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


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.