Thursday, 29 September 2011


I saw him again today; the man with the turquoise tie.

There's always a bit of a bottleneck outside the station; the school coach waits to mop up its quota of reluctant scholars and simpletons; the "I'm late for the train" last-minute drivers tut and fume, trying to push their way through to the car park; the stay-at-home wives manoeuvre round the narrow entrance lane in their four-by-fours, dropping off their breadwinners before heading off for a day of all the things I say I'd like to do, but probably wouldn't really.

He stands patiently at the side of the road, waiting for a break in the traffic, unwilling to step out into the unpredictable stop-start line of vehicles. The gently swaying briefcase in his hand is the only sign of movement as I drive past.

Without his tie he'd be Mr Monochrome, dressed in a pale grey suit and white shirt, with an ashen face and silver white hair; without his neck-wear, I know I wouldn't notice him. But today, as I continue my journey to work, I find myself thinking and wondering about the man with the turquoise tie.

I picture him arriving at his office. Taking his sandwich bag and papers from the briefcase, tucking his lunch in a drawer and neatly lining up the pile of reports on his desktop. He doesn't invite conversation with the others; he still hasn't quite got used to the open-plan arrangements they introduced last year. His desk is in the corner, but he preferred it when there was a small room, with a door to shut, a door to be politely knocked on before entering. Some of his colleagues throw out a loud good morning as they pass his desk, but they don't stop to talk and they've already gone past before his mumbled response is half out.

He switches on the computer, wondering what instant responses his inbox will demand today. While he waits for the cursor to point its accusing finger, he reflects on the days when memos and internal mail envelopes gave at least two days grace, the days when a thoughtful measured approach, steeped in experience and expertise were things to be admired, not impatiently tolerated or worse, derided.

Then he shifts in his chair, pulls himself upright. Today will be alright, because today he is wearing his turquoise tie. The one Christine gave him for his birthday three years ago; the one she suggested he put on this morning. He is already smiling when he thinks of the way she came up and draped it over his shoulder as he stood indecisively in front of the wardrobe mirror. She didn't need to say anything, just a nod and a smile, and he knew that she was right. Today will be fine because in just twelve hours there will be another nod and a smile as she slowly and carefully unties the knot and slips the tie from round his neck.

And today will be good, because without even knowing it, the man with the turquoise tie has reminded me that there are kind quiet people, who live and love, and make the world a better place simply by being.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Falling leaves

Since we came to this house, the first thing I've done each day is look out of the bedroom window.  From where I sit in bed, I can't see down into the garden, and there are no houses looking back at me; all I can see through the square window, is a patch of sky, framed by tall sycamore and elm trees. Whenever I've woken on a sunny morning, I've watched the branches waving and the leaves dancing in the sunlight like a happy, hippy crowd at a music festival.

It's getting darker in the mornings now, but the early gloom is brightened by pale yellow leaves that have started floating down past the window. The path is strewn with them; it's as though the party is ending and the crowds are leaving the festival to make their way home, dropping their litter as they go.

It's been four months since we moved in; we arrived in time for summer, and now we're welcoming autumn for the first time. As the weeks have passed I've seen the colours come and go - from the flowers and shrubs that were here before us and the new ones we've planted since. I've cut the grass and trimmed the hedges and watched them grow again. We've eaten lunches and dinners at at the picnic bench that came with us from Shoreham, and we've sat chatting over breakfast at the new table and chairs we bought in an end of season sale, just a couple of weeks ago.

Already there are dry leaves caught in the stems of the lavender bushes and floating across the surface of the pond; soon the grass will be covered in a russet and golden coat that I'll delight in crunching through as I walk down the garden.

Time is passing, but it doesn't feel as though the days are slipping away, more that we're building new traditions, taking old memories out of the box and examining them in a new light.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Watching - a story

Some people wouldn’t see any point in standing here under the trees, in hanging around this quiet street, watching and waiting. But Tom knew you could learn a lot by just keeping still; and you never knew when that might prove useful.

He’d realised a long time ago that people like their routines. “Creature of habit” he muttered as he watched the man from no. 26 shambling along the road to fetch his paper. Tom knew that the old guy left his house at five to seven every day, to reach the newsagents just as it opened. The shuffling walk was accompanied by the tap of a walking-stick, click-scuff-scuff, click-scuff-scuff; the sounds beat a rhythm as regular as the old man’s routine, he’d know it with his eyes shut.

Of course, it took a while to pick up the patterns, to be really sure. It was easier to spot the regular routines of the older ones, they had less to disrupt the order of their days; but they were all pretty much the same really, sticking to their customs and schedules. Take that couple who’d moved into no. 32; they’d been there just over three months now, 115 days to be precise. Tom liked to be precise; that way you made fewer mistakes.

He knew now that they both went out to work; she was always first, always in a hurry, zooming off with the windscreen only half de-misted. Her husband emerged about an hour later, setting off on foot towards the station, strolling along, looking around, taking notice of the sky, the weather, the geese flying over. Tom thought that, in another place and time, they might have got on quite well. He reckoned they both had that inclination to stand and watch; natural observers. But you had to keep work and pleasure separate, Tom knew that; there couldn’t be any friendly chat with the man from no.32.

He reckoned they were his best option in this street. The old folks might be regular in their habits, but they were also much more restricted; he’d spotted the four o’clock curfew that always had them home in time for tea, he knew there was far less chance of them being out all day. Truth be told, there was probably far less of interest left inside their houses too.

Tom had been in his usual spot the day they’d moved in to no.32. The smart navy blue removal van had perked him up no end, gold lettering and all. None of your cheap man-with-a-van here; they must have stuff worth taking care of. There’d been an awful lot of boxes and some of them had looked right heavy. He’d been there when they’d pulled up in the car and gone into the house for the first time; her carrying two laptop bags, him carefully holding a cat basket. No dog though, that was good.

He’d hung around a bit more over the last couple of weeks, getting to know when they were indoors, working out when his best chance might be. He’d realised she was usually home on a Friday, staying inside where he couldn’t see her until around tea time, then she’d come out and cut the front grass. Must be her way of marking the beginning of the weekend, he’d thought, and if she’s doing the front grass, the chances are she’ll do the back as well. That turned out to be just what she did, the front, then the back, every Friday afternoon.

Tom knew the gardens in this street; they were long and narrow, leading down to an access road. He’d walked round there once, just to check things out, but there was too much open space, too many windows looking out over the gardens, so he hadn’t been back. He knew though, that it took a good while to cut all that grass, she’d be out there for at least an hour. One other thing he’d noticed, after the first couple of times; when she carried the lawn mower through to the back, she sometimes forgot to lock the front door behind her. He stood as near to the gate as he dared and listened very carefully for the metallic clack. Today his luck was in; there was no sound of a turning key.

He walked up and down the road a few times. It was very quiet, no cars, no people, nobody to notice if he just slipped quickly up the path. As he got nearer to the door he heard the gentle hum of the lawn mower round the back. This was his chance; he wasn’t likely to get a better one. Very gently he pressed down on the handle and pushed, and slowly the door opened inwards. Ahead of him, a carpeted flight of stairs, to his left a white painted door.

He pushed the white door open a few inches, poked his head round the gap. The buzz of the mower still droned from the garden. There was a huge furry black cat curled up in an armchair, but it appeared to be fast asleep, didn’t even raise an ear, let alone move, or question his arrival. He glanced around the room, assessing the possibilities; there was a flat-screen TV in the corner, but little else that could be grabbed and carried.

Ahead of him was another white painted door. He guessed there was one more room between where he stood and the garden, but he didn’t know if she could see him from out there. If there were patio doors he’d be sunk, well and truly framed. Perhaps he should turn back, or maybe try upstairs. But once he was up there, it would be really tricky if she came back in, no quick unnoticed escape possible then. He trod softly across the laminate floor, pushed tentatively at the door. It swung back to reveal a big kitchen, a tall fridge-freezer right in front of him, two square windows in the wall to one side, a bog-standard back door to the right. There was no way she’d see him here, not unless she came back indoors.

The mower whirred on.

He stepped into the room, it was sunny and bright, the sort of place he wouldn’t mind living in himself. Wooden chairs placed around a square table, as though waiting for the family to come home and eat dinner together. And right there, in the middle of the table, was an open laptop. Now he knew it wouldn’t be a wasted risk; he could take that and be gone.

As he leant across the table to unplug it, the screen lit up, and he realised it had been sleeping rather than switched off. There was a document still open on the screen; she must have been working on that before she went out to cut the grass. It didn’t look like work though, maybe a story, or a diary entry. Tom started to read.
He stands out there a lot. I’ve seen him, rolling a cigarette, pretending that’s why he’s stopped. But he’s there all the time; I wish I was brave enough to ask him why. He almost seems to melt into the trees, like part of the scenery, but he’s always on his own, just standing and watching, he must get cold. And lonely. I hope he’s ok…
Tom turned away. With four strides he was back at the front door, then outside, pulling it quietly closed behind him. He’d thought they were an unmatched couple, he hadn’t felt any affinity with her, always busy, always rushing around. But, this time, it seemed he had failed to properly see.

He walked down the street, turning up the collars of his coat against a sudden cold chill. You could take from the well-off and the arrogant, it was ok to relieve the smug of their reasons to be haughty; but the natural observers? Well, you just had to let them be.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Out of kilter

The world continues to turn, day becomes night, summer slips inexorably into autumn; all is as it should be. Except it's not, quite. I still recognise the world around me, but it's as though everything has shifted,the world has tilted, my perspective has slipped.

It started in the taxi. I'm used to driving myself everywhere, deciding when to leave, how fast to go; but this time, instead of steering my own course, I sat in the back of the car, watching the scenery pass and the minutes tick by, worrying I'd be late as we tiptoed slowly down quiet country lanes.

Eventually the car turned through a set of gates and drove serenely along a tree-lined drive, finally pulling up outside what looked like a grand country house. As I waited for the driver to retrieve my suitcase from the boot, I felt like I'd stepped onto the set of a Sunday evening period drama; I half expected to see a stiffly-starched nurse pass by, wheeling a wounded soldier across the manicured lawns of a war-time convalescent home

I knew they were expecting me, but I was still surprised by the smiles of welcome when I gave my name at the reception desk, and I was somewhat taken aback when the clerk proffered a hand in greeting before showing me to my room.

I hadn't eaten all day and I was feeling a little light-headed, so I unpacked quickly. I was only staying for one night and it didn't take long to hang my clothes in the wardrobe and put my wash-things in the en-suite bathroom, then I sat in the high-backed chair by the window to wait.

The branches of an elderberry tree grew across the window, behind them I could see an old stable-yard set out in a square behind a high brick wall. As I sat watching the berries sway in the breeze, I wondered when there had last been horses in the stables, I pictured coaches coming and going, proud grooms in immaculate livery, horse-brasses glinting in the sun. I began to think about the others who'd sat in this chair, watching and waiting.

It wasn't long before there was a knock on the door, and, as if stepping straight from my earlier daydream, a neatly uniformed nurse came in. After that, there was a procession of visitors, the consultant, an anaesthetist, a catering officer, another nurse. I got undressed, removed my contact lenses and jewellery, and struggled into the open-backed gown they'd left on the bed. An hour or two slipped away with knocks at the door, polite questions, stilted answers; each of them explained carefully why they were there, what would happen next. I tried to concentrate on what they said, but it was almost as though, without my lenses, my thoughts were as unfocussed as my eyesight.

Then it was time to walk along the corridor, with its pale blue carpet, and take the lift down to the theatre. I know that the anaesthetist told me my birthday was the same day as his daughter's and I remember him telling me to think of sunshine and blue skies, of pine trees fringing a warm Greek beach, as he pushed the needle into the back of my hand.  I think I remember him telling me, just before the world tipped away, that the next thing I'd hear would be someone saying

"Leave your nose alone"


My nose. My much-wiped, much-abused, senseless nose. When I wrote about it here many months ago, a number of people suggested that perhaps my long-lost sense of smell wasn't gone forever, simply missing in action. After much reflection and persuasion, I decided to make use of the health insurance provided by my employers and see if there was a medical solution. Last week for the first time ever, I checked into a private hospital and had an operation to clear my nasal passages.

I've always been strongly in favour of our national health service, staunchly against the very idea of anyone getting a better, faster service just because they can afford to pay for it. I want to know that anyone, whoever they are, can access medical support at the right time to keep them safe and well.  But I swallowed the line that my employers funded this because it meant I would be back at work and productive again much sooner, that there was a rational argument for jumping the queue, seeking a better service.

I hadn't realised how easily I would be seduced by the feeling of being taken care of, how much I would appreciate the gentle paid-for solicitousness of the nursing staff, the regularity with which they came to check on my well-being and stayed to make sure I was comfortable. This was a world I partly recognised and wholly liked, one I could get used to, but one that felt, and continues to feel, inherently wrong.

I'm home again now, and trying to make sense of the last few days. The painkillers have left me a little other-worldly, I've got a glorious black eye and a bloody nose. Though I can't yet breath any more easily, and my nostrils haven't yet been tantalized by the aroma of bacon frying or the scent of flowers in bloom, I remain optimistic that things will get better soon.

In the meantime, I'm not allowed out for a while in case I inhale an infection, so I'm sitting here surrounded by tissues and tea-cups. I'm not used to enforced stillness, it leaves too much time for reflection, it leads far too easily to the world feeling distinctly out of kilter.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Whores and heroin

You spend your life accumulating acquaintances, finding friends, building a circle of people to spend your time with. Somewhere along the way, you work out what it is you like about others, what they might find to like about you. You begin to understand and comply with the compromises that friendship requires, you relish the opportunities to try new experiences, build shared histories.

Once in a while, if you're lucky, you get to meet someone outside of your normal social sphere; someone who carelessly crushes all the criteria you've formulated for friendship.

"You'll like him - he's got great hair."

"He doesn't wash much, but he never smells."

"His boots have got more holes than leather and he's got really skinny legs."

"He's very, very talented."

"He talks about whores and heroin. And sex. A lot."

"He's become my sort-of adopted son"

You're not sure how to react to that sort of introduction, but you're each choosing guests for your wedding party and you want to be fair, so you go along with the suggested invitation for someone you've never met.

You barely talk that first time, though you quickly acknowledge he does indeed have great hair. A few months later, you go to see him play and you're bowled over by the power of his voice, the strength of his lyrics. You wake up the next morning singing a song you've only heard a couple of times that already seems implanted in your brain.

Then you begin to see the impact he has on the people you love; they way your husband speaks of him with smiling enthusiasm; the times your daughter is suddenly eager to spend an evening in your company when he's around. You start to like him a little bit more just because of that.

Conversation doesn't come easily or instinctively at first; you notice how polite he is with you and you feel a bit like a venerated grandmother.  But then there comes a time when the three of you get gloriously drunk on peach cider and you spend an evening swapping fish-based puns, juggling Maltesers and falling from bar stools. One day he sends you a message saying he's come up with a great new idea, suggesting you write a space-based musical together. Gradually, you forget to feel old and out of touch when he talks to you.

After a while you realise that he's no longer just your husband's adopted son. The pleasure you get that night in Clapham, when the whole bar is clapping and singing along to Happy Song is something akin to loving pride.

Whenever you meet his girlfriend you're really pleased that she seems so right for him, you're delighted that she takes such an interest in his adopted family, that she's happy to spend time in the village, decorating plastic ducks for the duck race, talking about knitting and sewing, visiting the allotment. You know though, that she's only here on a visa and sooner or later she'll have to leave. That day comes round much too quickly and without understanding how the time has sped so fast, you find yourself saying a hurried goodbye of hugs and tears at a railway station, wishing her good luck as she sets off for another continent.

You worry about him when she's gone, not sure if he's eating or sleeping properly, you're concerned he'll descend into a cycle of drink and despondency. You know they've planned to meet up in Canada in a month or two and you hope he'll stick to the plan, that they'll be back together soon. But you also know there's a downside to that.

Tomorrow you'll make your way to the Windmill bar in Brixton, where he'll be playing his last London gig for a long, long time. It'll be a great night, a proper send-off in a crowded bar; the sort of occasion you'd have tried to avoid before you knew him. In a few days he'll be getting on a plane to Canada. You want him to go, you want them to be together, but you also know how much he'll be missed. You sense it will be a while til anyone in your household wakes up singing their own version of Happy Song with anything like conviction.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Gate

Timber slatted,
flaking paintwork,
round-arched frame in high brick wall.

Clicking latch-key,
creaking hinges,
rusting bolt that slowly draws.

Secret door to unknown garden,
opening to another world,
entrance to a different lifetime,
exit gate from yours. 

After I'd written this, Pat posted a wonderful picture of a gate on her blog - you can see it, along with a whole range of other lovely pictures and writing at Past Imperfect