Category Archives: London

Braveheart II

The owl pendant

The owl pendant

Tuesday, March 26th, 5:30am. Ten minutes into the half hour walk to the Acton Post Office Depot, the heavens open up.  By the time I reach the depot I’m drenched.  In the dark pre-dawn I’m collecting a package from a remote location in an industrial area.  I still have to go home, shower and get myself ready for another frantically busy and stressful workday.  But I happily bop along to the music playing through my earphones.  I’m collecting my father’s birthday gift, and though I know I won’t like the present, I’m very much looking forward to reading his card. 

Page 1 of Dad's birthday card to me

Page 1 of Dad’s birthday card to me

I pay the £29.38 customs charge (that I’m not happy about) and open the item then and there.   I look at a silver pendant of an owl.  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 owl.  I smile.  When he sent my Christmas present I rushed to a café to savour the experience of reading the card.  Today I don’t have the time to indulge.

An hour later I’m on the Central line.  I pull the card from my handbag, open it, read the first page and loudly laugh – a woman’s dead-eyed glance reminds me that I’ve grossly violated the “silence at all times” tube rule.   I quietly look down to read the second page.

I’ve previously written about Dad’s cards.  They’re the highlight of every birthday and Christmas.  Over the years he’s had countless accidents; he’s fallen off the roof, sliced his hand with a circular saw, and crashed his bike into stationary vehicles (that, he’s done numerous times).  His copious mishaps and narrow escapes from the grim reaper have made him a family joke.  His card makes reference to his dance with death, as well as his frustration at people ruining his cinema experience (the apple doesn’t always fall far from the tree …).

Page 2 of Dad's birthday card to me

Page 2 of Dad’s birthday card to me

The card amuses me and when I emerge from the tube I email a friend about it.  My morning messages to Ed are part of my daily routine.  Rain, hail or shine, I send him a message every day by 8:30am.  My friend, Helen, will also know about my Dad’s card before I’ve reached my desk.  Time permitting, as soon as I arrive at work, I’ll email a friend I call The Hulk (I’m hoping mentioning him in this post doesn’t make him “go green”).

Written communications are priceless to me.  I love sending them, and I love receiving them.  I relish every email, text and whatsapp that comes my way.  My birthday is particularly gratifying because not only do I get more of these, but I also get good old-fashioned hand-written cards; the crème de la crème of written communications.  I’m so grateful for the messages; my father’s funny card, my mother’s meaningful one, my sister’s interesting one … and those from my friends.  I’m immensely thankful for the people in my life.

Afterword

On my birthday last year I flew to China.  Tomorrow I fly to Australia.  The black and white photo that heads up my blog was taken at my 5th birthday party in 1982.  Despite the knowing (and mischievous) twinkle in my eye, I had no idea what the next 31 years would bring.  As I sit here and type this, I have no idea what the next 40 hold for me …

The beating bag

28th January 2013.  Flight VS026 from JFK to Heathrow.  We sit silently, buckled and ready to take-off.  It’s taking too long.  Something’s delaying us.  Brett, a well-groomed male air steward, approaches the man seated in front of me.

Brett:  Excuse me, Mr O’Brien?

Mr O’Brien (presumably):  Yes?

Brett:  There’s a slight problem with your luggage.  Would you mind coming with me?

He rises and his face is anxious; a natural response when questioned by airline staff.  I make a comment to the man next to me about how nerve wracking it is to have your luggage searched – even though you know you’re innocent.

He nods and I hear his clear New Zealand accent “Oh yeah, it’s awful.  I had it happen to me in Peru years ago”.   I adopt an expression encouraging him to continue.

A half-smile flickers across his face as he shakes his head “Nah, I won’t bore you with it.”

Oh go on” I persist.  “It’ll kill a few minutes of the hours ahead”.

He looks directly at me, sizing me up.  Some inexplicable deliberation takes place before he speaks “Alright … as you’re a fellow antipodean, albeit Australian”.

I smile and turn my body towards him to give him my full attention.  Here is his story.

“The beating bag”

It was 2006 and I was returning from my honeymoon with my now ex-wife.  We’re checked-in and ready to board our return flight to the US.  A security man approaches the boarding queue and taps three of us – myself and two other men – indicating for us to follow him.  I leave my wife in the queue.

In silence, we’re led through security doors and down stairs, then down further stairs and through a maze of passages.  After what seems like ages, we enter a highly industrial area.  We’re surrounded by conveyor belts of luggage and humming machinery.  The South American heat is stifling and the smell of body odour overwhelming.   We’re in the underbelly of the airport.

In the centre of the room are three heavily armed and uniformed military men, each pointing a massive gun at three individual pieces of luggage; one of them mine.  I was already nervous, but I’m now shitting myself.   Has someone put drugs in my bag?!  My wife’s migraine medication is in that bag, and I’m not sure that it’s legal in countries outside the US.  Am I about to be imprisoned?!

Nobody speaks English.  One of the intensely solemn armed men has the palm of his hand on my bag and says something to me in Spanish.  One of the other two passengers speaks a little English and tries to help me.

Fellow passenger (pointing to my bag):  Is beating.

MeBeating? 

Fellow passengerSi, beating.

They want me to feel my “beating” bag, so I do – with a gun aimed at me.  With sudden heart-sinking horror, my emotions shift from fear to embarrassment.  The bag isn’t beating, it’s vibrating.  My face glows red, drawing more suspicion to me as I realise that the buzzing item is my wife’s vibrator [at this point in the man’s story I blurt out a loud laugh, drawing unwanted attention from our fellow passengers].

In desperation and zero Spanish I try to suggest that we open our bags in separate rooms so I don’t have to do this in front of such a big audience.

I tell my semi-English-speaking-fellow-traveller what’s in the bag and he instantly smiles, containing a laugh.  I can’t believe this is happening.

They refuse my request to open the bag in a more private environment and, with the giant gun pointed at me, I kneel to the floor and open my bag.  Everyone is quietly watching as I rummage around.  The vibrator is a plug-in one and I’m hoping to locate the main power source so I can switch it off.  Yes! I did it!  I triumphantly, but slowly, pull out the power supply – NOT the vibrator and say “This is it.  It’s switched off – nothing harmful”.   I’m so relieved to not have to pull out the actual vibrator.

With disaster averted, I’m allowed to return to the departure gates.  My wife’s furious and shouts out “What took you so long?! ” I shout back across the crowded departure lounge “IT WAS YOUR BLOODY VIBRATOR!  IT WENT OFF IN THE LUGGAGE!!

She’s mortified.

Mr New Zealand’s finished his story. “So that’s it.  I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me and all I can say is if you’ve got any ‘personal’ devices in your luggage, I hope you’ve removed the batteries!”

I laugh (non-committedly ….) and move on to the next obvious conversation; how and why did Mrs New Zealand become Mrs Ex-New Zealand.  The next seven hours pass quickly – for me at least.

Afterword

I’m beginning to realise that I’m a “flight-talker”.  When you’re seated next to me on a long-haul flight there might be an awful moment when you realise you won’t be watching any movies …

Mugged

45 minutes after I posted the last and “final” blog, I was mugged. Consequently I have no choice but to write another entry. After all, a mugging is a story to be told. Hell, if I can write about the most mundane of topics like my father’s Christmas card, or my friend’s friend being late for lunch then I must write this.

Unfortunately I’ve ruined it now by telling the end as my style is usually to go back in time and make the past the present to create at least a bit of suspense, but here I go anyway …

“Mugged”

I switch my laptop off and close it. It’s 1pm and time to get on with my day. Baking a cake is on my list of activities, but I need eggs. I could also do with some other basics, inclusive of toilet paper. With only £10 in my pocket I trot to the local shop liberated by the absence of my usual possessions; my iPhone, my iPod and my purse. Just me, my keys, £10 and a bag to carry home my shopping.

Balvinder the local shopkeeper and I exchange our usual pleasantries. With the purchased items in my bag I commence the short journey home: I’ve a cake that needs baking.

The bag is in my right hand and my left hand is in my coat pocket, holding my keys. I hear someone walking behind me and glance back to see a tall young man. He’s walking faster than me so I move closer to the brick bridge on my left to let him pass.

I certainly didn’t anticipate him using his body weight to shove me against the bridge and slam my head into the bricks. No sirree, I did not.

He takes the bag from my right hand and steps back.

Him (murmuring something in unclear English that sounded like …) : Got any money?
Me: No, nothing. Just my keys.

I pull my keys out of my pocket and show him.

It’s a strangely calm and understated moment as I realise he’s more tense than me. I guess I know what he’s going to do/has done (mug me) whereas he doesn’t know what I might do. Fear of the unknown is always powerful.

He steps forward and quickly pats my coat pockets. I stand still, looking at him. He turns and walks away – the same direction he’d come from. And that was it. Entirely undramatic.

Mum once said that no one would ever attack me “Look at her. Would you take her on?!” It turns out that a 6’2” Eastern European lad would.

I’m strangely happy. Of all the times to be mugged it’s the one time I leave my flat with absolutely no items of value. I don’t have to waste my time cancelling credit cards or calling a locksmith. I’m very lucky – he’ll be a disappointed mugger when he discovers his grand haul consists of eggs, toilet paper and a bottle of squash.

I continue home, grab my stuff and walk to the police station to report the crime. They suggest I go to the hospital to check out the lump on my head, but that seems like overkill. Instead of wasting the rest of my day in A&E, I jump on a bus to Shepherd’s Bush to see a movie. After watching (the coincidentally fitting) “Seven Psychopaths” I get the tube home, eat my dinner, watch TV and go to bed. I’m convinced I find the intricacies of mundane life more interesting than allegedly “genuine drama”.

Afterword

It’s the second time I’ve been mugged in London, though admittedly the first time with a degree of violence. But I’m fine, totally fine. I wouldn’t write this post if I was traumatised. I’ve decided simply to view this incident as the cosmos telling me to keep writing. Though one friend commented that maybe I should view it as a message to stop making cakes.

Most of my friends are shocked that someone selected me to mug. One remarked that he sees me as more of a mugger than a muggee. I’m starting to think that I may have to do some defriending in 2013 …

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.

Romance in the rain

Tuesday morning, 20 November 2012.  In one hand I hold a blue umbrella to stop the pouring rain from drenching me.  In the other I hold a cup of hot coffee.  My green handbag hangs over my left shoulder.  As I approach the shops opposite my tube station, I see a man dressed in a dark suit walking towards me.  We pass each other about twice a week.   I smile and nod as a greeting.  He does the same, though he always says something which I presume to be hello or good morning.  With my earphones in I can never be sure.   This morning our regular pattern is abruptly altered as he stops and gestures for me to join him under the awning of the sushi restaurant.

Sheltered from the rain, he takes the umbrella from my hand so I can remove my earphones with my one free hand.  I smile, to ease him.  I sense what’s coming.

Me:  Jeez, it’s really pouring down, isn’t it?

Him:  Yep, though at least it’s not as cold as it was yesterday.

Me:  True.

Neither of us can acknowledge that there’s an oddness to us standing here talking, but we both know it.

Him:  Um, I’ve wanted to talk to you because I see you all the time and I just think you seem really nice.  (He makes a nervous coughing sound to clear his throat).  I was wondering if you’d like to go for a drink some time?

Me:  Oh thank you.  But I have a boyfriend  . . .

Him:  Oh, sorry, I just thought that as I’ve never seen you with anyone you must be single  . . .

Me (suddenly compelled to provide unnecessary detail about my fictitious boyfriend):   He lives in Chiswick, so we only see each other on weekends.

Him:  Ah, okay.  Well I’m going to give you my phone number anyway, just in case your situation changes (he so doesn’t believe me).  I’ve already written it down as I planned on giving it to you the next time we saw each other.

I laugh and he smiles at me as he hands me a piece of paper.  We both know I don’t have a boyfriend.   He’s attractive, well-spoken and well-dressed.  What’s making me hesitate?

Me (still semi-laughing):  Okay … but it won’t be before Christmas.

Him (smiling broadly):  The new year’s good for me.  I’m James, by the way.

Me:  Simone.  And I better head to work or I’ll be late!

Him:  I’m so glad I spoke to you.  Enjoy your day.

He hands me back my umbrella and we head our separate ways.  I look at the piece of paper with his name and number.  I don’t know if I’ll get in contact and am pleased that my pre-Christmas embargo means I don’t have to think about it for a while.  All I have to worry about for the time being is when I’ll next run in to him on the way to the tube.  From now until the new year, I’ll commence every working day with mild anxiety, speckled with the twice-weekly awkward encounter.  Marvellous.