Rufus

This is the post I never wanted to write, but always knew I would have to.

Yesterday afternoon, my best buddy, walking companion, personal trainer, confessor, therapist, culinary critic, alarm clock, conscience and rival in photography went off for a long and lovely walk in the sunny hills without me. Rufus was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure on Friday and it seems it had been going on for a short while. However, he has such a strong constitution that he showed few signs, and those were masked by his ongoing arthritis. In fact, he was in the vet for a general check up and we had no idea of any underlying conditions until we saw the blood test results.

By Monday, he had deteriorated quite quickly and while not in pain, he was clearly exhausted and the spark in his eyes had faded, even if he managed a weary wag of the tail when I spoke to him. It was at the same time the easiest and the hardest decision to make but it would have been cruel and selfish to prolong his suffering, as the disease was advanced and incurable. He walked into the vet, his tail up and wagging. As usual, he behaved himself and gently and peacefully fell asleep in my arms as I asked him to wait for me on the hills, where I promised to meet up with him every time I went there.

If you’ve read my blogs or seen my social media posts, you will know we shared a special and very close relationship. He was an important part of my life and if you’d asked him, he would have told you that without him, I’d be out of shape and fatter than I am. He was such a character that writing about him was easy and apart from some artistic license to interpret his thoughts, our adventures were told as they were. If you have a moment, search some of my earlier posts to get a picture of who Rufus was.

Rufus was very photogenic and he knew it. If I was taking too long over taking a photo when we were out, his protest usually took the form of standing in front of the camera. For every photo of a smooth waterfall I have, there are several of a smooth waterfall with a slightly blurry Rufus in the frame. When the camera was deliberately pointed at him, the chin would go up, the back legs would stretch out just a little and suddenly he was posing like the pedigree hound he was. The only give-away to his calm and considered exterior was the wagging tail.

Rufus wagged his tail constantly. If he was trying fake being asleep, his tail would give him away. Even when he reluctantly plodded up the stairs to have a shower, there would be a little tail movement as he knew he’d get a big treat afterwards. I like to think that he was a happy dog and I have no reason to think otherwise. A few years ago we went up onto the snow covered hills of the Brecon Beacons. After the initial climb, I noticed that his tail was drooping and not wagging. He seemed fine otherwise, so I kept and eye on him, ready to turn back if he showed any signs of illness. But he was his usual energetic self, leading the way, stopping to let me catch up and staring dramatically into space whenever I took a photo of him. Later, we went to the vet to check it out and it turned out he’d wagged his tail so much that he’d strained the muscle. That was Rufus.

He was a gentle hound with a lovely temperament. Like any spaniel, he’d chase anything that ran but he was friendly and loved attention. On hill walks, he’d ignore other dogs and stop conveniently where people were passing. Inevitably, he’d get a pat on the head or a tickle under the chin. Satisfied, he’d head off to the next group of people. Anyone who met him would tell you that once he’d checked you out with a few sniffs, he would be your friend. Even when he was feeling rough at the vet on Monday, a little girl came over and stroked his fur and he loved it.

We had our disagreements. We disagreed over the ownership of the sofa – if I was sat on the side he wanted to lie on, and which side varied according to whim, he would stand staring at me until I moved. He usually slept on the bed at night and I was allowed a narrow strip at the edge so he could choose where and how to sprawl. Rufus was a great believer in the concept of time being relative. When it was time to go out in the garden, it was time.  He also firmly disbelieved in the existence of rain and refused to accept it as an excuse not to go out. The only exception was the rain we could both hear on the conservatory roof, which we both agreed wasn’t worth going out in.

It was water that filled a large part of Rufus’ outdoor enjoyment. The first time I ever saw him swim was at Penllegare, where excitement got the better of him and he dived into the water after a stick. The river current slowly took him down stream as he bobbed along, before he figured out the doggy paddle and scrambled up on to the shore. Shortly afterwards, we were walking him along the side of the Neath canal when for some reason, he decided to jump onto the lilies at the edge of the water. He disappeared completely under the water and for a few seconds, I saw myself having to reach in to get him. Then he bobbed to the surface, surprised but none the worse for his dive and I dragged him back onto the tow path, which he stuck to for the rest of the walk.

From then on, water was the draw whenever we were out. One of his favourite places to go was Llyn y Fan Fawr. The route up to the lake followed the streams and brooks that would become the Tawe, and Rufus would walk in them, keeping pace with me on the river bank. He loved to chase, catch and dredge for stones and much time on our walks was spent throwing and catching stones. At the lake, my snack break would consist of throwing more stones into the shallow water and it would be a very reluctant hound that would set off for the Fan Brecheiniog ridge. Coming back down, Rufus would spot the water and be off, charging down ridiculously steep grassy slopes to get to the water’s edge, where he’d wait patiently for me to negotiate the path before trying to catch more stones that I was obliged to throw.

In recent months, with his arthritis, I’d had to keep him out of the water as it was a bit cold but I’m glad that on Friday, after we’d been to the vet and before I knew the blood test results, he managed to sneak into the river on Fairwood Common and we spent a few minutes with him barking for me to throw sticks. I now know he was very ill then, but the lure of sticks in water overcomes most ailments.

The house is empty now. The spot he had in the front room has a faint spaniel-shaped shadow where he would watch me, waiting for the signs of an imminent walk. Last night, I thought I saw him pop his head around the door to point out that it was time to go into the garden. There was no gently nudge to suggest we have the last little look in the garden before bed. I didn’t get to smooth his head as we lay back on the pillows and the light went out. There was no snoring, kicking as he dreamed of chasing squirrels, movement as he found a new most comfortable place in the world. This morning, he wasn’t lying next to me, belly and legs in the air as I tickled his tummy before we got up. There was no ‘bump bump’ as he came down stairs. I’ll get used to this silence eventually but it will be a painful and unhappy process.

There are so many photos I could have chosen to illustrate this but the two I choose show you how my shadow will look every time I step out into the hills and mountains.

So, if you are out on the hills and spot a fleeting black shape out of the corner of your eye, probably heading towards flowing water, say hello to Rufus. He’s very friendly and doesn’t bite. And if you’re walking past a river or lake, throw a stone in for him to chase. He’ll love that.

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TW3

Age brings aches and pains. I know and accept this. So the sharp pain I started to feel in my heel wasn’t too much of a surprise, and for a couple of weeks I put it down to age, wear and tear and years of hills, mountains and pavements. And then I saw a post on Facebook that made me think again.

I’m not a fan of Dr Internet. Dr Internet never spent time in University learning about medicine (or anything, for that matter) and never passed any exams. So anything I read on Dr Internet I take with a pinch of salt. A large one. I mean, Dr Internet also saturates the ether with cute kittens dressed as puppies or cute puppies dressed as kittens. Imagine if you turned up at your local doctor’s surgery with a festering, rainbow coloured rash only to have your doctor show you videos of a baby hamster fast asleep in the jaws of a tiger cub dressed as a puppy.It’s not the best way to generate confidence.

But this post was from someone I knew. And I mean really knew, not just ‘liked’ a couple of times on social media. I have conversations with her in work, and I’m fairly certain she’s not a figment of my imagination as I’ve seen others talk to her as well. Anyway, the post showed how to apply sports tape to a foot suffering from Plantar Fasciitis. The plantar fascia is the bit of me that forms the sole of my foot and it can be damaged by exercise. I checked on the NHS website and found the symptoms attributed to this condition fitted with what I was experiencing. Suddenly I had a condition (and thank goodness it wasn’t one that was named after me, as those kinds of conditions are inevitably bad). More importantly, I could legitimately apply sports tape to the injury and thereby become a true athlete.

I bought some sports tape and displayed the photo that showed me how to apply it. There was an immediate problem. The foot displayed was the left foot and my sports injury was on my right foot. And I was looking at the foot in the picture from the point of view of someone applying the tape, not the individual whose foot was affected. So there was some mental juggling required to identify which toes the second strip started from and which way around the heel it went. If you’ve ever used sports tape (I have, as I suffer from a proper, real, legitimate sports injury you know), then you’ll know that unlike, say, regular duct tape, it’s very elastic. So after having measured out what I thought I needed for the first strip, I found myself with handfuls of very thin and sticky black tape sticking to everything, including itself.

I had four strips to apply and by the time I was on the second, I was surrounded by backing paper, off cuts of tape, and strips cut to length. My right leg was bent back with my foot twisted to give me the best access to the sole and I think I may have been doing more damage to my knee (its the one I wrote about here) than I was curing my foot. After some struggling, a few words which shocked even Rufus and about 15m of tape, I had a taped up foot.

And I have to admit, it started to feel better quite quickly. It may have been the placebo effect, or it may have been the numbing effect of all that twisting and bending of my knee. But the purpose of the tape was to help support the plantar fascia, relieving some of the pressure and helping it heal. (Ha ha – helping my heel heal ahem), and it seemed to be working as I found walking was less painful. I kept it on for two days (it survived a coupe of showers, being real sports tape for sportsmen with sporting injuries) and while it was never meant to be a cure, it helped lessen the impact of everyday walking.

When I finally took it off, I followed the instructions that came with the tape. Yes, instructions on how to use tape. It said ‘roll off in the direction of the body hair for a less painful experience’. Fortunately, I don’t have hairy feet so I decided to whip the tape off it off in one go after cutting through part of it. It didn’t hurt, but as it was on the sole of my foot, it tickled something chronic.

Last night I attempted to apply more tape, using the lessons I’d learned from the first application. I cut the tape to more accurate sizes and tried to settle into a more comfortable position to apply it. 10 minutes and some more swearing later (Rufus was out of the room), I had one strip of tape that had completely stuck to itself, one bit (the easy bit) on my foot and I was resorting once again to contorting my body to try and reach the appropriate part of my foot with the rest of the tape whilst trying to prevent it from curling up or folding in on itself.

I sort of won in the end.

I took Rufus onto the hills this morning as I think that part of the problem with my foot is that we’ve been doing a lot of walking on pavements recent, and the impact doesn’t help with joints. It felt good to be squelching through the marshy ground this morning as the soft going made our walk pain free. And after nearly three miles on Moel Feity, I removed the tape again and resorted to best cure for sore muscles I know. Soaking in hot water.

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There’s always tomorrow

It has been a strange day today. I should have been sad and upset as I went to the funeral of a mate from school. But the humanist service was full of memories, some spoken and others remembered silently. All of them made me smile and when they played ‘Highway Star’ by his favourite band and one of the first songs we rehearsed together there was a tear or two. But most of my memories of Simon are happy ones. Here are some of the ones that can be repeated.

I met Simon in secondary school in 1976. He was introduced to me as ‘Skinny’ which I assumed was because of his physical appearance. Like me, there wasn’t much of him then. I later found out it was far more complex and involved his surname rhyming with ‘bones’. We were both asthmatic and therefore unable to take part in PE and Games lessons. We got talking and quickly discovered mutual interests in science fiction and, later, music. We both had a similar irreverent sense of humour which developed over the years, as did our friendship.

In later years in school, we started making short cine films with a group of like minded friends and a couple of open minded teachers. It was mainly science fiction and horror. Simon was always up for doing the stunts and we managed to kill him off several times. He was stabbed, strangled, drowned and thrown off a quarry face. No padding for Simon. We once started filming a comedy parody of school life, referencing amongst other things, 2001 A Space Odyssey. For this epic, we borrowed Simon’s sister’s dolls pram and floated it out to sea from Bracelet Bay, after first letting the Coastguards know what we were up to. We retrieved it, dried it off and I don’t know whether his sister ever knew.

Simon followed his artistic interests and after a year in art college he went to Worthing to study Theatre Design. I was in London at the same time and we often visited each other. I used to have a great time in Worthing thanks to Simon and his friends; one of the first times I visited we left the pub and four or five of us carried on in a friend’s flat. When we left, it was morning and we went back to Simon’s flat (where I was staying) and had a breakfast of burger, gravy and chips. It was the first time I experienced Simon’s sandwiches which consisted of a bit of whatever he was cooking at the time between two thickly buttered pieces of bread.

When Simon came back to Swansea, he joined the Swansea Little Theatre as a set designer and we formed a band. Simon was a clever and skilful drummer (in the studio, he would record his drum parts with no guide tracks and it was a rare occasion when he had to do a second take. That is gifted playing). He also played a bit of guitar and keyboards. He had been drumming with the Venture Scouts marching band before I picked up a guitar and by the time I was playing well enough to be in a band, he’d also started on the guitar. We swapped licks and he taught me barre chords and during this time Simon had written about half an album’s worth of songs. I had a little 4 track recorder and we spent several evenings recoding demo versions of our songs. He sang on his songs and I sang on mine. Probably the only musical skill Simon didn’t possess was the ability to sing. I still giggle at the version of a folky song I’d written where, while I try to sing the serious lyrics in the style of Bob Dylan, he is in the background trying to and succeeding in making me laugh.

We started rehearsing in Simon’s bedroom, on the top floor of his parent’s house. At our first gig, using all the settings and volumes that we’d used in rehearsals, the landlord of the pub stopped us and asked us to turn down as we were too loud. I pity Simon’s neighbours. We had to stop practising in the bedroom after Simon’s enthusiastic drumming caused cracks to appear in the ceiling of the room below.

We played in several bands together. Our first was Nightshade, which morphed into Fragile Earth and then Strange Attractor. We made some great friendships with the other guys in the band and it was great to see some of them today, some 25 years later, at the funeral. Niel sang and played bass, Jeff was the guitarist in later incarnations. Paul played bass with many of the versions of the band but it was Simon that was the most prolific writer, coming up with or contributing to many of the bands original songs.

We once played a local social club and we were going through a progressive rock period at the time, Simon had written a long piece, which we had recently recorded in a local studio and which lasted around 15 minutes. Imagine the looks of the elderly club members as we launched into ‘River of Fire’, which Simon had written because he was concerned about the way the planet was being ruined by deforestation. It went on for more than 18 minutes thanks to some extended soloing (this was prog). To be fair, they clapped and had a whip round for us and asked us back the following week. We left the long song off the set list for the second gig.

We became the emergency band for the Coach House in Wind Street – we could play at short notice, and often filled in for bands that cancelled at the last minute. I remember them as being great gigs. Alas, the recordings I have tell a slightly different story. But always solid in the background, keeping things on track was Simon’s drumming. I learned to write and play in odd time signatures thanks to Simon (‘No two bars in the same time signature’ was our war cry. Probably chanted in 13/8 time).

Ramtops came next – a five piece band with the addition of Lloyd on guitar and Steve on vocals and guitar, playing more modern covers and more catchy and upbeat rock originals. We played a gig in front of a thousand or so in Singleton Park, where once again we were asked to turn down as we were drowning out the near by ‘It’s a Knockout’ competition. Mr McHenry, Shine and for a brief moment, Alibi were the last bands we shared.

For the first few years of our band career, Simon was driving a bright blue Bedford CF van. In true musician’s style, it would occasionally deposit vital components on the road. One afternoon we were driving back from getting it fixed somewhere and the exhaust fell off – from the manifold back. The cab filled with fumes and we drove on for a bit with Simon and I hanging our heads out of the windows. Eventually, Simon got a Mini and he would rock up to rehearsals and gigs with it crammed full of drum kit. Only he could load and unload it as attempts by me and others inevitably led to some obscure bit of drummist kit being left on the road. And we could never identify the item either.

It later years we drifted apart a bit as our lives changed direction. But I kept in touch and as our birthday’s were exactly three months apart (with Simon being the older) I would always mark the New Year with a text message which usually went along the lines of ‘happy birthday you old git’, to which he would reply with something equally derogatory, and three months later I would get the same ‘happy birthday you old git’ back. The last time I saw Simon was last year at his mother’s funeral. He’d lost weight but seemed fine and, to my shame, the promised ‘I’ll call around sometime’ never happened.

Because ‘there’s always tomorrow’, isn’t there?

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A difficult gig

We played in a holiday village pub on the coast as a four piece last night.  Great venue, lost of people there. But it was a difficut one for all of us because a great friend and long time member of the band, Neil, wasn’t with us.

Neil passed away on Wednesday.

When I played regularly in The Insiders, Neil and I would almost always travel to gigs together. His car swallowed all our gear with room to spare but if he wanted more than the odd pint at the gig, I’d take my car and the squeeze to get all the kit in was more of a challenge. We’d have lively conversations about new songs to play or the latest guitar he’d bought or his experiences while he was in the RAF.

At the gig, we’d alternate between playing bass and guitar for a half. Neil was an excellent guitarist and he had a really clean sound on his Telecaster which would cut through the combined noise of Stuey and me. He’d played in bands for a large part of his life and this experience showed in his attitude and playing skill.  He showed me a much quicker and more accurate way of tuning the guitar and he set up a couple of my guitars for me – a job that not only needs skill but patience too.

Neil and I would usually stand to the right of the drums and he would stand to my right. In small venues, we’d share a microphone. If I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be playing, I’d look over and get a good idea from Neil. We’d both moan at Stuey to turn down, with little prospect of any results. Instead, we’d share a joke and have a laugh, sing the (somewhat risque) wrong lyrics to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and try and out do each other on guitar riffs to ‘Summertime Blues’.

I have many happy memories of Neil, which is how we should remember our friends and loved ones. Some are hard to share because they depend on the moment, others raise a smile when I tell them. I can picture the moment we started playing in a social club and I turned to my right to see Neil facing away from the audience. He’d spotted an old age pensioner dressed in an outrageously tight pink plastic dress dancing with an short old bloke in a terrible wig. Neil was laughing so much he couldn’t really play properly and had to look away. In the end, we all had to avert our gaze and we chuckled for most of the night. Another time, he turned up for a gig in front of the Mayor of Swansea slightly worse for drink after having spent the day watching Wales beat England at rugby. He grinned all night, but he was still the best musician on stage. When I think of Neil now, I think of that grin and that he was always smiling on stage.

Before the first half of last night’s gig, we didn’t really say much. I certainly felt subdued and I think Stuey and the others did too. We played the songs and when it came to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, I deliberately looked over to my right where Neil should have been. There was a big gap that we couldn’t fill but I sang his words and they made me smile again.

During the break, Stuey and I talked about playing a song for Neil. In the second half, Stuey introduced ‘Hey Jude’ as a song for a friend who couldn’t be with us. It’s a great song but this added something to it and the lump in my throat came very soon after we started playing. The tears came during the chorus part at the end (as they are again now, as I type this). It was a good version, worthy of his memory and, as Neil would have pointed out, we played it loud enough for him to hear wherever he is now.

We went down well at the pub. We had a guest singer who did a great version of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’. Surpassing the usual situation where Stuey tells me that we’re playing a song I’ve never played before, last night we played a song and I still don’t know what it was. I couldn’t hear Stuey from my place on the other side of the drums and before I knew it, I was busking along to the song, trying to make out what chords Stuey was playing whilst being blinded by the flashing stage lights. It wouldn’t be the same without the adventures and challenges Stuey sets.

When I started loading the car up at the end of the night, I found that some joker (not the original word I used) had prised the mirror out of the housing on the driver’s side of my car. It went back but I haven’t been able to check it properly yet.

It was a lonely drive home

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