Royally Scared

October 31, 2006

Shannon’s Front DoorOur Front Door, Hallowe’en

This year, Americans are forecast to spend $4.96bn (£2.61bn) on Halloween, versus £120m ($200m) for the UK.  “It’s the second-biggest celebration after Christmas,” said Shannon.

Zoe was throwing a party for her friends the Saturday before.  Shannon is a Halloween veteran, and has been throwing them since Max (now 16) was three.  On Friday night after our weekly bookstore and dinner trip we stopped off at Joann’s Fabric’s in Santa Rosa to get material for Zoe’s costume.  She pointed out the perfect quarter moon on the way back.

“It’s going to be very scary tomorrow night, Zoe,” I said.

“I like being scared,” she said.  “But I don’t think you can scare me.”

“I’m going to make you pee your pants,” I said.

“No way,” she replied.  “You could never get me that scared.”

“Oh, we’ll see,” I said.  Moments later I had an idea, and chuckled.

“Oh-oh,” said Shannon quietly.  “He’s got something planned, Zoe.”

Just days before, Zoe had told us that she’d seen the ghostly vision of a king and his entourage in the forest adjacent to the house.  She said he was on a quest to find his missing daughter.  I was going to capitalise on her vision.  I laughed myself to sleep that night as I thought through the details.

Whilst Shannon and Zoe were out getting party supplies the following morning, I gathered several cubic feet of leaf litter and made it into the shape of a fresh grave a little way out into the woods, under a gnarled oak.

The kids arrived in late afternoon and so did my helper, Matt – father of one of Zoe’s friends.  Shannon, ever-resourceful, had managed to buy a fake gravestone.  At half-six Matt and I went out to the ‘grave’ and he dressed me in bandages and toilet paper.  In the ten minutes it took, the darkness thickened.  I lay down on the ground and he covered me with leaf litter.

“As soon as I leave, the maniac who’s been watching us will kill you,” said Matt.

“Farewell, then” I replied.  My nose immediately began to itch but I couldn’t move for fear of revealing myself from under the leaves.

Eventually, I heard the distant sound of adult and children’s voices.  I knew that Shannon – an expert storyteller – would have pumped up her audience to maximum fear levels.  I’d asked her to tell the kids that the king looking for his daughter had pined to death and been buried here – and that his grave only appeared every hundred years.  I learned later that she’d invoked the king’s spirit by getting the kids to chant his name, and blow out a candle.  Several kids refused even to be left in the lighted kitchen without an adult, let alone venture out into the darkness.

After another minute I heard Matt pretend to come upon my grave.  Through the leaves over my eyes I began to see the blue light cast by the storm lamp.  My heart beat faster – when to spring my surprise for maximum effect?

I heard the crunching of leaves next to me.  Zoe’s voice was near and the light was dazzling through the gaps in the leaves covering my face.  If I didn’t move, I’d be uncovered.

I reared up through the leaves and roared.  I’d forgotten how deafening the screams of ten-year-olds are.  Shannon said it went on for 12-15 seconds.

I went to bed tired, but satisfied at a job well done.  At one o’clock the following morning we were woken by Zoe at the bedroom door.  She was having nightmares about the story.  I’d passed my first American Halloween with flying colours.
My ‘grave’The ‘grave’ I rose from

Dog Gone, Part I

October 30, 2006

Skip the Jack Russell disappeared on the night of Thursday the nineteenth.  He had disappeared before, but usually it had been when Shannon was travelling and the person responsible had not fed and watered him properly.  “He’s smart, he’s with neighbours,” said Shannon, to reassure herself as much as anything else.  “He’s probably sponging food off them.  He’s a very smart dog.”

We called his name along the driveway, and she checked with the neighbours at the bottom of the hill, who’d been known to take him in.  We widened our search but there was no sign of him anywhere.

The following day we went to the dog pound in Santa Rosa to see if he’d been brought in.  Shannon had retrieved him from there twice before, at great cost.  As we waited to be given access to pound, we saw a dog being handed over by its owner.  It whined and howled as it was dragged off into the cold concrete cellblock.  Presently we were allowed access, the pungent smell of urine and faeces assaulting our noses, the barks and whines echoing around the bare room.  Each block had two rows of three-by-four feet cells with bars at the front.  Our hearts leapt a little as dogs Skip’s colour came into view in the individual cells.  And our hearts broke a little each time we saw perfectly loving and loveable dogs abandoned to the lottery of lethal injection.  There were half a dozen dogs we would have loved to have given a home to.  “Did you see that lively brown dog?” asked Shannon.

“You mean Buster Brown,” I said.  “He picked up a tennis ball and bounced it just like Skip.”

I changed my run that afternoon to accommodate wide sweeps of town.  I ran through the neighbourhood calling his name.  I ran up and down Trenton Road and River Road, hoping I’d not find his remains.  There was a deer and a dog, but no sign of at all of Skip.

“This is my fault,” wailed Shannon.  “After the last time I should have had a new collar and a chip inserted.”

“He’ll turn up,” I said.  As I stacked firewood that evening I put logs in the pile that I’d thrown for Skip just days before.  I wondered whether it was bad karma to be burning them.

“He’s out there,” said Shannon, fighting back tears.  “Something tells me his story’s not over yet.”

To be continued…

Maximum Competition

October 30, 2006

We were about to go out for an afternoon run, having been delayed by numerous calls.  The phone rang as we were leaving the house.  “Forget it,” said Shannon.

“I think you should answer it,” I said.

It was her 16-year-old son, Max, who lives with her ex-husband.  Things have not been great between him and either parent recently.  “We’re going for a run,” said Shannon.  “Fancy coming?”

Max and I had not met, so this was a big step for both of us as he jumped in the back seat ten minutes later.  We shook hands.  He began talking about relationships, and I turned almost every sentence he spoke into a double entendre, some of them Shakespearian.  Max is extremely intelligent, and a very accomplished lyricist, so I felt it was deferential to him in a way.  Shannon kept cackling with laughter and he eventually admitted defeat, hands on his head.  The ice was broken.

We reached the canal and got out of the car.  I slipped a lead on Skip but he was only wearing a flea collar.  It fell straight off so we had to leave him in the car.  We set off running, and I left Shannon and Max to talk at their own pace.  After quarter of a mile I heard thundering footsteps behind me on the gravel.  I knew who it was before Max steamed past me.  When I passed him a couple of hundred yards further on he was doubled over, recovering his breath.
He stayed for dinner back at the house.  “I gotta find something I can beat you at,” said Max.  This was the genetics of Shannon’s competitive ‘Willinuts’ side of the family expressing themselves.

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“How are you at baseball and basketball?” he asked.

“We don’t pay them in my country.”

“So I bet I could whip you at a few moves, right?”

“No, because I simply wouldn’t play you.”

“So could we play a game like soccer, which you do have in your country?”

“It’s not a game I’ve ever participated in, so I’d not do it.  I run and I do triathlon.”

“You could learn American games like baseball and basketball, since you’re in this America.”

“Did you know that they originated in the UK?  Baseball is called ‘rounders’ and is played by girls.  Basketball is called ‘netball’ and is also played by girls.”

“What?  No way!  Basketball has some really mean and vicious moves!”

“You haven’t met many British girls, have you?”

We said our friendly goodbyes and Shannon took him back to his father’s house.  I guessed Skip must have gone with them in the car because he wasn’t in evidence.  She came back half an hour later.  “Did Skip go with you?” I asked.

“No,” said Shannon.  “He must just be out and around.”  I had a bad feeling about it before we went to bed.  Skip habitually chases after the car when either one of us is in it, and he’d chased us the three-quarters of a mile down the drive the previous day.  He was nowhere to be found the next morning.
To be continued…

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part III

October 29, 2006

I wanted to resume running down Orchard Lane into Forestville, rather than having to go out in the car for a run.  Shannon gave me a can of Mace from beside the bed.  “Use it,” she said.  “A friend of my mother’s got attacked last month by a Rottweiler when he was out running.”

I told her stepson Jonathan about it later and he laughed – typical of Shannon to have some Mace by the bed.  For me it was a very American experience, given that it’s illegal in the UK.  He told me he’d been chased by the dog a few times on the way to a friend’s house.  “So one day I was on my bike and the mutt was chasing me,” said Jonathan.  “I drop-kicked it in the head and it never bothered me again.”  I was heartened by his information but still dreaded any confrontation with the Beast.

The first three times I ran down the lane the Beast was in its pound, and tore up and down in frustration, barking.  I should mention that its pound is above head-height on the road, and that that’s often where it ambushes from. It is, to say the least, unnerving.

Yesterday I was running down the lane and noticed that the Beast wasn’t in his pound.  My heart sank, but I was glad I had the Mace.  I heard a loud bark up at his owner’s house and we made eye contact at fifty yards.  He bounded down the hill towards the pound.  Seconds later he was above head-height, barking ferociously.  I ran on, not wanting the confrontation.  I slipped the button of the Mace around to activate it.  The dog leapt down onto the gravel and began running up behind me.  I turned, stopped, and pressed the trigger on the Mace.  A feeble spurt came out no more than six feet.  The dog stopped a safe twenty feet away, barking.

I turned and began running again.  I had failed to release the Mace fully into the ‘armed’ position.  My heart was racing.  I hated myself for any harm I might do to the dog.  I turned again and it stopped, barking at me, well within range of the Mace.  I realised that it might just be chickenshit after all, so I didn’t use the Mac.  Instead, I turned back and began running down the hill again.  The Beast took after me once more, barking.  I knew what to do.  I turned back and ran towards it, not even saying anything.  It turned tail and ran back up the hill.  The point proven to myself, I disarmed the Mace and continued on my run, ignoring the chickenshit Beast, which chased after me some twenty yards behind, relieved I’d not harmed it.

See also:

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part II

The Beast of Orchard Lane, Part I

The Morning Catwalk

October 28, 2006

We got up extra-early this morning because Zoe wanted to go to the café before school.  I’ve been short of sleep this week and could’ve done with a lie-in, but I’d showered and had breakfast by 07.15.

Shannon and I were talking about her family’s new hotel complex up in, Sisters, Oregon, so she ignored Zoe’s plaintive cries from upstairs.  “Mom!” came the repeated call, with an occasional “I need help!”

I watched the minutes ticked by, and Shannon called off the trip to the café due to the time-pressure.  I put the kettle on for some tea whilst Shannon went up to see what Zoe’s problem was.  She came back down a couple of minutes later.  “A roomful of clothes and nothing to wear,” she said.

Zoe came down a few minutes later wearing a two-piece grey tracksuit.  Shannon gave her a shawl so that she could dress as a Gypsy fortune-teller for the Hallowe’en event at school today.  I sat down at the table with Zoe as she tucked in to her French bread and Shannon went to get dressed for the school run.

I was making some toast for myself when Shannon called “Babe!  Can you come here a second?”  I went through to the bedroom.  Shannon was wearing an orange top with a flower motif.  “Does this look okay on me?  I’m worried I don’t have enough of a tan to carry it off.”

“It looks great,” I said.  “A roomful of clothes and nothing to wear, huh?”

Dodgy Driving II

October 24, 2006

We have Shannon’s daughter Zoe with us this week, and she asked that we ‘walk her into class’.  (Rather than dump kids at the school gates, parents are encouraged to walk their kids into their classroom.)  We were up just after seven and out of the door at half-past.  It was a foggy morning – typical of Sonoma County at any time of year, though much chillier than the summer – and it was the first time I’d driven Zoe.  I neglected to shift the Durango into a lower gear and we accelerated down the steep, twisting drive.

“Slow down!” called Zoe from the back.

“But we love roller coasters,” I said.

“I’ve not got my seatbelt on and I’m sliding all over the seat.”  I waited as she clipped herself in.  “Ready!” she said.

I slewed the car around the steepest of the hairpins, the back end skidded but still the tilt alarm didn’t trigger.  I looked over and smiled at Shannon.

We went to the Front Street Café and played cards for forty minutes.  As we went back to the car Zoe asked if either of us had her bag.  We didn’t.  I went back to the house, surprising a large deer on the driveway.  I picked up Shannon at the café and we drove to the school.

“Reverse back into that space,” she said.  “Zoe hates me parking in it.”

I slipped the gear from D to R and looked over my shoulder.  “There are no lines.”

“They haven’t painted them yet.”

I started reversing.  Shannon said something I didn’t catch, my foot slipped on the brake and the car nudged back into the signpost.

“Ha-ha-ha!” she said.  “Oh, at last you’ve made a mistake!  Let’s see what damage you’ve done to your car!”

We went to the back of the car.  The wheels were a foot from the kerb, and the rear bumper was six inches from the sign.  The protruding towbar had hit the metal post square, and there was no damage to anything.  “I didn’t realise I had an eight-inch towbar protruding from the back.  I was miles away from the sign.”

“Damn!” she said.  “I just cannot believe your luck.  Damn, damn, damn!  But I’m going to blog this and have my revenge at last.”

 “I’ll blog it first, you watch me.”  Less than two hours later and my blog is posted, hers is not.

Diablo Range garter snake

October 23, 2006

I was on the return leg of a run along an irrigation canal yesterday afternoon.  It was a another hot afternoon, and the path had been quite busy.  On the dust and loose gravel a few feet up ahead I saw what looked like the black and yellow lace of a climbing boot.  Something told me it wasn’t what it seemed.  When I was a couple of paces away, it sprung to life.  I slowed down and watched as it slithered off into the grass.  I reflected that if Shannon had been with me she’d have touched it for luck.

“I saw a garter snake,” I told her when I got back to the car.

“Wow!  You and your animal magic again, huh?  Did you touch it?”

“The garter snake family contains some of the deadliest poisons in the world.”

“I’m pretty sure rattlers are the only poisonous snakes in California.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

Diablo Range GartersnakeDiablo Range Gartersnake in shallow water

I found the correct species on the internet last night.  It was a Diablo Range garter snake (Thamnophis atratus zaxanthus).  The young are born in the early autumn and are of the size I saw – around ten inches.  If threatened they may strike repeatedly, excrete faeces and a pungent musk.  They might also hide at the bottom of the nearest pond because they’re semi-aquatic.  I was surprised by that last fact, but its canal-side habitat made perfect sense.  For more information go to

I wonder about my apparent propensity to see a lot of wildlife – I’m becoming known for it in Shannon’s circle of friends – and whether it’s being in California.  However, running on Tooting Bec Common in broad daylight two or three months ago I had to side-step a stag beetle nearly two inches long as it crossed the path.  Stag beetles are an endangered species in Europe, and South London is thought to be the only major colony in the UK.  I guess what helps in spotting these creatures is to be out a lot, and to keep your eyes open.  But so far as the apparent fondness animals seem to have for me, I have no idea.
See also Crawling King Snake