94. Hydrophobic

We run into the old bus shelter, giggling like schoolgirls who have just seen someone they fancy. Within a few seconds, we are mere inches away from a curtain of rain. Not the famous grey British drizzle that makes pavements slippy, but a stop/start torrent where gardens get battered with a side order of flash flooding.

The man who was earlier repeatedly throwing a ball to a soaking wet joyous dog, runs by, led by his bounding Labrador. They are followed by a drenched youth, dressed in a thin t-shirt and jeans. He’s walking quickly, head down, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep inside his pockets, but he’s too far gone to consider trying to save face by seeking shelter. Fate accepted. This is a moment to remember, like when I got dropped off at the supermarket, still wearing my slippers.

We’ve all been there. Stripping off in the kitchen, today’s clothes thrown into the washing machine, running upstairs in wet underwear, stepping straight into a hot shower. Bragging rights come later. Newspapers stuffed inside shoes for a day or so, with no guarantee that they would survive.

We were reliably informed by the lady in the chippy, that the local premier-league football team who we saw training on the beach, had left this very chip shop just minutes before we went in. She didn’t ask for any selfies. Their anonymous steamy minibus is parked near to our bench. I suppose this weather gives them a rare moment of normality, away from the spotlight.

“I really do need to re-wax this jacket. It’s no good to no-one in this state. I might send it off, and get this hole fixed as well.” I say, waggling my index finger through the pocket at him.

“Or you could just get a proper jacket.” He replies. “Don’t you get hot in that? It’s really heavy. You’re dressed like Scott of the Antarctic and I’m, I dunno, Bear Grylls.”

“Would you drink your own pee though?”

“If it was filtered I would. Why not? If it was that or die.” He admits, unashamedly.

He unwraps the steaming damp paper parcel, to reveal “one fish, half chips and scraps please.” I take off my sodden coat, and drape it onto the wooden bench next to me. I run my finger over the ‘DS x GT 4 eva’ engraving and wonder if they still are.

We take turns to jab our tiny wooden forks into award-winning chips, then pant like we’re in labour, to try to cool our mouths. Fortunately, nostalgia also bought me a small bottle of bubblegum-flavoured pop.

“Look, see how the water forms little balls and runs right off? The seams are taped. No leaks.” He says, demonstrating the technical properties of his Italian-designed jacket, a favourite brand of football terraces. It really is water off a duck’s back.

I’m the opposite. I’m hydrophilic. I live to soak in the bath, revitalised by twice-daily showers. I’m the “aahh” after a drink, who deliberately splashes in puddles, washes up dishes, is queen water bomber and dominatrix of nerf gun fights. I swim every week and dream of dissolving my worries in a good sauna. That first cold shower is incredible.

We holiday in the UK, out of season, enjoying a run out in the car to the seaside on glorious autumn days. I call it ‘VIP’ because sometimes we are lucky and get the beach to ourselves. Returning to our holiday cottage with a pocketful of pebbles or shells, a handmade bowl or seaglass pendant and a selection of cards from a craft shop (to support local artists). Future memories for other people’s birthdays.

It’s the little things, like sharing a cone of chips on the wooden boardwalk on Lake Windermere, Cumbria. He stood, deliberately blocking the low winter sun from my eyes, one hand shielding me with his open coat from the icy wind.

That time I spilt hot vinegar on my only pair of jeans in Padstow, Cornwall. I love tangy, soggy chips from the bottom of the polystyrene tray, but I’m so clumsy. Someone should really invent a powdered version of salt and vinegar. Like a wet finger final dab at the end of a packet of crisps, but sold in a little tub in the herbs and spices aisle. I would keep it in my bag, like some people do with little bottles of Tabasco, to sprinkle whenever needed. Redistribution of flavour, then the first few chips wouldn’t have to be so salty, and the last few, so dangerous.

A toddler squatting to investigate every piece of driftwood and seaweed, apparently equally repelled yet delighted by the gentle waves that chase, cover then retreat from her yellow wellingtons.

We once stood up, mid meal, to let a small child continue their busy, important business of trying to walk unimpeded, the whole length of a low brick wall in Cromer, Norfolk, whilst we simultaneously shoed away aggressive seagulls, who were not used to tourists finishing their chips.

There’s a time and place for peeling chili prawns bigger than my thumb, sucking their heads, then dabbling my fingers in the water bowl. Lemon halves wrapped in muslin, white napkins, matchstick frites and elegant sips of chilled Pouilly-Fume. As there are for Jenga-stacked, thrice-fried chips, minted peas, local IPA beer battered cod, and their faux-hipster, gastro-equivalents (the basket/bucket slate-not-plate arrangement) of proudly sustainable pollock, gurnard or lemon sole goujons. Sometimes, they just cannot compete with the traditional northern chippy cafe’s plastic checked tablecloth, white buttered bread cakes, scraps, mushy peas or curry sauce. Oval plates, with crunchy haddock hanging over the edges. Utilitarian turquoise tea cups and saucers reminiscent of school crockery, non-brewed condiment, shaken granular (not flaked) salt and generic ketchup from a huge plastic tomato.

Fish and chips are on almost every restaurant menu in England, but no two meals are ever the same.


51. Doppelganger

I moved departments to another building across town and knew no-one. I recognised a couple of names from email correspondence, but that was it. Except they all seemed to know all about me. I could tell in their eyes that they despised me, even though this was the first time we had ever met. I though it might be because I had got the promotion over someone in this department who they were fiercely loyal to, but no. Nothing like that at all.

My new colleague, Pam shed some light on it. I didn’t have to ask twice. She was one of those women who was championed the underdog and wouldn’t pull up the ladder after herself. She seemed unconcerned about whether I would shoot the messenger. I didn’t. I was grateful.

“You’ve got the same name as that woman who was caught doing coke and ‘other stuff’ in the toilets at that Christmas party last year with that bloke from Sales.”

“I don’t even know who she is.” I said ” I don’t even know who he is.”

“They think you’re her.” Pam replied.

“Well, I’m not.” I replied.

“I know that but they don’t.” she continued.

“It’s not even as if it’s an unusual name. There’s hundreds of us on facebook.”

My reputation was tarnished before I’d even started working there.

The irony is that I don’t much like socialising with colleagues, so I wouldn’t have gone to the Christmas party anyway, but now I am going to have to go out with them to the Chinese buffet for Pam’s birthday this week. Pam has assured me that after this meal, they’ll know they were mistaken.

I want to stay under the radar and prove myself on my own worth, but I also want them to know that I am definitely not her.

The food was actually half-decent. Prawn toast, seaweed, spring rolls, spare ribs, prawn crackers, chicken noodle soup, shredded duck pancakes with the hoi sin sauce that gives me nightmares, sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, minced meat in lettuce leaves, some spicy beef noodles, a special fried rice with loads of different interesting bits in it, orange segments or pineapple fritters.

I sat next to Pam, as she seems to have taken me under her wing. I think we are going to be friends. I like a woman who supports other women.

The chat is mostly complaining about work and about people I don’t know. I get asked the usual. Boyfriend, house, kids, holidays, hobbies, pets. None of them are particularly interested in me. Not even when I casually comment on the best Chinese meal I had was just before last Christmas when I was in Las Vegas. No-one registers that if I was in Vegas at the same time they had their party, then it couldn’t have been me in that restaurant toilet in Leeds shagging some bloke.

When it gets to hobbies, I say I’m into music and I write a blog. “About knitting.” I add quickly. I am sure now that none of them will ever spend time searching for it let alone ever read it. I tell a couple of craft anecdotes to prove how nerdy I am and to bore them.

“I’m in a stitch n bitch, knitter natter group on Ravelry. That’s our knitting forum. You know when you get wool and it’s all twisted beautifully, and you have to wind it into a ball? That’s called a skank. It’s a cross between a skein and a hank. I met Kaffe Fassett twice.” He’s the most famous knitter I know, and they’ve never heard of him. “What about Tiny Owl Knits – she used to be the singer in Massive Attack when they went on tour? Attic 24?” Still nothing. I was expecting at least one of them to know something about woolcrafts or even music. Just something to divert the conversation somewhere else.

I feel like I’ve just met the in-laws for the first time at a family wedding and they think I’m boring. A joke. A complete square. As cool as a geek.

Normally, I would own my own shit. Take responsibility for my mistakes. If it was me in the toilets, then I would say so. But it wasn’t. In this case, I just know it would be “the lady doth protest too much” so what’s the point? If anyone asks me if I know what they are saying about the-person-with-the-same-name-as-me, I’ll just say, “Yes, I started that rumour.”

Gossip is like ripping up a piece of paper and letting the pieces blow away in the wind. You’ll never get every scrap back and you’ll never know who has read those scraps of paper or where they’ll end up.