Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Baby Won't You Please...

Browsing John Medd's blog earlier this morning, I had a small flashback. Not to one of my cherished Jam gigs, though they are fine flashbacks to have, but to an altogether gentler place - a small patch of grass in the centre of the vegetable garden near the chapel at my old school.

 The garden was an oasis of calm in that hive of neuroses and nuns, and even more importantly was one of the few places where you could get perfect reception on your absolutely forbidden, tiny tinny transistor radio at around 1.00pm on a Tuesday when The Charts were broadcast. It was a shining badge of cool to be among the ones who'd heard the new Number One go out LIVE - hearing it third hand on the bus home at 4pm carried no cachet at all. And to be as I was - a possessor of the requisite radio PLUS unusually strong inclusion needs - meant a weekly dance with death as I plotted and planned my way past the sentinel Brides of Christ and bored lay teachers who littered the playground like landmines, to the sacred plot where I and a chosen friend, could hunker down and carry out our rebellious teenage duty.

 On this one particularly warm day we found a cosy spot beneath the runner beans, where we stretched out side-by-side with the radio cradled between our Batiste-smelling heads (perpetual greasy hair was the curse of the average 14-year old in 1978, so copious application of dry shampoo was the only thing that stopped the sebum from running down our necks in hot weather. They don't know how lucky they are these days, with their good shampoo and 'product'.). Sheltered from all sight and pleasantly excited by the progress of the countdown, we began to dance on our backs, twitching gently at first and then gradually beginning to roll and thrash as though we were receiving either the Holy Spirit or a good dose of ECT. By the time John Miles 'Slow Down' came in like a bullet at number eight, we were in free-form interpretive frenzy, flailing our limbs and jerking as we screwed up our eyes and laughed hysterically at the pictures of ourselves we could see in our own heads. "Slow DOWN, Baby...."

 It was when my head spasmed crazily to one side and my eyes opened for a second that I saw the unmistakable, strict black lace up shoe tapping slowly and with incredible menace a foot from my face. Such a shoe could only be cradling a foot that belonged to a nun, and the prominent bone on the skinny ankle confirmed my worst fears that we were being observed by Sister Ignatius Loyola, the pinched, yellowed sadist who had taken holy orders at the age of 14 and consequently held a lifetime grudge against non-ordained females of that very age. My friend was still in ecstatic oblivion and continued to lead us all in the dance (said she) for a good twenty seconds more, until she realised that I had been turned to stone beside her. Her reaction on opening her eyes was more extreme than mine, an exclamation of "Oh, JESUS", which provoked the chillingly calm comment from the nun of "I am afraid not, Gillian. But I AM here on his behalf."

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Oh, oh, the Middle-Aged Ladies...

I had dinner with a female friend last week. I can't really call her a 'girlfriend' with any accuracy, as we're both in ripe middle age so 'girl' doesn't really cut it, and 'lady friend' implies we're somehow sexually involved, which we're not. She's a chum I'm very fond of despite or perhaps because of the wealth of differences between us, not least - as was demonstrated over dinner - in our respective attitudes to our ageing.

 While I'm certainly not blinding myself to where I am in my life (there are certain items of clothing I will never wear again, to my sadness, and the stark hairstyle that was my trademark for many years has been replaced with something softer as I once caught sight of my reflection and realised I looked like a concentration camp guard rather than a gamine) I'm not much given to over-reflection on how I 'feel' about being middle-aged, preferring instead to enjoy getting on with being any age at all. I've stuck with exercise and a decent moisturiser, and prefer to keep any less visible manifestations of 'seasonal changes' between me and my GP.

 This slight preciousness on my part goes back directly to having been the youngest of five sisters and hence prey to continual commentary and interrogation on all my bodily developments, gynaecological and otherwise. How unfondly I recall the announcement of the onset of my menses, made accusingly by my mother in our crowded kitchen which contained at the time all four sisters, various boyfriends and husbands thereof, my horrified father, and two of his cronies from the Catholic Club. My spotty thirteen-year old face was a study in shame as a barrage of supplementary questions were hurled my way on associated topics like cramping, Feminax, and a stern warning to steer clear of Tampax as "you'll never get them in at your age." Add to that the relentless bodily scrutiny undergone and administered by all pupils of single sex convent schools in the 1970's ("She needs a bra." "She doesn't need that bra." "She stuffs her bra." "She needs to trim her pubes". "She told me she masturbates, the dirty cow!") and it comes to feel miraculous that I could ever face my own femininity at all. But I did, and I do, and I generally quite like it - I just don't need to describe it in undue detail.

 So on the afternoon when the Women's Group members were examining (and celebrating) their own cervixes with the aid of some plastic speculums and dental mirrors, I had slunk off to the Library pleading essay commitments. I was not part of the women's drumming group that attempted to percussively mirror and encourage Fran Cosworth's labour pains in 1985 (up to the point at which she went into meltdown and demanded and ambulance and an epidural, to the dismay of The Sisters.). I had to be brought a chair and lowered into it carefully in the hospital as my youngest big sister provided the rest of us with a stitch-by-stitch account of the problematic birth of my nephew. And many years later, I bowed quickly out of a lunchtime chat between two female colleagues (then in their mid-Fifties) which had begun with (look away now if you're as bad as me) "yes, your mid-cycle mucus really DOES change - I sneezed last night and a load shot out!" and was moving unstoppably on to "these days I have to remind Keith to be careful when he's going at it, as it aggravates my scar tissue from when I had the twins...". I'm really not prudish, I just have nothing I want to add.

My chum takes the opposite view, however, and has already signed up for various groups and writing circles in which women get together and share their middle-aged experiences, hopes and fears. And in a good-natured recruitment drive, she quizzed me in the most forthright terms about breast tissue changes, FSH levels, and libido. "When do you think you're going to have your mid-life crisis?" she asked loudly, at one of those choice moments when the rest of the restaurant has fallen into silence. She made it sound like a dental checkup or tax return submission, one of those chores you know you're going to have to attend to at a predetermined time. I reflected briefly, and truthfully replied that I think I had mine in about 2001. "No, no no," my chum assured me. "You weren't even forty then. It doesn't count. You've still got yours to come. And you'll need support." As she talked away about the richness of her encounter groups and the warmth and honesty she finds there, I felt the smallest pang of something like - but not - envy, pleased for her that she can gravitate so easily towards a network of others not only able, but positively keen, to define themselves by their age and gynaecology, but once again feeling that I had no desire whatsoever to join her there. When she jokily mentioned donning "purple and a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me" (my least favourite poem) and my face took on a certain expression, even she knew that she'd lost me. Bless her.

The time may come when I feel differently, but for now I'm getting by on denial and good cosmetics. With any luck, one morning I'll simply wake up and have transmogrified into a rather striking white-haired old lady with a good French pleat and amazing bone structure. I see them around sometimes and the sight always cheers me up. No red hats for those dames. And no red hats for me. Perhaps I need to start a women's group of my own where we get together in a pub, talk highly amusing but emotionally shallow bollocks, check out clumsily how each other's 'doing', and then go home. But would we all have to have sex changes first?

Monday, 18 February 2013


I've got too much work on to write anything at the moment, so in the meantime here's a picture of the sunset taken from the end of my road. It'll have to do.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Enemy Within

Times are tough, life is stressful, and sometimes the only thing that can make you feel better is to develop an irrational hatred of an everyday passing acquaintance, so that when you're having a hard time you can displace every last fibre of your helpless, impotent rage squarely on to them, like a living breathing voodoo doll just made to hold and embody all you despise and fear in the world around you.

My husband is a fairly benign soul who has never had a physical fight in his life (though he takes it on himself to ask strangers on trains to turn down their iPods, so I'm fairly sure he's on borrowed time there), and who moves through the world in a generally peaceable manner. However, he has a sworn Enemy in the man who runs our local DIY shop, and should the simmering cauldron of tension and mutual loathing that has been bubbling away between them for fifteen years ever erupt into physical life, the resulting explosion will be felt as far away as Krakatoa (East of Java).

It all began when we bought our house, which needed an enormous amount of work. Feeling it was only right to support small local businesses where possible, and pleased to be living in an area that still has a full parade of active, occupied small shops selling proper things that people need like apples, chops and rawl plugs, he headed down to the hardware shop in his overalls, clutching his exciting blokey shopping list and hoping to return laden with goodies like caulk, white spirit and several grades of sandpaper. He came back furious.
"Have you seen that twat in the DIY shop? I mean, have you SEEN him?"
I had seen him; a man slightly older than ourselves with a leather jacket and a "40 but still trying"Peter Perrett hairdo, into which he had invested a great deal of work (still does.). He would often stand outside the shop smoking snouts which he put together on one of those little rolling contraptions, and  always held between forefinger and thumb like Private Walker at the start of Dad's Army. I thought he looked a bit of a poseur but that's hardly unusual down here, and anyway he'd been alright to me when I went in for a mop and some clothes pegs.

Apparently though, this is merely evidence of my failure to identify the Antichrist when confronted with one of his mortal forms. Not only is the man evil incarnate, he's a steaming great hypocrite and prat. What kind of man, for example, toadies round "the real DIY men, the bristle-headed builders with their Three Lions tattoos and their plaster-encusted radios, laughing too loudly at all their stupid "jokes" and talking too loudly about football, saying "mate" every two seconds despite being quite well-spoken himself, and is then sneery and snide to the bloke who's been waiting behind them all for ten minutes just because he perceives this bloke to be a weekend DIY-er who probably does something bourgie and capitalist in an office five days a bloody week and come the Glorious Day will be one of the first up against the wall after being made to eat his own stash of gold and diamonds? What sort of man differentiates between his customers that way? And for good measure  charges at least 30% more than B&Q? My husband went out wanting to support the Small Man, and came home wanting the Small Man's head on a pole.

And so it has gone on for fifteen years; hubby glowering in through the window of the hardware shop each time he passes, making sure that his Enemy is still there doing his phoney Man of the People act behind the counter, with his hair (now dyed a stubborn and unflattering jet black) like a dead crow tacked to his stupid boney head, and nodding along to The Damned which he plays non-stop because Brian James once went in and bought a bath plug off him and he lives in hope that he'll drop by again so he can make out they're mates.

The last time we passed, I looked behind me a few yards along the road. "He's just come out of the shop and he's flicking V's at your back," I told hubby, just to see what might happen. "Oh - he's run back in again. Do you think you need to have a word?" Sadly he didn't fall for it, though I think the arrangement they've evolved actually suits them both perfectly well. If they ever went head-to-head, it'd ruin a good vendetta. Much better to keep glaring at one another through a sheet of plate glass. It probably keeps their blood pressure down and makes them much more amenable in the home.

I think I performed a similar function for a singularly unpleasant bus driver for a few years, and am glad to have been of service. A sour putty-faced individual with urine-coloured hair, this man took against me the very first time I got on his bus and made the mistake of saying 'hello' before asking for my ticket. "Where you going?" he barked, before I'd had time to ask, "Ain't got all day to chat, love."After that it was open warfare; he once threw a 20p piece - my change - on the floor for me to fumble over (I showed him, by walking off and leaving it), and when I once proffered a ten pound note for a four pound fifty fare, it was simply the gift he'd been waiting for since we first had met. I was bawled out in front of a bus full of other passengers, whose initial schadenfreude faces turned gradually to masks of pained embarrassment and finally concern, as he tore into me at top volume about my laziness and inconsiderate, selfish behaviour.

Occasionally his bus would drive past me as I walked along the seafront, and somehow he would always spot me from behind the wheel and I him, so that our eyes would lock in an instant of shared hatred. I swear I could see him deciding whether or not to just turn the wheel hard right, and splatter me against the railings. Our relationship hadn't started off like that for me, of course, but I came to loathe him just as much, perhaps because I had a fairly good idea of what he was thinking (I'm trained in this stuff, folks!). I obviously embodied something for him that was quite intolerable - middle class blonde bitch with her trendy Scandinavian work bag and knotted scarf from a holiday in France, never had a hard moment in her pampered life and then thinking she's Lady bloody Bountiful by saying 'hello' to the mug who drives the bloody bus from one end of the sodding Sussex coast to the other and hates every minute of it, what does she think, a 'hello' from her's going to make his bloody day? I mean, who does she think she is?

After a while I just stopped getting on the bus if I saw he was driving it; I would step away and wait for the next one. Then I saw him in the street at the terminal where the drivers changed shift, and though I quite expected him to try and push me into the oncoming traffic, his response to me was one of instant, shocked embarrassment. He looked shiftily all around him, a brown blush spreading up his pasty face, and though I stared as hard as Paddington Bear at him, he couldn't look me in the face. Without his special cab and big steering wheel to protect him, he simply couldn't pull it off. On the street, we were finally equal.

No wonder the DIY man won't come out from behind that counter when my husband's around.