Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Gift Shop

When the rain suddenly came down, I was laden down with bursting flimsy supermarket bags, one in either hand. My elderly neighbour's shopping list had been ridiculously long for one person. So it wasn't really my fault when I swept a jar of happiness off the second shelf up from the bottom of the shop I'd dashed into.

The clattering of the rain on the pavement outside together with the bell and the brushing of the shop door against the mat as others too, took shelter, did nothing to muffle the shattering of the jar on the floor. Those already inside, browsing gingerly amongst the trinkets and keepsakes took in a collective sharp breath.

The rectangular shop seemed to become an arena, with me standing in the centre of onlookers who were now taller, enabling them to see beyond the cluttered shelves. I was sure that the raindrops on my cheeks would now be steaming away into a cloud above me and mixing with the evaporated happiness. In no time, the shopkeeper would be over and that cloud would yield a bolt of lightning.

I couldn't bolt. It was there for all to see and I was surrounded. All I could do was to scrabble around on the floor, pick up the sharp fragments and lay them in a pile next to the perpetrators, my bags.

'I'm very sorry madam but we have a policy. Breakages must be paid for.'

This was what the mealy-mouthed shoppers wanted. Their smug smiles sent a silent ripple of applause around the shop.

I handed over the money. There was no receipt. The storm outside had stopped and as I made my way to the door, the browsers' futile sifting through the displays for pricey bargains resumed pointedly. But I had broken the one thing they'd been looking for.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Primary Care

You don't expect that when you're paying. I can live with it, though. Receptionists are the same wherever you go. They used to be OK. That was when I came in with George. All over me, in fact. Smiles, couldn't do enough. Yes, I know it was George they were really interested in. Still, the treatment he was getting impressed me and well, here I am. I wanted a bit of it for myself. Regular check-ups, nice nurses, a spotless surgery, appointments whenever you need them and medications handed out over the desk without having to go the chemist. Never got any of that from my GP.

See that one over there? The one looking out of the window? I saw him last time I came in. He's had a leg off. Was in the army. Not working any more, of course. Still gets around though. Testament to how good this place is. And that female over there? She was like a barrel six months ago. Comes here to the weight loss clinic. You wouldn't believe it to look her now. Not an inch of fat on her. Holistic, I think they call it. They can do everything here. I don't even mind which one I see. They've all trained for years and years.

I bet you're wondering what my problem is. Well, between you and me, I'm not ill as such but when you're in your forties and you live alone, contact is good. When I get called in, I'll have to lie down and be examined all over. I won't have to say anything. Some bits are undignified, I admit. The thermometer up your bottom, for one. But on the whole, I'll be treated with respect. They'll talk to me nicely, tell me just how good I am and then when it's all over, I'll get a special treat.

I'm not the only one, you know. It's not something they advertise but there are about six of us altogether. We've all got a special arrangement. Just because we don't have pets with us, doesn't mean a thing. Our money's as good as they next person's. Worth every penny, I'd say.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Perfect Antedote

I have discovered how when I write, I get the most pleasure from juxtaposing the prevailing images, ideas or events in my head and expressing the outcome of this process in words. I suppose it's a just a way of making sense of things and hoping that it will produce something positive and entertaining.

I've always enjoyed the wonderful Sarah Salway's 50 Word Stories and having a go at these myself. The different responses elicited by the pictures are so varied and now I wonder how it might work when there are two images at work. I think that this is how I shall pass the time on this lovely snow day. If all else fails, we shall just light the fire and open a bottle of wine instead. A win-win situation. Writing and wine go together just perfectly.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Sample from My Grandfather's Letters

Here is one of the letters we have transcribed, written by my grandfather during the First World War to his mother:

1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Coy.

My dear Mother,

Yet another letter in typewriting, which really is the quickest and best method for me of letting you know how your Soldier Boy is getting on. Really my day is so full that I haven't got time to sneeze. I am in the Orderly Room working all day and very nearly half the night, and my tea time is occupied in attending an N.C.O's class at the Officer's Quarters. I can just manage to get a drink at about 9.20. prior to 9.20. roll, which I, of course, do not attend, but at which I have to hang round in case the Captain wants anything done.

To-day has been the day of days. Last night late a telephone message came through from Headquarters at Exeter to the affect that a big pot from the Staff would inspect the Company. Now a General's inspection is the only occasion on which the whole of the Orderly Room Staff turn out in full marching order. What was the consequence. After 10. p.m. I had to go back to billet get all my donkey's harness out on the deck and polish all the buttons and straps, roll my overcoat, put in a clean shift or underclothing, canvas shoes, towel, mess tin, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. I went to bed at 12. midnight, and was out at 6 a.m. to parade at 7.a.m. for the Platoon Commanders to inspect the Platoon to see if we were fit for the General. Home to breakfast at 8.15., and fall in again at 8.50.a.m. ready to march off to the Inspection ground at 10.a.m. Fortunately the rain kept off otherwise we should have had a wet shirt because out great coats were in our packs at the very bottom. Anyway we got over it. The old Gen. had a look at me, but my buckles were clean, my leather straps also, and I had a jolly good shave just before I paraded. My word, you would have laughed to see me folding my pack. This life is doing me a world of good, because if one's pack isn't properly squared what ho, out it comes on the floor and you get it across the neck, perhaps 3 days for being slovenly, and three day's pack drill isn't a picnic party.

Well, about my Billet. We came here on Saturday. I moved up in charge of the Sick in the train, and after reporting here was put in charge of the baggage guard. That is to say to look after the men guarding the kit bags as the waggons unloaded. I got one man in the Report for not bucking up. He is an old soldier, and tried to play the rotten on me because I am a young one, but as the Captain said, I would not stand any nonsense, and that is the man he wants. If you get a man in that way the Officers back you up fine.

When I got to my new billet, the Landlady had a nice warm dinner ready for me. I am with the young Canadian still, and we are in clover. They are young people, and only recently got married. He is an Artizan Attendant at the Exminster Asylum just across from here, and another such a man as Ern. In fact I can almost imagine it is Ern when he speaks. His very ways and sayings are the same. The grub is right up to dick, and the bed is comfortable enough for me to sleep like a top, and not wake until 8.a.m. I am too tired to bawl or walk. Besides the life is different.

I was going to keep the fact that I am in the N.C.O's Class from you until I knew the result, but I tell you now. I am penalised to a certain extent by being in the Office, because I am not learning my drills, but the Officers are very kind and appreciate the fact, and my knowledge of Company drill now is merely book knowledge. I have had a go at a squad once or twice, and can manage to make them hear. I didn't know I had a voice until now, and the harder you can shout, and the more sharp you get the words out the quicker the squad moves.

Topsham isn't a bad place. It is about the size of Ivybridge. There aren't many people and there are no amusements to go to, which doesn't affect me very much. I am too busy to go anywhere. I am, however, having a bit of fun with some Nurses at Exminster Asylum. Our Landlord said he could put us on to a few, so we wrote a note which he took over, which was to the effect that two lonely Soldiers wanted comforting, and they wrote back saying that they would be very pleased to have a try at it. Laugh, Mother, We are always laughing in billet.

Sergeant Major Dunn has had a very bad hand. Just before we left Exmouth he had to stop in bed for a day, and his hand was swollen up very bad. I wrote a card to Mrs Dunn for him, and I hope she got it. He could not possible handle anything with his fist. He sends his kind regards to all home, and his love to his Wife. I think he is of opinion that his Missus doesn't believe he has been bad, but don't for goodness sake say anything about it to her. We must not interfere with their affairs.

We are in the local Drill Hall here. It is something like the Mutley Barracks. There is a shooting range and everything for training purposes.

By the bye, did you get the photo of my Comrade?. I sent it from Exmouth. His people are shifting to Exeter this week, so I have a home to go to there. I am number one there I can tell you, and as we are only four miles from the City it is rather convenient. I have to go up to Headquarters to study the system of correspondence there, so I shall have a nice time with my friends. Go home there to meals, and probably to sleep. I know my way about.

Well, Mother, I am snatching this five minutes to write you, and you must excuse mistakes. I often think of home, and you and Dad and wish I could pop in to have a yarn with you all. But you will be pleased to see how I am looking. I feel different, and have got the military touch alright.

Has either Ern or Frank been attested for the Army yet?. Everbody is joining, and we had a batch of schoolmasters in last week. They are decent chaps, and it is quite a treat to yarn with them.

Please don't trouble about me, Mother dear, I wouldn't care two pennyworth of cold gin if I knew you were alright. I am serving my Country, and have the feeling that I am doing my bit to keep the roof over my parents heads, which is only a small repayment for the care and kindness shown to me ever since I came to town. I shall want a home Mother when I come back, and for that reason keep your pecker up.

Love to your dear self and Dad, and all,
Your loving Son Bert.

Please write me
109 ??? Mc Dermott
1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Co.
4. Victoria Road

Saturday, 2 October 2010

A Short, Short Story

Day to View

If you stood with your back to the door of what Shelley called her office but which actually had many uses, the first person sitting on your left would be a dentist. He had the first appointment of the day. It was always best to get him in really early because otherwise, he would inevitably find other people to squeeze in beforehand and then everyone would be running even more late for the rest of the day. She didn't dare to admit to herself, let alone anyone else, that she was nervous about this first appointment.

The waiting room was really Shelley's living room with her mismatched dining chairs lining the edges. However, if her day went smoothly (she was a stickler for planning) then there should only be two or three in there, looking nervous, avoiding each other's gazes and generally twiddling their thumbs, at any one time. She'd even put 'Please switch off all mobile phones' notices on two of the walls. Next to the door, in the spot on the wall not taken up by the bay window, the door from the hallway or the one with the fireplace, was a big noticeboard. The text on the pieces of paper, which flapped around in the stiflingly hot air as the office or hallway doors were passed through, was headed enticingly with bold print but followed by letters sufficiently small that they would have to squint to read on. No one liked to be reminded of their deteriorating eyesight, she knew that. Sometimes, they might get up on the pretext of stretching their legs, just to decode the juiciest bit of the notice only to find that they could be observed by others to be closely reading an invitation to a self-help group for people with sexual diseases. Or an invitation to learn to salsa.

Next in line was a young man clutching a clipboard. He'd brought someone with him, an older man who looked resigned to his fate at being there and uncomfortable in his suit. It was too tight. Borrowed maybe? No, Shelley thought. She reckoned it was his only one, probably from twenty years ago judging by its cut. Fallen on hard times, children to feed, wife wanting him out of the house. Shelley looked away quickly, reminding herself that she wasn't here to judge. But surely no one wants to sell energy supply for a living?

The man sitting on the other side of the waiting room, on the singular chair, he was a doctor. He'd been the hardest one to get to come. She'd more or less had to plead. He kept jumping up, trying to explain how he had other people to see. He really thought that he was important. More important than the poor chap opposite with the hungry kids and nagging wife? He would have to wait just like everyone else. Sure, they all had the same appointment time but wasn't that how it worked? He needn't worry, he'd get his seven and a half minutes. Eventually.

Meanwhile, Shelley looked down her day to view appointment diary. It would be a full day. The mortgage advisor, the customer service assistant from the refunds desk at the supermarket, the pharmacist, the post office clerk, the airline check-in agent ….. the list went on. An exhausting day it would be, indeed. She strolled out through the waiting room to make herself a cup of coffee. No one said anything although the air of anticipation was so tangible that it was almost clawing at her skirt and dragging her down. But she was made of stronger stuff. She was the one with the diary. They would have to wait.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Recipe for Disaster

Recipe for Disaster

I know I must be a real grown up now. It wasn't being old enough to vote (that was a long time ago) or the 4 children which gave it away but something else. I made chicken soup because I needed to. I've done chicken soup lots of times before, varying the recipe according to what's in the fridge or garden and whether it's a chicken carcass or lamb leg bone. Sometimes, I add rice, sometimes, lentils. Whatever's at hand. But recently, I've started slipping packets of frozen casserole vegetables into my shopping trolley, thinking about the future, almost as if I suspected what was coming and yet barely registering that I am doing it. So who's responsible for such inevitability? Is it an age thing? The economic climate?

I don't specifically remember being fed chicken soup when I was ill as a child although I do remember a lot of soup in general. As integral to everyday life as politics. But here, today, the urge for chicken soup slipped out from under the mat of my consciousness and I didn't brush it back. Feeling bad? Chicken soup to the rescue.

On this grey, damp September morning I boiled up the chicken bones and added my frozen vegetables. I was heartened by the first hint of it wafting up the stairs as it came to the boil and then the sound of the huge saucepan lid tinkling and under the pressure of steam. I was convinced that it would do good things for me. Except for one thing. I'd run out of chicken stock cubes. Impetuous as ever and wanting to feel better about everything immediately, I threw in two mystery stock cubes, escapees from their box. I watch the colour of the bubbling water turn brownish. Thinking I had ruined it, I began to feel worse. Vegetable cubes would be OK but beef in my chicken soup? What kind of creature shall I tell the everyone it's made from? A feathered cow? A mooing chicken? A coalition. I didn't choose that on purpose either.

Lost for Words

Let's try and get to grips with the scale of things. Just imagine that Dr Samuel Johnson was lying there in his coffin with a rubber and his dictionary. Naturally, I expect he'd need a torch in there too which in turn would need batteries and the whole thing's getting overly anachronistic but stay with me if you can. Say he rubs out the word 'writing' for example. All of a sudden, amongst widespread confusion over such a lexical absence, the whole English-speaking world has to think of a new one and agree upon it. Would the government step in? The Queen? After all, it's hers, isn't it? Perhaps she would stop writing letters. Maybe she'd reply to her correspondences by text. Or start phoning people out of the blue. You could be driving and, unable to resist picking up Her Majesty's call, you crash and afterwards, you couldn't even remember why.

We might find that the easiest solution would be to abandon all forms of proper writing. But there's a hidden danger here too and one we're already facing. Viruses. You know that computer keyboards are the dirtiest, germ-ridden items we touch regularly? Well, next time you switch on, be aware that brushing your fingertips across the keyboard is leaving you vulnerable to attack. You won't feel a thing, that's the clever part. The fingers are in on it already. Logging on to your computer without thinking about it? Touch typing? Then you know what I mean. It's only a matter of time.

One day, someone, somewhere will invent a virus and you'll be in the middle of a conversation - maybe with your work colleague – and you'll be offering them something to improve their sex life. Maybe you'll even do it with particularly bad syntax or lacking any grammatical structure whatsoever. Or worse. If you shook their hand that morning, you'll have already passed it on. The meeting you would have had then turns into utter filth and badly-spoken nonsense. The only way to deal with it will be to delete and reinstall the lot of you and no one wants that in these times of austerity, do they?

Be careful out there, won't you?