I wish I was a human being

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?

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Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

Everybody’s talking at me…

So far I have been looking for things to ‘snap’ around the house, but it’s been one of those days and I just couldn’t locate any Talking Heads, Jabbering Clowns etc to go with my title.

(Change the title, then, why don’t you?

Too tired!)

It’s been one of those days. One of those days when, after days of blessed silence, broken only by hisses and miaows and the occasional politician blathering on about Brexit, I have been forced to delve deep into my pitiful pot of sociability and talk to people. And all day! It’s too much.

It started with the fridge. The fridge is less than a year old and you might think it would leave me alone, but no. The milk I poured onto my cereal was warm. Everything in the fridge-bit and the freezer-bit was warm. Everything was soggy. I was due to leave the house at quarter to nine so at half past eight I had to have a long conversation with a young woman in a call centre, who sold me yet another lot of fridge insurance (I just cancelled the previous lot but it was the only way I could escape) and promised me an engineer next Wednesday. Five or six day without a fridge. I missed the bus, of course.

Which meant I found myself catching the same bus as Bertie and, not only that, sharing the subsequent train since he was on his way up to London and then down towards the West Country. Bertie is a nice chap but extremely hard work, listening to. And he now wants to know whether I am married. Why? Maybe he’s just curious. Innocently curious.

He is worried about his train connections, and about whether he will be able to book in to his usual hotel room when he gets down there; also whether he will be able to find some flowers to buy (he has to buy some flowers). I am worried about my fridge and what is happening to all those strawberry yoghurts and bottles of milk I didn’t have time to dispose of before running for the later bus. They will have to fester till I get home.

And then there is the conversation with Godmother in the car. Godmother is a piece of cake compared to either Bertie or the woman at the electrical appliances call centre, but I am running out of steam. I am also having to explain why I am so late.

Then there is the conversation with Mum, although today she seems more interested in New Homes By The Seaside, and paddling two pieces of bread around in a bowl of green soup. Godmother and I speculate as to why the soup is always exactly this shade of green, and whether it might be pea, or some sort of pea and mushroom mix.

Another conversation with Godmother on the way back to the station. Exhausted slump in a train, then another train. Half an hour at the bus stop. Teenager on the bench beside me suddenly looks up from his mobile phone and begins to talk to me. There must be something wrong with him, I think. The only people who talk to me at bus stops are people with something wrong with them.

He shows me his app, for the buses, which reveals that our bus is currently passing the fire station just down the road, but it has to go past us and go off somewhere else before coming back, so there’s at least another fifteen minutes to wait. He tells me about the sort of music he likes, which he says has a lot of beat and people shouting or talking over the top. Sounds like what Next Door play. He asks me what sort of music I like. I say I listen to Heart, thinking that might be trendy. He says Heart isn’t really modern music. He explains the online game he likes to play, and how you can wear costumes, or join the police, or wield a sword – anything you like – and how he has friends all over the world, playing the same game at the same time. I tell him of my adventures with the little boat in that dementia game, Sea Hero Quest. He thinks he has heard of that.

He asks me if I have got Netflix and what I watch TV programmes on. He tells me that the pattern is changing and young people watch on all sorts of devices. I already knew this, but I nod, wondering if he might be practising his chatting up techniques on a safe old lady before venturing into the world of Real Girls. He looks no more than fifteen, and I suspect he is shy. He’s practising. Good for him.

He asks me what people did before television. His mother has told him that people played card games and such. I tell him that I can only vaguely remember the world before television, since we got one when I was seven or thereabouts, but I remembered my grandparents playing card games. And talking. Talking? He seems interested in that. He asks me if television was really black and white once upon a time, and had there really only been two channels like his mother said?

At home I dispose of all the runny yoghurts and soggy loaves of bread from the fridge. I recycle the plastic pots. I tip away four pints of warm, suspicious-smelling milk. I fish out anything else that doesn’t look as if it’s going to last till Wednesday.

I remember that I am supposed to be ringing that lady from yesterday’s bus journey, the one who thought I might be interested in outings to Southend to eat fish and chips, in a mini-bus with other people our age, collected from my door and returned, after. Trips to the theatre; get-togethers (with optional fish-and-chip suppers) in pubs and so much more. I have her telephone number on a scrap of paper and I have promised to ring her. Yesterday.

I am slightly interested, I suppose, thinking about all that potential subject matter for the blog, and also the possibility that the company of other humans might do me good. But I can’t face it tonight.

Not another conversation. Just not tonight.

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Winning Ways With a Scarf

Apparently, the above knitted monstrosity represents an Ewok, which is something to do with Star Wars. It certainly looks cosy. I just don’t think I could carry it off, particularly at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

I’ve been thinking about clothes again. This is because tomorrow – yes, tomorrow (silent, childlike handclapping) I am due for one of my thrice-yearly outings. NB: apparently it is now considered poor English to say ‘thrice’. You can say ‘once’, you can say ‘twice’ but when it comes to ‘thrice’ you are only now allowed to say ‘three times’. B******s to that – it’s my beloved language, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I am going to meet my friend N at the University of Kent for The Bletchley Girls. I have written about my friend N before. N used to be my boss but by some miracle we managed to stay in touch and become friends after I left the firm. I have written before about student productions N and I have attended at the Gulbenkian (a theatre on campus at the University of Kent) and also of the illicit amusement to be had from student productions, in Some Fairly Substantial Fairies. (It seems to be a day for links today; what a fiddle links are). This, however, looks like a nice change from that. It’s an evening with two ladies, Ruth Bourne and Pat Davies, both now in their nineties, who were part of the predominantly female work force at Bletchley Park during the last war, working night and day to intercept messages and break codes. Ruth Bourne was eighteen at the time, a naval rating selected to operate the Bombe – one of genius Alan Turing’s machines.

It sounds good – nothing to be sniggered at over coffee in the interval there (unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, my mind has turned to more mundane matters. What to wear for it.

I was never very good with clothes, even when I worked for N in a posh office. It was always something of a struggle to compose my ‘look’ for the day, and sometimes I got it wrong and had to cower around all day in the wrong dress or even – more than once – non-identical shoes. You have to just keep your feet under the desk when you do that. Another tip – if yoghurt spills down your office blouse just before a client comes in – on with the cardigan and clutch it casually around you. Yet another – if skirt hem starts to unravel and no handy sewing kit in desk, staple said skirt. Aim sharp side of staple outwards otherwise – if tights ladder, arrest that run with a blob of nail-varnish or – if really desperate, soap. Soap tends to let you down.

The only thing I did get complimented on was my scarves. Year upon year there used to be a class advertised in the prospectus for the Adult Education Centre – Winning Ways With a Scarf, by Mrs Minnie HaHa, or something similar. Every year I planned to sign up for it, but never did. It sounded so like the one in the Joyce Grenfell monologue – Useful and Acceptable Gifts. I just seem to have a natural gift for impressive scarf-flinging. My niece taught me a new one a few years back – the back-to-front one that makes you look like Lawrence of Arabia. The trouble is, you can’t exactly venture out in an impressively-flung scarf and ‘nowt else.

arab scarf

Gosh, that’s a monster of picture. I thought it was going to be teensy.

[My father, by the way, danced with Joyce Grenfell in India. During the war. She would have been 106 if she hadn’t died in 1979. And drove her back to the railway station afterwards. Thought you’d like to know that. He was so proud.]

But now of course, there’s the money situation. I always wondered why old ladies’ clothes looked as if they had come from charity shops. Now I understand. It’s because they haven’t been able to buy any new ones for many, many years and the clothes have become… limp and vaguely grey. Eventually, presumably, if you carried on wearing them for a century or so, they would actually be all the same colour. Grey is the new… everything. Garments are quite substantial nowadays. They don’t tend to wear out, whatever Marks & Spencer would have you believe. They just gently, sadly, wilt.

What one has to do in this situation, Gels, is aim for the least unacceptable and/or least noticeable look. This will probably involve faded black leggings and the sale-reduced black ‘going out’ dress again. It’s so old it just kind of dangles, miserably from the hanger – no perk left in it at all. Or maybe I could aim for trousers and a cardigan with… something or other, possibly a tee shirt, under the cardigan. With a scarf to disguise or at least distract from its tee-shirt-ness. And footwear – well, it’s probably going to have to be the boots, even though it’s May and the sun has inconveniently started to shine. It’ll be evening. Bound to be a bit chilly and boot-suitable by evening. Or the flat shoes that start to pinch after half an hour but can be taken off in the car. I can drive barefoot. Except there’s all those bits of glass lingering around from when the neighbours’ ridge-tile crashed through the windscreen in a gale. It’s a toss-up between cuts or blisters, really.

No doubt one will cease to worry once in there and safely ensconced in one of those midget, itchy theatre seats. Have to stack the legs sideways to avoid pins and needles… No doubt Joyce Grenfell would have had to do the same.

But then of course, Dad being 6 foot 4, height wouldn’t have been a problem…

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