Friday, December 04, 2015

'John from down the road'


'It’s John, Dad - I’m going now.’
‘Is it John from down the road?’
My father suffered from Lewy Bodies Dementia - which meant that, in his case, he hallucinated. His visions often involved animals and some of the things he said suggested he thought he was working with sheep. This was fitting for someone who grew up on a farm. He reacted well, apparently, to the ‘therapy donkey’ they took into the nursing home.
The beastly hallucinations moved Dad on from his imaginary pub - in which he described the nurses around him as ‘barmaids’.
When I visited him for the last time he moved his hands at one point as though he were daintily tying a knot around a tiny neck - possibly of a small animal which had found its way over the high side-guards to share the comfort of his bed.
When he had finished doing whatever it was he thought he was doing, my mother and I took turns at holding his hand to soothe him. He was agitated and called out for each member of his family - repeating each name over and over again until something told him that person wasn't coming and he shouted then for the next one. 

He didn't shout much for his immediate family towards the end - not for his wife or children. Rather he shouted for his mother and his siblings. This made me think that only his long-term memory was still firing. 

At work I am a temp with no memorable identity. It felt a little like that with Dad at the end. Who knows who ‘John from down the road’ was, but it probably wasn’t me.
The final gentle nurse in a long series of gentle nurses adjusted the bedding. She asked us about the family while Dad slept one of his last sleeps. She had just come on shift and hadn’t known him awake. He roused just before we left and became animated. He was talking about something or someone being ‘behind a wall’. My sister answered and played along with the events in his mind. After he spoke the nurse was surprised and remarked:
‘Oh! He’s very Irish isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ we said, ‘he is’.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

'Our Temp of the Month'

I haven't worn a lanyard for a long time. I wore one once when I worked for Waterstone's. That was just a big 'W' - it didn't open doors or access sandwiches - unlike today's 'smart' lanyards.
As I have mentioned, there is no picture or name on my current badge. A dry-wipe marker works on the blank surface of the badge part. I could hand-write a name and title of my own choosing - but that might qualify as tragic.

Some temping agencies reward particularly diligent workers with web fame as a 'Temp of the Month'. I read of one chap who was 'living life to the max' as a temp. I don't think his assignment was in the Newton Aycliffe area. 

Nonetheless, I do leave the lanyard on for a while in the evenings – so that people see it when I'm filling the car up or so that the neighbours catch a glimpse of it when I'm putting the bins out. It signifies that I am working – albeit anonymously.

I wouldn't want anyone to place me in the same pitiable bracket as Eric across the road.
Eric made a faint attempt at working for a couple of years when we first moved in. He delivered catalogues that he stored in his small shed/garage. Eric had a badly planned extension which left him with an integral ‘shed’ with a half garage door. It’s the shed equivalent of one of those slimline dishwashers that people squeeze into a galley kitchen. Eric now spends most of his time in his demi-shed. 

I do wonder if Eric has served time at some point in his life. Like Dr Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities' who was sprung from The Bastille only to crave a garret, my neighbour too seems to need the reassurance offered by an enclosed and cell-like space. 

Eric and I fell out in 2006 over what he perceived to be inconsiderate parking on my part. He didn’t speak to me for years after that – until I helped raise the alarm and get the paramedics in when he collapsed in his garden last year. He spent a night in hospital and sincerely thanked me on his return.
He hasn’t spoken to me since.
Likewise there are several people in the office who have decided that they too can’t be bothered engaging me in anything approaching a long conversation – on account of my temporary status. Don’t know how long they think the conversation they are avoiding could possibly last. Having said that, I have witnessed conversations take place in the open plan office that lasted long enough to merit a temporary contract all of their own.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Tiddles 2

When I print anything at my new place of work, I have to key into the printer my email address and password. Other members of staff simply tap their lanyard card on the printer and the machine warms to their identity.
‘Here’s your badge. It’s blank, because you are a temp.’
As I came into the building the other day, a young stray cat was hovering around outside. I stroked it and thought nothing more of it. When I got in to the office I soon realised that the cat was the subject of a major fuss:
"Was it tagged?"
"It must be lost!"
"Who will take it home if the owner can’t be traced?"
"What will the person who takes it home call it?"
"How will it integrate with the existing pets of the staff member who takes it home if it is not claimed?"
My manager drove the cat together with the office junior to the nearest vet. The junior had to go: ‘to hold the cat and keep it calm’.
The cat returned to the office. It wasn’t chipped and all were relieved that it had been saved from wandering in and out of local houses and tarting for food – which is what cats enjoy doing and do very well.
The HR person found some capacity to oversee a fast-track recruitment process – for the cat.
I was in the quaintly labelled 'Reprographics Room', enjoying the hum of the machines. The hum provided some respite from the incessant chat that was all around me outside the haven of the Reprographics Room.
The door opened.  I turned – expecting to exchange shallow pleasantries (nothing too deep, I’m not staying). I could see a human hand hold the door open for just long enough to allow the cat, no longer stray, to enter the room.
The cat swaggered in – a dinky little lanyard around its neck with a photo and a name I couldn’t quite read from a distance. It gave me one of those looks – one of those looks of disdain that cats do so well – and then sprang atop the neighbouring printer.
‘Tiddles2’ was the legend on the card – I could see it now. The card dangled over the control pad for the printer. My printer timed out waiting for my password. The printer for 'Tiddles2' started printing something – no doubt from the cat’s own desktop. Images emerged in full colour:

  • Tiddles2 sends an email
  • Tiddles2 ‘answers’ the phone
  • Tiddles2 on Skype

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Puppy IS just for Christmas

‘So, have you caved in yet about the puppy?’
In an attempt to integrate with my colleagues I had previously conversed about my daughters' desire to have a pet dog.
‘No. they now have a toy one, though. It gets up onto his hind legs and woofs. Their mother got it and asked them to keep quiet about the price. They told me when she had annoyed them with a particularly vigorous teeth-brushing session.’
My colleagues are obsessed with cats and dogs - they watch Paul O’Grady’s animal show and over lunch they exchange thoughts on the cuteness of the animals featured. Lunch occurs on a balcony. I join them and try really hard not to throw myself off the balcony when the conversation gets too pet-centred. The only thing that stops me some days is that I know I would land on the young teacher training students below. I know I would be doing them a favour in the long-term - arresting their progress into a career of stress and frustration. But I think of their loved ones - and mine - and stay on the balcony.
Today I contributed with the story of how my father brought home a puppy when I was a child. He walked in with great nonchalance and hovered until we noticed the puppy peeking out of his jacket. I think he'd won it in a game of cards - he wasn’t the type to nip into a pet shop.
They loved the story. To use the parlance of pet cats - they lapped it up.
‘The puppy didn’t last long, though...’ I added (sad face, big pause).
There was an intense pet-loving hush all around the balcony lunch table (laden with microwavable containers and weight-watchers crisps).
‘You see we lived on a dual-carriageway….’
‘It was only about a month old when it went to puppy heaven.’
‘Oh, that’s awful. You must have been traumatised you poor thing.’
‘Not as traumatised as that poor little puppy. ‘Rebel’ we called him: he was a cheeky little thing.’
One of the women had frozen mid-lunch. Her plastic fork hovering between her microwavable noodles and her awestruck mouth. I added a detail that probably sounded like overkill - but it was a  detail of truth.
‘And how unlucky was Rebel? To be mown down on such a quiet day of the year.’
The plastic fork was still hovering.
‘But I suppose people still need to drive about on Christmas Day.’

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Trevelyan's Corn'

I always feel a little sorry for National Trust volunteers – in much the same way that I feel sorry for ardent royalists who camp out for royal events and proclaim undying ‘love’ for the royal family – very rich people they don’t know and who don’t know them. 

Each public room at the National Trust’s Wallington Hall – the home of the Trevelyan family – had a tweeded retiree bursting to tell us fascinating details about the d├ęcor and which Victorian notables had swaggered around it. I knew without being told that the wallpaper was by William Morris – that man certainly got around and I’ve always admired his knack of concealing the joins when he papered – something I’ve never mastered.

I observed to the elderly guide in the central hall that one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings depicting the history of Northumberland took a lot from Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Work’ - painted a full decade earlier. She smiled and moved on to recite her script to some loud Americans.

The name Trevelyan, though, was troubling me. I spoke to my mother that evening and she sang a few lines of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ down the phone - reminding me that the Irish convict transported in the song ‘stole Trevelyan’s corn’. Wallington, we realised, had been home to Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British administrator who famously described the Irish Famine as:

‘an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’

‘So what will you do?’ my mother asked, ‘Will you go again and mention their oversight in the background information? Maybe send them an email.’

I thought about this and realised that either action would be a very English response and would be politely rebuffed, or passed on. I recalled a dispute I once had with Maude – during  which potatoes were used as missiles. This memory led to my decision to employ direct action and involve my daughters who would be simultaneously thrilled and reminded of their heritage. 

‘Operation Wake Up Wallington’ began to take shape. 

Aurora produced a storyboard, a plan and an equipment checklist.

Backpack 1 (me): ukelele, potatoes.
Backpack 2 (Aurora): potatoes, water pistol.
Backpack 3 (Casta): potatoes, water pistol, harmonica.

Mission Plan:      
Enter Wallington Hall.
Smile and act 'normal'. Take leaflet.
Move through rooms, walking normally and not giggling. 
Dad asks question about wallpaper and looks really interested.
Arrive in central hall.
Wait until central hall is empty (apart from old lady in tweed).
Dad talks to old lady. Girls get out as many potatoes as they can hold.
Dad gets out of way. Aurora (best aimer) throws potatoes at old lady (not face).
Dad gets out ukulele and stands in centre of hall (best sound).
Dad sings ‘Fields of Athenry’ and shouts the line about Trevelyan.
Casta (worst aimer and loudest shouter) uses noise and potatoes to repel all those who try to  enter until Dad has finished song (or security people appear).
Run away.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Warp Factor 9

My father was always dapper when he left the house at the weekend. His suits were tailored by Harry Davies in Moss Side. Saturday morning would see him shaving, polishing his shoes and slicking back his hair with Brylcreem. Before leaving he would brush any lint from his suit – using a clothes brush which hung on a little wooden plaque in the hall. The plaque was next to a small font of Holy Water, but Dad would pass on the chance to bless himself. Going back through the house, he would leave by the back door and say the same thing over his shoulder every time:


I have never been fond of science fiction. Even as a child I would only watch the likes of ‘Star Trek’ when there was absolutely nothing else on and then for amusement only. One of the most amusing of the many amusing conventions of ‘Star Trek’ was the way in which the members of the crew were thrown about when an impact occurred. This phenomenon is referred to online as ‘Star Trek Shake’ – which makes it sound like a dance craze for geeks which, if it existed, would surely make onlookers weep  tears of pity until their eyes smarted.

All reserves of the limited acting skill available on the Star Trek set were called up and drained as the ‘actors’ threw themselves around and grabbed hold of space-age consoles with flashing lights and vibrating joysticks. All this occurred while an emergency klaxon blared - as though to state the bleeding obvious. Spock would wobble ever so slightly and say something smug, before reserve jet boosts would kick in and propel the craft back to safety. I imagine that dustpans could then be deployed to sweep up any debris.

On an average Saturday night throughout the 1970’s my father would return home and recreate this scene. He would move around the building as though it had just been hit by a meteorite. He would turn the radio volume to ‘11’ to alert the entire neighbourhood to the emergency. In lieu of illuminated space consoles he would cling to items of furniture. Undeterred by the debilitating effect of warp factor 9, he would flip his congealed dinner into a frying pan and cook it until he was sure it was piping hot. This would usually involve the creation of enough acrid smoke to trigger the smoke alarms of our next door neighbour.

The burnt offering would be washed down with lemonade. The smoke would clear, the craft would steady and Galway’s answer to James T Kirk would climb the stairs to recover from another exhausting journey into outer space. The Captain’s retirement would be signalled by the loud cascade of loose change from his pockets into a bright yellow Holsten Pils ashtray on his dressing table.

Bernadette asked me yesterday if I could think of any items that could go into Dad’s room at the nursing home - to "help him feel more at home"

I asked if we still had the ashtray.