Work took me to St Albans today. I haven't been there for years, and, as is normal when visiting a place that doesn't fit the everyday routine, I found myself remembering previous trips.
One trip in particular, actually. A retirement party when I would have been about 22.
When I left University and came to The Big Smoke, I worked for one of the big London estates. The team of people managing our 200 acre patch of London was larger than the company I'm working for now, but it was a warm and cozy, old fashioned, family-based place to work.
One of our team members had joined the company fresh from University himself in the mid-fifties and worked there, man and boy. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the estate in the 44 years he'd worked there. "Have you done anything on 30 Acacia Avenue?" He would remove his glasses and draw on one arm, as if he were smoking a pipe, then say in a slow, considered way, "30 Bourne Street. Yes, I think so. Come in, Tooting, come in and sit down. Would you like a biscuit? Now then. Number 30. Yes I remember. I dealt with that building in 1964. The tenant was a Mrs Jones and her husband was a Swiss banker. They had blue wallpaper in the master bedroom, and a cat called Fluffy ..." Shortly after he turned 64 he announced his plan to retire the second he hit 65, and a ripple of panic went around the building. All of that knowledge would be lost, and a lovely man with it.
But it's with some effort that I remember all of this now. During that last year of his working life something happened that means that I will always remember him in a tragic way.
His son was 23 and had just graduated from university. He was taking an extended holiday with his girlfriend travelling around Africa, before coming home to start working for a living. Nothing usual there. In fact, at the time, it was more unusual NOT to do something like that. Mine was a quiet year that year, with my friends being scattered around the world, sending emailed newsletters from time to time.
Whilst in Uganda, my colleague's son joined a group of tourists on an organised tour of Biwindi National Park. The group of ten were all British, American and New Zealanders. Eight of the ten were shot dead by Rwandan rebels. How the other two escaped is anyone's guess. Their cause was protest at Anglo-American support of the Rwandan government; something none of their victims knew much, if anything about. They could have chosen any group of tourists. But they didn't. They chose this one.
I can remember the afternoon when this unfolded with extraordinary clarity. I can remember hearing that British tourists had been shot, then finding out that he had been with the tour company that had been involved, but no-one could find out whether he was in the group in question or not. I remember a helplessness of watching news unfold on the BBC, and not knowing whether it was personal. And I can remember sitting in the office of one of our secretaries when she took the call from her bosses wife, and hearing, in the metallic tones that you hear the other end of the someone else's phone conversation, "oh god, it's him. He's dead. What will we do?"
Later that long, sober afternoon, one of our directors came into the office that I shared with my boss. He looked at me and asked how old I was. I was still 21 then. He continued to look at me, clearly considering whether to speak the words he was thinking. After a long pause, he said, "his life and yours were practically the same. It could have been you instead."
Of course it never could have been. I was far too cowardly to have gone travelling at all, let alone to somewhere so adventurous. But all I could think about that afternoon were my far-flung friends. I desperately wanted to go out, Mother Hen style, and round them all up where they'd be safe. So I didn't reply, but excused myself and sobbed in the ladies toilet for a few minutes and then went back to my desk to email them all, one by one, a little, "thinking of you," note which only half of them ever acknowledged.
So when, at the end of that year, our colleague threw a retirement party at his home in St Albans, with his wife, daughter, and son's girlfriend (one of the miraculous survivors) in attendance, the mood was not one of celebration and well wishing, but of sorrow and pity. The mood reflected the fact that some people simply hadn't known what to say to him for so many months that it was a relief not to look at his rapidly-aged face any more. The mood reflected the fact that the thing had been so horrific that no-one had ever really known how to express sympathy without saying something crass. No-one asked how he could bear not to fill his days with work. No-one asked whether, when he looked at the girlfriend, he resented her life. No-one asked what they talked about when they were alone together. It was ghastly.
So in St Albans this morning, I found myself searching the faces of men in the crowd, wondering whether he was still living there. Then, after a time, I started to wonder, in a slightly macabre manner, if he was still living at all.
I'd not thought about him for years. My life has changed immeasurably since then, and my years at that company seem so removed from anything I'm doing now that I have to think hard to dredge up any memories of the place at all. So it was a surprise to think about that day so clearly today, and a surprise to associate the town so strongly with it. And a suprise to realise that, 12 years on, the memory of what happened to someone I never even met makes me grateful that all my friends came home to their office jobs and mortgages, and most importantly that, whilst it could have been me instead, it wasn't.
Living in a very urban area on the edge of a very large city, a girl doesn't expect much in the way of wildlife on a daily basis. Mice, rats, the occasional hedgehog, and of course the place is crawling with bloody foxes, (but people get to twitchy when I suggest establishing the Tooting Hunt. I assume they're anxious about where we'd kennel the hounds ...)
But I've taken some joy this summer in a wee spot of birdwatching. You see, for all our limited supply of wildlife, we can offer a rather quirky line in twitching. We have a local flock of parakeets. Not what you'd expect from a not-very-tropical corner of town, is it?
They sound like those toys that dogs chew, so you can hear the tell-tale squeeksqueeksqueek a little in advance, then they'll come over in sixes and sevens, usually with one poor sucker a second or two behind, squeeking a little, "wait for meeeeee!" at his friends. Always the same time of day - that bit of the evening after the sun goes over and before dusk, and always heading in the same direction. They must be commuting, I assume.
Where did they come from?! Well I have two theories ...
Theory 1 - Parakeet Amore
Percy and Prunella Parakeet lived in a cage in the lounge of a Grumpy Lady. She gave them a mirror to look in, and a string of seed to nibble at, and they had three perches to hop between. In the evening the Grumpy Lady would cover them over with a tea towel and it made them sad so that they'd no longer squeaksqueaksqueak to one another.
By day though, they could peep between the bars of their cage and out the window and see other, less attractive birds flying freely around, splashing in puddles and eating juicy worms. They would squeak to one another about how they dreamed that one day they could join the ugly brown birds and spread their lovely green wings.
The Grumpy Lady came every day to change their water, and when she put her big fat arm through the door of the cage, Percy and Prunella would cower in the far corner of their cage, and snuggle together. One very sunny day, when the Grumpy Lady had the windows in her house open, and Percy and Prunella could hear the other birds chirrupingmerrily to themselves, Percy came up with a plan.
He squeaked his idea to Prunella and she agreed that they should give it a go. So that day, when the Grumpy Lady came to change the water, they took their usual positions at the back of the cage, took a deep breath, then flew at the Grumpy Lady's big fat arm, pecking her fat fingers and making her jump backwards. In her shock, she was slow to close the door of the cage, and quick as a flash, Percy and Prunella darted out the door, across the room, and out the open window.
Up, up, up! they flew, feeling the wind under their green wings and they squeak, squeak, squeaked their way up to the top of the tallest trees! Percy and Prunella had lots of little baby parakeets, who in turn had babies of their own, and so their little family of free parakeets grew in their tropical Tooting home. And they all lived happily ever after.
Theory 2 - The Lone Parakeet
Paul the parakeet lived in a house with an old man. The old man liked having Paul around for company, and talked to him all the time. Paul had a cage to call home, but the door was always open for him to come and go as he pleased, so he spent a lot of time sitting on curtain rails and lampshades, squeaking and chattering to the old man. They were very happy together.
But the man was very old and was poorly and one day his daughter came to help him pack up some things and move into a home where people would look after him. In all the fuss though, everyone forgot about Paul, and he sat watching from the top of the curtain rail whilst they all left.
When everyone had gone, and Paul had realised that they weren't coming back for him, he had a good flap around the house to look for a way out, and he found a tiny broken pane of glass and squeezed out and flew over to a nearby tree where he hid himself in amongst the leaves so he could think.
Days went by and Paul missed having someone to talk to. He flew around from time to time to look for something to eat, but he was a bit scared of the other birds. The sparrow and starlings flew around in big groups, and the pigeons were all much bigger than him, and they all stared at his bright green feathers and made him feel bad. He was so different to everyone else that he felt lonely even when he was surrounded by other birds.
Then, one day, he was there, perched on his branch, when he saw a flash of green past his tree. "WOWEE," thought Paul. "Who was she?! She's GORGEOUS!" and he flap, flap, flapped off his branch after her as quick as his wings would take him.
Finally he caught her up and caught her eye. "Hello," she said. "I'm Petra. I escaped from my old owner's house weeks ago and I've never seen another greeny like us since then. It's lovely to meet you." Paul was smitten. They went for a good fly around the neighbourhood and found seeds on birdfeeders to eat, and Paul was no longer scared of the other birds because now he didn't feel lonely. Paul couldn't believe his luck!
Before long, they were beak-fencing (the saucy devils) and that night they snuggled next to one another on the same branch. Paul and Petra were inseparable after that, and over time they met other escaped parakeets who came to live in the tree with them, and start a little green colony. And that tree was in Tooting. And they all lived happily ever after.
Either way, there's loads of them now. And they look so free, whizzing around the south-west London sky. I only hope they like eating worms ...
Was generally a good one. But can you believe that it's Sunday evening AGAIN?!
1) Pub quiz. My old pal Andy came with me this week and was very much worth his place on the team, getting LOTS of answers for Team Biscuit. Bravo him! He'll be invited again. We didn't win, but it's the taking part that counts.
2) The quiz has a convoluted ending each week. The £2 to take part in the quiz goes in the pot and you get a raffle ticket. After the quiz, a ticket is drawn, and the winner has to do a round of Playboy Your Cards Right. This is the same as Play Your Cards Right, but with naked ladies on the (worryingly) laminated and enlarged cards. Classy. If you get to the end of the six card run, you win the money in the pot. If you don't you win a bottle of wine. Are you following this so far?! Anyway, I won the raffle (HOORAY!) and I Playboyed My Cards Right, and I won ONE HUNDRED POUNDS! YAYAYAY!! I did a little £100 dance. Which is not the same dance that the lady on the six of diamonds would do, let me tell you ...
3) THEN, on the way home from the quiz, we saw a naked man. There he was, standing in his bedroom window, curtains open, lights on, having a good stretch (not a euphemism). What's a girl to do?! (Stare, slack jawed, and snigger a bit. That's what).
4) On Friday, I ticked lots of things off my Things I Must Do list. I bought bedroom curtains, blinds and curtain poles, I hit the supermarket, I painted my Feature Wall (Teal Tension), and I rustled up a prawn curry for dinner.
5) Then on Friday evening, I met my friend Joey and we went to Amelia's show at our wee local gallery. It was, of course, fabulous! She's one talented lady. I've got my eye on one or two things when I've got a bit more spare cash (am currently more skint than Greece). Meanwhile I have to settle for being a bit inspired.
6) I woke up fiendishly early on Saturday morning. Heavens knows why. I didn't know that 5:30 am on a weekend even existed. Still. It was nice to doze and shuffle and snuggle in and doze again, without needing to shoot out of bed, so I languished, and watched the morning turn from dull and overcast to bright and sunny before I tipped out of bed.
7) Then, for a change, I painted a bit more in my bedroom.
8) Facebook is a wonderful thing. I recently looked up an old friend from university and we've been in touch for a bit. He was in London this weekend to take part in a triathlon (pure craziness!) so I met up with him for a couple of hours yesterday. Having not seen him for at least four years, I was mildly apprehensive, but we just fell into a four year old patter and it was like we'd never lost touch. We sat and we chatted and we walked and chattered and we sat and chattered again, and when we came to saying goodbye, I realised that I'd missed him these past few years. So now I'm not going to let him go! I'll be a veritable stalker to him now, I think, just to make sure he doesn't wander off a second time!
9) A night out in Wimbledon with some marvellous friends. Cocktails, chilled rose, nibbles, gossip, people watching and idle chit-chat. Bliss.
10) And today (fanfare) I finished painting my bedroom, and put up my new blinds and curtain poles and curtains. And. It. Looks. Fab. New carpet on Friday, then wardrobes (which, after a year of hanging rails and cardboard boxes, I am indescribably excited about) and I'm done! so happy with my new bedroom imagine - all light and airy and soothing and zen-like. What will I do when I've decorated every room though? This house simply isn't big enough!
Another weekend of domesticity. I'll try and make "painting walls" into a ten point weekend summary, in the usual manner ...
1) Thursday night, quiz night. The quiz master decided that life would be more interesting if Team Biscuit was split in two. The boys became Team Hobnob and the girls were Team Iced Gem. The boys came last and the girls came third. Perhaps our usual winning form can be put down to the gender mix.
2) Friday morning. A few errands, the caff for breakfast, picked up the sodding car from the garage (it having failed its sodding MOT last week), a few more errands, and home. Jobs done.
3) Last weekend I inadvertently peeled some wall paper off my bedroom wall. Well, you know how it is. There was a corner. I picked at it. So I guess I'm committed to decorating it now! I cleared everything movable out of my bedroom into the spare room, leaving a wee corridor of space from the door to the bed, thus making up my snug sleeping quarters for the next few nights. But as I finished clearing the room, spreading dust sheets and assembling tools and materials, the doorbell rang. A friend dropping 'round for a cuppa and a good yarn. Just in the nick of time!! I nearly had to pick up a paintbrush!
4) All delaying tactics used up, I had to get going. A bit of unscrewing, a bit of filling, a bit of sanding, a bit of dismantling.
5) Friday night saw a gang of us at the kitchen table of the fabulous Concetta from over at Glittering Shards, each with our own creative project. Around the table seven lovely ladies sketched, stitched, designed, cut, struck, threaded, and gossipped. Bliss. And we decided to do it again in two weeks time at Amelia's house.
6) Saturday. Hot paintbrush action. All day.
7) Amongst all the clearing out and arranging of things I've done recently, I found a counted cross-stitch, half done, from years ago. On a whim, I picked it up last night, and spent the evening watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off, whilst sewing the face of a small teddy who will, when finished, depict " Septembear". Maybe it'll be a gift for a friend who is expecting. Maybe it'll just spend the next ten years in a bag, in a box, in a cupboard, still unfinished. But for now, I'm enjoying the gentle process of stitching for stitching's sake.
8) Sunday. Hot painting action. All morning. Until ...
9) Amelia has an exhibition starting this Tuesday at Spout; a community gallery space in Furzedown. This afternoon I helped her get her show set up and ready for the public. If you'd like to drop by and see Amelia and her work, she'll be at 74 Moyser Road, SW16 for the next two weeks. I'm sure she'd love to see you!
10) And now it's Sunday evening. The skirting boards, window and door frames in my bedroom have been glossed. The fireplace has been undercoated and top coated. The ceiling has been whitewashed. Three walls have been painted "Pacific Breeze" (that's a slightly bluey white to you), and one is to become Teal Tension in due course. I'm on the sofa with a embroidered bears next to me and plans to hit the John Lewis fabric department tomorrow to look for teal curtain material. But for now, I think it's bed time. G'night.
We chatted about all sorts - plans for the weekend, and plans for a weekend away in a couple of months with a gang of friends. We talked about pub quizzes and a lack of clean cutlery. We talked about barges and decorating and weddings and Glastonbury.
Halfway through the conversation, he remembered that there was a half bottle of wine left in his car, and he went to retrieve it, and joked on the way that I reminded him of wine.
He said that he always thought about me on sunny days, but only when he's in Streatham, and not if he's anywhere else, and that's why he'd called. Just because he thought of me.
So, he summarised, the three words that he associates with me are sun, Streatham, and wine.
I think that I've alluded in the past to the fact that I work in property. In fact, I'm a chartered surveyor. Sorry ... that should read "Chartered Surveyor". Please note the capitals. It's not like being a heart surgeon or a barrister, I realise, but it took a lot of work and needs some maintaining and is something that I'm pretty proud of.
To be passed off by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, you have to sit an interview. One hour of grilling on anything that you (a) claim to have done in the course of your training, and (b) anything that you ought to have covered in the course of your training. A favourite way to trip up the slightly wobbly candidate is to ask them to explain the difference between "price", "value" and "worth" without using those three words. It's tricky. Try it now. Go on ...
OK? Now try this. Explain "isolation", "solitude" and "loneliness" without using those three words.
I know, it's really just semantics. But maybe that's what matters? The minute difference and the detail. I get chastened regularly for using the word "nice" in a positive way, when really it's so very dismissive. And just this evening, we were teasing a colleague for saying that he wanted to be "fresh" for an openly gay client. The interpretation of a word. The way we choose to define a particular word is critical.
So to that end, I should confess, partly to The Readers (yes ... that's all of you), and specifically to one particular reader (and neighbour and friend and role model ...) that I recently deliberately interpreted her question to enable me to tell a half truth. I seek forgiveness.
When asked by said friend recently if I liked my life, and if I liked being on my own, I said yes. I have a good life. I have a nice house, good friends, a job (nay, a career), good health, a family who love me and who I love. I have a car and long legs and hair that (usually) goes where it's put. I have a good life. And do I like it? Yes. I like all the elements of my life. I'm fundamentally lucky and I appreciate that. So it wasn't a lie. I like my life.
And do I like being on my own? Well I guess that's where the semantics comes into it all.
Isolation. Technically, according to the OED, "the process of being isolated ... for patients with infectious diseases ..." Well maybe that's a little extreme. But I would say that isolation is very factual. I am not alone. I have, as I've mentioned, a lovely group of friends, plus colleagues I can socialise with, plus nice neighbours. I'm not isolated. I'm surrounded!
Solitude. OED offers the following: "the state or situation of being alone: she savoured her few hours of freedom and solitude." which I rather like. The example drawn paints solitude as a positive, which I wholeheartedly approve of. Solitude is a lovely and fulfilling thing. It's all about being able to come and go as you please. Solitude is being able to wear your jarmas all day on a Sunday. Solitude is being able to wee with the door open. I love it!
And loneliness? "Unfrequented and remote" apparently. I'd go further. It's when you wake in the morning and the emptiness of the other side of the bed makes you feel agoraphobic. It's hearing the empty seats in the lounge screaming at you. It's the bursting feeling of unspoken words churning in your head and loitering on the tip of your tongue. It's saying goodbye to a friend at the end of an evening and resenting the fact that they are going home to a share of the sofa or a pre-warmed bed. It's a void that feels incapable of being plugged. It's endless. What is loneliness? It's being in the house now, alone, and being aware that I occupy one corner of the sofa in the corner of one room, on the ground floor of the house and the rest of the house is full of emptiness.
So so I like my life? Yes, I do actually. The up side of singledom is that I can please myself all the time, so to not like my life when it's all mine would be a waste, don't you think? I like my life.
And do I like being on my own? No. I loathe it. It's not how we were designed and it's not how we're meant to be. It's not good for body or soul and it's something that clings to me always. But it's a hard habit to shake, so I hope you understand why I told a small pork pie.
And, my lovely friend, remember this - never envy someone else their life, because you never know what it's really like. And however overwhelming you feel your life is, it beats life being underwhelmed, Trust me.
So this weekend had a bit of a fuzzy start, what with not being at work last week, but why don't I pick it up on Thursday evening, like I usually do?
1) Pub quiz. There were meant to be six of us in our award winning team, but, for one reason and another, there were only two. In the music round we knew no answers, and were so busy sniggering at our crappness that we forgot to go back and write our guesses in the blanks on page one. Consequence ... second worst team. Ha! At least we weren't worst I suppose.
2) Friday morning, I hopped out of bed, as I did every morning last week, at an unembarrassing 8am, showered, dressed, toast and jam and lots of coffee in the back garden, then to work.
3) I met the lovely Gillian down the road for a tour of E&A Wates. I wasn't really sure what to expect, so it was a lovely surprise to discover that it was a fascinating morning. Behind the shop - a fabulously kitsch, chrome-fronted store, with some amazing (and expensive) furniture, is a workshop where they repair just about any furniture. We were talked through the art of veneering, wood turning, French polishing, upholstering, and it wasn't remotely dry. And what perfect timing! I came home enthused, and ready for a bit more DIY! (Although I did feel a bit guilty that, having been talked to about furniture restoration, I was going home to paint my own furniture. Pah well!)
4) Amelia popped 'round and we sat together in the garden with tea and Amaretti biscuits to write a press release for her forthcoming show. If you'd like to come along, you'll be able to read more about it here, in due course.
5) The Ikea flat-pack wall unit that I bought came in three boxes and said, in big letters, and in diagrams, on the side of the largest, that building it was a job for two men. I thought I'd get the bits out and see how far I could get on my own. When I'd built the frame and got the thing upright an into the alcove, with a hole cut out the back for the power socket, I decided there was probably no need to call in reinforcements to watch me screw the doors on. Am DIY woman! Grr!!
6) Saturday morning. More decorating. Are you spotting a theme? But things were starting to take shape, so it was all very cathartic.
7) I'm slightly ashamed to tell you what I did on Saturday afternoon. But not THAT ashamed. I went to see Eclipse. Now I know that I'm not really the target demographic, but sod it! The four of us went to an afternoon showing, in a screen full of teenaged girls. Oh well ... who needs pride, dignity, self respect, etc etc etc, when they have a semi-naked wolf-boy twitching his pecks on the screen? Not me!
8) My neighbour recently qualified as a plumber and has set up business with a friend. I've been putting off decorating my bedroom for ages because I couldn't work out how to work around a badly placed radiator. But today the two new plumbers came 'round and spent a day painstakingly lifting floorboards and running copper pipes and draining boilers. Bless them, it took hours! And apparently something still needs to be done tomorrow. But the radiator is now in a nice, easily worked around kind of a place, and what do you know? I've inadvertently started decorating another room, just as I was finishing the last one. Rats!!
9) So whilst the boys were grafting upstairs, I was grafting downstairs. The new wall unit got filled with books and games and almost all of my jewellery making kit. The stereo got set up and the wires run into the back of the unit, a lamp got rewired, table tops were varnished, desks were undercoated (twice) and the curtains were finally hemmed and pressed and hung. The room now looks, if not complete, then at least together. Just a top coat on the desk to go, and a few pictures and trinkets, and it'll be done. Hooray! My dining room is tantalisingly close to being too damned nice to eat in!
10) And now here I am. End of my week off. Back in the office in nine measly hours, and NOT in the mood for it! I'm already plotting another week off later in the summer to do the same happy home based pottering again. Meanwhile though, Footloose is on the telly. Marvellous! The tale of a community being brought together by rock and roll and dancing. They don't make 'em like they used to!
I am a thirty-something Tooting dweller with a mundane day job and a creative weekend job. I like good books, singing along with the radio, biscuits, weekends away, people spotting, smut, lovely people, pebbles, big bear hugs and new stationery. I don't like chewing gum, bad books, laziness, ironing, smelly people and being late.