Two Red Phone Boxes

A photograph of a couple grinning outside two red phone boxes. A nice but seemingly unremarkable picture. The caption beneath it on Facebook gives it further context: a passing stranger was commandeered by the couple to capture the moment just after the man had proposed and was accepted. The picture goes from ‘nice but unremarkable’ to ‘lovely’.

The grinning woman is my Mum. The grinning man is Andy, her fiancé.

What takes it from unremarkable to the lovely thing it really is, is the extra context that is left out of the photo’s caption. Mum’s secret history of the setting.

The phone booths are in Billericay, where she grew up as a fostered child from the age of two. Her sister, six years older than her, remained with their father and their mother, who was confined to a wheelchair after a stroke rendered her immobile down one side. I won’t relay details of my aunt’s or my grandmother’s life, but Mum had a severely lucky escape.

Nevertheless her childhood was not a happy one. Living in the austere environment created by her very Victorian foster ‘mother’, Mum still visited the family home every fortnight, in an awful decision made in its naive nascency by the social services. Caught between the two, Mum missed out on love, security, and a sense of belonging.

Mum remembers the visits. She remembers her sister making her hide behind the giant wheels of her father’s army truck as he stumbled around looking for them; she remembers her pushing a chair under the door handle of the bedroom at night. She remembers wanting her mother, but being afraid of the limp woman in the chair, whose only barely audible utterance was “she’s mine”.

Mum texted me after the proposal: “Andy didn’t know that the phone boxes where he proposed held memories of such an unhappy period in my teens. Now completely obliterated by his love. I am a very lucky woman.”

I wanted to say she is not lucky, but that only now in her fifties is she getting merely an ounce of the happiness she has deserved all this time.

In her teens Mum went to the red phone boxes everyday to phone her social worker to try and get her out of the foster home where she was desperately unhappy. Daily she would plead her case for her own future. Those glassy booths of dubious privacy I suppose became symbols of her feelings of anguish, hopelessness, and repeated rejection. They are now symbols of love – and the sense of home and peace and belonging that comes with it.

Something in the simplicity of the picture jarred me more than the girlish excitement of the conversations I’ve had with mum about her wedding, her dress, more even than the repeated exclamations of “I’m just so…happy, Sadie!”

I’ve been writing a book about my Dad. A very difficult man whom Mum could write her own very different book on. (Who’s dead by the way, if you’ve missed my more maudlin columns.) The book is about loss and grieving and all that sort of waily stuff. Writing it has made me recede from a lot of things.

The phone box picture made me see that I have been overlooking the people that are still here and to be cherished too. In trying to do the right thing for my Dad, I think I stopped doing the right thing for my Mum. I’ve been down a hole. Slow to get on board with her new relationship. I’ve felt cautious. But the picture, with the split second of loaded meaning it captured, has brought me back.

I finish this column here because I’ve gone all blurry. Happy tears, for the living. For my mum, and the man who brings out the girl in her, all fresh and new.

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Spat On In A Bookshop

Bookshop. Morning.

The shopgirl wipes the spittle from her face as a man in a long black coat beflecks her with the bitty remains of his Full Monty breakfast.

“No. Sorry, sir. Still no date on the new Game of Thrones book.”

“Well, can’t you have a word?”

“With George R R Martin, the author?”

“Yes.”

“No, sir. We don’t do that. We try and leave the authors to it.”

Long pause.

“Are you sure?”

A shorter pause.

“Yes. George expressly told us to stop calling. It was putting him off.”

“Oh.”

Bookshop girl awkwardly sidles out sideways grinning like a cardboard cut-out, then scurries off into a safe corner of Crime.

This is my other life. My bookshop life. I’ve worked part-time on and off in the same bookshop for eight years. It feels like home and I love it dearly, but like all homes it can get on your wick sometimes.

Like the other day, with The Sci-Fi Spittler: “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to put up with this shit”, I found myself thinking as I answered the same question for the thousandth time. “I bet Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to make excuses for lazy bestselling authors at tillpoint. I wish that George Reginald Ronnie Whatever would pull his bloody finger out.”

But Caitlin Moran doesn’t have to keep anti-bacterial wipes in her pockets in case of close-up face-flecking, because Caitlin Moran’s a proper writer and doesn’t have to sell books about dragons to elf-haired dribblers to keep her in cardigans. Because Caitlin Moran’s…well, good.

It’s hard to try and think of yourself as a proper writer when you work part-time in a bookshop. All those books, all those words. Not even one of them yours – not even one of the small rubbish ones that don’t sell. I mean, you could use all of those words if you wanted to, they belong to everyone – but the fact is you haven’t used them, not in that order, not to that end. You are not George R R Martin. No one’s coming in off the street literally (LITERALLY) every five minutes to be belligerent with a bespectacled Converse-wearing bookseller for your latest literary profferings.

Every now and then I allow myself to think I might be getting there. Getting to ‘be a proper writer’.

There are little props that help. Nice pencils and notebooks, naturally. Pockets stuffed full of half-written notes of ideas I jot down blindly inbetween book queries. Halfway through a line about some facet of human nature, when…

From nowhere a Benson & Hedges wheeze…

“‘Scuse. Has Jordan got a new fing. I might have seen it in Heat. Something about love in a car. It’s a book. Do you have those? I dunno. Anyway, where is it?”

“Katie Price doesn’t have another one lined up for a while, sorry. Maybe she’s between ghost writers. (Private bookseller chuckle.) No – no madam, don’t choke – she’s not dead. I meant… I’m sure she’ll write another one soon.”

Madam leaves looking like I have just asked her to recite Pi. I pick a scab and wonder what Zadie Smith’s up to.

There is the odd success to make you feel like you’re getting there; ‘Being a writer’. Getting funding to do your plays in Edinburgh. Getting close to the end of a book that’s driven you half-mad that you might try and find a literary agent for at some point, if only you can stop faffing and let it go. Getting asked to contribute to an exciting new magazine. Getting nominated for a columnist of the year award. But it’s easy to not let it feel real when you’re surrounded by the work of others, writers much better than yourself. (And much worse; most of Towie have slender tomes out and I’ve a feeling none of them will be making any shortlists soon – unless it’s an overlong guest list for Sugar Hut or wherever it is they go to totter about with their tits out. But that’s just the men. The women are secretly reading Naomi Wolf in the lavs.) You have to let yourself actually enjoy your successes inbetween feeling like you’re being terribly silly trying in the first place.

I’m lucky, though, in that I love my bookshop. And I love my bookshop friends. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by nice bookish people and thousands of books and all their endless inspiration and resources for a couple of days a week? Far more talented people than I are working less fun day jobs while also slogging at their less remunerative ambitions. Some of those day jobs are well paid. Some of them are not. None of these people would choose to keep their day jobs if their other careers took off. Most recently I’ve been speaking to musician friends – amazing wonderful songwriters – all working ridiculous hours to make it happen, to keep it all ticking over. Photographers and artists and writers and composers and designers and actors and illustrators too. None of them quite free to do what they feel in their souls that they should be doing with their time. We’re all doing five million things at once, feeling utterly stretched and schizophrenic, and almost none of us are without money worries. An artistic life is a gamble with few wins. There’s certainly strength to be found in talking to each other, if not much money forthcoming. Our riches come from other things, not least each others’ understanding.

I guess it’s what keeps everyone humble. And hungry. And productive.
And on occasion a teeny bit mischievous…

A customer walks in.

“When’s the…”

“New Game of Thrones book out? George just called actually. It’s not good news I’m afraid. There’s no easy way of saying this, but……..(deep intake of breath for effect) he got bored and is going to leave it there. Said something about having a great idea for a taut political thriller set in one office with a shortage of mythical creatures. I’m sorry. Er. Would you like to wipe your nose on this new Katie Price?”

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Gypsy’s Kiss

I was very cross at the gypsy even before he stole from me and cursed me for life. He was standing sentinel over the Milano Stazione Centrale ticket machines like a gnarled gargoyle over a church door, snarling and pushing at the Romanian women in long skirts who were trying a gentler tack than him to earn a day’s crust. He was a bully and I don’t like bullies.

As though he’d heard my secret telling off, he launched and hung his lumbering frame over me just as I was selecting two singles to Il Duomo. I knew some game was afoot and was waiting for the bite while trying to stay on my toes. He dragged money from my hand, pushed buttons that didn’t need to be pushed, and swiped my hand away every time I tried to thwart his machinations. What could I do? I didn’t want to get shanked, or worse – look rude.

I certainly don’t think I deserved to be cursed for life just because I was being a little bit assertive. In the old days I would have ended up waving him off with all my worldly possessions tied up in my cardigan just so he could buy a sandwich, but I’ve grown up a bit and have realised the world is full of hustlers. True, I waved my finger at him in the universal symbol of “no, no, no” – and with such arrogant reproachful finger-waggling right in their face which trickster wouldn’t want to turn it a bit Brothers Grimm and desiccate my uterus?

Somehow in the sleight of hand trickery that probably buys him Tuscan truffles every night for tea, he managed to walk off with two of my Euros (I calculated afterwards, squinting at the maths). In addition to the casual theft he glowered at me like il Diavolo himself as he bowed, kissed the money, and muttered darkly as he backed off – before folding himself away into an insouciant swagger. He took up his leering perch with the other gypsies, who were picking their people out like pecking magpies.

I gave the back of his head my best haughty look and hoped it would at least have given him a prickle of conscience if not scorched his testicles. But I am not trained in the dark arts. I couldn’t even do basic Chemistry at school, much to the chagrin of Mrs Chilton who lived in her white coat. Legend had it she was born in it, got married in it, had babies in it and would at some point die in it. How she kept it white through all that is the stuff of alchemy. (Maybe if she’d snuck some arcane alchemy on the curriculum – like Beginner’s Turning Stones Into Gold or Key Stage 4 Living Forever – I would have been more diligent.)

I felt like a chump and bristled with hot indignance for about half an hour as Matt and I made our way to the cathedral, retrospectively acknowledging the trickster’s tactics, which now seemed so obvious. I hated feeling like a dimwitted tourist. I don’t mind feeling stupid at home, but in another country it felt somehow worse, especially after such a gorgeous welcome from our Italian friends. We emerged from the metro into brilliant sunshine and got jostled about with our bags as we found our way. I still hadn’t forgotten the gypsy or his unsettling subterranean kiss.

Within the hour, a market bracelet of wooden beads now wrapped around my wrist, with tiny iridescent Jesus and Marys hanging from it as though to soothe my agnostic superstition, I had let my anger go. Milan was bustling with springtime tourists, it was already as hot as England ever gets, and we had frothy steins of cold beer in front of us. I may have been hustled, I may have been stolen from, I may even have had a gypsy’s curse on my womb, but for now I had Italy, and beer.
I’d deal with being barren when I got back.

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Being A Little Bit Dirty

Five burnt matches. Some cold candle wax for the picking. Stray poppy seeds on the table from five nights ago, a tissue. Two pint glasses with tepid dregs of tap water, one with a lipbalm smear round the rim. A cushion on the floor just because. Scattered papers, some nail varnish with the lid half unscrewed. Pens. Blankets. A gnarled dog chew.

That’s just some of the stuff I’m looking at currently in flagrant disarrayment in my lounge.

I’m surveying it all quite proudly. I feel like taking off a sock and draping it coquettishly over the lampshade. Just because I can.

The other day at the pub, I casually mentioned something to do with cleaning and a friend raised his eyebrows in surprise and said “Huh. I never had you down as domesticated.”
I felt like I’d been struck. I wondered if he imagined I cocked my leg at the coffee table or wiped chicken fingers on the curtains. I turned to my other friend with my mouth open indignantly to intimate a “can you believe the cheek?” but was met with a blank look. Then I realised that both friends were relatively new ones. And that they did not know.

They did not know about Old Sadie. About the Old Sadie that spent years being a bit too, shall we say, pernickety. They did not know that I was to domesticity what Lady GaGa is to couture; on occasion more than a bit OTT. They didn’t know that I used to have a demi-obsession with limescale, and would glaze over with psycho eyes staring at a tap that had those disgraceful white crusts. That if I was home alone I would seldom sit down because I would always be searching for something else to clean or clear. That nothing made me feel as good as when a room was utterly spotless. That dust would be constantly polished away, sides disinfected, windows and pictures shined of smears. That bathroom suites must permanently look like they had never been used. I could go on. They didn’t know that I spent way too much money on cleaning products, that I would over-stock the cupboards with emergency sprays and gels and cloths and sponges, would sometimes have several duplicates or even triplicates of the same item, and would worry that a product I especially liked might suddenly be discontinued without warning. I could go on. They did not know that I had a near photographic memory for the way I had arranged things and that if a cushion was moved, a broom re-propped, an ornament re-angled, a book removed from a shelf and put back (dare they) in the wrong place, I would know. And I would put it right again, quietly, without delay. I could go on. And on.

A friend told me once back then during the sparkling years that they sometimes felt like I judged their house, and their mess. I was hurt because not only would I never have judged their mess (because it was not my own), but that I liked it. It was homely and comfortable. Free.

Years later I can see that all that endless faffing wasn’t that I was a clean freak at all. I don’t think a bit of dirt does us any harm and I tut at people who bang on too much about germs and hygiene. I think kids should be allowed to get grubby, that washing up can be left overnight if you have better things to do, and that the time I used to spend constantly retracing my steps like an OCD cuckoo clock doll in marigolds was an affront to the limited time I have on this planet.

The ‘dirt’ was not my issue. I think I just wanted to make everything ‘nice’. I think for a very long time I threw myself into cleaning because staying physically busy took my brain and heart off other things, that I wanted to preserve (or, more likely, feign) order in a chaotic mind, and that cleaning was a psychological trick; ‘everything’s fine and shiny – you are fine and shiny!’ It was something small I could tackle when the important stuff couldn’t be usorted.

It’s all pretty standard. A lot of people have similar things. There’s probably lots of textbook psycho-babble about ‘control’ that would fit perfectly to it.

But I think having someone essentially say “I always kinda thought you might be a bit of a skank, Sadie” (as I over-translated my friend’s casual observation that night) was the first time I’d acknowledged the extent of the polarised change. Feeling aghast that someone could perceive me to be in any way domestically ‘relaxed’ was an outflinging from the buried erstwhile me; for one moment I cared that anyone could have made such a wrong assumption. Then the new me shrugged it off, and was even a little flattered. Where once friends thought I loved nothing better than staying in and being a bit manic with a duster, now they think I am far too busy doing other, ‘better’ things.

That means I’ve come a long way. I am not the fussy girl you don’t want poking around your kitchen anymore. I will leave your bathroom alone. My brain won’t twitch if I see a mess unfolding in a room; I let it be. I don’t need the cleaning. I can let some sauce dry on the chopping board with the best of them. I can leave things lying around, unwiped, uncleared. I am free to enjoy my space and let my space take on who I am and am happy to be. I can leave signs of life lying around because I am happy with the life I live.

Maybe I’ll even turn into the kind of happy slob who can leave the toilet seat agape and stalagtites hanging from taps, who keeps a fried egg stuck to the wall for later and wears spinach in their teeth like lunchtime tinsel, who nicknames their e-coli spores Betty and Sam, and takes the loo brush out for long country walks. Here’s to dreaming, eh.

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