Friday, 17 September 2010

Parting shot


Things I will be glad to see the back of:

Transport: a given. The July 7 underground evacuation was just the start of my horror. I will certainly not miss the sound of someone throwing up down the back of my seat while the person next to me plays grime music at top volume, but I do not dare say anything in case he has a knife in his pocket. For that matter, always worrying if people have knives in their pockets.

Prices: being charged more for a pint than I would cough up for a bottle of supermarket wine. The very northern trait of commenting on the price of everything has been amplified here.
'£15 for a Sunday roast?' (followed by sharp intake of breath)

The self-righteous male execs I worked with who think if you have a northern accent/did not go to private school you are a sub species. These are the type of men you would warmly welcome some sort of war/uprising for, so they could expose themselves as the truly useless humans they are. Your long words and smug chops can’t help you now, Rupert! Pow pow pow!!

The fact a pitbull is a must-have accessory in certain boroughs.

Fashion. In Shoreditch especially. No, you do not look good in skinny red jeans, yellow neon top and silly moustache.

Proper London accents. Also the reason I cannot watch EastEnders but I can watch Corrie. Nah wot a mean, bruv?

Eating shrivelled canteen baked potatoes al desko every day.

My insomnia, which has blossomed over the past few years.

The fungus in my bathroom.



And to prove I am not a complete misery guts, things I will miss about London (as well as certain people, of course):

The cheeky squirrels. They are not rats with cute tails. I even like the junkie ones.
www.flickr.com/photos/jaded/112087519/

Gordon's wine bar on Embankment. Unconditionally.
http://www.gordonswinebar.com/hshow.php?jpic09|8

My charity shop volunteering – who knew hanging up polyester pants while hanging out with autistic people and petty thieves could be so much fun?

Borough Market – even though my recently diagnosed coeliacs means I have to avoid the cake and sausage roll stalls and eat a burger off a cabbage leaf instead.

Free/cheap hair cuts at the Vidal Sasson training academy. Although my present give-me-confidence-for-the-first-day-of-new-job hairstyle does have a pink streak in it (‘Oh no, it’s MINK darling, it looks good HONESTLY.’)

Canary Wharf - weirdly. I am strangely sentimental about the shiny place where I used to work. And the parties on boats moored nearby.

My mobile phone, which I lost in the pub during my leaving drinks last night. Although I did acquire a Santa hat.



And that is it. The bags are packed, the van is booked and the bathroom has almost returned to its original colour. So long London. And thank God for that.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Things I will not miss..


It is 2am and I am standing by a bus stop in Shepherd’s Bush, blind without glasses, crippled by high heels and with a mobile phone that has just given up on life. I am considering joining it.

With me is ‘Al’ an elderly Cuban trumpet player I have just met who has been to a late-night dance class and is almost as lost and confused as I am. Despite his creepy flirtatious tone, I am not telling him to sling his hook because I am reliant on his eyes to read the bus stop signs for me (his cataracts beat my stigmatism). Still, I would rather be stuck with an amorous trumpet player as my guide than a crack-head gangster.

I am not sure if it is a London thing. There is a possibility it could be an age thing. But when I am asked if I had a good night out, these days my answer begins with a blow by blow account of the horrors of the journey home. The lovely time I had before gets diluted with tales of tube engineering works, rerouted night buses, unaffordable taxis and the bizarre cast of character met along the way.

A first round of farewell drinks in Soho seemed like an excellent idea. A central-ish point for people to meet, then jump on the last tube home and be safe in bed within 40 minutes with a box of ibuprofen and a pint of strong orange squash. Instead I am dodging snaking rivers of p*** trickling down the pavement, watching girls with chubby thighs squeezed into tiny shorts throw fried chicken at each other, and gently explaining why the small matter of a 40-year age gap, me having a boyfriend and my imminent move to the north means, no, meeting for a drink would not be a great idea... but where can I get the next N207 bus from?

It takes me three hours to get back to Ealing. I take comfort from the fact my emergency trainers are still stashed under a bush on the Common, where I hid them before heading to Soho in my ridiculous heels, staggering like a newborn foal. I gratefully shuffle the final stretch of my journey home.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Treat treatment


‘You should,’ says Special Agent Dale Cooper when asked why he is drinking coffee instead of hunting killers, ‘treat yourself to one thing each day.’

These are wise words, even if they are said by someone who is friends with a dwarf who talks backwards. (Watch Twin Peaks if you haven’t.)

Which is why I have come to Richmond on my day off. Far, far away from my flat and lists and phone calls and questions and emails and bank statements. Well, 15 minutes on the 65 bus, anyway.

Richmond is posh. It’s the part of London you take family members to when they visit because it has swans and a Waitrose. I am sitting by the Thames drinking coffee and watching pigeons fight over a pizza crust. A homeless man is also watching them (this is Richmond homeless though - he has a Daily Telegraph on his lap which he has been reading, not using for shelter).

Sitting here, next to the homeless man, watching the pigeons, it is the calmest I have felt in weeks.

‘I should treat myself more often,’ I think, ‘not stress about money and moving.’

I head to the main street. I buy some trousers (treat). I buy a top (treat). I have some wine (treat). I eat a Galaxy Ripple. I buy Stephen King’s Misery on DVD (treat). I book myself in for a wax I can’t afford (treat). I should be buying mildew spray to clean the bathroom and white gloss to paint over the tea stains on my kitchen walls. I buy a shiny belt instead.

I am high on treats.

‘I should not be allowed out on my own until further notice,’ I think, wisely.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Keep calm and carry on packing


The Congratulations-You-Got-A-Job flowers are dead. My bank account is empty. I have a start date for the new job, but no finish date for the old one. I have almost sorted a place to move to after days spent tearing around Yorkshire, guided by an indecisive sat-nav. Southern Man is calmly coming to turns with relocating farther north than he had ever been before chatting me up in a pub three years ago. And unemployment.

Even though I have been dreaming of a move back north for months, now it is almost here there is a real danger of my brain reducing to mush. I am Susan Boyle on finals night of Britain’s Got Talent, about to flash a chubby leg at Piers Morgan before being carted off to the Priory.

Packing, cleaning, moving, mending, binning, rearranging, buying, borrowing, driving. Saying goodbyes. Then starting a new job.

I write a ‘to do’ list. I cross things off the list, but that makes the list look messy, like my thoughts, so I start a new list. I take the list to the shops. I think of something to add to the list. I look for the list. I have lost the list. I write a new list on a bigger piece of paper, with footnotes.

Apparently if there are more than seven things on the list, then the list becomes a source of stress itself. I have 22 things on the list. Some of them would have taken less time to do than to write (‘get big box out of cupboard’ written while sat by cupboard), but I put them on anyway.

I have three weeks until I am meant to say so long to London. Can I sit in a dark room rocking back and forth for three weeks? The idea is appealing.

I phone my mother in Cumbria, no stranger to feeling stress.
‘What you need to do,’ she says slowly, ‘is write a list.’

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Hanging on the telephone


Watched pots do boil. I have watched some. Watched phones, on the other hand, refuse to ring.

I am back at work after the job interview, with my mobile on vibrate mode in my pocket. I have been checking it more times than a teenager with a crush. They will phone me this week. The longer I wait the more I replay the interview, done after two sleeping tablets, three hours of sleep and four coffees and consisting of answers that ranged from good to gobbledigook.

I feel a vibration. I get my phone out and check it under the desk. No missed calls. No messages. It was probably the gentle hum of my Mac. Again. Someone else’s phone goes off. I check mine. I wait five minutes. I check it again. I hide the phone in my glasses case and keep lifting the lid and peeking inside. Still no calls. Still no messages. I have another seven hours of my shift left.

I hate my phone. I hate its silly touch screen that makes it impossible to carry out those automated calls that require you to ‘push button three’ because it keeps locking. I hate the way its hot screen is left with a make-up smear after I use it. I hate its rubbish camera, which I can’t understand. I hate the scratch on its screen that mysteriously appeared after a night out and I will be forced to stare at until my contract finishes in a year’s time. Mostly, I hate its ability to deliver any news.

I lift the lid and check it again. I become aware that someone is calling my name. It is one of the moody executives on the other desk. I am surprised he knows my name. He is holding his office phone up and waving at me. I point at my face and silently mouth ‘For me?’ He nods.

I take the call on his phone, which he is not too happy about. I don't care. It is the man who interviewed me. He appears to be telling me that I got the job, and do I want it. He says he knows I can’t talk properly, but he just needs to know a 'yes' or a 'no'. I say 'yes'. The executive is eyeing me suspiciously. I adopt a tone similar to the one I use with my doctor’s receptionist, or the customer service team at nPower. ‘How did this person get this number?’ I am thinking. He is telling me he will send something-and-something out in the post to me. I forget to ask start dates.

I go back to my desk and try to compose myself. I fail. I go to the toilet with my mobile and make several screechy phone calls.

I have a job in the north. I am getting out of London.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Don't get the London look


Tops, dresses, trousers and skirts are dangling from hangers off every door in my flat. They are ironed – something of a novelty as I normally try to walk out the creases in my clothes.

These almost-outfits are the culmination of my interview preparation. And I still don't know what I'll be wearing on the day.

I try on the most likely choice. I think I look professional. Tyra Banks would call me ‘fierce’. I hold my chin up high. Southern Man looks up from his bag of crisps.

‘You look as if you’re going out clubbing,’ he says.

‘No, this is the sort of thing features executives wear in my office,’ I say, tugging on the hem.

‘The interview is in Yorkshire, not London,’ he says.

‘They still dress like this in the north for work,’ I say, trying to sound as if I know what I'm talking about.

I put the dress back on its hanger on the door, put my jeans and Monster Munch T-shirt back on and hold my head in my hands.

Vogue and Cosmopolitan may be concerned with going from summer to autumn collections - for me the big issue is a seamless transition from London-look to Leeds-look. I don’t want people to stare, point and snigger. And I have previous for this.

I’ve always had problems picking suitable outfits for new places. When I moved from my village primary school (where I was one of three in my year) to a nearby town’s secondary, I was clueless. I was outed on the first 'out of uniform day' (and to think I had to pay 50p for the privilege). I thought my patchwork dungarees were cool, and my reversible Winnie the Pooh sweater was the height of pre-teen fashion. My favourite jumper had a hot air balloon knitted on the front with a pocket as the basket and an actual teddy bear inside it, attached with a bit of string. Other pupils were wearing lace vests and pretty chiffon tops that tied at the front. I had gone from a trend-setter at primary school to the biggest fool in the tuck shop.

I was similarly misguided for my move to London, many years ago, from my job in Hastings on the south coast. It had been a male-dominated office there and I fitted in. The only nod I made to being a woman was the occasional bangle. Being able to run for the bus and last orders was more important than looking the business. I felt decidedly underdressed for my first newsroom in the big city, hiding behind my monitor in my black cardigan while showbusiness reporters tottered around in 4in heels and Gucci dresses. In my current office there is one girl who has not worn the same outfit in the two years I’ve been there. Either she gets outfits free from PR people or is a prolific shoplifter.

Even my time spent in colourful Brighton, with its Cyberdogging youths and gays parading in PVC hotpants could not prepare me for London – especially the foolish fashions of Shoreditch. I think my teddy bear jumper would fit in well there, if teamed with a bowler hat and skinny jeans.

So all this is playing on my mind, and I am haunted by the words that employers judge you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Hence the fact I have spent so much time on the physical and not the mental preparation. As long as I look OK and can remember my name, half the battle is won.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Parrots in spring time


Parrots wake me up every morning. They make a PREEEEE-cah-cah-cah-cah sound that drowns out the sparrows and the blackbirds and even the screeching brat on his school holiday next door.

There are thousands of wild parrots in London – they have bright bodies, shiny red beaks and pointy tail feathers. Even though I see them every day I still haven't got over the novelty of having them around and am forever stopping in my tracks and gazing like an idiot up at trees. They are a peculiar addition to the city, sticking out like a green sore thumb. Like seeing monkeys shopping in the Metro Centre. Or tigers sunbathing on Brighton seafront. I imagine they taste far more exotic than the sad, mangy old Trafalgar Square pigeons so would be quite a catch for local cats.

There are different stories about how they ended up living here. My favourite is the one involving Jimi Hendrix releasing a dozen into the wild while on some mad acid trip in the 60s. I’ve also heard some escaped from the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed. But I’m fairly sure the actual reason is the most dull: some flapped to freedom from a bunch of aviaries and found that the temperature suited them – God bless global warming.

I am envious of how they have managed to take to London like a duck to water. But if all I had to do was sit in a tree and warm up eggs, I guess things would have been a lot easier.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Lucky break?


So the news is mostly good. I am on an interview shortlist. The date for that interview is Friday the 13th. But that is OK because I am not superstitious. Not very. Although I did once land a good job because I was wearing my ‘lucky top’ (my boss later drunkenly confessed that its v-neck helped swing his decision).

I’ll take walking under a ladder over walking through a puddle. I like black cats - although I’m still not sure if they’re good or bad luck. I smashed a mirror once and won a fondue set the following week in a ‘guess the weight of the cheese competition’ at Caterite supermarket.

I delete chain emails that order you to forward them to ten friends if you want any luck in your life, and only feel slightly uneasy in the process. I salute solitary magpies, disguising it so passers-by will think I’m combing my hair like the Fonz. And if I’m reading a book on the tube, I don’t like closing it on the 13th chapter or on a page number ending in ‘13’, so will skim through to a ‘safer’ page to leave my bookmark. Weird.

I suppose there is a fine line between being superstitious, doing things religiously and being obsessive compulsive. One minute you’re not standing on a crack to avoid breaking your mother’s back, the next you’re taking pictures of your cooker on your camera phone every morning to reassure yourself later that you have definitely turned it off.

I know someone who used to have to spin her knickers over her head three times if she accidentally put them on inside out. I’m lucky in that I can go for whole days without realising my knickers are on inside out. Or my top, for that matter.

As a child I had odd routines. I could not go to the toilet if I had not checked in the washbasket and behind the shower curtain first. This was a routine born of fear - I was convinced ET was hiding there. It became as routine as washing my hands afterwards. Spielberg has a lot to answer for. I should probably not share that in the interview.

These days I just obsess over my GHD hair straighteners and religiously check whether I have turned them off. I remember sweating through a deadline day in Canary Wharf convinced I had left them on in my locked bedroom in Elephant and Castle, 40 minutes away. I had to make my excuses and leave and travel home, expecting to find my flatmates dead and the house reduced to smouldering rubble. The distant sirens were all heading to my cul-de-sac, I thought. When I got back, the straighteners were ice cold and unplugged on the floor.

Stupid hair straighteners. Stupid Friday the 13th.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Foot in the door


There is something sweet in the air. It is the faint whiff of a job. It is coming from the direction of Yorkshire, from a place that is the opposite of London.

I get the call about the job while looking through a rail of half-price bras at Marks and Spencers. The man calling me is the man hiring. I could be talking to my future boss.

‘Have I called at a bad time?’ he says.

‘Eh, no, I am just... shopping,’ I say, walking in tight circles, clutching a pair of pink French knickers to my pounding chest.

He talks about his job, my job and the job on offer. He tells me to send in an application form and we can arrange a meeting. I make some notes on the back of a receipt I find in my pocket while sitting cross-legged on the cold shop floor.

I leave the knickers and leave the shop. My head is in a spin. I try to regain my focus. I realise that I have no good shoes. Shoes that say: ‘anyone who wears me would fit in well with your company’. I must find shoes. Focus on shoes. Stay calm. Stop walking in circles.

I have been obsessed with shoes for years. Not in the oh-my-god-I-just-have to-have-those-jimmy-choos way women are meant to obsess about shoes. Just obsessed with finding a pair that fit.

My feet are not built for pretty shoes. They are long and wide, resembling slabs of gammon. On seeing my feet for the first time, Southern Man declared that I did not have toes, I had trotters. My wardrobe is filled with shoes that make my feet bleed and spill over the sides (foot muffin top) or ones that look ugly and have heels missing.

As a child I loved having big feet; I was proud of them and willed them to grow bigger than my older sister’s, which they promptly did. I thought big feet were cool. They are not cool. They are a curse.

Fat people are always complaining about clothes shops not catering for their sizes, or only stocking hideous constructions in XXL. It is the same for fat feet. Fat, size 8 feet. Life would be sweeter if everyone just wore flip flops.

After gazing in horror at my blistered, scarred, broken down feet, my mother recently instructed me to go and invest in a pair of shoes from a rather nerdy, wholesome shoe retailer. I was reluctant. Especially as I had spotted nuns and Muslim women in full peep-scarves buying shoes there – not the most fashion conscious of ladies.

But as my head is in a spin and there are large signs saying 70 per cent off, I decide to visit the shop. I try on a pair. I have a Cinderella moment - minus prince and with a chunkier heel.

'Oh they look very cute,’ another shopper says to me. I am so stunned by my feet being called anything other than monstrous, I buy them. If they are the brand favoured by religious types, they might even get me a job. A miracle.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Doorstep festival


I am at Ealing Global Summer Festival, kicking around dust in my flip flops. My feet have turned black. The festival is in sight of Ealing Studios and, crucially, within easy reach of my flat, toilet, fridge, kettle and bed. The entrance fee is only £1, so apparently my inflated council tax has been spent on Portaloos, hand sanitisers and tree lights this month.

Global festivals are a way for middle-class mums and dads or anyone over 45 to get smashed and still feel smart. All around me, parents are sitting on posh picnic rugs wearing silly hats thinking they are being edgy, when really they are just wearing silly hats. Boys wearing hemp t-shirts keep kicking a ball at my head and a man is dancing furiously by the disabled tent to ‘Benoit Vilejohn and his Musette Trio’ with his t-shirt off, not realising it is not that type of festival.

I am here for a friend’s colleague’s 48th birthday.

‘I’ve never been to a 48-year-old’s birthday before,’ she whispers. ‘It is good to know they still involve lots of wine.’

Yes, lots of wine, drumming workshops and cous cous.

‘If this is meant to be global, what have we got to represent Britain?’ I ask, scrolling down the line-up. There is African Cultural Development, the Yiddish Twist Orchestra and Ensemble Parvaz: music from Iran. No N-Dubz or Chipmunk in sight.

‘I think I saw a Morris Dancer over there,’ she says, pointing at a stall selling tin elephants and cheap rings that make my fingers itch just looking at them.

It is all a bit strange, and my head has just been hit by the ball again, but that is fine because I am within easy reach of my home and I can relax in the knowledge that an hour-long trek and an airless tube trip will not be necessary later on.

Defenders of London say: ‘Oh it’s the best city because everything is right on your doorstep.’ But they are fibbing. Or they have very big doorsteps.

I loved going to parties on Oliver’s boat, moored near Canary Wharf, right outside my old flat. I could drink red wine on the deck with my back to the towers, eating chocolate pancakes and talking rubbish until, inevitably, someone was sick in a bin. Then I could stumble 150 steps and be in my bed.

With the pain of travelling in mind, when considering moving to Ealing 18 months ago I placed a chocolate chip cookie on a map with its centre on Ealing Broadway station and drew around it. The flat I rented had to lie within the circumference of the cookie – about ten minutes walk from the station. It is a good system. But still, by the time I get to the station from a trip to a restaurant/theatre/museum/gallery in central London I am normally so stressed by the tube journey I have forgotten where I was in the first place.

The man with his top off is sick in the plastic recycling bin. I hope he is close to his doorstep.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Boycotting chains


'They are not my rules,' the woman is saying.
'But they are stupid rules,' is the best reply I can come up with because I have not had my first coffee of the day. Because of her.

For the past 18 months I have bought a black Americano (95p) from the coffee bar in the staff canteen. It takes the edge off the first hour of work and helps my brain boot up. The Argentinian working there says hello and something nice about my hair. It has become my non-alcoholic equivalent of Cheers!, where everybody knows your name, or at least how you like your coffee. But things have changed. I am boycotting the coffee bar.

A coffee chain has taken over. The Argentinan has gone. She has been replaced by an evil Kirstie Alley type who does not know my name or comment on my fringe. And they have brought their cups. Stupid red cardboard cups. Stupid red cardboard cups that cannot hold hot liquid, which instead trickles through the seam and onto your fingers, forcing you to decant the contents into several tiny plastic cups from the water cooler and drink them like a selection of luke-warm shooters.

To save my fingers I have been doubling up, placing my cup inside another empty, stupid red cup - like coffee cup Russian dolls. But despite the sense in my actions I am being told by this new woman to pay 'an extra 20p' for my protective shield cup.

It backs up my love of small independent cafes. My first job, when I was still at school, was working for a little bakery/sandwich shop called Brysons. I would walk the two miles to work along with a local farmer and his herd of cows and then sell iced buns and Cumberland fruit loaves to old ladies and add up the sums not on a till but on the back of a paper bag with a pencil (this was 1996, although it sounds like 1886). You had banter, you had regulars, and if anyone did make a complaint (which was rare) you would pacify them with a meat and potato pie. That place had soul. This place has none.


'Well you can make a complaint to my manager then,' the woman is telling me.
'Oh I will,' I think. 'Because complaining is one thing I do very well.'

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dying art of toilet gossiping


I am queuing for the toilet in Shepherd’s Bush Empire with someone who could be a good friend. In the past year we have met twice, both times because a mutual northern friend has arranged nights out months in advance and demanded we make space in our work-clogged diaries. The queue is long. She is telling me some great gossip and asking for advice.

She is a scientist – working for the World Health Organisation and looking for a cure for polio in her spare time. Despite her intimidating amounts of brains and beauty, I enjoy nights out with her. Spending time with scientists makes a refreshing change from the majority of people I come into contact with – grey-faced media types who have fading vision and relationships, coffee breath and are constantly having to extend their overdrafts.

While they are hammering keyboards and looking for dirt, the science people I know are testing pigeon chunks for radiation, are trying to grow mice in hen eggs or are running tests on 40-year-old men whose heads are bigger than their bodies. Part of me wishes I was a scientist, swishing around in a long lab coat and turning on a Bunsen burner each day instead of a PC. If only I had stopped listening to Green Day tapes in the back of chemistry class with the boy from the canoe club and taken more notes.

So I might not be a scientist, but at least I get to hang out with them now and again. And I am sure I could meet them more and know them better if I did as I was told and joined Facebook.

So far I have avoided it, despite people telling me how great it is see photos of school bullies who have since turned fat and had ugly babies. But I have managed to resist the urge. To give in now would be like starting to smoke at 80.

But I do appreciate it is a good way to stay in touch with either very old, very distant or very new friends – the ones you can’t just send a text or email to or turn up on their doorstep randomly.

But, I figure, if I was signed up I would not be hearing this toilet gossip for the first time. And gossiping through cubicles and by sinks is what makes us women.

Plus I do not think I can risk spending any more time staring at a screen – no matter how ugly the babies staring back at me are.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

No time to waste


‘Stop doing the London walk,’ my parents will say when I visit them in Cumbria and invariably end up walking 20ft ahead and at twice the speed. And it’s true, I have picked up the pace in the past few years. You can’t help it, it’s contagious. Most people walk quickly and with purpose here, even when they’re not in a rush and have nowhere specific to be.

If I get stuck behind someone walking slowly along Oxford Street, say, or dragging their heels while changing on the underground, I get cross out of all proportion. Even if they have good reason to be walking slowly, like a prosthetic leg. I have completely forgotten how to amble. I am on permanent fast-forward.

I have also started to multi-task unnecessarily to optimise every available minute in the day. In the shower I will wash my hair with one hand and brush my teeth with the other. I dry my hair with the hairdryer while making the bed and pairing socks. When cooking, I always wash up/clean up as I go along (although not very well - dried on bits of branflake will always be pointed out to me on ‘clean’ cereal bowls stacked away in the cupboard the next day). I can’t even relax watching a film on TV, I have to cut/file/paint my toenails at the same time or be scanning the internet for jobs. Walking back home from Ealing Broadway Station (quickly) I will make shopping lists in my head, or consult my diary and start thinking of ways to fill my days off. If I don’t have at least a couple of things to do at any given moment, I feel slightly on edge.

I must not waste time. I cannot relax.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Short-changed


The bored teenager in Greggs has short-changed me by 15p. He has charged me for a cheese and ham baguette, not a cheese ploughmans. I don’t say anything. I have already tested his patience by asking him to cut the sandwich in half and to stamp my coffee loyalty card, tasks which caused him to sigh heavily.

I give the sandwich to my friend, along with 15p from my own pocket. I don’t want her to think I stole her 15p, or admit to not wanting to confront the assistant.

‘I need to toughen up,’ I think as I drink my coffee, mildly disgusted with myself.

To succeed in London, and possibly life, you need to be single-minded, driven and not care if people badmouth you behind your back, because undoubtedly you will have given them reason to. The ruthless creatures are the ones who rise above the ranks in my newsroom, get what they want or get headhunted. Nice guys and girls finish last.

After my coffee I go and help out in the charity shop. There is a new disabled volunteer in his 50s. I say hello. He seems very driven. He keeps telling me to do things, even though I am meant to be doing something else.

‘Put a label on that,’ he barks, pointing at something. ‘No! Put it up there. Come and look at this. Move it there. No, there. Hurry up.’

I am not sure if his disability means he is not aware he is being rude and bossy, or if he just enjoys being rude and bossy. I’m also not sure if I should stand up for myself, or say ‘Move it there please’. I decide to do what I am told. After 30 minutes I go and hide from him by the video section.

I leave and go to Sainsbury’s. I am lugging around 4 giant folders of science magazines I bought from the charity shop. There are 50 magazines, dating from 1981-1983, neatly bound in silver folders, all in immaculate condition; not that you would expect anything less from the nerd who originally owned them. There are clusters of atoms printed on the front of them and ‘Science Now’ written in a futuristic font. One article predicts 'Phones that fit in your pocket could soon be with us', another has a feature on a talking suitcase, although it does not say why anyone would benefit from owning one.

I am weaving about the cheese aisle like a drunk person, weighed down with Science Nows, shopping and a handbag. I sway to the check-out. A woman in her 70s wearing bright blue pants cuts in front of me. She knows she pushed in. We held eye contact for a split second.

‘Ehaah,’ I say to her, but the sound gets stuck in my throat before it can form a word. She is probably a retired managing director.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A very northern stand-off


I am painting my nails frosted pink, sitting on the sofa with my sister. We are watching the climax of the week-long manhunt for Raoul Moat on Sky News. We are into the third hour of the stand-off. We meant to go to bed an hour ago, but can’t take our eyes off the green fuzzy night-cam pointing at Moat, who is next to a storm drain by a river waving a gun around.

Gazza, premier league footballer turned championship lush, turns up. ‘I’ve come to see me mate Moatey!’ he slurs to armed police. ‘I’ve brought him a dressing gown, some chicken, a can of lager and a fishing rod so we can go fishing and have a chat.’

‘This is getting weird,’ I say. ‘Will Ant and Dec turn up next with sausage rolls?’
‘Are we imagining this?’ she says.

The live coverage is interwoven with reports from the village in the North East where the action is taking place. There is a bit of a carnival atmosphere – locals have come out of the pub and are drinking pints watching it all unfold. They're sitting on deckchairs even though it is dark and drizzly.

We hear a report from a middle-aged man who has a greenhouse. He thinks Moat stole from him.

‘My tomato plant had just one tomato on it,’ he says. ‘And the tomato was missing this morning.'
The Sky News reporter looks pleased with his scoop. We go back to the fuzzy green coverage.

Earlier in the week, while Moat was holding up a chip shop, an old women was told to stay in Morrisons supermarket until the danger had passed. ‘Oh, it beats sitting at home on my own,’ she told a Radio 4 presenter later. She hadn’t been that excited since the Blitz.

I know Raoul killed his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend and shot a policeman, but the whole thing feels surreal. Even the photos of the shot policeman did not seem real – his face looked plastered in strawberry jam, not blood. Or maybe tomato sauce from the chip shop. I almost hope Moat jumps down the drain and makes a new life for himself in the sewers – rescued by teenage mutant turtles. Anything seems possible.

Another hour passes. Things are not looking good for Moat. We switch the TV off. It's like when I watch a film for the second time and know a main character is about to die, so I turn it off and pretend they get their happy ending. Thelma and Louise set up a bakery in Mexico. Tom Hanks finds a cure for Aids in Philadelphia.

I look under my bed before I go to sleep, half-expecting to see Moat hiding there, putting his finger to his lips and giving me a cheeky wink. But he’s not. Because he’s dead.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Nothing nice to say


I have been asked to meet the new batch of trainees who are destined for London. I must represent the desk.

‘Try not scare them,’ my boss says.
‘I’ll try not to scare them,’ I say at the same time.

The trainees have been herded on to a balcony high up in the building, which offers impressive views of the canteen. It reminds me that I have not had time to eat – other than the usual plate of **** I am force fed by certain people.

I shrug and drain my third glass of wine.

The trainees are fresh faced and have come from across the country armed with serious degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, connections and smart shoulder bags.

'What is it like? How do you like London?’ they say, staring into my eyes expectantly.

I pause, stutter something incomprehensible, then accidentally elbow the MD in his back and spill wine down my top. Someone else answers the question, stopping me from saying: ‘Jump! Jump off this balcony now.’

I retreat to the canapé table. A retired member of staff is there. I have been looking forward to catching up with him. He is from Manchester. He knows people there. I can trust him. He says he can help me. We go out for a drink. I look at him expectantly.

‘You won’t be on the money you’re on now in Manchester, you know? You need to be in London to make serious money,’ he says. ‘You’ll be bored up there. There are no jobs... They’ll chuck money at you to make you stay here. Or they’ll make you work three months’ notice... You should commute - it's three hours on the train, I did it for 40 years.’

I want him to stop talking. I look at my glass of wine and consider throwing it down his shirt.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Words and screens


My left eyeball is dry and itchy and my right one is watering and twitchy. The nurse at work advised me to stare off into the distance every 15 minutes to give my eyes a break from the screen. I remember this after I have been looking at it for eight hours forty minutes. I stare off into the distance. I see more computer screens.

‘I need a break from words and screens,’ I think. ‘I would be better off staring directly into the sun.’

On the tube home I do not read my book. At home, I hide the TV remotes and put a cushion over my laptop. I look at the pile of unopened post and then put it under the cushion.

I go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet. I pick up a bottle of shower gel to read its ingredients for something to do. I realise the ingredients list is made out of words, so I throw the bottle on the floor. I focus on a splodge of mildew on the shower curtain instead. The mildew is real. It is living. I go to bed. I dream of work and screens and words. I wake disappointed. It is a waste of a dream. I want to dream of gun fights, flying horses and Robert Pattinson.

I go out for a walk. Words and screens are everywhere – posters, electric displays at bus stops, house ‘for sale’ signs. My phone vibrates. It is a text message. I ignore it.

The World Cup is being shown on a giant screen in the beer garden I am in. I look at the flower underneath the screen. It is real. It smells. I can touch it. I want to touch it. I go and touch it. I turn round. People are looking at me. They are real.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pack man


I have started to pack for the move up north, pushing aside the small matter of not having a house to move to or job to go to.

I am no stranger to the packing process, having moved at least 17 times in my adult life. One move involved driving a van for 600 miles, another saw me pushing a shopping trolley containing all my worldly goods - and a cat - around a corner. But they all have one thing in common: ruthless packing. Separating the essentials from what is, essentially, tat.

My wardrobe resembles the final hour of a jumble sale, so it is my first area of focus. I make three piles: bin, charity shop, keep (it is the sort of thing skinny presenters for Channel 4 makeover shows would advise).

A large percentage of Southern Man’s pants and mildly amusing, yet hole-ridden, slogan T-shirts make it to the bin pile. He might notice they are missing in 4-5 months and complain. I am willing to take that chance.

I part company with a 'Pink Ladies' polyester jacket, glitter legwarmers, ancient dresses and boob tubes from my thinner days. I have somehow amassed six scarves, which seems a bit excessive for someone who only has one neck. Four go.

I normally give my clothes to the Cancer Research shop, and then walk by it for the next week in the hope that one of my donations has made it on to the shop window mannequin. They never do.

But I buy most clothes from a different charity shop, where money goes towards, rather vaguely, ‘helping the local community’ (not quite as appealing as the big C). I’ve found designer clothes there for a snip - I continue to squeeze into some Nicole Farhi trousers that I bought for £3, despite having to undo the top button when I sit down. I’m in there quite a lot, and told the assistant, a slightly loopy woman in her 70s, about my mission to find a job up north.

‘Oh you know what you need to do?’ she confided loudly, so I could hear her over the badly tuned-in Capital FM, ‘Paint your face black or become one of those lesbians.’

I shuffled uncomfortably in the busy shop and tried to distance myself from her statement by looking at a pink plastic necklace.

‘It’s true. It’s the only way to get a job,' she said, 'And I don’t care who hears me say it!’

I have not seen her for a while. She appears to have been replaced by a quiet Polish woman, who isn't black or gay.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Window shopping


Britain has been slowly baking over the past week. It is the sort of rare UK weather that leads tabloids to fill their pages with pictures of Beth, 19, a hairdresser from Brighton, in a bikini and up to her belly button in the Channel, while other newspapers will report on the true cost of sunburn to the NHS. Even Glastonbury festival has been sunny, which I am not very pleased about – once you have been and endured four days of sludge, slurry and downpours, you want others to suffer the same way.

The heat in London is oppressive. My flat, with its large Victorian bay windows, has transformed into a microwave oven and I have been cooking on full power for eight days. I am done. And I am too afraid to open any windows after hearing about a colleague’s daughter – a student doctor in West London. She went to bed and left her bedroom window open so she could nod off with a slight breeze, only to wake at 3am staring at a hulk of a man who had climbed through and was helping himself to her computer. What a toerag.

Being pale and Cumbrian, I am not built for this heat – although I do love the sun as long as I can sit around in it and do very little, except eat white chocolate Magnums and read magazines. The promises of a good wage and good weather were the main reasons I moved down south in the first place. The Lake District is by its nature wet, and Aberdeen, where I went to university, was so very Scottish you only got two hours of sunshine each day. But after five years in London and nearly ten down south, the grey skies of the north seem most appealing. And it would be lovely to open a window.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Only words


I miss toast. I receive a tip-off that Marks and Spencer is selling an edible wheat-free loaf that my dodgy stomach can stomach. I head out to buy it on the way to work. It is only a loaf, it should not take long.

I am inside the shop, clutching the small, white, overpriced loaf. I am already running late. I spy a till with two people waiting on it. My luck is in.

The checkout-lady has her left wrist in an arm guard, as if she has twisted it or there is some sort of deformity underneath it that might put customers off buying last-minute Turkish Delight or vanilla fudge bars. She is carefully folding some pyjamas and putting them in a carrier bag. She moves on to the next item. It is a carbonara ready meal. She studies it. ‘Oh that looks nice,’ she says to the lady buying it. Two more people have joined the queue behind me. The checkout woman carefully scans the pasta meal. She picks up the next item – it is a block of cheddar cheese. ‘Have you got a flower bag?’ the person on the next till shouts over. She bends down and does a thorough search of her area. She sits back up. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I do not have a flower bag.’ She looks at the cheese in her hand and seems surprised to see it there.

The woman in front of me turns around and catches my eye. I think she is trying to engage in conversation. ‘Are we going in slow-motion?’ I ask her. ‘Why do I always pick these tills?’ she replies. We shake our heads and puff air out of our cheeks in a mock-exasperated fashion.

I eventually buy the loaf. I leave the shop strangely elated. It is because of the brief exchange (of words for words, not goods for money).

I realise that on a typical working day I do not talk much. I get up, mooch about, look for jobs online, travel to work, go to work where the only conversations are brief, sharp and usually end in someone telling me to do something quickly, which means I will be unable to talk, then return home to find a man on my sofa who I try to talk to, but he is asleep. It is why I sometimes go to the Hotel Chocolat posh sweet shop before I start my shift – the assistants always have a banter with you – that, and you get a free square of chocolate.

‘This is what it must be like for old people,’ I say out loud, just so I can hear the sound of my voice. Old people only get to speak to their doctor or the charity worker who comes to chisel dead skin off their feet. No wonder they will talk to anybody.

I am as isolated as a 90-year-old. The thought is quite disturbing. I try to concentrate on the thought of toast.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Money isn't everything but


‘Money isn’t everything... but it is two thirds’ and ‘When money goes out the door, love flies out the window’ were phrases often used by my mother when I was growing up. As were: ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’, ‘Shy bairns get nee bread’ and ‘You are not going out you are only 16 and the last time I let you your friend was found by the police dangling off a bridge with a bottle of vodka’.

My mother was brought up in the North East of England and her dad was a coal miner and her mum was a cleaner. There was not a lot of money around back then. She is still mystified by the concept of expensive organic meat as she was brought up to be grateful for whatever was put on the table – whether it resembled chicken or cat. I think free-range food will take longer to catch on in the North of England, as will sushi, political correctness and modern art.

A friend’s new girlfriend had words with him because he insisted on highlighting the price of everything he bought in London ('£4.50 for a pint of lager? £8 for a glass of wine! £100 for a monthly tube pass?'). She thought he was being tight. He wasn’t. It’s just his mother is also from the North East and the cost of ‘stuff’ is a top conversation topic. It beats the weather hands down.

I know that women doing the same job as men generally get paid less than them. According to one angry survey conducted by women for women this is because men breeze into their bosses’ offices and demand pay rises, while women are programmed to quietly accept whatever they are given. With this in mind, as well as my overdraft and ‘shy bairns get nee bread’, I have regularly sounded off about my pay versus the cost of London living. And it appears to have paid off.

After being summoned to the MD’s office I have been given a chunky pay rise, a firm handshake and told ‘We don’t want to lose our young talent’.

Despite money being two thirds, all I could think was: ‘This job is destroying me’, ‘Too little too late, old chum’ and ‘That will help nicely towards a deposit for a flat in Manchester’.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Well well well


I’ve never been very good at taking sick days. I’d rather go to work with bits falling off while coughing into a ball of wet tissue than make a phone call and risk people thinking I was faking it. Not that you get any credit for going in when you are unwell. Even when the smell of Lemsip has drifted across the office and my desk resembles a pop-up pharmacy, I’ve never been told that I am a brave girl.

If I find it hard to call in when I am genuinely poorly, I find it almost impossible to call in and fake it. I admire those who can pull sickies without a second thought. In the past I have put in plenty of unnecessary groundwork the shift before the pre-planned sick day - grabbing my stomach while trying to make eye-contact with someone who'll then be able to back up my claims the next day. I am not a good actor. I find the whole business so stressful that I do not do it very often.

On the walk to the tube I often daydream of swapping broken bones for a few days off. I’ve broken my elbow before and the pain was preferable to a typical day at the office. Even on the escalator up to work I have fantasised about falling down them, just so I can stall the start of my shift by a few hours. I appreciate these are not healthy thoughts. I am not work-shy – I just work in the bowels of hell.

I know people who work in the City in insurance and take home morbidly obese salaries. And on top of this, and 25 days holiday, they are given 5 ‘Duvet Days’ each year. It is basically a licence to call in at the drop of a hat and say: 'I don't feel like coming in today' – whether that was because they had a job interview, felt a bit tired, fancied a bit of Jeremy Kyle or had met someone the night before they wanted to continue to tumble about with. Sometimes life seems very unfair.

But as I have just used up all my holiday until October (to save what was left of my sanity) I might have to get better at ruining my sick record. Especially if I get any job interviews in the north. And as I have now put my sister’s Manchester address on my CV, I am hoping potential employers do not dismiss me as a soft southern type.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Introductions


Head to Soho to meet an old photographer friend. He is working freelance, taking photos of bikes, buildings and biryanis. We have not spoken for several months so we reminisce about the golden days when we worked together in Canary Wharf: getting drunk on food reviews and faking vox pops. He is a true metrosexual - in fact I used to call him my ‘non-gay-gay-friend’ because he wore nice shoes and knew how to accessorise. I know he was the one behind my leaving present – a pretty Ted Baker handbag. Other members of staff would probably have given me some B&Q vouchers and a hearty handshake.

We are laughing with gusto and on our third pint of cloudy Addlestones cider when his new girlfriend arrives. I met her once before, briefly, at a party, but this is the first official meeting. I am painfully aware of how difficult it is for new girlfriends to meet old female friends of their new boyfriends'. How you have to plaster on a smile while they laugh about the old times while you are thinking: ‘Does she fancy him? Does he fancy her? Did they ever fancy each other?' or: 'Please say something that will mean I can join in and say something.’

More than anything I want her to know I am not a threat and I am glad he has met someone who is making him happy.

She sits down at the table.

‘Hello!’ I say, half standing up and sloshing cider on the table in the process. She is smiling, but it is not a real smile.

‘Look at my bruise!’ I say, pointing at the purple bump on my arm that appeared after I fell over in my flip-flops in Naples airport.

As soon as I say it I realise I am trying too hard. I should have just said: 'How are you?'. I am an idiot, an idiot pointing at a bruise, sitting with her boyfriend.

She smiles. I get some more drinks in. There is a brief silence when I bring them back so I point out my earlobe, which has an infection and is bleeding slightly.

I am fairly sure she does not think I am a threat.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Charity case


Since the start of the year I have been volunteering once a week at a charity shop – supporting a bloke with autism. We hang up polyester trousers, label books and talk about films from the '90s - of which he has a spooky knowledge; he’s a walking-talking IMDb.

I started volunteering when I was feeling especially sorry for myself and eaten up with hatred for the city and the job. It has reminded me to keep a sense of proportion, that there is life away from newspapers and the computer screen and that money is not everything.

It is also fun. I get to hang out with the smiley girl on the till with down's syndrome, community service workers who always make you a cup of tea (‘I’m here cos I been a naughty girl, ya nah?’) and an assortment of life’s misfits who are out of work and come in for a chat and a second-hand blouse.

I arrive this week and there has been a mix-up and the bloke I mentor has not turned up. But the shop manager is run-ragged and asks me to stay and help.

I watch the shop floor and rearrange videos, rag dolls and chipped cups. I eye-up two wooden chairs that have just been donated that I quite fancy for my front room.

The manager asks me to pay in some takings to the bank. She tells me that £200 has gone missing from the till today. I tut-tut appropriately and head off with the bumbag of cash, the paying-in slip and my escort – a volunteer in his 40s. He is gay, penniless and claims to be a descendant of the Ming Dynasty, as well as a chartered accountant and hairdresser.

‘She is suspicious of everybody about the £200,’ he says, twirling up the street. ‘They think I could have taken it. I have blue blood! Maybe they think you took it, too?’

I leave him at Greggs, dancing and buying pasties, while I go to pay in the money.

I think about the missing £200 while waiting in the bank. 'What sort of person steals from a charity shop?' I think. The cashier interrupts me.

‘This is £20 short,’ she says, counting the takings for the second time.

I take the money back to the shop.

‘Oh dear. Maybe I counted it out wrong,’ the manager says, looking at me.

I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt even though I know I did not take the £20. The more I try to look natural, the more I look as if I am a liar and a thief. And if I took £20 what would stop me taking £200?

I shuffle around the shop feeling terrible. If I go back and reassure her that I didn’t take it, would that make me look guilty? Should I empty my pockets? Surely she does not think I took it? She had just told me about the missing £200... it would take a particularly stupid person to then go and take £20 from under her nose. Or maybe a particularly clever person?

The rest of the shift passes uncomfortably, with me trying not to look guilty of something I did not do. It is exceptionally difficult.

I finish and go to buy the two wooden chairs. I see they are £10 each. I shuffle out of the shop empty-handed.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Pizza envy


Succeed in putting several hundred thrilling miles between myself and London while in Italy for a friend’s wedding. But, annoyingly, I can still feel stress and tension creeping up my back and shoulders. It’s as if I am carrying a rucksack full of pebbles.

Italy is the first place I have visited where the drivers make Londoners look like they’re Driving Miss Daisy. A taxi driver is happy to squash four of us in the back of his Fiat and he scoffs at the idea of seatbelts as he overtakes a queue of cars waiting on a red light. Seatbelts appear to be ignored in Italy, as are indicators, road markings and mirrors. The roads have more bends than my small intestines and they are punctuated with squashed cats and scooter accidents. It is after another near-death experience that I realise I have stopped worrying about work and I am now more concerned with surviving. The rucksack is off.

This is also the first long holiday I have had since being diagnosed with coeliacs, which means I cannot eat gluten - so no pizza, pasta, bread, cake or proper ice cream. It means I can eat fresh fish, meat, salad and vegetables. It means I do eat ready-salted crisps and cheese balls.

As I am away from the desk I am able to see Southern Man for a proper chat. We hatch a plan over a tray of limoncellos. As our long-distance search for work has not been very successful, we will set a deadline. If no jobs have materialised in the North West by said deadline we will quit our jobs anyway, head up there and hope for the best (deadline to be set after not having drunk limoncellos).

Relocating to the unknown and binning important-sounding job could be seen as an act of madness. But when the place you live is driving you mad, then surely it is madness to stay? Anyhow, I work well with deadlines. At least my CV says I do.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Murder mystery

Murders don’t happen in Cumbria to Cumbrians. They happen to wannabe gangsters in Hackney or relatives of soap stars in Brixton kebab shops. I should know, I am one (a Cumbrian, not a killer... or a kebab shop for that matter).

The only heinous crime I recall taking place in Cumbria was the case of the farmer who ran over his wife with his tractor so he could cash in her life insurance and run off to Majorca with his mistress. He pretended he hadn’t seen her as she bent down to pick up a Polo mint. And if it hadn’t been for his pesky stepkids, he would have gotten away with it. They smelt a rat after discovering sleazy love notes addressed to him. As far as murders go, it’s on a Miss Marple level. Nothing too ugly.

I heard about the West Cumbrian killing spree from a friend by text as I was shopping for wedding presents along Oxford Street (a place that can bring on murderous thoughts). I called my mum in Cumbria straight away to warn her and tell her to stay inside the house, as the police were advising.

‘But I’m in B&Q car park and your dad is in Morrisons buying wood chippings,’ she said.
‘Well, watch out for a strange man with a gun,’ I told her.

An hour later, Derrick Bird had shot himself, and 30 people were in hospital... 12 dead.

At work, as more details filtered through to my phone from friends, I found myself in the peculiar situation of working on a fiddly feature spread on summer swimwear while passing on harrowing information to the news desk. I don’t think I will be able to look at a bikini again without thinking of mass homicide.

It transpired that Bird was the second cousin of an old school friend of mine. And that he had shot a lot of people in the face. And a woman who was delivering catalogues, a bloke who was painting and another who was trimming a bush. Horrible.

Why he did it is still a mystery. He may or may not have had money worries. One thing is for certain, for the next week I will have to listen to Sky News reporters mispronounce the names of small Cumbrian towns.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Blind drunk date


My week off has been spent sofabed and spare room hopping across the north, via a few bathroom floors along the way.

I picked up a copy of the Manchester Evening News while I was there to look through the jobs pages. Exactly the same jobs appear on the online version that I check from London, but there is something more earnest about leafing through a newspaper's job section, instead of entering key words and scrolling down a computer screen.

Job vacancy highlights include the experienced fryer wanted for a fish and chip shop, chatline staff (must have own landline), and person wanted to be ‘responsible for the maintenance of office tropical plants’ – which I presume means watering yucca plants on windowsills. The starting salary is £16k – the same Southern Man started on for his audio job in Soho (another one of those media roles where you must have a degree, the right face and know someone in the company, but if you won’t settle for the crappy pay there are 1000 other media graduates who will).

My older sister in Manchester was moving to a bigger house, giving her more space to fill with Mamas and Papas highchairs and musical plastic space pods for my nephew. I had agreed to help her move. But I had also agreed to meet an old school friend the night before who has not had much luck meeting men who were not socially stunted in some way.

In West Didsbury's Met bar, I herd my school friend over to a nice-looking chap from Northern Ireland who is 31, has a good job, good accent and a good sense of humour. The only problem is, after 2 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and no tea she is finding it hard to stand, let alone focus on the good catch, and wants to talk instead to the 19-year-old with the pierced lip, no job and two children.

I give her a not-so-subtle shove back to the Irishman and initiate a phone number exchange. In the cold light of day they agree to go on a date. I wonder if I could relaunch myself as a matchmaker. Then I reason a job watering plants might have fewer repercussions.

After 4 hours of troubled sleep I head to my sister’s to help with the move. I end up falling asleep on a concrete slab in her back yard and wake when my dad has to go to A&E for a problem with his leg.

Friday, 28 May 2010

God TV

I take the train from King’s Cross to Newcastle to see my old flatmate John, who has been in the same boat as me but has managed to bail out to the north. And it only took him three years of twining and CV tinkering. He is proof that you can get out. But also proof that it can take a long time.

We toast his new life in his new house with mojitos and prawn cocktail Seabrook crisps while watching episodes of Cold Case (the soldier did it, but his boss covered it up. Soundtrack: Pearl Jam).

We discover the religious channel, God TV. They appear to be holding some kind of telethon, but instead of Lenny Henry they have a jittery preacher with a fake tan. They are trying to raise ‘urgent funds’. There is a large stack of orange papers on what appears to be a rockery. I am very confused.

I call the number at the bottom of the screen. A pleasant-sounding Indian lady picks up.
'Hello, God TV,’ she says.
‘What are the orange bits of paper for?’ I say.
‘They are prayers, maam. You can make a donation and we will print out a prayer for you.'
I get scared and hang up the phone. I wonder if they can trace the number.

We carry on watching God TV. We have another mojito. I call back God TV. The same lady picks up.
‘Hello, God TV.’
‘Where is the money going? Which charity?’ I ask.
‘We are raising $4million to keep God TV on air,’ she says.

I am flabbergasted. Across the bottom of the screen I can see that a man from Russia has just donated £1000. Someone from East Anglia has donated £15. I am getting annoyed. John takes the phone off me and packs me off to bed.

I forget to brush my teeth and wake at 6am with a bad taste in my mouth.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Wise move


Everyone is moving. Everyone except me. KC is moving. And of all the streets in all of London, it looks like he is moving on to mine.

KC and I started on the same day at work and have been complaining ever since. He is house hunting with his attractive teacher girlfriend, who has benefited from the sudden death of a rich relative (the only way you are likely to get on the property ladder in London. Unless you are those two Polish painters who decorated a banker’s new house in Canary Wharf and decided they liked it so much they changed the locks and kept it for themselves. Quite enterprising, really).

KC and his girlfriend pop in for a cup of tea. I root around the cupboard for cups that are not chipped or covered in coffee smudges and tea stains. They tell me they have been looking at a one-bedroom first-floor flat a few doors down. They show me pictures. I see that it comes with a garden which is approximately the same size as a Subbuteo pitch. It is selling for £249,000 – roughly the same price my parents’ 4-bed detached home with garden, garage, shed (Mother: ‘It is not a shed it is a summer house.’) and little pond with occasional frogs is going for, up on the borders of the Lake District.

But KC and his girlfriend are young and in love and excited about buying their first place. I tell them the garden has potential.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Depression


It is my day off. I spend two hours and 40% of my laptop battery looking for jobs in the North West. It is hopeless. I turn on the TV. A woman who used to be on Coronation Street is talking about her battle with depression. I text Southern Man. ‘I think I am depressed,’ I say. He calls me back. ‘Go and get an ice cream,’ he says.

I go out wearing leggings with holes in the bottom, red flip-flops, a baggy black jumper and no make-up. It is the sort of look a depressed person would go for. I shuffle out of the house and down the road, staring at the pavement. I spot a crow eating a dead pigeon. One of my flip-flops falls off. I text him again. ‘I am still depressed,’ I say. ‘Cheer up,’ he replies, ‘Not long until our holiday.’ ‘But I’m already worried about going back to work after my holiday,’ I say.

Women who are depressed go shopping. I am sure Liz Jones did, after her husband slept with a stripper. Yes, depressed men gamble, depressed women shop. I pop into the Cancer Research shop and buy a book and an egg press from the 1980s that turns ‘ordinary hard boiled eggs into a unique square taste treat’. I get a slight buzz when I hand over my cash, but I am still miserable.

I remember that the woman from Coronation Street said she developed a cocaine addiction when she was depressed – but that seems a bit out of my league. Instead, I go to Tesco and buy some wine, along with some bananas, tinned custard and eggs. I get another call when I am in the cheese aisle. ‘Just pack in your job and we will move to Manchester and stay on your sister’s sofabed,’ he says.

I go to pay. The checkout girl looks me up and down. ‘Have you got any ID?’ she says. ‘But I am 30!’ I tell her, with big, sorrowful, un-made-up eyes. Clearly the depressed look takes years off me. Which is a reason to be a bit cheerful, I suppose.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Secret diary of a choirgirl


It is strange how little I know about the people on my desk after 16 months there (it’s a very heads down, get on with it, don’t look directly in the editor’s eyes affair). Still, you try and glean bits of information when you can

I only found out this week that our version of the Diet Coke man, on the tech support team, is a trained actor trying to break on to the BBC3 comedy scene. The fact he has 5 children by a few different women was less of a surprise - it's the inevitable outcome of looks + humour + coming to the rescue of damsels in distress whose computers have crashed.

I mention this to someone in my department. ‘Oh yes,’ she replies. ‘It took me eight years before I told anyone here that I was gay.’ I look around our corner of the newsroom. ‘I suppose he could be a secret cross dresser,’ I say, nodding my head in the direction of a 6ft bearded Cornish man who looks after the puzzle pages.

‘Hmmmm, and then there’s him…’ she says, looking at another colleague. ‘I know as much about him now as I did when he first started ten years ago. He has given nothing away about himself. He’s the sort of person that when the bones are found in his back garden, you’ll tell Sky News “Oh he was a quiet sort, kept himself to himself.”’

It does make you think. And I wonder what the Eton execs who sneer and shout at me would say if they knew my job 12 years ago was to dance around the clubs of Ibiza, dressed as a choirgirl. Then again, maybe they were doing the same thing.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Things I discovered this weekend:


1. Dinosaurs suffered from arthritis;

2. Dinosaur bones were first found 150 years ago in Lewes, Sussex - the same place I discovered Harveys beer;

3. I need a little sit down if I walk around a museum for longer than 40 minutes;

4. Breaking Bad is the best thing on TV;

5. The glamorous features executive in my office also has coeliacs. I don't really know her, but as we are in the same gluten-free gang, with faulty intestines, I feel as if I do. Is this how people with cancer felt when Kylie/Lance Armstrong announced their bad news?

6. As I can no longer eat coco pops or toast, my favourite breakfast is egg, chips and beans;

7. The ants are back.

Friday, 14 May 2010

In the doghouse



This week has not been my finest. It has a lot to do with it taking Southern Man 11 days to replace the fridge that he stabbed with a bread knife (a long time to go without easy-access to cheddar).

I am also angry with him for not being able to rescue me from my horrid job and whisk me up north with a rucksack full of cash. And for the fact he can fall asleep so easily. And that he doesn’t clean the flat enough, preferring instead to watch documentaries such as Hitler In Colour and The Wonderful World Of Maps.

To ‘punish’ him I have done two loads of washing this week, both times neglecting to include any of his pants (in a ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s not done’ sort of way). He ran out of pants two days ago, but has not mentioned anything.

I am not really angry with him – I am just having an angry week with a lot of work and a lack of sleep. But he is an easy target, well, the only target, when I come home at midnight, red-eyed, after another shift where I’ve had to smile sweetly at vile executives, battle with bugs in the computer system and rewrite clunky copy from people who’ve only got their work in the paper because of their double-barrelled names. And all I've had to eat are baked potatoes at my desk that are as dry as my eyes from staring at a screen for ten joyless hours.

Ho hum. Four more shifts until my escape to the north - Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham in 7 days by train to see friends, sisters, nephew and possibly oblivion after too much wine. I'm sure someone will be glad of the peace, too.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Suicide and burgers



Mel is quitting the newsroom before the madness sets in, so we have arranged to meet for a farewell burger (our hours make farewell drinks impossible, unless we go to a casino, members-only bar or strip club).

I have only been on the tube for five minutes when a familiar announcement is made... a person is 'under a train' at Barons Court. The passengers on my carriage (myself included) are a miserable bunch, wearing winter coats and thick black tights although it is the middle of May. We heave a collective sigh and file off at Hammersmith and pile on a bus heading west.

These grim announcements are all-too common in London. But they usually happen at rush-hour therefore causing maximum chaos on the underground, as if the sad soul in question is giving a final two-fingered salute to the city. 12.04pm seems like a truly bleak time to take your life.

I secure a seat on the number 27 bus, in front of a gobby mother who has a three-year-old daughter in a buggy. She is chatting away to a posh banker-type she has just met. There’s nothing like a suicide to get people chattering.

‘I wish they’d stay at home to do this kind of stuff,' she says. 'It’s so inconsiderate. I’m going to be late for lunch in Camden now.'
‘I know, or they should jump off the NatWest building,’ the banker guffaws.

‘Heartless cretins,’ I think, as I study my diary and calculate how many hours I have to work before my holiday - and what this is as a percentage of total time.

The mother then proceeds to gossip on the phone about the fact her husband is working at David Beckhams’s new London house.

‘....and a swimming pool and cinema, too! Yes, I know..... Oh, but he’s not allowed to say much because the press will all turn up, it's all top secret...’

I smile and text the information to a showbiz reporter I know.

On the tube home, nearly 12 hours later, I peep out at the station at Barons Court. There are no flowers. It is business as usual.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tissue issues



Visit the new Vue cinema at posh Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush (it's like the Metro Centre, but with chandeliers). Cinema tickets are £9.70 each. A coffee is £2.90. But worst of all, a small popcorn is £4.60. I am so disgusted I give the assistant the fun-size carton back and say I am not paying. It is a good job I have jelly sweets, Milky Bars and a pasty in my handbag to rustle up later.

Despite the shiny hand driers and space age sanitary bins, there is no toilet paper in the ladies. While sitting on the Vue toilet, hoping I do not miss the start of the film, I am reminded of my strange relationship with toilet roll in public toilets. It is something that has gone on for almost 20 years.

It was the first time I was allowed to go to the Metro Centre in Gateshead without my family, but in the company of ‘Jen-Pal’ my best friend throughout primary school. We were going to get the bus from Carlisle to the north-east and spend our pocket money on Athena posters, Impulse body sprays and rides at Metro Land. We would not have to be dragged around Marks and Spencer with our parents in the boring Green Zone. It was very exciting.

But before we got on the bus, Jen’s mum dragged us to one side. ‘Now remember to be careful in the toilets there,' she said, handing us a packet of tissues. 'Drug users wipe their needles on the toilet roll.’ And with that, we were off.

I knew it couldn’t be true. Why would heroin addicts travel to the Metro Centre to shoot up? It’s only really accessible by bus and car. It’s not as if they would pop into Toys R Us, score, and then trundle off to the ladies. But Jen’s mum’s words have haunted me ever since. And I will always take the first two sheets of toilet paper off the roll in any public toilet before I use it.

It probably amounts to several hundred rolls in my lifetime. Am I being punished in Vue toilets?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Skype's the limit


Finally work out how to use Skype so I can see my friends in the north. I don’t really understand it, but Skype is a free way to make video calls to people who have laptops with webcams. It has taken me a week to install it and the same again to work out what buttons to press to make a call.

Technology, on the whole, makes me feel old and angry. I was born in the Seventies. Just. The most high-tech thing in my life was a pop-up book. My idea of downloading a new release would be pressing record on my radio-cassette player during Sunday’s Top 40 countdown.

I know change is inevitable - as is growing older. But it’s all happening a bit too fast. Imagine Fred Flinstone quantum-leaping into the Jetsons’ front room. That is how I feel when I am confronted with an iPod or a smart phone. Even my toaster is a source of confusion – it has six buttons, two of which I am scared to press.

I am out of my depth when it comes to a lot of gadgets that are meant to make your life easier. But if you are under 60, people just assume you will get your head around them. Men seem to have the edge when it comes to understanding techy innovations, possibly because they've been getting light-up pens that tell the time and temperature for birthday presents for years.

Oh well. I live in hope that someone will invent a brain chip that downloads every single instruction booklet for every single gadget into my memory.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Long night in politics


My neck is sore after falling asleep on the sofa watching the BBC election coverage. Even the correspondent walking through the virtual Downing Street matrix could not keep me up past 1am. And it’s a good job I didn’t wait for Ealing’s result – it came in at 8am.

Switch on the TV; the reporters are all talking jibberish after being up all night. Dramas have been reported in some Ealing polling stations, with queues ‘snaking round the block’, although I’ve seen bigger queues in H&M.

I see my old stomping ground of Brighton has our first Green MP so I text Jem, who lives there. 'But I wanted a yellow!' she replies. My older sister in Manchester texts she would have preferred ‘JLS to win for a well-hung parliament’.

Tory Angie Bray is now in charge here, who, from what I have gleaned from her glossy leaflet, is a woman who plays a ‘mean Cole Porter on the organ and piano’ and has thin, lifeless hair and a lazy eye. Her biggest success story to date has been to get the noisy tannoy announcements at North Acton tube station turned down a bit. Oh well.

I brace myself for a long day at the office reading features on politicians and handbags.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Post


Leaving the flat I pick up a pastel blue envelope that is lying on the mat. It has been hand-delived and handwritten. My name is in shaky block capitals – it looks like an angry child’s doing. I pocket it to read on the bus to work.

I open the envelope. It is from Jon Ball, the Lib Dem candidate for Ealing. It is a last desperate plea (Your vote counts!). On closer inspection I see that the envelope was indeed handwritten, but the letter inside has been cunningly scanned from the original. I am still impressed, and slightly ashamed over how influenced I am by some nice blue writing paper and joined-up writing. It beats glossy leaflets with smirking faces and pie charts, anyway.

Another choice for MP is Labour man Bassam Mahfouz, who has not sold himself to me. On his website he bigs up the fact he starred in a short film in 2005 playing a gangster called Carlos who runs amok with a water pistol (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaOoXsR8Asg). Is this the sort of person I want looking out for me? Fighting for my recycling rights? Ealing is no California.

It makes me think back to covering elections in Sussex with my friend, who now works for a paper in Newcastle. We had been fully prepared for a long night at the polling station, with a rucksack full of bloody Mary ingredients and cheese crisps. By 1am we were staggering along a beach with a UKIP candidate called Moose; my friend clutching onto the election results, which were written on a napkin.

With all this election pondering, I fail to realise I am on the wrong bus. It terminates at Victoria, where I do three laps of the station looking for bus stop 'Q'.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Feeling hot hot hot


There has been another fatal stabbing in London. While I was at work, somebody attacked my fridge-freezer with a bread knife to try and slice off bits of ice, and punctured the gas tubes in the process.

So the aged fridge is dead, the hole in the ozone layer is a few millimetres larger and the landlord is livid. On point of principle, the replacement fridge we get will not be brand new (the bed and sofa that came with the flat are older than me – the mattress is an antique). So I sign up to Freecycle, in the hope that someone wants to offload a small fridge for nothing.

After ten minutes I suddenly have 33 emails. I've never been so popular. Anna-Marie73 wants to give me a mantelpiece. A.Willis from Hanwell is giving away a toaster in ‘generally good working order’. Damien, in South Ealing, would like me to have 80-100 bags of garden stones. There are hair rollers, a deep fat fryer and a child’s booster seat up for grabs. Somebody is appealing for some old Indian shoes (chappals and jootis) for a play called ‘An Arrangement Of Old Shoes’. But there are no fridges.

Still, there is a more pressing problem at hand: like the 500g of strong cheddar that needs eating before it goes off. It's a good job I have my coffee black, or I would be seriously annoyed.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The narked chef


Who thought open-plan kitchens were a good idea? They’re about as practical and friendly on the eye as an open-plan bathroom.

Top of my list of things for a house when I finally make it back up north will be a separate kitchen and living room. Oh for a door! So I can shut off the smells of the bin and burnt toast and the sight of crusty pots and plates. And the sounds.

If anyone can make a meal out of making a meal it is Southern Man. My anti-social shifts mean cooking for one another is a rare event. So, as I’m in the office over Bank Holiday, he has agreed to cook tuna steak with salsa while I relax on the sofa, a metre away, with a glass of wine, emailing recruitment agencies.

Straight away he huffs because he has forgotten to buy peppers. Then he grumbles his way through the chopping (‘This recipe is useless. What shape should I cut the onions?’), and then he swears and strops through the cooking process, glancing up often so he can be sure I am noticing what effort is going into my meal (‘How the hell do you “blacken garlic”? What am I meant to do with this chilli? Why doesn’t it say? Come and look at this! Can you read the recipe again? Where’s the blender? Why didn’t you tell me we didn’t have one? Do we have anything to squeeze limes with? I know it’s burning... The recipe doesn’t tell me anything... Jamie Oliver is a ****... Can you look at this? There’s no space in this kitchen... I’ve burnt my hand! I’m never cooking ever again... It’s a disaster... A waste of money. Oh let’s just eat it and get it over with.’).

My eyes and throat are stinging from the smoke in living room. I open the window so we can breathe. We are sitting in the cold eating, looking at a mound of dirty pans and lime halves on the floor.

‘That recipe was useless,’ he says, shoveling food into his mouth. ‘Did you get anything sent to the agencies?’
I look at him. He looks down at his plate.
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t the perfect chef.’

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Mummy returns


Walking past a row of fancy furniture shops I feel someone looking at me. I stop in my tracks and turn round. It is a hedgehog. We lock eyes. He is sat under a posh dining room chair, he is stuffed and he is for sale. ‘What an undignified end!’ I think, ‘And what sort of person would pay £245 for a hedgehog for their shelves?’

It reminds me of a long-haired artist I used to know in Sussex. He used to hack at and stuff animals, but instead of glueing them to bits of boring tree stump, he would dress them in hats or make them walk on stilts with blindfolds on. He’d go out on a Sunday, hunting for roadkill, and return to his basement with a bag of rotten seagulls, fish heads and fox chunks. I once stumbled across a hollowed-out donkey’s head, filled with sand, drying in his back garden. Neighbourhood cats were sniffing it then running away. He went on to pop the mummified donkey in a high chair and sell it for £1,000. I think he was vegetarian.

I feel sorry for the hedgehog in the posh shop window. He looks out of place. He looks sad. I wonder if the police would throw the book at you for shoplifting a hedgehog, if your heart was in the right place? I would quite like to release him into a wooded area. I imagine he’d be happier in a park, rather than gazing out onto the frantic city streets. He’d probably even take the humiliation of being dressed in a top hat and ruby slippers than have to suffer that much longer.