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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Children’

Ar lan y môr

And more than once, too

As it was Easter weekend, we took a couple of trips out. “To the beach!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies, so to the beach it was.

Firstly, on Friday, to Aberogwyr or Ogmore-By-Sea, a small seaside village at the mouth of the Afon Ogwyr (River Ogmore). it has a rocky shore of cliffs maybe only ten or fifteen feet high, with many paths and gulleys down through them to the pebbly beach. There isn’t much in the way of sand, especially as we arrived at high tide.

On the slipway

The rocks are interesting, though, with smoothly-eroded limestones overlain by a strange array of breccias. At their lowest are rocks consisting of an amalgam of limestone pebbles, as if a beach or riverbank from a few million years ago had been frozen exactly as it was. Above them are huge, rough black slabs looking for all the world like pieces of modern concrete or tarmac. If you told me that back in the Triassic, dinosaurs had worked out the basics of civil engineering, I’d now believe you.

Interesting rocks

Interesting rocks

Ogmore-by-Sea is at the eastern side of the mouth of the River Ogmore. “Can we go to that beach over there?” said The Child Who Likes Animals, pointing to the far bank of the river. Over there, is Merthyr Mawr Warren, a vast area of sand dunes stretching from the western riverbank to the town of Porthcawl, with a long, broad stretch of sandy beach, Traeth yr Afon, facing on to the sea. So, today, we went to Merthyr Mawr.

At Ogmore-By-Sea, you can park your car at the top of the cliffs and amble down onto the shingle in a matter of seconds. Merthyr Mawr is a bit more of an expedition. The car park itself is by Candleston Castle, a ruined fortified manor that is about a mile or so from the sea. It’s an interesting place in itself, though.

Candleston Castle

Walking the mile through the dunes to the beach itself is quite the exercise. Merthyr Mawr Warren has the highest dunes in Britain, the second highest in Europe. Because the paths through the dunes are frequently disturbed, they tend to be the areas with the softest sand. It becomes something of a slog, and you lose sight of all the wonder in the landscape, the unique flora and fauna that goes towards making it a very special place. Nevertheless, we managed to stop and watch huge numbers of solitary bees of some kind, going in and out of their burrows.

Walking through the dunes is also very disorientating; you start to wonder where you are, whether you are trapped and going around in circles. Nevertheless, if you pay attention to the details, you can begin to see how the dunes vary. Further from the shore, they are more stable, the sand is darker in colour, and there are entire bushes and trees holding the dunes together. Towards the sea, the largest plants are clumps of marram, and the sand has ever more fragments of shell in it. Eventually, breaching the final crest, you slide down onto the beach.

Merthyr Mawr Warren

Traeth yr Afon is a very different prospect to the other side of the river. Open, windy, relatively deserted. Horses and riders gallop along through the firm sand at the shoreline. There is no coffee van, no lifeguard’s tower, no car park. Just the wind blowing fine sand along the surface, and the constant roar of the breaking waves.

Traeth yr Afon

Beach horses

Windblown sand

Which beach is better? That’s a matter of personal choice—and of your mood on any given day. Walking through the amazing dunes, allegedly so sandy and un-British they were used as a filming location for Lawrence of Arabia, is certainly hard work, compared with a beach that’s practically in a village. Walking along a deserted, windswept sandy shore, though, is generally just much more my taste. On the other hand, broad flat windswept dunes don’t also have fossil beds to go hunting in (for that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, you really want the beaches a few miles further east). There are always choices; it’s not a competition. We had two very different days out this weekend, but both were to amazing places.

Onwards and upwards

Or, a trip up a mountain

As I said last week, things are slowly opening up here once more. Last week we could travel locally; from today, in Wales we can travel for leisure anywhere in the country so long as we don’t enter or leave it. I was somewhat tempted to spend the whole day driving to Porthmadog and then back again, just because I could, even though it would be an entirely pointless and childish thing to do.

It dawned bright and sunny, and The Child Who Likes Fairies immediately said: “can we go to the beach?” Naturally, I expected the beach would be packed, as would all of the standard inland tourist honeypots: Cwmcarn Forest, the Sugar Loaf, Pen y Fan, the Blorenge. “The Welsh Government are asking people to avoid flooding beauty spots,” said the news on the radio. I looked at a map, and picked a mountain overlooking Cwmbrân instead.

Mynydd Twyn-Glas is the mountain between Cwmbrân in the Eastern Valley and Crumlin in the Western Valley. It’s really just a slight rise in a broad-shouldered plateau, named Mynydd Maen on its south and Mynydd Llwyd on its north; and the whole, being common land, is also known as Mynydd Maen Common. The southern flank drops off sharply into steep-sided ravines thickly and densely covered with plantation conifers, the southernmost being the aforementioned Cwmcarn Forest. Being traditionally common land it’s now open access land. Despite this, I was surprised just how quiet it was: birds, bees, a handful of off-road bikers and another handful of dog walkers. We wandered across the open moorland, just above the edge of the forest, occasionally shouting into the trees and hearing the echo back from the other side of the ravine.

The ravines dropping away from Mynydd Twyn-Glas

A line of pylons strides across the moor, linking the upper valleys with the power stations of Newport. The wind whistled through them with an eerie note, singing the minor-key chord of a distant angelic choir.

Pylons

We saw a distant, intriguing stone slab, looking for all the world like a gravestone in the middle of the moor. Naturally, we headed straight for it.

Not a gravestone

B H
Boundary of Minerals
Settled by Act of Parliament
1839

Apparently there a few of these stones scattered at intervals through the area: the Act in question is 2 & 3 Vict. c. 38, “Sir Benjamin Hall’s, Capel Leigh’s and others’ estates: exchange of mines and land”. Sir Benjamin Hall MP is the “B H” of the stone: MP for Marylebone for over 20 years, he played a significant role in improving British public infrastructure, and is also possibly the man who Big Ben was named after. However, despite his important role in the history of London, his background was always in South Wales, his maternal grandfather (and source of his wealth) being the Merthyr ironmaster Richard Crawshay. The other side of the stone, incidentally, has “C H L” for Capel H Leigh.

Closer to the summit of the mountain, we found another stone. This, however, is much simpler.

LUP

On top is a simple cross, and on the other side, other letters.

PP

This is a boundary between parishes, rather than mineral owners, hence I suspect rather less money was spent on it. Llanfrechfa Upper Parish, on the one side; Pontypool Parish, on the other.

Finally, we reached the summit. Being a plateau, there wasn’t a dramatic view, just gently shelving moorland. In the distance, the Severn shined silver, down by the wetlands and the mouth of the Usk. England faded away into mist. The big difference—the sign we had reached the summit—was the strength of the unobstructed wind blowing across the mountain.

The Children

“I’m freezing!” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

“Maybe next time we go up a mountain,” I said, “you’ll wear more layers of clothes like I said you should.”

“I’m never going up a mountain ever again,” she replied. “Ever.”

“What if next time we want to go in the mountains,” I offered, “we find a train that goes near some mountains and look at them out of the window?”

“As long as it takes us back down the mountain again once we’re at the top,” she said. And that, I think, is probably a fair bargain.

Life on Mars

Well, maybe

Astronomy fans probably already all know about the Nasa rover Perseverance, which landed successfully on Mars yesterday evening. The Child Who Likes Animals Space was greatly disappointed that the landing wasn’t going to happen until well past bedtime. “You wouldn’t find it very interesting anyway,” I told him. “All you’ll see is a bunch of people in a control room cheering. You won’t get the good pictures until later.” Indeed, although there was one slightly low-contrast black and white photo through within a few minutes to prove the lander had touched down the right way up, at the time of writing the good exciting stuff is due to be revealed shortly.

As the sun went down, though, the sky outside was crystal-clear and Mars was clearly visible a few degrees above the Moon. “Shall we get the telescope out and look at Mars ourselves instead?” I suggested, and of course The Children jumped at the idea.

I’m getting a bit bored of starting posts on here with “Since we moved house…”, but this is the natural point where I have to say “Since we moved house…”. Specifically, since we moved house, The Child Who Likes Space’s telescope has sat in its box in a cupboard; after all, it is February in Wales and we have hardly had a clear night since we moved in. So last night was the first time in this house that I took the telescope out of its box, set it up in the garden on the camping table, and looked to see what we could see.

To be honest, I wasn’t very hopeful. The new garden has a bright-white LED streetlamp shining straight into it. Moreover, as soon as I went outside, on came an automatic outside light. Could I find an off-switch for it anywhere? No, I could not. I was rather d, given these problems, to see that the sky was a wonderful bright blanket of visible stars, much clearer than anything we could ever see in Bristol.

Mars was easy to find, but still is barely more than a dot with the magnification we have available. After looking at Mars, we saw Orion was bright to the south, so zoomed in on Betelgeuse and then the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42 to its friends. In Bristol, the Orion Nebula only ever appeared in the eyepiece as a pale fuzziness which barely stood out from the background sky. Here, it was startlingly clear by comparison, a cold blue cloud against the background sky. Compared to our previous attempts to observe it, it was an entirely different experience.

By now clouds were starting to roll in from the north, so we packed everything up and went inside. As one last thing to try, I pointed the telescope at the moon and tried holding my phone to the eyepiece. Previously when trying this, I produced possibly the worst astrophotography ever. Last night’s attempt, therefore, can take the second-worst spot.

The moon

Maybe at some point I’ll actually get a proper adapter to strap my phone into and produce something slightly better.

At some point, when we can travel more widely, we’ll have to try putting the telescope in the car and heading up to one of the dark sky sites in the Brecon Beacons, to see just what we can see when we are out of town altogether with no streetlamps and no lights in neighbouring windows. For now, we’ll just have to wait for the next clear night, and see exactly how dark it is when we’re just in our own garden. Fingers crossed.

The haunted house

If you believe in that sort of thing

It being a couple of weeks now since the house move, I feel surprisingly settled-in already, and a big proportion of stuff has now been unpacked and sorted out. At some stage I will write a fuller account of what happened on move day itself, and all the stresses that had to be overcome, but today is not that day.

This post, though, is partly about how different it is living here. Not about the neighbourhood or the landscape, different though they are, but how different it is to move from an old, fragile, Victorian brick-built terrace to a modern house on a modern housing estate. Not just about how physically different the spaces are, but how I have moved away from an old building with an old building’s atmosphere to somewhere that, spiritually speaking, is much more fresh and bare.

That paragraph is really just a long-winded way of saying: the new house, I’m pretty sure, is not haunted. The old house, I can’t say that about.

Regular readers will have seen my post the other day about Surviving Death, the recent TV series about, well, evidence there is an afterlife. In that, I naturally concentrated on the bits of the documentary it was easy to be sceptical about: frankly, it’s more fun to write and I assume more fun to read. That isn’t to say, though, that I’m prepared to rule out the possibility that something can survive after death, or that ghosts exist, or anything else along those lines. All I’m sure about is that, if anything of that kind does exist, it will be completely different in every way from anything you, me or anybody else has ever been able to imagine. So I’m approaching this from a sceptical angle, but an open-minded sceptical angle. All I will say is that when I went from spending most of my time out of the house, to most of my time sitting in my bedroom working, I became less and less willing to say that the house, for definite, was not haunted.

Surviving Death didn’t really touch very much on ghosts. Maybe they’re considered a bit passé in a world where a medium promises to rustle up the spirit of a lost loved one almost on-demand. The sort of haunting I’m talking about is also one very light on evidence, with nothing other than strange feelings, curious hunches, and the like.

Last March, back when the death rate started to climb and everyone was told to stay at home, I made sure I had a suitable working space. Previously when I worked from home I’d done it at the kitchen table, which was almost tolerable but not really. For one thing, the dining chairs were fine to sit on for a couple of hours but were rather painful after a whole day. The kitchen was hot in summer, cold in winter, and the wi-fi dropped out whenever the microwave was on.* The bedroom, on the other hand, was large, directly above the wi-fi base station, and kept me nicely out of the way. I bought a cheap little desk—more of a table really—that just fitted into the bedroom’s window bay, found a slightly more comfortable chair than a dining chair, and settled down to a life of working in the window bay, tapping away at my laptop and watching the neighbours walking up and down the street, not to mention the local magpies, squirrels and occasionally foxes.

I quickly became used, though, to something else. Somebody would come and stand over me. I don’t mean I heard anything, but that I could see somebody out of the corner of my eye, who wasn’t there when I looked at them directly. They weren’t always there, but they would come and watch over me, maybe two or three times per day, when I was busy and when nobody else was around. I never saw them directly, but I knew they were there just as I knew when a living flesh-and-blood person had walked up behind me. They always approached from the same side, from my left, the direction of the doorway, never my right.

Was I just seeing my own hair moving out of the corner of my eye? Or noticing the curtains moving? But if so why only ever on the one side of me? My eyesight is rather asymmetrical, it’s true: my left eye’s sight is much worse than the right. I will, of course, never know the answer. But it’s easy to think that a 130-year old house will have had people die inside it, particularly in the large bedroom; or will have emotions and spirits become attached to it in a way that a three-year-old house will not have.

You can never trust what children, small children, say. But I remember that when they were much younger than they are now, or were a year ago even, The Child Who Likes Fairies said a man would come to play with her. An old man, she said, would come into her bedroom and talk to her. What he said was never specified, but apparently he seemed friendly. As you will have guessed, nobody of the sort had ever been in her room. Nowadays, she has no recollection at all of any of this.

Was the old house haunted? It’s not a question I can honestly give a yes to: there are too many unknowns and too little evidence. But equally, I feel I can’t say for certain that the old house wasn’t haunted. It’s not a question we can ever get an answer to, and I very much doubt a medium could help, or diving in kitted up with night-vision cameras and temperature sensors. For that matter I never had any feeling there was anybody watching when I was in bed, even though I have in the past, when living in other places, had the classic “old hag” night terror. Only when I was working, concentrating on my screen, would the figure come into the room to wonder what I was doing.

Now we have moved on and are unlikely ever to know what is happening to that place, and how it is changing from when we lived there. If it was haunted, I hope the ghost who lives there is happy with whoever is there now. I hope he finds them as intriguing as I apparently was. Since moving, I’ve been sitting at the same desk, working away on the same computer, staring out of a different window, and never feel there is anybody watching me, or that anybody I can’t see has walked into the room. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, there is some distinct qualitative difference in what I feel I am perceiving. Whether that is something paranormal, or something else about the nature of the building, I would never be able to even begin to work out. Subjectively, though, whether there was a ghost or not, is there really any difference that matters?

* This is a very normal problem, so if you find your wi-fi often has problems at around the same time each day, check to see if it corresponds with cooking activities.

A Miscellany

Or, photo post of the week by another name

I was asked the other day to provide a photo of The Children for a family project. Nothing difficult, nothing complicated, just a photo of the two of them, together, both looking at the camera, such as you might want to put on your wall. So I spent a while one evening going through all the photos I’ve taken since the start of 2020, and did I find a single photo that matches that description? Just one with both of them in it, looking at the camera, not pulling a daft face? Not one. Zero. Nil.

Oh well, I suppose that means that over the weekend I’ll have to try to actually get them to appear alongside each other in a reasonably-sensible-looking conventional portrait photo at some point. It did make me think, though, that actually over the past year I did take a few photos that were not too bad but are buried away in my archive. So here is a very random miscellany, from the last year or so.

Wayland's Smithy

Woods near Abergavenny

Exploring a riverbank

By Glastonbury Tor

Field of sheep, Stonehenge

Under clear skies

Or, some unexpected astronomy

“Is it cloudy or clear?” said The Child Who Likes Animals yesterday evening after finishing his tea.

“I don’t know,” I said, knowing the weather forecast was showing a solid grey sky for the whole of the evening. “Let’s have a look,” knowing there was little risk of us being able to look at the stars.

I opened the back door, and was rather surprised to see clear skies and good visibility. “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!” screamed The Child Who Likes Animals Space. I had been planning to head straight to the sofa and the book I’m in the middle of reading,* but agreed that, if we could come up with a sensible plan for what we were actually going to look at, I would set it all up for him.

We fired up Stellarium and I tried to find things that would be interesting to see and straightforward to find. Outside, I had already seen the cross of Cygnus was fairly high in the sky, with Cassiopeia above it, so I make a risky suggestion. “Why don’t we try to see the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula?” I said, knowing that with our inner-city skies nebulas and other deep-sky objects do not put on a very good show. It does, though, have a very child-friendly name.

I set the telescope up on the table outside, and tried to get my eye in. It was immediately obvious that viewing conditions were on average far, far better than they had been on New Years Eve. The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula has the benefit that it’s close to an easy-to-find star, Alderamin (α Cephei). I quickly navigated ten degrees south to the location of the nebula, was confident I was there from the pattern of the stars. And was there anything? Well … maybe. Charitably, I could convince myself that the sky did indeed look slightly brighter than elsewhere in the sky; that I could see hints of structure that were not just inside my own eyeballs and brain. The Children, though, would have none of it.

Luckily, I’d noticed there was something interesting just by the nebula, and confirmed with the computer that I was looking at Herschel’s Garnet (μ Cephei). It’s a red supergiant star, a thousand times broader than our sun, and a distinctive pale peach colour to the eye—the astronomer William Herschel described it as “deep garnet”, hence the name. As its colour is so clear to see, The Children were reasonably impressed.

As it was so clear, we also pointed the telescope at the Pleiades, the view of which wowed The Child Who Likes Fairies (“There’s literally trillions of stars!”) then, the cluster NGC 7686 and the Andromeda Galaxy. The latter was, to my eyes, a slightly clearer fuzzy blob than it has been in the past, but still just a fuzzy blob. The Child Who Likes Animals said he could see it clearly; The Child Who Likes Fairies could not.

Thinking about what we should be able to see in the sky, I did a bit of maths. Say the pupil of one eye when it’s dilated is about 8mm wide—I’m just guessing this part really. We’re using a 150mm telescope: that’s 350 times as large as a pupil, so it gathers 350 times as much light. That’s a difference in astronomical magnitude of just under 6.4. Now, when I was aiming the telescope last night, once my eyes were adapted I could just about make out stars of magnitude 3.8 to 4.2; such as the stars λ Andromedae, κ Andromedae and ι Andromedae, which I used to find NGC 7686 and which I’ll have to write about again some other time.** I suspect that that’s as good as things are ever going to get in our hazy and light-polluted urban sky. But taking the telescope’s light-gathering power into account, if I’ve got the theory correct, I should be able to see things of magnitude 10 to 10.5 or so through it. Next time we have good seeing, I should test this out: look up at a few things and find out what the official magnitude of the stars I can just barely see is.

When I’ve done that, of course, I should probably think about getting some way to record what I can see, rather than just trying to describe it to you. The Child Who Likes Animals’s telescope is a Dobsonian with an altitude-azimuth mount, which means long-exposure photos are probably out, but I’d like to look at our options and see exactly what we could try to do instead.

* The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker.

** Because in looking up their names for this post, I’ve discovered they form part of the former constellation named after Friedrich the Great of Prussia, Honores Friderici.

End things as you mean to go on

Looking up at the sky again

Happy New Year!

Last night was the first clear night for a few weeks; and the only clear night at any point in the forthcoming weather forecast. Naturally, as soon as I mentioned the clear skies to The Children, they immediately jumped up and down and shouted “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!”

The decking was already slippery with frost, and there was a lot of light and noise from the surrounding houses, but we started out by pointing the telescope to Enif (ε Pegasi), a red supergiant with a very distinctive orange colour. From there we navigated to the nearby globular cluster Messier 15, which I could see in the telescope as a somewhat hazy blob, but which The Children weren’t sure they could actually see.

After they were in bed, I went outside again and looked up at the sky, but it was already filling up with haze and smoke from the fireworks sporadically going off all around the neighbourhood. I tried to find Messier 36, an open cluster in Auriga apparently also called the Pinwheel Cluster, but could not actually make out any of the stars in it. I looked at the Pleiades to calibrate myself, and realised there seemed to be far fewer of its stars visible than normal. As Orion was rising higher in the sky I pointed the telescope at the Orion Nebula, just about visible as a couple of fuzzy points; and the nearby Coal Car Cluster (NGC 1981). The latter’s stars are around magnitude 6.4 to 7.4, which normally would be clearly visible in the telescope even in our inner-city skies, but with last night’s firework haze I could just about make them out.

Ah well, there will be clear nights later in the winter I’m sure. I got up again about 3am to get myself a drink, and the garden was covered in a thick fog of smoke still from all the fireworks of midnight. Fireworks and astronomy do not mix. Hopefully later in the year, too, we’ll be able to take the telescope to somewhere with properly dark skies one night.

Yuletide toys

Some assembly required

One of the sad things about growing up, at least to my mind, is that when you’re a child the toys you get for Christmas are hopefully the sort of thing that you can open up on Christmas morning and start putting together on the front room carpet. A box of Lego, for example, or Meccano, or the sort of train set that’s amenable to running on the carpet. As you get older, that sort of present becomes rarer and rarer. They don’t necessarily disappear altogether—I remember one Christmas when I was small, when my dad received a sort of complex marble-machine clock that we spent all of Christmas morning and some of the afternoon putting together—but in general such things are relatively rare. Even if I do get some sort of model kit to open, it will no doubt need careful planning and purchasing of extra materials before I can start putting it together; I can’t just open the box and crack on whilst we’re still eating breakfast.

So, when I noticed there was a new Lego shop in town, I couldn’t resist going in with The Children and buying a seasonal “gingerbread house” to put together over the holiday as a Family Project, although really it was for my own fun. The Children were insistant it be a Family Project, though, so we ended up compromising by strictly taking turns to carry out each step in the instructions. I photographed each individual step, although because I didn’t put any effort into keeping each photo consistent they can’t really be compiled into the sort of engrossing stop-motion video that can be done with Lego. I did try but it wobbles crazily all over the place; please look away if you’re liable to travel-sickness.

Wobbly Lego

Yes, I know it has last year’s date on it. Maybe I should have asked for a discount.

To do such a video properly you’d also have to bear in mind that, given you start off with just a handful of pieces and end up with an entire building, you’re going to have to work out how you’ll zoom out smoothly at some point. And generally, you know, put some effort into proper setup and lighting and everything. Me, I just wanted to play with Lego.

Nearly done

I have to say, though, it does look quite nice sitting under the tree; it would look good on the mantelpiece too but that’s already stuffed with decorations. Maybe next year I’ll be allowed to build it on my own; or maybe I’ll just buy myself a set to open and put together all by myself.

Finished

Photo post of the week

Into the woods

If you have a day to spare at the tail end of autumn, and the weather is all damp and misty, what better to do than go for a walk in the woods? In this case, a Forestry England wood just outside Failand, Ashton Hill Plantation. At its centre is a stand of sequoias, looking suitably mysterious in the mist. For a moment you can start to imagine you’re in some sort of supernatural horror-mystery filmed in Washington State.

Grove of sequoias

In the shelter

However, brief glimpses of the rolling landscape outside the woods, showing off the traditional English fear of outsiders, soon remind you where you are.

Keep out

Near the edge of the wood is a fairy tree, naturally beloved by The Child Who Likes Fairies, decorated with several tiny doors and various garlands and trimmings round its base. Further up, I noticed at adult head height, something that seemed much deeper, speaking directly to the fairies themselves, not there to entertain children.

Corn dolly

A corn dolly pinned to the tree with a baby’s teething toy. Some sort of offering; some sort of old ritual; maybe some sort of prayer.

And another cemetery note

Or, something to read elsewhere

Coincidentally, following on from yesterday’s local cemetery post, I came across an interesting article elsewhere: a piece by author David Castleton on the 1970s Highgate vampire panic. I was vaguely aware that this story involved a classic supernatural panic of the Spring-Heel Jack variety combined with feuding paranormal investigators and self-styled vampire hunters; the article tells the full story in intriguing detail. Whether there really was a vampire striking terror into 1970s Hampstead, you’ll have to judge for yourself.

For a long time I’ve had an idea in the back of my mind, the character of a paranormal investigator who tries to stay rational even as everything around him isn’t. I haven’t actively written anything down for a long time, but every so often I come across a little bit of information about the Highgate vampire or something similar and a few more lines of notes go in the appropriate place. Maybe it will come to something one day.

As far as I’m aware, at least, there aren’t any vampires active in the Greenbank area; as a sensible rational person who has seen a dead body and has handled human bones, I tend to treat cemeteries as interesting cultural and archaeological spaces rather than as haunted nexuses of mystical power. Still, it makes me wonder slightly when I take The Children to wander round the cemetery, and when we leave they start waving goodbye to people “we’ve been playing with” who aren’t actually there.