The Reluctant Detectorist

The reluctant detectorist
Photo by Riccardo Falconi on

Mother is asleep on her bed, a biscuit clenched in her right hand. Her right hand lies on her heart. She looks like an effigy on a tomb gently holding an important family relic, which she hopes will come with her into the future.

‘Once she’s got hold of a Hob Knob, she won’t let go. She’s like a terrier with a rat,’ I say to the nurse who’s escorted me to her bedroom.

The nurse is not sure if I’m joking or if I’m just being a facetious prick. Faced with the touching or the terrible, I become trite. I blame my father, mother, brother and private education among many external and extraneous factors for this reluctance to face my emotions directly.

‘She didn’t sleep well last night,’ says the nurse. ‘Perhaps you should let her wake up in her own time?’

I sit down in her armchair and put my hand on her left arm which has almost fallen off her bed.

Evening 7.00pm

My daughter is looking at me like a poker player who knows they hold a winning hand.

‘Did you know when you were a baby you wouldn’t let anyone push the pram except your mum,’ says my daughter. ‘Even your dad.’

‘Oh yeah?’ I say, swigging casually from a can of zero alcohol Danish lager. Danish lager is the latest accessory in my rebrand as a post Brexit liberal Boomer.

‘If your father came anywhere near the pram you’d scream,’ she says, smirking.

Oh dear, this sounds seriously Oedipal and not what I want to deal with right now. I may need a can of something stronger than zero alcohol lager to make it through this conversation.

‘Granny gave me a picture of you in your pram doing your ‘Mr Angry’ face. Do you want to see it?’

‘I do’ says my wife, dropping her spoon into the risotto and speeding towards my daughter faster than a Ferrari.

‘The risotto will burn if you stop stirring it,’ I say.

‘Let it burn,’ she says.

My daughter smiles triumphantly and hands the picture to her mother, like a paparazzi handing over a picture of Prince Andrew in a mankini at a beachwear party in Mustique. She knows she’s hit the jackpot.

In the picture, I’m strapped into a metal pram as chunky as a first World War tank. I’m trying to look behind me to see who is pushing my pram. The look on my face would freeze water or terrify a Tory MP into obeying the Nolan principles.

‘Nothing’s changed,’ says my wife. ‘That’s still your Mr Angry face.’

Looking at the picture, what I want to know is why am I wearing ballet shoes and which hard-hearted, cack-handed descendant of Sweeney Todd cut my hair so that I look like a miniature medieval monk.

Morning 11.00am

Mother’s eyelids flutter open. She has a cataract in one eye, so it takes time for her to adjust to the light when she returns from her dreams.

‘Is that you?’ she asks.

‘I think so,’ I say.

‘Have you seen your father lately?’

My father died in 2007. I used to tell her the truth when she asked about him – that he was dead. But she wouldn’t believe me or even accused me of lying. Either way, the truth upset her. So, now, I lie and say he’s fine. Or ignore the question and change the subject. It feels cowardly. But it’s a fudge which works for both of us.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ I ask.

Tea, biscuits and chocolates are my friends when it comes to changing the course of the conversation.

‘You know I hated being called Nora,’ says Mother, out of the blue. Norah is her first name.

‘It’s an ugly name. James Joyce was married to a woman called Nora. But I hated it because it was Irish. It’s sometimes spelt with an h at the end and sometimes without. NORAH. NORA. It always looks so ugly. Ugly on the page. The way it was written, everything about it even the sound. I didn’t want to be reminded of where I came from. Do you see?’

‘I think so,’ I say.

Evening 11pm.

‘How do you feel about it?’ asks my wife.

‘The photo?’

‘No, the whole situation.’

‘Like I’m a reluctant detectorist,’ I say.

‘Unwillingly discovering fragments from the past?’ says my wife.


‘Is that good or bad?’

‘Some things are best left unknown and unsaid, aren’t they?’

‘Sometimes,’ she says and turns the light off.




Chaos at Catania Airport

Photo by Natu00e3 Romualdo on

The woman at the British Airways desk refuses to check me in to the London flight until I can prove I am covid negative. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my covid certificate.

I’ve shown her my passport, my ticket, my European locator form and my five-star guest rating on AirBnB. But these count for nothing, sadly.

So, now, after five minutes of watching me rummaging through the crypts and crannies of my email server, she’s decided my time is up. Puffing up with bureaucratic self-righteousness, she jabs my passport towards me.

‘Step away from the desk, please,’ she says.

‘I will not,’ I reply.

‘Then I will have to call security, sir.’

Is she a fan of ‘Dirty Harry’?

She says this with a sinister Sicilian smile. It’s the sort of cold sadistic look you’d expect to see on the face of a Mafia hitman just before he pulls the trigger. ‘Go ahead, punk. Make my day.’

I wonder if she is a fan of Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry’ and turn to my wife.

‘She actually wants to have me arrested. Can you believe it?’

‘Yes,’ says my wife. ‘I can.’

I turn back to the BA check-in desk.

‘British Airways must have a process to sort out this problem?’

‘British Airways does not exist here. We’re just contractors,’ she replies.

In Italian, contractor is a euphemism for hitman, right? What if she is a member of the mafia? This is Catania airport in Sicily, so it’s not beyond possibility that she’s the daughter of the local Don and not just a BA staffer with a first-class degree in the art of telling customers how to ‘go f*** themselves’. I must tread carefully.

Doomed to roam the airport?

If I move away from the desk, I’ll be condemned to roam Catania airport until next Spring, as lonely as Tom Hanks in ‘Terminal’. This is the not just the last flight to London tonight but the last flight until Spring next year.  But if I stand my ground something miraculous might happen. The email confirming my negative covid test might suddenly reappear on my phone or Boris Johnson might call her personally to stress how important it is I get on this plane.

Boris would whisper: ‘Entrez nous, if this chap isn’t in London tomorrow for the secret Anglo-Italian prosecco trade negotiations, the talks will collapse. We want bucket loads more of your lovely bubbly stuff to drown the pain of not having enough turkeys this Christmas. Do you want to be the one that ruins a world beating Anglo-Italian prosecco trade deal just because of a single piece of red tape?’

Unfortunately, looking at her face, it’s clear she would be more than happy to wreck every trade deal under the Sun if it involved spiting me.

The other passengers are getting restless

Come on, mate. Get on with it.    

The plane is boarding and there are 10 people behind me getting anxious and angry.

The BA contractor come mafia hitwoman, come saboteur of Anglo-Italian prosecco trade negotiations flaps my passport up and down to catch my eye.

‘Step away from the desk.’

No please or sir this time. She’s cocking the gun.

Defeated, I take my documents without catching her eye. I slink away from the check-in desk towards a mound of lost luggage. The departure board shows the plane is now boarding and we are still the wrong side of security.

‘Their system is flawed,’ I say to my wife.

‘No system is idiot proof, especially from an idiot like you,’ she says.

‘I’m so angry I could harm something,’ I say.

‘Why don’t you start with yourself,’ she says.

Inches from the divorce court

It’s clear the next thing I say has to be spot on. A facetious comment or badly crafted gag will land me in the divorce courts sooner than you can say lateral flow test.

‘Sorry,’ I say.

She shrugs.

‘I saw the email with the certificate on your phone yesterday. What did you do with it?’

‘I deleted it,’ I say, looking at my toes.

‘Deleted it?’

‘Yes. I decided to tidy up my email box while we were queuing.’

She shakes her head.

‘Right. I’m getting on the plane,’ she says. ‘Here’s 50 euros. It’s all the cash I’ve got.’

‘You’re going without me?’

‘You bet,’ she says. ‘Good luck.’

I don’t blame her. In the last three months, I’ve lost every draft of the book I’m writing, my mother’s power of attorney (twice) and my father’s birth certificate. Each time, just when they were needed to push an administrative process forward. Why should she suffer because of my administrative autism? I am the archbishop of clerical cockups, the faux pas in the filing system.

My wife’s face lights up.

‘Have you called the test centre and asked for a copy of your covid result?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Will they be open now?’

‘How do I know?’ she says.

‘It’s nine o’clock at night and they’re in South Africa.’

‘Got any better ideas?’ she asks.

It’s the last roll of the dice. The BA check-in desk is closing in ten minutes and the flight is boarding. If the test centre isn‘t open and willing to send me another copy of my test certificate, I’ll be dining on half eaten ham and mozzarella ciabattas from the airport bins for the next six months.

The phone rings twice before the nurse at the covid test centre picks up. She remembers me.

‘That thing you did with your face when you put the covid swab up your nose was most amusing,’ she says.

‘I’m desperate,’ I say. ‘Could you send me another copy of my covid test?’

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Give me your email, again.’

Within five minutes, an email comes through.

I wave my new negative covid test certificate at the woman behind the BA check-in desk.

‘I’m negative,’ I say. ‘Just like i told you.’

She waves us on without looking at me. The security guard beside her looks crestfallen.

‘The gate closes in 10 minutes,’ she says.

As we run towards security, my wife asks me if I’ve learnt anything from this experience.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Never to travel without you.’

‘Argh,’ she says. ‘I hate holidays.’


Trapped in a toilet turnstile

Photo by Serena Koi on

I’m down on my hands and knees trying to escape from the men’s urinal at the Neapolis Archaeological Park by squeezing myself underneath the turnstile at the exit. I’m trapped in a toilet turnstile.

I’m going out the way I came in not because I’m playing a perverse version of Parkour or because of a silly bet but because the exit gate, which should swing open automatically is jammed, its electronics misfiring as badly as an Alfa Romeo sports car made in the swinging sixties.

I want to leave the loo upright

I would prefer to be leaving this lavatory in a more conventional and dignified way. Upright on two feet, flies zipped up and trousers splash free. ‘Standing tall’, as John Wayne might have said. But, right now, my white linen shirt is snagged in the turnstile and I’m trapped like an angry worm wriggling through a small, unyielding hole.

I pray no one comes in and sees me while I sort myself out. A demeaning picture like this – ‘Boomer with Beer Belly Trapped in Toilet Turnstile’ – could go viral in minutes and leave my children no option but to change their surname and sever all ties with me.

The hand-written note on the exit gate should have been a warning. It said ‘Don’t push this gate. It will open automatically.’ Only, it doesn’t.

I’m piffling away my life

I’ve just piffled away ten minutes of my life patiently pressing and repressing the exit button while nudging the door with my thigh. But each time the door swings open a few tantalising inches, it shuts again, as heartless as Priti Patel’s Nationality & Borders Bill.

Less than 100m from this malfunctioning urinal is the tomb of Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician who calculated Pi. What would he do if he saw me now? Laugh, I guess, that 2,500 years after he invented the screw pump, mankind still can’t build a functioning door to a public convenience. Ecce homo. Ecce man in the middle.

I have made a couple of half-hearted attempts to climb over the gate, but it’s hip high and getting my leg over it (so to speak) without emasculating myself is risky. I’ve considered ‘Doing a Sweeney’ and kicking the gate off its hinges, too. But there were a couple of fierce looking Carabinieri nearby when I entered this purgatorial pissoir and, I don’t think they’d approve of me vandalising their public loo.

My wife is buying a cappuchino

More importantly, nor would my wife. She’s buying a cappuchino at the Park café, the other side of this tyrannical toilet turnstile, and expecting me to join her soon. If I turn up arm in arm with a couple of Carabinieri on my way to the local police cells, she won’t be amused. Not least because it would disrupt the schedule for the day and we haven’t yet seen the Ear of Dionysus, where the ancient Greeks sought Godly advice, or the Nymph’s Grotto. Both are on today’s bucket list and must be ticked off or else.

I wonder if she will wait for me? I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t. This Sicilian trip is meant to be our first empty nester, post Covid holiday as well as a postponed wedding anniversary. But that doesn’t mean she’s got to waste it hanging around waiting for me to escape from a lavatory. There may come a time when she chooses to help her husband in and out of the loo, but that time isn’t now.

Two giant Trump supporters stand over me

I realise there may be more at stake than my personal dignity. I take a few deep breaths and slowly unpick my shirt from the gate and then thread my body carefully through the turnstile. I’m about half-way out, when I see two large Americans, staring down at me.

‘You OK, buddy?’ asks one.

‘Perfectly,’ I say.

‘Re-enacting ‘Escape from Colditz’?’ asks the other and laughs.

Both are wearing MAGA baseball hats. Just my luck. When you need someone with a heart along comes a Trump supporter.

‘More like ‘Escape from Brexit’,’ I say, a little breathlessly. He laughs.

‘Hear that’s not going so well, either.’

‘You want us to pull you out?’

Pray to the Ear of Dionysus

The shame of being saved by two Trump loving Americans is more than I can bear. Silently, I call on Dionysus and all the nymphs, fauns and holy whatnots who have ever lived in this Park to help me out of this pickle.

‘There,’ I say, staggering slightly as I stand up. I wave the Americans through the turnstile.

‘All yours,’ I say.

‘Have a good day,’ they say, as they slip their large buttocks sideways through the turnstile.

As I hurry to the Park café, I wonder if I should warn them about the broken exit door and the trouble they too might have exiting the urinal. But I’m more worried about catching up with my wife and forgetting this undignified episode so don’t.

‘Where next?’ asks my wife, handing me my coffee.

‘The Ear of Dionysus,’ I reply. ‘I’ve got to thank him for something.’

‘Thank him?’

‘Yes. He just got me out of a really tight spot.’



A version of this blog has appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.