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.’

Friday, September 18, 2015

A place where you can still call a woman 'bubbly'

‘You’re bubbly you, aren’t you?’
The caretaker took time out from emptying the bins to ‘flatter’ Tara.
‘I like that. I like bubbly girls.’
By ‘bubbly’ the man meant ‘large’. Tara is quite large. He stood waiting for a reaction and looked like Benny Hill waiting for a ripple of laughter – or at least a titter.
As office environments go, this is probably the worst I have ever had the misfortune to find myself in. I worked in the NHS in the eighties. This is less progressive and less modern. It is also a haven for the work-shy.  I reckon I was more economically productive than a lot of these people when I was signing on.
3 men shuffled into the room the other day. I thought they were gardeners coming for a tea-break. No, they constituted the ‘IT Team.’ It took them several hours to plug in a couple of new computers. Troubleshooting was a group effort and literally involved much head-scratching and switching machines off and on repeatedly. The whole atmosphere is like that of a small and dysfunctional communist state – in which no one is prepared to rock the boat or whistle-blow for fear of losing their staff discount at Brantano Shoes.
Behind me sits Darren. Darren is a bearded man in his mid-thirties who lives with his parents. He is engaged to be married to a woman in Canada – whom he met online. He will go and marry her shortly. He will then be obliged to return straight home to the bright lights of Ferryhill.  This is due to a policy adopted by the Canadians to prevent ‘green card’ marriages resulting from an understandable exodus from County Durham. Darren has a hipster beard and a short back and sides. His beard is dark and lustrous and has the look of a disguise I once saw Peter Sellers wear as Inspector Clouseau.
Darren’s conversation lacks the lustre of his beard. He seems to be obsessed with his teeth and the price he is paying in fillings and extractions for his lifelong love of sugar. Darren talks about his teeth a lot. His dental anxiety could stem from his impending marriage and his eventual move to Canada. I’ve been there - they’ve got great teeth.
Facing me is Pat. Pat knows a lot about careers guidance and shares this knowledge on the phone all day every day with anyone who will listen. Pat brought me in through an agency. I applied for the role while job-hunting late at night.
I would now advise anyone against late night job searches.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Back in the Day

I don’t think I was consulted. I don’t think the matter was discussed. I had just turned thirteen. It was 1979. It was still the 70’s and children were not generally consulted – they were told.

Had I been consulted I would have been told that the family holiday was to occur as usual – in August. We were ‘going home’ for 2 weeks, but I was to remain away for the entire 6 week holiday.

‘Going home’ meant that we were going to the family farm in a tiny, hidden corner of County Galway:  Cloonagh. The place was mythical to me and remains so in my imagination. From my current location, Google tells me that Cloonagh is 9 hours and 48 minutes away – with the warning that ‘This route crosses a country border’. Visiting Cloonagh has always meant crossing borders: cultural, temporal and spiritual.

I first went to Cloonagh at the age of 5. That visit was to celebrate the wedding of my Auntie Bridie. My mother sang at the wedding and enjoyed doing so. As she left the stage, my grandmother took her to one side and said in a whisper of concern:

‘Kathleen, I didn’t know you drank.’

As a child, I lived in a red brick house on a dual carriageway in urban Manchester for the majority of the year. The cars outside would crawl through the two daily rush hours – or be a blur of speed the rest of the time. Tired commuters would fail to apply their brakes during the rush hours and rear-end each other’s cars. I would sometimes hear the crash sounds over the noise of the television and go and have a look at the damage. Harried drivers would exchange their insurance details and point angry fingers at each other. I would get the bus along the dual carriageway to school during the week and on a Saturday I would cross the road and get the bus in the opposite direction to meet friends in Moss Side, or stay on the bus until it terminated in the bustle of Piccadilly Gardens in the city centre.

For two weeks every year, though, I lived in a farmhouse on a farm which was horse-powered by an old workhorse called Charlie and a donkey simply referred to as ‘the ass’.  I watched my Uncle plough fields with a Charlie-drawn plough.  My own father greatly preferred the lane in Cloonagh to the dual carriageway beside which he spent most of the year. In his more maudlin moments (usually when the pubs had closed on a Sunday afternoon) he would turn to me and ask:

‘Remember Charlie John?’ 

My grandmother baked bread on an open fire, made her own butter, played a mean hand of cards and went to church on a horse and cart. All of my cousins would gather there and we would squeeze into beds in incredibly small bedrooms – one for boys, one for girls.

I watch many TV shows in which urban couples search for some stress-free, off-grid existence in a corner of the countryside they have driven through, but don’t know about or really understand. Cloonagh in the seventies would have made them truly salivate. Drinking water was pumped from a spring. Water for other uses was harvested from the roof in a water butt. When this butt failed, water was drawn from the river. I recall rattling down the hill on a horse and cart. The cart had a barrel strapped to the back of it. My Uncle lowered a bucket on a long rope into the river. He did this  as many times as it took to fill the barrel. It was like a very rustic version of ‘It’s a Knockout’. On a recent visit to Galway I was informed that my great grandfather – who shows up on the census as an Irish speaker with a much younger wife – was a Fenian Commander. He was renowned for blowing up the very bridge that Tommy and I stood on. He did this twice. He did it to thwart the English and stop them crossing the wonderfully named ‘Sinking River’ to climb the hill to the village of Cloonagh. I think he did it for grander reasons than to preserve Cloonagh for my summer holidays.

I was told, then, that the rest of the family would head home at the end of the fortnight. My tears on leaving Cloonagh were the source of many jokes within the family. I still cry on leaving Cloonagh to this day. My tears in 1979 were to wait until September. My mother was coming back to Ireland with the Irish football team she helped to organise and it was decided that she would collect me from the train in Dublin. I can remember being put on the train at Ballyhaunis, but I recall nothing of the journey to Dublin. I probably couldn’t see a thing through the tears.

My Uncle Tommy always lacked the sentimentality of his nephews and nieces for the farm at Cloonagh. For him, it was simply a place of work.

Tommy’s driving was memorable and very exciting – when viewed as a small boy with no seatbelt on. Tommy had one speed: ‘breakneck’. The roads were pretty clear back then and he knew them well. On my first visit he had a sky-blue Ford Cortina Mark 1. It was a classic design with a lot of chrome and a hint of American glamour in its grill and fins. When that car began to fail he bought a Mark 2 Cortina – it was boxier and some shade of grey. The previous car, though, was not traded in. Instead it was parked in the field beside the house and took on a new role – that of ‘hen house’. The hens climbed in and out of the windows and the nests were set on the seats. I don’t think that the hens ever drove it – that would have taken ‘free range’ into a whole new dimension. Some years later, Tommy was having foundations laid for a new hay barn. He asked the man who was digging the foundations to make them extra deep. The Mark 1 Cortina met its final retirement like an out of favour Mafiosi – in a concrete suit. I’m sure the hens got out first.

I stood in the farmyard recently with Cousin Dermot. Dermot remembered Charlie. Like me, he had fallen off the horse a few times – or fallen off the hay-cart being pulled by Charlie.

‘Tommy flattened the cart-shed and the byre.’

I looked, and sure enough all that remained was a standing tap and the steps up to the old kitchen garden.

‘You do know, don’t you,’ said Dermot,’ that the Thomas you saw at the top of the family gravestone – our Great Grandfather - was a Fenian Commander back in the day?’

Dermot enjoyed my look of astonishment at this news.

‘…and when he retired he buried a load of guns in that field there.’

He pointed at the field I had known as the kitchen garden – where we had dug potatoes and carrots as children.

‘Not in the middle,’ he clarified,’ round the edge somewhere.’    

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.