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Smile, it’s Tuesday

Oxford gargoyle
According to fellow blogger Older Eyes, the Huffington Post says that Mondays are so depressing that the average American doesn’t crack a smile until 11.16 am. How do they know? Do they send out reporters with stopwatches?
Still, from my own experience of Monday mornings I’m very willing to believe this. However, 11.16 am for me on a Monday morning, especially one of those gloomy grey ones that we specialise in, here on Blighty, seems a bit optimistic. I mean, if you are facing a bit of a commute in California, possibly on a skateboard (I watch all the right movies, you know) and you can’t find your shin pads, then maybe 11.16 am would be a good time to start cheering up. After all, it’ll only be another hour and you’ll be able to go down to the beach for lunch and meet David Hasselhof for some surfing practice.
On the other hand, if you are hoping to get a Northern Line train to Mordern, and the bugger is delayed because the driver hasn’t turned up (he/she too, presumably being prey to the glums and having decided to stay in bed that morning, sensible person) then 11.16 am is probably going to come and go without any feeling whatsoever of joie de vivre. Ditto 11.17 am. And 11.18 am.
Now, older eyes recommends some nice things to cheer yourself up with. He starts off with medication, which I quite like the sound of, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet, and then he recommends reading the post on Tiny Buddha – simple wisdom for complex times entitled 51 Things That Will Make You Smile. He advises ignoring the bit where it suggests moving the furniture, and asking a child to do your hair, and I think he’s probably right. Especially on a Monday morning. Although if you need change for parking, you may want to think about tipping up the sofa. And if you find five pounds, well, you’ll be way ahead of the 11.16 deadline. Unless, of course, you have teenagers who suddenly need money for a school trip. In which case, again, you may not hit the 11.16 am target.
Tricky isn’t it? I mean, it does make you feel good when you tell someone how much they mean to you, and it is good to take pictures of things that cheer you up, or to read a kind letter from a friend. The trouble is, that Monday mornings are not built for this kind of stuff. Monday mornings are full of rush and confusion where you have time only to shout lost goodbyes and heartfelt instructions about forgotten PE kits and missing work shirts. The only possible reason for smiling at 11.16 am on a Monday morning, is because it’s nearly over. Which is also probably why I am writing this on a Tuesday.

What time is it?

I went clubbing on Friday. I mean, really. Our son has a band and he’s on tour, so we went to see him at this club in Nottingham. And it suddenly hit me how old I am. I was sitting in this enormous room (painted black, natch) and the fact that I was glad to find a seat should have been a bit of a giveaway to my deluded brain. It’s not that I want to get down with the kids, you understand, its just that I don’t know where the last 25 years have gone. I still think I’m about 30. Until I look in the mirror, of course.
I was just looking around, watching all these late teenagers and twenty-something students milling about and chatting and trying to look cool and confident, and wondering how I would feel about them if I were their age, when it of course occurred to me, that I am way old enough to be their parent. And I looked at my daughter who had also come along to see her brother and I thought, with a huge rush of embarrassment, she must have been the only girl ever to have gone to a club on a Friday night with her parents. She didn’t seem to mind though, either that, or she is the kindest person in the East Midlands. (I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here; if she wanted to go clubbing with her mates, her dad and I would not immediately get up and reach for our coats, too.)
And it was great to see our boy doing so well, and we didn’t do anything embarrassing like dancing or moving up to the front, or attempting to sing along, and afterwards he came and gave us a hug and took us to the hospitality bar, and the rest of the band gave our daughter high fives, and we all had a really good chat. And I’m glad he’s happy and living his dream.
But where has all the time gone? John Lennon said that life is what happens when you are busy doing something else. I suppose I’ve been so busy that I haven’t really looked up or looked around, or paid much attention when my knees creak as I dance round the kitchen to Radio Two (Radio Two…now that should have been a giveaway, shouldn’t it?) I’m not complaining, I think I’ve a pretty good time so far, and I’m hoping that I’ve still got some way to go, but I’m in shock. Can somebody please pass me the Sanatogen?

Onwards and upwards

Well, it’s been 30 days now since I’ve started blogging. I’ve written a post every day, except Saturday when I skived off (I’m sure my mum will write a sick note, if I ask her). Some have been thoughts on writing, some have been fictionalised accounts of my time as a newspaper reporter, some have been stories, and some have been rants about shopping and sexism.
I’ve been amazed at the nice things people have said; frankly any attention at all has amazed me, especially when Jools put me up for the One Lovely Blog award. The fact that people I’ve never met have struck up conversations over the web and encouraged me, has made me increase my writing output by about 1000% (although I’m no mathematician).
I came thinking I was just going to write tips on writing, in a take it or leave it sort of fashion, but found that, actually, I was learning from people who had much more to teach me. And of course, once you get involved in reading other people’s stories and about how they live, you can’t remain in splendid isolation, you become part of this extraordinary world of voices.
I’ve spent a lot of time here basically just gawping in wonder at other people’s skill; the stories they tell; the humour; the pathos and the strength.
So thank you, WordPressers. And on to the next 30 days. I wonder who I’ll meet next?

Lunchtime in the park with Jeanie

st Dunstans
There’s a little park in the City of London that is like a secret, other world. It’s been built in the ruins of a Christopher Wren church that was bombed in the war. You walk up the steps, through the archway, and, well, you’re in Narnia. It has little paths, and all sorts of exotic plants, and miniature lawns, and in the middle is a pool and a circle of benches surrounding it. There is no noise of traffic and, on a summer’s day, above you there is only dappled sunlight and a blue, blue sky – if you’re lucky, that is, because this is London we’re talking about.
So there I was, sitting on one of those benches at lunchtime, eating a prawn mayonnaise sandwich from the Tesco Metro on Eastcheap and generally wondering if anybody would notice I didn’t go back to the office, when this bloke wandered in, and sat down next to me.
He was in his late sixties, maybe; he had quite a craggy face and grey hair, and he was wearing a tweed jacket and a polo neck jumper and jeans. I didn’t pay too much attention to him, after all, he was just another passing stranger. But then I noticed he had reached down into the little backpack by his side and instead of a camera, or a sandwich or a book, he had brought out a CD case, and then he just sat there with it on his lap, staring at it. Well then, I looked at the case too, and it said, I am not kidding, H&R Block tax prep CD, whatever that meant. I thought he was a bit weird, finished my sandwich and went back to work, on time for a change.
Next day, he was in there again, same bench as me again, and this time, when he got the CD out, he started crying. Not the sort of frenzied weeping, that would make you think he really was crazy, but just slow tears dropping on the case. I thought about moving, but I couldn’t leave him like that, so I rummaged in the bag I’d got with that day’s sandwich (beef and horseradish), got out the little paper napkin it came with and passed it to him, and he took it without a word and blew his nose.
I said something like, ‘Are you all right?’ And he nodded. After a bit he just looked at me and shrugged and tried to smile.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your kindness.’
So he was an American.
I said something like, ‘Oh that’s ok,’ and opened my yoghurt, and when I’d had about three spoonfuls, he began to talk.
‘I used to meet my wife here,’ he said. ‘We started coming when it opened, in 1970. Before we married.’ He paused. ‘She died last month. In the Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Which sounded a bit inadequate, so I added, ‘Was she an American too?’
He smiled then. ‘No, she was a Brit like you. From Tunbridge Wells. Feisty. God was she feisty. I met her at the Grosvenor Square riots in 1968. We’d both come to protest about the Vietnam war and got more than we bargained for, let me tell you. We had police horses coming at us, and cops swinging their batons. And they’d closed the square off so nobody could get out. God, what a mess; I’d just gone there for a peaceful protest, and next thing I knew some cop was taking a swipe at me, and this girl, who’d I’d never seen before, just whacked him, just like that with this stupid beaded hippy bag. Well that was us both in the cooler.’
I looked at this man again. I was trying to imagine him as a young student. He looked at me and smiled.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said. ‘I’m just a college professor now. Some old fart. But we old people were young once too, you know. Hey,’ he grinned. ‘I’m younger than Mick Jagger.’
‘Everybody’s younger than Mick Jagger,’ I said. ‘Even God.’
He laughed and looked around at the soft grey walls and the shining trees.
‘Well, go on,’ I said. ‘Don’t keep me in suspense. What happened then?
He shrugged. ‘So after we’d been formally introduced by the cops, we kind of hit it off big time. She worked near here and I was at Imperial College. I used to come and see her at lunchtimes, and then when this garden opened we came here all the time. And then I got my degree and we got married, and then we moved to California.’
He reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. ‘That’s her. Jeanie. On our honeymoon in New York.’
I peered at the picture of the pair of them; he had black hair then, and plenty of it, and an extremely dodgy moustache, and she looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story, and they were both holding some ridiculous glass apple paperweight or something and pulling faces at it. ‘Big Apple, ‘ he said. ‘Yeah? We bought it as a joke.’
I put the empty yoghurt pot in the bag with the sandwich wrapper.
‘We never came back,’ he went on, grasping the CD case.’Not until now.’ He looked around the garden. ‘It’s even more beautiful than it was then.’
There was a long silence, and then I couldn’t avoid the question any longer. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but what is it with the CD? I mean you can’t have her ashes in there…’ I trailed off. Why did I always have to be so tactless and blundering? The bloke looked as if I’d stabbed him. He grasped the CD case even more tightly if anything, and then he just sighed, big time, and opened it. Inside was a pressed flower.
‘She took it the last day we came,’ he said. ‘To remind her. She was going to come back. We were always going to come back, but we had kids and commitments and then when we had the time she got sick, and she made me promise that I would come after she…’ he breathed deeply. ‘After she died.’
He touched the flower very gently with his forefinger, and then, of course, just as I was going to say something sensitive and lovely, my mobile phone rang. It was work. I should have just ignored the call. Graham, my boss, was on the warpath. ‘You’re late, again,’ he said. ‘Where the hell are you? I’ll have to give you a verbal warning, now, and one more of those and you are on your way out, Karen.’
‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, looking at the guy and his cd flower. I stood up and moved away a little. ‘I’ll be…
‘Cut the crap,’ said Graham. ‘I want you back in five.’
In five? Who says ‘in five? ‘In five minutes, Graham. You’re not on TV you know, you’re a bloody IT monkey.’
‘Don’t you speak to me like that. I have people lining up to do your job.’
‘Well bloody get them, then. I’m resigning. You can stuff your job where the sun don’t shine.’ I rang off and then turned back to the guy.
‘I’m really sorry about that…’ I began. Only he wasn’t there.
There was nobody in that lovely park at all, just me and some faded petals on a seat.

I wrote this story as a challenge from Geanieroake, who gave me three objects I had to include; a cell phone, a red apple paperweight, and a CD entitled H&R Block tax prep CD.

Pearl and the postman

The postman used to come every day at 3 o’clock, wobbling over the cattle grid and kicking out ineffectually at next door’s beagle Jacob, who hated anything on wheels. He would coast down the drive to the cluster of houses, his legs straight out in front of him, shouting at the baying, snapping dog, until he reached the shade of the tamarind tree, where he would dismount, and lean his old black machine against the trunk. The maids would come out to greet him and he would turn to smile at them, smoothing down his shiny hair and at the same time, whacking Jacob with his heavy post bag.
He was a small, thin, angular man called Kenneth, who didn’t even look as strong as his bicycle, but he was very popular with Eulalie and Denice, the maids from next door. He made them laugh so much that they would bend over, hooting joyously and holding their knees for support. Not that it took much to make them laugh. They were cheerful, chatty girls who lived in a bare concrete room at the back of Mr and Mrs McFadyean’s house, and whose main task in life seemed to be looking after the couple’s two small daughters. The girls often came round to our house to borrow food for the children’s tea. This generally happened after Mrs McFadyean had had a night on the toot at the Sheraton’s Top O’The Town Club in downtown Kingston.
I say often, but they never came round for food when Pearl was in. Pearl was our maid and she didn’t live with us. She lived in a shanty in the Barbican with her ten immaculately turned out children and she worked, worked, worked. She was 34. She had skin the colour of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, wide, high cheekbones, and the ability to carry buckets of water on her head without any visible effort. She seemed to be able to cook things by just leaning against the cooker and chopping things in her hand. Forty years later and I still have never tasted anything like her fish stew. I’ve certainly never managed to copy it. I did once try to lean against the cooker and chop a carrot in my hand. Only once though; it took too long to clear up the blood.
Pearl came to our house three days a week to clean, scrub, wash, iron, as well as cook. She was deeply respectful of my father, because he had been to university and he had a lot of books. These she would dust with great care. She was, at first, inclined to suspect my mother of being just another bridge-playing ex-pat, until she realised that my mother was also not scared to get down on her knees and scrub when the occasion demanded it; that she could also cook, sew, wash, iron, and had got herself a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Me, she regarded with open amusement; exasperation at my teenage lack of respect for my parents, and boundless curiosity about what I learnt at school, most of which she regarded with deep scepticism. Pearl had no time for the maids next door. In her view, they were silly trashy girls, who spent all their time watching Star Trek on the TV when they should have been cleaning.
You wouldn’t catch Pearl running out to greet the postman. When he arrived she walked with queenly grace to the front door and shook a duster into the flower bed, watching everything without seeming to, and when the postman tried to catch her eye, as he invariably did, she would raise her eyebrows and sashay back inside the house.
This meant that if Kenneth had letters for us he would have to walk all the way to our open front door, and tap hopefully at it, balancing his sweat-stained hat and our letters in his other hand. I knew better than to go to him myself. I had tried once, but Pearl had put a restraining hand on my shoulder. ‘Stay back, girl.’ After that I would watch Pearl giving a last wipe to the already immaculate cooker and then go out regally to meet him on the porch, where they would talk in low voices.
One afternoon, on one of Pearl’s off days, Eulalie came round to borrow food for the children’s tea as usual. ‘Pearl not here?’ she asked casually. Too casually. My mother, shovelling spaghetti into a bag, looked at her. ‘Pearl doesn’t come on a Tuesday.’
‘Maybe she won’t come on a Wednesday,’ drawled Eulalie. ‘Not after what happened Saturday.’
My mother stilled. Ever since she had given Pearl a lift home she had worried about where Pearl lived. Everyone knew the Barbican could be a pretty violent place, especially on a Saturday night.
She handed the bag to Eulalie. ‘She’s not had an accident has she? She’s all right?’ Eulalie grinned. ‘Kennet aksed her out to a bashy but him nah come. Seems like he has a girlfriend already.’ Mum looked at Eulalie, her forehead wrinkling as she tried to take in what was being said. ‘Kenneth the postman,’ she said at last. ‘Asked Pearl to a party and stood her up?’ Eulalie nodded and hugged the bag to her chest. ‘Troot,’ she nodded. The truth. Then she tapped the bag of spaghetti. ‘Lisa and Marie, them don’t care for this,’ she said. ‘You got sumtin else?’ My mother opened her mouth, shut it again, and then shut the door firmly in Eulalie’s dimpled face. She turned to me. ‘What are you staring at?’ she asked crisply.
Pearl did show up the next day. My mother said nothing, but I was 13 and tactless and burning to know what had happened. ‘Is it true the postman asked you out, Pearl?’ She was scrubbing the bathroom floor, her face away from me as I sat on the edge of the bath, and she said nothing. With childish, ignorant, heartless daring I pressed on. ‘Did he really stand you up? That must have been so embarrassing. Did everybody know? What are you going to do when he turns up?’
She sat back on her heels and looked at me for a long time, wringing out her cloth, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, she smiled. ‘I am going to laugh,’ she said slowly.
This was not what I had expected. ‘But he was horrible to you. Aren’t you going to tell him what you think of him?’
Pearl shrugged. ‘I put a hex on him,’ she said simply. She got to her feet, and began scrubbing the toilet. ‘I went to see an Obeah woman in Half-Way Tree. She took ten dollars, so it will be good.’
‘Ten dollars?’ I repeated. That was nearly a whole morning’s pay for Pearl.
She looked at me and chuckled. ‘Shut your mouth, girl, or you will catch flies.’
‘But Pearl,’ I said earnestly, drumming my heels slowly against the bath so that it made a pleasant, booming noise. ‘That’s all just silly. You can’t just curse someone.’
Pearl straightened up and looked at me. ‘Why not?’
Such was the power of this that I was almost convinced that lightning was going to strike Kenneth. I even went outside and looked at the sky, but it was a brilliant deep, blue. There were no storm clouds over the Blue Mountains either. The palm trees too were still; there were no tell-tale puffs of wind that meant a big storm was on the way. Pearl had got it wrong. She had wasted her money. I had eight dollars in the box in my wardrobe. I wondered if I should offer them to her.
Still, at 3 o’clock that afternoon I was kneeling on a chair by our front window when Kenneth cycled through the gate as usual, the cattle grid clonking under the pressure of his worn tyres. Jacob, next door’s beagle, asleep under our car, woke up at the usual signal and then galloped ponderously to meet him, his ears streaming behind like velvet banners as he bayed his intruder alarm. Maybe Kenneth caught sight of Pearl standing in the doorway and wobbled a little more that day. Maybe Jacob had been having a bad dream about bicycles, but that afternoon when he snapped at Kenneth his teeth closed around his ankle. Kenneth, hopelessly unbalanced and shouting with pain, crashed to the ground, his bag splitting and a blizzard of letters shooting everywhere.
Eulalie and Denice ran shrieking to him, calling uselessly at Jacob who had now half pulled off Kenneth’s trousers. Suki, the labrador from our neighbours on the other side came bounding up to join the fun. She also took a hold of Kenneth’s trousers, and began a tug of war over them with Jacob. There was the sound of rending cloth. My mother came out of her bedroom, where she had been getting changed from work. ‘What on earth is going on?’ She caught sight of the commotion outside, and stared momentarily in shock. ‘That dog’s gone mad,’ she said. Then ever practical, she went to the bathroom, got bandages, filled a bowl with warm water, and went outside. Pearl gave her duster a lazy flap, looked sideways at me, and went back to work. As she walked into the kitchen I heard her start to laugh.

Revenge of the newts

great crested newt
Of course, once you had written a piece of copy, you had to put it in the wire basket on Max’s desk. When he had time, he would settle into his special chair (it was the only one that had arms) pat his pockets, find his pipe and tin of tobacco, put them on the desk and then fish the first offering out of the basket, holding the cheap little bundle of paper between thumb and forefinger.
‘Hmm,’ he would say, delicately hefting it. ‘About 300 words, I’d say.’ And then he would sit back, and start to read. If something amused him, he would tilt the chair back and put his boots on the table. If something really excited him, he would hunch over the desk, his elbows on the table, his hands clasped over his head. If he felt distressed he would sit up straighter and straighter, like a duchess in a brothel, occasionally bringing the copy closer to his face to check that he was reading it correctly, and then putting it back on the desk and staring at it with disgust.
I think I distressed him on my second day. I had typed up my copy on the little four by six sheets of paper, that would fit exactly on a Linotype machine; then realised I had forgotten to take a black – a carbon copy – and had typed it again. I’d put on the catchline, my initials; I’d put m/f – more follows – at the bottom of every sheet, and ends at the end. In short, I was feeling pretty damn efficient as Max fished it out of the basket, did his weighing trick, and then began to read.
He began to sit up straighter and straighter. I did not know then that this was the signal to leave. ‘What the bloody hell is this?’ he demanded.
‘It’s my story,’ I said. ‘About the rare newts.’
‘Newts!’ he said, making it sound like a mediaeval oath. ‘Bollocks to your newts!’
I stared at him, and wondered if he had gone mad. The subs, who sat at the next table, were suddenly very interested in the layout for page 67. The other reporters stopped typing.
‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Is it not a good story? I mean, they’re great crested newts, you know. And they’re on the decline, people are worried about them. So the fact they found some in the vicar’s garden…’I trailed off.
Max was staring at me. ‘According to this, they found crested nets in the garden, and the expert, sorry,’ he looked at the copy once more, ‘the expat who looked at them said they were winders of their kind.’ He put the copy in front of him. ‘What the fuck is a winder?’
‘Well that’s obviously a wonder,’ I said helpfully. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t you know how to spell?’ he asked.
And then, God help me, I lit the blue touch paper. ‘I didn’t think you had to, on a newspaper.’
Max stood up. He started off reasonably calmly, by enumerating the beauties of the English language, he began to lose it when he got on to young squirt reporters, and then as he gazed at the newsroom, widened his scope to include all smug bastards that took Shakespeare’s tongue for granted. It ended with him ripping my copy to shreds, throwing it in the basket, getting speechlessly furious when it fluttered everywhere, and then resolving the situation by kicking the bin into the sports department and going off down the pub.
That lunchtime the other reporters took me to the pub for the first time and Max bought me a drink. On the way back to the office I bought a dictionary. Sorry, Max.

Can’t lose, darling, can’t lose

As a newbie reporter, once I had done a shorthand course, I spent a lot of time in court. It was a small Victorian building, with a door leading straight outside, and a policeman leaning up against it so that the various shoplifters, car borrowers, and people who had been caught smoking reefer-type cigarettes, couldn’t decide to leg it while they were milling about in the large cupboard that served for a waiting room.
Lots of people wandered in and out during the hearings, or lounged against the cream-painted walls and chatted to the policeman, while earnest solicitors in creased suits bobbed up and down in front of the magistrates, reading hopefully from their notes, and not making eye contact with their clients, in case they failed to get them off the hook. Occasionally a barrister would arrive from London, and we would all fall silent to watch their big city assurance dazzle the bench.
The most exciting cases, the ones that would be sent for trial at a crown court, were heard first, and then would come the seemingly endless round of dull, petty crime. It was about this time that Bill would generally arrive, after first having ‘breakfast’ in the pub next door. He was, strictly speaking, competition, as he worked for the evening paper, but if there was ever anything we didn’t know how to do, we would ring Bill. Even Max would ring Bill. He would simply say, ‘Well, I don’t know how you feel, but I’m going to do it like this…’ And then he would read out his copy, and we would faithfully write it down and hand it in to Max.
Bill had worked on a national, and was now gently snoozing out the last few years of his working life. He always wore a suit, always looked as if he had just had a fight with a dustman, always bought you a drink, taught you everything you needed to know about the laws of contempt, never made you feel like an idiot and was, in short, a total sweetheart.
This particular morning he was obviously feeling very chipper about something. He slid along the press bench to sit next to me, and took the court schedule I offered him. ‘Christ,’ he said, in his loud gravelly, Northern accent that could probably be heard in the pub next door. ‘Shoplifting? Again? I don’t see why they bother nicking her.’ He gazed at the accused, a small woman in a neat coat, as she stood up to make her plea. ‘She’ll only burst into tears again. She’s at the wrong time of life you know. She needs a bloody vodka, not a conditional discharge.’
At this, the solicitors froze, the clerk of the court looked over his specs, and silence fell, until Bill eventually settled down and looked at the magistrates. ‘Oh, go on then,’ he sighed. ‘Do your worst.’ As the presiding magistrate opened his mouth to say something, Bill turned to me and said, ‘Have you seen today’s runners and riders? Put a fiver on Morning Star in the three thirty. Can’t lose, darling,’ he boomed. ‘Can’t lose.’
There was never any suggestion that the magistrates would attempt to reprimand him. He was liked and respected too much. In the afternoons, when the inquests were held, he would generally fall asleep and no one would say anything, until his snoring got so loud that the proceedings would stop and an usher would be sent across and we would shake him gently until he woke with a snort and a gasp, and I would fill him in on what had been happening.
I missed him a lot when I moved on, and when I’d heard he’d died I suppose I wasn’t really surprised. The other day, I went past the road leading to the court, and I saw the buildings had been bulldozed. There’s now a big modern courthouse in the centre of town, with proper security, and I dare say, inside toilets. That’s obviously a good thing. But I’m not so sure Bill would appreciate it, ‘The pub’s miles away, darling…what good is that if you need a swift libation?’

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