Love Note from a Cat Boy

Well, I thought he was gay for a start. That’s the main reason I was surprised when the boy popped back with a love note. I say ‘love’. I mean ‘mildly optimistic of a positive response in a moment of spontaneous endeavour’. Not sure that’s love.

‘The boy’ had just bought a book from me about testing your cat’s IQ. It’s a modern classic. It shits all over Tolstoy apparently, but he looked a bit embarrassed about it. He joked that he didn’t even like cats. I joked back that maybe he could perform evil tests on them instead then, like Mengele did on twins in Nazi Germany. You know, the standard sort of charming exchange you have with total strangers. He laughed, paid, and left. For my part I instantly regretted my contribution to the banter. You shouldn’t make jokes about thrusting cats into Nazi Germany style laboratory tests. Not on Christmas Eve. It’s too leftfield. It’s not what Jesus would want. It’s not what anybody would want. There are concrete reasons why the Nazis were so unpopular. And feline algebra exams in gas chambers is just one of them.

Half an hour later the boy returned, inched slowly up to me, left a note on the side then scampered off. I was selling someone a guidebook on Prague, no doubt making some witty repartee about how funtimes it was for Czechoslovakian dogs during the occupation, so sort of just smiled politely to one side at him. I didn’t think much about the note until a good while later when I read what he had written. On a Clintons receipt. It said “Hello. You really made me smile this morning. Give me a call or text? P.s. I’m sorry, I feel like a fifteen year old boy, but just had to do it!” and then his name and number. 

Well. If I’d known sick jokes about turning kitties into bunker chic standard lamps were such a turn on I would have used them years ago instead of doing all that ‘getting to know you’ smalltalk, blushing, mumbling, and tripping over my own feet.

I nearly fell over. (Old habits die hard.) Was this young scamp really initiating a potential romance? Was this a joke? Was he hiding round the corner waiting to burst out and laugh in my face, to teach me for casually hurling Persians into Petrie dishes for the sake of a bit of bookshop light relief? Could he not see I was a 35 year old divorcee who hadn’t had time to do her roots? OF COURSE HE FELT LIKE A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD BOY. HE PROBABLY WAS A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD BOY. 

Ok, so he could have been about 25 at a push. He was ‘a bit trendy’, and wearing one of those saggy hats that boys wear that look like they are stowing a small family of possums at the back of their head. You know the ones. The ones that permit them to think they don’t have to wash their hair for a fortnight. Could he not tell that were we to embark upon a relationship it would swiftly descend into a constant cycle of me going “OOH, LOOK OVER THERE,” before tearing the hat from his head and washing it just as he’d achieved his optimum level of boy-head skank-musk? Is that what he wanted from me?

I folded the note away and put it in my pocket. I might not have had any intention of actually contacting him, but I at least wanted to analyse his handwriting at closer quarters for signs of psychopathia. There had to be some reason why he was picking me out for this attention and it can’t just be my very funny jokes about stitching pussies together for gestapo trench coats. Unless he was canvassing all the shops in the high street and trying his luck. For all I know he might have been fluttering his lashes at Audrey, 57, manager and hot-flush queen of Wallis too. (She probably would have run after him and mounted him with a sprig of mistletoe between her teeth before he left the shop. She’s a game girl, Audrey.) (N.B. Audrey is fictional.)

I showed a gal pal the note and she mischievously said “You should text him. Go on a date. You never know.” And I thought, she’s right. You do never know. But also I thought – you do know though, actually. You do. As you get older you do know some things. It’s one of the benefits. You accumulate a wearying number of bad experiences that if you are canny can rebrand as ‘wisdom’. I knew that there was no future for me and this fresh-faced note-writing skank-haired possum-storing cat boy. I knew it the moment I barely glanced at him. I knew it the moment I had no chemical impulse to text him a winky emoji. It was just not meant to be. I might be dead good at jokes about cats, but I am no cougar.

  

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Wave, Everyone

Hi gang. Hullo. I’m not sure if I’ve ever addressed my column directly to you before. I suppose it’s not the done thing if you can’t talk back. It’s not a chat at a bus stop, it’s a newspaper; I write, and a few days later some of you read it. There is a delay, a disconnect. But it always feels like I’m talking to you even if I don’t refer to you directly. So.
I just wanted to pull some of you aside for a little chat. Not those of you who are busy being jolly, you can crack on with your business (and while you’re at it do my wrapping), but those of you who are skulking round the edges, not feeling up to this Christmas thing at all. And those of you who might even be feeling a bit worse than that. Those of you who might not be terribly in the mood for this whole life lark in general. It happens. It’s natural and common and sad but temporary. But at Christmas it can be like carrying blades around in your pockets, trying to smile for the world while your fingers are secretly bleeding, can’t it.
This is our secret little column while everyone else is dashing about getting last minute presents, clicking the crap out of Amazon and mulling the bejesus out of anything vaguely liquidy. This is for us. This is our cosy little huddle in the rain, our big middle finger up at all the tinsel. Don’t worry, the others can’t hear us, they’ve got jingly bells in their ears. And handpainted silver pinecones up their bumholes too, probably.
So, gang. I’ve noticed lots of people are sad at the moment. Have you? Lots of my friends are out of work, have money problems, are feeling directionless, mojo-less, have broken up with someone, have sad hearts, are in ill health, have an uphill struggle with their own bodies and science and healthcare to face, or are being roughed up by hoodlums in their head. Dark things, dark times. So many people depressed it’s sometimes hard to believe that depression is not as ordinary as having a nose. (It sort of is for some people.) Lots of very real and sad and scary life glitches getting in the way of the obligatory happiness of Christmas. We put such overwhelming pressure on each other, on ourselves. Let all that fuck off for a minute. Let it all just fuck off in its kooky Christmas jumper. It’s just us. Under our big moody blanket, tutting and grunting and saying all the bad swears like anti-Buddhists chanting in existential unison. “Life. You. Prick.” Beautiful.
I think humans have an instinctive ability to flock their bad times together, a harrowed herd mentality, flocking like sheep, huddling in a field on a dark night. Perhaps our moods affect each other more than we yet scientifically understand. Perhaps there is such a thing as a cosmic energy, collectives of high and low mood that we plug into. Perhaps it’s the planets pinging us like pinballs, perhaps it’s gravitational forces, quantum doodah. Perhaps it’s something in the water, perhaps it’s war. Perhaps it’s election fall-out, a nation in decline. Maybe it’s just our turn, if there is any fairness apportioned to the way of things. A democratic sharing of all the shit. Maybe this particular shit will make us stronger, better, more human, giving, sharing. But for now it’s just…shit.
Perhaps I’m more attuned to it as a solid mass of shitty shitshit because of the way I’m feeling. Perhaps I’m tuning into the happy stuff less than I normally might. I feel sad and lost. And that’s usually ok when it wends and winds its way around me – not optimum but doable – but what’s really rankling is I feel like I’ve lost my sense of wonder. There, I’ve said it. Like my vision has been shot and all I can see is a cracked screen. I’ve been skirting around it for weeks, writing columns about other things, but there’s the truth. Some sad life stuff happened and now I’m trying to ‘get on with it’. But it’s not working. I feel all wound up; ground down. Broken. Perhaps I need to work harder at shaking myself off. But there are times when we just can’t. When we don’t want to. Even for Christmas. I think I can actually safely say that this is the first Christmas where I’ve felt like crawling under the covers and not emerging til someone in a position of authority (and right now that could be the night shift manager of the local offie) can categorically promise me, hand on heart, tits, balls, head, arse, whatever, that the world is brighter outside.

 

And because I’ve not talked much about it, everyone apart from about five people who know me better than perhaps I’d like, thinks I’m doing ok. That I’m busy cracking on. That I am working hard, going out, writing, working, laughing, writing, drinking, entering the Yuletide season with a warm glow remembering the year that’s just been. I am not. Guys, I have watched the whole of Breaking Bad in about two weeks. All of it. And now I’m onto Better Call Saul. And I watched the whole of Luther in between too, as a ‘cheery’ buffer. I went down a dark little hole to try not to think about real stuff. You know you’ve gone too far down the burrow of distraction when you wake up from a fevered sleep thinking “better get up and check on the meth lab.” You know you need to re emerge. You need to get real. At some point. (Like, after you’ve watched the whole of 24, Lost, Dexter, House, Homeland, and Peaky Blinders. Fuck knows what that’s about, but I will definitely know before 2016. I will have sucked Netflix dry as a turkey bone.)
So this is for the other sad folk of Christmas; a carol to the orphans of hope and the castaways of joy; the lost, the lonely, the people in the dark; even for the dicks who just like to Grinch it up to be different. To all those merely wishing next year will be…better. To any degree, just better. When all the glitz and buzz of Christmas seems like it’s for everyone else but you – this little column is for you. Don’t feel alone. Hullo. I’m here, waving at you now. And there are thousands of others too. (Wave, everyone.) And here’s a bit of loving bossiness while I’m bossing myself about too…
Do some little things. Start there. Wear something nice that feels good on your skin, that makes your eyes look nice. Eat something that makes you feel like a naughty child. Listen to music that makes your cells rise up not sink down. Handjive in the bathroom mirror. You will feel so ridiculous the corners of your mouth will not fail to twitch in remembrance of a smile. Buy yourself a present. Thank yourself, outloud. Believe in something fantastical, like the robins are talking to you. They are. If you want. Phone or write to someone you don’t talk to often enough. Talk. Listen. Be kind. Say nice things, they will make you smile too. Look up at the big deep sky and breathe and allow your problems to feel small for a moment. Banish them with all that magic you have in your amazing brain. You can. It hasn’t gone. You are still you, and what’s more you are a better you than you are giving yourself credit for.
Don’t just cry and hole up and tell everyone to fuck off for a bit. Don’t tell the sweet lord baby Jesus to go swivel on his birthday. Or regurgitate cheap chocolate on your mismatched stale pyjamas. Or swig port from the bottle and hiccup profanities to the Queen’s speech. Don’t spray mince pie crumbs at anyone who gets on your tits and blame it on the pastry being dry. Don’t watch a film that has some variant of Scrooge in it and then turn it off while Scrooge is still being a miserly old bastard. Don’t kill Tiny Tim. Don’t let George Bailey drown. Don’t let the burglars ram Kevin with a red hot poker; he’s only nine. It’s not right.
No. Do the better stuff.
It’ll be ok, you know. You’ll be ok. I’ll be ok. This will pass. We still have sparkly bits inside. They’ve not gone out, they’re just a bit folded up and squished at the moment, facing the wrong way, in a box, under the covers. Somewhere. There. In a forgotten drawer in the big old chest of being you.
I raise my glass to us, depressing dreary lovely raincloud nice sad hopeless pretty beige and teardrop blue old bastards this year. I will even wear a stupid paper hat at a jaunty angle, just for you.

But you are not having any of my Ferrero Roche. That’s my crystal meth and I will take you down.

Terminators with Dreams

There’s nothing like being around youngsters to make you feel your age at Christmas. Every year, around the end of November, my bookshop takes on Christmas temps to help us tackle the public in the run-up to the biggest consumer event of the calendar. We use them as shields when the public gets too much, so they must be light enough to hold aloft but resistant to the relentless jabbing of savage hoards. They create the frontline while us old’uns hide in corners weeping. “When did Christmas stop being so magical?” we wail into our company hipflasks. The temps motor on robotically with the oblivion of youth and the forcefield of hope. Like Terminators with dreams.

I find myself tutting at their youth as much as wanting to ruffle their heads. (In truth, it depends how many Beroccas I’ve had.) This week I found myself shaking my head as they got excited about Christmas. They told me what they were most looking forward to. The things they’ll do, the presents they’ll receive (otherwise they’ll take to the airing cupboard to felt-tip the shit out of an Emo colouring book or something). I’d never heard of most of the stuff they mentioned. 

I was aware of myself, in my head, saying “it wasn’t like that when I was young” and I nearly slammed my head on the desk. I’ve become ‘that person’. Old.

I remember when all we got was books and basic toys and cool stationery. I am the new wave of “All we got was a Beano album, an HB pencil (unsharpened), and a jumper knitted by Gran”, which was the new wave of “All we got was a couple of monkey nuts and a tangerine in an old sock” which was the new wave of “All we got was the gizzards of a goose to suck, pigeon feather pants, a collage of Jesus made with desiccated mouse droppings, and an inappropriate marriage proposal from a first cousin with no teeth.”

Times have changed. They keep changing. It’s alarming. 

And it’s alarming not only because young people are very different creatures, not only because Christmas yanks the world into a whirlpool of increased spending, but because Christmases never are what they…were. Christmases change, and they also reflect how we’ve changed. They are giant notches in our lives. They are pillars of our calendar. They are the last big bang before the new year barges in.

Everyone has at least one sacred Christmas. Lucky people have a general collective of sacred Christmases, plural, one big yuletide wash of wonderfulness. Some can take it or leave it, but they’ll still have a few that make them smile to remember.

I remember mine as a kid.

Chocolate tins and closed curtains, twinkling lights and the vague promise of snow. Matchmakers and Quality street and Victoriana, flaking painted tree decorations. Mum’s mid morning sherry in a tiny glass, heaped presents in named batches doled out with ceremonious open palms in a stretched hour of delicious ripping. Tags and bows and tinsel and floppy metallic lanterns and coils which concertinaed down from the ceiling or were draped by golden string around the corners of things. Piles of scrunched bright crispy paper and the smells which only come out of the oven once a year, sausage meat stuffing and scorched brandy, clementine juice bursting in neat cheeky droplets. The intoxicating timelessness of all the same songs and the warmth of familiar films like fireside burrows. People who don’t normally sit on the floor, sitting on the floor. All eyes kind and soft, going from face to face. The distance to people you suddenly feel in being near to people. Privately marking: here we are, together. Happiness caught in the arch of an eyelid lowered to something beautiful in the lap, lashes hiding the strange sadness that comes from being given something you know you will love forever. 

Maybe that’s why we secretly tut at kids a bit at Christmas. At coddled youth, at terminators with dreams. Because they still think forever is the future.

  

Ladies of the Night

I’ve been walking through my old neighbourhood quite a lot to get to my sister’s. The most direct route from the bookshop is straight through town, cutting over the intricate death lanes of the bus station where I quite often almost meet my end in front of the number 27. Then there’s the gaggle of drunks who huddle in wonks at all hours with their plastic bags of tins. I see no reason to take a detour. They don’t look at me and I don’t look at them. But I see them. They seem happy enough. They settle there in rowdy bliss like scholars of Ancient Greece arguing on the steps of the Acropolis, bowing to the wisdom of Socrates, who in this case is a swarthy six pack of Tenants Super.
I carry on past a sort of mini China town – a restaurant with glazed ducks in the window, a shop of with hand-scrawled Chinese characters on fluorescent cards promising to herbally cure all your ills from bad backs to halitosis and low libido, and a tiny old chiropractors who I’ve heard tell will snap you to within an inch of your feeble life but always undercharge. 
I carry on a straight line down ‘the dodgy road’, which is famed in local lore as a hotspot for ladies of the night. The roads get worse here before they peel away into clean-gardened suburbia, and people tell me not to walk this way, but I like it all. People live here, just like anywhere else. I don’t believe in snobbery; we’re all our own kinds of mess behind our own walls. And I’ve never believed this road quite deserves its shady reputation. I’ve never seen any obvious shenanigans.
But then there she is. Standing on a patch of street that smells of drains and chicken bones. 

She must be ‘one’. One of those ladies. Kicking her feet between the wall and the streetlight. Wall to lamp and back, flicking her eyes around her. One meter to the left or right she would have been lit by the full bright moon but instead has chosen the yellow umbrella of streetlight. Has chosen the cliché, has chosen the connotations of that post, that artificial light. Perhaps it feels safer under electricity than under nature. Perhaps she doesn’t want to sully the moon.
Her clothes aren’t what you might think. She’s no Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but then this isn’t Hollywood. It’s winter in an English seaside town. The rough bit. She looks like she’s rolled out of bed and pulled on a black woollen cape with grey patterning that is some vague adaptation of a Native American design. Something that could have been pulled round cold shoulders on vast wild prairies in another life but instead finds itself mass reproduced in New Look. She’s dressed for winter. I’m glad. I wonder what’s underneath. What concessions she has made to the fantasies of men. She looks lonelier than the drunks, though of course it’s presumptuous to think that just because she is standing alone that she is lonely, and that just because they are together that they are not. Our loneliness is not indicated by the proximity of other people.
It’s not that late. But it’s dark. As I near her, a plumber throws his tools into the back of his van and we, her and me, turn to the clatter of it, united in one brief moment of sensory reaction. He drives off. I can smell her perfume as I continue past. Like sweets soaked in liqueur. Innocent things poked by sharp tang.
It occurs to me she might be there to meet a friend. A real friend. But I don’t think so. Her eyes don’t say that. Her body doesn’t say that. All that I have heard about that road doesn’t say that. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they wait. 
I want to say hullo, just so that if she is feeling in any way scared or doubtful or sad or judged about what she is doing there, if she is feeling like she has slipped a few rungs lower than she thought she ever would, if she is feeling transparent and naked and valueless, she has one friendly voice saying if only for a moment, “Whatever you do tonight, that is not all that you are.” But I don’t. 
What circumstances keep me from that same decision, from that same act, from the repetition of that act, that choice, that feeling of no choice, from that life? How close might I ever come, if life wends a different way? If I sink a few rungs lower than I thought I ever would? We never know. That’s why snobbery is an unjust assertion of false values. A cruelty to ourselves and others. We are never as far from anything as we think.