracked the shits. Turns out I’ve got more power than I thought – without me, their projects crash.

So what happened next is that a meeting was stuck in my calendar to discuss ‘future plans’. I figured it would be largely a strategic discussion, with some conversation about where I fit into it. Nup, it was all about me.

I’m not sure even now if my manager got it wrong and gave me a bum steer last week, or if in the mad scramble to keep me on board, they reconsidered their position vis a vis me. Whatever, it works out pretty well the same way.

They started out by referencing the ‘promises’ they’d made me before backtracking a little and saying, no, not promises – intentions. Once more, whatever – you either stump up, or you don’t. No commitments were made to me, but it was also made clear to me that everything was in play still – including the product ownership role (which, in my heart of hearts, I’m not sure I want – but would be a feather in my cap considering where I’ve come from).

The uncertainty was because the budgets haven’t been finalised yet, and the re-structure they’re aiming to put in place hasn’t been approved. I could accept that as I’ve been involved in budget discussions and put my case forward.

They couldn’t commit to anything as yet, but the underlying message was that I’d be looked after. I have no idea how well looked after, and as far as I’m concerned, all possibilities are open.

They reckon they’ll get back to me by early next month with a firm offer. Until then, I’ll continue to look at and apply for jobs. Push comes to shove, I’ll take the best offer on the table, more or less. Nothing is certain.

Time to do better

The Federal budget was handed down on Tuesday, and most of the chatter about it generated was about the size of the deficit, which is pretty big. It’s not surprising. There’s been so much ill-informed nonsense about the perils of a budget deficit that it’s a bloody big issue – much bigger than it should be. Ironically, most of the nonsense has come from the conservative side of government attacking the irresponsibility of the progressive side. This time, it’s the progressives attacking the conservatives.

I think talk about budget deficits is one of the biggest furphies in Australian politics. Though generally, you wouldn’t know it, a deficit is necessary to spark economic activity. Sure, it means that you spend more than you’ve got coming in, but most of that extra cash goes out into the community, who then go out and spend it. That’s the theory, anyway.

The Libs demonised it for years and successfully, so much so that it has a distinct narrative of its own. For the great unwashed, and reference to a budget deficit must mean fiscal irresponsibility, not economic wisdom. It’s worked well for the Libs politically, though the irony is that historically we incur more debt under LNP governments than ALP.

For years, the LNP espoused the neo-liberal doctrine, as have most conservative governments around the world. Now, most of that is nonsense. We went through the destructive phase of austerity globally (a trend the Australian government, under ALP, successfully bucked in the GFC). In more recent times, it’s been about tax cuts, generally to business and the top income earners, and a crackdown on working conditions – wages, penalty rates, and so on. For Australia, this has seen us plunge from being the top-ranked economy in the world to middle-ranked, at best. We’ve had a succession of terrible treasurers.

I don’t rate Frydenburg as a good treasurer – in fact, I often wonder if he knows what he’s talking about. But in this instance, I reckon he’s done the right thing.

It’s quite a turn around in thinking in the government, probably helped by the fact that it’s an election year and people like having money spent on them. The money is well spent, though perhaps it could have been divvied up a bit differently. The fact of the matter is that there’s a time to spend big, and recovering from a pandemic is one of them.

Having got the bit of grudging praise out of the way, there’s a couple of things coming out of this budget that have me seething.

For the life of me, I can’t comprehend why you’d cut money going to health after – and during – the biggest health crisis for many a generation. I was startled to hear that the government had cut the health budget for Victoria.- its least favourite state – by $93m. What gives?

Somewhat related, the Vic government went to the feds a couple of months ago with a proposal to co-fund a new purpose-built quarantine facility on the outskirts of town rather than in the middle. It’s something we desperately need, and everyone knows it except the government, who pledged nothing towards it in the budget on Tuesday. Instead, they included half a billion to continued financing of offshore detention facilities – a terrible waste of taxpayer money and utterly inhumane as well.

What angered me most was the statement that we wouldn’t open our borders until the middle of next year. I’m surprised it hasn’t created more outrage. It would be more appropriate to channel the misguided outrage from budget deficits to how we’re managing the transition back into the world economy.

I struggle to understand why the government would make such a pledge. Is it political? Have they seen how stringent border controls have worked for state premiers and want a piece of that? Or is this some lofty goal to achieve elimination? Why set a date? Why not just make it flexible, as common sense would clearly dictate?

I’ve been supportive of the cautious approach, and the results seem to bear that out. But it’s ridiculous, when swathes of the world are now looking to re-open, that our government has made a pledge to remain closed.

This, for me, is a clear outcome of the failed vaccination program. I reckon the number one priority for the government should be to get every Australian vaccinated by September/October, by whatever means. Instead, they’ve made a vague commitment about the end of the year, though not both doses.

This is going to cost us economically. We did brilliantly through the pandemic to contain it, while in the rest of the world, it pretty well ran riot. But then we utterly fudged the vaccination program when most of the world have done so well with it. The result is that the countries that suffered most will open up much sooner than us, one of the countries that suffered least. If that’s not mismanagement, what is it?

As I said, the economic cost will be significant – but it’s the social costs that bite deepest. I’m getting antsy about travelling. I feel locked up, and sure, I was willing to accept that – but for another year-plus? No way. But look, it’s relatively easy for me. I don’t have family abroad I haven’t seen for years. I can manage. For those separated from loved ones, this is a catastrophe. Who thinks about them?

Clearly, the vaccination program must get a push on, by hell or high-water. An obvious corollary to that is the construction of dedicated quarantine facilities to manage incoming travellers and further outbreaks of the virus. There must be a clear plan, and there isn’t. It’s absurd.

The risk is that we may not manage to open without this. There’s sure to be further outbreaks, and the virus will continue to mutate, and others will emerge. We’re in this for the long haul, and we have to build for that. I’m furious.

Edit 18/5: I’ve been thinking about the issue of opening our borders sooner and concluded this is actually a wily plan to downplay their failures around the vaccine rollout. We know they only care about the politics and how they look, and the vaccination program has been a well-publicised disaster. One way to reframe the conversation is to announce that international borders won’t be opening until Covid is effectively gone, making the failures around vaccinations less critical.

Agency and identity

I got called wholesome yesterday. I was speaking with a guy I used to work with, telling him about the latest developments. He encouraged me to go out and look for another job, telling me that I had a lot to offer. Then he dropped the W-word. That was one of my strengths, he said.

I’m pretty definite that no one has ever called me wholesome before. In my own mind, I have a picture of the wholesome type, rosy-cheeked, straight as a die and ever courteous. It doesn’t entirely gel with my conception of myself – I’m not rosy-cheeked to start with. And while I’m courteous, I’m also blunt and assertive, opinionated and occasionally sarcastic.

I figured he meant it in a particular way – honest, well-mannered and of good character. I’m happy to accept those traits – I am well-mannered because it was how I was brought up to be, and I believe in being honest. And I recognise that there’s a side of me that a lot of mothers would love to have their daughter bring home – polite, respectful and with reassuringly measured intelligence. And I come from a good family 😉

But all of us are a complex combination of qualities that are in perpetual motion, shifting according to circumstance and environment. We all try to project a persona, often different depending on who we’re with – and then there’s the view we have of ourselves. Often, I think, that’s at great odds with how the world sees us.

You have to wonder why it matters. It’s an indulgence, but it’s all a piece of the human frailty all of us possess. It’s what drives us on, though, what fuels our expectations and gives rise to the decisions that we make. It becomes our identity, but without that, who are we?

Case in point is the situation I find myself in at work currently. I’m aggrieved because I believe I’m being short-changed, symptomatic of a lack of respect – or so I reckon. There are practical considerations in that – I need more money, and I deserve it – but there’s also the ego and deeper psychological scarring at play.

I referred yesterday to how this has been a trigger event for me. As my first bitter emotions subsided, I was left with a clearer idea of why it felt so personal – and it relates to the time that I was homeless.

Before I was homeless, I was confident and capable and rarely doubted my ability to succeed. I knew I was smart, but I also believed I had the will and energy to manifest destiny for myself. It may seem naive now, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Besides, I had good reason to believe it – I had pulled myself up by my bootstraps and made a middling success of my career. Cue Jaws music.

Then, of course, everything changed, for reasons long described.

When you’re unemployed and homeless, when you’re broke and rely on the mercy of others to get by, there’s a lot that goes through your mind. It’s a real battle just to remain on an even keel – to get up in the morning and try again and believe that in the face of 99 failures, the 100th time will succeed. It’s more complex and messy than I could ever hope to describe, but I was lucky in the end that I did finally succeed in getting out of it – though it was closer to the 400th attempt.

One of the things I remember is the sense of being an outsider – banished from normal society and foreign to the comforting routines and rituals of domestic existence. I felt different from everyone and not in a good way.

A part of that is an absolute sense of powerlessness. I felt cast on the winds of fate, with little I could do to change direction. I felt invisible and irrelevant and entirely unimportant. I became very aware of how small I was, and I hated it.

When finally I got out of that situation, it was in the smallest way. I started at the bottom again, and I was relieved to have that. Gradually, I worked myself back somewhere towards where I used to be, though still well short. As that began to unfold, I felt increasing angst, reminded of how much I had lost and how different things were. More than anything else, I was frustrated by the lack of agency in my life. When you’re digging yourself out of a deep hole, the margins are small. You feel as if you could tumble back anytime, and that limits your options. Even today, I feel far distant from who I was before and still feel outside of life.

And this is why I’m triggered now. I’ve worked hard to regain something for myself, and I deserve more than what I’m being given. That’s not entitlement; that’s just plain fact. Unfortunately, what’s right and fair plays little part in the ebbs and flows of life, and you feel it most when you’re at the bottom.

I’ve been at the bottom. I’m trying to climb. All I want now is to be justly rewarded for that. Instead, I’m being denied for spurious and pragmatic business reasons. But what can I do? Once more, I have that sense of being powerless – of being exploited, in fact. It feels so wrong to me…so evil, in a way.

I guess it’s always been like this, but I was always too young or too confident to know it. Now that I’ve fallen back, I can see it and understand the deliberate nature of it. What is right comes second to what is pragmatic, and people like me – without agency – just have to cop it.

That’s why, for my self-respect, I have to get out. If I give way to it, they know they have me – and I know they have me, too. I refuse to be powerless. I’ve come this far; I can’t fall back.

The garden path…

I have patches like this when my dreams are fertile and vivid. They resonate through me and provoke wonder and thought. Mostly I don’t remember my dreams, but at these times they come fresh to me every morning.

I had at least two interesting dreams last night, one of which I want to describe for you.

We live in a futuristic, utopian society, a feature of which is that men can carry children, though not to term. By some medical wizardry, men can carry the growing babe in their stomach for the first two months of pregnancy before somehow it is transferred to the mother.

I have carried one child like this before, and it was a happy, joyous experience. Now I have another. The wife, mother, whatever you wish to call her, doesn’t feature in the dream at all. I am light-hearted as I make my way towards the medical clinic for a check-up, stopping on the way to take in a beautiful vista.

In the clinic, a doctor takes me aside and explains all is not as should be. Something has gone wrong, and it appears that I have misinterpreted some earlier advice that has led to this. The pregnancy appears doomed.

I am devastated by the news. I’ve gone from being buoyant with joy to terribly sad in the blink of an eye. I shake my head and wander away before being called back by the manager of the clinic. He leads me into a room out the back, and we sit down. He expresses his condolences at the news and apologises for it. I explain to him that I think it was my fault; I didn’t listen as I should have, distracted by the happy news that we were to have a second child.

He is kind and sympathetic. He has a gruff but compassionate manner. He looks like the undercover cop from Hill Street Blues, if you can believe that. He assures me I did nothing wrong. The responsibility is all theirs, and he can’t possibly express how sorry they are for my tragedy.

His kind manner does me good. For a moment, the sense of personal tragedy lifts and I feel grateful to him. The dream ends.

The dream follows from the news yesterday afternoon that the long-mooted promotion and pay rise due to me come July is no longer. I suspect it never was. Instead, I believe they were happy to give me vague assurances hoping to string along because they needed me onside.

This was revealed to me by my direct manager, who shared a cab with the head of the section on Wednesday night when they discussed me. It seems nothing is in the budget for me, and there was no indication that anything more would come my way. It’s not definite or confirmed – surely, they must give me something? – but I trust it to be generally accurate. I need more than a token gesture.

We were on a Teams call when he told me. I didn’t quite explode at the news, but something bubbled over in me. As I explained to him, as I had before, I was disinterested in titles, though the title they had mooted is something I have been doing for a year in all but name. To grant me the title would force a substantial pay rise to go with it, and so they refuse to give me the title. Fine, just give me the money.

I was furious. No, it wasn’t about the title. And though the money was bloody important, it wasn’t entirely about that either. It was trust and respect and loyalty and the brazen disregard of it that stuck in my craw.

I’m an old-fashioned guy, I told my manager, I believe in these things. I’m happy to give them but expect to have that reciprocated. When it’s not – when they lead me down to garden path with honeyed words, leading me nowhere – then all bets are off.

This is a trigger event for me, for complex reasons I’ll write about another time. I’ve realised that my future lies elsewhere.

And it was this event that led to the dream last night. The promise of a promotion and pay rise was the child in my belly – something grand, latent and yet due to be. Then, naturally, the news that the baby was no more – and was it my fault? Had I got it wrong? But the kindly doctor at the end set me straight – I had every right to expect better. I’ve been failed.

That’s what I think, Freud.

A half-century of reading

When I started reading, way back when I was a little boy, I was started off with the Enid Blyton books. First, there were gentle fantasies such as The Magical Faraway Tree before I progressed onto the quiet adventures of the Secret Seven. These were stories about kids – seven of them – joining together on holidays or some such and having a jolly amount of fun together munching on tongue sandwiches and getting into all sorts of quiet adventures with smugglers and the like. Quite inoffensive, but a lot of fun.

As I grew older, though – perhaps 7 or 8 (I was a precocious reader and started at age 4), they became a bit too tame for me and predictable, which is when I progressed onto the Famous Five series of books. The formula was very similar, just updated for an older audience, and they were five rather than seven. Once more, they got into scrapes and adventures, discovering conspiracies and unveiling crooks. It was all very wholesome and British, quite old-fashioned, in fact, though strangle I can’t help thinking of Scooby Do when I recall those stories.

I can’t remember how old I was when I progressed onto fully adult novels. I don’t know if there was a young-adult genre those days, but if there was, I probably skipped right over it. I was a good reader, not only in the sense that I read a lot, but I also absorbed much and understood more than my years would normally allow.

Everyone loves a reading child. There seems something noble and good in it. I was greatly encouraged all along my reading journey. My mum was a good reader and would make sure there was an adventure or two in the Christmas stocking every year and would take me along on her monthly visits to the library.

My maiden aunt was the other who went out of her way to encourage my reading habit. Every birthday and every Christmas, I would get at least one book from her, wrapped in her signature style – in silver, or occasionally, gold glossy wrapping, tied up in ribbon. She always bought non-fiction – histories and biographies and so on – as if she wanted to encourage my curiosity. Later she would sign me up for subscriptions to interesting magazines. I have a lot to thank the adults in my life for nurturing my love of books.

I reckon it was by the time I hit high school that I was reading adult fiction. Mostly I read spy thrillers and adventures. Alastair MacLean was one of the early passions. I devoured his books, one after the other. I suspect it started with HMS Ulysses, which I found on my grandfather’s bookshelves. I still think it’s probably MacLean’s best pure writing – more novel than escapist adventure.

Thereafter I would pick MacLean books up from Eltham library – South By Java Head, Night Without End, When Eight Bells Toll, and all the rest of them, not forgetting, The Guns of Navarone. They’re broad stroke adventures featuring capable men thrust into positions of crisis by unfurling events – crime or disaster or war. They battle villains with brain and sometimes brawn. The villains are generally clever, sinister types, the dark side of the coin. There’s nothing particularly complex about most of the plots, but as many of them are written in the first person, you become intimate with the protagonist and his mind. Almost always, there’s a scene when the hero and the villain face each other, and the details of the dastardly plot are revealed, which, surprise, the hero always manages to foil.

I don’t know if they write books like that anymore. There’s a bit of Boy’s Own about them, though they’re definitely adult-oriented. I think partly that’s because the times we live in are not simple as they were then, and many books of similar intent are made complex to the extent of being overwrought. Or else, at the Matthew Reilly end of the scale, they’re made silly and comic book. I think MacLean was a better writer than most comparable writers today.

There were other writers of similar type I discovered along the way when I was a boy. Desmond Bagley was one, and Hammond Innes, and then there were the old spy thrillers of Eric Ambler and the more modern spy thrillers of Adam Hall’s Quiller series, which I gobbled up as soon as they hit the bookstores. Then there was Len Deighton and, slightly later, John Le Carre.

By the time I hit 14-15 I had started to move onto more serious literature, including a Russian phase when I read most of Dostoevsky, and some Tolstoy and Turgenev. The rest is history.

I recall all this now because, on a whim, I picked up an audiobook version of MacLean’s Night Without End the other week and have been listening to it in breaks from work ever since.

It feels a bit simple now, in a way. However, that’s part of the strength of the story, which is classic – plane crashes in the snow far from civilisation with a murderer on board, nearby a scientific station where the protagonist takes them on a journey through the bitter cold towards safety, all the while trying to unmask the villains.

There’s a great deal of nostalgia – I would’ve read it 40 years ago at a minimum. But it’s a rollicking adventure too. It’s not intellectually taxing, but for escapist entertainment, it can’t be beaten. Reckon I’ll try another again soon, and perhaps something by Bailey – The Golden Keel, perhaps. Then there are the Quiller books which, at least, I reread every 10-15 years.

There’s a lot of people who don’t read these days. I sometimes wonder if it’s dying away as a pastime. It seems to correspond to general literacy. All of this is a pity. I try to encourage where I can, but it feels like a forlorn hope mostly. I’m lucky. I was handed this gift when I was just a small boy, and for the half-century since have enjoyed thousands of hours of reading. I don’t know who I’d be without it.

Time to be

I had a dream last night that I was in a new relationship with a woman. She was tall and dark-haired with intelligent eyes and raw sensuality. I found her very attractive, but she seemed familiar to me also as if she was an amalgam I’ve known and been drawn to before or those I’ve imagined.

Despite her sensuality, there was something reserved about her, much to my frustration. She was the cerebral type, deeply engaged with the community and passionate about the affairs of state and society that come to dominate our health and wellbeing. In so many ways, we were a good pairing. She had interests in the same things I did. We could talk intelligently across a range of subjects, and, for the most part, our beliefs were aligned.

I was frustrated because, though I was sympathetic, she took these passions and interests too far, leaving too little for the earthly pleasures that mean so much when you’re with someone you like.

It seemed to me that the difference between us is that I could switch off, whereas she never did. There was a time and place for matters of the mind. As for the issues and controversies that dog our times, it’s fine to be passionate, but there’s also a time to take a break from it.

Here was this woman, alluring and attractive, a worthy, warm-hearted character, yet she never allowed herself to relax when I, as her partner, wanted to relax with her, wanted to discover her in the quiet times far away from the noise and clamour of normal life. I wanted to be with her, and only her, and yearned for the intimacy of body and mind that seemed denied to me.

I appeal to her in the dream, urging her to let go and be present. Don’t think – be! I tell her. Open to me, I tell her, let yourself feel, let it flow and happen. I murmur to her, asking if isn’t this something she wants? I tell her how I feel about her, how she warms my heart just thinking of her, how I yearn to be inside with her, to share and be as if one mind. Connect with me, I tell her, forget everything else, and with a glint in my eye, tell her how much she turns me on…

Curious to think what this dream might mean. There are elements familiar to my life and times – thought-addled, with too many causes and issues to be passionate about. Yet, I am someone who can switch off and indulge in the sensual – if only there was something in my life now to indulge in. That’s another element. My desire is no less than it has ever been, but there is no woman in my life, nor even the hint of one.

I’ve come to believe that one of the things that have had a detrimental effect on my wellbeing through the Covid period is the lack of meaningful contact with women. That might sound strange or even trite, but I believe it to be true. I hesitate to use the word virile because it’s not an exact fit, but it’s as close I can get to describe my outlook for most of my life.

Virile suggests that my relationship with women is purely sexual, which it isn’t. I’m no shrinking violet. I’ve enjoyed lots of sex over the years, but really, that’s just a subset of something more substantial. For whatever reason, I’ve always been drawn to women (and yes, some of that will be sexual and sensual). I’ve enjoyed the difference – the different way of thinking and feeling, of seeing. I’m not one of those men intimidated or dismissive of those differences – I embrace them because I learn something so often, because it stimulates my mind and senses, and because curiosity draws me on.

What that means is that I’ve had a lot of female friends, not all of whom I’ve been involved with. My life has been infinitely richer because of this. If I’m honest, I’d suggest I prefer the company of women to men generally. I’m rarely surprised by other men, though sometimes disappointed. Women make me think.

While all of that is true, I miss the incidentals – the fun, harmless little flirtations and banter. The teasing sense of wonder when you meet someone and get to know them. The curious sense of adventure and the gentle musing after the event. What does it mean? Will it? Won’t it?

There’s been zero of any of that in the last 14 months. There’s barely the opportunity for it working from home and with routines so predictable. I miss it.

I don’t know what to do about it. I resist any phone methods of meeting anyone. No internet or apps for me (been there, done it a million times). That leaves very few opportunities. I need it, though, in my soul.

My mate Fozzy reckons I’m looking good, and it’s funny to think how reassuring that is – I don’t just need an alluring woman (perhaps one like in the dream) to agree with him. Like I urge her, time to open up – time to be.