109. Answers on a Postcard

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Photo by Wherda Arsianto on Unsplash

I went to a small college in a small town, in the early 90s, with about 500 other students. Education was free then, I was given a modest grant to live on, and cheap basic, accommodation. My weekly food bill was more than my room. Everyone was there to learn the modern Business Studies methods of the day, conveniently with our tutors’ own published books as set texts. We had optimistically enrolled on a handful of randomly specialist, semi-practical courses, to find out about the future of electronic mail and networks of personal computers that were not yet part of our working environment. However, less than a decade later, that knowledge was obsolete.

There were 24 six inch wire cubes (aka pigeonholes) fitted to the wall outside of the Student Union office. A ritual daily gathering for the latest gossip coinciding with regulation mid-morning coffee break. The arrival of the mail was a big deal, so we’d hang around for our fix of letters from home, whilst desperately trying to not look overeager. It was clearly an inefficient method of distribution by Surname, as some of the cubes, (H, S, B) could barely hold a day’s delivery, yet others, (U or Q) were nearly always empty. If we wanted to leave a message for a tutor, we’d pop a note into their personal wooden pigeonhole in the Secretary’s office.

This was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone times. I’d ring home once, possibly twice a fortnight from one of the payphones dotted around campus, using a prepaid phone card. I was glad my room wasn’t located near to the phone in my halls of residence. The perk of having the convenience of a phone so close by, would quickly dissolve, as most of the calls were for other people. You were damned if you took a message, as whatever you did next was bound to be wrong. Do you leave the message on the pinboard next to the phone, push a note under their door (if you knew where they lived) or hold onto it until you found them? Were you supposed to go looking for them? If you saw their friend first, do you tell them what the caller said? Living closest to the phone also meant that no-one else would ever answer it, including during the night. You were fair game to be scolded if someone’s boyfriend had called and they’d missed them, because you couldn’t be “bothered to get out of bed” at midnight to answer the phone.

Whenever an essay or assignment was set, I’d go straight to the library after class, to check out the recommended research books, and get first reserve on the others that had to be ordered in from other libraries. On the first Monday of every month, new magazines went on display, so I’d spend many a glorious afternoon reading the latest issues for free. With hindsight, it would have been better with a grande latte and a granola bar on the table, but we were years away from food and drink coexisting in a public space with books. We didn’t know we had to carry our own water with us at all times back then, and only our grannies had a thermos. Staying hydrated was reserved for hot days or hangovers.

Information about the outside world arrived in the form of giant newspapers attached to long, wooden rods. These were apparently required to deter theft of the biblepaper-thin sheets. I figured that if something important happened, I was bound to find out eventually (people would be talking about it and I would hear or they would tell me!). Hence, my knowledge of history from that period is sparse. We felt no responsibility (or addiction) to stay up-to-date with current affairs.

Music magazines, flyers on record shop counters, photocopied fanzines made by dedicated sixth-formers, and postcards from that place in Leamington Spa, provided all we ever needed to know about what was happening in our own music bubble.

We weren’t missing out if it hadn’t yet been invented.

In a decade from now, will facial recognition, spyware, satellite surveillance, contactless payments, automatic numberplate recognition technology and body microchip nano implants be the norm? Will it even be possible to go off-grid? Will it seem an incredible waste to cut down trees for paper, when they’re needed for much more important things like clean air?

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Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

 

 

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107. Design Bulletin 32

 

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Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

“All Life is forwards, you will see.” 

The Beigeness by Kate Tempest

All Sofie wanted was to get out of this lay-by of a town as soon as she could. It was stifling, a predictable, cookie-cutter, Edward Scissorhands estate where everyone was a clone or a drone. They all bragged about how much their house was worth but how little they spent on food from the local European mega-hypermarket. Their disposable, mass-produced, bland uniforms bought from the giant dazzling, car park shrine to Arcadia.

The only thing her mother said after child body parts were found in oversized plant pots in the dentist’s house round the corner, was “you never know what goes on behind closed doors”. Neighbours tutted about how it “affected the resale value” and that they could hardly believe it was true because “he was such a lovely man,” but they never once said anything about the girl. Yeah, middle-class people were such proper aspirational role-models. They didn’t drink or abuse their own kids did they? Some dinner parties were code for swingers. More pills and coke than a rock band’s dressing room. They’d still elbow their own mothers out of the way for a place at the local Catholic high school.

When her sister Jade, came back from a gap year of backpacking round Asia, she was in a black trouser suit almost before her nose-ring had been taken out. A few net curtains twitched as she walked up the drive in her billowing patchwork pantaloon trousers. Never fear, they went straight into in the dustbin. Dreadlocks off to reveal a cute pixie crop. It was as if everyone was allowed a year away from ‘normality’ and was then neutralised back to generic acceptability. Don’t even think about putting your bins out whilst still in your pyjamas.

Their parents tried the same trick again with Sofie but she wasn’t having any of it. “After you’ve done your Masters, we’ll pay for you to go travelling or buy you a car. Your choice.” The only caveat was that she had to live at home and go to one of the local Universities. Sofie thought the point of higher education was to the chance to live independently and experience life with people from all different backgrounds, not as the primary way to get a higher income as fast as possible.

One family said nothing about their offspring’s University aspirations then nonchalantly dropped the bombshell of “Oh, our son is at Yale.” You could sense the seething resentment bubbling at that dinner party like a thumb over a hosepipe.

Why couldn’t here be like it was in Denmark? People didn’t actually all need their own tiny square of green. If the gardens were all joined together, kids could actually play outside again. People would sit and chat. Be neighbourly. Look out for each other. Grow veg. Have barbeques. Form a cross-generational community. Obesity and loneliness obliterated. Sort of like the intent of London gated gardens in Kensington. They might share the same cleaners but they were well-paid enough to be loyal, crucially remaining tight-lipped about the contents of other people’s knicker drawers. If someone gossips to you, the chances are that they are also talking about your life to someone else behind your back.

No matter how big the driveways were, some people would always park on the road, usually at the exact spot where children wanted to naturally cross it. Pedestrians and cyclists seemed to be an afterthought in this plan. There was no point even trying to discuss it. People’s entitlement extended to the public road immediately in front their front gates. It was an unforgiveable sin to park your car outside someone else’s house. Don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of driving a works van.

A neighbour, Stan, with a blue-eyed, Siberian Husky named Rula, was pressured into muzzling his dog whenever he took it for a walk, just to placate the neighbours. When he discovered sympathetic Polish graffiti on the side of his garage. Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu  (translates as ‘do not call the wolf out of the woods’ or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’)  he left it, and it would still be there today if some unknown person had not painted over it when he was on holiday.

Heaven help anyone who wanted to tinker with a motorbike outside their OWN property on a sunny afternoon, with the radio on low, or who didn’t water or cut their front lawn often enough. Failing to deadhead flowers or having the wrong kind of patio chair was punishable by being ostracised from the PTA. You might find an influx of dead snails on your path, all with smashed shells, that had been tossed over the fence during the night in frustration, because your lack of local pride was showing up their impeccable, efforts. Having an argument within earshot of the neighbours rendered you invisible and people always claimed they “never heard anything”. They wanted to know why an ambulance with flashing blue lights was outside your house at 2am, but they would never actually be the one to call the police about a ‘domestic’. They’re not getting involved.

Some of the best one-upmanship efforts ever displayed were at Christmas. Most people wouldn’t be stupid enough to display the packaging from their gifts of electronic gadgets and children’s toys for fear of opportunist burglars, but here, it seemed to be mandatory. How on earth could everyone possibly keep up with the competition but still stay in their own lane?

The final straw was when some neighbours won the lottery. They didn’t want to move. They would build an extension. If that wasn’t enough, one of their teenagers bought a drum kit and VW camper van. Clearly obvious deliberate provocation designed only to put ideas into the heads of the other kids on the estate.

Sofie decided that the invitation to spend the summer in Cornwall with her childhood friend was a brilliant way to get out of Dodge. She could practice her guitar and get a job as a waitress, whilst he surfed, and maybe, their band would get good enough to even play some gigs.

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Photo by Eugen Popescu on Unsplash

92. A Northern Light

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“Sorry I’m late.” Lauren was slightly out of breath. She took off her cross body bag and unravelled her scarf. Sitting down wearily, heavily into the chair, she fanned her face. “How’d it go then?” She asked, but before I could reply, she had clocked the boxed tuna Niçoise salad I’d bought for her.” Ooh thanks!” she said, as I hand her a burgundy-coloured plastic knife and fork and a couple of recycled napkins.

“Coconut water or lemonade?” I held up both bottles, lifting each one slightly higher than the other as I said its name.

“Lemonade please.”

“Yeah, he was a great date, but I don’t think I’ll see him again.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, Harry’s a lovely bloke, exactly like his profile, which makes a nice change, and I really liked him online – he was funny, kind, and we got on great – but we just didn’t…” I paused trying to find the right word. “You know? Click.”

“No spark?” She peered at my avocado and crayfish salad. She did this to me every week. Lauren always wanted what I had.

I shook my head.

“Oh that’s a shame.” said Lauren. “You sounded like you really liked him.”

“I did. I do. I mean, he’s great. I keep thinking I’m being too picky. I just want to feel that, you know, that, pang of desire.” I said, trying to summon some kind of enthusiasm for the whole ridiculous process.

“You gotta have the pang.” She replied using a fake American accent. “Mind you, it never lasts, so what you never had, you never miss. No wonder-lust.”

I shook the tub of already-separating peppery oil and vinegar dressing and just about managed to open its fiddly lid, without spilling it. Dribbling the glossy, opaque liquid over my salad, a lemony garlicky aroma filled my nose. I gently prodded first at a slippery slice of avocado, then stabbed at a big piece of lollo rosso. There was no elegant way to eat this.

“Why don’t you just go out with him again? Just for the practice. It was only one meal.” She emphasised the word, ‘one’. “That’s a lot of pressure. He might have been nervous. Your nerves make you” pointing at me “a bit full-on whenever you meet someone and that’s not the real you. You wouldn’t give up on someone you really liked if the first time you went to bed, it was a bit… er, off.” She said, trying to be supportive.

“Nah.” I say. “You’re totally right though. You always are. I don’t know. Maybe I should, but there wasn’t any spark and I’m alright for friends. It might give him the wrong idea if we met up again. I can’t do that to him. He’s one of the good ones. Anyway, what if I met someone? I can’t have two people in my head like last time.”

“Yeah, good point” said Lauren. She screwed the lid back onto her cloudy lemonade bottle then smoothed out some imaginary creases on her skirt. “Actually,” she cleared her throat. “I’ve met someone.” She looked up at me, and then paused for a second to pick at some invisible lint from her cardigan. “He’s called Robert. He’s a Solicitor and he’s wonderful. We’ve been out twice. Once for coffee and once for lunch. I’m a little bit smitten and we’re going out for dinner on Saturday.” She clapped her hands together with glee.

I chewed and smiled as best I can though a mouthful of lettuce, but she wasn’t looking at me.

Her hands had formed a prayer pose, thumbs together, fingertips touching her lips. Sighing longingly, she opened her hands slightly, and placed the tips of her index and middle fingers over her mouth, almost as if she was trying to stop herself saying something. Her eyes darted around for a second. She was worried. Pensive. Then she took a deep breath in, sighed out, whilst doing a cleansing, pushing away tai chi gesture.

“God, please, please, please, let him not be one of those Don Draper types that only likes the beautiful beginnings of things.” She was almost begging. Then she looked right at me and said. “You know what I mean don’t you? When you think you’ve found the perfect gent, but once you’ve had sex, he loses interest completely. You’ve met one of them?”

“I have, unfortunately.” I said wearily. “I hate them. I absolutely effin hate them. Why is sex like a switch? The first month they adore everything about you, and they even say they think they’re falling for you, and then the next week, literally everything you do or say is annoying, and they make you feel like you’ve don’t something wrong, that you repulse them. It’s exactly like that Foo Fighters song, “Then I’m done, done, onto the next one.” Or they just disappear. Why do they do that?”

“Because they can, and we let them. They’ll wait as long as it takes to get what they want. I’ve heard some pathetic excuses. The reasons they give are just shocking.” She said, shaking her head.

“I know!” I said incredulously. “How can they not be ready for a relationship when they’ve signed up to a relationship site?”

“Billy liars. That’s what.” She said. “I tell you what, right? If Robert turns out to be a complete tool, then I swear I’m off men. Fini. They’re not worth it.”

We clink our plastic bottles together to seal the deal.

“Do you think we should keep these from now on?” I said, holding up my fork.

“Why’s that then?” She asked.

“You know I’ve got this theory that in a few years, when cannabis is legalised, there will be sales reps that come round to your house to sell you ‘weed for your needs,’ from the comfort of your own home? They’ll ask you if there is anything else you want, like home-made edibles that aren’t regulated, or vape oil or whatever. And you’ll go, “Actually, I’m having a party, so do you have any plastic knives, forks, spoons and straws?” So, they’ll go to the boot of their car and get them. It’ll be totally illegal.”

“Probably,” she chuckled. “A reversal of fortune. Like fox hunting and homosexuality were last century. Carrying a plastic bag will be the new fur.”

I laughed and nearly coughed at the same time. “Do you want to get a gelato?” I asked hopefully.

“Mmmm. Yes. That sounds good. Next week I am definitely getting THAT.” She said, determinedly, pointing her knife at the remainder of my salad.

“You still coming with me to that Twitter Writers meet-up book launch thingy tomorrow?” I ask her.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I get a free book written by someone you know, and you finally get to meet the people you spend so much time with.” she replied. “Will there be anyone famous there?”

“Nah. Doubt it.” I say. “The author’s brother is in ‘Holby City’, so he might be there if he’s not working, and that bloke from that band, ‘Air Mail’ likes to be seen out and about. I reckon he’ll be there. It’s probably how he got his band name.”

I had no idea what to wear to a book launch. I’d only been to a couple of indie publisher’s launches in bookshops before. Nothing like this, with money thrown at it, from a major house. The invitations were printed on cream stiff card that had a fake red wine stain ring on it to echo the novel’s subject matter.

The hotel foyer’s sign indicated the event was in the Kensington Room, and there had already been an afternoon tea pre-launch event earlier in the day, to which I had not been invited. I had a plus one to the wine reception/mixer and official book launch. The author was going to do a reading, then there was to be a Q and A, a quick half an hour signing, photos, then four, maybe six of us from Twitter were going to go for a meal. That was the plan anyway. It might end up being just me and Lauren down the pub.

It seemed like quite a posh do. There was a sign-in table which still had about 60 name badges on it by the time I arrived. I considered whether I should write my Twitter name on the badge as well as my real name, and decided to go for it, or how else would some people know who I was?

I admitted to myself that I was a little nervous about meeting people in the flesh that I already kind of knew. I wasn’t bothered that they might not like me in person. Not that at all. People are hardly ever like you imagine they are when you finally meet them in real life. No, it was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just felt a bit, uncomfortable.

I scanned the room. There was a long table with some good Malbec, chilled Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower cordial and sparking water. Retro cheese straws and those Japanese coated peanuts that look like tiny eggs to nibble.

I think I would have quite liked to have gone to the afternoon tea, but it was a private event for the author’s ex-students and family.

I recognised a local journalist talking to the actor, and my old English tutor. She was with someone I didn’t know, and I thought I’d go over and say hi.

Two waitresses with black waistcoats and white cloths over their bent forearms, were slowly walking around, topping up glasses, and pointing people in the direction of the loos.

The usual canvas tote bag with the name and logo of the publishing house contained a hardback copy of the book – already signed – plus a bookmark for a future release, a promotional postcard, a pen, a granola bar for some bizarre reason, the obligatory metal water bottle, and a yellow stress ball with a smiley face on it. That last item was an in-joke for the Twitter community, for that was the author’s avatar.

My old English Lit teacher was talking to someone called Bob. I realised I knew him online as ‘Night,JimBob’ and he greeted me enthusiastically with an awkward sweaty handshake/arm squeeze, and then went in for a two cheek kiss. We both clumsily went to the same side for the first kiss.

He smelled incredible. There was definitely a pang, alright. I felt it. I desperately wanted to kiss him again right there and then. To this day I can’t walk past a bar of Dove soap without wanting to smell it, to try to recreate those few seconds.

An observer would never have realised that this was our first meeting, as our conversation felt so natural and fluid. It picked up right from where we left off online yesterday. Within ten seconds of meeting, we were laughing.

I finally understood why people said, “Never meet your heroes”. Everything was going to be different between us from that point onwards.

These first few moments were amazing. We just bounced off each other and after only a couple of minutes, it felt like I’d known him all my life. It was too soon to know whether he felt like that too, but it felt like he did. I hoped so anyway.

I couldn’t believe that I paid dozens of pounds every month to be introduced to police line-ups of unsuitable men, and I still managed to pick the wrong one every time. Here was someone right here, right now, in real life, standing in front of me and I’d never even noticed him before. All that time, wasted.

Bob’s interest in me abruptly halted and his voice trailed-off mid-sentence. Something else had caught his attention. He was no longer looking at me, but over my shoulder. Surprised and delighted, he had obviously just recognised someone who meant a lot to him. Someone who he was not expecting to see here. I felt like a voyeur intruding, as I observed his expression change. His face visibly softened; he beamed, eyes sparkling with pure joy at the person behind me. I turned to see my friend Lauren gazing lovingly in a lingering, locked eye embrace, with her new beau Robert.