Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

The sound of silence

Your blog is about to be recorded into an audiobook. If you could choose anyone — from your grandma to Samuel L. Jackson — to narrate your posts, who would it be?

I can’t actually think of anything worse than being recorded into an audiobook. My God, people would be playing my spur-of-the-moment ramblings in their cars, in the bath, even. I used to work in a call centre and people would occasionally respond to my market research surveys in the loo. That tell-tale echo. Voice bouncing off porcelain. And sometimes you could even hear….tinkling. But I digress.

But, since this is a hypothetical audiobook…

I thought at first they’d have to be Scottish – simply because I’m not. They would have to sound as unlike me as possible because I don’t like the sound of my own voice. Well, I don’t recognise it. At the above call centre, they used to summon me to Quality Control; we all got summoned: I mean, I don’t think I was summoned more often than anybody else. And they didn’t like the word summoned. They preferred invited.

Quality Control was a claustrophobic’s nightmare, a tiny hot dark little room with a kind of blue control panel and computers, and one of those two-way mirrors like they have in NCIS. While you were standing there, waiting for the Quality Controllers to finish spying on – sorry, monitoring – the current call you could peer out at the call centre floor and watch your fellow interviewers picking their noses, biting their nails, chewing gum, gossiping or canoodling. That bit was fun; the Controller’s nit-picking over one’s performance, not so much. They usually started by telling me I had a good voice, But… (that’s known as the ‘sandwich’ approach to giving feedback – positive then negative then… positive again).

Never mind the But bit. The point is, they would insist on playing the interview back to you. You would hear yourself stumbling through an interview with a wine-sozzled yuppie from Kensington or a deranged housewife from the outskirts of Eastbourne, and you would know, in advance, which bits QC were going to zoom in and slate you on. And it never sounded like me; it sounded exactly like my youngest sister. Why did I sound like her on the outside and like someone else inside my head? It freaked me out.

I did actually have one of my ‘works’ read by an actress. It was a poem – I can’t remember – did I win something? Anyway, I know I had to go to the room above the library and ‘mingle’ uncomfortably with other ‘minglers’. I believe a glass of champagne might have been involved. And she read it so beautifully. I must say, at that moment, I fully realised what actors and actresses were for. Acting is a real skill and it sounded so much better, the way she read it; almost like a proper poem. And somebody asked me for my autograph. My one and only ever autograph request from an African lady in a startling multi-print robe and a toque. Bless her.

And then I thought – maybe Scottish is too narrow: anything Celtic would do. I’m technically a sixteenth Scottish, and prefer to think of myself as a Celt. Just watered down a bit. Does it have to be a woman? Because I was thinking maybe Robert Carlyle (I have rather a thing for men with Scottish accents) or Sean Connery.

And then I thought – no – the perfect disguise – and yet somehow matching my oddness, oldness and quaveriness (yes, there is such a word) would be Barbara Mullen, who played the housekeeper Janet in the ancient, long-running TV series known as ‘Dr Finlay’s Casebook’. There are lots of episodes of Dr Finlay on YouTube but I couldn’t face watching them all in order to find one scene where Janet makes an appearance. But I did find her episode of This Is Your Life, which I will append.

Watching it reminds me how very much I disliked Eamonn Andrews even at the time, and also how dreadful and dark black and white TV was in the sixties. I mean, you feel like you need a torch. What’s happening in there?

In my increasingly faulty memory, the late Barbara Mullen, alias Janet the Housekeeper, was Scottish. Listening to her now I realise that the accent she gave Janet was in fact Irish. Also, having looked her up on Wikipedia, I discover that she was in fact American. You could have knocked me down with a feather, as they say. Her parents emigrated to Boston from the Isle of Inishmore off the coast of County Clare, Ireland but she didn’t return to this country until she was twenty. So she must have had an American accent, and borrowed the Irish from her mother and father. I like stuff like that.

 

 

 

 

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.

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…

EVENING SHIFT HALLOWEEN

Bye BYE, says Ciggie Annie, finishing her survey with the customary high-volume flourish and coughing fit.

Faint mocking echoes from around the call centre, everyone in their rabbit hutches-no-pods so you can’t see who’s doing it:

Bye BYE …

Bye BYE …

Bye BYE…

Somebody giggles.

Over my head hangs a giant spider in black sugar paper, with orange-and-silver eyes. I don’t mind spiders but every time I look up this one is getting lower. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble. There are artificial cobwebs sprayed silver. There’s a hand with black fingernails poking out from behind the flickering strip-light. A fire risk, no doubt.

Bye BYE…

BYE…

In the kitchen someone is on their ten-minute break and is microwaving a curry. It is a meaty one, I can tell.

In what type of…type of housing does your target customer live?

Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment? Houseboat? Condo…condo…condo…minny-um, thank you. Single-family house?

Who lives with your target customer?

Parent? Grandparent? Child? Romantic partner? Romantic partner?

(They mean like spouse, or boyfriend)

Romantic partner? Grandparent? Nobody?

Giving Margaret the woolly bear was a mistake. I just meant it as a good luck gift for the radiotherapy but she got better afterwards, or for the time being better, and now she can’t throw it away. I just meant it for luck but it’s become a talisman to her, a kind of amulet. She daren’t lose it. Did the wrong thing there.

In what type of housing does your target customer live?

The one who looks like a witch, except it isn’t fancy dress. Never remember her name but she’s sat next to me tonight. She says she can see my aura. It’s purple, she says, and purple is a really, really excellent colour for an aura. It means… I can’t remember what it means. Since then I’ve been squinting sideways in between surveys trying to catch other people’s auras by surprise, which she says is the best thing to do. But I still can’t see them.

Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment?

Apartment? Like flat? That you live in?

Apartment?

Why can’t I see other people’s auras? If only I could. You’d thing I’d be able to. At least mine’s purple. I expect that’s something royal, something highly advanced on the spiritual plane.

Oh, yoghurts again.

Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in a store-bought yoghurt?

Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?

We were told we could come in fancy dress but not many people have. One of the floor-walkers has a witches’ hat with streamers. Agency punk girl flounces past in a pink tutu and shredded black stockings. Spiders’ webs painted on her cheeks with eyeliner.

Thicker texture?

Which is most important to you when selecting a store-bought yoghurt?

All the men are looking. Still surveying, but looking. Are they actually suspenders?

Value for money? Attractive packaging?

Positive. Vivacious. BUBBLY. At all costs, bubbly.

The very old guy in the corner is sinking lower and lower, as if hoping eventually to merge with the fabric of the desk. He came back from the colonies expecting to be still employable as something high up in an office, like he used to be. He told me once what it was. Something responsible and administrative in connection with accounts. But he wasn’t. Employable. No one wanted him. He has a lovely voice for the phones though. Deep. Respondents like deep. Soothing. Trustworthy. They like the sound of older men but not older women. Particularly Ciggie Annie.

Bye BYE.

He has a much-younger wife from some middle-European country – Slavic or Baltic or something – and he loves her. Perhaps she was mail order. He’s desperate to earn money to  regain her respect, keep her stitched to him, and this is all he can get. Despair bows him lower and lower as the evening wears on. He’ll no doubt die here. Fall off his swivel chair. Or if he stays on his chair the Certified First Aiders will wheel him out, one on either side to keep him sat up. I’ve seen that happen.

Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt?

That curry’s disgusting.

Why is Ginger Martin wearing a baby-gro with ears?

They’re called onesies. He’s come as a teddy-bear.

You know those pumpkin faces you light candles in – how do you actually make them?

You don’t know that either? Good God, woman, where have you been?

How do you tell someone – concisely – that no one ever carved a pumpkin for you, and you couldn’t have children so you never got to carve pumpkins for them? How do you tell them you’ve never so much as touched a pumpkin, or a child for that matter?

How do you tell them that on your birthday party, which consisted of the little fat girl from down the road since Mum didn’t like people coming in, your Dad arrived home from work and sat at the tea table, a giant in his green overalls, and ate all four of the chocolate swiss-rolls on the plate, and you found yourself throwing a tantrum because at least one of the chocolate swiss-rolls was meant to be for you and one for the little fat girl because it was after all your birthday party. And then Dad hit you round the ears and the little fat girl got sent home with a smug look on her face and there were no more birthday parties after that.

How do you tell them you spend every Christmas morning alone with your Mum, looking out at her sunny, overgrown garden and dead hydrangea heads? And that she might eat half the microwave meal you brought with you and microwaved for her in her microwave that’s all rusty and manky before jabbing her bony old finger at you and starting on the usual litany:

It’s All Your Fault, Whoever You Are.

I’m Going To Walk Out And Drown Myself Tomorrow.

You Might As Well Go Home Now I’m Sure I Don’t Want You.

How do you tell them you’ve never had fun, ever, not once in your life, and if fun were to happen to show signs of happening to you nowadays you’d be terrified?

I’m standing here naked, says the man.

Oh, I see, I say, thankful that I can’t.

Do you mind me answering your questions Naked, Young Lady?

Young Lady! I got a Young Lady!

No, I don’t mind. But would you like a chance to fetch your dressing gown?

No, I’m fine as I am. Naked. I like to be Naked sometimes. On the phone. He sighs, in a suspiciously shuddery way.

Well then, I say. Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt? Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?

Thicker texture, he says. Oh definitely. The thicker texture.

There is a wrenching of polystyrene panelling as part of the ceiling sags down into the room. Luckily it’s sagging over some other woman’s head not mine. Ginger Martin in his baby-gro-no-onesie, clatters out with a giant aluminium stepladder and teeters plumply at the top of it trying to push the panel back. It doesn’t want to go. The woman below him is a real pro, none of your temp trash, and goes on with her survey. I can just about hear she’s on Hair Care:

Which of the following products do you use at least once a week?

Volumizer? Curl activator?

What’s curl activator, I wonder.

Straightener? Sculpting wax?

Wax? In your hair!

Heat protector?

The polystyrene panelling still teeters over her head, as does Ginger Martin on his stepladder in his onesie. She’d have an interesting view if she looked up, but she doesn’t.

If you could choose only one hair care product other than shampoo, which would you choose?

Volumizer? Curl activator? Sculpting wax?

On my other side, Jonathan stands up, turns around and sits down. He does that that every now and again, and in between he’s rocking. There’s something a bit wrong with Jonathan. This job’s ideal for someone with something a bit wrong. Most of us fall into that category.

Do you have any paracetamol? he asks.

I give him two from my stash. I don’t use them myself, they don’t touch my headaches, worse than useless, but I bring a packet in because everybody kind of expects Old Biddies to have handbags-full of pain-killers, safety-pins and paper tissues.

Any indigestion tablets while you’re at it? He asks, standing up, turning round and sitting down again. He gets incredibly stressed, does Jonathan. I like him. We have something in common but I don’t know what. He can only ever sit facing the door, otherwise he falls into a panic and throws a hissy fit. I pass him a whole sheet of Rennies. It’s a big box.

Keep the rest for later.

He blows his nose, loud and squelchy, and throws the wet rag onto the growing heap in the back corner of his cubicle. He’s getting the cold that’s going round. He begins to rock in his chair. I saw a Gnu do that in the zoo, once.

In what type of (sniff!) housing does your target customer live?

Any minute, the paper spider’s going to get me.

That curry just doesn’t dissipate.