Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Suits [archive post]

George straightened his tie. It felt good to be wearing it again, to be constrained and contained by such a simple item of clothing. His tie said I’m serious, I’m professional, I’m one of you. He liked the feel of the knot against his adam’s apple when he looked down to rearrange his possessions on his desk, his new fountain pen, his blackberry, his welcome back card from the receptionists. He pretended not to see the space where the photo had been, next to his monitor. At the end of the day, 12 long and blissfully stressful hours later, George made his way home on the tube, one of many suits, an anonymous soldier in an army of professionals.

At home George reluctantly loosened his tie and all the parts of him that had been being held together broke down and apart. He made himself some instant mashed potato and ketchup and took the bowl upstairs and into bed with him. Before he fell asleep, still after all this time only occupying his side of the bed, he looked across at his suit hung up beautifully and at his selection of ties. He chose which one he would wear tomorrow, which one he would use to tie himself back together.

[With apologies to the hugely talented Michael Sheen from whom I stole the image of still sleeping in your half of the bed]

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


New Years Eve was always a disappointment. Over-hyped, collapsing with the weight of expectation and followed by an epic hangover the next day. It had become a tradition that the night would be spent traipsing to a disappointing party and fighting with her current boyfriend, a fight that would quickly descend from a discussion about where they should have gone instead, to a full on slagging match about why he never listened and how she didn’t respect his opinions and how they hated each other’s friends.

On the stroke of midnight five years ago she had found herself sobbing in a bedroom of Brian Mace’s house, surrounded by damp coats as Tim flirted with another girl downstairs. A year later she was in the toilets of a tragic nightclub while Eddie stayed at the bar downing Jack Daniels and coke. Three years ago she was sat on a kerb outside Tina’s waiting for a taxi to take her home (Charlie having driven off in a rage at 11.40) and the year after that she dutifully kissed Dom on the cheek at an elaborate diner at his parents house followed by a further 45 minutes of stony silence before they were permitted to leave the festivities. Last year she and James had decided to avoid the trauma and stay in, just the two of them, a night that ended at 11p.m. with both of them in bed, backs turned, pretending to be asleep. Gemma was still awake and churning with rage at midnight as she watched the fireworks through the window.

This year she vowed it would be different; she was a strong, single, independent woman with good friends and a great job. She was at a bar with friends, a buffet and people to dance with. Two bottles of rose and three tequila shots later she found herself outside, propped up by the wall, sobbing that she no one would ever love her again and she was going to die alone while a man called Petr looked increasingly scared and told her she was ‘too beautiful for cry’.

She had to drag herself across London the next day to see her sister. Her hangover was so intense had to she sit on the stairs of the escalator as it carried her down to the near-deserted tube.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Border [archive post]

So much in his life had been dictated by a 32 page booklet: that pocket sized collection of paper that dictated his identity. Sat opposite her he found it difficult not to despise her. Not to judge her based exclusively on the watermarked pages of her EU passport.

There were many similarities between the two booklets, the US visa crossed through in black marker, the Central American border stamps, but the stories the ink didn’t reveal were strikingly different. In hers: a student visa, a high school exchange programme paid for by her parents, 8 months in New Hampshire enjoying the Fall, the Winter snow, joining prom committee, her name on the honor roll even though her grades weren’t necessary, her place at university back home already assured. And then the stamps for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, a voluntary teaching project where her rudimentary Spanish had meant the work had achieved little except boost her own sense of worthiness.

His stamps told a difference experience. Working his way from Honduras, border crossing followed by casual labour where they could find it, the gaps between the dates leaving open time he’d rather forget. His visa was a forgery, put in after they had crossed the Rio Grande and worked their way up to Michigan. Designed to appease anyone who felt they should ask but weren’t inclined to look too closely, and then defaced by the immigration officials as they ejected him from the country.

And now, in a pueblo on the border between Guatemala and Belize they drink cheap rum and discuss marriage and everlasting love and he thinks about the European stamps he will collect.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Write about a time you've been lost

Sometimes the weekends felt so long. She had moved for the job she had been waiting for, what she had been aiming towards for the last two years. It had been worth the move 500 miles south but sometimes with a Saturday and Sunday stretched ahead of her with nothing to fill them but X Factor and a bottle of rose on her own it was hard to remember that. The city was overwhelming, so full of so much that sometimes it was easier to stay inside, or in her little pocket of the South West that she had come to understand.

Today though on the hottest day of the year so far she would try to venture out, to see a bit more, to feel she was ‘making the most of it’ as her mother kept encouraging to do. It seemed wrong to stay inside in such unusually warm weather so she aimed for the biggest bit of green on her page of the A-Z Wimbledon Common. Armed with TFL guidance, sun cream, a book and her iPhone she set off on a 45 minute, stifling bus trip to Wimbledon village and arrived desperate for the toilet. She doubled back on herself and passed a busy pub, large groups of people in the beer garden, enjoying the sun and drinking the first pimms of the year. She strode in as if she was looking for a friend and just happened to spot the loo first. Then she strode out again trying to exude the air of someone returning to her group outside.

When she found the common itself, she was disappointed. She had imagined a large open space scattered with individuals and groups, sunbathing, eating picnic, playing sports. There were some of this but overall the area was small and cramped with visible and audible roads it seemed on all sides. There had to be more of it somewhere. And without an obvious map and only the guidance of her phones slow and small GPS she strode off in the most likely direction.

Crossing roads and choosing paths at random she found herself shortly in a very different landscape, dense bushes and open spaces and very few other people, she pressed on looking for the ideal spot to sit and read and enjoy feeling out of the city. Carrying on walking until she could find it, her surroundings changed again, the green she had been walking across became marshy, sodden from the recent rains, the narrow paths took strong, decisive lines across country covered with tall, bare trees. There was no where to sit and no option but to carry on. Not many other people had come to this part of the common and she began to feel an irrational panic that if something would happen to her out here no one would ever know. The combination of leafless trees and baking heat was unsettling and it felt, not that it was an especially warm day in April, but rather that this was how life was now, sweltering and barren and devoid of other souls. She traipsed the common for almost two hours, trying to find a way back to normality, unsure of which would be the quickest way back, first fixing to cut all the way through and out the other side, later deciding really she should go back to where she started and all the time watching that unreliable blur dot on her phone to judge here she should be. Above her the sky was a perfect empty blue, a natural disaster having grounded all planes for the last three days.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Traffic Jam

You arrive over two hours late. She smiles, she is tired and irritated obviously, but she smiles which makes you feel a little easier. The last one didn’t smile, she shouted. Even though the words were unintelligible you understood the meaning: you were too slow, the way you carried her possessions was unacceptable, she resented you being in her country even as she was paying you to do things she couldn’t possibly achieve on her own. But this one smiles and after her possessions are loaded into the back you sit, close pressed together in the front, Mehmet driving, you in the middle and next to you the woman, so close you can smell her sunscreen and see it, oily on her forearm. In the heat you take pains to avoid contact but even so it is a comfortable journey; she makes conversation, and Mehmet replies and you can almost follow. She asks your name and repeats a mangled form of it back to you, you shake hands and she smiles. The traffic is terrible as it has been all afternoon. Even if you hadn’t left some boxes behind at the old lady’s house that morning you would still have been late for this appointment because of the roads. As you sit, stationary, in silence now, you try to think what you would say to her; if language was no barrier what you would talk about, but you can’t think where you would begin. There are wider barriers than language, barriers of culture, of experience, of understanding. What would you have in common with a girl who belongs so totally to a country you still find, nine years later, bewildering? Mehmet takes a wrong turn and the satellite navigation directs you back on yourselves. You rejoin the traffic jam 500 meters back from where he made the error. Still she smiles; there is an edge behind it but she smiles. Fifteen minutes later and finally on the right road you try: ‘This is Streatham?’ you begin. She smiles, apologises, shakes her head. You try again and her eyes begin to register panic, again and she begins to repeat your words back to you, attempting to wrangle them into English. Several suggestions and repetitions later she gets it: ‘yes this is Streatham’. You smile and nod at each other and you don’t know whether to feel triumphant or defeated.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Fertilty [archive post]

And she screamed when she saw it and the blood screamed back at her; pillar box, post box red on the white recycled Sainsbury’s toilet tissue. And her hands shook as she called him sobbing down the line to come and help them. And her arms still trembled as she cupped her belly already nine months big with the three, five month babies inside, held her bump in an effort to stop them slipping out and slipping away, her last chance dream, her hope, her desire. Back in the hospital, girdled by monitors and plugged into fluids and immobilised by wires and fears she waited. And waited. Rest and observation and observation and rest and everyday as her body strained and stretched and expanded, everyday that she could keep them cocooned and safe within her the tiny percentages grew, survival creeping nearer. Why can our bodies not obey our wishes? Why was hers incapable of doing what it was designed to do? The womb that had refused to create life, that had been poked and prodded and extracted and implanted into fecundity, that had briefly celebrated its new found abilities by multiplying and dividing collections of cells from two to three, that womb now revolted again- it had never intended to create life and now was incapable of making room for so much of it. The pressure grew with every day and hour, growing percentages and growing danger.

There had been two and then three and now there were two again. Or two and a half, two and the dark shape beside them that now no longer beat and would never breathe. The others still tucked in beside it, covering it, protecting it. And still the longer she could carry them, the living and the dead, the greater the percentages would be. But her body refused, three tiny bodies expelled to early, two heated and protected and one removed. Two left; tiny and translucent and too soon.

He cried all day-maybe he knew he was alone , his two halves taken from him. And she cried and prayed and stared at her last baby, her last chance dream, her hope, her desire.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Describe the most boring job you've ever suffered through.

'Do you have a mobile phone sir?’ he begins ‘Uh huh ok and who is that phone with? Orange, ok. Now is it contract or pay as you go?.. ok contract, and how long is that contract for?..Right…’

‘This isn’t Phones 4 You Kisoran’ Dan in finance shouts from across the partitioned desks.

Kis, flicks him off and carries on with his monologue- ‘And if you went to Orange and said Vodaphone will give me more minutes and you wanted to move, what do you think they’d say? I’ll tell you what they’d say, they’d tell you couldn’t until you’d finished your 18 months. You see you have a contract with them and you are tied in with that phone company for the length of the contract aren’t you? Well that’s how contract’s work, and that’s how this contract works.’

He goes on to explain the small print that they hadn’t understood, or hadn’t read, or weren’t able to read. ‘Now when you signed up for us to take your bins you signed a contract… Yes I realise the contract comes to an end next month but if you had read it you’d know that the contract lasts two years and can only be cancelled with three months notice, in writing before the second year comes to an end. I’m afraid sir, if you miss that deadline it rolls on for a further year. That’s what you signed up to sir, that’s what’s in the contract.’

I spend three days, in a windowless warehouse in Seaford, listening to Kis, and Gareth, and John deliver the same speech. Behind them I file letters into a wall of cabinets. Complaints from people trapped in the small print, take-away owners, corner shop proprietors, letters written in the best handwriting and the second language of their primary aged children.

The bus home takes 45 minutes. Industrial coast becomes regency Hove, the world gradually becomes a nicer place to live in. Except for the seagulls attacking the black bags piled high next to overflowing bins. The council bin men are on strike.