Well, this is where I was at lunchtime today, at a place call Docklands Outlet in Chatham. I think this bit, which is kind of round the back, is probably the Marina rather than the Outlet. I was sheltering from Shopping Man, Shopping Woman and Shopping Infants, and relatively scorching temperatures in a patch of shade six inches by three. I was on a bench, crammed in behind a potted bush identical to the one on the left of the picture. My hip hurt, my feet were swollen and I had only been there an hour and a half. Only two and a half more hours to go before I could go home.
I always head for water when alone and under stress. I must say this wasn’t particularly exciting water, sort of man-channelled, black and not going anywhere much, but it was water, and I was mercifully alone with it. I had just eaten a large dribbly ice cream with a chocolate flake subsiding into it, followed by a double Mars bar, melting so fast I had to eat it before it began to form a chocolately layer in the bottom of my canvas shopping bag. Earlier on I had eaten an expensive toasted cheese sandwich, which wasn’t really agreeing with the chocolate, and Iwas attempting to read a David Mitchell novel called Slade House – much, much shorter but not quite as brilliant as Cloud Atlas – creepy and kind of gothic. But the sun, and the inner battle between melted cheese, melted ice cream and melted chocolate, together with thirst, boredom, loneliness, and the likelihood of being discovered and Sat Next To at any moment by some tedious variant on Shopping Man/Woman/Infants was preying on my mind and I could not really concentrate.
I was on an Outing, in a coach. Only six of us had turned up. One lady’s dog-sitter had let her down, another was ill, another… etc. But most of them had sent along their five pounds anyway, so that was OK. Except for the driver, who wouldn’t be getting as much in the whip-round at the end. I had a conversation with the driver later, about Ant and Dec. He said poor Ant (at last, a way of remembering which of them is which) had been going through such a bad time, what with his wife having left him, and no wonder he turned to drink. I ventured (foolishly) that for all we knew he might have left his wife, or his wife might have left him on account of the drinking. Which came first, the lost wife or the drinking? How could we possibly know?
The driver retorted that it was always the woman’s fault, if she left. (I left.) It transpired that his wife had left him. He then returned to a picture of a large bare lady in the newspaper, whose hands were absently but conveniently cupping the very end part of her gigantic bosoms. I told him those most certainly weren’t real. Silicone, definitely.
Two hours and fifteen minutes. My watch was doing that running backwards thing, like the wall clock in the call centre used to do as I counted down the hours, minutes, seconds even, to the blessed end of another Twilight Shift.
In the end my entire day’s haul was:
- Two plastic peg baskets
- Two planet-saving water bottles (with additional compartment at the bottom for biscuits or some other kind of snack)
- One additional canvas shopping bag
- An eighteen month diary. Eighteen months of not having to think about getting a diary. Excellent. And for some reason it was cheaper than a twelve month diary.
Then it was home again, complete with hurty hip, to feed a house full of cats. Lo and behold a letter from a Debt Collection Agency on the doormat, insisting once again that I owed an electricity company £82.22, the final balance on a house I moved out of five or six years ago. Last time I phoned them and explained that I did not owe it, I could clearly remember paying the final bill, by card, over the phone etc., I got the weary, condescending disbelief thing from the Young Person on the end of the phone, and then another Young Person, and was eventually reduced to tears. I was on the phone to their call centre for what felt like hours after being held in a queue for hours beforehand – but finally they conceded they probably wouldn’t bother me again.
And today, predictably, they were bothering me again. Would I kindly phone them, the letter said, as Further Information was required. With the nineteen cats gnawing at my ankles in search of their evening Whiskas, and the dirt boxes overflowing from a day’s neglect, I phoned instead the Electricity Company (EDF – whose customer service number was not supplied in the letter from the Debt Collection Company, meaning I had to hunt for it on the internet). The Electricity Company tut-tutted quite a lot and read me out a prepared statement saying to please ignore the Debt Collection Agency, which seemed to have been pursuing innocent former EDF customers in error.
Thing is, I very nearly gave in and paid the £82.22 last time, even though I knew I didn’t owe it, simply because I was so wearied and upset and wanted to be rid of them. It was only because I couldn’t afford to pay the same bill twice over that I dug my heels in, and cried all over them instead. This time, had I phoned the Debt Collection Agency as requested rather than being inspired to call the Electricity Company, I would probably have been ground down into paying it.
So how many poor old ladies and gentlemen have been bullied into paying non-existent electricity bills from years back? Will they be getting their money back anytime soon, I wonder?
Ah well, all’s well that ends well. But sometimes I loathe human beings. I loathe them for their all-pervasiveness and their pomposity and their long-suffering condescension and their overflowing shopping bags and their fat, food-stuffed faces. I despise the lot of ’em.
I wonder when and where my next Outing will be?