Category Archives: Social awkwardness

Water Birds

Tuesday, 6pm, Australia, 41 degrees.  The working day has ended and I’m driving to the local swimming pool.  The beating sun has made the car an oven and sweat drips down my forehead.  There’ll be no one at the pool – this is rural Australia and no one is ever anywhere on a week night.  I’m looking forward to a cool and tranquil dip.

I arrive and see the packed car park. Ugh. I can hear the noise from the pool before I’ve even opened my car door.  Apparently the one place everyone goes on a week night is the local pool.

I pay my $4 entry fee, and open the gate.  The squawking assaults me.  The flock of children are yelling, laughing, diving, bombing, swimming and running.  Icy-poles and ice-creams are dripping in abundance.

It’s swimming season in Australia.  Children are aplenty and families dominate public venues.  In each lane of the pool a squabble of young seagulls screech and splash about with no reverence to personal space.

I discover that they’ll all leave when their swimming lessons finish at 7pm.  I’ll have an hour of peace before the 8pm closing time.

I sit on the grass near the toddlers’ pool.  These little ducklings are quieter.  Lulled by the warm air, and the soothing water.  They bob quietly, their plastic arm bands and small ring floats keeping them from sinking.

A tubby little boy in flippers shuffles past me.  He’s a penguin if ever I’ve seen one.

7pm ticks round and the children leave in a loud exodus. Towels wrapped clumsily about their dripping bodies, parents rushing them home for dinner.

It’s finally time for me to heave myself into the water.

At that exact moment two football teams stride through the entry gates.  Approximately 44 young, extremely fit men (physically, if not mentally).  Simultaneously they strip off their t-shirts.  The peak physical condition is extraordinary.  If played in slow motion, this would be a scene from Magic Mike … their sweating torsos and chiselled six-packs are almost obscene.  They enter the pool in a spectacular display of strength, coordination and confidence.  These are the swans – large, strong, striking and agile.

All that’s left is for me to walk from my spot on the grass under a tree … into the pool.  In my swimming costume.  With 44 fit young men watching the only thing that’s there to watch – me.

I stand and pull my dress up over my head, my swimming costume (or to use the Australian “togs”) on underneath.

I waddle, glowing white to the shallow end of the large pool and descend the steps.  I’m a plump, awkward goose making its way to the water.  The lads of course have no interest in me (or, to be fair, me in them).  The two young female lifeguards come out of the canteen when they see the lads, altering their posture to best display their feathers.  These flamingos don’t enter the water but strut around the outside, preening and primping.  The male swans puff out their chests in response and dive theatrically.  There’s an unsubtle mating dance taking place.

The hour ends.  We exit the pool and return to our nests for the night.  The early morning will belong to the athletic birds – goggles firmly fastened while they diligently swim laps.  The pool is public and hosts a very diverse range of birdlife.

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Crazy lady

A rainy Sunday morning at a bus stop opposite The North Star pub in Ealing.  Approximately fifteen people wait for the 427, including a woman holding a picture of Jesus and wearing a huge wooden crucifix around her neck.  She’s dressed in a mash-up of clothing.  A baggy brown skirt hangs past her knees, ending about two inches above her ankles – exposing white socks in black sandals.  A frayed purple fleece and a tattered green woollen cap attempt to keep her warm.  She holds the 20 centimetre crucifix in her left hand and the picture of Jesus in her right; staring intently and murmuring at each person she sees, occasionally shouting “Jesus will help you!”

I’ve seen this woman for about the last ten years.  She’s a regular Ealing crazy.

Dressed in a hot pink dress and black knee-high boots, I don’t epitomise wholesomeness.  In an attempt to blend in, I step back into the crowd of people and try to avoid her gaze.  I fail.  For the second time in a decade her radar zooms in on me, “Sinner! You must choose Jesus!”  She stares directly at me but her eyes flicker from side-to-side, reflecting her brain’s faulty wiring.  A nearby couple suppress their giggling and smile sympathetically at me.

Her judgment doesn’t remain on me for long, as the bus arrives and we all board.  I remain standing near the driver, Crazy Lady sits in the middle section, gripping her Jesus picture and clutching the cross.  She selects her targets one-by-one and turns to them, praying loudly for their salvation, “He’s the Way, the Truth and the Light! Let him in!”

At a bus stop close to my home a young woman wearing a full burka boards.  I feel a juvenile thrill at the confrontation certain to take place, though I know my excitement is wrong – like a child in a school yard about to witness a fight.  I exchange a knowing look with the couple who had just sympathised with me: we recognise a new victim has arrived.  The young Muslim woman heads to the back of the bus, passing Crazy Lady who visibly tenses and sits bolt upright.  In my head I hear ten-year-olds chant “Fight! Fight! Fight!

Crazy Lady spins around and holds the cross around her neck out towards the girl – stretching the chain to its limit like she’s warding off a vampire and fervently shouting a barrage of phrases, “Jesus will save you! Let him love you!”  The young Muslim lady smiles (I can’t see her mouth, but I see the twinkle in her eye) and lifts her hand to give Crazy Lady a playful little wave. I look at the Muslim girl and smile.  We both know her presence is sending the already Crazy Lady insane and we’re both finding it amusing.

The bus stops and a Sikh man with a long grey beard and a red turban boards.  It feels like a joke in action: a Christian, a Muslim and a Sikh board a bus …

Crazy Lady spins her head around to confront the Sikh man but she’s then distracted by the scantily clad teenage girls who are standing behind him.  She can’t work out where to focus her energies and the effect has disoriented her.  She’s a malfunctioning robot ready to implode.

The bus reaches my stop and as I disembark from the centre doors I see two drag-queens (one with mascara smudged under his eyes from the previous night and the other with bare feet, holding navy high-heels in his hand) boarding at the front.  It takes a lot of self-control not to jump back on the bus.

The pros and cons of London’s diversity are often debated, but you rarely hear about its comedic value.  This city frequently infuriates me, and then out-of-nowhere brings a smile to my face.

Fire alarm

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!  The high-pitched smoke detector screeches loudly and I rush from the bathroom to the kitchenette of my hotel room.  The building will be evacuated if I don’t quickly stop the cause of the noise and I simply cannot have that happen.  Urgently I switch the toaster off, grab a chair and stand on it to reach the alarm.  With a towel wrapped around me I stretch up and press the silent button.  With my arms extended to the ceiling my towel falls to the floor.  At that exact moment the door to my room opens. 

Me:  Jesus! Shit!  (I drop to a crouch on the chair, in a sort of naked Terminator pose).

The hotel manager:  Christ, I’m sorry!  (He pauses for a moment, clearly searching for the words to justify his intrusion).  I’m just here to investigate a fire.

I look at him over my bare shoulder in a room now so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  His eyes are bolted steadfastly on my face as he slowly processes the situation.     

It’s Tuesday morning at the Four-Trees Apartments in St Kilda Road, Melbourne.  Minutes earlier I’d showered and carved a piece of the delicious fruit loaf I’d purchased at Prahran Market the previous day.  I’d popped the toaster down and returned to the bathroom to comb my wet hair; I was really looking forward to a thick piece of buttery toast with apricots and dates coated in sesame seeds.  Now I’m frozen to the chair as cold water from my hair trickles down my back:  a plump and self-conscious drenched albino rat.

The young hotel manager finally overcomes his stunned embarrassment and looks away.  I unsuccessfully try to break the uneasy silence by desperately babbling.

Me:  It’s okay, it was just some toast.  It didn’t even burn.  The smoke detector must be overly sensitive.  I’ve stopped it now.  There’s no fire.

The hotel manager:  Oh good.  Okay.  Um, I still need to check the area and re-set the alarm …. Sorry.  I just can’t leave the area without making sure.

Jesus Christ, seriously?

The awkward atmosphere continues as he turns and faces the door to give me much overdue privacy.  I get off the chair with as much self-assurance as I can muster, pick up the towel and wrap it back around me.  In a weak attempt to reduce the discomfort I switch the TV on, purely for some noise, and head to the bathroom to dress.

I hear him bustle around the room making the necessary checks and he leaves with an excessively loud, “Okay that’s all sorted!  Let me know if you need anything else”!  I call out thanks, knowing that I’ll be avoiding him for the remainder of my stay.  The air conditioning doesn’t work, the safe doesn’t lock and the Wifi keeps cutting out, all unacceptable in a five-star hotel, but I’ll put up with the flaws for the next two days.  Certain he’ll tell his staff about this incident, I’ll do my best to keep a low profile until I check-out.  Sigh.  Causing an evacuation would have been less embarrassing.  Admittedly, supervising the toasting bread in the first instance would have been the best approach … well my lesson has been sharply learnt through good old-fashioned humiliation.

Ode to Damian

A chubby eleven-year-old boy sits on a bench at lunchtime in a playground.  The school bully, eight-year-old Danny Adams, approaches and the older boy looks up with dread.  Freckly-faced Danny scares him and Danny thrives on his fear.  Grinning maliciously, Danny punches the boy directly in the face, giving him a bloody nose.  The older boy silently gets up and walks to his bag to get some tissues.  It’s 1986 and Damian’s decade of persecution has begun. 

Overweight and with severe acne, Damian’s teenage years were unenviable.  A sci-fi aficionado who eventually studied computing, he was a stereotypical nerd who could have been the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Comic-Book-Guy.  A close family friend and a few years younger than him, I witnessed his unpopularity; distressed by the persecution he experienced, but there was little I could do to help.  Relentlessly bullied and ostracised, he battled through.

At the bottom of the teen popularity ladder, he couldn’t fall any further.   Interestingly, instead of this social leprosy crippling him, he decided to view it as a freedom.  Though the constant ridicule was deeply upsetting, he was already condemned as an untouchable and therefore had no peers to impress.  Liberated by this, he threw himself into pursuits he enjoyed (drama and other unconventional interests) with fervour, knowing he would be bullied no matter what he did.

In early adulthood Damian’s victimisation continued through a series of poor relationships, as emotionally unstable girls leant on his trustworthy, gentle and open-hearted nature.  Frustratingly, each time he endured the relationship well past the reasonable point of tolerance.  Abandoning eloquence for honesty, he was treated like crap and it pissed me off.

I’ve had a (platonic) soft spot for Damian for thirty years, however recently I’ve developed a real admiration for him.  Through every difficult phase of his life, his attitude was remarkable; he didn’t just grit his teeth and bear the suffering – he smiled and radiated positive warmth.  His kindness is ceaseless and his passion for, well everything, is truly inspiring.  In 2011 he stayed with me in London.  Already exhausted from a European tour, he didn’t stop for a second, pursuing his hobbies with awesome ferocity.

In London for four days, he:

  • Went on the London Eye
  • Visited Shakespeare’s Globe, where he tried desperately (& unsuccessfully) to be allowed on stage
  • Underwent The Doctor Who Experience, where he flew the TARDIS
  • Was strapped to a chair, had a hole drilled in his head and was bled from the wrists at the London Dungeon
  • Wandered around the city searching for Monopoly board places
  • Went to 221B Baker Street (the home of Sherlock Holmes) which he established is actually around 239 …
  • Had his photo taken at King’s Cross station where the Harry Potter trolley is positioned at Platform 9 and ¾ (it was an oversight of JK Rowling’s that Paddington’s platforms 9 and 10 actually have train tracks between them …)
  • Went to two musicals
  • Eyed off a Dalek at the London Film museum
  • Spent a fortune at Forbidden Planet, purchasing Doctor Who memorabilia, signed books, and a Dead Parrot (Monty Python, obviously …)
  • Saw Big Ben, the changing of the guard, and fireworks on Guy Fawkes night

I’m ashamed to say that’s possibly more than I’ve done in the past year.

Damian’s addiction to sci-fi probably best illustrates his inherent nerdiness.  He loves fantasy (preferably urban) and comedy by the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin and Neil Gaiman.  He plays World of Warcraft, has a Murloc on his bookshelf , a DeLorean in his bedroom, owns 2000 DVDs and two 2-terabyte drives crammed with TV shows and movies.

From a caterpillar, Damian has become a brilliant butterfly.  He says yes to anything and doesn’t waste a second of life.  He loves acting and has been on the board of three different theatre companies.  One of his life’s highs was directing a Terry Pratchett adaptation of Mort.  His favourite performance role was Orin Scrivello (the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors).  He’s written a novel and has been drawing comics since he was twelve.  Oh and, having lived in Japan, he speaks Japanese.

Approaching forty, Damian’s soon to be married to a lovely, intelligent and attractive woman and I know it’s a cliché to say, but he really does deserve it.  I’m grateful for him and proud to be his friend.  The world needs more Damians.

Afterword

It seems fitting to post this entry on Friday 13th, not only because Damian shares his name with the Antichrist from The Omen (albeit spelt differently), but because the timing of when I wrote it was peculiar.  On Boxing Day, I stopped my dinner midway through because of an irresistible desire to write about Damian.  It’s not uncommon for me to feel compelled to write, but it is uncommon to sacrifice food for it!  An hour later this entry was complete and ready for public viewing later in the year – when Damian was actually engaged and after I’d obtained his permission for publishing (which, incidentally, I have).  Damian phoned me from Melbourne on December 30th (I was in Fiji) to tell me his “big news”!  He had got engaged at 9pm on Boxing Day … half an hour after I wrote this.  I’m not a superstitious person, but I did find that quite a coincidence!

Solitary adult pleasure

I’m not sure when I became the person who takes a bottle of wine into the cinema on their own.  At fourteen, my movie marathons were accompanied by awe-inspiring sweets and crisps binges; at some point I progressed to the adult version.  In time, I’ll be covered in cat hair and a trail of birdseed will spill from the bin liners I carry.  It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Vue Cinema, Shepherd’s Bush.  I’m in the ticket purchasing area having just watched “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and about to head in to “The Help”.  A woman in a grey suit holding a clipboard makes eye contact with me in a way that’s beckoning me to stop.  Slightly tipsy, I oblige.    

WOMAN:  Are you interested in two free tickets to a movie?

ME (pausing slightly, wary of the sales catch):  Um, maybe.

WOMAN:  All you have to do is put your name on this list and the tickets are yours.  We’re screening “Red Dog” here on Thursday.

ME:  Ah, that’s an Australian movie! (Nostalgia’s making me encourage her when I should be cutting her off).

WOMAN:  Ok, give me your name and I’ll put you down.  You need to bring a male with you for our numbers.

ME (thrown by the condition attached to the free tickets):  Oh, um, I don’t know who I’d bring ….

WOMAN:  You must have a male you can bring?

ME: Well, not really.  I’m single so …

WOMAN:  And you don’t have any family here?  A brother?  Cousin? (My Australian accent should indicate that my family are not Londoners).

ME (starting to feel pressured):  Well I have males I can bring, but they all live in other parts of London and won’t be free at such short notice. 

WOMAN:  So, you don’t have any male you could bring with you?  We can’t give you the tickets if you don’t bring a male. 

(Jesus Christ, is she trying to make me feel bad?  I look at her and just sort of shrug).

WOMAN:  I could give you three tickets instead of two and you could bring a couple with you?  (Ugh.  I’m in a scene from “Bridget Jones“). 

ME (pity and discomfort have drifted into the situation so I lie):  Oh, no it’s okay, I know exactly who I’ll take – two tickets are perfect! (My enthusiasm reeks of overcompensation).

I put my name down for the tickets, but won’t collect them; her judging eyes have slightly tainted my afternoon retreat.  She feels sorry for me, but her pity is misplaced.  Yes, I’ve developed some habits that might be described as eccentric, but at this very moment I’m entirely happy – few pleasures compare with a good movie and a “glass” of wine.  

Entering the cinema to watch my second movie of the day, I see there are only three other people viewing – all on their own and all men (I wonder if the “numbers” are acceptable in here …).  To some people, we’re desperate loners; if we were about to see an adult movie the whole scene would be sordid.  Instead I hear the familiar crinkling of food wrappers from three other seats and think of us as innocent fourteen year olds (nostalgia creeping over me again).  There’s an intimacy in our united solitude and anticipation of the escapism we’re about to share.  I stretch out, take my shoes off, pour myself a drink and wait to be transported to another world.