Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A quick trip 'ooop north'

In which I see a red kite and meet a robot

When my friend Cathy asked me if Rotherham was near where I lived, I had to honestly say no: it's about 140 miles away. But when she told me she and her husband were fying over and would be in Rotherham, well... then it was no distance at all! I don't get to see my friend often as she lives in Ireland, so this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Paul and Cathy flew over on the Friday night and on Saturday morning he had an operation on his knee: an arthroscopy. We arranged that I should come up Saturday evening and stay over, so we could spend some time doing what we like doing best of all (next to writing) - talking!

The Wednesday before I looked up the Isis hotel on the internet and it said they had no rooms available. Darn. So I phoned the hotel, and they said they did have a room - so I reserved it with a young lady called Liz. I'm amazed I managed to book the room as I was somewhat incoherent - I had tripped earlier over a cable earlier in the evening and (though I didn't realise it at the time) was suffering from concussion.

Anyway, room booked, Saturday came round and at just after 4 (after Bryan got back from a gig at 'Spanfest' where he played with Penni) I jumped into my little Corsa and headed north. The weather was fine - one of the first good days we'd had in weeks - weeks when towns were flooded, rainfall hit record levels and the average Brit had decided that summer was just not going to happen this year.

I started out heading for the motorway - the planned route was easy: M11, A1, M18, et voila! But for some reason I went the long way to the M11. I was delighted that I did though: just a few miles outside town and low over the road, distinctive fork tail a sharp contrast against the pale blue sky, a red kite (fantastic and reasonably rare) hawk flew in front of me then above the car. I was as excited as a kid with a new... kite! I grinned, punched the air and smiled for miles.

The journey only took just over two and a half hours, and it was sunny and easy driving all the way. Loud 80s compilation CD in the player, open roads... I was happy! I saw a buzzard on the way up too - broad wings gliding on the thermals, his fingertip primaries splayed into that distinctive pattern.

I arrived at the hotel about 20 minutes before Cathy and Paul returned from the hospital. When I'd checked in I'd been greeted by Liz and her colleague Lindsey and they were very polite, extremely friendly and welcoming. It was not a posh hotel, only just above basic, but the customer service made all the difference. Paul's op had gone well and even though he'd had a general anaesthetic, when we met for supper that evening he was incredibly chipper. Oh yeah, he was on crutches of course, and in some pain, but wide awake and ready for ... well, ready for Cathy and I to talk the night away I hoped.

The three of us ate and had a couple of ciders (Paul had opted for cider over pain killers for the evening), and then began the serious issue of talking! What did we talk about? I haven't a clue! But ... we talked until 3.30 am. At one point I noticed my mobile phone had a voice message from our friend Nadine in the US. I pushed the button to listen to the voice mail... "It sounds as if she's talking to us instead of the message" I said, and the voice mail message laughed. And then I got it... I had called her, not the voice mail. So, I thought I was listening to a message that was talking to a message and in fact I was talking to a person listening to a person who thought they were talking to a message... er... let's just say I felt, and no doubt sounded, very silly. No! I was not drunk! I didn't drink too much - just enough to relax me (stupidly enough I was still nervous going to meet my friends).

We spent some time in the small bijou bar downstairs. The hotel was full of people limping! Some on crutches, some just hobbling. The clinic that Paul had been to had taken 20 cases from Northern Ireland - and they were all staying in the hotel. The staff couldn't do enough for their guests - extra pillows for propping up legs, help carrying drinks from the bar... you name it, nothing was too much trouble. (We heard later that one patient arrived to find no room at the Inn, the clinic had cancelled it for some reason - so Lindsey drove the pair to a nearby hotel on her way home.) The barman, a nice young man called Adam, took great delight in sharing with us some exciting news: Lindsey was pregnant, 8 weeks! He was beaming, obviously delighted (though at 8 weeks, we were surprised she was letting him tell everyone ... or was it just guests? People who would come and go in his life in an instant, but share his moment of joy).

We sat in the bar for about two hours, with the cricket and then the darts in the background. Then we retired upstairs to talk some more.

At 3.30am - just as the conversation was getting interesting (of life in Northern Ireland), I was about ready to pass out from tiredness (I am useless at staying up late). A few goodnight messages on the old mobile, and then I went to bed and slept like the proverbial log. I set my alarm for 7.30am, but at woke at 7.00am (on a Sunday morning). A few minutes after I woke the phone buzzed - a message from Bryan. 'Good morning'! Well, good morning back. I could get up, go for a walk, wander round or.... I went back to bed and stayed in till 8.30am.

Just after 9 I called Cathy and we went down to breakfast. We wandered outside so Cathy could have a smoke and wandered round the hotel to the back, where we found one of the staff members having a quiet smoke on a bench (there was no seating out the front of the hotel and this part round the back was a bit of a sun trap). She asked us to join her and we had a brief, companionable chat about holidays.

We went back inside and Paul was still was awake and ready for the day. We asked reception where we could go this bright sunny Sunday and Lindsey suggested Rother Valley Park. Great. Showered, changed, ready for the trip, we got into the car. I parked outside the hotel door and went back inside - directions! Instead of a few hand wavings and general directions we got printed out maps, explicit instructions and a fail-safe route planned.

The park was only a few miles away, but there was an accident on the motorway roadworks and we sat in a long queue of traffic for a while - but it cleared and we were soon at the park. 'Party in the Park' today. Hey! Not just any old park, but a lake and live bands and sunshine. What more could you want? Can we park near? No... the young man said. The disabled parking was taken up by the stage as the field was flooded. Please? Oh, alright. We parked right next to the entrance, under a tree.

We wandered round slowly (Paul on his crutches of course) and watched a mountain bike demo, listened to some of the local bands, saw some falcons (that's what a buzzard looks like Cathy - nothing like a vulture!), and went into the craft workshop. A man was making pots and using leaves on the inside of a bowl to make a pattern - placing the leaves on the wet slip, then removing them when another colour had been applied and achieving the opposite of a stencil - the shape and veins of the leaves clearly marked in the clay. Paul asked how it was done, and the potter told him. Paul asked again, and the potter told him again. There seemed to be a communication problem, caused I think it was the difference in broad Yorkshire and Northern Irish accents.

Walking out in the sun we enjoyed a turn round the lake (lots of geese! birds everywhere, this was great!) and then when we came back to the main area round the old mill we saw the crowd gathered round 'Titan the Robot'. We had seen the name on the events schedule and I imagined some bloke in a fluffy robot suit ... I was very wrong!

Titan the robot was silver, 8 feet high, and used full animatronics for the head and hands. There was a massive sound system adding appropriate 'robotic' stomping noises as he paraded and 'sang' (Frank Sinatra songs) and 'tears' (water jets) sprang from his eyes. The kids were wowed, and I was pretty impressed too. Being from a costumier's family, I looked as carefully as I could and sussed that although the head and hands were mechanically operated, there was a man in the 'suit'. Very cleverly done - a panel on the front to see out, and crafty joints so the arms didn't look like they were operated by a person, but - thinking just on health and safety grounds - there had to be a body in there. Notwithstanding, he was highly entertaining. At one of the stalls Paul bought me some earrings, he insisted on playing 'hook a duck' and a darts game: two stuffed toys for his son duly acquired.

After a wander round it was time to go - not fair to keep Paul on his legs too long - and we drove back to the hotel. We had lunch in a pub next door - 'Buy one get one free' meals - amazing value, efficient service, noisy, busy and good food too. I stuffed myself with steak and chips.

The time went all too quickly - and before I knew it 4pm was round again and it was time for me to head home. Cathy came down to reception with me to say goodbye, and when I hugged her farewell it was quite poignant. This woman, who I'd only actually met twice before, I could count as a very good friend indeed. Our interests in writing brought us together, but we found the differences in each other as fascinating as any similarities. I want our families to meet - I know Cathy's family now (see trip to Ireland) and I'd love her to meet mine one day. Saying 'hi' over web cams and the internet is fun, though.

The Wednesday after my trip I went on line to chat to Cathy and my daughter Mel joined us - playing on the piano behind me. She started off singing, and I joined in (harmonising on the choruses), but then she started to extemporise - creating songs from words on the screen - my conversations - and about the room or anything that entered her head. She made up rhymes and tunes as she went along, then would stop to chat with 'Bobby D' (another internet writing friend) and then returned to her singing and joking. It was a delightful evening and when we went to audio on the instant messenger, Mel sang her song to Cathy who was laughing with us. (Bobby was too shy to go on to audio, bless!)

The internet has broadened my horizons as a writer, certainly, but it has also brought me friends that, now I have found them, I am sure will keep for life.
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