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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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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106. Ekki Hugsa

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Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

“But you said there was no such thing as the one.” Said Ruth.

“Yeah, I know, and I still don’t think there is just the one person for everyone. My Nan said that you’d have to be really lucky to find that certain someone who was not only born around the same time as you, but close enough to where you live so you’d find each other.” Said Jean. “I think it’s true. That there’s lots of people for everyone. Even more if you’re beautiful or funny. People just need to be as open-minded as they say they are, and not over think things.”

“Do you mean, like when you find out that someone fancies you, then you sometimes start liking them back, even though before that moment, you’d never even thought of them in that way?” Said Ruth.

“That’s exactly what I mean.” Said Jean. “My Gramp told me that he saw my Nan on a bus and so he got a job delivering the milk round where she lived, in the hope that he’d see her again, and she was so impressed that he’d gone to all that trouble to find her that she went out with him, even though she said she didn’t fancy him for ages.”

“Didn’t they call it stalking back then?” Said Ruth. Just then her phone pings. “It’s my mum asking us if we want a drink.”

“I can’t believe she texts you. My mum would shout up the stairs.” Said Jean.

A few minutes later, Ruth and Jean are sat on a couple of bar stools at the counter in the kitchen, sipping cloudy lemonade and nibbling on home-made cheese straws. Ruth’s mum says, “Do you girls want to help me on Saturday? I’m making a start on your Nan’s house. Just for a couple of hours? I could really do with some young opinions. There’s pizza in it for you.”

When Saturday comes, the teenagers are bemused and baffled by so much in the house that they’ve never seen before. They’ve made up this game where they hold up their phone if the item they’ve got in their hand can “fit into de fone.” So far this includes, a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a cassette player and box of tapes, another box of vhs tapes but no video player, a really old HMV 102 suitcase gramophone player and some heavy records, a radio, an alarm clock, a calendar, six albums of photographs, a box of letters, an old Polaroid camera but no film, flash bulbs for an even older camera, a whole wall of books, a telephone with its own little stool and table, complete with Yellow Pages, address book and Thompson Directory, a bank book, torch, compass and a pile of newspapers.

By the end of the afternoon, both girls, who are not much younger than the couple in the wedding photo, have acquired a selection of costume jewellery, mirror compacts and nail varnishes. Who’d have thought that old lady peach and coral were now the latest shades? But then, everything always comes full circle.

One day, there might even be a whole industry dedicated to tracking down the descendants of our discarded phones, to fill in family tree gaps.  Hopefully, there’ll at least be a universal charging lead with an in-built adaptor to capture the contents of people’s mobile phones for posterity.