Category Archives: December 2012 Posts

End of an era

David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” plays on the sound dock in my room as I apply make-up and do my hair in preparation for a night out. Downstairs the shower stops and I hear the cats pelting up and down the staircase. My friends are excitedly chatting and laughing so I exit my room to participate in the fun.

Mark and Hector

Mark and Hector

The cats are going crazy the way cats do at dusk, and my friends are crying with laughter at them. When the ruckus calms down, we head to The Strand Palace. Hotel bars have recently become our establishments of choice: the service is good, the toilets clean, the ambience soothing and the seating comfortable (seating at any other London bar is non-existent). It’s a massive plus that riff-raff don’t frequent high-end hotels; riff-raff are my nemesis.

We sit with our cocktails, absorb the atmosphere and immodestly praise ourselves for our choice of venue. The grand piano plays behind us.

Mark: Have you been watching the Richard E. Grant documentary about hotels?
Me: No. But I do like Richard E. Grant.
Helen: Oh, it’s very good.
Mark: The sordid stuff’s good – like the fact hotels couldn’t operate without hookers – but the weird stuff’s fascinating.
Helen: Yeah, apparently in most hotels in London at some point they’ve found a slaughtered sheep in a bathroom … it’s got something to do with Arabs and Halal meat … but they’ve never seen anyone enter with a sheep. They don’t know how they get them in. It’s a mystery.
Me (without hesitation): Well you know how easily sheep’s legs fold up. They just tuck right up underneath them. It’d be simple to get one in a wheelie bag. You could fit one in Mark’s bag right there (I gesture to Mark’s blue bag).

Helen splutters her cocktail in a burst of laughter.

Mark (pausing, then in measured tones): One, no we do not “know” how easily sheep’s legs fold up. And two, who does?!
Helen (composing herself, though still giggling): I think of you as a sophisticated woman of the world. I forget you’re a country girl.
Mark (looking at me with scrutiny, then smiling mischievously): That explains a LOT.

Helen and Hector

Helen and Hector

We have a pleasant evening and return to their house where I’m spending the night. Milo, Hector and Lulu, the cats, are happy to see us. I press play on the sound dock and David Bowie’s voice again fills my room. I smile at Ashes to Ashes.

From rural Australia to the metropolis of London, my life has seen some changes.

Two years ago on New Year’s Eve I told a friend that the best thing to happen to me that year was watching the TV series “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes”. She found that depressing though I meant it as a credit to those (superb) programmes rather than a scourge on 2010. In retrospect it did speak volumes about that year; it was a bad one.

On New Year’s Eve last year I was in Fiji, embarking on a year that was to become one of the best to date.

Here I am, soon to welcome 2013. I don’t know if it’ll be a good year, but I’m certain it’ll be an interesting one. Born in 1977, I’m entering my year, the year of the snake. And I’m going to make sure it’s productive. I hope it’s a good one for you too.

Afterword
This is my last post for a while. There’s no big dramatic reason why I’m taking a break – I just need time to concentrate on other things and the New Year seems a timely point for a hiatus. I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger (and I certainly don’t want to be!) …. but I’m sure I’ll be back.

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“Few things alienate friendship than a want of punctuality” William Hazlitt

Boxing Day, Kildare, Ireland. Our frosty breath is visible in the cold as Lisa parks the car and we walk towards Murphy’s Lounge, the pub where we’re meeting her friend for lunch. As we approach we see that it’s closed.

Lisa: Oh bugger. We’re going to have a wait ahead of us. Niamh’s a late person.
Me (nodding in understanding): Ah. Right. What time does she think we’re meeting?
Lisa: Well I knew we’d –and I mean you and me – would want to meet at 1:00, so I told her 12:30.

I look at my watch. It’s 12:50. Lisa and I have a few friends who are “late people” and we’ve put in place systems to make it a little easier to manage them. We tell them we’re meeting half an hour earlier than the actual meeting time, knowing they’ll arrive around half an hour late. We also meet at a place where we can sit indoors. Before our system we’d accumulated many hours standing uncomfortably in the searing heat, or the biting cold. Though it’s often requested, we never arrange to meet standing outside a shop; that’s a guaranteed recipe for physical discomfort and a school-boy error. Unfortunately today the closed pub has thwarted us.

Without speaking we turn and walk back to the car where we can sit and be spared the glacial wind. Ireland’s a tough place in the winter.

We put the radio on and chat when Lisa’s phone beeps with a text. It’s 1:10pm. We both laugh.

Lisa (rolling her eyes and smiling): Here we go. I’m guessing it’ll say “Sorry, running late! Be there soon!”
Me: No, I’m going with “Running late. On my way!”

We read it. “Sorry, running 10 minutes late. On my way!”

Yep. We’ve read a lot of these messages over the years and they’re always minor variations on the same theme.

Lisa replies “No problem, see you soon”. Our replies are also minor variations on the same theme: “We’re perfectly happy to spend our time waiting for you because we didn’t have anything we needed to do before heading out to meet you – your time is obviously more valuable than ours, so don’t you go rushing yourself on our account …”

At 1:25 we see Niamh pull up, park her car and walk towards the pub. We exit our car, greet her and Lisa introduces me.

Niamh: I’m so sorry I’m late, it’s impossible to be on time when you have children!
Lisa (smiling warmly): Yeah, it’s hard. There’s always something they need at the last minute.

I don’t have to look at her to know what she’s thinking. She’d risen an hour earlier this morning to make sure she’d clothed, fed and organised her two young children so we’d be here on time. Niamh clearly hadn’t made equal arrangements and doesn’t recognise the inconsistency.

With the pub being closed we walk to a nearby café for lunch. Niamh’s lovely and we enjoy chatting about her Christmas family celebrations – complete with venting niggles that go hand-in-hand with family get-togethers. After an hour Niamh and Lisa exchange gifts. Lisa opens her present and I make sure I keep my eyes glued on the item rather than Niamh or Lisa. My face will give away my amusement and I’m also in danger of giggling inappropriately; Niamh’s gift to Lisa is a watch.

Afterword

Back at Lisa’s house we chuckled about Niamh’s ironic gift. Lisa reminded me of the Billy Joel concert we attended in 2006 (yes, Billy Joel – I’ve never claimed to be cool) at Croke Park, Dublin. The concert had commenced when some people arrived very late. As they shuffled leisurely to their seats, disrupting the audience around them, Billy Joel stopped speaking. Smiling and good-naturedly pulling up his sleeve, he looked at his watch, making a joke of the situation “Nice of you to join us … we’ll just wait for you to get comfortable and we’ll continue”. The pause in the concert while thousands of people all watched the latecomers was only made bearable by the collective laughter.

The rudeness of tardiness clearly bothers people from all walks of life and when it comes to punctuality I sit firmly in Billy Joel’s camp; timeliness is next to godliness.

It’s a Wonderful Life

On my left wrist is a watch my mother gave me for my 21st birthday. On my right wrist is a bracelet given to me for Christmas in 1996 from my (then) boyfriend’s mother. On the middle finger of my right hand is a ring given to me by a colleague in 2010. Around my neck hangs a silver necklace given to me as a Christmas present by my manager. My earrings were a Christmas gift from my mother in 2010 – she purchased them twice as the first pair were stolen from her in a Melbourne café. They were worth the double purchase as I’ve never received more comments on a piece of jewellery.

A gift from my friend - "Retardo" is her pet name for me

A gift from my friend – “Retardo” is her pet name for me

I look at the expensive bracelet and recall the meaningful look my ex-boyfriend’s mother gave me as I opened her gift all those years ago – she hoped I’d stay with her son, and knew he’d be giving me something trivial (I can’t remember what he gave me, whatever it was I know it would have been purchased with my money).

I look at the ring and remember my colleague’s words as she handed me the impromptu gift. She’d seen it in a sale and “had to purchase it for me straight away as it was so me”.

I remove the watch to look at the back; a battery change means the engraving’s long gone, but I remember opening the local jeweller’s box and seeing my mother’s words clearly etched with my name, date of birth and her love.

The common denominator with all these gifts is that the givers knew me. They knew me so well they chose gifts that I’d have purchased for myself. That’s a rare thing and it makes me smile when I look at these bits of silver decorating my body. And these particular items have seen me through monumental events spanning my sixteen adult years. The poor bracelet has seen some great lows, but it’s also witnessed some impressive highs. The watch has also beheld stories and secrets. I’m grateful neither of them can talk.

On my coffee table at home is my one present to open on Christmas day. The package is plastered with my friend’s wonderful term of affection for me … “Retardo”. It’s been her pet name for me for years, in recognition of my quirks and obsessions. She knows me well.

My Wonder Woman trainers

My Wonder Woman trainers

I rummage in my handbag for my iPhone and my hand finds an alien object; I didn’t put this Mars bar in my bag. I smile and look over at my colleague, sitting at another table across the room. I hold up the chocolate bar. Through the noise and merriment she locks eyes with me and grins widely in acknowledgment of this shared moment – this is her handiwork. At the same time my iPhone displays a message from the man responsible for the private Mars bar joke. Timing is everything.

I look down at my feet and admire my trainers. Last night I had dinner with a good friend. I unwrapped her gift to me and my jaw dropped in shock and delight, “Oh my god! Wonder Woman trainers!”

My friend: I’m so glad you like them!

My Wonder Woman trainers

My Wonder Woman trainers

Me: I’m stunned – two days ago a woman standing opposite me on the tube had been wearing them. I liked them so much that I asked her where she’d bought them! I’d intended to order a pair online. I can’t believe you got them for me.

My friend: That’s amazing, and I’m so pleased. As soon as I saw them I thought of you.

Me (shaking my head in disbelief): I’ve been astonished lately by the presents I’ve received. People have given me some incredibly spot-on gifts.

Snow Globe - photo of me

Snow Globe – photo of me

My friend: Well the thing is you kind of wear your personality on your sleeve. You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve – you keep that well hidden! (We both laugh). But your personality is right there; it’s in your words … and by that I mean the way you write as well as the distinctive, oh let’s be honest – slightly odd, way you talk! (We both laugh again). And it’s in the way you dress … god, it’s even the way you hold yourself and move! And your laugh is totally you.

Me (cringing): Ugh. I try to tone down my laugh, but I can’t. I know it’s too much, but it just comes out like that. It sounds like Edna Krabappel.

My friend: Don’t be ashamed of it! It’s a great laugh. It’s real, earthy and guttural. It’s a very honest, good-hearted sound and it’s you.

I look at her and smile. It’s comforting to be known and to be liked not in spite of that knowledge, but because of it.

With the warm memory of that conversation in my head, I allow my mind to stop reminiscing and return to the present; our department Christmas celebration. In the restaurant, St Paul’s Cathedral looms magnificently over us and the Christmas lights make the Thames look breathtakingly beautiful. London during the festive season is magical and never fails to mesmerise. This city’s history breathes tangibly through its imposing buildings, striking bridges and quaint cobbled pavements. London owns Christmas without even trying.

Snow Globe - I love HR

Snow Globe – I love HR

My colleague Toby has surprised us all by dressing as Santa. He’s distributing Secret Santa presents with his two helpers, Emma and Kirsty. The rules were that the item was to cost no more than £5 and had to be kept on the recipient’s desk for a year. I have no high hopes for the gift in front of me. I remove the wrapping and squawk with delight! It’s a snow globe … on one side is a photo of me … on the other it says “I love HR”. The blatant expression of sarcasm for how I dislike my field of work is hilarious. My department knows me.

I hope you have a great Christmas with people who know you and love you for it.

Afterword

I maintain that it isn’t possible to love HR as a career and anyone who says they do is lying (or should take a good hard look at themselves!) It’s possible to not hate it. It’s possible to be proud of your achievements and ability within it, but not to love it. I definitely do not love it. But I do love my colleagues; we might be a bunch of odd-bods but we get along like a little family (complete with dysfunction, niggles, in-jokes and frequent feelings of exasperation!)

After the Afterword

In the minutes since I posted this I’ve discovered that my adorable and marvellous niece Eliza “made you a present today, wrapped it and put it under the tree”.  That little girl is tremendous.  It’s so touching to be thought of from across the ocean where the sun shines brightly over Christmas. It really is a wonderful life and I can’t wait to see my family again.

My security blanket

Sunday afternoon. I’m at a class I love at the only gym in London where the air-conditioning works. My Step is set up in my usual position – second row from the back in the right-hand corner of the room. In this spot, next to the speaker, the music is loud and drowns out the voice of the instructor. The cool air blows directly on me. This is my favourite time of the week: my personal happy hour. Paul enters and sets up his Step in his position on my left. He smiles at me “Are you ready for this?” I return his smile “I am now – I did NOT appreciate you not being here last week. Don’t do that to me again”. We both laugh.

The Step class is a finely tuned machine. We all have our spots and Paul not turning up the previous week offset the balance. He needs to be on my left, and I need to be on his right for both of us to perform at our best. It’s odd, but it’s how it is. Nicky is directly in front of me, Sarah is on my right, Maxine behind me and so on. It’s been this way for years and the system works.

We chat while waiting for Charlotte, our vibrant and attractive blonde Instructor. Her lateness is abnormal …

With a loud bang of the door, in bursts a huge muscular black man with waist-length dreadlocks. His confident stride and the microphone pack around his waist indicate that he’s a substitute Instructor. I grin broadly, jubilantly surprised. Male Instructors are rare; a straight muscle-bound black guy with dreadlocks instructing a Step class is unprecedented. A straight muscle-bound black guy with dreadlocks instructing a Step class wearing a skin-tight unitard is priceless. My grin widens to a smile that won’t leave my face.

William puts on the music and gets the class started. He’s good and I’m transfixed. The Predator is instructing us. A dancing, singing Predator dressed in a skin-tight unitard. The ridiculousness of the image keeps me smiling and my good mood enhances my workout.

William: Alright Steppers! I want you all in sync and I want to see perfect rhythm! Steppers are dancing soldiers! Show me your style!

Sarah and Paul jump higher. It’s the perfect motivator for us; in our delusional minds we do see ourselves as dancing soldiers. My smile progresses to a giggle I’m unable to stifle. William looks at me and smiles warmly.

William (loudly): Well at least one of you is enjoying yourselves!

I am enjoying myself. Thoroughly enjoying myself. This is exhilarating.

I hear a thud from the left side of the room. Someone’s fallen. Someone always falls. William rushes to their aid and the class is momentarily halted. He stops the music.

William: I’m just going to sort out Amy’s ankle. (He looks at me), Smiley’s going to lead you for the next two tracks.

WHAT?! I firmly protest but no one else will lead and the allocated hour is ticking on. Time’s-a-wasting and I’m pretty sure I know the choreography for the next two songs.

Me: Fine. But I can’t yell out instructions. Everyone will just have to watch and follow. And Paul’s joining me.

Paul’s horrified but equally aware that we need to get on with it. And I need him on my left-side if I’m to have any chance of getting through this.

We take our positions at the front of the room and face the class. Everyone’s laughing, but it’s warm, supportive laughter. The music starts and we take off! Pain sears through my injured toe but I’m having too much fun, and feel too much responsibility to stop.

William returns and all three of us stay facing the class for the remainder of the workout. It’s one of the most enjoyable Step classes I’ve experienced. Though could I have done it without the familiarity of Paul on my left-hand side? Doubtful. I needed my security blanket.

A Christmas tale

A freezing cold December morning. I walk the half hour journey to the Acton Post Office Depot, resentful that packages addressed to my flat when I’m not home require collection from such a remote location. And, as I look at the hideous council flats stretched along Bollo Lane, in such a ghetto. My resentment is aggravated by the package requiring a customs duty payment of £23.50. I know that this will be my father’s Christmas gift to me, and I know I will neither like nor need it. This may seem ungrateful, but to provide an indication of his gifts – a few years ago he gave me a sword. An actual full-sized, real-life sword. Did he really think I’d want a medieval weapon to hang on my wall?

I pay the customs charge and open the item then and there. I look at a silver necklace with a cross hanging from it. No surprise, I don’t like it. But I look at the envelope containing my card and I know that’s where the real present is. Dad’s written words. And I know that the words will contain a link to the necklace. I smile and get ridiculously excited. I rush to a café and sit down with a cup of coffee and a breakfast muffin. I didn’t relish opening the present, but I want to savour the gleeful experience of the card.

The first page

The first page

I carefully open it, read the first page and laugh so loudly the couple sitting near me jump.

Simone

My mind conjured up an epic. Well not really an epic, more like an essay. Not even that really, closer to a Reader’s Digest short story.

‘Bout a ten year old boy in Peru, who with his father toils on the family’s meagre plot at the base of the majestic Andes when to the lad’s surprise his hoe unearths a cross and chain.

Thinking that it must be an imitation, Raul (the youth’s name), gives it to his young sister who wears it proudly to her village school. Her teacher, an expert in rare artefacts, takes an interest in this “imitation” and persuades the girl to let him take it to Lima (capital of Peru) on his next trip there so as to have the curator of Lima’s Central Museum assess it …

But alas the ‘fire’ died in me and would not flare up … I believe I’m finished in literary circles.

The second page

The second page

The second page makes me laugh further, as I hold the enclosed lottery ticket in my hand.

DON’T, I REPEAT DON’T LOSE THIS TICKET. Same contract – 80/20. 80 mine!

Merry Christmas
Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Michael My father’s surname (off the list), Walt Whitman

DAD
(common as muck)
How sad that such a giant should fall

Dad’s cards are always like this. Never any niceties, never any mention of the reason for the card and certainly never any reference to me. But I love them and they’re the highlight of every birthday and Christmas. Over the years he’s sent lengthy tales, always painstakingly handwritten and only composed when he feels “inspired”. He wakes in the night compelled to write a few paragraphs, or he’ll pull the car over because he has a sentence he needs to jot down.

Dad's Christmas card

Dad’s Christmas card

My father (Michael/Mike) left school at fourteen, so his love of literature is especially heart-warming. I feel defensive on his behalf when he comments derisively on his grammatical inaccuracies (he’s asked me to type up some of his stories and to “put commas and apostrophes and that where they need to go”).

There’s truth in his jokes about the end of his writing days. His tales have become increasingly short and I can feel a struggle for him. This’ll be the last card of this style but I don’t feel sad. He’s ended on a good note and I feel grateful and honoured to have been the sole recipient of his creative expression for so many years. Merry Christmas Dad.

Afterword

Just as I’d finished writing this Dad phoned.  He wanted to know if I’d received his card and to apologise for it “not being up to standard” as “I was struggling quite a lot, but knew I had to send it off to you in time for Christmas”.  I love the energy he invests in writing (especially when he has such limited energy these days).  The effort and passion are a demonstration of emotion (and a connection) that I value immensely.