Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

Nurse on a Train!!!

Really, public transport and me don’t mix. I’m constitutionally unequipped for being confined at close quarters with a mélange of members of the human race.

So, after my disastrous schedule of house viewings on the other side of the county with an estate agent called Gavin, I was forced to make my own way home. We had finished earlier, due to every one of the slightly-possible houses being already sold/withdrawn from the market before we even got to them, leaving only a depressing rump of properties no one in the entire world would want buy. This meant that my file full of printed-out Trainline train times was useless. I was going to have to wing it. Except that I didn’t have wings.

Ebbsfleet International, I thought. Sounds scary. Do I really want to make my way home via somewhere I have never heard of before, probably somewhere near London where it is well known there are suicide bombers, and explosives in every waste-bin? Platform 6. Do I want to be scurrying about (Headless Chicken again) a railway station big enough to have six platforms? And I’d have to go on that special fast train. I’ve never been on the special fast train before. And indeed, six might only be the middle of the sequence, or a third of the way through. There could be eighteen platforms. Ooooh no, I can’t be doing with eighteen platforms.

So I caught a train to Canterbury. Then I had to get across Canterbury because Canterbury, infuriatingly, has two separate railway stations. It’s teeming city at the best of times, but this was school chuck-out hour. I headless-chickened out and grabbed a taxi. Then I had to wait for another train, out of the other Canterbury. I was crammed behind a party in black suits, arty scarves and Terry Pratchett hats, loudly chortling about maths conundrums on their mobile phones and showing one another pictures of their latest “ventures into Iceland”. Delegates, I thought – returning home from some conference at the University of Kent. Intellectuals. Pah! None of them noticed the lumpy old biddy in the too-large, too long brown coat clutching an overstuffed rucksack that they had hemmed in beside the chocolate machine.

On the train (at last!) while the Iceland-visiting brigade were high-volume exclaiming that it had been many years since they had alighted upon one of these (trains) my too-long coat got caught up uncomfortably under my left leg but I didn’t dare stand up in case people might notice me, and my left leg began to get pins and needles, prior to complete numbness, so I sat like that, clutching my overstuffed rucksack and tried not to look at the people opposite me. So far so bad, but outside Faversham we stopped, and there we stayed, deafened by a series of British Rail announcements. Firstly, we were waiting for a platform to become available in Faversham station. Then, apparently there had been “people found running about on the line at Herne Bay” and this was causing some delays. Then it appeared that the drivers we needed to take us on past Faversham, were having to come from Herne Bay, and of course… people running about, etc. “So that’s why,” announced the announcer “we’re in a bit of a pickle at the moment”.

“Hah – in a bit of a pickle,” someone mimicked. “In a bit of a pickle.. makes a change from Cows on the Line or the Wrong Sort of Leaves!”

An estate agent phoned me on my mobile phone. I’m afraid of my mobile phone, but it was ringing in the pocket of my brown coat. I tried to ignore it for a while but people began to give my pocket meaningful looks. “Could you hang on a minute?” I said, “Only I’m on a stuck on train outside Faversham and there are all these  announcements..”

“Yes, I can hear them,” he said. “Every word.”

“It seems,” said the announcer, “that someone has actually been hit by a train in Herne Bay…” Hit? Oh no, that’s far worse than Running About. “But on the plus side,” said our announcer, who seemed to have upped the volume by another notch, “your driver has just arrived. He just needs to put his own train in the sidings, and then he will be with us. Might be another ten minutes.”

To cap it all the student nurse in the seat opposite started talking to me. I knew she was a student nurse because that was all I had been able to understand of her endless telephone conversations. She had a weird, young-person way of talking – entire sentences elided into a single word. “So you’ve been house hunting too?” she said.

Maybe it’s a project, I thought. Maybe I’m the Old Person she needs to Engage in so many hours Conversation with in order to qualify for her NVQ or whatever student nurses study for. Why else would she talk to me? Nobody under seventy talks to me, ever. Though I’m a big hit with the over seventies, hence the old lady singing at me and demanding chocolate fingers in the mental hospital. Did I tell you, by the way, that there was an old man on his back in the Recreation Room, when I was visiting my mother on Sunday? Yes, like a beetle, upended. He was wearing pyjamas and had his legs and slipper-clad feet in the air, and was busy dismantling the chairs from underneath. By the end of my visit he had dismantled almost a whole row and there was a neat pile of square plastic seats on the floor beside him. Fascinating!

She was really pretty, this student, except that she had funny eyes – sort of downward- sloping and goggly. It was difficult to look away from her once transfixed. “I just found a place to rent,” she said. “It’s a student house, but it looks like a cottage on the outside. Really nice!”

“Oh,” I said, never having been to university and trying to recall how student accommodation worked. “So you spent the first year on campus and now you are moving out to…?”

“No,” she said, I decided to go straight into rented. I just got this lovely scarf in Canterbury, do you see?” She pulled out a white chiffon scarf and draped it round her neck for me to admire. “And I got some flats.” (Flats?) “Because I haven’t got any flats at all you see, and these were so nice, with little black bows on the front.”

“Well,” I said, cautiously, “you can never have too many shoes?”

“Or scarves,” she said. “I love shopping, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, “you can never have too much shopping,” wondering how many years ago it was when I had the money to buy myself a scarf or a pair of shoes; wondering how long before that driver finished shunting his previous train into the siding and started driving this train onwards, through and beyond Faversham. Oh blessed relief. Beyond Faversham.

“Yes,” said the student nurse. “I’m just dying to get home for my Spag Bol.” Spag Bol, I was thinking, rifling through the rusty biscuit tin of my vocabulary – food. A species of food containing meat combined with … must be… spaghetti.

“Do you like shopping?” she asked. “I’m going to phone my Dad to collect me. I have to be careful because he’s on shift work and sometimes he comes home early and sometimes he comes home late so he’s not always there to collect me…”

Dear God In Heaven, I thought. From ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night; from people running about on the track at Herne Bay and student nurses with verbal diarrhoea, Good Lord deliver us…

Headless Chicken Strikes Again

If I were asked to describe the personality trait I am most ashamed of and least likely to own up to – it would be a tendency to panic in all but life-threatening circumstances. I think most of us, faced with imminent, actual death, produce some hormone or other to keep us unnaturally calm. For example many years ago I drove into a ditch on my way to work; I was braking on a muddy road to avoid a low-flying blackbird. I remember I was playing a Mozart cassette at the time. Never been able to listen to Mozart since.

It is true what they say about everything slowing down. That graceful sail into the ditch seemed to last a lifetime. Some men came along and hauled me up the side of the ditch, still in my “work” high heels, clutching my handbag. The reaction set in only an hour or so later, when I got home and my ex-husband refused even to put the kettle on for a cup of tea while I phoned the insurance company on the basis that he was a bit busy right now.

But most of the time I panic, since I have a very, very low stress threshold. Looking back, potential has not been reached, vistas have been narrowed and my whole life skewed out of shape – all in a futile attempt to avoid making a fool of myself by having a panic-type meltdown or throwing a panic-fuelled wobbly in public. And whatever I do it’s going to happen anyway, at intervals, because that’s the cockeyed way my brain happens to be wired. Old Beaker in the picture – that’s the way I feel on a good day.

This morning it was blowing a gale – the tail end of Storm Katie. Looking out of my bedroom window I saw that all the fence panels on the left-hand side had blown down in the night and landed on my garden shed. Not to panic, I thought. They are not your fence panels, they are her fence panels. Do you need the garden shed just at the moment? No. Haven’t you just accepted an offer on this house? So what does it matter if next door’s fence panels have blown over?

I drifted into my office, coffee cup in hand, and switched on the computer. What had my stats been doing overnight? Had they suddenly shot up to 3 million? Coffee cup in hand I was gazing out of the window when something flew within inches of it – followed by a small explosion. Oh no, I thought, some Eagle or other Bird of Prey has been blown off course and dashed to death on my driveway. Why an Eagle? Who knows. I pulled back the net curtains. My car windscreen was smashed. A bit of next door’s roof had zoomed into it – and there it was on the passenger seat, something the size of a house brick surrounded by an ocean of glass.

And following swiftly on from that, the thought that tomorrow I had to be at a railway station on the other side of the county by 10:30 am to meet an estate agent to be driven round to eight or nine different houses dotted about the county. To get there on public transport would mean getting up around 5 to feed the cats, catching a bus outside the one-and-only-shop around 7, catching a train, then another train, then another train and possibly – depending on the timing – another train… And the journey back, from a different town, would involve a train, another train, another train, followed by a bus (if there were any at that time of night) from a town so rough I would never normally frequent it after dark… or possibly a taxi… which would be expensive…

And then panic set in. I rambled around trying to decide what to do next – should I get dressed, make breakfast, feed the cats, make the bed, clear up that big heap of sick one of the cats had just deposited at the top of the stairs, phone the agents, look up windscreen repairs on the internet, phone my insurers, start printing off bus and train timetables and the numbers of local taxi firms, wash my hair…?

In the end I stomped round the house in tears, railing at God, the Universe, Fate and so on for Never Getting It Right, and I staggered through all of the above tasks in no particular order, and somehow made a plan, and had to take two aspirins for the headache. This afternoon the brother of the absent neighbours came round (nasty bit of work). If that had been me, he said, I wouldn’t have gone through the insurance company. I’d have waited till Sunday when my brother came home and he’d have paid for the windscreen “cash in hand with a drink on top”. So once again it’s my fault?

Well, a) I didn’t know his beastly brother was home on Sunday, b) I needed my car to be usable tomorrow – though it won’t be – not next week, and c) I don’t speak to his beastly brother or his beastly brother’s wife for that matter and I’m certainly not going round cap in hand trying to negotiate unofficial deals with them over car windscreen repairs within hours of them returning from yet another holiday in the South of France – and having them deny, as they almost certainly will, that it could have been their ridge tile which plummeted into my car. I’ve locked the giant chunk of moss-covered tile inside it, so they can’t destroy the evidence. I’ve also, with difficulty in blustery conditions and with the help of Big Puppy’s mama – she of the Illegal Scotsman – duct-taped an extra-strong bin sack over the hole in the windscreen to keep the rain out.

If today has been this wearing, what’s tomorrow going to be like? With the bus, and then the train, and then the other train, and then the other train, and then nine house viewings in several different towns, and then a train… And what am I going to eat? Can woman survive a long day of public transport on chocolate and bottled water?

beaker

Three Black Dogs

I have not always been grateful for my sisters, I must admit. I was the first and most important and then they had to come along. The Canadian one, who was English at the time, stole my woolly bear, I remember. When I was twelve she blurted out to Kevin Brewer, a sixteen year old leather-jacketed blond-quiffed motorbike rider who went to the same youth club as me – that I had just used some white stuff to bleach my moustache. (I hasten to add, not a great whiskery handlebar moustache or anything grotesque – I’m just, you know, a brunette… well, now I’m more of a grey-with-brunette-undertones).

I had a massive crush on Kevin Brewer. I used to sit at the bottom of his garden and pine for him hour upon hour until his mother complained to my mother and my mother, irritated, told me not to.  So imagine how pleased I was with my English-at-the-time sister. Not that I ever had any chance with Kevin Brewer. What I finally got a date it was with a bespectacled weed call John-something-or-other. We went for a walk along the sea wall and I was terrified. He told me afterwards he had been dared to ask me out – by Kevin Brewer.

However – gosh, that was as long digression – this evening I was glad of my Canadian sister. She phones me quite a lot at the moment because my brother-in-law has terminal cancer and she is on her own out there. She is even more on her own because he is fed up with her crying all over the place when he just wants to carry on as normal – a different approach. So she was feeling low this morning (it’s morning in Alberta when it’s evening here) and she called me, and we chatted round in circles as usual. We talked about counselling and short-term projects – small goals, easier to cope with. I didn’t know how to reach out across the Atlantic and lift her mood but quite by accident – as you shall see – I did.

In the meantime I had been having one of my Black Dog days. It was something to do with the necessity of spending a whole day being driven round properties with a guy called Gavin on Tuesday – the thought of which was already exhausting me – and the prospect of visiting Mum in the mental hospital on Easter Day. I don’t talk about Black Doggie much – he is manageable. I’ve seen what clinical depression does to people (this is my third lot of psych ward visiting) and my occasional Grim Day is nothing in comparison.

So, I got in the car, in a chilly wind (Storm Kate – don’t they sound nice with names? – is due to hit the South East at midnight). I stopped off at the one-and-only-shop to buy a box of chocolate fingers for Mum, since it’s Easter Sunday. When I got there she didn’t want them. Black Doggie was with her too. Two Black Doggies in one room. She had a headache. I persuaded the nurse to give her some paracetamol. The old lady who sings to me, sang to me again. She eyed the chocolate fingers.

‘I often share my things with your Mum. I expect your Mum would want me to have a chocolate finger. Or two. If she could speak.’ Her eyes never left the box and the tantalising chocolate-finger picture on the packaging. I gave her two. Had to ask the nurse for help getting into the cellophane. He gave me that look, like – shall I reserve you a chair in the Recreation Room now? On the way out I gave her the rest of the packet. ‘That was kind of you,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s not easy, is it? This time?’

So Mum and I sat and held hands, and I lent her my comb because she said hers had disappeared. She had someone else’s trousers on. I told her to keep the comb, but she gave it back. I wrote notes for her. She looked at them and handed them back to me. ‘I’m never getting out of here.’

‘Yes, you are. Soon. It’s a hospital. They can’t keep you for ever.’

‘I don’t believe it. What use am I? The doctors should give me something to get rid of me. What use am I, in here?’ Outside, there were daffodils, and birds flying about. In here, on the wall, was a frieze of spring made of coloured paper and cotton wool, like you see in the classrooms at infants’ school.

So, really, three Black Doggies – the Canadian one, mine and the one sat next to my Mum in the mental ward.

But then my sister phoned and she told me she was thinking of learning shorthand, as one of those short-term projects to cheer herself up. It wasn’t that she needed shorthand, she said, but she liked the shapes it made. She could see it on the wall – like a poem, maybe – and visitors would ask, ‘What do all those squiggles mean?’ And I said that was a weird coincidence – I had only five minutes before ordered a second-hand book on Gregg shorthand, having been reminded of it by an old post on this blog. Mum had had a book on Gregg shorthand – turned out we both remembered it.

And somehow the weirdness, that we should have both thought of learning shorthand, at the same time, all those thousands of miles apart across windswept oceans, lifted her mood. Mine too. She asked me to order the same book for her. We would learn it together, she said, and she would write me letters in Gregg shorthand, and I would write her Gregg shorthand letters back, and she would make artwork using Gregg shorthand, or write a diary that her husband couldn’t read, or…

Once, when we were teenagers, sat in that stuffy suburban living room with our parents and other visiting family, the same funny thing occurred to us both at the same time. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything anyone had said it was just – an invisible amusement. I caught her eye and she caught mine. I started giggling, and she started giggling. And of course no one else had any idea what we were giggling about – and even we weren’t entirely sure –  which made it funnier still.

It was ten minutes before we could stop, by which time we had the hiccups.

The Museum of Procrastination

I’m going through a bad patch at the moment. It’s all the uncertainty about the house. As soon as I find somewhere to buy and get an offer accepted I’ll be OK. However…

…there is plenty I could be getting on with, but which I am not getting on with. The latest story, for example. I know the title, I know the heroine’s name – name and cover-name, in fact; I know precisely which magazine I am aiming the story at and I have typed out a comprehensive outline of the plot. I even know the approximate number of words the story will contain because I have this useful little gift(ette): I am able ‘set’, say, 3,000 words in my head at the outset and the story will turn out 3,000 words long, give or take a hundred. Quite often it’s been 3,000 on the dot. It’s similar to ‘setting’ six o’clock in your head, going to sleep and waking up at six the next morning without troubling the alarm clock.

What I haven’t done is started writing it. This is because it is going to be hard, focussed work and I haven’t got much focus at the moment. This is because I’m lazy and am vaguely hoping some other old dear will write it, or that somehow or other it will turn out to have been written thanks to a crinkle in the fabric of time. All of which reminds me of an ad for a well-known bank in which is featured the Museum of Procrastination. This contains towering stacks of gym memberships that were used once only and spent the rest of their lives in wallets, unfinished novels, musical instruments that only ever played Frère Jacques and a giant green wastepaper basket full of screwed up paper – all the good ideas people have had and done nothing whatsoever about.

Outlines are something I don’t tend to do with blog posts nowadays. I start off with a spark, sit at the computer and meander about on the keys. Better stuff comes out that way – stuff I’d have censored or polished out of existence given half a chance. Better unpolished. Then I hunt around for a picture to match or mirror my thoughts, which often takes as long as, if not longer than, writing the post. But I don’t mind that, because it’s not writing. There’s something about writing… It’s like matter and antimatter. One feels frustratingly prevented from doing it when forced to concern oneself with stuff like washing up, ironing and food shopping, but one feels endlessly reluctant to start doing it as soon as there is time.

I would like to visit the Museum of Procrastination. It sounds a lot more interesting than the sort I got dragged round at intervals as a child, which mostly consisted of clay pipes, axe-heads, dinosaur bones and Roman coins. The problem I always find with museums is that things just sit there, looking dusty, just staring at you. And I always feel sorry for them because they are imprisoned in a future they could never have imagined – if axe-heads, clay pipes and Roman coins can be said to imagine. They should have died when they were supposed to. How weary they must feel, here, unmoving, in cabinets of glass; faded brown labels, curling at the edges, in front of them. What sort of life is it, when you were designed to be sucked by a sailor (no, that doesn’t sound right…) bring a woolly mammoth to its knees or pass from greasy palm to greasy palm in the purchase of silks and spices? That was the life of these objects and this… this is their interment; this is some hideous, static afterlife being visited by schoolchildren and looking at your own mournful reflection in the glass.

 

Grimdusk

Dusk, the dreaded dusk. Already affected by it, labourers staggered home from stone-picking in winter fields, their eyelids heavy despite the stinging cold; children, quarrelling over their toys, abandoned them, abandoned each other and sat dully by the fireside, fighting sleep to the last. Goodwives fought it, determined to finish the sweeping, or that bit of sewing, but it was useless. Dusk seeped into them, overcame them all. They dreaded it, for they knew what to expect: in the morning, blood on the snow. Another family – sometimes two families – vanished. Sometimes a finger, sometimes a tooth or a severed hand, but mostly – only blood.

Once more the Feeders.

Sleep crept up on Gimli too, and as always he noted it’s slow progress with meticulous care. It seemed to start from the feet and work up, he noted. Pins and needles, then a general lassitude. No matter how you fought it, as you jerked awake next morning you would have forgotten – where, how, the exact moment you lost consciousness. Gimli suspected the body might continue on until it reached it’s destination. There seemed always to be a gap in time. However tardy you were in returning, in that eerie gap, your body sleepwalked to the kin-hall.

Except tonight. He and Edil Wisewife had been experimenting with herbs from one of the far valleys. She had noted the effect of her herb concoction on larbils. Administering the drug to the creature as dusk fell, she slept, but in the morning examined its cage. The sand in the bottom was churned up. She had designed a clever exercise wheel to record the number of rotations it made as the little creature ran inside it. In the morning, the larbil was exhausted and wheel showed evidence of vigorous use.

Now it was Gimli’s turn. Swiftly, before it was too late, he drew the green glass vial from his pocket and drank the bitter liquid therein.

It worked. He hid in bushes on the outskirts of the village and watched sister moons Menem and Fley, rising in tandem, bright disks in the night sky. It was beautiful – and something he had never expected to witness. It worked! Now, at last, he would see what the Feeders looked like, what monsters they were.

He had hidden his father’s broadsword under the straw. It was within arm’s reach. If the worst came to the worst and they discovered his hiding place, he would fight them. The sword was heavy, but he knew that he could lift it. His arms itched and burned for a fight. Rage coursed in his veins as he thought of his countrymen – all the lost kin. The blood on the snow every morning. Hot rage churned in his guts. He felt… strange. He felt… he was frightened of how he felt. He seemed to be growing both in height and width, splitting and breaking, growing a bony carapace. Looking down at his hands, Gimli drew a shuddering breath as he saw them elongating, changing colour, growing an extra set of finger joints and long, scimitar claws…

Overnight the snows melted. Spring was in the air, but blood was smeared on wet grass, and daubed on the door of Gimli’s kin-hall. All five of them had been taken – the father, the mother, the little sister and the baby, and of course Gimli himself, a well-liked, intrepid boy. A wooden talisman – the one Gimli had carved for his sister – was discovered cast aside at the foot of the door, it’s ties broken and bloody with shreds of flesh attached. The ties were made of leather, and cut wide to resist loss or breakage. Creature or creatures must have ripped it from her neck.

“In a way, it’s a mercy,” said the goodwives as they clustered around the wash-trough. “If he’d been spared the boy would have been in torment. How could he have lived on alone?”

Had the snow remained they might would have seen footsteps leading away from the village, footsteps which changed as they ran – from long, clawed and bony to those of a young man, barefooted.

Had the snow remained they might have tracked those footsteps all the way to the sea, and to the cliff’s edge, and they might have looked over and seen, already bleaching clean in the cold light of Spring, a young man’s splintered bones.

grimdusk.jpg

The Lady Vanishes

I really don’t like people staring at me. I had a job in a pub once, as a barmaid. Eleven days I lasted. I was the world’s worst barmaid for several reasons, not just the staring.

For starters I panic when stressed: the sight of a party of seven would-be revellers shambling in, including women (so not all going to want beer) reduced me to a quivering wreck.

I can add up forwards but not backwards, hence giving change for a £20 note will always be a challenge. I’d be alright if there was time  to write it down…

I am lacking in proactivity, ie I either don’t see stuff that needs doing or can’t motivate myself to do it. That’s a problem when there are greasy meaty plates to be collected, tables to be wiped, glasses to be polished until they twinkle.

I don’t do social interaction. I never could do flirting (which at my age is probably a mercy for any potential flirtee); I can’t achieve banter (pron: nowadays, with obligatory glottal stop: ban-eeeer); I don’t tend to see jokes, especially bad ones; I can’t laugh on demand, especially at bad jokes I have heard many times before; I don’t like people.

But the worst thing about being a barmaid was  the staring. Men, in pubs, stare at the barmaid. Even if you are nothing-like-Angelina-Jolie they will inspect your bosoms (yes, they will) at length, minutely and continually. Their eyes will follow you from one end of the bar to the other. If you turn your back on them they will stare at your bottom. If you turn round again they will stare at the bosoms. If you speak to them they will glance briefly at your face, then return to staring at your bosoms. You are television. You are that solitary stripy fish in the fish-tank in the dentist’s waiting room – nobody particularly wants to stare at it but it’s the only moving thing  and there’s nothing else to do…

Women inspect men too, of course. Just not the bosoms.

Hence – by a majestic swoop of the imagination – why I did not want a For Sale sign. I have had For Sale signs before. The second that little van arrives and the man with the mallet emerges all the neighbours know. Furthermore, they feel obliged to speak to you, about your moving.

So, you’re moving house I see?

Not too keen on it round here, then?

Not been here long, really, have you?

‘Course, you only moved up here to be near your Old Mum, didn’t you? Now she’s, you know, tucked away somewhere, it’s inevitable you would be moving.

Going somewhere nice? Going far?

Ah, I ‘ve heard it’s nice round there. Never been, but my cousin did once.

This time I didn’t have a For Sale sign and I still sold the house. I had a couple of pretty horrendous Open Days and got an offer. And I thought I might have got away with it until yesterday when she-of-the-Illegal-Scotsman-and-the-Dog-known-as-Big-Puppy caught me collecting the Blue Bin from outside.

Moving, I gather?

Oh, you…?

Yeeees, saw you’d had people in. Visitors. Sorry to see you go and all that, but now your Mum’s safely tucked away… Not too keen on round here, then?

The trouble is, I can’t really complain since I am über-interested in my neighbours. They provide such good material, for this – for stories generally. I never pass a net curtain without checking for activity in the road outside; not that there is much. If there are no humans  I observe sparrows drinking from potholes and stray cats a-straying. The cats sense my presence, of course. Hopefully the humans don’t. If there are humans, well, bonanza!

I watch Charlie chatting to his ex-wife – who has gone very grey recently – over the wheelie bins or the garden fence. No flirting going on there, either, but something … a long friendship. Years between them.

I watch the post-lady belting from door to door , rat-tat-tatting when there’s  a parcel to be handed through. I watch  gloomy people with giant plastic satchels delivering free newspapers, and brisker, younger people with handfuls of fliers for the Indian Restaurant or Nail-Grooming Salons.  I watch the Illegal Scotsman loading up his white van with solar panel paraphernalia and hear him as he turns up some hard rock radio station really loud inside and bumps off up the unmade road, broadcasting Guns n’ Roses. I watch Big Puppy setting off for his constitutional and ancient Her Down The End tottering out, occasionally, to collect a bin. She has developed a habit of collecting other people’s bins too, and wheeling them  down the sides of the houses. It’s kind of her. Always the wrong bin. Always the discreet hunt, then, for the neighbour harbouring the bin with my house number.

green lady