Saturday, 27 April 2013

Wandering in the Springtime Sun with Fluffhead, and thinking

Fluffhead and I went out in the springtime sun.  Down to town.  Down to sit somewhere and have a nibble.  We pause outside the coffeehouse.  He likes the vanilla wafers they sell.  But it’s full.  Not a space to be had.  We peer inside, checking; he strains at his reins. Today the coffee house is filled with women.  And children.  Not one man in the shop.

“What, darling?  You wanna sit in your buggy?”  I hear a long lost Cockney voice say, as we let the door swing closed on us, and I pause for thought outside again.  Fluffhead looks up at me, eyes squinting in the sun.  He doesn’t understand why we aren’t going in.

Have you noticed there are few authentic post-war Cockney accents anymore?  First they got replaced by Essex, Estuary – that strange flat pulled out way of talking.  And then by that brilliantly interesting racial hybrid: the Estuary meets urban black school slang.  It’s incredibly blocked nose nasal, and has given us the aural delights of: ‘Allow it, blud!  Oh my days!  That’s long, its bare long…’  Etc etc etc.  Sadly that last is still in use but a titch out of date.  I don’t have a secondary school age child to bring it home to me anymore; and don’t live close enough to a secondary school to hear it in passing now.  Fry and I used to spend long hours listening to and loving this weird new street hybrid.  And speaking it very badly, for the love of the sounds of words.  Of course, he heard it and lived it at school.  But I was completely putting it on, just because the sound of it was delicious and fun. 

For some unknown reason, despite my birth Within The Sound of Bow Bells in Bethnal Green, I fell out complete with relatively plummy accent.  This always mystified my countryside mother and my London father.  And my mother’s sister in law, who lived over the fence, next door in Roman Road.  I got called ‘Little Princess’ in a not altogether friendly way, by some people.  At various points in life, my accent got posher and posher (the only state primary school in Mayfair, where we lived ‘cos of dad’s job as a Housekeeper of an office block); and then finally lost its edge altogether (20 years on a Council Estate in Paddington).  When I get really angry and lose my temper, raise my voice and generally behave badly (too often), what you hear is a strangely articulate East End fishwife.

I can’t take myself seriously, verbally, being (a) not incredibly quick on my mental feet out loud – much quicker here on page or screen, and (b) listening to myself speak – I have no idea who this woman and her roots are…This also explains why I don’t have the Voice of Authority you need sometimes with children.  I listen to myself tell Fluffhead, or a younger Fry – “stop it!” and what I hear is a precocious child bossing another child, in a silly plummy voice.  The children laugh or ignore me.  This is of course, inconvenient and annoying.

But anyway, I whoppingly digress. 

Even after I just wasted your time for the 10 minutes it took me to write that, there is still not one man in the shop.  It’s packed to the brim, very full today, and still all women.  We’ll never fit inside.

Just had the worrying-y-est [yes, I made that up] thought.  It’s also pretty obvious when you come to it.  Expect no genius insight here.

All those times I sit, watching, taking my little notes in the coffeehouse.  What about all the other people in the room who might be taking their little notes?!  About me:

‘Over there, just hidden by the half partition is a woman who shows up every week, just the once.  She’s always a mess.  Her hair is dyed reddish brown and never brushed before she gets here, bit of a bedhead.  She strolls in yawning, always chatting to other people in the queue, regardless of if they want to talk or not.  Last time, she bothered a large woman in an overheavy tweed wintercoat about whether chocolate coated coffee beans keep you up the way coffee does, and for how long.  Today, she tapped the shoulder of the Muslim woman in front of her and jauntily, though it has to be said politely, asked her if she ‘felt oppressed by the hijab’.  This cringeingly interesting yet problematic question actually resulted in an hour’s worth of the two women having an intense and good conversation with exchange of views and questions, which was fortunate for the note-taker, as she had unintentionally picked a woman both as open as herself and as ok with answering questions without offence.  I listened to them range over feminism in general, the education of women, the lusts of men and who’s business it was to worry about them or not, and what it was like being a Trinidadian Muslim.  The woman was wonderful and deeply thoughtful, and the note-taker wished she had taped the conversation in full, as she had learned much and hadn’t written any of it down.  One of the World’s Great Missing Interfaith Blog Posts that would have been.  She hopes to see her new friend again sometime.  

But this isn’t how it usually goes with her.  Usually she bothers people in the queue and that’s that until she pauses in writing or reading a couple of hours later.  She sits down, unpacks her books (always so many:  8 or 9, and she only ever uses 2 or 3 of them) and makes a pile at the table’s side. 

Once she’s sat down, ordered her books and pens, and belatedly fiddled with her hair, she starts taking medicines.  She has a problem swallowing tablets, has to throw her head back to get them down, and looks funny, like a cat trying to balance a ball of wool on its nose.

Always so serious, head bent over her notebook, eyes moving round the room, always watching.  Gives me the creeps, to be honest.  Taking her little notes.  And scratching her head.  Shifting about, rearranging her legs, changing position.  Constantly.  Ants in her pants, my granddad would have said. Frowning and scowling and eye-drilling her page when she pauses from writing.  She notices Jonah and his mother are there again.  She notices Jonah’s mother has a hugely obvious New Zealand accent – how in hell did she miss that before??  Whereas Jonas’s accent is from here and quite posh…hmmm…’

See, now I ask you, is that actually flattering – someone watching me watching them??  I come off like a nutter.  Anyway…we can’t get in to the coffeehouse, so Fluffhead and I move along.

We go past the flower shop.  Fluffhead stops because he loves flowers.  He bends his head low over the buckets of hyacinths, bending his whole body, a very cute parody of attention, and smells them deeply.  I think he’s actually blowing down his nose as much as sniffing, he can’t seem to quite do whichever one when needed on command, yet.  Buts he’s vastly enjoying himself. The two women who run the shop come out and make cooing noises over him, as they always do.  One of them offers him a digestive biscuit, which he takes with his thankyou nod and large smile, generally being excessively lovely and heart melting (as they often are when you’re out).  He points at all the different buckets of flowers and I have to identify them for him.  The sun catches his hair and moves it about a bit.  He glows, with his small hands and bent legs.  Eventually we move on, going to sit on a bench overlooking a retirement home.  Fluffhead watches the cars and lorries going by (he’s looking for buses), and I watch the retirement home windows, which are open wide.  A row of old people are inside, looking out.  They look a bit sad.  One of them is sleeping, head to the side as Fluffhead does.  I feel it’s a shame to be looking out on a view of a set of roads, even if its sunny.

Makes me think of seaside hotels on the English seafront: Westgate, Brighton, Worthing, Hove.  A day baking with sun, too bright by far.  I have always wanted to be one of those, usually pensioners, sitting on the long balcony covered porches of those huge white fronted hotels.  Sitting there with their white hair, beatifically watching the sun twinkle on the sea, the golden bits at the far edge of the horizon: white, blue, grey, yellow, gold, silver. Boats in the distance, always quite far out.  Almost a mirage, but moving slowly along. 

The smell of chips, and battered fish, salt on the air, salt on the food.  Prawns, shrimps, and the tangle of nets, brown and dirty-looking.  Shingle, blackened and dried seaweed.  Boats bleached on the rocky shore.  Stones and warm conch shells.  Shells of perfect soft salmon colour inside, white and grey on the outside.  All the stones worn edges, all round or ovoid, or rougher indeterminate shapes: but soft soft soft at the edges.  Like the little old people watching them, their eyes pale now, faces dragging downward with folds of skin, dry.  Their strange clothes of no style and often little attention to colour, but comfortable.  The sit in their tall backed armchairs and watch the sea, watch the people, drink in the light. 

Are they sucking up life force and glittery joy?  Or letting it all go and noting how separate they are, set back from it all, a watcher of the scene?  Imagining themselves not a participant, when of course, they are – just by being there and part of the whole.  That’s the other option: do they feel themselves blending, pastel as the scene before them, as much a necessary part as the stones and shells?  Does it give them peace?  Or do they feel lulled, watching that sparkly sea; in the incredible brightness?  Does it send them off into their pasts, when they ran agile and slender across the beaches of childhood, screaming and splashing with friends long dead, or lost?

Do they crave strawberry ice-cream, vanilla blocks between soft crunchy wafers?  A choc-ice?  A bucket and spade, to hear that thwack on the bucket before releasing it, drawing it upwards, and seeing that perfect sandcastle?  Do they hear the gulls above, crying and swooping, and think of tales of sailors lost at sea with souls trapped forever in these birds?  Or the freeness of their height, their flight cool and supported by the currents?

There they sit, getting a bit sunburned on the backs of their thin skinned hands and the bridges of their noses if their hat brims are not wide enough.  Or the balcony extending far enough.  Judging the world as they stare out, nodding sometimes.  Watching it all go by.  That smell of sea, a salty slightly dirty tang, real and pungent.  They sit, they watch, they remember.  Part of everything.

And in the real world, Fluffhead turns to me and points at his mouth; he’s hungry.  I come back to Coulsdon, smell the roads, feel hungry myself.  The pensioners in the retirement home are still at the window.  One waves to me, and I wave enthusiastically back, feeling slightly less sad for them.  Off we go, slowly up the hill, Fluffhead examining the driveways for interesting stones or white feathers.  Slowly toward home. 

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Talking Back to Procrastination: Homage to Dennis Palumbo

Ages ago, Dennis Palumbo wrote a very good book on the writing life.  Called Writing From the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within (John Wiley and Sons, 2000).  How people who take their writing seriously, be they earning a living from it or not, feel about the job.  Its one of the most validating and understanding books I’ve ever read on the weird thoughts and insecurities you get, as someone who writes.  A lot of the book is about the things that stop you writing and interfere with your wanting to do it. 

In particular, there’s a very funny chapter on procrastination.  Palumbo spent years as a screenwriter, and then become a therapist to writers. He gets round the idea of procrastination by having himself talk back to the procrastination as though it were a person.  The whole chapter is very amusing, and slides right round the way you seize up and just can’t get to the writing and wander off instead.  By engaging with the Evil Forces Of Your Running Off To Clean The Kitchen, and chatting to them, you end up writing anyway – because of course, you’re writing down this conversation, not just talking to yourself in the kitchen…By talking to your fear of writing, you start to tame it:

“…See, all we’ve done [says the Procrastination] is use the same technique you often suggest to your clients.  Instead of obsessing about the fact that they’re procrastinating, they should write about it.  As a dialogue with themselves.  Or a story. Even a letter to themselves.”

“That’s right.  [replies Palumbo]  If a client writes about his feelings about procrastinating, the underlying doubts and fears may emerge, as well as the meaning he gives them.  Say for example, that he shouldn’t even be trying to write.  Or that if he does, it won’t be good enough.  Whatever.  Hopefully, as these self-defeating meanings are examined, the writer can better understand his procrastination as a kind of defence mechanism.  That he procrastinates as a way to avoid discovering some imagined ‘truth’ about himself.”
~ Dennis Palumbo, Writing From the Inside Out, p.131.

Reading that back alone, it sounds a bit silly and psychobabbly, but reading the whole chapter really clicked with me.  And I realized, reading that exact section, that when I was doing an exercise from a different writing book the other day, I had done exactly what he suggested without meaning to or wanting to. 

I was feeling blocked and boring and full of absolutely Nothing Of Any Interest to say, when the exercise (that I was already part of the way into), instructed me to add ‘a voice’ to the situation I was creating, and then a figure for it.  To create a character, talking about the scene…Out came what I realized was My Inner Critic who was very active that day, yelling at me and making things almost impossible to get on with: being the very spirit of Procratination, MEAN Procrastination.  The Critic slammed me about my…procrastination and what it meant, for writing and for my life in general.

Here’s the exercise.  I was supposed to start in a dark spacious room (this exercise is courtesy one of Holly Lisle’s several writing books – its called the Shadow Room exercise) with a smell, then a sound, then connect them, then a voice would come, that I would clothe.  That day I merely felt this exercise had gotten away from me, out of control, and I HATED the character that emerged, and didn’t want to work with him at all, as he was just unpleasant.  To ME, the writer, and I’m supposed to be in control of this…you know, a bit, at least! 

But after reading Palumbo, I thought I should try to tame this nasty dude some more…

So here it was:
Cinnamon maple syrup cake.  It’s the smell of the powder before you shake it, when it’s still settled within the spice shaker.  The smell that is coloured terracotta, and that makes your nose prickle.  Underneath that, there’s the bitter edge of maple syrup, deep and viscous.  It settles and does not mix.  Beneath it all is the smell of baking cake, rising sweetness.  The smell of waking up and feeling less sad, of engaging with the morning, looking forward to that break where the cake is.  Of no longer looking at small patches of whatever’s in front of you, but of raising your eyes and seeing the big picture: the whole room, whole spread of your day.  One thing at a time, with the help of sweetness, off you go.

It’s the sound of the rain, of hailstones on the roof of the outhouse.  The roof is only made of corrugated hardwearing plastic, old now; so the sound is loud, really loud.  Sounds like stones, or bullets hitting the roof, endless percussive sound.  It varies a little as the wind changes, but mostly that’s it – a sound that saturates my range of hearing.  A sound that hisses of cold empty space, of breath clouding in the air and wind pushing in under the rotting bit of wood that is the bottom of the door to the garden.  It’s a sound of odd nostalgia when indoors.  You can watch and hear power without being harmed.

I stand in the doorway between kitchen and outhouse, feeling freezing.  I close the door to the warm kitchen and sit down on the steps to the outhouse.  Fully cold now.  I hold my plate of still warm cake, so it’s under my nose, heat gently rising with those smells.  My fingers are warm; the backs of my hands are freezing.  I want my scarf for my neck, but I’ve sat down now and I don’t have long.  So I just listen, holding the plate with both hands and waiting to take my first bite, enjoying the fact I still have the whole cake, and this whole piece.  Trying to just be, with the sounds of that hail on the roof.

There’s a rustle beside me, I’m budged rudely over, and he sits down.  Starts talking, without a hello, without telling me why he’s here.

“Well.  You wanted something to change.  You wanted the endless winter to end.  I give you –” sarcastic hand flourish, “Spring!  I give you the time of your life, any time, all these times right now.  All the times you sit there wishing for other than what you have.  I give you now.  Just sit there – the kinks in the left of your lower back (you can’t even tell if its muscle or bone anymore) are hurting you every time you adjust position even one bit.  Your toes are cold.  Your hands are cold.  And you are getting a headache, as usual.  You are tired.  You want to close your eyes and drift off, wake up some other time when whatever it is that bugs you is gone away, don’t you?”

I try to not be gape mouthed.  I look at my plate.

“And there’s always something bugging you.  You want to relax all your muscles, always, to feel slender and warm and at rest.  You want to full immerse in this sound, and actually Have An Experience, instead of fighting against it.  For once.  But you can’t, can you?  It’s like meditating.  All you’re conscious of is the body being uncomfortable, in pain, distracted, tired.  And in your mind, while you try so pathetically hard to be present, all you really think is that this, whatever this is, will be over soon, like everything else.  And soon you’ll be able to sleep.  That’s what you really want.  To just not be here. For long enough to feel better about being back, whenever you do get back.

“And this, the rain and hail, the sweet smells of cinnamon and maple syrup, the cake you fussed about baking so you’d feel like you accomplished something today.  This is all wasted on you.  It’s all going to be lost, because you can’t just experience anything.”

His voice is calm, very calm.  It barely has inflection, but when it does (to say ‘pathetically’ with a bit more sarcasm) it’s a sexless voice.  It has the slight aggressive edge male voices can have; but the sibilant soft tones of a woman reading a book aloud to someone she is trying to soothe to sleep.  It’s Ian McKellan in a really louche bad mood.

He looks thin and middle aged.  He’s wearing a herringbone tweed overcoat, Doc Marten boots.  His face is delicate and androgynous, like Tilda Swinton’s can be, but not quite.  Pale, pale grey eyes in a pale shiny face.  The hands are nervous and the fingers fiddle with thick silver rings, back and forth, on and off, on and off.  He smells of smoke.  His forefinger and thumb of the right hand have slight nicotine stains.  Even that is mocking me.  His smoking says to me – once you didn’t give a shit, you did what you want; now you cower like a kicked child, in case you get…cancccccerrrrrr.  Coward.  He doesn’t lean forward while talking, but he sits right next to me.  Delivering his unfriendly one-slant words with the precision of a God in Judgement.

He is convinced he is right, confident of his conclusions.  He thinks the cruelty of these observations will spur a change he can congratulate himself for.  Otherwise, he thinks, he can watch me disintegrate under the weight of slamming truth.  And feel power in what he has achieved.  Removing the weak by holding up a mirror which the viewer could not bear.  He is insufferably self righteous.
I really don’t like this character.  I was annoyed and upset that I was writing him, and that I knew who bits and pieces of him were annoyed me even more.  (Many years ago, my diary got read and passed round a street’s worth of hostile people.  This was of course, bloody terrible; as was the thing I had done to deserve a revenge like that.  But part of this Critic was the person who stole my diary – it was his coat, his shoes, his confidence; Alias Octa.  I had imagined, all that time, what all these people were saying about my private words, about me, my identity and writing.)  I knew who other parts of this Critic were too; nasty little internalized parts of people who may otherwise have been nice to me, but what I kept were the razors, as if once cut by them I had to keep cutting myself to remind me of how much it hurt.  Hmmm.  Lots of other healthy stuffage of this ilk.

The thing was, I had been disgusted and upset by this piece of writing, worrying that if I played with this character anymore, he would just start running me – as he knew what to say to hurt me, as he is me!  It wasn’t till I read the passage in Palumbo that I realized that I didn’t need to be frightened of this little twat.  I had already pulled him out of the shadows.  He hadn’t said a damn thing I wasn’t already aware of.  What I needed to be thinking about was the fact that all he was, was slant.  If you can spin something one way, you can spin it another.  I might well have sat there, unable to quite enjoy my cake and listen to the hailstones because I had backache, a headache and I was tired!  So what!  As another friend has said to me, several times recently, I need to learn to have far more “grace with myself”.  When I hear my unfriendly Ian McKellan/ Tilda Swinton Critic start pontificating, I need to just turn round to them and say:

Alright!  You’re so clever!  What have you actually done?  What have YOU achieved and experienced?  Have you, possibly, been so busy criticising and minding other people’s business that you have had no life of your own?  Are you so damn scared about that fact, that you don’t want me to have one either??  So you just drag me back everytime I start trying?  At least I’m trying!  And I don’t stop trying!  You’re a wanker!  And you’re going to shut up, sit down, and behave.  Do some knitting or something.  Or go away.  Ok?

Hmmmmm!  I have never stood up to myself in such a strong fashion before!  And the fact is, all that day he wheedled at me and made my writing not a joy; I did write all through it.  He didn’t stop me.  Its funny: characters, and parts of yourself that are like this, they only have real power when you let them speechify  and soliloquize endlessly.  If you don’t take them so seriously, and stand up to them, make them look stupid…they do tend to simmer down, even if only for long enough for you to finish that days work.  It’s a good tactic, I think. Probably, the more I stand up to my Inner Full Of Himself, the more he may get bored and wander off.  (I suspect he wants to write a hard hitting and pretentious political screenplay.  Off you go then; not stopping you.)

That isn’t quite what Dennis Palumbo meant, I think, by talking to the Procrastination.  It just so happens that mine, as Critic, really truly viciously hates me and wishes me dead, so I had to be particularly firm with his nihilism; not just chat with him.

Palumbo continued to chat with his own Procrastination; who it seems was more of a sneaky type, rather than a horrible pig:

“For a writer struggling with procrastination, the important thing to remember is that writing anything is by definition the act of overcoming it.”

“And by that you mean…?”

“I once had a client who figured out ingenious ways to procrastinate – I mean, forget house cleaning and file cataloguing.  This woman organized block parties in her neighbourhood, kept up mailing lists for her alumni association, spent days trying to invent a new blend for her local Starbucks –”

“I get it.  So?”

“So I had her write down what she was doing instead of writing…each activity, her problems with it, her feelings about it.  At some point, she began to see herself as a character doing these things, then writing about that character.  Soon, this all turned into a novel.”

“Interesting.  Have you noticed we’re just about finished with this chapter?”

“But I was just getting started.  Ironic, isn’t it?  All that time and effort spent procrastinating, and now that I’m writing I don’t want to stop.”

“Now, what have we learned from this, Grasshopper?”

“I’ll have to get back to you.  Don’t forget, I’m in the middle of a book here.”
~ Palumbo, Writing From The Inside Out, pp.132-135

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Coffeehouse 3: An Historic Day

It’s the day after Margaret Thatcher died.  The coffeehouse is almost deserted; it’s very early yet.

Jonah and his stressed mother are here.  They are here with what is obviously his other sibling, a very intelligent looking deep brown eyed girl, older than him, about 10.  She is delicately eating a Danish, pulling off small bits and putting them in her mouth thoughtfully.  She has fine curly brown hair.  Because of the overhead lighting, it’s haloing her face, which shines pinkly and healthily.

At the counter, a man in an orange parka and an unlikely Trilby, is explaining to the baristas how Thatcher ‘broke’ the unions in the 80’s.  The baristas, being Rumanian and in their very early 20s, have rightfully asked why all the fuss on her death.

“There were very strong unions,” the man says, trying to simplify his explanation and his English, so they follow over the noise of the coffee machines and their own busy work.

“Like anything else, if it’s too much, it’s too much.  Too extreme, too much power,” he says carefully. 

They nod.  “Too much,” they echo, serious, paying attention.

I reckon these two baristas know a lot more about it than they are letting on.  I’m in here often enough, watching everyone.  When they aren’t serving, or cleaning stuff, they read the papers – English and imported; The New York Times, and a Rumanian paper I can obviously not read.  Properly every page read them, like papers should be read to get their real flavour.  I’ve heard them have perfectly succinct and definitive discussions about Rumanian politics (complicated does not begin to cover that) between other things they’ve chatted about.  They are doing what I do sometimes: playing dumb to get the other person to open out and speak their truth.

The man is in his middle 50s, unshaven and stubbly.  That soft stubble you want to rub your hands against.  As he explains in a low voice, that Arthur Scargill, union leader, did not ballot his members properly and therefore aided Thatcher’s “victory” over the unions with his own “corrupt…complacency” (he nods as he finds these words in his head), the baristas are examining his face with detachment and interest.

I really like these two girls.  They are SO not stupid.  You have to be careful to not treat them as though they are, just because they work in a coffee shop, have heavily accented English, and choose to act blithe, uncaring and cheerful most of the time.  Those qualities can be misread.  At your peril.

I catch the eye of the violently dyed redheaded ponytailed one.  I smile.  She doesn’t smile back (it would break their game), but I see she knows I know what they are doing.  It flickers over her face, her eyes darken with humour.  Just for a second.

The man falters.  “What you think of her…it depends on where you were, I think.  If you lived in a council house in the north and had family in the steel, or the mines, or the docks…well…it was very different to if you lived in your own house, here …in Coulsdon.”  He ends lamely.  He smiles tentatively at her.

“I see, I see,” says Red Head, pushing her cheap glasses up her nose at him.  “You want cinnamon on that?” she breaks into a big grin and points at his 2 open cups.

Haydn is tinkling on the sound system, and switches to Mendelssohn: we’re Peter Panning.

Jonah has just been taken to the toilet.  He is emerging, running down the shop to the counter where his sister is buying more pastries.  (Grown up girl with her own purse in the shape of a sparkly grey sequin hippo.)

The mother looks a lot less stressed today – younger.  Her face isn’t all pink.  She wears a white cardigan, open and voluminous, delicate ribbing, over a cerise coloured camisole that skims her curvy body nicely.  Black slacks, ankle length black boots.  She looks smart and put together today.  Where are they off to?  Jonah rushes to present her with the blue paper bag of pastries his sister has entrusted to him.  She saunters slowly back to their table (she’s preteen, but you can so see her trying to be teen in that walk), counting her change carefully into her hippo purse.  She looks at the open pages of lots of newspapers spread over several tables.  There’s more papers than usual, obviously because of the Big News.

“Who’s Margaret Thatcher?” says the girl, slowly testing these new words in her mouth.

The mother pauses, packing the pastry bag into a bigger shopping bag.

“She was a brave woman who used to be our Prime Minister.”  She replies.

“What’s Prime Minister?” comes the inevitable.

“Someone in charge of the country, like I’m in charge of you.  They look after it, like a mum,” without missing a beat, comes the answer.

“I want pastry!” says Jonah very loudly, pulling on her sleeve with sugary encrusted hands.  She tries to wipe herself off, and the sister replies, with all the superiority of the older child:

“Be quiet, Jonah.  They’re for when we get to grannies.”

He does a perfect pout, and the girl neatly interrupts what is the start of a power struggle by addressing the mother seriously and doing what the baristas did, but for real:  “Was she a good mother of the country, mummy?”

“Very good,” says the mother, while I grind my teeth.


“Want PASTRY!” says Jonah, starting to rifle through the shopping bag.

The mother starts to get him back into his jacket and address those wayward hands, while saying:  “Its not long till we get to grannies, and she was good because she stood by her principles, won a war for us, and stopped some bullies from controlling the country.” 

(I presume here, by that last, she’s referring to the unions…she has half a good point there.  But only half.  In my opinion.  Is it better that the country is controlled now by bankers and corporation bullies?)

“What’s principles?” asks the girl, getting into a sparkly white anorak, perfectly new and frosted at the edges with turquoise faux fur, also sparkly.

The mother does up Jonah’s buttons, and answers: “Principles is when you make a rule about something in your head, how to act about something, and then stick to it.”


“Like me always going to bed at eight?” says the girl, raising her eyebrows helpfully.

“No…not exactly,” says the mother, starting to be aware of the length and breadth of the shovel she’s holding.

Pastry,” says Jonah, warningly.

“Let’s get to grannies,” says the mother briskly.  On with the orange raincoat.  Which has had a wash and an iron, and looks quite swish now.

She takes Jonah and his sister by the hand and determinedly starts to weave though the tables to leave the shop.  As they go, I hear:

“But you stick to 8 o’clock, mummy.  So why isn’t that a principle?”  Querulously.

Heh heh.

Tory Man sits in the corner by the window, his usual seat.  He looks really really downcast.  And you know, from the big centre-page spread of the Telegraph infront of him, I do not have to have my Sherlock deerstalker to see why.

Even his perky crewcut and stripy pink shirt look a bit forlorn today.

I got told a lot yesterday, while discussing Thatcher’s death on facebook, that I (and many others) who strongly disliked her and her policies and their legacy, should preserve a “seemly silence”, was the most all encompassing way I heard it put to me, for a while.  Out of “respect”.  I have to display respect for someone for whom I had no respect.  Who earned no respect from me.  An odd notion.  A Victorian notion, about stiff upper lips, ramrod backs.  About people being in their places.  Would she have approved?

But staying quiet so that only those who liked her and her record can get on with sainting her…there being no balance of people who disliked and criticised her to go with the people who adored her?  While history gets quietly re-written?  No thankyou.  She polarised opinion.  She was important.  She should be discussed, in life, in death.  Nothing is sacrosanct.  From discussion, or humour.  I’m with Frankie Boyle on that one.  So there’s my view. 

But.  Sad Tory Man sits alone in the corner, practically crying in his coffee.  I’m not exaggerating.

I’m also not a complete shithead.  I want to help.  Him.

I do a me thing.

I go over there.

“Excuse me?” I say, as he is deep in his sadness and hasn’t seen me.

He looks up, quite startled.  Do you know, he genuinely is close to tears.

He recognizes me after a second.  We’ve been in the coffeehouse at the same time now, about 4 or 5 times.  He is usually talking loudly about politics, with his standard female companion, and I alternately smile and scowl at him depending on how much he is tickling my internal bullshit meter and disturbing me from my reading and writing.  We are on nodding and saying ‘hello’ terms now.

“Are you ok?” I ask.  As I would.

He opens his mouth, closes it, clears his throat and shifts position, leans forward.  I perch very tentatively on the arm of a chair, indicating I wish to listen, but am not inviting myself to stay any length of time.  He runs his hand over his head, frowning.  His lips are very tight.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says abruptly, to my small encouraging smile.

I know what that’s about.  He knows we’re in different camps.  So it’s up to me to be nice.  Nicer.  Cos he’s the one who is sad.

I point at the spread pages.  “She always took a good picture,” I say.  “She always seemed very majestic.”  No sarcasm.  That’s true.

“Yeah.”  He says, voice softer.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He looks at me suspiciously.

“You obviously liked her a lot.”  I continue.  “So you’re sad she’s gone.”

“She wasn’t like anyone else.” He says, shaking his head.

“No she wasn’t.” I say, trying not to sound ambiguous.

“She set this country back on the way to…greatness.”  He starts.  “She gave so many people hope.  I bought my council house because she made it so I could.  I started my business while she was in.  She helped small businesses.”

“She came from a small business background,” I say carefully, nodding.

“But you hate her.”  He says flatly, direct.  Surprises me quite a bit.

No point lying.  “Yes.  But that doesn’t matter right now.”  I say, in full Me mode.  “You’re sad, and I’m sorry you’re sad.  I wish you weren’t, that there’s something I could say that would make you feel better.”  Still genuine.

“People like you make me sick.”  Here comes the anger.  Why am I surprised?

“Oh?” I gulp a bit and keep my eyes on him.

“You touchy feely lefty idiots.  If we listened to you we’d all be broke communists by now.”

“Ummm….”  I say, brain ticking in so many places.  But he’s sad, he’s sad.  Make allowance.

“You can’t go from lefty to communist like it’s the same thing.  It isn’t, you know.” Is what I come out with.

“What do you call what you are then?” I can see him making lots of unfavourable possibly sweary combinations for what people like me are, in his head.

I’m feeling uncomfortable.  But this is my own fault.  I do do these things.  Sometimes they go well, sometimes, well…they really don’t.  Honesty is the best policy here.  My huge people pleasing side is tempted to say agreeable smoothing things (I am a coward a lot of the time).  My true self just wants him to feel better.  I chew at my lip, and catch myself peeling bits of skin off with my fingers; my number one nervous habit.

He has reddened.

“I call me caring.”  I reply.  “I don’t just care about people I know, I care about everyone, the whole society.”  Out loud, this sounds alarmingly pretentious and stupid.  I try and carry on.  “I never liked the policies of any party or government that makes us all… not in it together.”

“In what?” He snaps at me.

“In life, this whole thing,” I do a big encompassing arms gesture.  Earnestly, but feebly.

“So if I lose my job and my house, you’d take me into YOUR house?  Someone you don’t know?” Sneering.  Accusatory.

“Umm, no…”

He snorts derisively.

“No no, listen,” I say.  “I can’t, there’s no room, and I couldn’t afford it.  That’s why there’s a welfare state.  So we all pay in, in case of problems, and anyone can call on it…if there’s a problem.  The state, the Council, gives you somewhere to live, and benefits to keep you from starving and dying like people used to do, till you’re back on your feet again.  How is that not a good idea?” I finish, as gently as I can.  “If it was left to private charity, then people would pick and choose who lived and died by whether they liked the look of them or not.  That’s not right…A central system helps everyone, if necessary…”  God.  I wish I could get him to simply see my point of view.  Not agree.  Just see it as valid, and not only wrong.

“Have you seen the state of some of those Council Houses, those fucking estates?” He is very intense, jabbing his finger at the table, and not losing his initial focus, I see.  “Why didn’t your lot, ‘New Labour’” (ooooooo, the sarcasm here) “fix them up when they were in?”

“I lived for 20 years on one of those estates.”  I say, having to lower my eyes to my hands, because his hard as marbles stare is putting me right off my thoughts. “They are both as bad as people say, and not.  Plenty of decent people there.  And New Labour aren’t ‘my lot’.  I didn’t trust Tony Blair right from the start and that’s the truth. Look what he did about the war.  I didn’t support that.  I demonstrated.  And he did it anyway.”  (Trying not to sound bitter, there.)

“You people are all about demonstrating and protesting and complaining.  You want free things all the time.  Free things other people have to pay for.”  He is practically spitting at me.  He stabs his finger at the page, and a bit of spittle lands squarely on a smiling Margaret Thatcher’s chin.  He doesn’t see.
“She made people pay for themselves.  Not support the lazy.  She was a good woman.”

He is challenging me.  And in his eyes is such anger and sadness.  It’s so big.

How can you explain to someone so upset that they just hit you with a generalization bomb?  A meme Molotov cocktail?  An opinion, an impression, all dressed up as a fact?  A myth.  About to get much bigger, unless challenged.

But what the hell do I say to all that emotion?  If I don’t address that he won’t hear me, ‘cos that’s where he’s coming from.

“She was a very charismatic woman.  A very good speaker…”  I search my words.  “Her bollocks were admirable.”

He nods but he’s squinting at me.

“But I disagreed with a lot of her policies.  Lots of people did, and do.  We don’t all have to agree.  But I’m not attacking you for having completely different views to me.  Not today.  I’m not that great at speaking aloud, so not anyday, really,” I end with a little laugh.

“You haven’t answered a bloody thing I’ve said,” he smiles bitterly.  “’Cos you’ve got no answer.  I’m right.”

Oh bloody hell.  People and their need to be right.  I wish all my conversations were conducted via the written word or email, or something.  I would have been a lot more eloquent and coherent by now.

“I don’t think she stood for those things you said, that’s why I’m not answering.” I say.  “I know some people got that message from her time in government, but a lot of us got the message that she was at war with us, wanted to crush us, and she did.  She won.  Look what she did to the Northern mining towns.  The steel towns.  She closed all their industries when she could have invested much needed money in them.  She closed them without any plan or strategy to create a new…to create something or other there for those people!  Generations since live in those dead areas, no choice but to live on benefits, as all the jobs are gone, and people call them ‘scroungers’?!”

An image of Jonah’s mum flashes through my head.

“She did not look after the country well.  She was like a mother with favourite children.  She pampered them and gave them all the advantages, at the direct detriment to the others.  That was wrong.  That’s how I see it.  She sold many of us out.  She did not govern even-handedly.  When people argued with her, she tried to crush them, instead of listening, negotiating, trying to find a compromise, a way –”

“Compromise!”  He’s spitting again.  “You’d have out country run by union leaders behind closed doors, drinking tea and taking bribes.  Northern fatcats!  Fucking lording it over the rest of us, holding us over a barrel!”

“And you’d have us run by corrupt politicians in the pockets of the City, with the big corporations, having tea behind closed doors and accepting bribes to break up all our manufacturing industry, selling off all we have.  Your party would sell its mother for a short term profit and sod the future!”  I descend violently to his level, feeling stung by his spitting vehemence.

“Oh just fuck off, will you?  What the fuck do you know about it? Fucking whinging liberal!”

“The same as you.  You live in this country, so do I!  We see if differently, but my view is just as valid as yours.”  Trying to calm down.

“No it isn’t.  Yours is shit.  Lies.  Mine is true.  I started my business because of her.”

People are looking at us now, I notice.  The baristas, the few customers.  Oooo: there’s tinkly Chopin in the background, skittering and prancing over a mazurka.  That’s nice.


“I’m sorry I’ve upset you.  More.” I say.  I touch his hand.  I’m rather amazed he doesn’t throw me off. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come over.  I just wanted to say I was sorry because I can see you’re sad she’s dead.  I’m sorry you’re sad.” (My head hurts.)

“Why the hell do you give a shit?” he says, a rather confused bitter look on his face.  “You hated her, I can see.”

Bloody hell.  Why is this so HARD?

“But I don’t hate you.  So I’m sorry you’re sad.”  I say.

And realize, as he shakes his head and doesn’t get me, that that is what I said right at the beginning, and that’s the difference between us.  I care about him though I don’t know him, and bloody well definitely disagree with his views.  But he’s a person, he’s sad, and that makes me sad.  I wanted to make him feel better.

He can only understand someone caring about him if they know him, and sympathise with whatever he thinks. ‘Similar Others’ as I learned in psychology a long time ago.  Everyone else is suspect, wrong, and therefore dangerous.  He just cannot get that I would have genuine fellow feeling for him when we are poles apart in other ways.  He can’t compute it.

“I’ll go,” I say.  “I am truly sorry for…your loss.” I come out with that hackneyed U.S. phrase. I’ve always thought it very apt and clear, but it’s overused.  However, it’s correct in this case.  He felt like he knew her.  Clearly.  So it applies.

He nods, picks up his paper, and proceeds to turn to a different page.  I am DISMISSED.  He is breathing hard.

I feel like 9 shades of Total Fool, for my Me-ness.  And retreat to my table.  I can tell I’m going to brood about the complete bloody failure of that exchange all day.

As I sit down again I hear two middle aged men, who don’t know each other, have a conversation as they try and take the same copy of The Independent.
“So, were you a fan?”
“Well, er, not really, but I thought she was pretty good.”

Pretty good.  Quite good.  I hear that a lot, around me here, as I continue to sit.  I wonder how much different it might be were I sitting in a café somewhere else?  Somewhere like the East End?  The North? Scotland?  Cornwall?  Wales?  Not the middle of a comfy cosy Conservative safe seat.

I take out my book again.  This is Truly a Historical Day.  As newspaper pages flutter and crumple around me and the café fills up, I hear:

“ – she was one of a kind –”
“ – we won’t see her like again –”
“ – make this country great again –”

I try to stop listening.  I’m starting to feel very lonely.

I go to the counter (feeling like everyone is looking at me) and get a small peppermint tea.  My hands are shaking a little bit.  Red Head winks at me, neutral but with humour.  I can’t quite wink back.  They were playing.  I wasn’t.

Tory Man leaves without looking at anyone.  He leaves his paper behind.  I feel bad.  I think I made things worse for him?  Or was our conversation cathartic for him, propping up his views, so making him feel justified and right and strong?  And is that a good thing, or not?

I don’t know.

Suddenly, I feel small and stupid.  I don’t know anything.  I can feel myself start to be tugged to heaviness by the Good Old Black Dog.  I go and sit back down.

“Hey.”  Says Red Head, suddenly appearing in front of me.  She gives me a large chocolate chip cookie on a shiny white plate, with a napkin.  “You forgot your cookie.”

“Um, I didn’t order a cookie?”  I am all fuffled, and ridiculously close to tears.

“Yes you did.” She says, in a very definitive way.  She puts the plate down on my table.  She goes off, to address the increasingly long queue.  Without looking back.

Oh.  Well.  I might be the only lefty in the village.  But I’m not the only person who cares for a stranger.  That’s good to know.

I catch her eye, back at her station, to smile my thanks, and something flicks over her face, like an agreement, then is gone.

I bite into my cookie.

Monday, 8 April 2013

A rare political post. A rant. Thatcher is Dead; Long Live Thatcherism. *Yuck*.

Hmmmm.  The more and more I think about it - I am having such mixed feelings about the death of Thatcher.  I *hated* her politics.  I hate the legacy she has left us with - I hate the way she tore up the country and privatized so many things; the way she killed the north and tried to get rid of working people's right to organize in the workplace for fair pay and conditions (no I'm not being melodramatic).

As Alexei Sayle said today, to make a conscious decision to get rid of manufacturing except for arms, and to rely on financial services as the main money bringer for a whole economy - how can it not corrupt a country?  A leader with that idea, that was put into action?

I hate the selfish society she left behind.  I read in a friend's status today about how she had read in an obit that Thatcher said the problem with socialism is how you 'soon run out of other people's money'.  What a rank misunderstanding of socialism, or of any kind of compassionate society.  The idea of taking care of us all, of providing a safety net for when we fall is *not* a misuse of 'other people's' - read OUR money.  All of our money - we all pay in.  Except ultra rich people with tax dodging accountants, and corporations with the same.  I have never regretted paying for the NHS or Social Security.  Its like insurance we all pay in case.  I hate being taxed like we all do; but I accept most of what it goes to.  Its fair.

I could list many more things I hated about what she has left us with, the tone her policies set that are still with us and growing, and getting worse.  (And by the way, I don't think Arthur Scargill or Tony Blair were good guys either - no, I'm not blindly Lefty.  I judge people on their acts.)

People have said to me that I am being disrespectful of her  - that she was an old lady, a dying old lady.  Yes.  Old people are cute and innocent looking.  But they were once young.  And capable of doing very bad things.  And should be held to account.

People deserve respect for what they did or didn't do.  What good things they achieved.  Or not.  Not for being old, or dying.  Its perfectly well to 'speak ill of the dead', and its not vilifying her to say I hated her politics when she was alive, and PM.  I hated them after, when I watched their repercussions.  And I am relieved she is dead and can no longer be dragged out as a figurehead.  I think she did a hell of a lot of harm.  I have no respect for her actions and their results.  So I will say so.  Free country. 

Yet I am disappointed in myself for wanting to drink champagne at her going; wanting to dance on her grave.  I don't *actually* want to spit on her coffin or such.  I just want us all to care about one another more, to realize that 'there by the grace of god' (don't get hung up on the word god there) go all of us...its why its a society we live in, and not simply a collection of individuals.  Making us, so many of us, feel that the ills of society are the fault of the falling, or the weakened, instead of the strong and those taking advantage of the rest of us through abuse of power and money...that's her legacy and I hate it. 

I hate how angry I feel about what I feel she set in motion.  I hate how ugly that anger makes me feel.  I hate being able to connect the dots so that I can see the active results of policies she laid in place, so that people I know are in poverty today, out of work, losing their homes, unable to get social housing.  I hate knowing a similar government rules the land today and that so many people seem to feel all our problems are the result of 'benefit scroungers' instead of corrupt banks that ran our economy into the ground and are not prosecuted for it.  Not one of them.  And huge corporations that refuse to pay their fair share of taxes - and if they did, that alone would take us right OUT OF DEFICIT.  I hate the 'Greed Is Good' she left us with.  It was fun to hate Michael Douglas in Wall Street as that marvellous character; its chilling to watch real people like him dismantle your society slowly, and have so many of us agreeing with it...How they must be laughing at us.

I still want to drink a toast to her going.  Old lady or not.  Dead or not.  I have no respect for her actions and their results. 

But I'm not going to.  Cos a tiny weeny part of me is nicer than that.

But its only a sliver.

A friend of mine, a much calmer soul than me, read this post and liked it.  I think his comments are much more articulate than my preceding rant, and so I give them here to you, for they are highly relevant:

Nicely articulated. We are going to overwhelmed by a wave of hagiographical commentary over the coming weeks - some of it from people who should know better - in a show of 'respect'. Whilst comments about dancing on graves just comes across as a bit childish and are probably counter productive, keeping quiet is also not an option, and non-violent acts of mass disrespect (like trying to get 'Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead' to number one) are entirely appropriate ways to try to hijack the narrative coming out of this for which you should feel no shame whatsoever. Those saying we should be quietly respectful whilst the great and the good pour on the disingenuous eulogies are being massively disrespectful to all those who saw (and continue to see) their lives and their communities crushed under her hateful and destructive ideology.
~ Mark Slater

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Coffeehouse 2: the inferior, indeed, bandwagonning Sequel

I don’t intend to do this every week.  But for now, here I am again: soymilk latte with cinnamon syrup all gone.  Empty cup in front of me, dried froth on metal spoon.  Sitting at the table I like best for café hiding: the one in the far corner but sideways on, with a sort of wooden partition next to me.  So I’m separated from most of the café, but I can SEE everyone.  It’s like I’m in my trench, poking my head up over the top.  If I stick my head up too far they’ll all be watching me, so I keep low.

It’s early.  It’s Half-term week.  The smells are of bitterest black coffee.  And a thick but not overly milky steamy note, hanging along the bottom.

There’s a Chinese child throwing a bunch of keys up and down at the central table.  He has his back to me.  He has perfectly cut and layered black hair, utterly straight.  His parents look on at him very seriously.  It’s as if they are all having a telepathic conversation.  They just look at him.  And he throws those keys up and down, not looking at anything but his hand; his head bobs up and down with the keys.  They are bronze coloured and large.  There’s an animal, a crystal green frog or something, as a key fob that clinks against the others.

The sound he is making, that is perfectly rhythmic, goes oddly well with the flowing Enya on the sound system.

Twin boys in identical bottle green padded anoraks run raucously into the shop and throw themselves on the comfy leather armchairs in front of me, on the other side of the wooden partition. 

“This is my favourite seat,” says one to the other in that lilting wavery voice 5 or 6 year olds do – as if their thoughts take a long time to move between their brains and tongues and get stretched on the way.  A lot of interference between one and the other.

The Chinese boy abruptly stops throwing the keys to look at the other children.  As he turns his head, the father pockets the keys smartly.  He gets up with a compressed gracefulness, going to the counter to order more coffee.  The mother, whose face is still and beautifully symmetrical, gets out a mobile phone.  She touches one button and holds it to her ear, bypassing permed dark brown curly hair.  It fluffs, it looks wonderfully 70’s roller disco.  Contrasts with the rest of her entirely black and serious outfit.  Her son gets out of his chair and stands next to her, putting his ear to the other side of her head, as if he can hear her conversation through her skull.  She speaks low fast and clipped.  The sounds are like the verbal equivalent of dropping hot words and saying ‘owww!’ often.  There’s lots of punctuation going on.  Her face is perfectly serious, perfectly serene.  The boy likewise, a still face of calm.  He looks up steadily at the ceiling as he listens through her head.

The father returns from the long queue.  The Penguin Café Orchestra starts on the stereo.  (Why do they only ever play Rubber Band, Troubadour?)  He sits, a smooth sliding into the chair.  He moves like he’s oiled most efficiently.  Minimum actual movement.  He places coffee before his wife, before himself.  A package of vanilla wafers in front of his son, who opens them very tidily, retreating from his mother who is still deep on the phone and acknowledges the coffee with only a quick nod.

They sit, listening to her.  Staring at the table.  I am fascinated with the economy of their dynamic.

The twin boys in green have thrown their coats over the floor.  Out of them they no longer look the same.  One in a stripy blue and grey T-shirt; one in a red sweatshirt with Mickey Mouse on it.  Their mother returns to the table carrying a tray with many blueberry muffins on.  The children move to it, hungry flies with hands straightaway reaching.

“Are you sitting nicely?” says the mother.  They interpret this question as a command, and with their arms still outstretched drop themselves into opposite chairs, eyes on her.  She nods, and they lean forward, eyes all agoggle, fingers clawing down on the muffins as they pull them out of their brown paper cases.

In the opposite corner cluster of armchairs is a lovely language being spoken softly.  It’s a group of four men, dark heads leaning close, all in casual jeans, sweatshirts, trainers.  All a bit old, worn.  Every now and then, one gets up and walks with that attitude only young men have, all over the world – that extra consciousness of the joints of the body, some idea of cowboys and defending territory prickling in there somewhere.  One or other will go and fetch more tiny espressos, and looking scornfully at everyone else, will sit down again.  Leaning in, once again discussing serious matters with his friends.  They have that arrogance of young men in a group, but at the same time, when I see their eyes steal about the room, I see something that looks almost like fear and almost like hope on their faces.  In the small lines about the eyes, the forehead tightness. 

(That’s unusual.  I don’t see that on the young men or women brought up here.  What I see on a lot of them when you meet their eyes is a sort of flatness.  Flat, closed hostility.  A chilling shame that that’s the default factory setting.)

I catch the eyes of one of the men.  He does that thing men do: you can see him wondering if I looked at him because I ‘like him’ or whether it’s something more impersonal.

I do what I always do.  Resolutely, absolutely, be me.  I smile big and real at him, and call over to ask what lovely language that is I’m hearing.  It’s Albanian.  Its sings, really.  It sounds like half a song and half a recitation from a holy book, spoke softly with great reverence.

The one I smiled at brightens immensely that I complimented his language and therefore his country.  “I can teach to you,” he smiles back.  His companions look bored, irritated and amused, in almost equal parts.  They sip their coffee with great absorption, ignoring us both.  I suddenly feel I disturbed them planning a bank job, or something massively more important than random conversation with a stranger.  But the friendly one tells me how to say ‘how are you?’ and ‘I’m fine,’ which I’m deeply annoyed to forget almost immediately.  This is extra irritating as I liked the way the words slid and hammocked.  They moved well.  I wanted to keep them.

I find I’m blushing at my inept attempts to repeat the words back to the friendly man (and I’m aware he may misread the blush cause), so I smile and thank him and look back at my book.  They put their heads together again.

Oh.  That’s why there were so many muffins.  Another dad has come in, carrying two small squirmy girls in pink, one in each arm.  He smiles broadly, they giggle in that maniacally odd way of small children, and wriggle out of his arms to go and be with the twin boys.  The dad shakes hands with the boy’s mother in a familiar and oddly ironical way, rolling his eyes, as if at an inside joke.  Two different families.  The girls lower on the muffins as though never fed before; they practically have their faces on the plate.  The two boys watch, chewing, mouths comically blown out, full of muffin.  One of the girls burrows onto her father’s lap.  He has a soft brushed cotton check shirt on.  She runs her little blond head meditatively across his chest feeling the fabric.  She offers him her muffin.  When he opens his mouth for a bite she pulls it away, still giggling.  He smiles, snapping his teeth closed at her, at which both girls’ giggling starts to sound hysterical, falling about with their laughter.  One of them falls theatrically to the floor, holding her stomach.  Her laughter sounds false; that way small children have of having a good time sometimes by miming what they have seen others do as having a good time.  (Bloody irritating it is, I have to say.)

I feel a slight headache coming round the back of my head.  It’s like the joy and energy of these children is sucking the life out of the rest of the room.  The boys start to run up and down, up and down, laughing hard, thumping their heavy booted feet, giggling and bashing into chairs and round again.

A middle aged couple in one corner have their bags knocked over and trodden on.  But oddly, they don’t seem to break stride.  Without stopping their conversation, the woman kneels down, scoops purse, tissue and magazine back into the bag and resumes her position, legs crossed, arms gesturing.  She is toothily saying, in a very gusty smokers voice, “I can’t have this, I can’t be having it,” to her partner’s grey anorak, curly grey hair and small round pebble glasses that keep winking in the overhead light.

The man has the thoughtful pose of the analyst.  Head on hand, nodding along rhythmically at her, otherwise still.  Except for toe tapping.

She sits there, intense in her loud wide knitted grassy green sweater and red crochet beret, explaining to him that, “yeah but, she said it was that, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t finished.  Yeah.  They stopped growing –”

He is talking, but I can only hear small bits as the children squeal.  “Yes that’s right, so –”

“She always has to –”

“Well she has lost weight, yeah yeah yeah…it also helps with the voice…she’s stopped buying sweetener, to an extent…what’s her name?  Claudia?  CLOUDIA?” (that’s how she says it) “is nicer.”

I can’t make any sense at all of their conversation.

“When she was younger, it was all sick, wasn’t it?” She says, but not like a question, more like an ‘agree with me’ statement.

“He was quite a bruiser,” says her partner, nodding still.

She laughs.  “Some sturdy ones.”

What??  I swear I’m catching the bits I am correctly.  But obviously missing the entire gist.  I have not heard such nonsensical conversation since I last heard small children speak.

The little girls are jumping up and down.  Their energy is in direct proportion to me feeling increasingly sapped and somehow too close and yet very far away.

Time to read.  Till it’s quieter.  I open my book again.

The Chinese family have left.  Their minimal quietness no longer adding to the calm total in the room.  The Albanian men have also gone, in a long slow slouchy procession of not caringness, well performed.  So their intense bubble of concentration is lost.

The only people still here are Gibberish Conversation Couple and Hysterically Loud Blueberry Muffin Consumers (and parental enablers).

The little girls squeal and twirl as their father gets giant hats out of a plastic bag for them.  They are a white pink faux fur, shaped as huge Rabbit Heads.  (This is one week after Easter.)  Huge floppy pink satin ears.  The girls pull them onto their heads, and I know without question, that I have had too much caffeine.  And not enough sleep.

They skip over, like nasty little clever trickster gods and stand next to me, looming the Rabbit Heads in my face.  “HELLO!!!!!” they screech right to my nose.  My heart races and bumps.  Those mad pink button eyes, massive and shiny bobble in front of me.  I glance over at the dad, wanting to shout for, er,  help.  He smiles tiredly and indulgently at me.  My face freezes, unable to do any expression at all.

I conceive of a grand notion of hiding in the toilet from this onslaught of Tiny Child Demon Energy.

They snort and giggle violently and scamper[1] away, undeterred by my odd non-reaction.  In fact, I think they liked it.

I wish for earplugs, as the boys knock over a chair, and are told to right it by a barista.  Firm and quiet.  There’s pointing.  They do not mess with her, but do so straight away and run off again.

The chaos of all this energy scares the living shit out of me.  I can feel it banging at me in waves.  Truly.

Vivaldi burbles though the stereo, the essence of order and harmony.  I try to hear it.  I try to read.  When I look up, the Rabbit Heads and the boys are tearing up and down still, weaving between the tables.

I finally get that thought parents and non-parents alike get in public places sometimes: “for fucks sake, control your bloody children!”

But I look at the dad, and I can see his eyes are glazed.  He sits, leaned right back in his chair, cemented to it, plump limp hands resting on the empty plastic bag the scary hats came out of. He watches them caper[2] and screech.  The mother of the boys offers him a partially eaten muffin from the plate, without looking at him.  He smiles at the room in general and bites into it.  Crumbs fall on his shirt, but he doesn’t seem to see.  He watches the children, only his eyes moving, mouth chewing.  I watch his exhaustion, his spaciness.  My head jangles with his, in sympathy and symmetry.  I’m cross with him, but oh god, I understand.  I get it.  So I do nothing.  I’m going soon anyway. 

I wish for Valium (yes, Fry, I want to tranquilize these children).  I wish for slightly less involvement with my environment.  One of the baristas makes a loud exclamation that sounds for all the world like “Hula!” as a plate slips from her hands and smashes on the floor.  I lower my head to my book and try my best to not think about Rabbits.

I wouldn’t really recommend the coffeehouse at Half-term, as such…

[1] Again, only children, and possibly pixies, etc, can ‘scamper’ with any kind of realism.
[2] Ditto.