Don’t Be Bored

I think of myself as organised, and I am – in most things. Just not really when it comes to writing. Something to do with the white heat of creativity, possibly. I get all these ideas at inconvenient times, and scribble them down on this or that. At intervals I become dismayed by the piles of this and that – the pages torn from notebooks, the notebooks with scraps glued into them, the half-written short stories held together by rusty paperclips; the planned short stories – bundles of file paper, scraps, bits of cereal packets stapled together and now unintelligible. At that point I have a Sort Out – spend a whole day putting stuff in wallet files of different colours and labelling the files with marker pen. Finally, when Heaps of Stuff overwhelm me, I throw them all into a cardboard box and put the cardboard box somewhere. The cardboard box then gets lost, or buried under Other Heaps of Stuff in the garage.

This cardboard box, however, was in the cupboard under the stairs. I rarely venture into the cupboard under the stairs because it contains a lingering smell of cigarettes. I didn’t notice anything when I viewed the house – and I have a keen nose – but I reckon they must have been smoking secretly in the cupboard. Either that or it lingers in an enclosed space where the door is rarely opened. However, that’s where I had put the cardboard box. I dragged it out and spent a morning going through it and finding – to my delight – all sorts of things I thought I had lost, including one file on which I had scrawled Don’t Be Bored. I think I must have been planning an e-book. Then got Bored.

It dated back to the job at the call centre. I was so Bored at the call centre but we weren’t allowed to have anything that looked like Entertainment on show in our little plywood hutches – sorry, pods. If the Floor-Walker caught you…yes, our supervisors were called Floor-Walkers, because they walked the CATI – which was an acronym for something – basically an industrial unit crammed with rows of plywood pods, and ancient computers with keyboards so beat-up the letters had vanished. Touch-typing came in handy. Those who couldn’t touch-type attached little paper letter-labels to the keys with chewing-gum, or painted them on with Snopake, which then melted and stuck to the fingers.

If a Floor-Walker spotted a mobile phone, a dog-eared paperback, one of those crossword-puzzle/Wordsearch/Sudoku books, cough-sweets, half-eaten yoghurts or anything that wasn’t paper or a single biro she would whisk it away. Apart from Robert’s permanent pile of snotty tissues. They got left.

We were allowed paper, though. And one biro. If you lost your biro you had to pay for any subsequent ones. We stole them ruthlessly from one other, along with headsets-that-worked, stray foam-rubber ear-cushions and not-entirely-wrecked chairs. Paper it was, then – to get me through a seven hour shift of cold-calling with long gaps in between. I folded it into fans, each fold exactly coinciding with the ruled feint. Then I folded the folds back the other way. Then I folded them back the first way again. Hour after hour after hour. Or sometimes Ideas would come, and I would make cryptic notes to myself in shorthand-and-shopping-list.

I was planning a whole series, I see from my cigaretty-smelling notes – Things To Do When…

  • It’s Raining…
  • The TV Just Exploded…
  • You Have No Money…
  • The Lights Go out …
  • You’ve Got To Sit And Wait…

And these are some of my notes for You Have No Money:

Watch clouds/people/the sea

Draw – a good way of looking

Walk – if necessary in circles or a figure of 8

Use stuff you already have, eg large-scale maps + string to plan a longer walk. Roadmaps to plan a walk round Cornwall, Ireland, from Landsend to John o’Groats, all round Britain…

(NB: string – you can use string to calculate distances on a map. You use the scale at the bottom of the map to knot the string at ‘five-mile’ intervals – then you arrange the string round the route you intend to take, count the knots and that’s the miles. If you know how long it takes you to walk a mile – it used to take me 15 to 20 minutes – you can also calculate how many hours the walk will take you. No doubt there’s an App for it now.)

Origami (printer paper)

Cut out snowflake patterns or newspaper people strings, colour them, and hang them up (printer paper)

Invent a code

Invent own shorthand system

Design a “prison cell” exercise routine. Do that routine every morning for a week. I did actually design one (I know, sad) which used the stairs for running up and down and bottles of water for weights. Why go to the gym and be embarrassed by sweaty, fit-looking people in leotards?

Read all the books you have in the house, either by author or in alphabetical order. Include e-books. If you don’t tend to keep books join a library and, like Jeanette Winterson, read fiction from A to Z.

Decide on something you want to learn in depth (maybe something that could make you money eventually). Use the library together with any resources you have, to do this. Index the notes for easy reference as the file grows.

Teach yourself to make crosswords. Start by copying a grid from a local paper and making up your own clues and answers.

Volunteer. This is probably more relevant to town-dwellers since it needs to be within walking distance, as travel costs money. Even walking costs shoe-leather, of course. Even breathing… I can’t remember how breathing costs money, but I know I calculated once that it did.

Make vegetable sculptures. Why not try carrots and potatoes? (yes, I actually wrote that). Have a competition for the best Potato Head. If careful can re-use the vegetables as vegetable hot-pot (cut up). Did I really think someone was going to throw a Mr Potato-Head or Mrs Carrot-Snake whole into a hot-pot?

Pasta jewellery. What can I have meant by this?

I’ve written far too many words already so I’ll save the Raining, Broken TV and Lights Out lists for another time. Maybe.

Wouldn’t want anyone getting overexcited.

God bless us, every one!

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve done all the meaningful, useful things I can think of to do – like packing most of my 2,000 books into cardboard boxes ready for the decorator who’s coming to paint the living room next week, and taking delivery of two more sacks of cat litter – What have you got in here, coal? asked the courier.  I’ve watched Ice Road Truckers – one of the old ones I’d missed – plus yet another Extraordinary Weather Events , 2015 programme (foam blowing in from the sea in Devon … a three-day plague of locusts in Mongolia … hailstones the size of frozen turkeys in Texas …) plus yet another montage of People You Had Already Forgotten About Or Never Heard Of In The First Place, Who Died In 2015. I’ve done a little heap of ironing, sighed a bit, moped about a bit and wished I didn’t have to go and see my mother tomorrow a bit. A lot.

I don’t want to be there with her on my own, chilly and subtly unwelcome – no teensy-tiny sherry, no sticky mince-pie, no tree, not a shred of tinsel. I don’t want to be perched on a green metal garden chair, just like on a Sunday – like every Sunday from here to – whatever the backwards of Eternity is – writing capital-letters notes for her to throw straight onto the floor without reading, or read aloud so badly all the sense has gone from the words.

I can’t be doing with yet another incomprehensible tantrum or yet another update on hauntings by gypsies, voices coming through the walls and plots to divert her drains several feet to the left. I don’t honestly feel like racking my brains for something sensible, sociable and different to say to the lunchtime carer when she arrives – when everyone else in the whole of the United Kingdom (apart from me and tomorrow’s unfortunate carer) is at home enjoying a Family Christmas with turkey, sprouts, stuffing and giant tins of lager, sniping at the cousins or the in-laws and playing Scrabble or Donkey Kong, whatever that might be. Or doing carol-karaoke with the TV set.

What an awful thing for a daughter to say. But she won’t remember it’s Christmas.  I’ll have to make us tea in those tea-stained mugs, and microwave us something if the carers haven’t beaten me to it. She’ll be miserable, and by the time I do leave I’ll be miserable too. It makes me sad to be spending Christmas morning examining dead leaves on an overgrown lawn, wondering why it always has to be wet or sunny for Christmas, never snowy. The same dead leaves, brown hydrangea flowers, black skeleton trees. Listening to the kitchen clock ticking louder, louder, louder in the uncommunicative mega-silence deafness and dementia impose.

I want to be on my own. She wants to be on her own. I’m wondering what the cats are wrecking in my absence. She’s plotting to take her shopping trolley for a long, illegal walk. She’s just waiting for me to go. My name has probably escaped her. So why am I there, then? Presumably because everybody else has got an excuse. And after all, it’s Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

What else have I been up to today? Well, I’ve been surfing the net, as the young folks call it nowadays. I was a bit stuck for an idea for a post. I mean, I know what I planned to do: I was going to finally start work on Midwinter (see Midwinter Unwritten). I even typed up a summary last night.  but did I write it? No I did not. I got an idea for another post – anything to put off Midwinter – and surfed about looking for background information on that.

And then I fed the fourteen cats.

And then it got dark outside and still I hadn’t seen a single neighbour – though one did push a card through my door and make a run for it.

And then I ate a raspberry yoghurt and a bowl of cinnamon breakfast cereal.

And then I realised I’d run out of space yet again, chugging on about other stuff. I will be writing the substitute post. Maybe this evening after the washing up – one plate, one knife, one fork, one mug and fourteen melamine dishes, each with a different Disney character in the base. Or maybe tomorrow,  après Mama, except that going to see her seems to leach all the writing-ness out of me. And Midwinter. Probably.

Merry Christmas Everybody. Or Season’s Greetings or whatever you’re supposed to say to be politically correct nowadays. Or, as Tiny Tim said, waving his crooked little stick in the air:

God bless us, every one!

Trying to find lots of things not to do

For many years I worked in a solicitors’ office. Mostly we were worked off our feet but every now and then for some reason the work supply dried up and we got pretty bored. One afternoon my colleague Madeleine, employing a perfectly-shaped fingernail for the purpose, prised off all the keys from her word-processor and placed them neatly in the lid of a typing-paper box. Firstly she turned the keyboard upside down to shake out the cake crumbs (she was a great one for cake) dust, paperclips and those little white dotty hole-punchings. Not satisfied with the results she began to bang it loudly on the desk. The rest of us watched her, fascinated. I think at this point she must have had an inkling that what she was doing might be a bit obsessive, somehow, but couldn’t quite stop. Next she took out her special soft keyboard-cleaning brush and cleaned all up and down those little aisles between the letters. Not satisfied, she bent over the little aisles and gently blew to get rid of the last remaining specks of dust. Then, frowning slightly, she reached into the typing-paper box lid for the first of the letters. No way could she remember where the letters went on all those naked pegs, and we could all see her problem, but nobody remarked on it. Madeleine rose in dignified silence, walked over to the spare desk and unplugged the keyboard from that computer. Nice one! Using the borrowed keyboard as a pattern she began to try to press the nice clean keys back onto the nice clean keyboard. Half an hour later she picked up the phone and summoned our computer engineer. She was in need, she said, of a little assistance. If he wasn’t too busy. When he had a moment.

Boredom and I don’t mix – I get evil inside. But I used to hide the inside evilness as best I could. I would tidy out my desk drawer, sharpen all the pencils and make the elastic bands (the place ran on elastic bands) into a kind of ball. If there was a draught I would wind my pink scarf around my ankles to keep them warm, half hoping I would forget about it when I next stood up. I once made a lengthy instruction leaflet for the office typewriter, which we kept for doing labels. Sometimes I would pick up a file and walk around with it. We all did this. You could spend a good half an hour, walking around. The trick was to pause if you saw a Partner coming down the corridor, open the file and start perusing, whilst still walking, picking up speed even, thus indicating that you were so overburdened with work that you were working even in transit.

At another solicitor’s office, the Partner I worked for went off sick, long-term. He was a horrible man and I did not miss him, though regretting, in a formal way, that he was unwell. There was nothing for me to do, or at least nothing I understood to do. Commercial conveyancing wasn’t my strong point. Simultaneously, recession struck in full force and I sensed that, having been Last In, I was destined to be First Out. I had never been made redundant before. I was on my own, with bills, a mortgage and innumerable cats. I believe I was more frightened during those few weeks than I have ever been in my life, and the business of looking busy took on a suicidal intensity.

They gave me a task. It was Checking The Wills. There was this stack of long trays full of handwritten white cards, each of which had details of somebody’s Will on it. The cards were ancient, dog-eared and mainly unreadable. And you know when you get those phantom alphabetical sequences? Someone puts one card in wrong and then a whole alphabet-within-an-alphabet comes into being. There were lots of those. For each small batch of will-cards I had to remove a key from a hook, go down a spiral staircase, cross a damp yard, unlock an outbuilding and find the corresponding will files. The will-files were also full of phantom alphabetical sequences. They were also very heavy. When I had found them I had to bring them out, lock the outbuilding, re-cross the damp yard, ascend the spiral staircase, return the key to the hook and sit checking files against cards, making sure the details were all correct. They mostly weren’t. I did that for weeks and weeks. Nobody was talking to me by this time – a kind of muffled silence fell whenever I entered the room.

One lunch hour I walked down the High Street and into the local care agency and asked if they could offer work to someone like me, should the worst happen. I spent one whole weekend shadowing an experienced carer, from eight in the morning till eight at night. I saw some things in those two days that I never ever want to see again. Redundancy/pennilessness followed shortly and was actually the more bearable scenario. I never did complete the Checking of the Wills.

Eventually, after a four-week temp assignment with the National Health (entering data from surveys completed by midwives onto a computer and not being allowed to use any of the mugs in the kitchen cupboard because those were Staff mugs) followed by a spell of sitting about on those blue plush, backless squares at the Job Centre, having forms completed on my behalf by people who could actually write, and being asked if I had filled in my Job-Seeking Diary for this week, I spotted a large advert on the back page of the free newspaper: Telephone Interviewers Wanted. I applied and got the job – as everyone actually did, if sentient. I adapted myself to a new culture and a new dress-code, something I had never heard of, smart-casual. In fact it was more casual than smart – fairy-wings, ripped jeans, teddy-bear onesies, hippie tie-dye, men wearing skirts, wellington boots and dangly earrings – anything went.

Also a new species of boredom. In between my ninety-second and ninety-third repetitions of the same script I would attempt to learn a few more lines of one of the photocopied poems I had smuggled in in the back of my notebook. I would write secret messages to myself in Teeline. I would amuse myself with complex calculations involving the hourly rate on the National Minimum Wage, minus twenty-minutes unpaid, the cost per mile of petrol, tax at 25% deducted – and give up, confused. Was I actually making any money, overall? How many hours per week were optimum, on a zero-hours contract? I would fold a sheet from that notebook in half and then carefully along each ruled feint line to make a concertina. Then I would turn the concertina around and re-fold the folds in the opposite direction, then I would draw a pattern on some of the folds and not others. I would draw biro flowers, always the same design, a centre, five leaves, a stalk, two leaves…