January 1, 2021 § 1 Comment
It’s January, 2021, and we’re still in another form of lockdown. This time it feels a bit worse. No Christmas ahead, just dark nights, cold days, and people getting sick. So, to keep busy, I’m going again with the short pieces. This time it’s January, so 31 x 31.
We yawn our way through the weekend, through the year. We avoid travel programmes because everywhere we see, we want to be, and count on March, May, the summer being better.
I go for a walk with one other person. When it rains, we sit in a bus shelter, like teenagers. The last time I did this, we were drinking White Lightening.
With her walking frame, Lil steps out most days. Today, when she crosses the park, and her frame gets suck in mud, it’s a boy in a hoodie who frees her.
On the way to buy milk, Barry sees three homeless people gathered round a shopping trolley, laughing, joyful. There is no one else in the street, like lockdown is their time.
Babs sends her friend, Carys, a small tomato plant.
“I have one too. We can grow them together, while apart.”
“Are in-door tomatoes even a thing?”
“Hon, everything’s a thing now.”
Ali went to a big school, fifteen hundred kids. Now, as she waits for her fifth Zoom of the day, she thinks, “A hundred thousand people. Sixty six times my school.”
Of course, we are the lucky ones, not on a ventilator or caring for someone on a ventilator, but still, there is only one question.
“What’s for dinner?”
It’s not enough
It’s the first snow the little ones can remember so they leap about, catching flakes on their lips. They build a snowman. Dad puts a mask across the already melting face.
On Brandon’s seventeenth birthday, they sit freezing in the grey park.
Jamie hands him a can of beer. “Yeh, but think of the parties, when this shit is done.”
“We had an online away-day this week,” says May.
It’s their Friday Zoom, the three friends, with g&t’s, talking about work and children and how to drink less.
“Utterly ridiculous, obvs.”
In the student house, Callum says, “Scientists say we have to do this until May.”
“I hate scientists,” says Leo. “Yes, they’re brilliant and always right but I bloody hate them.”
Amir has had enough. “Why is there football on at 6pm, midweek? Is this the Premiership or something else? Lockdown has crapped all over my fantasy team. I can’t keep up.”
On the last day of Trump, Melanie opens a bottle of champagne. She makes two French 75s and smiling, hands one to Karen.
“Babe, you’ve got to toast what you can.”
After Brian and Claire book their vaccinations, they discuss what to wear. Brian hasn’t been out since March. He looks through his ties and polishes his shoes. Claire irons a blouse.
In the supermarket, Maz recognises a face from TV. Above his wonky mask, the actor’s glasses steam up. For a minute, it does feel like we are all in this together.
They worry about the car. Parked on the street, it looks neglected, splats of pigeon poo sticking to the windows. They half expect to find someone living on the back seat.
She knows he is better with his friends, but Nancy misses Alfie, away at university. She wonders how people coped during the War, saying goodbye to sons, not hearing a word.
Bibby makes the mistake of watching the news. Usually, she avoids it, but sometimes John Snow pops up before she realises. A new strain in Brazil. Bibby switches over to Corrie.
“How much harder can I stay at home?” says Milly, contemplating a harder lockdown.
“It’s all that click and collect,” says her mum. Milly sighs. “So Covid’s the fault of Argos?”
Wearing his Liverpool top, Carl turns on the TV for the game.
“That Johnson, he better not cancel football.”
“They need to stop hugging,” says Dawn. “And singing ‘Someone Like You.’”
Brendan and Flora wait for their vaccine appointment. Both in their 80s, they wonder if they’ve fallen off the list.
“Like the time we got bumped from that flight to Alicante.”
Samir runs late at night. He passes the Covid-locked museum and wonders why all the lights are on. A Chinese vase is illuminated in the high window, secret, but still there.
Coming off shift, nurse Aziza peels off her mask. Her face is raw, a deep welt on her nose. Management recommends zinc oxide, but she’d prefer a month in the Maldives.
As they don’t have a laptop, the school says Sky can go in. The parents’ WhatsApp is pretty judgmental though, so they leave by the back door and don’t tell anyone.
Next door, the Morgans – Mr, Mrs and the teenage twins – are isolating. Mrs Morgan texts her neighbour.
“We’re tired, bickering, but ok. I can’t taste chocolate though, so what’s the point?”
They watch Trump nuts storming the US Capitol.
“This is shocking,” they say, ‘but it’s a relief too. Terrible news from somewhere else and not 1000 people dying on our doorstep.”
Student Dan wants to leave.
“I could go right now,” he tells his dad. “My mental health will suffer if you keep me here.”
“Sorry, son. Blame Boris. Oh, and vote.”
“I can’t do this until Easter,” says Amy.
“Back to work though. More structure. That helps,” says Lemi, her husband.
Amy agrees but has a little cry before her first Zoom.
Carla’s mum tells her that the new strain has two arms.
“So now it can grab on twice as powerfully. That’s the kicker.”
Carla pictures a red M&M, with evil eyebrows.
Bel is doing #DryJanuary. “It’s imperative. I’m in a wine fuelled spiral.”
“I understand,” says Nat, nodding, “but I’ve been perfecting my dry Manhattan, and anyway, the cases are still rising.”
They went to bed after midnight, but at 3am she got up. Standing at the window, eating the purple Quality Street, she couldn’t decide if that feeling was hope or dread.
November 1, 2020 § 1 Comment
For want of anything better to do during the dark days of November, lockdown #2, I’m going to post 30 stories of 30 words. Stories is probably an exaggeration. More like 30 collections of 30 words.
30. 30th November
Maureen has her tree up by the end of November. It’s very early, but what the Hell? Of course, she’s eaten her first set of chocolate decorations by December 1st.
29. 29th November
Dr. Falade misses church. As a physician, she supports the restrictions, but these online services leave her cold. She thinks of her family in Ibadan, and has an unscientific cry.
28. 28th November
Benny’s dad snorts when he hears his son is being released on a home detention curfew tag.
“Where’s the punishment? We’re all under a bloody curfew.”
His mum’s happy though.
27. 27th November
Jo raises her head and sneezes. She feels heavy, her throat sore. “Is this it?” she whispers
“Maybe you just have a cold,” says Ash.
“Do people still get colds?”
26. 26th November
Before this, when Becky thought about tiers, it was for her wedding cake. Three or four? But they’ve postponed twice this year already and now tiers are only bad news.
25. 25th November
Rose wakes early. She has been dreaming of a Christmas bubble. Yesterday, she messaged her two brothers. “So, three households? Seems we’re about to find out who mum likes least.”
24. 24th November
Seeing herself on the Zoom call, Pam examines her hair. “I look like the blond guy in ‘Spinal Tap’,” she thinks. It’s a difficult moment. “I need to start bothering.”
23. 23rd November
“Junk email can fill an hour,” Katie says when Jessica moans there is nothing to do.
“But then I worry about my ‘Blood Sugar Blueprint’.”
“It’s a change from Covid.”
22. 22nd November
Dave messages the family WhatsApp group. “I’ve had stay at home message on the app.”
His mother replies with a photograph of a puppy. “To cheer you up.”
21. 21st November
Halfway through lockdown, Debs Silver starts calling talk radio shows. She’s never done so before, but living alone, her views on Christmas or pay for care workers are going unheard.
20. 20th November
You have to mark the weekend somehow so on Fridays, they have dinner delivered. Choosing occupies too much of their time. All day really. And it’s consumed before the watershed.
19. 19th November
The school calls just after lunch. Brody in Year 4 has tested positive. “He’s burst the flippin’ bubble,” says the school secretary. “I’m sorry.”
Martha pours herself a midday whisky.
18. 18th November
On every Zoom, Shaheed sounds like a dalek. But he’s a director, so who will tell him? “It’s the lockdown equivalent of food in your boss’s teeth,” says finance Bev.
17. 17th November
She wakes at 2am. In the fridge, there is a pork pie and a box of grapes. Wide awake, she picks at the pastry and thinks about monoclonal antibody cocktails.
16. 16th November
Jed misses old Tom and Charlie “Two Teeth”. He would try phoning but unless they are nursing pints at The Bulls Head, he has no idea how to find them.
15. 15th November
They take a walk. The benches round the Coffee Hut are chockablock with families.
“Why are there so many people out?” says Bernie.
“We’re out,” says Jill, rolling her eyes.
14. 14th November
In the steady rain, Maggie puts flowers on her mother’s grave. “Imagine you and I bubbling,” she says, smiling. “We would have killed each other long before Covid got us.”
13. 13th November
Khalid misses going to the match. It’s ok this weekend. An “international break.” But still, it sucks. He keeps his season ticket in his wallet and spends the weekend wandering.
12. November 12th
In the student house, they discuss going home for Christmas. AJ says he’ll get test. “My nan’s in a wheelchair and, like killing her would be a bad Christmas vibe.”
11. November 11th
Mrs Kelper stands on her doorstep at 11 o’clock. She presses Davy’s medal against her chest. No one ever wants to remember Belfast. He’d have been a grandfather by now.
10. November 10th
The trouble is, he says, it’s all one long day. “Without work, what tells me it’s Monday?” His therapist nods. “And so you forgot to come last week?” He smiles.
9. November 9th
Toby wanted to eat the donut, but not on Zoom. Yesterday, the jam had burst over the camera. To his colleagues on the call, it was a strawberry jam massacre.
8. November 8th
Walk for two minutes, run for five. Shabana is trying couch to 5k again. It’s darker this time, autumn leaves under foot. As she runs, she tries to remember normal.
7. November 7th
Kathy’s mum, a Tory, sends a WhatApp. “I miss your real-life face. But I won’t miss his stupid, orange one.” Kathy, who tries to ignore her mum’s politics, starts sobbing.
6. November 6th
Today Monique will quit. She’s heard that if you’re a smoker and you catch the virus, the doctors don’t try so hard. She breathes in and out. Worth a try.
5. November 5th
When the Sainsbury’s Big Issue girl disappeared, Beverley no longer bothered. On the first day of lockdown, going for groceries, she saw Raymond, and thought it time to start again.
4. November 4th
He started cooking during the last lockdown. Before, he’d never heard of borlotti beans and, while his single pot recipe was flawless, he kind of regretted his increased bean knowhow.
3. November 3rd
Second lockdown and they fear the “Any Old Iron,” “We’ll Meet Again” woman from across the way will start her street concerts again. Who will tell her it’s not helping?
2. November 2nd
Last year, Kumar calculated he spent £420 on takeout cappuccinos. Too much. Today, working at home, with the children and the dog and his Mrs, now it doesn’t seem enough.
- November 1st
“Remember when the Daily Mail had never heard of virologists?”
“And you said that going to a virology conference in Klosters was skiing on the rates?”
“I miss those days.”
October 31, 2020 § 1 Comment
Underneath the pile of newspapers, below the pizza menus, the taxi cab cards and the charity appeals, further down even than Linda’s postcard from her last summer holiday in Corsica, and certainly beneath the crumpled receipts kept from last Christmas in case the twins already had that video game or Darren’s wife wanted to return her sweater, underneath all that was Betty’s letter from Doctor Matthews, the one about the allergy.
Its proper name was curious, something like pitt-a-cross, but not that. Still, Betty remembered what Doctor Matthews had called it in his surgery. She recalled that clearly enough.
“Parrot fever, Mrs. Fuller. You probably have parrot fever. That would account for all the coughing and your aching joints.” He had taken off his glasses, had rubbed the bridge of his nose and, just for a second, Betty had though of Alan, her husband, and how he would make that same gesture when he helped the children with their homework, sitting at the dinning room table in the house in Scarsdale Avenue. And when was that? Thirty years ago, when she still had Alan and the children and the house in Scarsdale Avenue.
Three days later, when Betty’s daughter, Linda, arrived, she plumped her bag down on the kitchen table, causing a small wave of dust to puff up into the kitchen air. At the same time, a ripple of disgust crossed Linda’s otherwise soft face and Betty knew she had done the right thing to hide the letter. In any case, the Doctor himself had said how rare this pitt-a-cross thing was; if Betty had not mentioned keeping birds, he would have missed it, he’d said, the symptoms being like so many other things.
“Fatigue, aching joints, chills, weakness, coughing.” He’d put his glasses back on as he ran his finger down a list on his computer screen. “Yes, it all matches.” Betty could have kicked herself then, because now they would blame everything on the birds. If only she’s kept her mouth shut.
Linda took off her coat and drapped it across the table so that the collar covered the pile of papers.
“Was I expecting you?” Betty asked, as she reached to fill the kettle.
“No, but I was passing. I wondered how the cough was?”
“No trouble at all,” Betty said
Linda screwed up her eyes. “And the aching limbs?”
“No, nothing. All better,” said Betty, although she had to hold firm to the now full kettle, the muscles in her arm throbbing with the weight.
“I wish you’d go back to the Doctor, Mum.”
“It’s just a cold or age.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “The longest bloody cold in history,” she muttered.
“Do we always have to talk about this?” Betty said, her back to Linda as she dumped tea bags into the stained, brown teapot. “We go round and round.”
Linda held up her hands, as if in surrender. “Ok, ok. But you know what I think.”
“Yes, dear, I know what you think.”
Without doubt, the birds had become the wretched centre-piece to all their lives. Darren, her son, complained about the smell – “it’s like that solid, spiteful stink you get at the zoo” – while Linda was genuinely frightened.
“I hate the way they flap cross the room,” she’d said to Darren, with a shiver. “Even worse when their horrid hooked-feet comb the top of my head. It’s like a horror film.”
“Which would all be acceptable if the damn things weren’t killing her,” Darren had replied. “She can hardly catch her breath long enough to talk.”
And so the row went on, back and forth. What had they even talked about before the birds?
“Let’s sit outside,” said Linda. “It’s a nice day and I could do with a bit of sun.”
They set up the faded garden chairs, their backs to the bungalow. The aviary, the one Darren had built last summer to encourage Betty to keep the birds outside, stretched down the length of the garden so that while they drank their tea, or rather Betty did, Linda pretending because, these days, she really didn’t fancy anything that came out of the kitchen, they couldn’t fail to hear George Michael, a large parakeet, climbing up the wire mesh, his green and yellow wings spreading, flapping and hitting the cage wall, like a giant, garish moth banging against a lit window on a warm summer’s evening. Both women pretended to ignore him. After a couple of minutes, George Michael began crying out, a high, painful squawk. Betty got up and walked over to the cage.
“What’s up, George?” she said quietly, poking a piece of biscuit through the wire. In an instant, two other birds, a parrot, magnificent with a bold red head and mighty blue wings, and a sleek cockatoo, cool and white, launched themselves from their artificial bark perches and began scrapping, wings, beaks and screams streaming in all directions. Betty laughed and then, as her laugh erupted into her usual chest cough, she threw the rest of her biscuit into the cage and returned to her daughter.
When Alan had left Betty fifteen years ago, telling her that he no longer loved her, that he probably hadn’t loved her for 20 years and that now he had retired, he realised there was not a moment to waste, it would be true to say that Betty had been caught off-guard. She’d had a different retirement in mind, but then Alan had packed his bags and left her with a tiny part of his pension and a whole new future to construct. He’d said he was leaving to be on his own but of course, it was a lie. She’d seen him once with his new woman, years younger, with painted fingernails and a well-cut coat. Not that he had long to enjoy his second go-around. Alan was dead within three years, a heart attack on the golf course, as unoriginal, Betty had thought, as running away with a younger woman.
Gradually, she had thrown out their past: his football programmes, her dressmaking patterns. She had torn down the greenhouse and joined a computer class at the library. Even so, in the end, Darren and Linda had persuaded her that the semi in Scarsdale Avenue was too big and that she should buy a bungalow. Easier to maintain and no memories, they said, as if that was a good thing. They’d helped her to find this place, at the end of Moels Lane. The front faced the street and a road of similar bungalows, but Moels Lane was at the end of town, the back garden marking the beginnings of the green belt. The kitchen looked out across fields and nature, things for which Betty had never had much time. Still, she had made the move and in the process gained Clint, her first bird.
The seller, Mr. Gordon Jessop, was moving into a care home where pets were forbidden. Yet what was to be done with Clint Eastwood, the parrot, his companion of twenty years? It had not occurred to Betty to keep the bird until one day, when she dropped in to take some measurements, she found a sobbing Mr. Jessop, desperate about Clint. Having some personal knowledge of abandonment, Betty found herself nodding and saying, “I know” and then, one thing leading to another, discovering that she had agreed to keep Clint, at least for the time being.
“He’s a big bugger,” Darren had said on first meeting Clint. “Like an angel, but not in a good way. Not like a guardian angel.”
Betty had never particularly enjoyed animals before. There had been goldfish and hamsters and even a kitten, bought for the children, to teach them about responsibility and sharing, something or other. Betty had tolerated them, but when Nelson, the kitten, was run over by a neighbour outside the Scarsdale Avenue house, it had been Alan who’d cried. Betty had dug the hole at the bottom of the garden and found a shoebox, but she had not really minded.
With Clint Eastwood it was different. She would have imagined herself to be scared of such a creature, with his ominous wingspan that cast a shadow across the whole room and his bolt-hard beak, strong enough to break a finger, but strangely, she wasn’t. She liked watching the splash of blue-green as he made his short, arching flights, how his wings stretched and flashed as he preened himself. He screeched when he didn’t get his own way and tore up the arms of the sofa, but none of this upset Betty, not as it would have done in the house on Scarsdale Avenue.
And it was good to be needed again.
“He’s so clever and he makes me laugh,” she told her now grown up children who in turn, while disapproving to each other, accepted Clint as “a good thing” for their mother. When Betty bought two more birds, smaller parakeets she called Ant and Dec, they had bitten their tongues and admired the bold, green plumage.
“It’s probably fine,” they had said to each other. “The birds are company for Mum. As long as it doesn’t go beyond three.”
When Darren arrived, his shirt sleeves rolled up, his bald spot brown from spring gardening, he was followed through the kitchen door by a woman, large and flowing with great gusts of grey hair and a billow of beaded necklaces.
“Hi Mum,” said Darren, bending to kiss his mother, a move so unusual that they bumped noses before his lips skimmed her cheek.
“Mum, this is Issa.”
“Issa?” said Betty. “Is that a name?”
The woman laughed, a great booming sound.
“It’s my name,” she said. “Short for Clarissa, but really, who has the time?”
“Issa,” said Linda, “this is our mother.”
“May I call you Betty?” Issa asked, extending a chubby, capable hand.
“I’d rather Mrs. Fuller.
Betty felt her own small hand disappear into the fleshy wealth of Issa’s.
“For God’s sake, Mum,” said Darren.
“No, no. It’s fine,” said Issa, settling herself uninvited into one of the garden chairs. She crossed her legs like a man, wrapping several layers of skirt across her knees.
“Now, Mrs. Fuller, Darren and Linda have asked me to help them talk to you about something of great concern to you all.”
Betty looked at her children. “Who is this woman?”
Issa answered. “I’m a professional mediator,” she said, leaning forward. The shift in weight caused the cheap chair to wobble so that Issa instantly sat back again.
“Your children are very worried the birds. They tell me that they have tried to talk to you about this many times but that you are not hearing them.”
“I’m not getting rid of my birds,” said Betty, smiling like she had been taught to do as a child when politeness had been all.
“Mum, just listen to what Issa has to say,” said Linda.
“Who is she to tell me to get rid of my birds,” she said.
“Bloody hell, Mum,” said Darren, “that’s not what she’s saying.”
Issa raised a hand. “No, Darren, let your mother speak.”
“There’s nothing else to say,” said Betty. “Shall I make some more tea? How are the twins, Darren?”
“The twins miss their grandmother, but she won’t come to see them because she won’t leave her damn birds.”
“They could come here,” said Betty. “They love the birds.”
“No, Mum. They loved Clint, when they were eight, when it was just Clint. Now, they won’t to come to the house because it’s filthy, it stinks and their grandmother is a bonkers old lady who cares more for a bunch of vicious birds than she does for her own family.”
Betty looked passed Darren, to where George Michael was sitting on a branch of the artificial palm tree, just at the end of the cage, his hard black eyes watching, like CCTV cameras. Without the birds, the twins, now fourteen, would have found some other reason not to visit.
“Mrs. Fuller,” said Issa, “what I hear your children saying is that they miss their mother and that they would like her back.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Betty said, waving her hands in front of her face. “Look, Issa, I’m right here.”
“What I also hear them saying is that there is a real issue with your health.” Issa spread her hands across her pudding-knees. She went on but Betty had stopped listening. At the word “health” she had felt a coil of something in her chest, a bunch of phlegm that she had to keep at bay. These days she did cough more and her breath was more harrumphy than in her youth, but that was age, surely. Her back ached and her feet were sore. Would they put that down to the birds too? And yet, she could feel a big, hollow cough rising. If only she didn’t break out right here and now, in front of Darren and Linda and this Issa. If only she could catch her breath.
But it couldn’t be stopped. Issa paused, mid sentence, while Betty, in great, gusty, painful barks, cleared her chest. When she had finished, there was a second of silence before Betty said, “Shall I make that tea now?”
Issa smiled, as if at a small child. “What I see here, Mrs. F, is distraction and deflection. Tea instead of decisions.”
“If you think I’m touching anything that comes out of that shit-filled kitchen, you can think again.” Darren was shouting now, ignoring Issa’s appeals for calm. “You’re a crazy, stubborn old woman. Those birds have the run of this house. They’ve torn up anything nice you ever had. You let them poo anywhere.”
“I clean it up,” said Betty.
“No Mum,” said Linda, softly. “You think you do, but you don’t. And there are feathers and bird dust everywhere. It’s not healthy.”
“Healthy, healthy,” said Betty. “People are obsessed with being healthy these days. Don’t you agree, Issa?”
“Well, our health is the most important thing we have,” Issa said.
“Then why don’t you lose a bit of that weight, and Darren, perhaps you could cut out the beer. In fact, go away, all of you. I have nothing left to say. Unless you want to drink my tea and talk about something else, bugger off, the lot of you.”
Betty stood at the front door, watching the two cars turn and drive out of Moels Lane, passed the small front gardens and empty porches. She waved more out of habit than affection, although she knew that wasn’t fair. They were good children, her Linda, her Darren. Before they left, Betty had accused them of wanting her money, of being jealous of the cash she spent on her birds, of seeing profit for themselves in selling her boys and girls, but none of that was true. They were concerned, but their combination of worry and love wearied Betty. They had become a burden to her as she had to them. And, in the end, because she was old, Betty knew they would win and the birds would go. George Michael, Clint Eastwood, Cilla Black, little Ant and Dec, all of them, she would lose them all.
She looked down at her hands, at the grey dirt lodged round the edges of her fingernails, at the powdery dust that had settled in the crevices of her knuckles. If she spread her hands now, she knew that the joints in her wrist and thumb would cry out. From nowhere, she remembered how, as a girl, she could pinch the skin on the back of her hand and, instantly, it would smooth itself, leaving no imprint, no trace. Now, squeezing a pull of flesh between her forefinger and thumb and releasing it, she smiled to herself as the ridge seemed to sigh before slowly, so slowly, falling away to leave a red line, an echo of youth.
Closing the front door, Betty walked back through the bungalow. Cilla Black flew across her path, the draft from her yellow wings brushing like a buttercup across Betty’s face. In the kitchen, she slid open the glass doors and walked into the aviary. George Michael let out a cry and flew on to her shoulder, tickling her ear with his nut-hard beak.
“Issa,” she said out loud. “What kind of name is Issa? We wouldn’t call anyone Issa, would we George?”
There was bird shit on her shoe, on the tip of her worn trainer. She rubbed the toe against her other heel, transferring the problem from one foot to the other. Another of the parakeets, Barbara Windsor, flew down to drink from the cracked water trough. It was empty. Barbara swivelled her head to chastise Betty.
“Sorry, Barb,” she said. “I’ll fill it up now.”
When Linda arrived at her mother’s house two days later, armed with advice from Issa as to how to begin phase two of their campaign, she found the front door wide open. The house seemed cool and, though Linda shouted for her mother, she knew at once that the place was empty. And where were the birds? No screams or calls, no sound at all. Everything was open, every window, every door. The mesh side of the aviary had been cut through to create a large hole, an escape hatch.
“Mum,” shouted Linda, her voice pegged with tears.
A cry from the corner of the living room made Linda turn back to the house. She rushed into the room, knowing it wasn’t her mother but hoping nevertheless.
It was Clint. Standing on the back of the sofa, his eyes, as cool as his namesake, he spun his head in that way birds do, primeval and always frightening to Linda. Then, stretching out his glorious wings, tremendous against the fawn and dull whites of Betty’s living room, he took off, circling around Linda’s head one final time before gliding out through the large picture window, skimming across the lawn and then up and away, over the fields which ran behind the now empty bungalow and off, off to somewhere altogether different.
August 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
It started as a joke.
No, that’s not right. It started as a regular piece of work, the kind of project we discussed every week at our Monday status meeting.
At that time, and I’m talking about the early ‘nineties now, there were three of us in the Donor Development Department of Save the Kids, or S the K, as it was written on our pink and blue headed paper. Jed Norris was our boss. If you’re in the business, you might have heard his name. A total legend. He was real direct marketeer, worked for Sloss, McNally, Rice, who, back in the day, handled all the direct mail for the big catalogues and insurance companies. Then he spent time with, of all people, the Conservative Party, which the top brass at S the K considered enough of a charitable experience to give him full reign over our direct marketing work. Personally, I thought it made him deeply suspect but, over drinks in the pub one night, he claimed his time at Smith Square wasn’t a political decision, just a career move. Bollocks, I said. They’re a bunch of money grabbing leeches and you worked for them. Shame on you. He didn’t care though. Jed was part of a trend, a migration of people from the corporate sector to the charitable one, nobly bringing their finely honed business skills to the not for profit world. Apparently, so these guys argued, charities needed to operate more like companies. They needed to be more professional, whatever the hell that meant. The fact that most charities were picking up the shit created by the failure of the free market to – what was the phrase? – trickle down – was by the by.
I digress. The S the K board loved him, maybe because he wore a suit and played golf, or more likely, because half the board were donors to the Tory Party and just got over-excited when they saw his CV.
Martin and I did all the real work. Martin in particular was a star. To be honest, I was a little in love with him. Just a little. He looked like a young Martin Sheen only taller. When we’d been in Birmingham the year before at the National Fundraising Convention, we’d almost slept together. Well, there was sod all else to do in that stinking Metropolitan Hotel, stuck out in the middle of God knows where, drinks priced through the roof and only a thousand other fundraisers for company. I was certainly game, and so was Martin until, mid snog, he suddenly had an attack of conscience. It wouldn’t be fair on either of us, he’d said, being that he already had a girlfriend. I could have argued the point but I was too drunk and so the moment passed. Probably for the best.
Martin and I were a pretty good work team though. I only needed to glance at him in a meeting and I could tell what was going through his mind, what he made of the work being presented or the state of our donor profile. And we both shared a healthy contempt for Jed and his corporate ideas, even if much of what he said actually made sense. It was our job to obstruct, like Old Labour or the Unions, while Jed was more like Thatcher, that’s to say, he got his way regardless.
To pause for a moment, and for our younger readers, what I’m talking about here is good old fashioned direct mail, sent through the post, envelopes plopping onto doorsteps along with newspapers, bills and a postcard from your mum. No social media or emails. No donating by bank transfer or even credit card. Just a letter from us, pleading our case, convincing you to take a moment of your valuable time to write back, with a cheque and your good wishes. That was fundraising in those days, letters and the Royal Mail.
Before the era of Jed, we’d had a pretty standard approach to our donors, mailing them four times a year, plus the Christmas catalogue. Everyone got the same thing, no matter how much they gave. Jed put a stop to all that. He said that we should be segmenting our lists according to donation levels and mailing people at least ten times a year. That’s too much, we argued. Our donors will protest. They’ll think it’s a waste of our – their – money. No, Jed had countered. They’ll think they don’t like it and some will even complain but, you see, it will bring in more money. And, fair play to him, it did.
The only problem with all this (assuming that we never considered pissing off a large percentage of our donors to be a problem, and apparently we didn’t) was that we needed to keep coming up with new and urgent subjects for our increasing output of appeals. That was a challenge, and why we needed the help of Janice and Carla from Rolf & Mayer
“I’ve brought in a few samples of mail-shots we’ve been working on for other charities,” Janice had said at that Monday meeting, spreading many branded, window envelopes over the table. “Obviously, they are not competing organisations to S the K, but they may give us a few jumping off points.”
“How about another case study?” I said. “We still haven’t used Emma, and I think she’s pretty good.”
Emma wasn’t a real person. She was what our communications team called, ‘a composite.’ Her story was cobbled together from the real life tales our project workers heard on a daily basis: sexual abuse, poverty, a life on the streets. The photograph that accompanied the case study wasn’t genuine either. The soft-eyed teenager in the picture, her face long with sorrow, she was a model made up to look like a victim. We had no choice. It would not have been appropriate to show any of the real children we helped. Plus, many of them, particularly the teenagers, were far too unappealing, wearing the marks of deprivation on their faces, bad skin, poor teeth or, worse, defiance.
“We’ve done case histories, over and over,” said Jed. “We need something new.”
Carla reached for a pack with her long, sharply manicured hands and briskly fanned its contents over the meeting room table. “We did this recently for Dignity in Age Overseas,” she said, tapping an envelope with a plum coloured finger nail. “It contains this piece of plastic, which, when you look through it, gives you an idea of what it’s like to have cataracts. Simple, but effective and the ask was for five pounds to fund a cataract operation, five pounds for the gift of sight.”
We all took turns to hold the plastic square to our eyes and marvel at how little we could see.
“That’s really excellent,” said Jed, peering like a pirate. “D’you have the response rate for this?” he asked, removing the plastic from his eye.
Janice pushed a sheet of figures around the table. “And here’s the same data when we used it with cold donors.” Cold donors are people who have never supported the charity in question before. Usually, we’d acquire their names by swapping with other, similar charities, our donors’ details for theirs. This was before all the data protection stuff we have today, before the prevalence of the little, no I don’t want to receive information from other organisations, tick box which, I might add, has almost brought the great industry of direct marketing to its knees.
Jed studied the figures, rubbing his chin as he took in the data. “This is good stuff,” he said. “Really, impressive.” He looked around the table. “So, come on team, what do we have that could work in the same way?”
Janice and Carla glanced at each other. They’d come armed with an idea. Janice produced a new envelope and unpacked it, placing a mailing piece and a yellow wax crayon on the table.
“Crayons,” she said. “We thought about crayons.”
Martin shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I get it,” he said.
Janice grinned. “We’d put a crayon in each pack, together with a drawing from a child, a picture illustrating their plight. You know, the kind of thing a psychologist might get a child to do. ‘Can you draw how you see your disreputable family?’ or ‘Can you draw how it feels when you are left on your own?’ The picture we’ll actually include will be bleak, dark and angry, very disturbing. Done by one of our creatives. Then the recipient will find the crayon, which will be nice and bright, yellow or orange, and the message will be, ‘Change the colour of a child’s life by making a donation.’” Janice sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She was deeply satisfied.
“It sounds a bit elaborate,” I said. “I’m just not sure the donors will get it.”
Jed nodded. “I agree. It’s ok, but it’s not, ‘This is how it looks when you can’t see.’”
Carla protested. “We think…”
“No,” said Jed. “We need something sharper. Come on, people. What symbolises suffering children? What says ‘abuse’ to our donors?”
Martin and I exchanged a look.
“Did you have a particular kind of abuse in mind?” I asked.
“Something that works,” he said.
We sat in silence for a moment. “It’s not easy to package ‘neglect’,” said Martin eventually.
“No, ok,” said Jed. “But what about physical…”
“Or sexual?” I added. “The mind boggles.”
Janice and Carla exchanged an unhappy glance. They were still sore about their crayon proposal.
“No, but you have something,” said Jed.
I cleared my throat. “Well, what about tears,” I said.
Given all that happened afterwards, over the years, I’ve thought about that moment a good deal and, you know, to this day, I couldn’t say if I was joking or not. The words just popped out and before we knew it, there was no other idea.
“Tears?” Janice didn’t look any happier.
“The tears of a child,” I went on, still smiling.
Martin started to laugh again.
Jed held up his hand. “No, wait. I think you have something.”
Carla and Janice shot each other a look.
“What could be more moving?,” said Jed. “Who could not put their hand in their pocket when faced with the tears of a child? It’s brilliant.” There was an eerie look in Jed’s eyes. I think it unnerved the girls from Rolf & Mayer. The whole tear idea had made their crayon plan look hopelessly innocent.
Martin cleared his throat. “Let’s just run with this for a minute. How would we collect these ‘tears’?”
“We could pinch children until they cry,” I said. “I’m sure if we offered enough money, parents would be volunteering kids left, right and centre. I can name you half dozen members of staff right in this building who’d go for it.”
Carla looked concerned. “But wouldn’t that be abuse in itself? I’m really not sure donors would like that.”
Jed rolled his eyes, although it wasn’t clear whether this was in exasperation at Carla’s failure to get the joke, or in frustration at the prospect of donors and their pesky objections to children being repeatedly pinched.
“Obviously, we can’t hurt real children. That would be totally unacceptable,” he said, eventually.
“We are still joking, aren’t we?” asked Janice. She looked at each of us, a degree of panic in her expression. “Tell me, no one is seriously considering this idea.”
“I’ve said already,” said Jed. “Collecting real tears is not possible.”
“No, I mean…”
“But,” went on Jed, railroading through Janice’s objections, “why couldn’t we used salt water.”
“A composite tear,” Martin said.
“Right. A couple of drops of salt water in a small plastic bag?”
“No,” I said. “A plastic bag wouldn’t work. It would just smear along the sides. It won’t look like a tear. But what about one of those little plastic vials, the kind of thing used for perfume samples?”
“Excellent,” said Jed.
Martin sucked in his breath as if weighing up the pros and cons. “What would the unit cost be on something like that?” he asked, turning to the agency ladies. They looked nervously one to the other.
“I’ve really have no idea,” said Janice.
“Well, more or less than the plastic cataract thing?
“Emm, well, I suppose the vial would be the expensive item. It would need to be airtight to stop the tears, sorry, the salt water, leaking out. And then there’d be the usual art work, copywriting costs.”
“It would be light though,” I added, thinking of mailing prices.
“We might need some new photography,” said Martin. “A picture of a super, ultra-sad child. Followed by shots of the same child now super, ultra-happy as result of S the K’s wonderful and unique help.”
“Never use the word ‘unique’,” I said. “Donors don’t like it. They know perfectly well that very little is truly ‘unique’.”
“I think this bloody well might be,” said Jed, a note of triumph in his voice. “Can you imagine what kind of coverage this will get, not just in the charity press but all over?” He must have sensed hesitancy from Rolf & Mayer. “Oh come on. Janice, Carla, you’re professionals. You know that what we’re about is innovation, eh?” He picked up the piece of cataract plastic, gave it a contemptuous look and threw it across the table. “You guys want to make your name? You’ll need to be a whole lot more daring than fuzzy bits of plastic. Let’s face it, blind old people just don’t kick ass in the same way as sad kids.”
Thinking back, at that point Rolf and Mayer should have gathered together all their packs and, in their high heels and suits, they should all walked out then and there. Or at least raised more of an objection. They were the agency, after all, there to give advice. But those were different times, governed by a different set of rules. Or so it seems now.
To my credit, I did say, “And, of course, this appeal will raise some serious and much needed funds for neglected and abused children,” and everyone in the room nodded gravely, although I suspect we were all really thinking about next year’s Direct Marketing Awards and the coveted silver envelope for best charity-agency partnership.
“Will you get this passed the Senior Management Team?” Martin asked.
Jed waved this away. “You leave them to me. Anyway, it’s an operational decision, and I’m head of this particular operation.” He didn’t need to say anymore. If we guessed that he wouldn’t apprise them of the plan until it was a fate acompli, no one said anything.
There was a moment of conspiratorial silence. I suspect we shared something of the same sick thrill experienced by governments on the eve of war. If just one of us in that room had said no then we would never have gone ahead. I mean, yes, we were all direct marketeers, but we were still people, and, let’s face it, three of us were professionally charitable.
But we didn’t. Instead, we doled out jobs, worked out a mailing schedule and a donor breakdown and even did an initial income forecast. When we left the meeting, it was with thoughts of sourcing tiny plastic vials and drafting appropriate copy.
The funny thing is that when the packs went out I was genuinely proud of them, and, to begin with, there were hardly any complaints. The day the mailing dropped, Martin and I went for a drink to celebrate; three bottles of Californian Chardonnay later we ended up back at my flat and hey ho, it was Birmingham all over again, but this time Martin didn’t mention his girlfriend. Maybe that was symbolic of how far we’d fallen. I don’t know. At the time, it just seemed like we were having fun.
That didn’t last. By the following Monday, the press had got hold of a pack. “Charity Exploits Weeping Kids,” was the headline in one tabloid, which was just lazy journalism. No kids were harmed in the making of this appeal, we responded, but that went by the by. Donors were outraged, as were our celebrity patrons, who resigned in droves, and, more embarrassingly, so were our frontline project workers, who popped up all over the show to decry modern fundraising techniques. That made me cross. They never complained when the money was rolling in, but the minute there was a whiff of a reporter and a chance to get their picture in paper, they were all up on their moral high horses.
Jed had to resign, of course, although he found a new job pretty quickly. While people appeared to disapprove, those in the business admired his balls. He went to work for some finance company. S the K sacked Rolf & Meyer, while Martin and I kept our heads down and hoped for the best, although, in the end, we both moved on too. I heard that Martin married his girlfriend and moved to Birmingham.
I’m no longer in direct marketing, but not because I regret the Real Tear pack. On the contrary, I think it was a landmark piece of work, and not just because of the fundraising legislation it prompted. To be honest, everything I worked on after that seemed horribly dull in comparison. The new agency did something with free pens in the next mailing but really, who wants a cheap biro? It doesn’t get the message across. Maybe people need to be more honest. At the end of the day, it is about children’s tears, and if you can’t face that truth then you’ve no business working for a charity.
August 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
Here’s another little story. This is based on a real fake nun I once knew.
We all called her Sister Barbara but despite her thin, creamy blouses, neatly embroidered with insipid daisies, and the wooden cross, which, like an ancient piece of cheese, hung as a holy brick around her neck, she wasn’t a real nun at all.
It seemed she had come with the church itself, like the dusty prayer cushions each sewn in memory of someone now forgotten, or the rot that was eating its way up the west wall. She smelt of candles and used-up incense and sometimes, we thought, as we huddled together during Mass, of loaves and fishes.
We had two reasons for believing her to be a fake. Firstly, she did not spend time with the other Sisters. Even the nice ones hunted in packs but Sister Barbara was always alone. However, it was the way our parents spoke of her that really convinced us. At the mention of her name they would smile sadly and whisper, “Ah, poor Barbara. It’s a shame an’ all, but she’s harmless enough.”
Why anyone would pretend to be a nun was of on-going concern to us. Debbie Shoot, the prettiest girl in our year, said that she’d heard from a boy in the choir over at St Dominic’s, that Sister Barbara was really a man who had once been an actual, real-life monk, but that he/she had renounced God to punish Him for giving her the wrong body.
“Time passed,” Debbie went on, her sing-song voice drawing us all in, “and gradually God came calling again and, as one thing follows another, she/he un-renounced Him.” As if to prove this version, Debbie pointed to Sister Barbara’s feet.
“Those are not the feet of a woman,” she said, doodling hearts in the margin of her Bible, alongside Timothy, Chapter II, verse 15: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.’
But despite her disproportionate feet and shocking taste in shoes, we remained skeptical. It didn’t seem credible and besides, the boys in St Dominic’s choir were famous liars.
It was widely agreed that there were two types of nun. Well, three if you included the young, anorexic virgins with their hamster eyes and cold, translucent hands. Like beings from a parallel world, they baffled us. Why would girls only a year or two older than us choose to leave the world, just when it was becoming ours? We couldn’t fathom it.
The rest, we divided into good or evil. The good ones were wise and soft. Even the thin ones, we viewed as chubby, doughy women who smelt of nothing. They loved forgiveness and, if there was a God, which none of us believed anyway, He sat on their shoulders, smiling indulgently at our youthful sins.
Then there were the rest, the evil Sisters. They were all thin, even the fat ones, with sharp bodies and shutters for eyes. They pretended that they had sacrificed themselves for God and for us, but the truth was they couldn’t quite leave the world or, more importantly, us, alone.
Had Sister Barbara chosen to be a fake doughy nun, no doubt we’d have taken her to our hearts, like a school mascot. Maybe Stephanie Crowley, the best cook in our home economics class, would have baked a Victoria sponge on Sister Barbara’s Saint’s day. Or we might have built a tender and romantic story around her pretence. Man meets woman; they fall in love; man meets someone with smaller feet and leaves woman; woman falls into decline; woman becomes a pretend nun. But Sister Barbara was a vile, bitter viper and we hated her like the devil himself.
However, unlike the other doom-filled sisters, we did not fear her. We held her look when she glared at us for refusing to join in with the responses or, passing her in the aisle, we’d continue to talk, both things we never did with the real nuns.
“Do you think the Lord spent forty days and forty nights being tempted by Satan himself so that you girls don’t have to wipe your feet?” she said one day, after someone had trailed mud into the chapel. “ “I’ll report you to Sister Clare.” But like always, we just shrugged and giggled and carried on.
From time to time, one of us would indeed be summoned to Sister Clare’s office to be reprimanded for this or that misdemeanor but the punishments handed out after a Sister Barbara reporting always lacked real substance. It was as if the proper nuns felt duty bound to keep up appearances with the pretend nun and yet they, like us, were not sure why.
That year, Debbie, Jenny and I were church monitors. It was our duty to keep the chapel clean, clear up sweet wrappers, tidy away Bibles and sort the bags of donated clothes which were dumped in the church porch from time to time. We didn’t mind. It kept us out of the playground and gave us somewhere quiet to talk. For Debbie, the only subject worthy of discussion was boyfriends, and why we didn’t have any. Jenny and I thought ourselves a degree more serious. We wanted to debate “issues” for, in those days, a great many things riled us. Our school bags were covered with small button badges declaring our allegiance to one cause or another. We would rather talk about Debbie’s brother, Jed, who sold Socialist Worker on a Saturday morning, standing outside Woolworths in his donkey jacket and black woolen hat. We saw him there most weekends. He would nod at us, or even shout, “How’s it going, our Deb’s mates,” and we’d feel a little bit sick, but in a good way.
Sometimes, Debbie would bring us old copies of Socialist Worker, which we duly smuggled into the Chapel of the Sacred Heart under our school sweaters, ready to read and dissect. But we were careless of time and often the talk of our non-boyfriends dragged on so that we were left to stuff our unread copies into Bibles, giving them the appearance of tiny accordions. Father MacNeice, our pocket-sized parish priest, seemed to us too small to notice anything in his sacred texts, including communism, but not so Sister Barbara.
One afternoon, she came to us in the chapel, holding a copy of Socialist Worker between her cold, uncaring thumb and forefinger, dangling it before us, like a diseased rag.
“Wait until I show this to Father MacNeice. Just wait. I know it was you girls.”
“God’s a fascist, “ said Jenny. “‘I am the Lord thy God’; ‘Thou shall have no other gods before me’. Only a dictator makes those kind of rules?”
“You girls think you are so clever,” she said, striding away.
She was right. In the last year, we’d come to the conclusion that yes, we were clever. We demonstrated this by shouting at our parents, at the television but most satisfyingly of all, at the Church.
“‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says’,” read Jenny, slamming shut her Bible. “Who are the sodding Corinthians anyway to be telling us to be ‘in submission’?”
We didn’t like it. Not a bit, but we kept our views to ourselves around the real nuns, the ones who would complete our university forms and grade our papers. However, if Sister Barbara heard us complaining, we did not care.
One day in the spring of our duty year, a parishioner dropped four huge suitcases into the porch.
“They are for the poor,” she shouted, as she hurried back to her still running car. Donations of this kind seldom reached the poor directly, but rather were fed into the ongoing cycle of jumble sales and events to raise money for the church roof or to take people in wheel-chairs to Lourdes, some of whom, we hoped, might be poor.
The suitcases were lumpy and bumpy, like cakes that had failed to rise evenly. They smelt stale and vaguely of urine, like the old people’s home where we went each Christmas to sing carols and hand out mince pies.
“Come on girls,” said Sister Barbara, interrupting our talk. “Chop, chop. Remember, ‘All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.’ Bring those cases into the church.”
Rolling our eyes, reluctantly we shuffled into action.
“You can sort here,” said Sister Barbara. “Put the clothes on one side – men’s, women’s and children’s – and bric-a-brac on the other.”
“Who’s she to tell us what to do?” Debbie muttered as Sister Barbara opened the heavy church door to leave, allowing a beam of early spring sunshine to set the winter dust to dancing. For once we wanted to be outside, with our eyes closed and our faces upturned to something warm. Instead, we pulled back the zips and snipped open the clasps to reveal bundles of clothes and small parcels wrapped in tissues.
We sighed and poked at the contents, not eager to begin unpacking. Finally Debbie picked out a package and peeled off the paper. It was a porcelain bird of some kind, with a small chip in its beak and tiny knobs of dust caught where the wing joined the body. In our experience, all bric-a -brac was like that, unloved and slightly broken.
The clothes were clean, but still, we didn’t rush to touch them.
“Do you think they belonged to a dead person?” Jenny asked, cautiously picking up a stiff, mauve skirt.
One case contained baby clothes: small hand knitted cardigans, well worn and frequently washed so that the wool had become stiff and cruel; hats the size of large oranges and a pretty white dress with puffed out sleeves, a tiny ruffled skirt and a shadowy, yellow stain down the front.
The highlight was a plastic bag full of men’s underwear.
“That’s disgusting,” said Debbie. “I mean, really, do they think people are so desperate that they will buy other people’s shitty pants?”
As instructed we piled the contents into organised lots.
Afterwards, as we walked out into the sunlight, Jenny sniffed at her hands. “I need a wash,” she said. “I think I’ve absorbed the stench of abandonment.”
We’d reached the school gates before I remembered my coat.
“I should go back,” I said. “Otherwise they will sell it. I’ll catch you up.”
The church door was still open. Beside the piles of clothes stood the familiar figure of Sister Barbara, her back curved around her shoulders. I wanted to creep away, to avoid her inevitable lecture on our failure to sort with sufficient reverence, but she turned before I could retreat.
Across her chest, she held the tiny white dress, arms locked, almost as if she were cradling a baby. And she was smiling. Or was she crying? Now I think about it, from all this time later, I think she was smiling and crying.
“I forgot my coat,” I said.
“You can’t get rid of this kind of stain.” She held up the dress. “She will have been sick.”
“I suppose so,” I said, edging round her.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Something so pretty. She would look lovely in this. So much the little lady.”
Laying the dress back down on the pile, she picked up one of the cardigans. “I used to knit,” she said. “I used to be a good knitter, but you have to hand-wash wool, especially for babies. You have to keep it soft. Like this.”
From her skirt pocket, she pulled a small mitten, the colour of white chocolate and round, with no fingers or thumbs.
“Feel this,” she said, handing it to me. “Rub it against your cheek and you’ll see.”
The mitten was no bigger than the palm of my hand and so downy that I barely felt it against my skin. It was a whisper of a thing, hardly there at all.
“It’s lovely,” I said, handing it back.
She nodded. “It is.” For a moment, she ran the wool across her lips, as if to feel whatever was possible.
With her other hand, she reached out and cupped my chin. Her fingers felt dry and warm against my skin and her breath smelt only faintly sour as she whispered, “‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.”
Then remembering who she was, Sister Barbara pushed the mitten back into her pocket and stepped away.
“You girls didn’t sort the men’s clothes properly. The trousers are still mixed up with the sweaters.”
I grabbed my coat. “Sorry, Sister Barbara. Thank you, Sister Barbara.”
I told the others, but only Jenny and Debbie. We still held her look and she continued to scold us. And we minded, but perhaps not quite so much.
July 26, 2020 § Leave a comment
As some of you know, sometimes I write stories. They just sit around on my computer or in notepads, and seldom see the light of day. That seems a bit pathetic, so, over the next few weeks, I’m going to put a few on this rather neglected blog. Friends, please don’t feel you have to read but if you do, enjoy.
This one is called The Story of Matthew Pity.
Names are a tricky business. This much, Matthew Pity knows.
As a child, his name had been irresistible to the other boys, like a itch they couldn’t leave alone.
“Runaway, runaway, here comes Nitty Pity. His hair is alive.”
“Matthew Nitty, he smells all shitty.”
It hadn’t helped that he had been a tubby child, that he had been a Fat Matt.
“Matt Pity, Fat Shitty.”
“Sticks and stones, Matthew,” his mother would say. “They are just trying to be clever, those other boys. Don’t stoop to their level. They will get bored.”
Of course, his classmates did tire of “Shitty Pity” but by then it was too late. And what comes first, being an oddball or the others turning you into one? No one could say for sure if Matthew Pity had been strange before they got to work on his name. Maybe so, but they cast their own dye, for sure. School time misery and a grey adolescence for Fat Matt leading to what? A pitiful job and the life of a bedsit bore. Twenty seven and only a suitcase full of clothes and a hefty old laptop to call his own.
A shitty state of affairs for Mr Matthew Pity.
Yet, on this chilly morning, he is walking with a jive to his step. His feet are not mired in the clay of workaday cares. Today, he is like a secret dancer, on the verge of a pavement pirouette. On his pudgy, pale face, there is a fraction of a smile.
Matthew Pity turns left at the lights and walks towards his office building. At the door, he pauses. He must rein himself in, reduce his stride to his usual shuffle.
Pushing open the glass door, he is greeted by Sam Lamb, the nighttime security guard. And that’s his real name. Sam Lamb. Beyond belief, but true. Of course, Matthew Pity has some sympathy for Sam Lamb’s naming catastrophe, but he never shows it. That’s not how Shitty Pity behaves.
“Alright,” mutters Sam Lamb not looking up from his newspaper. He is only on reception until eight thirty, when Janice and the girls take over. No one wants Sam Lamb to be the daytime face of this organisation.
Matthew grunts, not an actual greeting, but the same sound he’s been making every morning for eight years, and heads for the lift.
Sam glances up. “Is it right, what I hear, that you’re leaving today?”
Matthew Pity turns back. “Yep. Last day.” He touches a pimple on his forehead, pressing down slightly to feel if it is still tender. It is.
“How long you been here then?” asks Sam Lamb, who himself has sat on the door for a quarter of a century. He needs a shave, the stubble on his layered chin a dreary grey, and there is a bit of something in the very corner of his mouth, a breakfast crumb, perhaps.
“Eight years,” says Matthew.
Sam nods. “Where you going then, boy?”
Although he has been practising this line, Matthew still hesitates. “To a warehouse,” he says. “I’m going to help manage a warehouse.”
There is a second of silence, then Matthew says, “Well, they’ll be waiting for me in the post room. I’d better go, last day or not.”
Sam Lamb laughs, a weary worker’s laugh. “Right. No rest for the wicked, eh?”
Descending to the basement, Matthew thinks how much he dislikes this building, with its scruffy ceiling tiles and stained carpets. The charity for which he works, the Marine Preservation Trust, refuses to value working conditions. The Director argues that members of the public do not donate money to be spent on fancy paintwork and smart desks. Which is true. They give money for fish, and for things which are not as intelligent as fish, like seaweed and rocks, but it’s the fish that matter. Not, for example, this lift, which grumbles and shakes as it descends, and smells of stale soup and old lunches. The back wall had once been a mirror, but now it is so filthy and cracked that Matthew has to bend down to find the spot where he can see his own reflection. He smooths down his greasy hair and thinks that, once he has left this place, he will get a decent cut.
But on his last day, there is no reason for Matthew Pity to be cross. Just eight more hours; one lunch and a few mugs of tea and it will be finished.
The lift door rumbles open and Matthew steps out into the mailroom. As usual, he hangs his jacket on one of the pegs by the door and walks to his desk. It’s old fashioned this room. Mailrooms, once essential to any office, are almost a thing of the past. No one sends letters these days, except of course, they do here because this is a charity, and some people still insist on making their donations by cheque. There are envelopes to open and processing to be done because old ladies who care about nature still don’t trust the internet to handle their payments. They think a cheque is safer. As it turns out, they are wrong but we all have our prejudices.
Even here though, the post-room is not what it once was. When Matthew started there were five of them. Now there are three, and after today, only two. It’s a sign of the times. The only area of growth for the post-room has been in accepting personal parcels, clothes and books and who knows what, which staff have delivered to the office. Matthew suspects that none of the stuff is helping the fish but hey, it’s kept him busy.
Clara and Billy are already there, sipping tea in silence, staring at the two red pouches of mail which sit before them.
These bags are their day. It doesn’t matter what they contain because opening an envelope is pretty much the same whether it holds a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds or a crinkled and faded fiver from the bottom of some old fella’s wallet. When none of it is for you, it’s all the same.
Billy and Clara cannot begin until the three of them are present. Three people are trustworthy, or so said the risk assessment man who audited procedures a few years ago. Everybody to watch everybody else. Count them in and count them out. Although after today, they will have to swallow the risk of just Clara and Billy.
“Morning Matt,” says Clara. “Kettle’s just boiled.”
Matthew walks over to the drinks’ shelf with its kettle, box of tea bags and half a packet of sugar. A thin layer of dust covers an ancient jar of Nescafe and two sachés of hot chocolate. The plastic bottle of semi-skimmed milk sits open beside the kettle. He wonders about making coffee on this, his last morning. It is what he fancies, a change from the usual, but this is no time to be different so he pours hot water over a tea bag and, adding some milk and a teaspoon of sugar, turns and heads over to his chair.
“We’ll have cakes later,” says Clara. “With it being your last day. I’ll nip out in a bit.”
“Ta,” says Matthew, spooning his tea bag into the bin beside his chair.
Clara, the age of his mother but still dying her hair and painting her nails, has children and grandchildren, a husband and a bingo club. She goes on holiday and cooks Christmas dinner for twelve. Despite her extra rolls of fat and her vacant conversation, she is a person of substance; her life has foundations so that although she is eight hours a day in this dungeon of a mailroom, it barely matters to her. When she retires in two years, she will shake off this place as easily as one brushes toast crumbs from the front of a dark sweater.
Billy is different. His manner suggests that he is ex-military; he isn’t, which is why he loves the mail room. It is a tiny universe which he believes he controls. In reality, Clara is the mailroom manager but the only indication of her superiority is a couple of extra quid in her wage packet. It is Billy’s version of order which prevails. Letters are logged his way, they are distributed along a route which he has calculated to be the most efficient. While Clara and Matthew might sometimes raise an eyebrow at each other and refer to him as “Major Billy”, they do not challenge any of his patterns. None of it matters enough.
“Let’s get cracking then,” Major Billy says, his hand sweeping some dandruff off the shoulder of his black Marine Preservation Trust t-shirt. He tips out the first of the day’s pouches. Envelopes of all sizes tumble from the bag, forming a small hill in the centre of the desk. A third are the charity’s own reply-paid envelopes and Billy weeds these out, sliding the pile across to Matthew. It is his job to open them, to take out the cheque and the donation form and to log each by hand in the heavy brown cash book. Rows of these books sit on the shelf above them. At the end of each year, they are cleared away to be stored for five years, the regulatory period. Once Matthew has made note of the donation amount and the name of the donor, he separates the cheque from the donation form and makes two piles. The cheques will go up to cashier, the donation forms to fundraising to be recorded and thanked.
So this is his job. Shitty Pity is the gateway to the charity. The donation does not exist until he says so, until he writes it down in his brown cash book. And this, he has come to realise, is real power. Those university types in the fundraising department and the press office, they might believe that it is upon them that the damn fish depend, but they are wrong. For all their degrees and away-days and urgent, “This has to be with them by tomorrow, Matthew” demands, they are just plain wrong.
Or they were, until someone decided that the Marine Preservation Trust needed to modernise its procedures.
“There you go,” says Billy. “A big lot today. Probably a response to that bit on the telly a week or so ago. That Sally from the Press Department, she was on. Remember. With the curly blond hair.”
Matthew says some thing like, “Oh yeah,” although he doesn’t remember and anyway he doesn’t want to talk. He is concentrating hard for this is how Matthew Pity works. Slow and a bit stupid, that’s what he’s always given them, and he will not change now. “A bit dim,” he’s heard them say. “He’s a good worker but out to lunch, if you know what I mean.” That’s fine. That’s how Fat Matt must be.
Matthew was twenty two before he realised that he wasn’t fated to live the life of Shitty Pity. It took him a year of opening envelopes and handling other people’s wealth before he saw how it could be done. And when he did, he laughed out loud because it was so simple and because he had no love for fish.
The Marine Preservation Trust, an important national charity, likes to shorten its name to the MPT. Everyone upstairs is far too busy to keep writing the whole name. What a waste of time that would be. So, MPT has become the acronym and, as a consequence, that’s what appears on most of the cheques. Not always, of course. Careful donors will write out the whole name, but not many people are so sensible. And how easily MPT can become M. PITY. Just slot in a couple of letters and some punctuation and a cheque to help save some rainbow fish in the Maldives becomes a donation to change the life of Fat Matt Pity.
The first time he did it, Mathew’s heart was beating so loudly he felt sure that Clara and Billy must hear the thump, thump as he slid the cheque and the donation form under the table and into the large envelope he had previously taped to the underside of the desk. He had practiced at home so the movement was quick but discreet. In any case, Matthew sat the end of the room, facing the other two, so he could move when their heads were down. That first day, he felt the weight of the stolen cheque under the table, heavy and dangerous. The others must know, he thought. But he was wrong. Clara and Billy bumbled through their morning until lunch time, when Matthew was able to retrieve the cheque and pop it into another self addressed envelope. This he took out with him in his bag, slipping it in the post box before going to buy his chicken and lettuce sandwich. By sending the cheques to a post office box number, Matthew had built himself a safety net. Then, once a week, he visited his box. In his bedsit, he carefully changed each cheque and printed out a “thank you” letter on the charity’s headed paper. As long as the cheque was cashed and a letter of thanks received, the donor was content and the charity none the wiser.
So Matthew Pity began amassing money. He was careful, taking only medium sized amounts, and not too many. Large donations would be missed, their whereabouts questioned. And small donations were tricky too. A child who had raised five pounds from a sponsored swim was likely to be waiting for his Freddy Fish tooth brush, but a working woman hastily writing out a cheque for fifty quid after a fun holiday scuba diving, she was never likely to follow up again. It was a gamble, of course, but one which Matthew Pity found he quite enjoyed. After all, the only thing at stake was the sad life of shitty Fat Matt Pity.
For three years, Matthew has been stealing from the Marine Preservation Trust. A few pounds every day, a good weekly total. And nobody noticed. Well, once a donor had asked for a print out of all their donations, and when some were missing, there was a flurry of concern. But it had passed. Instead of doing a full investigation, the MPT had assumed human error and moved on. For a while, Matthew had stopped taking anything, but time passed and a good thing is a good thing.
He opened several accounts to hold the cash, not wanting to have a central record of his deposits or for a single large total to accumulate. It would not do at all for Fat Matt, mail room boy, to have a hundred and fifty thousand pounds sitting on deposit.
Perhaps he would never have stopped but the charity had decided that, finally, it was time to computerise the mailroom. All incoming donations were to be logged directly onto the computer. In any case, the clock was ticking on cheques. In a year, all donations would likely be by direct debit, or credit card; they were already taking cashless payments at events and street collections.
It was over.
“Will you miss coming here, love,” Clara is asking.
“I guess,” says Matthew, shrugging.
Clara laughs. “Like a hole in the head, right.”
He smirks and she laughs some more. “Yeah, I know. Still, we’ll miss you, won’t we Billy. It won’t be the same, the old gang breaking up.”
Matthew doesn’t know who he dislikes more, Clara for pretending that they’ll miss him, or Billy for not bothering. What would they think, if they knew? To them, he will always be Fat Matt, a bit slow; a loser.
He finishes working on his pile of envelopes. Today, he has left well enough alone. No point in tempting fate. Everything today is for the stinking fish.
From time to time, and more so lately, it has occurred to Matthew that what he is doing is wrong. Over the years, the chatter about the environment and species extinction has grown to such a roar that even Matthew, who has never thought about the world as a interconnected miracle but rather has a hostile, lonely place, where putting one foot in front of the other is the best one can hope for, even he has questioned if stealing from the fish isn’t a much worse crime that he had originally envisaged. It has been a passing thought though and anyway, he is stopping. From now on, the fish will get the lot – and good luck to them.
“Shall I go for cakes?” Clara asks. Matthew knows that she has been thinking about the cakes all this time, something sweet to get her through the morning. She will have been anticipating the excursion too, a chance to run into someone, to gossip.
He smirks to himself as he says, “No, it’s OK Clara. I’ll go. My treat.”
Her face shows her disappointment. “Are you sure, dear?” she says. “I really don’t mind.”
But Matthew has his coat on already. “Something with cream,” he is saying. “Very nice,” Clara says, going back to her letters. “I’ll put the kettle on in a minute.”
Matthew takes the lift back up to the ground floor. He is thinking about his new name. He has settled on Jake Standish. It’s a name from another era, a better time. And names, as Matthew knows, are important.
Sam Lamb has left for the day. Touching his sport again, Matt nods to Janice and the reception girls before pushing open the heavy glass door.
Between the office and the cake shop sits a homeless man. He is often there, young, stained, hair like a dried-out bush, and as usual Matthew Pity walks passed, seeming not to hear his thin refrain.
“Any spare change?”
Some minutes later however, a figure who looks a little like a Jake Standish stoops to place a cake box into the slightly rank lap of the homeless guy.
Inside is a cream cake the size of a small chicken, a donation from one loser to the next.
August 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
Yesterday, I went to see Common at the National Theatre. It’s had mixed reviews – Michael Billington describing it as “William Blake meets The Wicker Man” in The Guardian. The play is set against the backdrop of the enclosure moment when, as Professor Peter Linebaugh, writes in the programme, much of Britain’s land was “privatised; moved from collective ownership into the hands of a few individuals.”
Of course, prior to the enclosure moment, the land didn’t actually belong to the poor. It was owned by the crown, the church or a local noble. But the notion of common land was a kind of compromise between what Linebaugh describes as, “the absolutist demands of private property and the subsistence necessities of common folk.”
Common land might provide for pannage (the right to graze pigs) or for the collection of estovers (wood); locals might have piscary rights (to fish) or turbary rights (to cut peat or turf). It provided for a kind of self-sufficiency, a way for the poor to keep themselves alive. As with the poor today, that was no easy matter.
Landlords began enclosing land in the late medieval period. It gathered speed with the Tudors, partly as sheep farming became more profitable, but was really forced home during the 18th and early 19th centuries. “Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed, by some 4,000 acts of parliament, from common land to enclosed land.” That’s a hell of a lot of land taken out of common use.
And, of course, a poor agricultural worker had no power. No voice. In an article in The Land magazine, historian Simon Fairlie describes how consultation worked. “To make a modern analogy, it was as if Berkeley Homes, had put in an application to build housing all over your local country park, and when you went along to the planning meeting to object, the committee consisted entirely of directors of Berkeley, Barretts and Bovis — and there was no right of appeal.”
Which kind of brings me on to my point. Clearly, this is a mighty topic, and way beyond me to argue for or against. What do I know about the enclosure movement? There are reasons why land enclosure needed to happen – more efficient production, growth in population, movement of people away from the countryside and into the cities. So I should probably stop talking about it. Except that theatre and the arts are suppose to make us think. So this is me thinking.
On my walk from the National Theatre to the underground, this was the sight before me.
Many cranes, turning the site of the former Shell Building into something called Southbank Place, a joint development by the delightfully sounding Docklands office group Canary Wharf and Gulf developer Qatari Diar. According the The Standard, 868 homes will be built, including 160 classified as “affordable” and 52 extra care flats for the elderly and disabled. That’s nice, but don’t worry too much about the fortunes of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar. A studio flat will cost you £540,000, with a two bed starting at £1m.
There were objectors to the development. They included the usual – local residents, councillors, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society – but fear not. According to CityAM, those voices were over-ruled by the then communities secretary, Eric Pickles. He was confident that the scheme would “provide accessible jobs and homes, and enhance the character of the South Bank area”. So that’s all right then.
I’m not sure how we got from common ownership of land to this mess, when even reasonably well paid people in London have no chance of affording a home, let alone those on minimum wage, or not working. (One of the main arguments in favour of enclosures was that people who survived by working common land “were lazy and impoverished (in other words “not inclined to work for wages”), and that enclosure of the commons would force them into employment.” Sound familiar?)
This is a ramble, I know, so let me draw it to a close by making two vague, probably unhelpful and obvious points.
- The private ownership of land has screwed nearly all of us. We are obsessed with owning a home with a bit of garden (and I include myself in this). Yet a report in Country Life in 2010 reminds that that, “more than a third of land is still in the hands of aristocrats and traditional landed gentry. Indeed, the 36,000 members of the CLA own about 50% of the rural land in England and Wales.” In addition, as Kevin Cahill wrote in the New Statesman in 2011, the tax balance on that land has been turned on its head in the last 150 years, inverting the relationship between the land and the landless (or less landed, perhaps). In 1873, landowners were virtually the sole payers of tax; “now the agricultural owners of Britain benefit from of an annual subsidy that may run as high as £23,000 each, totalling between £3.5bn and £5bn a year. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, pay about £35bn in land-related taxes. Rural landowners receive a handout of roughly £83 per acre, while urban dwellers pay about £18,000 for each acre they hold, an average of £1,800 per dwelling, the average dwelling standing on one-tenth of an acre.” (If you are at all interested in this stuff, have a read of this whole article. It’s kind of heart-breaking.)
- The former Shell Building was not common land, far from it (although my son’s state school did use their swimming pool). Indeed, I’m not suggesting that the HQ of an oil company is any more worthy than Southbank Place. It would be a nice change though, if those in charge really listened to what those who know about stuff are saying. Protesters against this development and every other development in London make the same arguments. If we want a healthy, diverse, economically sustainable city, we need to stop building Southbank Places, accept that commodifying and monetising the need for a home isn’t really working and invest in the common good. Don’t put ownership into the hands of the shareholders of Canary Wharf and Qatari Diar; no good can come of that.
July 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
Last week, I was mostly busy on a splendid creative writing course at the lovely Ty Newydd. Great company, clever and funny tutors (Mavis Cheek and Francesca Rhydderch), generally, a good time. I know not everyone approves of creative writing courses – “why can’t you just get on and do it?” Well, I have been on many and nearly always enjoy them. They get me thinking, and doing something else with my brain. Plus, I’m never sure why it’s ok to be taught to draw or play the piano, but not to write.
So, here is one of the exercises I completed with the group. We were each given a different postcard and asked to write something for 20 minutes, inspired of course, by the picture. I was given this, Titian’s Danae.
And here is what I came up with.
It’s not that I don’t like being an artist’s model. As jobs for women go, it’s up there. I’ve done worse things to earn a living – much worse. Lying on a bed, draped in sheets, bosom out, it’s fine, believe me.
My friends give me a hard time if a I grumble. “Oh, live is so hard, being a muse,” they say. “It must be exhausting.” And I do see that if you’re whoring in the side streets of Naples, earning just enough to keep yourself in bread, this gig does seem like a step up.
Still, musing is not without its challenges. Take this job. I’ve been lying on this bed, turning my neck at this wretched angle for what must be weeks now. I have cramp in my left leg and spent most of yesterday needing to piss, but not daring to say. Titian does not like movement, or speech or anything much.
“Sir, I really need to take a break,” I might say in the end, bladder bursting to the point that I am sweating with the effort of keeping it in.
“I don’t pay you to take breaks,” he will reply, his voice all heavy. “Stay still.”
So, I carry on staring at little Giovanni, who is even more miserable than I am. He’s what, five or six, always hungry, and not at all happy to be wearing wings.
“I’ll look like a girl,” he said to me, while we ate lunch – five minutes to eat, one minute to wee.
“No, you won’t,” I replied, “Believe me, no one will mistake you for a girl,” and I glanced down at his baby penis, smiling sympathetically. Then he understood and,realising that his tiny todger would be out there for all to see, he started wailing.
His mother is a launatic though – literally – so poor Giovanni is all alone, naked and alone.
Much like myself.
We are a pair, Giovanni and I, linked through our naked, misrepresented bodies and the need to pee.
Maybe we can be a team.
July 17, 2017 § 3 Comments
Two things to say right off the bat.
- I am still alive. Those of you who followed this blog first time around will know that five years ago I was keeping busy to distract myself from cancer type activity. The good news – actually, the great news – is that six years on (touch wood, etc) I am fine. Well done to the NHS and to my own body for a good team effort.
- I have given up my job. After 11 odd years raising money for the Cardinal Hume Centre, and working with some of the best people going, I have called it a day. No really good reason, just time to do something else, which may end up being similar or different or a combination of both. So, as from today, I am unemployed.
My live-in advisor suggested I take up Anne is keeping busy again, arguing that:
1.this will keep me busy, thus fulfilling the purpose of the blog,
2. it will advertise my unemployed status to those who may have work.
So, here we go.
This week, I am mainly keeping busy at Ty Newydd, a rather lovely spot near Criccieth in North Wales. I am on a writing course, which is hugely self-indulgent and a bit clichéd – middle-aged lady gives up job and goes on creative writing course is hardly ground breaking. However, I am currently sitting in my splendid bedroom – the Lloyd George room (this was his house so I’m assuming this was his room) – daring myself to go downstairs and meet the other participants. It feels a bit like the first day at university – “What A’ levels did you do?” “Did you have a gap year?”
In the meantime, here is the splendid River Dwyfor, one of my “go to a peaceful place” places.
December 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
Last month, I was sent a new credit card – a different colour, with contactless payment and a new three digit security code; so not that much to celebrate, you may say. Except that, in a quiet way, I did.
It’s three years since I had chemotherapy and surgery, and all the brouhaha that goes with breast cancer. Not the best of times. Some of you may remember (and thank you if you do). During those months, every time I used my credit card I would see the renewal date, November 2014, and in my more miserable days, it would occur to me that I might not live beyond the expiry date, that this might be my last ever credit card.
Of course, that wasn’t the priority. There were always more important things to be around for than a new credit card – family, friends, work, the Olympic Games – but there was something about the anonymity of my credit card and the ever-present date which itched away in my mind. If I died, all kinds of things would be canceled – my credit card, my twitter account, my Labour Party membership – and it would make absolutely no difference to any of these organisations. They would grind on regardless. In the same way, films would keep coming out, books be published, The Archers broadcast. No one associated with any of these things would have been bothered in the slightest if I watched their movies, read their books, sent my tweets.
Does it sound like a bleak celebration, the arrival of a new credit card? Well, either it isn’t or I don’t care. It is not so bad to mark these small, anonymous steps. I’m not talking about the personal anniversaries – birthdays, Christmases, summer holidays – but the day to day things on which we have no real impact, the impersonal stuff that comes and goes but which mark the passing of time.
It’s almost three years since I finished chemo. Time has passed; perhaps I should be “over it” and indeed, to a point, I am, but being around to open that new credit card, that was still something.
So, here are a few events to which my presence is completely irrelevant but that I will be using to celebrate the passing of time in the near and not so near future.
- Final Hobbit film – this week, the end of the saga.
- Labour winning the next election and/or electing a new leader.
- Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice (2016), indeed the whole 10 film, DC series, finishing with Green Lantern, 2020.
- Publication of the final Hilary Mantel, Thomas Cromwell novel.
- Completion of Cross Rail.
- And, of course, my next credit card (2017).