Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Esme, where's your troosers?

We celebrated Maude’s birthday last night. Most of the usual crowd was there. Esme was the first to arrive.

‘You’ve forgotten your trousers’ Maude observed. I looked down and realised that Esme was bravely wearing a ‘shirt-dress’. Maude was easily distracted as Esme proffered a beautifully wrapped birthday gift. The women communicated for a few minutes in a language made up entirely of giggles and high pitched squeals as they admired elements of each other’s outfit and agonised over which cocktail to begin the evening with.

Pierre and Heidi turned up next. Pierre slid into our booth with his usual ease, kissed Maude and straightened his new glasses. I don’t think that he was trying to draw attention to them, but he did anyway.

‘I love your new specs, Pierre.’

Pierre beamed, removed the eyewear and began to explain how he acquired them.

‘Well I was in this thrift shop back in Montreal. I actually went in for some toothpicks, but my Dad was challenged by security for making an inappropriate comment to one of the cashiers. So, anyway, I had some time to kill and started trying on these old glasses and, would you believe I found my exact prescription in these and they were only….99 cents!’

Pierre replaced the glasses and looked at everyone around the table – to illustrate that they did indeed hold lenses with his exact prescription.

‘That’s amazing!’ exclaimed Maude. ‘They do make you look like a lesbian though.’

After several hours of chat and of cocktails taken, Larry appeared.

‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ joked Maude. ’You look really familiar.’

Larry hadn’t visited to see the baby.

‘Helmut cycled over,' noted the new mother.

‘Well, he was in the area anyway,’ retorted Larry. ’You’ve seen one baby, you’ve seen them all.’

‘Well you haven’t seen ours – so how would you know?’

Larry then spent the usual hour or so defending his neglectful ways and louche lifestyle with remarks along the lines of:

‘Well it’s just the way I am’
‘I’m still your friend.’
‘I’ve been really busy out partying and meeting new people.’
‘The ukulele tuition is really taking off and I’m teaching Alan Shearer some tunes to liven up his after-dinner speaking.’

Maude suggested that Larry performed some minor 'tweaks' on his life:

‘Get a proper job’
‘Learn to drive’
‘Marry Dink and have children.’
‘Buy a house’

Larry was touched by Maude’s concern and the amount of thought she had put into her advice. He then muttered something and left the table. I realised a few minutes later – when he retook his place with glass in hand - that the mutter was an offer to buy a round of drinks.

Esme then squeezed into a space between Larry and I which was far too small for her.

‘Room for a small one?’ she asked. She turned to speak to me with a buttock firmly on Larry’s knee. She smiled at me and then opened her mouth to speak.

‘Oh, I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say to you.’ It was then Esme ‘realised’ that she was sat on Larry.

‘Oh. look who I’m sat on! What a coincidence.’

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hats off to the City of Culture

The Arts Council is still conspiring to get rid of me. I recently dropped my mobile phone in the bath and they sent a replacement that looked as though it had been made by Fisher Price: I took this to be the ‘naughty phone’. I thought that being seen using this phone would be ignominy and punishment enough.

Then they sent me to Liverpool.

The all staff love-in for this year was in the ‘City of Culture’ elect. As we drove into the city through Edge Hill I was heartened by the fact that most of the buildings were boarded up. ‘Marvellous’, I thought, ‘Liverpool’s closed, we’ll have to go home.’ My optimism was premature. We moved closer to the city centre and I could see shady, ragged figures shuffling through the streets – Liverpool was, in fact, ‘open’. The Arts Council staff had been booked into a range of swanky hotels around the city. The North East staff, by contrast, had been singled out for some perceived wrongdoing and were booked into what I can only regard as the ‘naughty hotel' – The Adelphi.

The Adelphi was the hotel featured in that early example of the docusoap. Angry scousers screamed and railed at all around them on the slightest provocation… and sometimes the customers were quite cross as well. The woman who gave me my keys was the manager herself ‘off of the telly.’ I recognised her, but didn’t mention it – she still seemed volatile.

My hotel room door was a portal into another era – an era in which stains were left on carpets and bedding, mysterious hands rattled the handles of connecting doors in the middle of the night and bathrooms had rings around their baths that were robust enough to hold mugs of tea. The windows were so dirty, that not a feature of the cityscape outside could be discerned and that was the only positive I could find to mention on the comments card.

In the circumstances of an all staff event, I was glad of a room – even a squalid one – in which I could hide. I’m not usually so antisocial, but I was scared by the hats.

The hat shock began when we were waiting for the bus to the big social event on the first night. One of the regional office grandees was obviously feeling the need to illustrate that he still has the instincts of an artist (he recently blurted out ‘I’m a poet you know’ during an appraisal with Original Susan – she didn’t know whether it was a come-on or a cry for help). He had chosen to do this with an odd grey felt chapeau – which gave him the look of a ginger gendarme. I think he was going for some kind of 80’s indie revival look.

On the second day of the event, there were lots of people shuffling down to breakfast with hangovers and tales of going to bed at 4am after a ‘wild night’. I smiled and forgave their exaggeration – they clearly didn’t get away from home much. If an evening of cheap buffet and middle-aged people ‘on the decks’ qualifies as ‘wild’, then life truly is elsewhere.

After a refreshingly meaty lunch on the second day, we were addressed by our national director. He reiterated his vision for the organisation. I surprised my colleagues by contributing wholeheartedly to our table discussion. I thought that this would pass the time more quickly. Original Susan nudged me at one point. I paused, wondering if my enthusiasm had reached an embarrassing level. She was, instead, drawing my attention to another eye-catching hat. At the neighbouring table, a man sat with his chin in his hand in a contemplative pose. He wore round tortoiseshell glasses, a donkey jacket and topped off the whole arts liberal caricature with a beret at a jaunty angle. My contribution to the flipchart 'thought shower' ceased at that point.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wait a minute Mr Postman!

So, rogue postmen do exist. We received an abused item of post in a polythene evidence bag from the Royal Mail – complete with a letter of profound corporate apology. The letter had been filleted by our postman (we think it had contained a voucher) and was the first item to be returned as part of ‘an ongoing investigation’. The case is in court, so we will have to wait for more information on what else the thieving swine took. He had been our postman for several years. Maude thought him very agreeable – as he remembered us from our last address a few miles away and would ask how she was. He would thoughtfully come into the porch (we rarely lock our doors in The Villas) if a parcel was too large for the postbox. Not for him, the leaving of a card causing the inconvenience of a trip to the sorting office. He was more interested in the massive inconvenience resulting from the theft of valuable post.

Since Aurora's birth we have excised several friends who failed to acknowledge the event with an appropriate gift. Now it seems we might have been hasty. Postie has probably had a bumper couple of weeks at the car boot sale – or on Ebay – with much profit made from cuddly toys and baby blankets.

I have begun to wonder what else he might have purloined in his 5 years as our postman. Maybe there was a letter (and cheque) from Archie & Leap – acknowledging their deficiencies and their indebtedness. Perhaps that literary agent did write back on receipt of my novel – with a record advance and an apology for not recognising my greatness earlier.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Des, Burt and me.

The registration of a birth is an old-fashioned process. An appointment is required and a lengthy series of questions are posed by a person who takes the role of registrar very seriously. A sign on the wall warns that the giving of any false information in the circumstances is PERJURY. I was quite reassured by this formality and looked forward to getting a piece of parchment confirming Aurora’s place in the world.

I was a few minutes early for the appointment and the reception office had not actually opened for business. I could see figures moving around behind the frosted window. Women were wishing each other 'good morning' and already discussing what they had brought in for lunch. I could hear a fridge door being opened and closed as the exciting lunch items were stowed away for the morning.

The office opened at 9.30am. I took a seat and waited for the wall clock to tick loudly around to opening time. When it did, I excitedly got up. I was to meet the registrar and our daughter was about to become a citizen of the borough. I approached the counter as a middle-aged woman slid back the window. The hatch looked like one of those serving windows from the 1970’s and the woman who revealed herself had heyday makeup that complemented the look. Sky-blue eyeshadow beamed out from behind large bi-focals. She adjusted her glasses slightly and focussed on me.

‘I have an appointment with the registrar.’ I was formal, but enthusiastic.

I expected her response to be something like: ‘What’s the name please?’, or ‘Oh, yes, please take a seat sir’. When her glasses were at the right angle to survey me through her bi-focals, she said:

‘Is it to register a death?’

I was disappointed by this.

‘No,’ I said weakly, ‘a birth’.

‘Oh’ she said barely containing her surprise. She turned to her colleague and raised her eyebrows before turning an insincere smile on me.

‘You’d better take a seat then.‘

She slid the window back into place and I watched her retreat to her desk through the frosted pane.

The waiting room was empty save for me, but I still waited a full 20 minutes. I presumed that the registrar was refilling her fountain pens, or just making me wait to emphasise her importance and the gravity of the registration process. While I waited I felt increasingly insecure as an older father - I obviously looked more like a morose widower than a new dad. This gloom wasn’t lifted by the conversation I could overhear from behind the frosted glass.

‘Des O’Connor - well into his seventies. He’ll probably be dead by the time that kid goes to big school.'

There was a long pause here - during which a ringing phone was steadfastly ignored.

‘Aye. Burt Bacharach, he’s another one. I saw him in the paper. He’s ancient – he’ll be lucky if he sees that kid get to nursery'.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sing the team tune

The team assembled on the sofas today. It was the last time we would do this with our ‘manager’ – as she finishes work with us at the end of the week.

I sat beside our new girl: Anna. She seemed a little nervous – so I smiled reassuringly at her. She scared me a little last week when she used the plural 'knifes', but I know how intimidating it can be in a new office with an established team.

We took turns to share with the team our planned movements and meetings for the week. There was a lot of enthusiasm on the other sofa – as our ‘manager’ was buoyed by the prospect of having a whole new team of people to tell about the exciting things she had in her diary. Original Susan, for her part, was buoyed by the prospect of a quieter office - with even later starts and even earlier finishes.

I related my plans for the week in my usual monotone and all eyes then turned on Anna. The ‘manager’ looked at Anna in the hope that she would revive the mood. Anna overcompensated.

‘My boyfriend works for an American company you know and they begin the week with a ‘team song’. It’s really brilliant and gets them all in a smashing mood for the week.’

There was a heavy pause and I expected our ‘manager’ to dismiss this nonsense and emphasise to Anna that this was a serious meeting and that the team protocol demanded the bald recitation of the facts of meetings and plans for the week.

I was disappointed by the team leader’s disconcertingly shrill reaction.

‘That sounds brilliant! What is it?’

It transpired that Anna’s boyfriend and the rest of his team were forced to begin the week with a kind of corporate humiliation that I did not think existed beyond the Arts Council’s annual get-together and that their teambuilding anthem was ‘Zip-a-dee-do-dah’.

Our team meeting then became a discussion of which songs would befit our ethos and send us out to deliver culture to the masses with a spring in our steps. I resolutely stopped listening and focussed instead on the throbbing pain of my big toe. The sensation was caused by my resurgent fungal nail infection and was a welcome distraction.

There was some noise coming at me from the opposite sofa and I realised that the ‘manager’ was trying to engage me in the debate.

‘Come on! Join in. A team song! Any suggestions?’

I took a sip of coffee and solemnly closed my diary.

‘How about ‘Every Day is Like Sunday’.'

Thursday, August 30, 2007

All Donations Gratefully Accepted

Our neighbourhood has many elderly residents. The area even has one of those ‘Elderly People Crossing’ road signs. I was unnerved by this at first – thinking that I had ended up in a dormitory suburb ‘as it were, for life.’

With old people though, come old customs and manners. This is no bad thing - especially when one of the customs involves the giving of money.

The other day Maude and I took our first promenade with the new baby – Aurora. It was a sunny day so we did a circuit around the leafy, blooming lanes of ‘The Villas’. Maude’s mother, Augusta, walked 30 yards ahead and used her natural authority to divert any traffic or dog walkers from our path.

An elderly lady was busy dead-heading roses in her garden as we passed.

‘Oh, a new baby!’ She exclaimed and leaned precariously over her garden gate to catch a glimpse of the infant.

Maude proudly pushed back the awning on the pram to reveal Aurora’s sleepy face.

‘Oh, she’s absolutely gorgeous,’ continued the old lady. ’So good to see some new blood in The Villas – the next generation, as it were. Wait there.’ She then disappeared into her kitchen. Maude was slightly perturbed. Reappearing moments later, the lady rummaged in her purse.

I realised what was happening and whispered some reassurance.

‘It’s an old custom darling – some older people will give the baby a small amount of money for good luck.’

The old lady reached across under Maude’s watchful eye and pressed a shiny pound coin into Aurora’s tiny hand.

‘Good luck!’ She smiled and returned to her gardening chores. Maude thanked her and we moved on.

I had not seen the giving of money to strangers’ children for many years, but I was heartened to see the warm glow in the old lady’s cheeks as she made the gesture.

I have since resolved to brighten the days of as many of our senior neighbours as possible: early morning walks around the full extent of The Villas (including culs-de-sac) have been highly profitable. Hovering around the trolley return station at Tesco has also paid dividends – the elderly shopper is very likely to be easily distracted after retrieving their pound coin and before you know it another coin has dropped into Aurora’s university fund and the cockles of another old heart have been warmed.

A well-timed saunter past the post office as it opened brought in a remarkable pram haul of £7.59, some Werther's Originals and an Out-Patient appointment card.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The wind that shakes the barley water

Someone told me that our local supermarket had a goodwill policy of offering new mothers a free shop if their waters happened to break on the premises. Maude is 3 days away from what has been described as her ‘outside due date’ – whatever that means. She is profoundly bored at home, so yesterday she took me up on the offer of a trip to the supermarket. I used the subterfuge of stocking up on a few of those last minute essentials for the hospital trip – snack bars and magazines, for me.

I thought it best to hover in aisles with supermarket staff in them. That way, the breaking waters would be witnessed and there could be no question of our qualification for the complimentary trolley dash.

‘Why have you taken over 10 minutes to choose flapjacks? You always eat those weird seeded ones there. You are a creature of habit. Just get them and we’ll go.’ Maude didn't seem to be enjoying the expedition.

I suggested that we move on to the alcohol aisles (remembering that those areas are always patrolled by vigilant staff).

‘This could be our last chance to get something to wet the baby’s head darling.’

Maude viewed me with mild suspicion – nothing new – and began to move, slowly. I helped her along from behind – massaging her back in line with the pregnancy help-books I had been reading. Maude had marked the most germane sections for me and left the books piled on my desk – together with a multiple choice test paper for me to fill in at my leisure (it’s so stimulating being married to a teacher).

‘If you don’t stop that I’ll use the last bit of strength in my body to send you flying into those shelves. Those shelves, there, with all the tins.’

I gathered that this wasn’t quite the right time to employ my new massage expertise. Maude joined me in the wine aisle a few minutes later. I’d taken the brief opportunity to gather a bewildering array of champagne, in the hope that we could linger over the choice and improve our chances.

‘That one will do.’ Maude grabbed the bottle with the prettiest label and began to shuffle towards the checkouts. As we were passing the soft drinks and cordials I was beginning to believe that the mission was doomed. Maude reached for her favourite flavour of barley water, but she suddenly stopped short and held the shelf for support. I was heartened and felt sure that we had a result. I raised my voice:

‘Darling, are you ok? Is it… it time? Oh god, imagine going into labour at the supermarket of all places, who’d believe it?’

A security guard looked slightly intrigued and approached from the end of the aisle. Maude remained silent until he was within five feet of her.

‘I wouldn’t come any closer,’ she suggested and I now felt pretty confident that we would soon be filling a family trolley with every product I could find from the ‘Finest’ range.

‘Just checking that everything is ok, madam. Would you like me to find a seat for you?’

A long, pregnant, silence ensued and time seemed to stand still as we waited for a response.

As the Tannoy system announced ‘a large range of bakery products at very reduced prices in aisle 7’, Maude broke wind with a volume I have never before witnessed and wouldn't care to experience again.

‘Oh,' she sighed, 'that’s much better.’ She then placed the champagne in my basket and made her way briskly to the car park.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Look out kid.....

Every time I leave the house at the moment, Maude reminds me to drive carefully. Whenever I leave the house for work, she states ‘I hope you’re still driving carefully.’ I tell her that, of course I am driving with absolute care.

‘I rarely get to ton-up any more dear’, I said yesterday morning when this ritual took place. ‘I have stopped overtaking on bends while sending text messages – all in the past, that kind of thing. I have even started wearing my seatbelt.’

Maude usually adopts her stern 'teacher face' at this point – the one she uses when trying to outstare a spirited teenager at school.

‘You know what I mean. You wouldn’t want to leave me a widow and this poor child (points at bump) an orphan.’

I usually do my mock-chided face at this point and she lightens up, safe in the knowledge that she has put the notion of safe driving at the top of my limited mental agenda. She does, however, have detailed knowledge of my driving habits.

‘What about the flash cards?’

Last year I watched a Bob Dylan documentary and was quite inspired by the film clip for ‘Subterrannean Homesick Blues’. Like most Dylan songs, it is a bit top-heavy with lyrics, but he whips through them briskly and helps his audience with an armful of placards. He drops or flings aside each card when the line is complete. I spent several hours in the garage composing a similar set of message boards – all with a motoring application. Maude flouts the highway code by frequently using her horn 'as a rebuke' (accompanied by some regrettable gestures). My card system is designed, instead, to encourage fellow drivers to reconsider their driving style.

I travel along the A1 a great deal (apart from the occasions on which I am forced to go cross-country. The A1 often grinds to a standstill at peak times and I am forced to pull myself off to avoid an unhealthy build up of frustration). I find that I often end up sat parallel to a motorist who has recently cut me up, changed lane without indication, or has a mobile phone clamped to his or her ear. At such times I have my handy stock of clearly stencilled flash cards. The most useful cards read as follows:

(for handheld mobile phone users) : QUIT YOUR JIBBER JABBER!
(for non-indicators) : GIVE US A CLUE!
(for boy racers) : GROW UP!
(for emergencies) : YOU'LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE COPPER!

‘Very rarely used, dear', I reassured Maude, 'and never in anything above second gear.’

Maude put on her coat and kissed me on the cheek, seemingly happy with this renewed attention to safety. She stalled halfway through the front door.

‘I haven’t forgotten about your replica gun.’

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Last Night I Dreamt....

Maude and I share everything – hopes, fears, dreams. She asked me why I hadn’t slept very well on Sunday night and was even more tired than usual for the start of the working week. I explained that I had been distressed by a bad dream. ‘What?’ she asked 'a proper nightmare?’.

‘Worse than that,’ I answered.

I explained that my dream had featured my finally striking up a friendship with Morrissey. (I once declined an invitation to a party in Manchester – unaware that The Smiths were there. This has obviously stayed with me). I went on to describe how Morrissey had brewed his best tea for me. He had poured it from a teapot swaddled in a tea cosy bearing the combative image of Pat Phoenix and then served it in China cups. The cups chimed beautifully when replaced in their saucers. We had lovely muffins, freshly toasted on Morrissey's open fire – all the while talking about our favourite books, the highlights of ‘kitchen sink’ cinema and trying to quantify just how much Manchester had to answer for. The phone kept ringing and he fielded calls from Nancy Sinatra and Alan Bennett – explaining that he had a far more important new friend and it was highly unlikely that he would need their company any more. It was then that the dream took a dark turn. Morrissey had just asked for my help.

‘Please please PLEASE! have a look at the songs for my new album – I’m really not too sure about them.’

Morrissey then crossed the room and rifled through a leather satchel. He produced a large scrapbook with the legend ‘My New Songs’ stencilled on the cover. He fumbled a little, put on his reading glasses and made to return to me at the hearth. My second muffin was very nearly done to perfection. Morrissey’s face now wore an expression of profound relief. He had obviously been carrying a great deal of worry about the quality of the new songs and saw in me a kindred spirit - someone who would add the necessary polish to get the songs to recordable quality.

Morrissey’s body was then struck by a terrible spasm. His hands dishevelled his cardigan and clutched at his chest. He then fell, dead, on the deep-pile carpet.

Of course I awoke at this point.

Maude looked unmoved by the events of my dream.

‘I tend to dream about family and friends,’ observed Maude. ‘You know, the people who matter to me…’

‘I dream about you as well, dear.’

Maude looked unconvinced and continued.

‘I dream about the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.’

I pointed out that I was still upset and she really should keep her threats to herself.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mother Knows Best

Maude and I attended our first ‘Parentcraft’ class last night. Maude was quite looking forward to it – she had done a great deal of research and wanted to participate fully.

The midwife introduced herself and was impressively warm and welcoming.

‘That’s Carol,’ whispered Maude. ’She’s our midwife.’

I smiled and Carol suggested that all the couples introduced themselves to the group – since we would be sharing the sessions for several weeks.

The introductions began. Couples squeezed each other’s hands, exchanged smiles, gave their names, detailed how pregnant they were and where they lived. Carol thanked each couple in turn and made everyone feel at their ease – especially the men who shuffled in their seats and fidgeted with the change in their pockets. Our turn arrived and Carol glanced over. I drew breath and shifted slightly in my seat. Before I could say anything Maude took over:

‘Hello Everyone! I’m Maude! I am 36 weeks pregnant and I will be having my baby at the Queen Elizabeth.’

There was a finality at the end of this statement, so Carol smiled again and moved to the next couple. I tapped Maude’s arm gently.

‘Well, they don’t really need to know who you are, do they?’

Maude ‘whispered’ this, so it was audible to the entire room. A diminutive father beside me sniggered. I looked closely at him. He was wearing a waistcoat which made him look like a snooker player and his sideburns were shaped to emphasise his individuality. I began to think that I didn’t really want to surrender my anonymity to this group anyway.

Carol took the group through the 3 stages of pregnancy. Maude answered when Carol asked if anyone knew the names of those stages. Maude also chipped in with various technical terms and suggested at one point that one of Carol’s diagrams was, in fact, the wrong way up.

Carol persevered, but began to offer her questions exclusively to the other side of the room. Maude was undaunted and fired her answers at the back of Carol’s head – repeating them until she turned around and was forced to acknowledge that Maude was right.

‘Maude's being doing her research, hasn't she?’ Carol forced a smile.’If I’m feeling under the weather next week, I'm sure she can take yous all through the rest of the course.’

I swiftly fell off my chair to distract Maude, before she worsened the situation by correcting Carol’s grammar.

Friday, June 22, 2007

In case of picnics

I was in the bank the other day in Seaburn. An elderly man was at the counter in front of me. He was busy rifling through the pockets of his raincoat. I gathered that he was looking for the origin of his errand: a chequebook perhaps, or some cash bound in an elastic band. He then began to produce all manner of items unrelated in any way to banking. It felt as though I was witnessing a performance by the oldest and worst magician in the world.

Firstly, there came a long piece of string. It struck me that old men do indeed revert to being little boys. What possible use could there be for a piece of string in an old man’s coat pocket on a trip to the shops? Unless he was working as the best disguised assassin since The Jackal and the string was actually a garrotte. A running commentary was inevitable.

‘Oh, sorry Pet. It’s in here somewhere….the doings.’

The next item to appear in the slow motion sleight of hand was a handful of paper. I could see crumpled shopping lists, written in an elderly hand. They were in exasperated capitals and I guessed that this man wasn’t the most efficient messenger in the neighbourhood. He turned and was slightly startled by the steadily growing queue behind him.

‘ Oh, I do apologise. Must find this thing to pay in. I know you’re all busy people...... I do beg your pardon.’

I felt uncharacteristically charitable from this point on. The lone counter person smiled an unconcerned smile. She looked well used to working to the clock of the elderly in the area – all of whom seemed to have retired from everything, including Greenwich Mean Time. I was in no hurry to get back to the office – I never am. The ‘show and tell’ continued and the old man began investigating the deep raincoat pocket on his left side. I heard the rustle of cellophane and then, ‘before my very eyes’, the man was showing the room a small, wrapped set of plastic cutlery.

‘They are a good idea, you know. I carry them in case of picnics.’

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Vision vs Hindsight

I was in Nottingham on Monday – for a network meeting of all the people from around the country who have ‘ended up’ doing the same job as me. The location was Sherwood Forest and we met in a quaint hut in the woods. The national director appeared to bless us with his vision for the future of the organisation. He tends to carry his glasses on the top of his head – like a little tiara.

So, the boss thought aloud for our benefit – occasionally closing his eyes for moments of intense thought. He took us on an imaginary tour of the country, sharing his ideas and cascading knowledge as he went. My colleagues smiled - some even raised their hands excitedly and asked exquisitely pertinent questions which he enjoyed answering in the most candid, sharing detail.

His swooping, visionary tour came to an end with a flourish, as he closed his eyes tightly and uttered some inspired generalisations on the impact we all have on the lives and ‘journeys’ of so many young people and how proud we should all be of ourselves. He opened his eyes and smiled at the assembled arc of his foot-soldiers. He gasped theatrically and drank in the happy reassured smiles of most of those gathered. It was as though he had been ‘channelling’ the spirit of the organisation and he was now delivered back to ordinary consciousness. His smile faded with a question from the floor.

‘What about the north?’

The national director’s ‘tour’ had stopped somewhere around Stoke.

‘Oh,’ he stuttered. ‘The North, indeed.’ He then closed his eyes once more – as though trying to summon up a rarely consulted spirit guide to the mysteries of the northern outposts of the organisation.

‘Rest assured that everything in the north is being looked at. There are various possible models on the table and you will all be consulted as the consideration process is progressed.’

The northerners didn’t bother pressing the issue. It being Monday, they were all wondering where the nearest newsagent might be – it was jobs day in The Guardian.

A taxi whisked the national director away and we all changed our clothes for the afternoon’s outdoor activities. I had signed up for ‘Go Ape’, after a cursory look at the options. I signed a disclaimer and then found myself stepping into a harness. A sinewed outdoor type tightened a few straps and we were given a pep-talk which stressed the importance of staying attached to the trees at all times. We then began an assault course in the treetops – including zip wires and tarzan jumps. I run through the woods every other day and think of myself as reasonably fit. I soon realised that apes use their upper body quite a lot more than I do. Aching though I was, my judgement was impaired by the actions of the people ahead of me. They were students (2 girls and one boy) who were taking a break between exams. I gathered this from their shrill discussion of dissertations while they danced effortlessly across precarious high wires.

We reached the highest point of the course. All the challenges on the course were graded from ‘easy’ to ‘extreme’. From the high point there was an ‘easy’ route – with a simple rope bridge. There was also an ‘extreme’ option, which involved climbing up a wooden tower to make a ‘tarzan jump’ into a rope wall. The rope wall was visible to all the other participants and passing nature trailers – it could be described as the finale of the course. The students skipped through the ‘extreme’ challenge and I found myself climbing the wooden tower to compete. A ranger was on hand and he had just talked the last student through her descent. I was fine - I’d absorbed the instructions. I strapped myself on and silenced the ranger’s urge to instruct me with a confident ‘thumbs up’. He smiled and let me carry on. I jumped.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that someone of my height would have been instructed to lean a little from the tower before jumping. I jumped on the spot and the steel ‘vine’ stayed more or less vertical. I landed heavily on my backside on a wooden platform amid gasps from my watching colleagues. The spring-loaded winch then kicked in and viciously dragged me away. I was spun around to face the tower and realised that I was going to lead with my bruised rear when I touched down somewhere in the rope wall. This position also gave me the splendid opportunity to watch my audience – some were peeping through their hands, several had stopped on their high wires to take in the sight (one had managed to maintain her balance while using a camera), most were turning to take the ‘easy’ route.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

You can't hide your famine eyes

Maude is now in the habit of mentioning my physical attributes in the context of our forthcoming child.

‘I hope the baby doesn’t get your big nose,’ for instance.

I know that this is well-meant and I try to not let it trouble me.

‘Yes dear, I hope not too.’

Lately though I do tend to leave the living room and busy myself in the kitchen during the TV commercial breaks. If I forget myself and linger, Maude’s gaze wanders and I can feel her looking me up and down. It makes me feel like an old nag at a horse fair, at the very end of the day’s business.

‘I do hope that the baby isn’t preternaturally tall either….like you. Somewhere in between my normal height and your excessive height would be ideal. I do hope that my genes win out.’

Another trait of my family which has often fascinated Maude is our weary-looking eyes. She dropped many hints when we first dated that perhaps I needed to have my eyes tested - that perhaps I ought to wear glasses. She then met the family, realised we all had ‘Deputy Dog’ eyes and quizzed me about this particularly unfortunate part of my genetic heritage. I suggested that this was just a throwback to The Famine. I also joked that - however indirectly – it was attributable to her community ('your lot', I think was the term I used).

‘Oh yes, we took all your potatoes didn’t we. Don’t remember all the details – I was very young.’

Lately, the ‘Famine Eyes’ have become less an object of banter and more a focus of genuine concern.

‘Seriously though. Freakishly tall, with a big nose and famine eyes. You can explain all that to the child when it is ostracised to its own corner of the playground and pelted with bits of packed lunch. ‘

I suggested that our genetic makeup could well fuse perfectly. We could create an ‘individual’. This individual could indeed inherit some of my burdens, this is true. They could also be blessed, nonetheless, with Maude’s forthright approach. This individual would deal frankly with all challenges in its way – even ‘famine eyes.’ Maude extracted the flattery from this theory and began to smile proudly. I was in my pyjamas and barefoot at the time. Her smiled faded as she looked down and began to scrutinise the imperfections of my feet....

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Osama bin Ginger

A friend of mine has developed a habit of travelling to dangerous places around the world for ‘holidays’. Over the last five years his passport has been stamped in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Lebanon.

Born and raised in Newcastle, Tig never felt part of the local clique of ordinary boys. He cultivated more refined tastes in dress and culture after watching ‘Brideshead Revisited’ as a boy. He took things a little too far when he wandered to the cornershop in a smoking jacket, while trailing a teddy bear. It was during the subsequent month in traction at Newcastle General Hospital that he was first exposed to David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He then formulated less conspicuous strategy for the acquisition of refinement (I have often thought that only the bedbound would be likely to hang around long enough for Omar Sharif to come into view across the desert).

Foreign travel became Tig's new obsession and not for him the clichéd stopovers of the Grand Tour – T E Lawrence would have balked at such comfort and indulgence. Insurgency, the threat of kidnapping and civil unrest became the big selling points in Tig’s imaginary holiday brochure. (Tig has always claimed to ‘blend in’ with the local community when he goes on his travels. I am still unconvinced by this: he is pale, ginger and stands at 6 feet 7 inches.)

I was recently in his company when he was asked about his predilection for staying in unstable countries.

‘Well it’s a bit like when one was a child and mater would tell one not to touch something because it was hot. One just had to touch it..... didn’t one?’

The fazed enquirer paused for a moment and then simply said: ‘No’.

Tig is also in the habit of returning to Tyneside bearing some suggestion of his latest odyssey. I waited for him recently at the bar of our local, just after his return from Pakistan. The pub has a large glass facade looking out onto the Tyne. It was a summer evening and I had an uninterrupted view through the hazy evening sunshine all the way up the hill to Byker. I could see a speck moving on the brow of the hill and watched it intently as it grew and moved closer. A shimmering figure became discernible and strode closer with some purpose. I recognised the gait – it was Tig.

Another 30 seconds of watching and I could make out that he was wearing some kind of pale cloak. The cloak wafted in the wind as he pushed the button at a pedestrian crossing on a main road. He crossed the road and endured some barracking from a passing car, casting his cloak over his shoulder in a gesture of disdain for the barbarians within. He was now in the home strait for the pub and I was nearing the head of the queue to be served. The pub gives a panoramic view of the river and approaching friends, but is more or less opaque to those looking in.

Tig’s full ensemble was now visible: sandals, a goat-herder’s shawl, a crook and a Pashtun hat. He looked like he was on the catwalk for the Taliban’s spring collection. I edged towards the open fire escape. As I stepped out into the glare of daylight, I heard the pub’s warm Tyneside reception for the returning traveller.

‘What’ll it be Osama?’

Monday, April 30, 2007

What's the frequency Desmond?

Maude has insisted that the house be reordered, in readiness for the imminent arrival of our first child. Gone is the office – it is now the nursery. Gone is my chest of drawers, it is now the baby clothes store. Gone, even, is the piano.

My piano practice now takes place in the garage. This isn’t quite as bleak as it sounds, as I am surrounded by many of my displaced possessions and it feels quite homely in there. As I was playing the blues in there yesterday, I could hear a voice coming from the driveway. I pushed the button on the electronic garage door control fob which hangs from one of my belt loops. I enjoyed the transient sensation of control. As the door began to rise, a pair of dusty knee-pads came into view and I knew that it was Desmond from next door (he’s a carpet-fitter).

‘Been pushed out then I see...’

We chatted about his own gradual removal to the garage, as his family expanded. He made a few suggestions about the modifications I could make to create a ‘home from home’..... in a building four feet from my own home.

‘I’ve got a loo in mine…. and a little wash-basin. Me and Celia have walkie-talkies as well, just in case something crops up.’

I could see the radio antenna sticking out of the pocket on his combat trousers. I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to follow the same path as Desmond.

‘That sounded really good, though.’

I played on and Desmond began to ‘drum’ with his hands on the top of the dog kennel (the dog wasn't in there - she has the run of the house).

‘I used to be in a punk band, you know.’ Desmond had a far away look in his eye, as his mind drifted on a wave of nostalgia. ’We were rubbish.’

Desmond laughed and carried on drumming. He kept solid time and the dog kennel produced quite a good sound. I played on and turned the blues into something with a bit more boogie-woogie. Desmond noticed that my toolbox was within reach – its stock of screws and nails visible under the clear perspex cover. He alternated between it and the kennel – the jangling screws creating a passable approximation to the sound of a high-hat.

‘We sometimes get together in Big Alan’s shed down on the allotments, you know. You should come down. He’s got everything in there – amps, drum kit, guitars. He’s talking about rigging up a four-track with solar power.’

I must admit I was enjoying this jamming session with Desmond and felt quite attracted to the idea of a haven in the allotments with a group of kindred spirits. Who would know? We could even record something and send someone.

As the crescendo of my boogie-woogie rose, a shrill disembodied voice entered the garage and a red flashing light was visible in Desmond’s trousers.

‘Desmond! Do you copy? I can’t reach the All-Bran!’

Monday, April 23, 2007

Golden Slumbers

It was Larry’s birthday on Saturday and some of his friends decided to come together for an appropriate celebration.

The slumber party began at teatime. Maude and I arrived at Larry’s lodgings with a tasteful something as a gift. A queue had already gathered on the staircase. Guests had thrown themselves into the ‘theme’ and were all in their sleepwear – lots of funny fluffy slippers, Disney T-shirts and pyjamas.We’d thought it wiser to opt out – I wore my navy Paul Smith 2-piece and Maude turned heads in a simple black dress she’d picked up in New York.

It took half an hour or so to get close to Larry’s bedside to wish him many happy returns. He was propped up on a large bolster, like a Gateshead Proust, so that he could play the guitar to his assembled friends. Dink was circulating with nibbles. Just ahead of us in the queue was one of Larry’s German friends – Helmut. Helmut is an academic and has just finished 5 years of very hard work researching the decline in the British work ethic. Larry’s existence had formed the basis of Helmut’s PhD thesis. On the German’s many ‘field trips’ to Gateshead, the two men had become firm (if unlikely) friends.

Helmut has always been too busy to master a musical instrument. Larry, in contrast, had become a virtuoso guitarist in the comfort of his own bed and Helmut is inclined to make musical requests in circumstances such as these. I was, as ever, impressed with Helmut’s sartorial effort – his silk Paisley pyjamas were topped off with his usual Fedora (at its usual cheeky angle). However, my heart sank as I heard his clipped German tones:

‘Happy Birthday Larry and I have a special request – I want you to do ‘Abbey Road’ Please!!!’

Larry falters in all physical endeavour and prefers to stay in bed, but in music he has remarkable recall and stamina. I knew that at this point Larry would perform his party piece: a complete rendition of the ‘Abbey Road’ album by The Beatles (which has no gaps between tracks). Larry smiled and protested briefly.

‘I’m sure that no-one else really wants to hear that Helmut man!’

Dink was just leaving the room to replenish her tray of lightly buttered Ryvita and seconded Helmut’s request.

‘Oh Darling, go on – you know you want to.’

As the performance wore on, I could sense that Maude was losing the will to live. Helmut had begun to dance. Larry’s landlord was heard ransacking an upstairs cupboard during ‘Here comes the sun’. Larry’s landlord is also called Larry - usually known as ‘Lively Larry’. As Helmut harmonised with more enthusiasm than tunefulness on ‘Sun King’, Lively Larry reappeared with a pair of bongos.

When the epic medley reached 'Golden Slumbers' many of the employed people in the room seemed to be singing with some gusto. Maude tugged at the back of my jacket and we were soon on the landing. It was then that I heard a racket in the hall below. I peeped over to see Archie bounding up the stairs with his miniature snare drum strapped to his front. Leap giggled in his wake. Arch bounded into Larry's room and beamed at his bedbound host. As we passed the doorway to descend the stairs, a jiggling Archie had his sticks poised to join in. Larry struck the dramatic closing chord of 'Her Majesty', the final track of the album. As we trod softly down the stairs, the room above fell quiet, but for some whispering and a stifled giggle from one of the guests. I paused and saw Archie's diddy figure framed by the spindles of the stair rail. Dink gave him a consolatory hug. Archie was jiggling again, but I suspect that this time he was tearful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Look of Love

Sandy, Maude and me were all at college together and share many fond memories of academic life. Arch was something of an arriviste in the circle. Sandy and I shared rooms while we studied. Arch had misrepresented his qualifications in gnome-painting as ‘fine art’ to gain entrance to the lodgings and to become our neighbour. Our rooms were south-facing and benefited from a lovely set of French windows - in front of which we placed the desk. Sandy would arrange his books at one end of the desk and I would set mine at the other. We clubbed together for a typewriter and it sat in the centre. The arrangement worked well – as Sandy was nocturnal and would write his essays through a haze of cigarette smoke in the small hours. I would air the room in the morning and then use the desk myself. In moments of quiet study I would notice movement in the shrubs at the far end of the shared garden. At the time I took this to be a small animal.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, Archie was moving his way though the house. He had begun in a garret space (formerly a very cramped nursery). The landlord had been surprised at Archie’s willingness to live in such confinement - he usually showed the room as a small joke to amuse prospective tenants. He used it as a broom cupboard and would open the door on the ‘penthouse suite’ as more of an icebreaker than a genuine option.

‘I’ll take it! I’ll take it! It’s perfect!’

Archie had seen this as his chance to get into the house and break into what he took to be an intellectual atmosphere. He then strategically changed rooms as they became available, to achieve proximity to us.

Sandy and I had always been cordial to Arch, before we got to know him properly. The house had an old church pew in its entrance hall. The pew was very useful - it had a hinged lid under which was storage designed for prayer books. We used it for the post. Each morning the postman would cast the post into the pew and each scholar would appear, lift the lid and rifle through the envelopes in the hope of a cheque from home.

Some mornings Arch would be asleep in the pew.

After an evening out, Arch was often overwhelmed by the prospect of climbing the stairs back to his room – especially during the time when he lived in the ‘penthouse.’ He would chose, instead, to climb into the relative spaciousness of the pew and wait for the shower of post to rouse him in the morning. The postman and residents were all a little startled at first, but it was a liberal environment and allowances were made for the little chap. Some occupants took to throwing some loose change in at Archie’s feet after retrieving their letters.

If not asleep in the pew, Arch could often be found perched on it, swinging his legs and reading ‘difficult’ books. Sandy and I were leaving the house in a hurry one morning to catch a lecture and I saw that Archie was sat in his difficult book reading attitude. He was also wearing spectacles. I noticed that he rubbed one of his eyes by poking a finger through the frame – there were no lenses.

Sandy was oblivious to Archie’s presence and busied himself lighting his second cigarette of the day from the rapidly diminishing stub of his first cigarette of the day. As he did so, a shaft of winter sunlight poured in through the stained glass of the front door. The light penetrated the cloud of smoke and cast a halo around Sandy’s dishevelled, cherubic curls. Looking back, I suspect that this was the coup de foudre moment for Archie. The small one straightened his ‘glasses’ as though to get a better view and peered over the top of his book. He seemed to be drinking in every atom of this glowing vision of his idol – in its beatific morning glow. As Sandy grabbed his satchel of books and made for the door, Archie’s eyes followed his movement with a trancelike stare. Before I followed and closed the door behind me, I took the opportunity to pick the Samuel Becket novel from Archie’s grip and turn it the right way up.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

¡Adiós!, ¡Hola!

For a full 2 years Archie and Leap had been talking about going to visit Sandy and Lola. Sandy went out to Barcelona to join his Catalan amour a couple of Easters ago.

Sandy began his Spanish career collecting the money after Lola’s troupe of street artists performed on the Ramblas. He then went through an assortment of casual jobs. For a while he was the oldest ball-boy at the Nou Camp, but Barcelona FC let him go when he was beaten to a ball by a disabled fan in a wheelchair (the years of Gauloise smoking had taken their toll on Sandy’s fitness).

Sandy’s relationship with Lola fused her Catalan feistiness and his dry Northern English wit. She enjoyed teaching him all the Spanish and Catalan he needed and they became regulars at many of the town’s livelier bars – Sandy reciprocated by educating her in the detail of British guitar bands from the last 25 years.

Sandy then saw a niche in the market for bookselling and began to hawk dog-eared English paperbacks from a handcart – targeting the university in the winter and the beach in summer. His doting mother, Doris, scoured the charity shops of northern England and sent the books in regular batches. On occasion the poor woman would be unable to source enough secondhand books and would buy new instead. She would then enlist her husband, Arnie, to read them – or at least handle them enough to make them look used.

For her part, Lola was not content to be a street performer for all her life and knew that she needed to move on. Stilt-walking had lost its appeal and instead she took an interview with a global communications company in her stride. Lola also began to realise that her education in the development of British pop music was probably complete.

So it was that Lola decided to spend a large chunk of her savings in a single morning at El Corte Ingles department store. Her hair extensions were removed and a business-like bob was introduced. A pinstripe suit replaced combats and t-shirts. The shoe department indulged her for 30 minutes as she trained herself to finish off the new look and walk smoothly, at ground level, on heels.

Sandy had endured a fruitless morning on the beach approaching baking tourists who he hoped might need a paperback. Responses ranged from ‘No, thank you’ to ‘Raus!’ and he was rapidly losing heart. Sandy had never really adapted his wardrobe to the Mediterranean heat. Lola had applied her talents as a seamstress to one of Arnie’s old suits on a visit to England. Sandy wore the outfit all the time – as a symbol of his love for both Lola and his father. On a warm summer’s day in Barcelona, a polyester suit did not create a feeling of wellbeing in a hungry immigrant trying to run what he described as his own ‘small business’.

Lola had a taxi waiting on the seafront. Her final purchases had been from the bookshop at El Corte Ingles: a title they both knew well and a pen for the inscription.

Sandy’s tarpaulin had been stolen a week earlier. He had used it protect his stock from sun damage and rain, but a homeless drinker had used it to create some shelter in a nearby park and Sandy did not have the heart to reclaim it. He removed his jacket and placed it as a makeshift cover on a collection of spines boasting many holiday reading favourites: The Naked Lunch, On The Road, Hangover Square and American Psycho. Sandy found a lamppost against which to lean in a Belmondo attitude. He tapped a cigarette out of his pack, lifted it to his lips and lit it in his timeworn fashion. As he exhaled the first acrid cloud of his smoking session, a businesswoman dashed from a waiting taxi and pushed a book-shaped package into his hand. As the smoke cleared he watched the taxi disappear into the chaos of the midday traffic. He opened the El Corte Ingles bag to expose the first new book he had seen in some time - a crisp new English edition of Kerouac’s On the Road. The inscription was pithy:

‘Adios, Lola. x’

Sandy realised that while he had been preoccupied in assuming his favourite film pose he had let real life jump in a taxi and leave him. He took a long, consolatory drag on his Gauloise. His smoke seemed to be merging into the smoke of others nearby. A sea breeze arrived to clear the conglomeration of fumes and stood before him were the small, smiling, haversacked figures of Archie and Leap.

Sandy was still in state of devastation and found it hard to feign enthusiasm for the sudden arrival of his old friends.

‘It’s me, Sand!’ Archie jumped a little to emphasise his presence.

‘I think he’s a little upset’, whispered Leap.

As Archie began to quietly sob, Sandy was roused from his miserable reverie. New fumes were reaching him and he realised that his jacket had spontaneously combusted in the sun. The entire stock of his ‘small business’ was now aflame – the handcart a funeral pyre for the books he loved and for his Barcelona affair.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dinky Dinner

Larry came to dinner last night, with his girlfriend Dink. Maude had invited Larry a couple of days earlier and he had made no mention of the probability that Dink would be around. I called to collect him from his lodgings just as he and Dink were returning from a game of tennis in the local park (the courts are free). I discreetly phoned Maude to check that it was ok to bring Dink along. Larry has a strange habit of forgetting that he is in a relationship and literally forgetting Dink. For many years he was inclined to absentmindedly leave Dink in cafes and on trains. I was often asked to collect Dink on Larry's behalf (a full afternoon of giving ukelele lessons often left him badly fatigued).

‘I’m sure there’ll be enough food to feed little Dink as well,' Maude reassured.

Unlike Larry, Dink now drives. This means that, these days, being forgotten is less of a practical problem - she remembers herself and takes herself home. She followed me back to The Villas in her reconditioned ambulance. Larry shows no desire to learn how to drive.

‘But Dink can drive, I don’t need to. We would only argue if I was able to drive and sat up front commenting on her driving. I’ve seen so many couples do that. It makes more sense for me to lie in the back.’

Dink must have taken a wrong turn at some point as she followed me and it took her and Larry an extra half an hour to reach the house.

‘So nice of you to join us.’ Maude kissed Dink and pushed Larry towards the dining table.

It emerged that Dink had taken a detour to buy a delicious chocolate cake for all of us and Larry had taken advantage of a 'two for one' deal on pale ale to buy two bottles for himself.

As Maude brought the dinnerware in, Larry blurted ‘No potatoes!’

Maude had made some of her excellent potato dauphinoise.

‘I think that you meant to say ‘No potatoes for me, thank you’. Why ever not?’

‘It came up at the top of the list when the food man tested me. I get so much mucous that I can hardly breathe, I nearly choke.’

‘Only nearly? Probably far too much energy in them for you.’ Maude smiled and created appetising piles of potatoes on all of our plates.

Larry was slightly piqued and consoled himself with the lion’s share of the boeuf bourguignon. He smiled sweetly at Dink as he scooped a mouthful of the casserole onto her plate, before scraping the remainder of the dish onto his own.

‘Better leave some room for that cake eh Dinky?’

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Smoking Car

Our business centre has a rich variety of people. People of all shapes and sizes mill around and go about their ‘business’. They carry items of post and piles of photocopying. It’s a hive of north eastern industry. Even members of my team join in from time to time – one of us will usually pop down for the morning post at about 2 in the afternoon. Lionel, the building manager, raises his eyebrows when he notices this – he doesn’t understand ‘the arts’. There is one member of the business centre staff, though, who trumps our lack of effort and seems to have opted out entirely from any exertion whatsoever. She is a large woman who works on the other side of the building. I’m guessing that she has a sedentary job. The building has 2 storeys and she takes the lift. It’s a very slow lift and by the time you have waited for it, you could easily be up the stairs and sat at your desk.

The building managers recently made provision for the smokers on the premises – a small space has been cleared beside the wheelie bins and a corrugated canopy stops the rain from extinguishing fags. The large lady smokes, but chooses not to join her fellow-smokers. Instead she always claims the parking space beside the smokers’ pen (she must get in early just to achieve this) and sits in her car to smoke. She reads her ‘Chat’ magazine as she does this. In my (limited) experience of ‘Chat’ magazine I have noticed a regularity of stories on obesity: 'Doctors gave me 2 days to live if I didn’t shed 5 stone’, ‘The Pain of Britain’s Fattest Toddler’ – that kind of thing. Such scaremongering is lost on the smoking lady and she carries on puffing away in there. She winds the window down a little and the smoke pours out. Passers-by, unfamiliar with her habits, often do a double-take to check that the car isn’t on fire. The car is a Ford Fiesta – a small, light vehicle. When the smoking lady is in place, the car groans and lists badly to one side. The smoking lady has the look of a large child abandoned on a see-saw.

I passed this morning as she was finishing her cigarette and placing a bookmark in this week’s ‘Chat’. I noticed that she cast her cigarette end onto a pile in the adjacent flowerbed. The pile was clearly all her own work – she can’t even make it into the smokers’ pen to dispose of her fag butts in the receptacle provided.

I imagine that, at some point in the future, enthusiastic archaeologists in shorts and armed with trowels will establish the boundaries of this small building created for the ancient habit/ritual of tobacco smoking. This will obviously be televised. They will produce a captivating CAD visualisation of the smokers’ pen as it would have looked some time in the early twenty first century. Delighted with their discovery and their contribution to the body of archaeological knowledge and social history they will return to the site to help to convert it into an interactive experience for visitors – so that future generations might stand and smoke (de-nicotined) cigarettes in an authentic recreation of 21st century office life. This would extend the experience of wandering the corridors of the restored ‘business centre’ in period business costume: using the restored office equipment and listening to authentic recordings of 21st century business voices. The archaeologists would then be truly thrown as one of their trowels unearths an inexplicable pile of well-preserved cigarette ends just beyond the boundary of the ancient communal smoking area…….

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I am Billy Casper

I have reached the age at which any outfit I put together for the gym makes me look like Billy Casper from ‘Kes’. I usually try and sneak out of the house, but Maude always appears before I manage to and remarks that I need a new top, or a new pair of shorts or a new pair of trainers. A complete new outfit for the gym, basically.

‘Why don’t you ask Byron where he gets his stuff?’

Byron is the man who runs the gym. Byron is superfit. He has a gruelling schedule of leading spinning classes and boxerfit sessions, alongside pacesetting for the gym’s running club. In between these commitments he wanders around the gym and lifts weights. He seems always to arrive at a weight machine straight after me and ostentatiously takes the weight peg out to lower it to somewhere around double the burden I was straining to lift. His routine would reduce the average marine to tears and he doesn’t ever appear to break a sweat.

Byron also looks ‘gym smart’. He wears vivid gym colours and his trainers are always freshly whitened. I pointed out to Maude that it was his business to look smart – as he owns the gym. His fancy gym wear is the equivalent of a businessman’s three-piece suit and facilitates his blokey welcomes to the male members and his outrageously flirtatious manner with the female gym-goers (making the point here that his flirting was indiscriminate and should not be mistaken for any form of genuine partiality).

Maude went quiet for a few minutes when I made this point. I had, however, made the mistake of following this line of argument while still in my own 'workwear’. As I bent to put a fresh cup of tea on Maude’s remote control table, I noticed that her eyes were scanning my outfit.

‘So, scuffed shoes, jeans and an open-necked shirt are de rigeuer in your office are they? Must make all those penniless artists feel a lot better about their lives. Why don’t I track down some fingerless gloves for you – to complete the look.’

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The height of rudeness

I work in Sunderland (I think I have mentioned this). More precisely, I work near the football stadium. The most convenient supermarket is on the coast – in Seaburn. Seaburn appears to be almost exclusively populated by old people. I suppose that older people like to retire by the sea. This gives the aisles of the supermarket the air of a hospital main corridor. Most of the trolleys are of the wheelchair-friendly kind and a busy spell causes bottlenecks of the bewildered at certain points around the shop. I try and speed through. I know what I want and I haven’t – unlike most of the other customers – got all day. I tend to zig-zag my way through the shop, avoiding the hotspots for elderly congregation: the bread products, the reduced-to clear section and the high-fibre cereals. The narrow central aisle is also out of bounds – as it serves as a cruel funnel which brings the old people to a virtual standstill and then delivers them into the confusing maze of the greeting card aisles.

I respect the elderly, most of the time. On every other visit I make to this to this store, however, I am accosted by one of them. I am tall. I know that I am tall. I have been tall for a long time. Old people seem to feel an irresistible urge to bring my own height to my attention. I’m up here, I know about it. It’s usually men who make a sporting gambit along the lines of: ‘You must play basketball, do you son?’ or ‘You should be in a line out son, do you play rugby?’ Occasionally women will say something. Two tiny old ladies stood beside me at the checkout last week and one said to the other ‘Eee, I fee proper titchy beside him’ and giggled.

All innocent enough I suppose – a transparent attempt to connect with a stranger. The problem is I’d much rather remain a stranger. The last old timer who felt the need to inform me that I was a tall person was well-intentioned, but he made a simply ridiculous remark. ‘My, you must be 8 feet tall are you son?’

‘That’s right,’ I said,’well done you.’ He flashed his ill-fitting dentures in delight. I hadn’t quite finished.

‘And you, sir, must be…what.. a hundred and ten years old?’

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Barcelona Calling

Arch & Leap have a strange routine. They drink and listen to music when they get home from work after a long commute and consequently tend to eat late, very late. Leap controls the menu – she is a vegan, or as Maude’s father once introduced her, ‘a very severe vegetarian’. Archie relishes Leap’s cuisine at home, but lapses occasionally when out and about. Maude witnessed him eating a pork pie on a passing bus last week. The large pie obscured his face momentarily, but as he lowered the meat feast to draw breath, his cover was blown.

‘I love what Leap cooks,’ insists Arch – ‘it’s really healthy’.

We visited Arch & Leap’s cottage last night. Maude has tired of being offered nothing more in the way of hospitality than some Bombay mix, so she called in advance and told them that she would bring some food. When we arrived she handed a large pan of curry to an unusually excited Archie. His knees almost buckled under the weight, but he giggled and managed to rush through to the kitchen without spilling it. His progress wasn’t helped by various obstacles. Arch & Leap have an unorthodox approach to storage. They ‘organise’ their possessions by creating a miniature Manhattan skyline of piles of books and compact disks on the floor of their lounge, so that they are constantly reminded of what they own. One wrong move and a pile is demolished – sometimes creating a domino effect which knocks down neighbouring piles of stuff. When this occurs Arch shows remarkable agility for man of his girth and rushes to minimise the damage.

‘They’re all in order, you know!’ He exclaims. ‘That took me ages to alphabeticalise.’

In a clearing in the forest of piles there is enough space for the sofa, and the hearth. Archie lies on one side of the hearth and Leap assumes a lotus position on the other. For the festive season Leap creates a nut-cracking workshop space on her side – consisting of a tree stump and a toffee hammer.

‘Have you thought any more about shelving?’ Maude asked after we had finished our curry.

‘We’re fine,’ insisted Leap, as she smiled and whacked a walnut.

‘This way we know where everything is when we need it,' added Arch, as he glanced at his watch.

I could see that Maude was eager to point out that they were unlikely to need most of the things littering the floor in the very near future, but she resisted the urge.

‘Anyway,’ continued Leap, ’it provides a smashing little playground….’ Leap smiled in Archie’s direction at this point.

Isn’t Archie a little long in the tooth for a ‘playground’?’

Leap shook with laughter. She mis-hit a walnut which flew across the room and bounced off Archie’s forehead.

‘Not for Arch, Silly! For Fingerbob.’


‘Yes, I keep catching Fingerbob in my mouse-catcher and releasing him out in the fields, but he keeps finding his way back to us!’

Maude looked unimpressed. ‘You have a mouse?’

‘Yes, but he is no trouble really. He is really quite entertaining. Last week he took some cinnamon sticks all the way from the kitchen cupboard to the corner of the living room.’

Maude’s eye followed Leap’s finger as it indicated a corner of the room completely obscured by the piles.

‘Quite the little adventurer.’

This created a natural pause in the conversation and Arch took the opportunity to wind his way through the area of the room devoted to his ‘alphabeticalisedcd collection to reach the bathroom. The phone rang. Maude was comfortable on the sofa. Leap was stoking the fire and gestured to me to answer the call. I eventually traced the phone behind a teetering pile of fading Sunday supplements. As I was about to lift the receiver, Archie came back into the room at speed. He had left the bathroom early after hearing the phone. His excited manner and his watch-checking all made sense now – he had been expecting a call. Archie was wearing a cardigan which was far too long for him and had the look of a frock-coat. As he bounded across the room his woollen train caught the top of one of his piles of party compilation cassettes.

As he excitedly shouted ‘That’ll be Sandy!’ and kept motoring towards to me, I watched the edifice of cassettes collapse and destabilise a neighbouring pile of Betamax videos, which in turn unsettled an orangebox of Leap’s recipe scrapbooks. Archie was undeterred by the chaos developing around him and continued on his expedition to reach the phone. His face was remarkably gleeful. He looked lustful and carefree – like a man half his age and twice his height running along a beach towards the outstretched arms of the love of his life.

(Sandy has been in Barcelona for over a year and Archie sorely misses playing a bit part in the imaginary film that Sandy casts around him.)

I could see Archie’s small hand forming to grasp the handset as his arm began to outstretch, but this movement took his attention away from holding up his trousers (as I mentioned, he left the bathroom early). Small change and a heavy tobacco tin soon had Archie’s trousers plummeting to knee level. The poor man then lost his footing and became a human torpedo – crashing through the carefully arranged music section of the pilescape and causing severe ‘de-alphabeticalisation’.

As I lifted the phone to suggest that Sandy called later, Leap unfolded her legs and went to Archie’s aid. As she abandoned her post, Fingerbob saw his chance to make off with the last walnut of the evening. Maude was already buttoning her coat.