108. A-113

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The truth is that ordinary folk in the States don’t live in the perpetual autumnal town of ‘Stars Hollow’, nor is the opening shot of a fabulous Brownstone apartment in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ a realistic home for many. The closest us Brits get to wood panelled rooms and the servants quarters of ‘Downton Abbey’ is on a family day trip, visiting a National Trust property.

None of the characters on British soap operas could afford to buy the houses on the wages of the fictitious jobs they do. Even the ‘Friends’ characters wouldn’t have been able to rent their apartments back then, let alone now. Bridget Jones could only dream of her grubby, tiny Zone 1 flat as a single woman on an average salary. What would be the point? She’d never be able to socialise. No money.

When time was measured by pencil lines on the door frame, and the term ‘staycation’ hadn’t even been invented, DIY happened twice a year in our house. Spring cleaning meant that every Easter, the four days that the adults in the house had off work, were spent washing net curtains and sofa covers, dragging duvets to the launderette, pulling furniture out and hoovering with the nozzle on the brighter patch of compressed carpet behind the wardrobes or damp dusting of skirting boards with old vests cut up into cleaning rags. Every year my mother would comment on how many spiders must have lived behind her bedside table and if she’d known, she’d never have been able to sleep.

There was a wall-mounted telephone in the hall, which sadly lacked the extra-long cable you see in TV programmes. An old dining chair lived permanently underneath, which was more useful these days as a prop to rest alternate feet whilst tying shoelaces, than as a seat for long conversations. On it was a mint green floral cushion featuring a slightly cross-eyed appliquéd owl that I made in primary school. Another one of my creative endeavours survives in that hall to this day. I sprayed an ornate picture frame gold, then hot glue-gunned some circular slivers of wine corks from my brother’s wedding over the painting. I thought my notice boards were a winner and planned to sell them at a craft fair, but never got around to it. There’s probably a etsy shop now selling similar somewhere in rural America. For over twenty years, that corkboard has remained the hub of both equally vital and useless information for the house. A Snoopy pen with a neck ribbon hanging from a hook. Postcards from pre-Obama holidays in Miami and Florida, the Dr’s phone number and opening times, a yellowing newspaper clipping of one of the grandchildren in a local play, a dry-cleaning stub, a tiny pink scrap of paper congratulating you on winning £25 on the lottery, a torn-off piece of cardboard from a lightbulb box as a reminder to buy some more, a half-used book of first-class stamps, taxi business cards and a list of household jobs that need doing. Defrost the freezer. Clean the oven. Wash glass light fittings. Move bed. Sort bathroom cabinet. Sharpen knives. Declutter.

Declutter. It had to be done. Basically, for us kids, it involved spending a whole day pulling everything we owned out of our wardrobes and putting most of it back in again, but tidily. That or helping with some proper elbow-grease scrubbing downstairs. Windows open, music blasting, dusting. Dragging furniture round to change the feng shui of my bedroom. I never had Molly Ringwald’s room or any brat pack teen movie bedroom for that matter, and I always had this nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would judge my record collection and deem me unworthy.  I got to use the fancy, scented drawer liners that mum got me for Christmas, and spent the evening looking through her catalogues, writing up a list of clothes I thought I needed for the summer. By Saturday afternoon, there were libary books to be returned, magazines to donate, black sacks for the tip, or the charity shop, and clothes to be mended. Everything back in its right place.

Easter Sunday obviously meant chocolate for breakfast. Hopefully, we would all get an egg in a mug which would become our new favourite. Other times, it was a smaller egg in a pretty eggcup, plus the promise of a day out at the zoo or theme park. My brother always hoped for a real ostrich egg but they cost £10 each, which seemed a bit steep. We were reminded that “an egg was a whole day’s work for a bird” and anyway, there weren’t enough of us to eat an ostrich egg, so it would go to waste.

Before lunch, I’d set the table with the fancy cutlery, that was usually kept in a shiny, heavily laquered wooden box, lined with red velvet, and, if we were having visitors, make name place settings using pinking shears, thick cardboard and felt tips. I liked to be quiet and still so I could see the motes hanging in the air in that cool dining room. Once we were all as small as those insignificant specks of human skin dust. I’d change the antimacassars from the armchairs to the Irish linen embroidered ones, polish the cut crystal glasses, and try to find the youngest mint leaves that had taken over the vegetable patch to mix with some malt vinegar. Roast leg of lamb for lunch. Being a teenage vegetarian meant I had the same meal as the rest of the family minus the meat, but I made myself some extra thick Bisto gravy, and possibly some bread sauce.

I hadn’t been a veggie very long, not even a year, so I was still experimenting with food. My mother said that if I got anaemic then I’d have to eat liver or beef once a week whether I wanted to or not, because I was still growing. When I became an adult, I could eat what I liked, so I decided very quickly that cavalo nero was going to be my favourite vegetable. I made my own humous, with chick peas from cans and tahini from the local health food shop. My worst purchase there was fennel toothpaste, but their falafal mix was quite good for my amateur palate. I invented something with red lentils, marmite and cheese, and begged my mother to fill the freezer with spinach and ricotta lasagnes.

It was a strange experience that made me turn vegetarian. The previous August bank holiday weekend,  I was given the job of repainting my bedroom window frames. A butterfly got stuck on the paint and there was nothing I could do to help it. I watched it hopelessly struggle for ages after it tore a wing, before it finally gave up. I felt guilty for not helping, but relieved that it was a cabbage white with a tiny wing dot in the shape of a black heart, and not the rarer, more dazzling, common blue. Did insects have feelings? Was my overreaction empathy? A few days later, the butterfly had gone. It had been wiped away. Where its leg and wing had been trapped, there were two tiny marks. I’d sometimes gaze out of the window, thinking about what my future would be like, and run my finger over them. The smallest reminder of a brief life lived.

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Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.

47. And I Feel Fine

*This post contains descriptions of killing animals for food.

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I am the child of a pair of post-war natural preppers. Survivalists. Hunters, farmers, make-do-and-menders, be grateful for what you have got, eat it or go without. Keep calm and carry on is their outlook on life.

My mother grew up on a farm and went to an agricultural school. She can raise, kill, cook animals. Nose to tail. Nothing is wasted. Seasonal vegetables, preserves, chutney, quilts, saved string, hand knitted jumpers, mended clothes. Honey and beeswax. Bread and yoghurt. Smoked meat and bulk meals. It’s where I get my maker’s streak from.

One time when I was a child, I remember saying I didn’t want to collect the eggs because there was a particular goose that kept trying to get me. My aunt reassured me that it wouldn’t be pecking me anymore. We had goose for that evening meal, but it never occurred to me that it was the same one…

My father grew up dirt poor and often went hungry. Last one up didn’t get shoes that day. Everyone who was in the house at meal times got fed, whether you were in that family or not. If you missed the meal, you could have bread and apples. Grammar school wasn’t an option. The uniform was too expensive.

He can make anything out of bits of wood. Tell the time by the sun. Dig and plant the garden, long after others have given up with fatigue. I’ve seen him ride horses bareback, herd sheep, feed baby rabbits with an eye dropper of milk and swim half a length underwater without coming up for breath.

The sense of community, compassion and sharing culture featured strongly in his upbringing, which I am grateful to have inherited. Job options were to go down the pit or join the army.

Going for a walk whilst camping, we would collect everything we needed for a feast. Foraged greens, nettles or pine needles for a hot drink, watercress, tiny crayfish, mushrooms, elderflowers, dandelion leaves and petals. I’ve eaten grubby maggots and zingy citrus ants.

Later in the summer, free, brown-limbed, in that very particular golden afternoon light, came the real treats of scrumped apples, plums, cherries, cobnuts, chestnuts and blackberries. Then the weird and wonderful pumpkins, that always looked better than they tasted.

My attempts at trying to grind tiny amounts of grain from grasses always failed.  I think I was trying to make some sort of cracker or biscuit. Whilst I was trying not to lose my efforts to the wind, I failed to notice the creation of a rope from the plaited grass stalks, miraculously strong enough to take a person’s weight. Dad’s hands red and sore from twisting.

The humanity of dispatching a rabbit kindly with a few moves was not lost on me. Dangle the rabbit and hold its back legs, push the head back. Pull. Two minutes later, a clean pelt in a single piece with perfectly butchered, jointed game ready for the pot. Innards used as fish bait. Prepare your meal during the day so you’ve got time to cook it properly, bury the pot under the fire, so animals don’t dig it up. Rub an upside-down can on a rock until you see bubbles of liquid. The top levers right off.

We did once find a small stash of canned food with a knife and a little tobacco tin of interesting bits and bobs (fish hooks, half a candle, beef stock cubes, nylon thread, a piece of flint, matches, needles, aspirin, and a single cigarette) wrapped in a tarpaulin in the woods. We left it, because it wasn’t ours, but if this was the real deal, then we would have definitely taken it. I’d like to hope that we would have left them something, but then who knows until you’re actually in the survivalist mindset? When there’s no law, what do you do? What would other people do?

My parents have incredible stories from the early eighties, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. Preparing for the possibility. Protocol and structure. Systems organised. Plans made. We tried inventing our own 24-hour ration packs as the official ones were pretty disgusting.

I read a book written by a family friend, about how to track people, whilst staying hidden yourself. The fascinating descriptive consequences on his body of living off the same foodstuffs for too long. Competitive games of being holed up in pitch black darkness for days, with no way of knowing the time except through hunger, with the winner being the one who timed their stay to the closest predicted minute.

Resilience. Getting through this. Mind over matter. Positive attitude. Grit. Dry socks. Hot drink. Sleep. Repeat. I’m still not sure if dowsing for water works.

These things have definitely influenced my life. I’ve sometimes trudged though snow in my Sorel boots and Fjällräven parka to work on days when other colleagues ring in saying they can’t get in because of the weather. I buy food for homeless people. No-one who visits my house ever goes home hungry.

As a child I never realised that the end was not definitely nigh and it’s left me with constant low-level anxiety and a continuing obsession with the apocalypse. Many years of rumination followed, but once I had rationalised that I would probably die early on, I felt strangely relieved.

Odd as it may seem to spend hours locked in enthusiastic debate with one’s parents about recent films and TV shows depicting the aftermath, it is something we all enjoy doing as a family, so will continue to baffle others with our tales of conspiracy theories. Just saying the words, “What would Sarah Connor do?” can spark a whole afternoon’s conversation.