Monday, 31 January 2011

Coming together

It was the fire that we noticed first; brightly blazing logs inside a hearth that looked like the drum of a washing machine. At that point we were shivering outside peering in through the window, the warmth visible but not reachable. We'd arrived far too early; eagerness and mistrust in rail services conspiring to make us arrive thirty minutes before the pub was due to open.

Too cold to stand for long, we walked around the neighbourhood that neither of us knew. We stared up at the glass and chrome fronted apartments, imagining the lives of those who lived within, enviously admiring the wide balconies facing out to the river, picturing champagne and canapes on a warm summer's evening. We sympathised with the residents of the less showy flats round the side, that looked out on the waste recycling centre, where the smaller glass-fronted balconies were lined with rush screens, as though their owners were too ashamed to be seen. We passed an oversized Chinese restaurant where the white-clothed tables were each surrounded by pale yellow satin-draped chairs - like frozen bridesmaids round a petrified bride.

On our way back to the pub we paused to gawp at the contents of the over-priced furniture store with its acres of white leather, and smoked glass. We laughed like country bumpkins at the strange ornaments, the dining chairs that looked more like upturned laundry baskets, the hideously clashing, but oh-so-carefully arranged cushions. And finally, when we'd wiled away enough time we made our way back to the pub.

It was still early, and we were the first to arrive, but gradually the place started to fill. We smiled indulgently at the two men who seemed so pleased to be meeting, their smiles as wide as the arms they threw around each other in their unembarrassed embrace. We invented stories about the tired-looking man, about the argument he'd had with his wife for staying out too late the night before and the revenge she was now exacting in making him overcome his hangover by taking his children out to lunch. We watched the old man with his white hair stained yellow by nicotine, as he wove backwards and forwards between the bar and the door, each pint followed by a cigarette. We winced with sympathy as the desperate-to-please young man opened the door for the girlfriend who responded with a look as cold as the air that accompanied her; and we were intrigued by the huge family who turned up trailing enormous suitcases behind them, who took ages finding the right place to sit and enough chairs for them all, then only stayed for one quick drink before trailing off again with their luggage.

All around us, people were coming together. I wondered if they'd noticed us, I hoped they weren't concerned when we looked up with anticipation each time the door swung open, or disappointed when we looked away again as another stranger walked in. I'd like to think they saw the moment when our friends arrived, when our faces lit with unabashed delight. I'd like to imagine that the stories they invented for us were of an afternoon spent eating and drinking, our words and laughter bubbling and tumbling over each other; I hope they saw the evening we'd spend, plotting and planning for new challenges and excitements, setting out on a new venture towards the happy ending I know we'll have.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Remembering Miss Wood

My daughter Megan is training to be a teacher. She's recently started her final teaching practice, with a class of five and six-year-olds, and each night she comes home with a story of something that's happened or something the children have said. In just a few days she's gone from 'they're all too little and annoying' to 'I think I'm starting to like them'. I guess they might be starting to like her too.

It's funny how well I can remember my teachers from primary school. My favourite was Mr Griffiths. I know he was my favourite because I can still recall the sinking feeling when I lost my temper and shouted at him. Even then I knew he was disappointed with me. I don't know how it started, I vaguely remember it was something to do with a tennis ball, but I don't really know what turned me from my usual goody-two-shoes to a tempestuous ten-year old in a tantrum.  Though all I hollered was 'It's not flippin' fair', word soon got round that I'd sworn at him. I realise now that I missed the opportunity to exaggerate my waywardness and so gain the credibility of my school friends, but I was too busy hoping to win back his approval. My rebellions have always been somewhat low-key.

Miss Da Gama came to us as a supply teacher, part way through the year. Perhaps that's why she always seemed a little odd. I don't think we were particularly kind or welcoming to her. We'd been taught about the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, so we teased her about her name and her possible connections, but I don't think we were especially cruel. One day, when we tried to go back to the classroom after lunch we were ushered away downstairs to the hall. Later we found out that she'd had some sort of a break-down, smashing up the classroom and ripping down all the carefully mounted paintings and stories from the classroom walls. We didn't see her again.

After that we got Mr Campbell. Perhaps he'd been told to treat us kindly; perhaps he was just that sort of man, but for a whole year, all we seemed to do was art and drama. I spent hour after hour making 3-D structures out of paper drinking straws - tetrahedrons and dodecahedrons. Hour after hour sitting on cushions on the floor because he'd cut all the legs off the tables.

Of course it all changed when I got to secondary school. I had to smother my irritation with the maths teacher, whose name I refuse to remember, because she insisted on pronouncing mine 'Share-on'. But I loved that we had an art teacher called Miss Brushett and a physics teacher called Miss Newton. It was right that our religious knowledge teacher was called Miss Theophilus, and our skinny nervous history teacher was Miss Lean. Nowadays it's not the bizarre coincidences of their names that I think about, it's realising that I spent so many years being taught by single old women, in an all girls' school - small wonder I married too young.

It was at secondary school that I was taught by Miss Wood. She had short hair, like Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and she was the first person I'd ever met who wore contact lenses. I think maybe she was a little afraid of losing a lens in class and having to crawl around on the floor to find it, so she was always very careful. When she looked from side to side, she'd turn her whole head rather than just her eyes.

She was my form teacher in class 2D, the year I became a teenager, the first and only time I was voted form captain, but that isn't why I remember her. She taught us English and I began writing my first romantic novel while in her class. She made me read it out to the rest of the girls, chapter by chapter. While they yawned and giggled, and pointed out the glaring inconsistencies in my characters and actions, she sat on the edge of the desk listening and nodding approval. It didn't matter that it I never finished it. She introduced me to the thrill of putting words on a page for others to respond to, even though she was the only one who showed any sign of appreciation. She made me think I could write.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sharing an office on the seventh floor

For the last two years I've worked from a small office on the seventh floor of a municipal concrete block. Typical of 1960s office architecture, it's cold in the winter and too hot in summer. Each day the passing hours are marked by the raising and lowering of the plastic venetian blinds, as the sun crosses from east to west in front of my window.

From my desk I can watch the seagulls circling around then settling on the roof of the next block. Behind that, I can see the floodlights of the cricket ground; poking their heads up, like hyacinths in early spring. To the right is the now empty building plot, where the bulldozers, cranes and swinging steel demolition balls kept us mesmerised last summer, as they wrecked and flattened the old university buildings. In the distance span the graceful arches of the Victorian viaduct.

It's not a big space, only room for two desks and a small round meeting table. In one corner is the locked door to the cupboard where the IT servers live. At least once a day we're interrupted by a man from IT wanting to check something; the door is unlocked, and we're greeted by the cool blast and the whirring sounds from the air-conditioning installed in there to stop the servers over-heating. The irony of air-con for the computers, but not for the staff is, of course, not lost on us.

Throughout the two years I've shared this office with Chris. The air between us has often crackled with the sound of swearing and frustration from my side, patience and resignation from his. I've known for some time that he hasn't been happy in the job, but unlike so many of us, who whinge about it and keep turning up, Chris decided to find something else, and in a few days he will be starting a new job, something much closer to his heart and his ambitions.

On Thursday, I watched him clearing his desk, throwing paper after paper into a huge yellow plastic crate. As he flicked through the notes from meetings, the reports and strategies, I recognised the frown on his face as he recalled a particularly difficult transaction, saw the satisfied nod as he remembered the issues he'd resolved. I watched how carefully he peeled the blue-tack from the walls to take down the pictures and messages from his daughters, how he gently placed them in his bag, to be taken and re-hung on another wall in another office.

It's strange how you can spend so long sharing an office with someone, yet still feel you barely know them. I know the obvious stuff, like the names of his wife and children, the football team he supports. I know that he likes to dress well, a sharp suit and polished shoes. I've seen the limitations of his colour-blindness swept away by the bold, bright assertiveness of his shirt/tie combinations. Yet I've never seen him outside of the office environment; I have no idea what he looks like in jeans, or if he even wears them. We've never socialised, never got drunk together, both of us too keen to get back to our own worlds at the end of the day.

But I've seen the way his face softens when he talks about his girls, how it takes him a bit of time to adjust when he arrives in the morning, as he tries to switch his mind from home to work. I've noticed how his shoulders relax as he leaves at the end of the day and we walk together to the car park.

I work from home every Friday, so I wasn't there for his last day in the office. We said our goodbyes on Thursday, with a half-embarrassed hug and a kiss on the cheek - two years not quite long enough for us to know the etiquette of physical contact.

He's often looked at me with bemusement while I've banged on about the joys of Twitter, never quite understanding why I'd want to type something in 140 characters when I could just speak to someone's face, so I can't see us keeping in touch that way. He's said he'll come back for a drink in a couple of weeks once he's settled into his new role, but I'm not sure if he will. He knows I write a blog, and every now and then he reads it; but he's never left a comment and I don't know if he'll ever look at this. But I hope he knows anyway that the office will seem strangely empty on Monday.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

January 2001, January 2011

It was a cowardly way of doing it, sending you an e-mail, but I wasn't sure I could say it to your face. My finger hovered over the keyboard for a long time before I clicked on send. I knew it was only a couple of days before your birthday, so not much of a birthday greeting, but I felt sure it was the right thing to do.

I tried not to think about how you'd react, focused instead on reinforcing my sense of me, taking solace in the notion that there were no cracks in my defences, nothing to undermine my independence. I'd got a new job and was earning more money, I was inching my way back towards the sort of life I'd had before. I'd even found a new house that was closer to where I'd lived when I was married and the children were small.

It was a ridiculous house, an old gatekeeper's lodge, for a big house that no longer existed. It was built in the shape of a cross, each of the tiny rooms leading on to another one, and each of them with three outside walls, so it was always cold. When I'd gone to view it, I'd been intrigued by the odd little building tucked behind a high brick wall, swamped by its overgrown garden. I'd been bewitched by the big open fireplace in the lounge, the full height stained glass window in the kitchen, the long attic bedroom with its windows looking out over the garden, that made me think of Anne of Green Gables. It was totally impractical for a single mother with four teenage children, but I loved it none-the-less. Perhaps it was its smallness in a street full of expensive detached houses, maybe it was the defiant way it had remained standing long after the big house was demolished. Somehow it spoke to me, made me feel like this was the place where I'd start to rebuild, put down some roots, grasp some confidence in life.

Of course I only half knew you then, I hadn't yet learnt that you don't easily take no for an answer, I hadn't realised that the surest way to get you to act is to tell you to do the opposite thing.  Nowadays I could predict how you'd respond to my e-mail, but ten years ago I hadn't expected that you'd still want to see me, to try and talk me round. When you arrived on my doorstep, you looked tired. You accepted my offer of a tuna sandwich as though it were the finest cuisine, as though I was offering you so much more than some tinned fish in a slice of bread. And I guess I was, even if I didn't yet know it.

We went for a walk, a long meandering stroll around the local streets and towards the park. I remember how you stopped me at one point, held my arm and turned me to face you. So intent on making me believe, making me trust you, you almost shouted at me "I'm putting my head on the block for you. I'm giving you the axe". It was, and still is, the most romantic thing anyone ever said to me.

Shortly after that, when we found ourselves sitting on a park bench, holding on to each other while snowflakes fell all around, I think you started to believe that it would all turn out ok.

Tonight you're sitting upstairs, waiting for me to stop tapping away at the laptop and come to bed. We don't live in the strange house any more but we've found ourselves a home in the best place in the world. When you wake up in the morning, it will be ten years to the day since you turned up at my door. I couldn't have asked or wished for a better decade. I hope there will be many more.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Gut Girls - in rehearsal

I've noticed the seasons more since we moved to Shoreham; the way the colours and the light change with each passing month. Though I know it won't be long until the hedgerows take on a pinkish hue and the leafbuds swell, for now the landscape remains one of skeletal silhouettes and shadows, charcoal and ashen grey.

We don't have street lights here, so when it gets dark, it's properly dark; inky black and threatening. In January, once the christmas lights have come down it feels even gloomier. My natural reaction is to stay indoors, to turn into a solitary hermit until the promise of spring lures me blinking back into the light, like the Mole from Wind-in-the-Willows. If I lived anywhere else, that might be what happened, but not here, where there is a year-long schedule of events to force us to socialise. Just as I'm sliding into curmudegeonly confinement, the wise thespians of the Shoreham Village Players step up the rehearsals for their next production.

From 2 - 5 March this year, the village hall will become the blood-soaked sheds of a nineteenth century Deptford slaughterhouse, where The Gut Girls will ply their trade. They are a rowdy bunch, foul-mouthed and raucous, strong and independent. Though I'm firmly denying all suggestions of typecasting, I have been cast as one of them, a character called Maggie, and my Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings are now spent wielding an invisible meat cleaver, knocking back imaginary bottles of beer (at least until the props arrive), and swearing like a trooper.

Our director is keen for us all to be as loud and common as possible - a requirement I seem strangely willing and able to fulfill, even though I know it will do nothing for my reputation in the finer drawing rooms of the village. But there's still a certain amount of bravado called for when the script requires you to tousle the hair of a man you barely know, even though you've said hello in the high street a hundred times.

With only the residents of the village and its near neighbours to draw on, there is a certain amount of poetic licence in the casting and some of the 'girls' are a little past the first flush of youth. Take it from me, it's not easy being a fallen woman when it takes so long to get back up from the floor. I'm hopeful that by opening night, one fellow cast-member might stop collapsing in hysterical laughter each time she addresses me with the line 'Are all the women working here as young as you?'

Today was 'books down'; the date underlined in our rehearsal schedules, the day we've all been dreading, when we're supposed to start acting from memory, rather than reading our lines from the scripts. I very quickly worked out which of the cast had done their homework. Suffice to say, I didn't quite rise to the challenge of recalling words and actions and delivering them both in a co-ordinated manner. I think our very patient prompt will sleep soundly in her bed tonight from all her efforts, while our director may well start having nightmares soon.

Friday, 14 January 2011

A north-south divide

I'm a South London girl, through and through. Those of you reading this from other parts of the country, or indeed the world, might not realise the enormous difference between being just a Londoner and being a South Londoner. I know lots of countries have a north-south divide; with one half of a country deemed to be more prosperous, productive and progressive than the other. I know I've occasionally made an ever-so-slightly derogatory comment about my beloved's birthplace being in the north of England. But the truth is, in my heart, the north-south divide centers on the River Thames. All the good people live south of the river, the others, well they're just Londoners.

I'm fiercely proud of the few square miles where I grew up. Who needs London Zoo when you can feed the ducks in Dulwich Park? Who'd want a dip in the Serpentine when you might swim all day at Brockwell Park Lido. Why crane your neck to admire the Docklands skyscapers when you could gaze up at the Crystal Palace Tower and pretend you're in Paris?

None of my family still live in the area, so nowadays there's very little reason to go back. But once in a while, when I'm brave enough to take the car into London, I'll go slightly out of my way to follow the route of the no.3 bus, slowing down as I pass our old house in Croxted Road, and again when I hit the congestion of Brixton High Street.  Then I'll remember the shopping trips to Brixton with my Mum, me traipsing around behind her while she did her shopping; bored, but comforted by the knowledge that we'd always end up going to Marks & Spencers for chicken-flavoured crisps and a packet of iced biscuits.

My first ever Saturday job was at Clark's the Bakers in Brixton's Electric Avenue.  Wikipedia tells me now that the street gained its name from being the first in London to be lit by electricity. I didn't know that then, but I did know the different names for all the types of bread; from farmhouse to bloomer, split-tin to baguette. I remember the way our fingers got sticky from the cakes, then black-sticky from handling the money, and I know how horribly smug I was that I could add up the prices in my head while others needed to jot them down on the back of paper bags. I haven't thought about that job for years, but as I write this, I can still picture the brown and white checked overalls we had to wear; a bit like a doctor's housecoat, only nasty and nylon. I can still sense the feel of sticky fingers on synthetic fabric.

And when I think of working at Clark's I can't help but remember my first ever boyfriend. Eddie lived in Brixton, and on Saturdays he worked in Electric Avenue. I never minded tidying up the trays of belgian buns and doughnuts, when it meant I could look up to see the tall grinning Irish lad, selling yams and green bananas from the market stall outside. After work, it was so much nicer waiting outside Woolworths for the bus home, when you had someone warm to wait with.

Perhaps the relationship was doomed to last only as long as my job at the bakers, but it wasn't helped by events on the night my Mum threw a party, on a river-boat on the Thames. Copious amounts of free drink and the gentle rocking of the waves proved too much for Eddie and he ended up being sick over the side of the boat. It might perhaps have been ok, if I'd known before then about the false tooth he wore. The one right at the front. The one that flew out in a stream of vomit, into the river that night.

At the time I was mortified and even though the tooth was soon replaced, I could never look at him quite the same again. Many, many years later, with the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a slightly less shallow perspective, I can be much more forgiving. Who knows, maybe his nausea had nothing to do with the drink, perhaps it was the strange foreign air he was forced to breathe on leaving South London and entering that no-man's land of the Thames, the great north-south divide.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Black Crow

It was the rain that woke me up. The incessant drumbeat on the flat kitchen roof, the higher singing tone of water cascading over the blocked gutter. And now that I'm awake, it's the rain that keeps me up, watching its drops break against the window pane like a series of morse code dots and dashes.

There'll be sandbags across the doorways of the cottages by the river tonight. Bags to sop up the encroaching water, stop it coming across the doorstep; a lumpen wordless bodyguard for each house. I wonder how high the water is now. In the few years we've been here, I've seen it swell over into the fields across the river, reminding me of the Chinese rice fields we learnt about in school, but it's never been high enough to cross over to our side, or inch its way up our street. I imagine the water filling up all the cracks and holes left in the tarmac by the recent frosts and snow, forming puddles for wellie-clad children to jump in tomorrow.

We've been here long enough for me to know which of the roads gets tricky to pass after a heavy downpour, the big dip further along the valley, the road by the lake, where there's nowhere for the water to drain away. I'm never sure how to drive through standing water. I'm scared that if I drive slowly the water will seep into the engine, creep in around the door sills, suck me and the car into its clinging wetness. My urge is to accelerate, push through it as quickly as possible, no matter what great bow-wave I create. Then through the other side, where, if my car was a dog it would shake from side to side and nose to tail, creating a halo of raindrops. Instead I pull away fast, hoping the wheelspin will drive away the water.

When I was a child, my younger sister Caroline was scared of the rain, she always thought it would flood. And as kids so often do, we picked up on her terror. We could reduce her to tears, a flood of her own, by telling her that the house would float away each time it poured. I always liked the imagined idea of de-camping upstairs in a storm, piling up the furniture, eating picnics on our beds, but that probably didn't help for Caroline. Upstairs wasn't a place of refuge for her - not since the time our big sister Ros had so vividly imagined and described 'The Black Crow' that hovered at the top of the staircase waiting to pounce.

Perhaps it was just water that Caroline hated, you'd have certainly thought so if you ever heard her having her hair washed. When we were kids, there was no shower at home and it wasn't til I was a teenager that we got one of those rubber shower hoses that you can fit over the bath-taps. So for years, our mother washed our hair while we stood at the sink, using saucepans full of water. Pour, shampoo, rinse, then repeat. When it was Caroline's turn the sound of each saucepan-full was accompanied by the sound of screaming as she wriggled to escape, trying to duck the water, failing to keep the shampoo out of her eyes. Pour, scream, rinse, shriek, shampoo, sob, rinse, screech, then repeat... scream, scream, scream.

I can almost hear it now.

As I sit and listen in my head to those sounds from long ago, I realise that it's quieter here now. The deluge from the drain has stopped; the ticking of the mantelpiece clock has replaced the rain-beats on the roof. Time to go back up to bed.

I wonder where The Black Crow sleeps tonight.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Standing tall

The fans had volunteered to clear the pitch so the game could go ahead. Now the snow was piled up all round the edges and if you squinted a bit, it looked like the pictures of mountains in his Dad's atlas. When one of the players came to the side to pick up the ball, Jamie saw him as a giant, taking huge steps across the snow-capped alps.

Bank Holiday Monday, the last day of the Christmas holidays, the last day before going back to school. It was a good crowd, considering. Men and boys everywhere, all in shades of black and blue, faded jeans and padded jackets, their shapes indistinguishable under the thick layers. They stood in groups, hands deep in pockets, stamping their feet against the cold.

Not many women here today, just the few who came every week. Jamie looked quickly across to the stand, where his Nan and Grandad sat. They'd been bringing him to football for years and years, ever since his little brother was born. He used to sit with them, waiting for Nan to share out the drinks and crisps she'd brought along. Nowadays he'd rather buy a coke from the burger stand. Nowadays his Nan took a cushion and a blanket with her to protect against the cold and the hard seats.

Maybe he should have gone back to sit with them at half time.

Here behind the goal there was a group of boys his own age - or at least he thought so. He was head and shoulders taller than most of them, but then he was taller than all the lads in his class as well; it was a long time since he'd stood up straight. It was easier to blend in here where nobody really stood up properly - some of the boys were bent over the advertising hoardings that surrounded the pitch, banging out a rhythm to accompany each goal kick; others stood hunched in groups, curling in on themselves to keep out the cold.

Jamie watched the game playing out in front of him, as the lead changed from one side to the other, as chances were missed then taken, as tackles became more desperate, and the referee's whistle grew more shrill. Behind him he could sense the tension mounting.

He looked over his shoulder, saw scowling faces, heads shaken from side to side. He'd already heard people swear at the linesman, call the referee all kinds of useless. The fans at the other end had started chanting and he knew it wouldn't be long before the men behind him responded. He didn't mind so much when they just shouted back at the fans, it wasn't directed at anyone in particular, but he hated it when they started on the opposition goalie in front of them. The poor man who had to stand there on his own throughout the game, the one who, if he did his job well would become the butt of everyone's anger,  who if he did his job badly would be laughed at and ridiculed. Throughout the game, the goalie had to stand there, pretending not to hear, trying not to react to the shouts that would start off by doubting his ability to catch the ball, then quickly move on to him being too fat, too slow, or too stupid. Jamie knew what that felt like.

He waited. Like the game in front of him, the mood behind the goal could go either way. He waited and hoped for the one brave man who would risk pride and reputation by launching into the song they all knew. Could he dare to try it himself? Would he be left as a foolish lone voice, wishing the ground would swallow him up. Or might he be rewarded with that brilliant moment when one, then another, picked up the song as it rolled along the terrace in a wave of sound. Not a humble embarrassed muttering, but a fierce loud roar of a song. A song you'd be proud to join in with.

But he'd need to know when to stop as well, he'd hate to be the one who carried on singing once the others had finished, risking that confidence sapping chorus of  'On your own, on your own, on your own', and the smirking faces behind him.

The ball had gone out for a corner. Jamie looked at his watch, then glanced behind him again. All eyes were on the players filling the box, jostling for position, trying to make some space for a free header. Nobody was looking at him, if he began singing now, they probably wouldn't even know it was him who'd started it.

He looked at his watch again, only five minutes of normal time left, this was probably the last decent chance of the game. He could do it, he could do it now. He stood up, squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.

But then, as he opened his mouth, from somewhere just behind him came the loud, confident chant,

'Walking down the Mason's Hill, to see the Bromley Aces....'

It didn't matter. It really didn't matter.

He looked across to the stand. Perhaps he'd walk round to sit with Nan and Grandad, watch the end of the game with them.