Friday, 20 February 2015

5 Things I Would Say Out Loud To Strangers If I Were Stroppy Enough

     1) Oi! You’ve peed on the seat!

You know the scenario. As you go into the Ladies, you catch the eye of a woman coming out. You exchange that vague half-friendly nod that says, ‘excretion, eh?!’ She looks, as far as it is possible to tell, like a civilised person. Then you go in the toilet stall. You look down. She has peed all over the seat. Many is the time I have fantasised about stalking out and bellowing:

Courtesy of

‘Excuse me – you’ve peed all over this seat! If I had sat down, I would be covered in your wee by now! I bet you are one of those toilet-phobics who hover instead of sitting down. Well you know what? It’s people like you who make seats wet for the rest of us! You are the ones causing the problem! It’s time you got over your mother’s warnings about diseases and wised up. Here’s what you do in a toilet. Go in. Look down. Even if you can’t see any visible drops, wipe the seat. Sit down – preferably over the large hole in the middle. When you’re done, just in case, and as a courtesy to the next person – wipe the seat again. Exit. Wash hands. Job done. WHY IS THIS TOO HARD FOR YOU?!’

2 Get control of your dog!

If your dog is hurtling towards me, slathering from bared jaws, or jumping up trying to slash at my clothes with its claws, it is not good enough for you to object balefully, ‘He’s only a puppy! He won’t bite you!’

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Here’s what I would say if I dared. ‘I don’t care. I am already not OK with what he is doing now. To you he may be an adorable best friend, but I was bitten in the face as a baby by a Pekinese, which my grandmother assured everyone was only playing. When you see cute playfulness, my primitive brain sees toothy death bearing down on my jugular vein, ready to rip it out. And apparently your half-arsed baby-voice cries of Tootsie! are making no difference. This beast has prey in its sights and has forgotten you exist. Can I ask that you GET CONTROL OF YOUR DOG!’

3 Everything would be all right with my meal if you would just stop interrupting it to ask!

Courtesey of

I know, waiters are trained to do this. It is meant as genuine polite concern for the customer. But when you are enjoying a meal out, and deep in conversation, there is nothing more annoying than someone breaking right in with, ‘Is everythink all right with your meal?’ It’s worse when they do it again when your next course arrives. And again when you forget that Christmas is still clinging to your thighs and go for pud.

Conversation is really important to me. When I combine this with an eating activity, I am already jostling with the need not to show other people the contents of my mouth. I am multi-tasking, and I don’t want to be stopped mid-sentence for an analysis of my dining experience. I really don’t mind you asking, but please wait for a lull, when your intervention might alleviate an awkward silence, and would be welcomed with enthusiastic praise.

4 Mind your own business!

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This is, once again, clearly the result of over-optimistic training – this time of supermarket cashiers. Now, I love to strike up a genuine conversation with a cashier, if I’m in the mood and they seem amenable. I have been a cashier. It is stressful and dull, and you work ridiculously long shifts with, these days, barely any right to a tea break. It’s nice to make human contact with the person scanning your tins of mushy peas, and the next time you shop, you’ll know them and the world will seem a friendlier place.

But if you’re in the middle of an existing conversation, or stressing that it’s pouring and you’re going to get soaked lugging the trolley to the car, you don’t necessarily want an awkward teenager to bust in with a rote-learned, ‘Have you got any plans for the weekend?’ And when you grunt something non-commital, hoping they will see the signs and leave you alone, you don’t want a detailed itinerary of their weekend plans for a trip to Laserquest.

Cashiers and trainers of cashiers, actual conversation is an art, not something you can thrust on people. And British reserve is there for a reason. It protects our right to shop silently if that’s the mood we’re in. Respect it!

5 Stop trying to swim through me!

Courtesy of

Yes, this time it’s personal. Where I go swimming, there is a woman who has no concept of personal space. I think she may be amphibious, because even though I arrive at 6.30am when the pool opens, she is always in the water already. She ploughs up and down, and when she reaches the end, turns and pushes of with absolutely no reference to anyone else in the pool. If you are in the way, she just carries on as though you made of a liquid she can swim through. If you are, in fact, made of solid matter, this can result in bruises, but she never stops to check.

My problem is that her speed is similar to mine, except that she slows down a bit towards the end of a length. If I set off after her, I will catch her up. However, if I overtake, this seems to offend her. For the next length, she will flap at my feet or barge me out of the way, until she is ahead again.

Early morning swimming is meant to be a relaxing pastime. You don’t want pool rage incidents. So I always make sure that I am a full length away from her. Even so, more regularly than you would expect in a non-contact sport, I feel a full-blown punch connecting with head, or a kick in the ribs, or see a watery dervish exploding towards me. And it’s always her.

Once, a fellow pool user noted that she actually tried to swim through me, and ended up barging her sea-creature body right over mine, with a lot more skin to skin contact than I normally encourage with people I am not married to.

This has gone on for years, several times a week, and I have never said anything. That British reserve can be a curse sometimes!

Go on, I’d love to hear, what would you say out loud if you were stroppy enough?

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Where Has the Time Gone?! Rip Van Winkle Strikes Again

Rip Van Winkle, courtesy of

I don’t mind telling you that one of the novel ideas that keeps nagging at me is a time-slip story. My protagonist, like Henry in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, will jump around in time. She will journey repeatedly from a mysterious present into different eras of her life, falling in and out of each, not in the peaceful way we access memories, but with a traumatic disorientation. For her, one reality will melt away unresolved and a new one will break in with its own urgent demands.

There are moments in all our lives when the passage of time confronts us in this stark and staggering way, and I am so fascinated by this that if Washington Irving had not written Rip Van Winkle in 1918, I would have to write it myself. In the story, Rip goes up into the mountains, falls asleep for twenty years and returns to his village, not realising that time has passed and everything has changed.

When I returned to Tunbridge Wells from Hong Kong with a husband, toddler and baby on the way, I had not lived here since I was a teenager. As I walked around with a pushchair, I searched the faces of seventeen-year-olds, looking for my friends. I constantly had to remind myself that I was now thirty-one. The teenagers I gazed at were strangers. My local friends had probably moved away and in any case were unlikely to be hanging out in the precinct; they were probably pushing prams somewhere themselves.

I have experienced a couple of moments that felt like actual time travel. In conversation with a counsellor once, I described a feeling of anguish and helplessness I had had in a recent encounter. ‘Do you remember feeling like this in this person’s presence before?’ she asked. Suddenly I was in the grip of a childhood memory of raw intensity. It was a memory I knew was there, but hadn’t thought of for years, and I had recalled it with its emotional sound turned down, as if watching a cine-film of someone else’s life. Now I experienced it at full power, as real and present as if the intervening years had fallen away. Afterwards, I found my way to the car and sat wondering how a traumatised three-year-old was going to manage to drive home.

A much more pleasant time-travel experience was a trip back to my beloved primary school for its fortieth anniversary. I had been one of the first pupils and was welcomed like a historical relic, to talk to the children about the olden days of 1969 when I started. I met old teachers and pupils and stood in the cloakroom where I had hung my plimsoll bag and coat as a five-year-old, just staring and feeling the years lift way. I drove back to work, my mind in a time decades past, and nipped into the loo, still spellbound by memories. When I opened the door, strange figures were passing by in the corridor outside. They were my colleagues. This was the twenty-first century. I might have been stepping out of a time machine.

It was yesterday that brought on all this time-slip rumination. Jon and I met up with friends from our time in Hong Kong: a drinking mate from my first carefree days there and his then girlfriend, now wife and mother of his daughters. We lived those, wild, heady expat years together and then met up for several reunions after our return to the UK with our settled new lives and little children. 
A previous reunion with Hong Kong friends. 

And another!

We met yesterday after a gap of almost ten years. Our little children have gone their separate ways into student life; theirs will soon be gone too. Our Hong Kong life was an intense but even more distant memory. It was lovely to see them, but as we ate dim sum and sipped jasmine tea (driving, and middle-aged health issues making a drunken gathering unwise) I for one felt the ghosts of our former selves at our elbows: young, carefree and full of a joy we can only hanker after now. Where has the time gone? I fell off the edge of it and found myself here and now. I don’t know how this happened.