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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.

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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.

Happy Birthday Eliza!

“You can have a party Eliza.  You can have Grandpa and Grandma and Nana and David and Mummy and Daddy and your sisters.  It’ll be a great party”.

Eliza - aged 1

Eliza – aged 1

My sister tries to convince her daughter to limit her fourth birthday to a family gathering.  My niece looks at her mother silently, but the cogs are turning in her brain.  She smells a rat and two days later, after serious reflection, she’s decided she’s having none of it.  She speaks quietly “I would like to have some of my friends at my party”.

My sister laughs.  Busted.

The only friend Eliza wants to attend is Danny.  Surely she has other friends?  Her preschool teacher confirms that she plays with Ruby and Charlotte but never with Danny.  Strange, even I know she talks about him all the time.  The teacher shines a light on the puzzle.  Danny is the naughtiest child in the class.  Eliza watches him.  His antics delight her.  She laughs uncontrollably when he gets in trouble.

Eliza - aged 2

Eliza – aged 2

A well-behaved girl, Eliza dreams of misbehaving and gets a mischievous twinkle in her eye when she sees any sign of naughtiness.   It brings her to life.  She vicariously lives roguishness and devilry.  Oh how she dreams of being wild and free.  If only she could break the shackles of her parents’ endless rules and regulations, but she dare not.   Danny lives a life of which she can only dream.  She envies and admires him.

To save the effort of having guests at her house, my sister suggests holding the party at the local park.  Again, Eliza is clear about her wishes “No.  I would like it at home.  I want to show Danny my bedroom”.  And there’s no doubt in her mind that she wants the swimming pool cake.  Her mother is relieved – it’s easy to create.

My sister invites a family friend with a five-year-old girl to help make up the numbers.  Three days after being informed of the gate-crasher Eliza very quietly expresses her views “Mummy, I didn’t want to invite Amelia to my party …”.  My sister stifles her laughter.   She’s busted again but it’s too late, she can’t withdraw the invite.

Eliza - aged 3

Eliza – aged 3

Eliza has a clear vision of her party and it doesn’t include a third wheel.

So, in front of her entire family, Eliza will have her party with a boy who fascinates and inspires her but to whom she never speaks.  In thirty years this would be an unimaginably awkward social situation, though arguably still not as uncomfortable as many of my dating experiences.   The lucky girl is blissfully unaware of the world of humiliation and heartbreak she’s yet to experience.  I wouldn’t want to have to grow up again.

Happy Birthday Eliza.  Enjoy these black-and-white years where you know your mind so clearly, don’t have to pretend to like people you don’t, and can openly state your desires without restriction, judgement or consequences.  Have fun with Danny, but if he doesn’t make an effort after seeing your bedroom then forget him.  Bad boys are tiresome and being good pays off, or so I’m told.

The distressed damsel and the dominant doctor

A cold Wednesday morning in the podiatry department of a London hospital. With three others, I sit waiting for my consultant. He emerges. “Simone – let’s see if we can finally sort you out”. In silence I follow him to his small room and sit down.  Always composed and deliberately selective with his words, he radiates control.  I get nervous when receiving medical treatment; the focussed attention makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable. The intensity and quiet command that surrounds my consultant makes these particular appointments worse. It’s not helped by his good-looks and gravitas. This time I’m determined not to let him affect me.

For two minutes we sit in complete silence while he reads my file.  Eventually he looks up “Take your shoe and sock off”.

I do so, and without speaking he indicates for me to put my foot on his lap. He looks at it and moves my toe, applying pressure.

Consultant: Does that hurt?

Me: Yes, very much so.

He rotates the toe for a while and then presses harder, looking at me.

Consultant: Does that hurt?

Me: Yes, it really hurts.

Consultant (pressing yet harder): Does that hurt?

Me: Yes!

Consultant (giving a playful smile): I know. I like seeing your reaction.  There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

My pigeon toe after the first operation

My pigeon toe after the first operation

I roll my eyes and shake my head with a little laugh.

My foot is still on his lap when he looks at the large black ring covered in spikes on my right hand.

Consultant: That’s quite a ring – it looks like a weapon.  Can I have a look at it?

Me: Sure.

He takes my hand in his, resting the other on my leg, and looks at me intently with that twinkle.

Consultant (smiling): Jeez, that’s impressive! You could hurt me with that.

Am I imagining sexual tension? Flustered, I withdraw my hand, look away and start babbling in a light-hearted voice.

Me:  Oh the spikes are actually just rubber, and they’re flexible so it can’t do the kind of damage it might appear to be able to.

Thankfully there’s a knock on the door to break the atmosphere and my prattling.  Nurse Cherry (I’m not joking – I’m beginning to feel like I’m in a poorly scripted X-rated movie) brings in the results of my MRI.   My consultant exchanges some medical jargon with her then looks at me.

My pigeon toe after the second operation

My pigeon toe after the second operation

Me:  Oh sorry, I wasn’t listening.  I didn’t realise you were talking to me?

Consultant:  I wasn’t.  I was talking around you. (He smiles and continues). You’ll know when I’m talking to you.

And he winks at me.

It feels like he’s flirting, but could that really be the case? I say nothing while he silently scrutinizes my MRI results before explaining my options.  In full professional mode he uses very technical terms.  I ask him to explain it to me so I’ll understand.  Essentially, I need him to dumb it down for my distracted squirrel brain.

Consultant: We can cut it off, shave the bone …

Me (shrugging): OkI’ll say yes to whatever you say …

Consultant (cutting me off and grinning broadly): I know you will.

Me (laughing): You didn’t let me finish! I was going to say, I’ll say yes to whatever you say if you think it will fix it. I just need the pain to stop.

He explains the procedure and places his hand on my arm as he says goodbye.  The next time I see him I’ll be in a surgical gown on an operating table.  Unless it’s a really weird X-rated movie for a very niche market, this will be the end of any sexual tension between us.

Afterword

I realise this may all be in my head.  Please don’t shatter my dream – I have very little in life.

The blood drains, but I’m red-faced

A cold November day in one of London’s many hospitals. Kate, a young blonde nurse, takes me in to a cubicle sectioned off by a thin blue curtain. I sit down on a hard plastic chair as she chirps away, presumably to distract me from the approaching activity. It’s her first day working here and she seems a little nervous.

Me (smiling): Just so you know, I’ll faint.

Kate (in a heavy South African accent): Oh, are you sure?

Me: Yes, I always faint when I have a blood test. I often faint when I get a needle, but I always faint when blood is taken.

Kate (slightly apprehensive but maintaining her chirpiness):  Oh, okay. Well just relax and take a deep breath and I’ll try to be as gentle as possible.

The needle goes in and after a few seconds I feel the familiar woozy rush.

Me: I’m going to faint now.

Kate: Are you sure?

Me: Yes.

I wake up.

I feel clammy and damp from head to toe. My hair is sticking to my face. A woman in her late-fifties is standing in front of me, Kate at her side.

Woman: Hello dear. You’re in hospital. I’m the nurse in charge. Kate just tried to take some blood from you, but when she did you fainted and you actually had a bit of a fit. Your eyes rolled back and you were gurgling …

She wants me to say something, but I’m embarrassed so I just look at her blankly until she continues.

Woman: You also had a bit of an accident… you’ve unfortunately wet yourself.

With slow horror, it dawns on me that the damp feeling on the seat isn’t sweat. I’m mortified.

Woman: Kate, get her some water. Do you feel okay?

I shake my head. The truth is I feel physically fine, but I’m so excruciatingly embarrassed that I can’t bring myself to speak. I need a moment to regain my composure. This is horrendous.

Thankfully I’m wearing black trousers – if I’d been in a light summer dress this would have been worse. Unfortunately the failed test means I have to go home and come back another day. The humiliation isn’t over as I realise that today I’M going to be the person on the bus smelling of urine.

That was in 2001. Eleven years later, on Friday 16 November 2012, and I’m in another London hospital about to have an MRI scan. An injection is required.

Me (commencing a monologue I’ve repeated many times): Just so you know, I’ll faint. And I might have a fit. That’s happened before and I wet myself so I need to let you know it’s a possibility. I’m okay most of the time though, so I’m likely to be fine. I’m sorry to be a problem.

The nurse isn’t taking any chances and brings in two other members of staff (the “reserves” for special cases …) and takes me to a room so I’m not in the open area. One of the “reserves” takes over as she’s apparently the best. She talks me through the process far too much (hearing “I’ve got a good vein here!” isn’t helpful) and cheerfully announces when it’s over. She’s pleased the procedure was successful and turns to complete her paperwork.

With her back to me, I faint.

God. Damn. It.