Saturday, 27 August 2011

Ramblings: Fringe Benefits

I’ve just come back from a week in Edinburgh at the FestivalFringe, with two friends, and what a week it was. I had an amazing time but am now totally exhausted and cultured out. I need rest and recuperation and a complete lack of stimulus. I’ve got a painful lumbar spine and a cricked neck from hours on end sat in uncomfortable seats in makeshift venues in lecture theatres, warehouses, night club basements, conference centres, tents and in one case, an inflatable purple cow. The seats ranged from back breaking, to buttock numbing to sweaty. It’s a wonder I haven’t come home with something fungal in my crevices. In spite of Edinburgh having a somewhat chilly climate, the venues are generally roasting hot.
If you haven’t heard of it (where have you been?) the Edinburgh Fringe is an arts festival which runs every August, consisting of lots of comedy, dance, theatre, poetry, music and cabaret. This year there were over 2500 events running, some more bizarre than others. The smallest show I went to had 3 of us in the audience, one of whom was the comedian’s friend’s mum and the largest seated 750. There’s also a concurrent book festival and an art festival too.
I love Edinburgh with its dark granite hues and tang of ozone from its proximity to the sea. The architecture is both sinister and magical with the narrow passageways and courtyards and turreted towers poking up here and there. The old town is gothic and spooky and the new town is regal and showy. This was my third visit in three years. The people are pretty friendly there, have lovely accents and smoking and deep fried food consumption is almost mandatory which suits me. I’ve never seen so many middle aged people smoking. Oddly there are very few elderly people about. I wonder why?
The atmosphere during the Fringe is raucous and drunken at times, arty and pretentious at others. Neither is especially good for me but luckily it’s mostly pleasant. I have a built in pretention radar. The streets are filled with jobbing actors, would be celebrities and the extrovert and bizarre of all persuasions with no eagle eyes needed to spot big name comedians and actors walking around casually.
There are street performers everywhere. This isn’t necessarily a good thing as a lot of them are dire. The sight of yet another juggling unicyclist or mime artist blocking the way as a crowd of tourists swarm around them isn’t welcome. Pan pipes are never good either. There should be laws. The streets are also littered with students dressed up in bizarre costumes. Occasionally this can be entertaining but on the whole it’s a student in face paint getting in your way. Nothing to see here, move along. There are some talented and novel experiences to be seen on the streets with some great bands playing for free and some of the shows plying their trade in a bid to sell tickets.  I saw a great brass band playing Run DMC on trumpets and tubas. The people handing out flyers are a hazard too. You can play a game of trying to walk more than ten feet without someone trying to give you a leaflet for a show but you will mostly lose.
I was there for a week and managed to take in 17 hours of theatre which included a one man opera with Marc Almond about The Plague, Simon Callow in drag, a play about the Black and White Minstrels and a one woman play about a middle class dog breeder and occasional serial killer. Most of what I saw was stunning stuff but not all. I left one play after 20 minutes because it was so terrible. I learnt from this: always sit near the exit and wear a watch with fluorescent hands so you can glance at it in the dark when planning an escape. I did get trapped in the theatre during one odd one man play in which the actor broke off midway through the performance and shouted abuse at us all, before holding the door open and asking us to leave if we wanted to. He then told us he was joking, did a short PowerPoint presentation and carried on with the (weak) play. Oddness, indeed, but luckily the exception rather than the rule.
I managed 3 hours of cabaret which included a character comedienne singer, an Australian drag act and a team of “free runners” who jumped about off obstacles topless and reminded me of a gay rough trade fantasy.  I saw 9 hours of stand up comedy which was mostly brilliant and at times petrifying. I like my comedy dark and think I managed to fulfil this requirement with some grim routines about all the things you wouldn’t to discuss with your parents. I also chucked in a few modern art exhibitions and a couple of hours of contemporary dance. Like I say, I’m a little tired and over stimulated.
We stayed in an apartment. Paul couldn’t come as he was working, which was a shame. I missed him horribly. Don’t tell him that, though. I don’t like a man to know he’s not easily dispensable. I spoke to him on the phone every night and regaled him with lurid tales of what I’d seen and done and he reminded me to eat and rest. He knows me well by now.
The apartment was down below Edinburgh Castle in the Old Town, in an old tenement building. I guessed the area wasn’t too salubrious when I noticed a used needle and syringe in the garden, along with lots of burnt tin foil. There was a drug clinic and needle exchange just around the corner and we seemed to be in the heart of the red light district, with a smattering of sex shops and strip clubs. I didn’t care about this. The flat was secure, clean enough, modern and well equipped. The ceilings were airy; there were original features, the bed was comfortable enough and it had a power shower. That’s all I need.
Walking around, I saw some interesting looking ladies smoking outside the strip clubs, chatting to burly bouncers and leering old men. I’m not sure how they walked in those shoes and I don’t think it was really warm enough to wear so few clothes. They looked prime subject matter for a painting by the late Beryl Cook.
I was sleeping on a big sofa bed in the lounge whilst my friends had the bedroom at the back. We were puzzled to see a door in my room which lead to the house next door. It was a huge wooden panelled door with a key in the lock on the other side. We joked about this and my thoughts were that I would be murdered in my sleep when a psychopath let himself in during the early hours of the morning. We were amused to find that the building next door was actually a swingers club so it seemed more likely that an invasion of people in gimp masks and thongs would maybe invade my beauty sleep. Luckily they left me unmolested. I won’t deny listening at the wall but they were quiet swingers and I didn’t hear so much as a groan or the bubbling of a Jacuzzi (all swingers have hot tubs, right?).
One morning, I was standing on the street smoking a cigarette when my bleary eyes spotted a group of four leaving the swingers club. There was a larger lady, with spiral permed red hair, in a short skirt, accompanied by a pasty young woman in a gauze dress and heels. With them was a rough but not bad looking tattooed bloke with a shaved head. He was with a large lady with an 80s hairstyle, who’s mini skirt barely covered milk white cellulite wobbling thighs. They stood and spoke briefly and the man reached over, pecked the red haired lady on the cheek, popped his tongue in the mouth of the prettier younger girl and caressed her breasts, before leaving with the woman who was presumably his wife. It takes all sorts. They did look tired, though. I think they’d had a busy night.
I chatted to a lot to people in queues. There were lots of people seeing shows on their own and they seemed keen to talk and discuss what they’d been to see or were seeing. Either that or they were humouring me. I was approached in the queue to a dance performance by a French woman who thanked me profusely for my fantastic performance and dancing in a cabaret show the night before. I was tempted to play along but thought better of it, in case she expected a recap. My days of doing the splits are long over. I prefer to watch rather than perform.
I hope to go again next year. I have a lingering worry that there may be a terrible incident one year, if I keep going. In my mind I see me walking along, being jostled by students in face paints, having flyers thrust at me and eventually coming upon a group of mime artists, a unicyclist and a pan piper all performing together. I would either implode or perform a massacre. I’ll take the risk though.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Ramblings: The Slack Blogger

I'm away in Edinburgh for a week, at the Fringe Festival and am, as ever being totally manic and trying to cram in way too much. I'm currently managing about 5 hours of theatre, comedy, dance and cabaret a day. At the moment, it still feels fun, when it starts to feel like I'm in the dance marathon from "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" I'll slow down. I'm like a child in a sweetshop, there's so much good stuff on, I can't resist gorging. 2,500 shows performances to choose from, it's difficult. Consequently, I'm a bit slack at blogging this week and will be back on form after the weekend. I may even have a little tale or two to tell about Edinburgh.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Ramblings: Briefs Encounter

I’m typing this article on the train going up to Edinburgh. It’s not comfortable, there’s no table seat and I’ll probably look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame by the time I’ve done. My laptop is bouncing precariously on a seat back table and I’m wedged in to a tiny seat not designed for anyone over 5 feet tall.
I’m not especially well travelled, although my blog articles might make you think otherwise, and have never left Europe. I get bored and restless quickly and hate being contained in a seat. I get seasick, car sick and bus sick. I can’t read on moving vehicles, except the train or plane. I always want to jump off once I get bored, which is heartily frowned upon on a plane.
I do love the people watching and the eavesdropping opportunities. Why, just this morning there’s a huge wedding party on the train, decked out in shiny suits, over large fascinators and massive heels. I’m admiring their lack of taste and am kind of touched by their pride at how classy they look, when in reality they would fit in at a raucous gypsy do. As I always say “You can’t polish a turd.” They don’t seem to know this phrase. I blame the glossy magazines for making everyone think they should try and look like aristocracy or minor celebrities.
I do however, hate the enforced attack as people’s noise invades your space and consciousness. Noisy children, tinny headphones and lairy drunks seem to come as standard on public transport. Often nowadays the headphones aren’t even an annoyance, people will sit and play their music out loud on their phones and no one seems to bat an eyelid. I’ve often been tempted to get my headphones out of my bag and show them to the offending person to demonstrate how decent people behave. I was on a train to London recently and there were two children running up and down the first class carriage during the whole journey. In first class! You’d expect it in standard. There are also the olfactory sensations to contend with. People’s smelly food, bad hygiene and overpowering perfumes invade your space. Oddly, in the next carriage down, there’s a boy strumming a guitar. Now that is rude. I’d be snapping his plectrum if he was in my carriage.
I’m an anxious traveller, worrying about missed connections, losing my bags or getting mugged. I struggle to leave the house, checking the gas (whether I’ve used it or not) a handful of times and turning the taps off so tightly that it needs a spanner to unfasten them. As a teenager I loved travelling, especially on buses or trains. It was always an anxiety free time for me. I loved the feeling of being in between places. I’d sit on the top deck of a grubby bus, chain smoking, glad to be in limbo, not at school or home, no nagging or bullying.
One thing I do like to see on a train is a nicely turned out business man. They travel in packs on trains. As a gay man, I’m an expert at the art of discrete lechery. We have a genetic thing whereby we instinctively do this. There’s something about a smart suit which does it for me every time and turns even the most humdrum male into a stud muffin. The fit of a nicely pressed trouser against the thigh of a clean and soapy smelling male is like a red rag to a bull to me. I’ve never charged at one yet though, horns aloft, I just admire discretely.
I was on a train to London once, sitting with a friend at a table on a train. Sitting opposite was a fine specimen. He was tall and handsome with fair cropped hair and the lean yet muscular physique of a cyclist or runner. He must have been in his late 30s or thereabouts. He was clad in an expensive looking blue pinstripe number. In short, he was perfect and I would have married him as long as he was able to speak. Actually, that wouldn’t have mattered too much.
I was recounting an anecdote, which isn’t unusual, about a time when I had a tantrum in a sushi restaurant in London. The lovely man was typing on a laptop and was eavesdropping away. This became obvious because every time I said something funny he sniggered to himself. Oddly he kept catching my eye (his were a lovely shade of pale blue) and smiling. After a time he got up and went to the toilet, repeatedly looking back at me as he walked.
“He fancies you.” My mate said. “I think he’s hoping you’ll follow him to the toilet.”
I discounted this with a snort of derision. I never believe that any man could or would really fancy me or want to sleep with me, in spite of the odd bit of evidence over the years which suggests the contrary. If a man wants to make his intentions plain then nothing short of a written invitation will do. There’s no point making eyes or walking past looking at me. I’ll just be wondering if there’s a funny bit of acne I’ve not noticed or some lint on my clothes.
By the third time he’d walked to the toilet and glanced repeatedly back at me, I did accept that maybe his intentions weren’t honourable and I pondered what to do. He was in the toilet, he was gorgeous and he clearly wanted to make the journey more exciting. It may not have lead to marriage but I was single and it was a dull journey. Cheap behaviour isn’t always bad in my books. I decided against it, though. I thought that the etiquette was bad and to be honest I’ve never liked train toilets. They always smell so bad. The thought of getting caught isn’t an incentive for me, ever. Who wants a criminal record and a mention in the “In the Courts” column of the local press? This was a brief (briefs?) encounter that I wasn’t going to have.
Ten minutes later he returned from his wait for me in the toilet, looking mildly disappointed and plugged his headphones into his laptop. I thought wistfully about his lap. Not for long though, my regret faded as he began to play air drums to the music he was listening to. I guessed he was listening to Phil Collins, I may have been wrong, and every time he got to a drum solo he joined in on the air drums. He was doing that thing men do when they get really into music, biting on his lower lip and squinting slightly, head rocking side to side. I was mightily glad I’d not accepted his invitations and as I tried hard not to giggle (I was thinking about dead kittens or Bambi’s mother dying, it always helps) I considered my lucky escape. I’d considered, momentarily, having sex with a twat. It’s better to just look and dream, maybe even better to just look out of the window or read a book. Public transport can be dangerous.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Ramblings: Do the Hustle

For someone who has often led a colourful life, I can be incredibly naive at times. I blush a lot too, due to having fair colouring. Naivety can be sweet but it can also get you into a lot of unexpected trouble. One such example is Amsterdam. Naive people should steer clear of Amsterdam.
I think it was around 2004 that I went there with Rob for a long weekend. For someone who’s in a couple and doesn’t much fancy smoking or eating dope, a lot of the usual delights are a little less than appealing but I went for the architecture and culture, honestly. We flew over and I was bemused to take my first ever budget airline flight. The in flight catering was mini tubes of Pringles, which tickled me and the stewardesses were wearing sweatshirts.
I loved Amsterdam straight away. The hotel was roomy, if a little dated, the architecture was indeed beautiful and I really liked the giant phallic statue in Dam Square. The people were colourful and seemed laid back and cool, although we did get offered cocaine quite a lot as we walked about. It must have been something about the way I walk. We strolled about along canals, took in the Van Gough Museum and the Anne Frank House and had leisurely coffees outside. It was heavenly. It was autumn time and the leaves were turning brown and the canals looked romantic and picturesque. We did a little boat trip and were generally wholesome, mostly.
I was perturbed by the bicycle riding epidemic. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never mastered riding a bike and think of it as witchcraft. There were many witches about. The trams were good fun though and full of fascinating looking eccentrics and oddballs. I quickly learnt never to stop and look at a map. This invariably summoned up a beggar who would initially behave as if he was performing a great public service and offering directions, followed by a request for cash, once he’d lulled you into a false sense of security.
Being an inveterate people watcher, I loved the red light district at night. I found it utterly fascinating and was intrigued by the prostitutes with their tidy little cubicles and hygienic sinks and paper towels. I do like things clean. There seemed to be a definite pecking order with the prettier girls in tiny bikinis getting the more prominent windows and the gigantic Jabba the Hut types getting the more obscure ones. I’m not sure if there was a sliding scale of pricing or not. I didn’t like to ask. Equally intriguing were the men walking in and disappearing behind drawn curtains.
We decided to try the Sex Museum, thinking it would be amusing and of course it was. We tittered at the antique sex toys, the Victorian porn (men had some fantastic moustaches in those days) and the gigantic penis in the entrance hall. I was puzzled by the door with a warning to put off the easily offended. On climbing the steps, walking in and spotting the pictures of a woman being remarkably overfriendly with an Alsatian, I realised that I do actually have some boundaries and am, amazingly, still capable of being offended.  I scuttled out fast.
I decided it would be fun to tour a few of the gay bars and had printed off a little guide. There were some amusing sights and a few which made me regurgitate a little. Lots of the bars had back rooms where men go to have sex. Naturally I peeked in. I can’t tell you what I saw as the hypnosis and the electro-shocks to the head have erased the grisly memories. It wasn’t pretty, is all I’m saying.
There were two bars close together on the map, one advertised as a transvestite bar and another as a “hustler bar”. The transvestite bar was very friendly. I love a bad transvestite and was sadly disappointed to see a bevy of leggy beauties. Move along, nothing to chuckle at here. The bar man was a six foot Japanese boy in a long blonde wig and silver lame frock. I think he may have been 5 foot 2 without his heels and beehive hairdo. He was very chatty and kept a huge variety of items in his bra. They were having a little sing song and naturally, as the drink flowed, we were obliged to join in.
I asked Rob what he thought a hustler bar was. He thought it was something to do with cowboys so I expected maybe a few chaps in chaps. I later recalled that that’s a rustler, not a hustler. I wondered if it was something to do with pool, thinking of the Paul Newman film. We were both wrong.
The bar was long and narrow with a motley collection of dodgy looking older men perched on stools. The room went silent as soon as we entered and everyone stared at us. There was a moment a bit like the scene in “American Werewolf in London” when they enter The Slaughtered Lamb pub. Undeterred we headed to the bar for alcohol. At the end of the long bar was a raised platform with a pinball machine and couch and I was gratified to see a pool table. I felt vindicated and as ever, loved being right. I was wrong, of course. At the back of the bar was a curtained off doorway which I took to be the toilets. There were several youngish Eastern European blokes lolling about in provocative poses, languidly playing at playing pool, bending over the pinball machine or stretching out on the sofa. There were two free seats on the settee so I whispered to Rob that I was going to get us a seat on the platform.
His hand shot out with lightening reflexes and grabbed my wrist: “That’s where the prostitutes sit.” He hissed. It dawned on me then what a “hustler” was and I blushed at my naivety. I’d almost put myself up for sale and I expect the lack of bids would have been embarrassing. I can just see myself now, the oldest prostitute, sitting alone on the coach as the last boy was lead behind the curtain to the private rooms. We didn’t stay long. I hate to be upstaged.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Poems: Resume

Tired and weary? If you can't think of a good enough reason to stay alive then at least take Ms Parker's advice.

Résumé    Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Ramblings: I Told You I Was Ill

My hypochondria is legendary. Actually, I don’t call it hypochondria. I call it being ill but you can make up your own mind on that one. I have a different ailment for each day of the week and am never too far from a packet of over the counter pain killers, anti-sickness drugs or non-prescription sleeping pills. Nothing herbal though. I prefer a chemical. You know where you are with a chemical. Pills are so pretty at times. They come in such lovely colour palettes. My migraine pills are lilac and pink, which is inspired. I like the names too, such poetry; Tramadol, Temazepam and Trimethoprim sound like strange and lovely holiday resorts to me.
I have pills in all my bags, my desk drawer, my bedside drawer and in the overflow pill drawer. Not to mention my TENs machine, heat pack and various lotions which I keep a good supply of. I take an extra toilet bag on holiday, just for pills. I never leave the supermarket without 32 Paracetamol. Why only this week I’ve had a small melanoma, a pleural fluid collection and a nasty bout of spondylosis. They’ve cleared up now, luckily but I had the right pills to hand in case they turned nasty.  
I was always a delicate, sickly child, prone to headaches and abdominal pain, plagued by hay fever and recurrent temperatures and a bit of mild asthma. I was fantastic at car sickness and could hurl for England too. I was also rather good at the accidental injury, being a clumsy boy; the fall downstairs, the crash landing on the t.v. after slipping on a discarded novel and famously the swallowed rosary beads and the fishing hook in the back of my head which necessitated trips to Accident and Emergency.
 My mum always seemed to notice us more when we were ill and to give her credit, would have made a superb nurse. She believed in the school of a pill for every ill and would hand out Junior Disprins like they were Smarties. She always had some Buttercup Cough Syrup handy and was a dab hand with a cold compress for the fevered brow. My mum also set a fine example by never leaving the house without a handbag stuffed with prescription drugs. She was generous and shared her stash with me too and doled out vitamins and herbal remedies by the handful. I may not be able to ride a bicycle or drive a car but I can swallow two Paracetamol dry, to this day. It’s a handy skill.
One of my favourite games was playing grownups, with a glass of Dandelion and Burdock as my sherry, a few sweets as my pills and a candy cigarette clamped in the corner of my mouth. I was learning well.
I have happy memories of the 1970s, propped up on the brown settee, in the brown and orange living room, under a brown and orange duvet. I’d lay down, happy to be off school, with an Enid Blyton, a glass of Lucozade and a single boiled egg for lunch. There was no daytime t.v. in the 1970s so it was schools programmes, if I was up to it, in my lacklustre state. My favourite program was called “How We Used to Live”, a strange history drama about Victorians or war time London. The Lucozade was considered expensive and only allowed to be drunk as medicine during a bad feverish bout. I loved its sickly taste and sugar overload and the crinkle of the orange cellophane coming off would rouse me to prop my pitiful form up on my elbows and let a few drops be placed on my tongue.
There were down sides to being sickly too, of course. I was often unpopular when a nasty headache meant an abortive day trip or my poor mum had to take time off yet again. The painful headaches weren’t fun and although I got used to vomiting and sweating out fevers, I never really liked it. Who would? I must confess that I did have a toy hospital, though. It had little doctors and nurses and pallid patients in their beds with the alpine temperature charts on the ends. Endless fun.
During my teenage years I progressed to hideous migraines, vertigo, nervous tension and a lingering bout of glandular fever which left me weak and watery for months on end. I’ve managed to get both Salmonella and Campylobactor and more Norovirus than I care to mention.
Being a student nurse was a difficult time. We lurched from placement to placement, changing specialities every two months. I managed to have a minor case of emphysema on the chest ward, my kidneys failed on renal, appendicitis on surgery, a congenital bone disorder on orthopaedics but drew a blank on maternity, until I managed to develop a small haemorrhoid and a stretch mark.
I’ve managed to have most of my organs imaged and investigated, though not through choice really. It just seems to happen. No one would choose the camera up the bladder, believe me.  I’ve had MRI scans, ultrasounds, endoscopes and enough blood taken to transfuse a small elderly lady. Naturally, I’m always mostly normal.
I’ve managed to go temporarily blind for a month, be crippled by a slipped disc, laid up in hospital with a testicle the size of a hearty jacket spud and develop a sinister limp. I’ve been prodded and poked by urologists, ophthalmologists, neurologists and gastroenterologists. I’ve paid good money to physiotherapists, osteopaths and hypnotherapists. Let’s not even mention the mental health professionals’ input. They’re too numerous to list.
The other week a nurse specialist in skin cancer came to spend the day shadowing me at work to see what we do and the poor girl had only been in the office 5 minutes before I had my trouser leg rolled up and was showing her a small lesion. She didn’t seem to mind and I repaid her by reassuring her about some of the ailments that she had developed that morning.
I very briefly had a fling with a G.P. which was terrible for me. Any foreplay always set me wondering. I’d be lying there thinking “Is he caressing my side or palpating my spleen? Why is he looking into my eyes? Has he seen a cataract?” he didn’t help matters by once breaking off during a session to comment on an irregular mole on my abdomen. I finished it not long after that.
Maybe I’m what they used to call “the creaking gate”. I hope so, as my rusty old hinges have a lot more noise to make yet.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Ramblings: Faux Pas

If there’s one thing I’m good at it’s the faux pas. You can put me in almost any situation and I’ll say the wrong thing. It’s almost like a Tourette’s syndrome thing. If there’s a word I shouldn’t say or a thing I shouldn’t mention then I do it. I vaguely remember meeting a girl who’s father had hanged himself and ending up saying “hang up” and “hanging about” about ten times in 5 minutes. Tact hasn’t always been my strong point but I seem to get by, somehow. Maybe my choice of career was a dodgy one; coupled with my innate clumsiness it can make being a nurse a liability. I don’t think I’m alone in doing this, as many of the staff who worked with me have provided me with a few corking examples of what not to say over the years. Here’s a few of the more memorable ones. There are some worse ones but I’ll take those to my grave.
As a student nurse I was on a late shift on a busy general ward and a very elderly man had died peacefully with his relatives present. His family were particularly fond of me and we’d developed a nice bond. I was proud of how I handled the whole situation and mentally congratulated myself on my tact and sensitivity, in an unfamiliar situation. I was sent for a tea break and headed off to the canteen in the lift. As I arrived the man’s wife and daughter entered the lift too.
“Ooh, hello again!” I said
“You off for a break? You look tired, love. You all work so hard.” His very recent widow said.
“I am a bit tired. This ward is so busy. I’m absolutely dead on my feet to be honest, dead!” I blushed a fetching crimson.
Worse was what became known as “the dead wet dog incident” and there was no excuse of naivety or newness this time, just lack of tact and thought. I was a ward manager on a busy medical unit and I was catching up on office work one day when I decided to take a stroll onto the ward to stretch my legs and see what was going on. I walked into a room housing were six male patients and was instantly hit by a foul stench.
“Crikey! What’s that smell? It smells like a wet Labrador has died.” I said to the staff nurse on duty, not thinking. It did smell a bit like a wet dog had died, to be fair. She looked a little stricken and tried to discretely let me know that I was making a terrible faux pas.
“It’s the sluice.” She said, trying to stare me out but I carried on regardless, hapless as ever, missing her non verbal cues.
“The sluice? My goodness. Are you sure? The sluice is the other end of the ward. What a smell. I’m going to go and ring estates, now. It’s foul.”
She followed me out and whispered to me “The man whose bed you were standing next to has a gangrenous leg. That was what the smell was.”
“Bollocks!” I whispered back, realising my mistake and quickly racked my brains as to what to do to rectify the situation. Thinking on my feet, I waited 5 minutes then casually strolled back into the room where the poor embarrassed staff nurse was taking a blood pressure.
“I’ve rung estates and they’re coming to fix the sluice so it’s all fine. Thanks for letting me know.” I smiled at the poor rotting legged man whilst spraying half a can of air freshener. On reflection, the air freshener was a mistake also.
I was on a ward recently where a group of nurses were chatting around the desk about how they wished they were thinner and envied, but resented, skinny girls, all accidentally said in front of an anorexic patient who was being tube fed. A staff nurse who worked for me once asked a very emaciated girl with anorexia nervosa where she’d been after she’d been in x-ray for a lengthy time and jokily said “I thought you’d gone out for a nice meal!” It’s not just me who has the Tourette’s thing going off.
Many was the time, as ward manager, that I had to quieten a member of staff talking loudly about what they were having for tea in front of the nauseous or nil by mouth or  expounding about going out for a drink in front of the patient withdrawing from booze. A new porter once collected a patient for x-ray and as a jokey comment said “Come on me duck, let’s forget all this and take you to the pub. It’s a good day for a cold pint” I winced and tried to forget that the poor man had end stage alcoholic liver disease. 

I once tried to pacify an angry Jamaican man who was trying to discharge himself, by saying that he needed to stay in as he had a blood clot on his leg, not realising this has a bad meaning in Jamaican patois. He shouted at me "Blood clot! You calling me a blood clot!" He wasn't impressed and didn't stay. Maybe thrombosis might have been a better word.

I'm sure there isn't a nurse living or dead who hasn't done the mistaking someone's wife or husband for their father/mother/daughter/son. I famously told a middle aged woman what a nice son she had then turned round a few minutes later to see her kissing him with tongues. They were either very close or I'd made another faux pas.

One of my shining moments of miscommunication was when I was chatting to a middle aged Belgian lady who had cancer and asked her if she had any pain.

"I have these terrible feelings. They really hurt."

I was sympathetic. "I imagine it must hurt. You've been having a difficult time. It's normal to have painful feelings."

She looked puzzled. "But these feelings are so painful."

I again tried empathy and told her that bad feelings could be a normal part of the grieving process.
She suddenly twigged and shouted angrily "My fillings, you idiot! It's my teeth that hurt!" I'd misunderstood her strong accent.

My final example is not so much a faux pas but more of a spoonerism. If you don’t know the phenomenon, the Reverend Spooner was an Oxford don, famous for swapping the first letters of words, for example “Our queer dean” instead of “Our dear Queen” and the term spoonerism was named after him. Kenny Everett had a famous character called Cupid Stunt whose name was a spoonerism (figure it out). I tend to do them when I’m tired. It’s very odd and sometimes embarrassing. I was trying to be a little bit romantic/dirty one night with my long term partner. I’m not good at talking dirty and I’m not sure it always sounds so great with a regional accent but I thought I’d give it a go for the Hell of it. I leaned over and whispered seductively: “I want to cook your sock.” Now that killed the moment.

I hope this article doesn't cause any offence. I've made sure the patients aren't identifiable at all as I take confidentialtiy seriously and respect my patients. I also don't think it reflects badly on my workplace. We're all human after all and we make mistakes. Maybe me more than others, at times. I don't actually think the patients or relatives notice our faux pas as much as we do. It's fear of saying the wrong thing that leaves desperately ill people or the recently bereaved ostracised and ignored. A little well meant faux pas is better than being invisible or becoming the elephant in the room who no one mentions.

Ramblings: I Hear That!

Over bearing Cockney man in cafe to sheepish woman: “You don’t know the meaning of work! I once took a Paracetamol overdose, had my stomach pumped out and still did my shift! Now, that’s dedication.”
I love to eavesdrop. It’s proof incarnate that Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood don’t actually make anything up, but are just keen social observers. I often despair of the terrible heat, stuffiness and the overpowering smells on public transport. It almost, but not quite, makes me want to take another driving lesson. Then I overhear a little gem of a conversation and I sit back happy with the absurdity of the world.
I’ve mastered the art of the nonchalant occasional glance and the blank facial expression, whilst taking it all in and occasionally also sneakily taking notes in one of the many notebooks I carry. I’m almost up to a black belt in eavesdropping, the only thing that would make me better at it is the ability to lip read. I’m working on that one. It’s a crying shame that net curtains are no longer fashionable. I can twitch a net with the best of them. It’s not the same with a venetian blind.
I was recently on my way home and stopped on a bench to eat a sandwich as I hadn’t had time for lunch. A very thin man tattooed sat next to me and was soon approached by a very drunk woman he knew, who looked equally haggard. He was shivering so she leant him her jacket, hoping that the thin nylon would warm his drug addled frame. The sleeves came halfway up his arms and he looked a little bit absurd. She laughed a croaky smoker’s laugh, followed by the obligatory hacking cough of the semi-consumptive and said “You look a right f***ing poof in that!”
She then glanced at me (I was studiously concentrating on my sandwich and trying to ignore her), and upon taking in that I was actually a “poof”, she tried to back pedal:
“It’s not that I’ve got anything against poofs though. I’ve licked a few girls out in my time so I don’t mind poofs.”
I smiled and moved on.
My favourite overheard exchange was in a small cafe in Cromford.
Elderly lady: “I’d like a cherry scone please”
Young girl: “They’ve got walnuts in them.”
Elderly lady: “Oh, I haven’t got my best teeth in today! Mind you, I can suck the nuts and spit them out. What jam do you have?”
You definitely couldn’t make that up.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Ramblings: Elizabeth the Great

“I've only slept with men I've been married to. How many women can make that claim?” Elizabeth Taylor
I’m generally not too keen on modern celebrity culture and the pointless tales of Z list no brainers with limited talents and bigger publicity budgets. I do however have a minor obsession with Elizabeth Taylor. She’s my role model. A picture of her and the luscious Paul Newman are looking down over me now as I type. In spite of a notorious lifelong battle with prescription drug addictions, alcoholisms and chain smoking, she lived till she was 79. Now that’s an achievement in my books, staying alive through illness and fragility.
She certainly crammed a lot in: 8 marriages, a few nervous breakdowns, an obesity problem, a couple of trips to rehab centres, over 70 hospitalisations and more than 20 operations. She also worked to raise the profile of AIDS charities and research and wasn’t afraid to stick her neck out and speak her mind in her tireless fundraising campaigns. Amazingly, she also found the time to act and made some of the most corking films of all time.  Two of her film performances always take my breath away and I never tire of them: Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” If you haven’t seen them then you’re missing out on some classic lines and great acting.
She wasn’t afraid of being seen as a sexual being in a time when repression was standard in Hollywood. She was one of the first major stars ever to appear unclothed in a film and to be shown naked in Playboy. She loved gay men too, sparking up friendships with the closeted gay male stars of the time, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and James Dean. I can see why the paradoxically fragile diva would relate to gay blokes so well.
She was accident prone and clumsy, yet exuded glamour and style. She was a diva yet managed to be diplomatic enough at times to ensure her demands were always met and was able to lampoon herself too. OK, so the 80’s were a bit ugly, with those shoulder pads and big hair and that friendship with the horribly creepy Michael Jackson, but we all lacked style in that tacky decade and made mistakes, didn’t we?
She had a lifelong naivety which belied her occasionally brash exterior, and still always believed in everlasting love. Now that was maybe her biggest feat yet, 8 failed marriages and still believed in love? She’s definitely an icon to hold up as a role model in our turbulent modern times.
She even arranged to be 15 minutes late for her own funeral. That’s class.
“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they're going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” Elizabeth Taylor. I couldn’t agree more, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Ramblings: Bedsit Land

The first place I ever lived in on leaving home was a grim arrangement. It was a bedsit on the first floor in an old Victorian house near to the centre of town. It wasn’t savoury at all. I was 17 years old and was sharing the flat with my 41 year old boyfriend, Barry. It was 1988. It was his flat and having no job at the time, it was cheap enough for him to afford. Well, cheaper than cheap. The word cheap doesn’t cover it. Moving from the middle class suburbs to there was a bit of a culture shock.
The house had 3 floors, with 8 bedsits, 2 kitchens and two bathrooms. There was no cleaner for the communal areas at all, the garden was a wildlife sanctuary and if you expected a visitor you had to listen out for someone hammering on the front door and answer it yourself. You also had to wait for the postman coming if you were expecting anything of value.
Our room was large and airy, with huge sash windows that rattled in the wind blowing the brown striped curtains about. The furniture consisted of a single bed which we squashed into at night, a little Formica table and chairs, a wardrobe, a green plastic settee with floral nylon cushions, a brown velour armchair and a deathly looking electric fire. The carpet was beige hair cord and the walls were chipped magnolia. Barry had a small black and white television with a coat hanger attached to the top for tuning purposes. If you wanted to change channels you had to get up and turn a dial and engage in a strategic battle with the coat hanger. I usually stuck to BBC1 and learnt to ignore the snow storm raging on the screen. He also had a record player with a worn out stylus which you needed to balance a penny on to get it to play without jumping all over the discs. Apart from a few books and a camera, this was all he owned. Something should have told me he wasn’t much of a catch. There were no pictures on the walls, just a strange shrine to me which he’d made by sticking photos up over the big marble mantle piece with yellowing sellotape. I didn’t think this was creepy and was oddly flattered.
We had no washer and washed all our clothes in tepid water and then dried them off in a little spinner which skittered round the kitchen like a mad thing. The kitchen had a 1950s lemon yellow fold down unit made of Bakelite and a 4 ring cooker which I once got stuck to. I was stirring a pan of soup with a metal spoon (I know, I know) and the ring became live where it had worn through. I was literally stuck to the cooker. Luckily, the ten pence in the meter ran out before I dropped dead. No one used the kitchen much and I was a bit territorial over it. I scrubbed it with Vim and left acidic notes in Biro pinned up telling people how to behave. There was a fridge in there which was like an experiment in culturing penicillin. I used to throw the mouldy stuff out only to be confronted by notes saying things like “Whoever took my cheese put it back!” I often cooked elaborate homely meals in there, my repertoire was poor. Shepherd’s pies, Bolognese, curries or stews were my staples. Mince was very cheap. The other residents would look at me with shock when they staggered in to make toast only to see me, cigarette in mouth, apron on, grilling chops and boiling carrots.  
The bathroom was beyond description. It had a shower which fused out on a regular basis but no other hot water. I had to shave in a mug in the room. One of the blokes in the attic used to wee in a milk bottle in the night and empty it out the next day, leaving the bottle, with traces of stale urine in, next to the toilet. Naturally, I had words. If you wanted to have a bowel motion you had to carry your toilet roll in with you as if it was left there unguarded it soon went missing. It was a bit embarrassing if you had visitors as you had to ask them which function they intended to perform when they went to the bathroom, so you could pass them the roll. It was also a little but mortifying to have to walk down the corridor, toilet roll in hand. You might as well have worn a sign advertising your intentions and regularity.
I set about cleaning Barry’s room (now mine too) and washed the walls, arranged my books and records neatly and brushed the carpet down thoroughly. It looked almost homely, although a migraine attack of colour. I bought pot plants, posters and tried to make it homely. It worked a little but the place was noisy and cold. Luckily, like most teenagers, I could sleep well under even adverse conditions. Like most drunks, Barry slept well too. We eventually got given an old fridge and I went to sleep each night listening to the hum of the fridge in the room. I’d occasionally forget to top the meter up with 50 pences and it would be rancid by morning in hot weather.
The other residents were colourful. They changed constantly but a few were more memorable than others. There was a thin man who looked like Dennis Neilson and gave me the creeps. A gothic girl with a calliper lived in the downstairs room at the back and allegedly kept a pet rat which terrified me. A couple of builders lived in the attic, one of whom was very cheeky and would stand leaning against the kitchen cupboards, watching me cook and make saucy comments which I giggled coquettishly at. He also liked to beat down the jungle of weeds and sunbathe on an old mattress below our window in tiny white shorts, which provided me with hours of fun. It was the first six pack I’d ever seen in the flesh. His brother was squat and ugly and would get drunk and Hoover at 3am. He also had a Bontempi organ which he often played tuneless renditions of Tina Turner songs on in the middle of the night. I’d bang on the ceiling with a brush; shouting “Shut the fuck up!” and flaking off bits of plaster.
On our floor lived a very handsome boy who oddly left for work each day in a suit. Barry nicknamed him “the pretty boy” but I called him Speedy Gonzalez as he sometimes bought girls back and the drunken fumbling of his key was always followed ten minutes later by a loud shouting of “Jesus” echoing down the corridor as he ended the act.
I made friends with the woman in the next room, a divorcee in her 30s who was quite bohemian. She worked in a shop in town selling bongs for dope, hippy clothes and ethnic jewellery. She’d regale me with tales of her past exploits and tell me about her current boyfriend, a huge leather trousered man who apparently had an enormous willy and made her squeal a lot. I’d sit there wide eyed, loving it as we made clouds of cigarette smoke which settled in her Indian hangings. I’d never met a woman with tattoos before.
The resident who scared me most was a girl who lived in the front downstairs room. She was from a rich family, privately educated at Rodean School but had taken to heroin more than lacrosse. She’d stumble out, grey skinned and track marked and glare ferociously. She had an intermittent boyfriend who was a six foot four Rastafarian with amazing dreadlocks. He took a shine to me and would often come up and knock on the door when I was alone. He’d then make himself comfortable on my green plastic settee and talk away whilst smoking joints. I never understood a word he said as he talked entirely in Jamaican patois but he didn’t seem to notice if I nodded enough and made him tea.
The most unwelcome visitor of all was an escaped ferret. I was getting a bottle of lemonade out of the fridge one day when a little champagne coloured head shot out for under the bed and a ferret ran up my leg. My scream was so loud that it summoned half the house and the neighbours collectively chased it and stunned it with a broom and returned it to the house next door which it had escaped from. I, naturally, stood on the bed, white faced and shaking, whilst they did this, shouting “Get me a  cigarette!”

Thinking about it now, I feel like I was happy living there but in truth, it was cold, noisy and primitive. I felt like I was free from my disapproving parents but in truth, I’d gained a disapproving controlling boyfriend. I was happiest when I was alone, reading my books and listening to my Smiths records or bopping round the room with a duster to Bananarama. I was like a child at times, playing house, just glad to be somewhere that felt secure and taking pleasure in the little things, like my records and the magnificent six pack of the man upstairs.

Ramblings: The Sensual World

I’m not the most sensual person in the world and as for spirituality; I can’t even stand the word. It’s pretty meaningless to me. I’m a romantic soul, I believe in love and all that stuff and am very devoted and loyal when the occasion calls for it but when it comes to the experiences that other people seem to find sensual and enjoyable I’m not impressed at all. I often try to ignore that fact that my body exists and almost see it as a separate entity to my mind. Let me explain.
I once had a massage in a hotel. It was all above board, no “extras” were offered. It was a posh hotel and had a spa and the Police Inspector ex bought it for me as a nice surprise. How little he knew me. I loathed the experience. The touch of a stranger’s hands felt intrusive and to be honest I was frankly bored after about a minute. Once I got over worrying about what she thought of my back, I was out of my mind with the dullness of it all. It felt like half an hour of torture. There was nothing to read and the whale music wasn’t even worth singing along to.
As for actual sex, that should be dirty, fun and preferably take a lot less than an hour. I really can’t be laying for hours there with all the gentle stroking and cooing while the hovering needs to be done and there’s DVDs to watch. Its part of the beauty of being a gay man, that sex is quick, dirty and fun. No hours of fiddling around and subsequent chaffing for the gay boys. If you’re in a gay relationship, sex is generally not going to detract from your leisure time that much and you can still get a few chapters of a good book read before sleep time. Most gay men seem to base their sexual repertoire on porno films they’ve seen which is fine by me, as long as they don’t do the dialogue too or expect you to deliver a pizza.
I’m not a tactile person, although I will tolerate being hugged, briefly as long as it’s not too gripping. I like to breathe. Holding hands is fine; I can cope with that for perhaps fifteen minutes, before it gets uncomfortable. I like a little cuddle within reason. I can spoon for a good 5 minutes before I get restless. The fibbing police Inspector I once dated always wanted to go to sleep holding on to me. I compromised and he was allowed to touch my foot with his, much less sweaty and more civilised. Sleep is a serious business.
The biggest problem I had with my lack of sensuality was my relationship with the public school teacher who dumped me the day we got back from Paris. This may provide more evidence as to why that happened. He was very keen on romantic notions, which was fine, but he wanted to cuddle constantly, which left me feeling irksome and suffocated. There’s a distinct lack of comfort in watching a film whilst astride someone’s lap or with your legs intertwined. Give me an armchair over a shared settee or preferably my own settee. He always wanted to hold hands in public too, if we were somewhere quiet like a park, which whilst sweet, was kind of a trip hazard for someone as clumsy as me. I need to concentrate when I walk.
He overstepped the mark when he tried to feed me from a fork. I was mortified. It’s what I’ve spent the last 18 years doing for sick people at work. Where’s the sensuality in feeding someone? It makes me think of dementia. I shuddered. As for combining food and sex, don’t even get me started there. There are no dairy products or fruit going near my nether regions, too messy. To be honest, I don’t even like fruit and eating it off someone’s body is not going to make it any more appetising.
Next came the wanting to bathe me. See above. I am pretty capable still of washing myself. He asked me to share a shower once and I conceded, with moderately good grace. The word “once” is of importance here, he didn’t ask again. To me, personal hygiene is very important, a view which I wish the population of public transport shared. I like to keep my bathroom as clean as I can and it’s always copiously bleached. I pride myself that you could perform an emergency appendectomy there at any moment and probably not get a post operative sepsis. I also like to wash myself very thoroughly. His idea of a gentle and sensual bathing experience with me was soon scotched when I grabbed some soap and was vigorously scrubbing myself all over with special attention paid to the nasty areas. It’s a serious business keeping clean. He left my shower and left me to my frenetic cleansing routine.
So, if anyone is ever tempted to buy me a spa day voucher or an aromatherapy kit then please don’t. It’s not for me. You can keep your Ylang Ylang and dolphins bleating away. I prefer relaxing the more traditional way, with prescription drugs.

Ramblings: Shush!

I was in the cinema yesterday and a middle aged, middle class, well dressed and well to do lady talked incessantly throughout the film. She wasn’t even doing that annoying whispering that people do. The whispering which they think is inaudible but is actually like a dripping tap in your ear as you’re bombarded with the annoying sibilants. She was just talking at normal volume to the two teenagers she was with. Naturally, I didn’t tolerate it for long, about 15 minutes to be more precise. She was within speaking distance so I had to stand up and ask her to stop, pointing out how rude she was being. Luckily she apologised.
There are rules to attending the cinema. You can talk all you want during the adverts. During the film trailers, you should remain silent, only turning to your companion and briefly saying either “That looks good!” or “That looks crap!” in sotto voce. Once the film starts there are is only one acceptable reason to speak and that is paralysis. I accept that a small stroke or a spinal cord lesion would necessitate whispering for an ambulance, but anything else uttered is beyond the pale. Anything else can wait till the film finishes.
I often find that older people are the rudest and more ill mannered, with a direct correlation between age and amount of thoughtless rudeness. I’ve had so many ruined performances of plays, concerts and comedy performances due to people talking. I went to see “The Cherry Orchard” and a well heeled couple in their 70s talked throughout the first half. I spoke to them during the interval and they were apologetic. Oddly though, they seemed to forget this and during the second half talked again. “Excuse me, it was rude to talk in the first half, it’s still very rude to talk in the second half too. Stop it!” It seemed to work. I also recently missed all the dialogue of the first half hour of “The King’s Speech” due to a couple with the largest and loudest bad of crisps in creation. Unfortunately they were too far away to shush so I had to put up with it and tell them off at the end.
I went to see a poetry reading by Wendy Cope, a very dignified and slightly stern lady. Ten minutes in a man answered a mobile phone call and the genteel middle class audience looked on with horror, no one saying a word as he talked over the performance on his way to the exit. Amusingly, he then did the same thing again 10 minutes later and Wendy Cope paused and gave him a bemused look over her glasses as a hundred middle class people all shushed him simultaneously.  His facial expression was classic.
A bunch of school children talked, shouted and threw things throughout a play I was at once and amazingly not one of their teachers got up from their seats (three rows away, sensible move) and spoke to them. I gave them a mini lecture in the interval and then told the teachers what I thought of their ability to do their jobs. They looked a bit stunned as an ageing homosexual stood lecturing them about how to do their jobs.
I’ve shushed and harangued in cinemas and theatres throughout the land and I have a worrying suspicion that one day someone will take umbrage to my shushing as much as I take umbrage to their annoying rudeness and I’ll get a punch in the face. If I had my way, there’d be professional “shushers” patrolling all cinemas and theatres with long sticks, tazers or those things you hook people out of pools with, to remove offenders. You won't be surprised to know, I always wanted to be a librarian when I was at school.
My most legendary incident happened in London during a performance of “Bent”, the brilliant play about gay people in Nazi Germany. Three rows in front sat a plump youngish couple who were talking at full volume. I was extremely frustrated and started to fidget and fret, unable to sit still. My dilemma was a) do I put up with this and miss half the dialogue in the play? b) do I get up, walk over to them and disrupt the play (I was in the centre of a row)? or c) do I just shout over? I didn’t want to make a show of myself.
Rob looked nervously on as he could sense a storm brewing and knew my moods well. I had a brainwave and started to rummage in my bag. The look on the man’s face as I reached forward and prodded the back of his head with my retractable umbrella was priceless. I enjoyed pressing that button. I like to think he’s better behaved now, but I somehow doubt it.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ramblings: Toy Story

A woman walks up to me holding a duvet cover in front of her. "Do you have a duvet cover with a pink snatch on it?" Being 18 and of a slightly giddy disposition, I can't ignore the innuendo of this and laugh in her face. "Snatch" is an inappropriately named cartoon dog and the poor lady wants the bedding set in pink, rather than blue. I'm in the manager's office again later that day. I also set to wondering where these designers get off, naming a children's toy after a slang word for a vagina.

It was 1989 and I needed a job. I had a string of good O levels; some failed A levels and a forgotten place at university behind me. I was living in a rundown bedsit in the centre of town with my hard drinking boyfriend and times were tough. I needed to find a job, as getting by on benefits wasn't going to keep me in cigarettes or paperbacks. I'd worked in a shoe shop whilst I was at school and hated every minute of it. People's smelly feet and their dictatorial demands for different sizes and styles, which sent you running up and down the stairs to the stockroom all day, drove me insane. The standing around looking helpful and trying to flog overpriced polish to meet your targets didn't exactly thrill me either. I didn't know what else to do and the thought of a food related job made me instantly queasy. I'm not good in heat either. Bar work had zero appeal as I hated drunks, although ironically, I was living with one.

I set about trawling the shops and soon got offered a temporary job in Woolworths. They had a separate shop where they sold toys, sweets and children's clothes and offered me a position there. I hated children but the lure of cash, free pic n mix (unauthorised free pic n mix) and toys made it appealing. You got a free pair of polyester trousers too.

I found I actually could bear the job, which was perhaps a good job as I stayed there for four years before starting my nursing training. The shop was split into two, half clothes, half toys and sweets and was staffed almost exclusively by middle aged women and teenage girls. It was the 80s and the chav hadn't been invented yet, we just called them a bit rough. I was youthful and cheeky and the middle aged women took to me and I soon found my level chatting away with the Sandras, Pams and Jeans about their wayward husbands and the price of Daz. I could also talk to the Sharons, Traceys and Kazzas about boys and bad music. We listened to bad music all day too as the hits of the 80s tapes were played on a loop. There were three tapes.

I was plonked on a till which initially, I would mess up, on average, about once every 15 minutes. I quite enjoyed the till though and soon became a master at it and within a couple of weeks had memorised all the 4 digit codes which you had to enter. I was pretty amazed by how invisible I suddenly became, how people wouldn't even look at you as they paid. The rudest person I ever served was a local actress who later became famous for breaking a rib during rough sex, having disastrous cosmetic surgery on her lips and moaning about the NHS a lot. If this was karma for being rude to shop assistants then she got a bad deal.

My favourite customers were the old ladies in sturdy shoes and shabby old hats. They'd come in reeking of old fashioned cologne and turf five pound notes out of their dusty purses, looking for jigsaws and bears for their grandchildren. Naturally, I got in trouble one day when one of these ladies approached me and said loudly "Do you have any balls?"

A boy came in every day, aged about 18, who had some kind of mild learning difficulty. He'd come in on his way home from his special school or daycentre and sit on the carpet, playing with the Matchbox cars and babbling under his breath. I'd always talk to him and he took a shine to me and saw me as his friend. Sadly, it was too much of a shine and I had to keep my distance after he sneaked up on me and fondled my arse. Instead of "Brrm, brrm" he said "Mmm mmm" that time.

The manager of the shop was a plump greasy man called Steve who would arrive late every day and instantly go and drop the trousers of his very shiny suit and do a loud bowel movement in the staff toilet. He'd then comment loudly about what he'd eaten the night before in order to occasion such malodorous stools. His deputy was a lovely woman called Doreen, short and the wrong side of 50. She worked like a dog to support her agoraphobic husband and wayward family and didn't appear to know that the letter "H" existed.

The shop had a series of toy cars and tractors which children could ride around on and this was a total liability. I often had bruised shins and a forced grin on my face as I held back the murderous thoughts. School holidays were hellish, Christmas was carnage and Easter wasn't pleasant. I was often to be seen grimacing and wondering why children couldn't walk and look in the same direction and why they couldn't be more like adults.

I was put in charge of pic n mix, "girls" toys and videos. I took this all very seriously and ensured that I regularly tasted all the sweets. I was usually either coming up or down from a sugar overdose at any given time of day. Eating the sweets was heavily frowned upon and we all tutted and muttered when a fat Saturday girl was sacked for stealing mini chocolate bars, but we all did it anyway, just more discretely. I was very serious about the toys too. I was very territorial over my displays of Sylvanian Families and my Barbie section was second to none. She always had the full range of frocks in stock and Ken was always neatly lined up beside up her in his trunks or wedding suit. I can't imagine he consummated the marriage, by the look of him. He was dubiously camp.

We were very popular with shoplifters. This was partly due to the fact that we were the only shop in town that had children's shoes on display in pairs. Clever move, we lost hundreds a year. I was staggered by the audacity of people who stole and by the range of social classes. There was one woman who we called Cleopatra because of her heavy eye makeup and severe black bob. She would come in with bin bags and strip a shelf in seconds. She had some talent, if a little misplaced. I quite admired her skill.

A regular couple who came in with theft on their mind were a mixed race pair. Every time you spotted them you had to go and stand by them and follow them round. They always left once spotted and sauntered merrily out of the shop, casually dropping the items from beneath their coats and shouting "Bye Bye Battyman!" I'd shout back "See you!" thinking it was a term of endearment.

I got promoted to supervisor after a year and was apparently, the youngest Woolworth's shop supervisor in the country. I hated the job even more from therein. I had to open the shop up in the mornings, close at night and had to work every Saturday. Saturdays were terrible as the shop was staffed entirely by casual staff who were usually clueless 16 year old girls who talked too much and chewed gum on the tills. I'd spend the whole day answering bells as they repeatedly messed up the tills. Balancing the money at the end of the day was torture too.

I got offered a course to fast track to be a shop manager and the idea horrified me. I was there temporarily, yes, I was almost the longest serving member of staff (except Doreen in her crimpolene suit) but this was a stop gap. It was definitely temporary. I didn't want to become sweaty Steve, reading the Sun in his windowless office all morning and counting down the hours till closing time. Nor did I relish the thought of becoming Doreen, lined and knackered and permanently bored with life. My inspiration to leave came with a girl called Emma, a nervous red haired girl with an English Literature degree who'd left teaching after an early nervous breakdown and was now working on a fast track management scheme. We bonded quickly, talking about books and she helped illuminate for me what a dump the place was and how mind numbing it all was. She hated the place as much as me and urged me to get out. I don't imagine she'd have lasted long herself but she was moved to another shop and I never found out what became of her.

I did leave after 4 years and started my nurse training and it was like a weight off my shoulders. I'd become almost institutionalised to the place. I missed the sweets though.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Poems: Love After Love

This poem is dedicated to all those who've found themselves recently single and don't like it. Maybe one day it won't feel so bad.
Love After Love
by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Ramblings: Let’s Do the Show Right Here!

I think I may be missing a gay gene because I generally can't stand musicals. I also loathe Kylie Minogue and think glitter should be listed under the Controlled Substances Act, but that's a whole other story. (Interestingly, Minogue comes up as "Minge" on my spell check).

I can't bear any of those terrible cheap money making ploys like "Mama Mia" or "We Will Rock You", where some ageing capitalists cobble together a weak story around a few bad songs that people feel misplaced nostalgia for. I almost came out in a rash due to a schmaltz overdose during the terribly weak "Miss Saigon". I always nod off during "The Sound of Music" and would like to get a law in place against Lloyd Weber. I can cope with "West Side Story", at least there are some cute boys and the dancing is impressive. I've never got further than 15 minutes into "Singing in the Rain" though. It makes me want to hurl.

There are some notable exceptions though and there are a few musicals which I adore with a passion. You'll maybe see why.

The first is "Cabaret". Slinky dancing, loads of twisted gays and a song about threesomes, all set against a back drop of the rise of Nazism. Ideal! What's not to like? I'm not keen on the film though, too much soft focus and casting Liza Minnelli was a travesty. Sally Bowles is meant to be an Upper Class English girl. That's how Christopher Isherwood wrote the character in "Goodbye to Berlin" so why change it?

From the same stable comes "Chicago". What's not to adore about a funny musical where hot men dance about in tight clothes and jaded women sing about killing their men folk? That's more my thing than a sickly love story.

To complete this threesome, there's "Sweet Charity". Again, it's a dark musical, this time about hookers. Do you see a pattern emerging? The rendition of "Big Spender" makes you want to burn all the cheery versions by Shirley Bassey. It's a song about boredom with having to whore yourself out to men. Much more amusing that way and speaks to me more.

Lastly, I like Stephen Sondheim. I like wordiness. You may have noticed that I have a lot to say and so does he. He crams hundreds of words into crowded little numbers and his wit is immense. He writes lyrics which capture the human condition in all its seedy and perplexing glory. Classic stuff. Just don't expect me to applaud anything where they say "Let's do the show right here!" and dance in a cafe. Eurgh.

Ramblings: Grecian Ruins

I arrive at Corfu airport and my eyes alight on the overflowing ashtrays with delight. I can smoke: anywhere. In fact, it's almost compulsory to smoke everywhere and cigarettes are 80p a packet. I'm going to fit in here. There are big strapping policeman standing around in tight trousers toting huge guns. I am definitely going to like it here.

It's the first time I've taken a package holiday. I'm 28 and beside me is the volatile and over critical man who I've spent the last 12 years with. He's 52. It's 2000 and we're going to split up later that year, which neither of us knows for sure yet, but we both suspect will happen. This prospect fills me with joy and trepidation and him with dread and desperation. Naturally, he's a little drunk.

The resort in Corfu isn't quite how I imagined it but it will suffice for a week. It's tiny; a little stretch of coastline, olive groves, a beach and a smattering of tavernas. There's one labelled "Discotheque" which amuses me. I like that word. There are hardly any English people about with most of the other tourists being German or Greek.

Our apartment looks like it would maybe have featured in the ideal home exhibition circa 1962. The tiles are psychedelic orange and the bath is turquoise. I quite like it, in spite of the bizarre arrangements with the toilet paper and a small pedal bin and the total lack of a shower curtain which means the bathroom ends up soaked when you wash. It has two big balconies for me to sit and read on and the rooms are airy and whitewashed. Its 15 minutes walk from the beach and bars and very rural. Rural worries me. I'm a natural city boy, growing up in the centre of a large town which now calls itself a city. I get twitchy if it's too dark at night, there's wildlife and nowhere to buy cigarettes at 2am. I like birds and animals and nature often amazes me but I like it behind glass or chicken wire, where it can't bite or scratch me.

There are other residents nearby. Across from us a young gay couple intermittently sunbathe, row and talk about clothes and Madonna. They occasionally retire to their room and have noisy sex, which is my cue to swap balconies, blushing to myself. They seem to finish quickly though, so it's not a problem. One of them is being quite mean to the other which worries me. He seems to be a bit of a bully. Below us a vast woman paces on her balcony looking bored.

I try to get settled in but Barry insists we go out to buy drink for the apartment. We cram the cupboards with Metaxa and cheap Greek spirits. I haven't drunk much for many years but I decide to join him this time. This holiday is part of the process of him trying to retain me. The campaign includes him creating a study for me at home and him buying a car. After 12 years of ignoring me, occasionally hitting me and generally being a cad, he's decided he's going to try to win me back. I know it won't work and anticipate a long week. The cheap brandy will help, I think. I also discover that Jack Daniels tastes nice with Fanta Lemon.

His resolve to impress me lasts until we hit the largest of the handful of tavernas. There's a pretty young Greek boy of about 15 or 16, working there, all pouting lips and dark eyelashes. Barry can't stop ogling him. He's almost licking his lips with lust. The trouble with meeting a man who fancies teenage boys is that it's fine when you're a teenager yourself, but unfortunately for him, you grow up and he no longer has what he desires. I don't especially mind as the boy's uncle (who is more appropriately aged at around 35) is providing me with enough diversion. He's ex army, big and blond with a stunning jaw line. I do mind when later in the week I spot Barry trying to covertly photograph the young man. The difference between being a dirty old man and a dodgy paedophile is just one small step and I tell him so.

There's a livelier bar around the corner and there's a "crazy" DJ in requisite silly wig and big shades. It's always empty. The DJ shouts "Hello boys!" each time we go in and to demonstrate his eagerness to please, he always changes the music to something by gays and then gives us the thumbs up. I find this amusing and to be honest, Erasure, Bronski Beat and Soft Cell are fine with me, if a little dated. I do get sick of The Village People after a few days, though.

There are dogs everywhere and thin cats with mean faces parade the streets too. Oddly the dogs all seem to be pedigree. We find a nice taverna where the food is good and I like the Greek dishes. It's overhung with wild jasmine which rails over a series of rafters on the outdoor terrace and provided I can zone out from Barry's voice, it's idyllic. One night a Yorkshire Terrier trots by our table, followed by a Great Dane, followed by a Toy Poodle. We get to the main course and two cats are sat with us. I draw the line during desert when a rat runs across the rafter above us and we don't eat there again.

I'm woken on the second day by a strange noise and get up and look out of the window. A small toothless lady has arrived to clean. She has skin like leather and is riding into the garden on her donkey, her mop strapped across its back. It's a bloody noisy beast. I avoid it as it looks fearsome. We have other visitors in the apartment. Small green lizards often scurry across the walls and at night bats swoop down and circuit the balcony. I like all this and I like walking in the evenings in the olive groves. We go to Corfu Town one day and I'm amused to see a Marks and Spencer shop but more amused to see a goat sitting in the doorway.

On the third day the power goes off and stays off for 2 days. We get drunk on cheap spirits and retire early but the nights are hot and long. I tan a little bit in the day but I'm a mere amateur compared to some of the other tourists who hit the beach at 9am and stay till 6pm, frying their skin to a shiny mahogany. I'm really bad at sunbathing. I manage about 20 minutes and start to get edgy and bored. I find it uncomfortable and dull.

We go walking a few times and I persuade Barry to go horse riding which I, surprisingly, love. I get a really odd horse that's the largest of the group and the most awkward. He walks a little then stops to grab at a thistle or weed. He then runs like hell to catch up, sending me careering around his back. It makes me laugh but I'm sore the next day. Barry tells me it was my fault and that I'm too stupid to handle a horse, which washes over me like muzak.

We see the woman from the apartment below around a lot and she stares at me continually. She's quite plain and badly dressed and is always alone. I get a bit sick of her staring and wonder what her problem is. Barry finds the two young gays across from us fascinating but thankfully they leave after a few days, before he gets caught in acts of voyeurism.

The week isn't as bad as I thought. I eat well, for a change, enjoy the scenery and read a lot. It's primitive in the village but charming with it. I wish I had a book of "I Spy Pedigree Dogs" to tick off as the Crufts parade of strays goes by. The old Greek ladies seem to take to me and chatter away in Greek to me wherever I go. I learn a few Greek words to be polite and they smile big yellow grins. I'm lonely though. I wish there was someone to talk to and I spend hours looking out over the balcony into the forest, thinking. The big woman below is often there, beneath me, looking out too.

The holiday strengthens my resolve to leave him and I know I must do it soon for the sake of my sanity. I feel mean being with a man I don't love anymore, who bores me and makes me resentful and mean too. It's dragging me down and I regret that my last attempt to leave him was abortive.

The day we leave, the woman below us is waiting for the same coach. We get talking and she tells me she's had a terrible holiday. She came away alone as her friend had had to cancel and she's spent the week feeling lonely and isolated. I wish I'd known sooner. She's lovely and we talk all the way to the airport. I deduce that the reason she was staring at me was that she wanted to talk and maybe spotted a fellow lost soul.

I swap seats on the plane with a very posh boy who's very nauseated with food poisoning. He needs to get to the aisle easily as his bowels are churning. Barry glares at me as it means I'm separated from him and he can't speak at me for four hours. I enjoy the flight home.