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


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.