Friday, 12 October 2012

A Candle for St Jude

It is the most beautiful day.
The sun is shining, the sky is blue and although much may be wrong with the world, all is well for a moment or two. It is the sort of morning when you can't help walking around singing.
(The dogs are used to my voice raised in song, and are happily tone deaf.)
We set out for our early constitutional with a light heart.

The first outing of the day involves Top Dog and Under Dog pottering round checking that everything is as they left it last night.
For Model Dog, it is quite a different matter.
To start with, shaking with excitement and the pent-up springs of the night, she does a kind of vertical take-off that never ceases to make me laugh.When we reach the bank beside the orchard, she levitates, tucks her hind quarters in and then, while in mid-air, achieves a kind of turbo-charge which propels her up the short flight of steps without touching any of them. From this vantage point she starts her Isle of Man practice run.

I confess, I have mixed feelings about her circuit training - rather, I imagine, as TT spectators do. I love watching her motorbike-madness, and her sheer, joyful exuberance; but being a lurcher, she runs so fast that all I can think of are the endless obstacles in her path. Trees mainly - and fences. Benches and suchlike. Cats and hens, and the senior dogs who are past the age of youthful folly and don't appreciate being bowled over.
Not to mention me!
She is a fan of the close-shave.

Model Dog is just a blur

This morning, when she eventually reached 100mph, Top Dog and I took refuge behind the young horse chestnut tree.
Through its bare branches I watched her lapping herself, until I started noticing the branches themselves.
They cast a shadow over my pearlescent morning, because the young horse chestnut isn't just bare, it is dead.
I'm used to them looking dead.Horse chestnuts get quite a hard time of it here on the west coast. They insist on coming into leaf way before the other trees, and in consequence get hammered by the harsh north winds that blow - without fail - at some point in early May. I wish they would adjust their timetable, but perhaps that will take a hundred years or two.

The trouble is, they might not have a hundred years or two to play with.
I don't know very much about tree diseases, but there seem to be a lot of them about.
My poor old elm trees finally succumbed last year - just when I thought it had miraculously escaped Dutch Elm Disease - and we cut it down last winter. It seems very hard that we now have to face losing another species.
I don't know if my horse chestnut has died of the leaf-mining moth or bleeding canker, but probably the latter. There are nasty, dark rivulets down the bark that look like the trails of bitter tears.
It is a sorry sight.

In London there are many, many horse chestnut trees.
In the park where I used to walk with my small son and our dogs, they abounded and in spring looked like overdone Victorian Christmas trees with their wonderful profusion of candles. In autumn our walks became slower and slower as my bewitched eighteen-month old gathered as many gleaming, auburn 'carcons' as our communal pockets would hold.
He was fascinated by the smooth, perfect, polished roundness, even though he couldn't pronounce their name. Who could blame him. I was fascinated myself. Conkers are to have and to hold, and each new find, plucked from the leaves or its spiky nest, promises to be the one, the very one, that will never lose its new-minted gleam, its plump fullness.

Life was a walk in the park

It's hard to imagine autumn without an annual conker bonanza. They have have been part of my life ever since I moved to the Northern Hemisphere. The road we lived in was lined with statuesque trees and my mother - daft, dear woman that she is - used to post boxes of conkers to my young nephews in Scotland. We did try to convince her that horse chestnuts probably grow in Edinburgh just as successfully as in the south of England, but later, when my own son was smitten with conker-fever, I understood the need to share that particular bewitchment with small grandsons who were far away, and without a chestnut tree of their own. I remember stopping to admire a small, hidden chateau in the middle of nowhere in France. While we stood looking down the avenue from the gates, we lost track of our small heir for a few minutes, but he wasn't far away, and wasn't missing us at all. He looked like a miniature version of Father Christmas's sack - bulging all over, utterly content, picking up every conker he could find and stuffing them, squirrel-like into the pockets and pouches of his clothes.

What will small boys do without conkers?
Forget small boys. What will I do without conkers.


Someone told me a year or two ago that conkers exude something repellent to spiders, and if you want to keep the eight-legged invaders at bay, distribute conkers liberally around your house.
I gleefully brought in every one I could find and deposited them in clusters here and there. I even posted a few under my bed in the sure and certain knowledge that spiders would never more darken the inner sanctum of my personal space.
Oh joy.
But a few weeks later I woke up in the middle of the night. That sudden jerk into wakefulness that leaves you wondering warily what roused you.

It only took me a second to realise exactly what it was. A mouse was feasting on the banquet I had so thoughtfully provided just a foot or so beneath where I lay.

When I woke the In Charge to inform him, he was at his most withering.
'What did you expect?' he said, looking at me as if I was slightly simple.
After much internal debate, I removed the conkers - what was left of them - from under the bed.
I put them on the window sills.
Unfortunately, the mice were not so easily disposed of.

Now, it looks as if I will no longer have the mouse v. spider dilemma.
It looks as though I will no longer have the conkers. Or the beautiful candles in spring.
Back in London, all those years ago, as autumn drew to a close, my small son succinctly summed things up in terms he understood. His father - like many fathers - was a weekend treat. The rest of the time, the In Charge went off to work before his day began and returned after his bedtime.
On the sad day when no amount of sifting through the crisp, brown leaves revealed another conker, he straightened up, his little face a picture of resignation.
'Carcons gone work,' he said.

I wish I thought my horse chestnut would be back at the end of the day.
Sadly, blue skies and singing notwithstanding, I am not optimistic.
Another case for St Jude I guess. I understand he's the patron saint of lost causes.
If he's got time. I imagine he's rather busy these days.


  1. How lovely.
    I stayed with a friend in SW London and the conkers on that green were left on the ground. I thought it was sad that the Twickenham children hadn't picked them up . Perhaps the trees are responding to the lack of interest.
    We have a healthy row of them where I walk so I will often have one in my pocket to turn and feel.

    1. That is sad. Maybe today's kids aren't interested in conkers. They don't plug in! I'm glad your trees are healthy - long may that continue. And yes, it's true, most of my jacket pockets have a conker in the bottom!

  2. Err.. this move to the northern hemisphere! I suppose Nairobi, at 1 degree South, counts as southern hemisphere although i think the house was about as close to the equator as you can get. Anyway... Poetic licence overrrules all.
    Sorry to hear about the trees.

    1. Yes - how right you are. Slip of the brain. Still, don't remember horse chestnut trees until England. For some reason your comment was duplicated below so I removed the second one.

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