Here’s No.2. We had a hoot doing this one, as you’ll see when I post the outtakes videos. Coming soon x
The bundle arrives at 5am. Dan & Charlie don’t come in, they never do, just sling it down by the milk crates and drive off. It’s usually wet when I pick it up but it don’t matter, I throw the top and bottom ones out anyway. Saves about twenty minutes in the long run. Not recently, though. They’ve put the big houses up on the Ridge onto my round ‘cos it’s the holidays and no one’s about. Takes bloody ages to get up there and they’ve all got them ‘No Junk Mail’ signs so you know you’re not wanted. Sometimes one of ‘em comes out and shouts but you just pretend you don’t hear nothing and keep going. No time to stop, too cold for that. Just get it over with.
Nan’s got me some gloves for Christmas. The thermal ones, she said, to stop me pinkies going blue. Trouble is, you can’t sort through the flyers so you end up taking them off anyway, bless her. Sometimes I go round after I’m done ‘cos she’s always got the heating up. Like the Bahamas in there most days, even in summer. Might nip over later if it’s still light. She likes a natter.
The first bit’s dead quick. Mostly flats, all shoved up close together & no one cares if you chuck in some extras. They all end up in the bin anyway, so what’s a few more if it makes life easier? You’ve got to watch it, though. A couple of lads got the elbow for putting theirs in a skip last week and bunking off early; not what you want at this time of year. Usually you see a few posties on the way, struggling with their big sacks of parcels and fat letters and cards and that. Makes you glad you’re not one of them, even though they make loads more than us. We don’t talk, neither. Everyone wants to get back indoors, quick as you like.
As you move out of town, the houses get bigger and further apart. Some have drives you’ve got to walk up, and dogs giving it all that until you leave. And those letterboxes that snap back onto your fingers, ‘cos to them you’re no better than the draughts they’re keeping out. There’s usually someone in, but when they see you coming they go in another room and pretend they’re not there. You can see their shadows through the crazy glass, trying to keep still. When you finally get up to the Ridge, you know you’re on the home run. Grand old places all the way along it, but there’s not too many and it’s downhill all the way back. You’re glad of this ‘cos by now you’ve had enough.
Today though, this old geezer comes out of one in his pyjamas and it’s well after lunch. ‘Here we go’, I says, and pull up my hood. But he’s shouting and shouting and I’m thinking maybe I’ve dropped something outside, so I go back. He’s only holding a tray and offering it out to me like some bloody weirdo. Now, I’ve been told about this sort of thing back at the depot and how to deal with it, but he don’t look so bad. Quite sad, actually. ‘Happy Christmas’, he goes. ‘Have a mince pie. It’ll keep you warm.’ I’m looking at him harsh so he don’t think I’m one of them, but he’s right: it’s bloody freezing and it’ll be an hour or two before I get back. So I take the pie and it’s lovely and warm in my hands. I watch him take a bite of his so I know it’s alright, then I put the whole thing in my mouth and swallow it down quick. And it’s proper nice. All sugary sweet with raisins and fruit and everything. But then I look up to say cheers and the bastard’s gone back in. Like I said, bloody weirdo.
Don’t think I’ll make it over to Nan’s after all. It’s getting dark and I’m up early in the morning. She’ll wait a day and you know what? That pie will do me until I get in, and the streetlights sort of make you feel warm too. It’s not so bad. And it’s downhill all the way back…
I’ve had the same car now for eleven years. It was a replacement for an identical one which had the tits ripped off of it, on a roundabout in West Dulwich by a woman who didn’t look right when she should have done, putting me in plaster for five months. Over which time I was compensated, lost my job, split up with my fiancée and oversaw the untimely death of seven out of thirteen gerbils who had made their way into my inner circle, euphemism fans. But the new car was astonishing. I could never have afforded her initially, it was only the accident money that made it possible, so I made a small promise to myself on the day I took her down from Fife, Scotland to her new home in South London:
‘Come what may, I will look after you, keep you going and perhaps if I do, there may be a ghost of a chance that we’ll be together until one of us snuffs it.’
It was a marriage of sorts. And yet, curiously, I am not a car person. I couldn’t give a monkeys about what goes on underneath the bonnet, and even less about performance, reliability and safety. All I care about is that she is a lovely thing that gives me pleasure each and every time I sit in the driver’s seat and if, for whatever reason, she gives me gyp, I just learn to put up with it or try to fix it. As many of my close friends will testify as they have towed me home in the small hours or watched, incredulously, as one of her wheels overtook me on the M40.
Over the years, I’ve had all the dull jobs addressed: New gearbox, new clutch unit, something or another to do with diffs (whatever they are), the pointless points (enjoyed that one), carbs and sparks and trunnions and God knows what else. Which you have to do or the bloody thing doesn’t work. But none of this stuff is visible: Kind of like paying an arm and a leg to get the drains sorted outside your house, when actually all you want is a cooker that says more about you than money ever can. The cosmetics play second fiddle to those hardcore kids in the playground built like pit bulls that always seem to get first dibs.
But not this time. I’ve been watching an arc of rust creeping across the bonnet for the last two years, and the hood frame above me decomposing and freezing me to bits on every journey. And those classic Old English White wheels that now look like they’re just home from the Somme. So I’m getting them all done. In one hit. And when they are, I shall renew my vow of 2003 and look forward to our next swathe of time together on the open road. Because in my humble opinion, a car is for life. Not just for Christmas.
As some of you may know, I’ve been working in a Catholic church now for quite some time. My remit is to conserve the merchandise, the latest being a huge gilded reredos with exquisitely carved priests gazing up at a floating Lady of Suffering with her attendant cherubs and, a bit further up, God. With a massive beard. And a book.
Every day I arrive an hour or so before the morning Mass. To get to the scaffold, I have to push my bike past an elderly man lying prostrate on the floor in a state of reverie, touching the feet of a plaster cast of Our Lady with six plastic swords piercing her sacred heart. He barely notices me. Next, I nod graciously at the Silver Vixen (who smiles provocatively back) and then head on up to the tower. Usually I bail out for the Mass itself, but sometimes I catch the last of it. A priest in white and purple robes, looking and sounding like Mark E Smith, finishes the proceedings by chanting the beginning of a hymn and then walking off to the sacristy in solemnity, leaving the congregation to wrap up the singing and follow suit. Which, for the most part, they do.
A few weeks ago, however, a straggler got locked in. She’d passed out on one of the pews and fell under the penetrating in-house CCTV radar. When she came to, frightened and coming down off something, her first vision was that of myself, alone, at height and magnificently backlit by powerful halogens. The following exchange went something like this:
Me: Are you okay?
Lady: Who…who are you? Do you want me to sing for you?
Me: Maybe not now. Do you know how to get out?
Lady: Are you Jesus?
Lady: Let me sing for you, Jesus.
Me: I think we’d better…
Lady: LET ME SING FOR YOU, JESUS!!!
Me: Ok. What can you do?
Lady: Tell me what to sing.
Me: Look, I’m really not Jesu…
Lady: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SING???
Me: Um…How about Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? Do you know that one?
Lady: Just like you, Jesus. A twinkling star. In Heaven.
Me: Thank you. But I really think you should speak to Father Pat first.
Lady: I wrote you a letter. Did you get my letter?
Me: I don’t think so.
Lady: I gave it to Our Lady. She kept it for you. SHE KEPT IT FOR YOU!!!
Me: I’ll ask her for it later.
Lady: I need to go wee.
Me: Wait a minute. I’ll come down and show you…
Lady: HELP ME GO WEE, JESUS!!! HELP ME GO WEE!!!
So I did. I helped the lady go wee. And then we took a short walk together to the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital where she was taken in and my services superseded by those more qualified than I. Because I’m not Jesus: I’m just a fella.
I thought long and hard about using this title. Really, I did. Because the point of this week’s whimsy is all about having the tinnitus, working opposite a Chelsea hospital and the lunacy of having a coma-inducing klaxon attached to vehicles designated specifically for our care. However, I had another look and thought better of it. If you haven’t already spotted the reason why, let me elucidate: The Sound of Sirens could so easily be misconstrued as a weak attempt at impersonating a Chinese person having a go at one of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel. Particularly if I followed it with “Harrow Duck Nest Marrow Fren”, which obviously I would have avoided. Yes, I know: It has nothing to do with the subject matter and you probably wouldn’t have made the connection if I hadn’t drawn your attention to it, but it’s out there now and you can’t be too careful these days.
But then it occurred to me that the very inclusion of the reasons I decided against it could equally be read as divisive, in a similar way that someone like Clarkson throws in a defamatory remark and quantifies it by apologising for a lesser crime than the one he has actually committed. Which finds me between a rock and a hard place. Should I have the courage of my original conviction, or should I edit myself into ever-decreasing circles, based almost exclusively on my nascent understanding of what you enjoy reading here every week? A Sophie’s Choice, basically, and I fear whichever I go for will inevitably be wrong as per.
Anyway, I’m getting off-piste. Today, one of those bloody things shot past me as I made my way to purchase a coffee over my morning break and my ears are still ringing as I write this. It’s the lunacy of having a coma-inducing klaxon on vehicles designated specifically for our care, make no mistake. Er, and that’s it, pretty much. I was hoping to go on to mention healthcare cuts, key worker issues etc…and somehow make it all funny, but you’ve got no idea: Every time I think of something relevant, I am utterly distracted by chronic feedback between the lugholes and I just get in a strop and forget about whatever it was that I had in mind in the first place.
Cameron, this is all your doing: I was good before you got in. Just give the NHS enough moolah to replace those appalling style-over-content American wailers with good old-fashioned Z-Cars ones from yesteryear and I’ll do my best to be entertaining again. There are people out there relying on me, and the last thing they want is weekly derivative crap forced upon them by your swingeing policies and my deteriorating hearing. And, in case you’re wondering, the title has got nothing to do with our friends across the water. Or The Graduate. Got that? Good.
It started with Mary Poppins. Perfectly harmless, but the seed was sown. When I didn’t baulk at that, the bar was incrementally raised: Doctor Doolittle/The Jungle Book/Oliver/Bugsy Malone, even Camelot (which was really quite grown-up). Still I did not flinch. Then the heavy artillery: Cabaret/Grease/Jesus Christ Superstar/New York, New York/A Star is Born. I took umbrage at the latter, my tender sensibilities already affronted by the vulgarity of Hollywood pizzazz. But still they kept on coming: Evita/A Chorus Line/That’s Dancing. And then I knew. How could I continue to live this lie? The sleepless nights, the deception, those red velvet trousers I had always secretly despised? No, the time had come: I had to tell my mother I was straight:
Mother: Oh, don’t be ridiculous!
Me: Ma, I am. I think I always have been. I’m sorry.
Mother: It’s probably just a phase, dear. Lots of boys your age go through it. Now, settle down and I’ll pop on some Barbara Streisand.
Me: Please don’t. I’m serious about this.
Mother: Of course you are. Let’s have a cup of tea and you can tell me all about it.
Me: You’re not listening to me, Ma. I’m straight. And no amount of cups of tea or Barbara Streisand will change that.
Mother: Yes yes yes! No need to shout. Now, I’ve been flicking through the papers and they’re showing West Side Story again at the Ritzy on Saturday. Thought we might…
Me: You’re just not getting it, are you? I don’t want to see West Side Story, I don’t want to see The Sound of Music and, to be frank, I don’t want to see any more musicals. Ever. Again. Do you understand?
Mother: I’ve seen you watching Cabaret alone in your room. And singing along.
Me: Cabaret is different. The narrative is the driving force behind that film, and the music just so happens to be great as well. But without the former, they’re just songs looking for a vessel. The combination of the two is a heady mix. It’s the unsurpassed, bitter-sweet genius of Bob Fosse.
Me: See what? Look, just because I like Cabaret does not make me gay, ok? You’re just going to have to get used to it.
Mother: But…but what will I do?
Me: I know it’s hard for you right now. But lots of straight men go on to lead happy, fulfilled lives and I’m determined to be one of them. I just want you to be happy for me. Do you think you can do that?
Mother: Yes…I think so. But are you sure? I mean, have you actually tried it? You know…
Me: Yes, I have.
Mother: Oh God…(sobs)…I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!
Me: Please don’t be, Ma. It’s ok, really. And I think, given time, you’ll come to love Echo & the Bunnymen as well. They’re super on stage, and you’ll die for the hairstyles.
The trouble with hitting your middle years, apart from the incessant failings of the body’s risible infrastructure, is the creeping awareness of one’s own mortality. No-one tells you precisely when that middle point is either. It would be terrific if, at the exact median of your time on Earth, they gave you a ticker-tape parade with a brass band and silver watch and street bunting or something. With a desperately shy homecoming queen landing you a big kiss and an iced cake with ‘NOT LONG NOW’ piped onto the top. But they don’t, largely because they’re terrified of being sued for getting it wrong. These are litigious times.
And yet, as we march relentlessly towards the final curtain, the signs are all around us: That unexpected Alzheimers mailshot, being offered a seat on public transport (despite not being saturated in wee), feeling at ease in a Wetherspoons, caring about socks and the longevity of footwear, enjoying a butterscotch. All these incremental details are nature’s way of letting us know we’re on the slide, and that we had better start making the most of what we have left. It isn’t pretty, but what is when you don’t know where you are on the scale? Should we start making arrangements? Making that list of inappropriate tunes to be played out on the day of our memorial? Or should we just leave it to chance? It’s a lottery, make no mistake.
I’m working in a church right now, filled with saints and sacraments, effigies of the martyred Christ and his attendants, and endless reminders of the transience of existence. Just to give myself a breather, I take my sandwiches to Brompton Cemetery, alone and surrounded by the gravestones of those who, like me, used to take a lunch break somewhere before the reaper claimed them. The difference being that I’m the only one around who can clock it for now, until it’s my turn to be posthumously observed by some beardy berk with an artisan bloomer stuffed to the gunnels with halloumi and alfalfa sprouts. Even the stone carvers who meticulously chiselled out their client names & places of departure into marble or alabaster are no longer with us. You can’t fight it: It’s the inevitable cycle of life and death, and we’re all on board.
So what’s the point here? Perhaps, like Sally Bowles’s ex-flatmate Elsie in the movie Cabaret, it is to live every day as if it were your last (there is very little in that film that will not inform your every move at a cataclysmic level). Do something brave: Go see Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? Who knows, it might be life changing. Eat something weird. Fly off to somewhere you’ve never heard of and stay there a few days. Walk to work. Chat to strangers. Do yourselves a favour just for once. Because the halfway mark may be long since gone. And you don’t get a second chance.