Friday, 21 February 2014

The Lodger

Formerly published in The Sunday Post.
If I had mixed feelings about taking a lodger, they disappeared when I first set eyes on Brad.  He looked reassuringly average and even slightly cute.  He had a crop of short hair, stiff like a nailbrush and a wholesome, fresh-faced bounciness.

            ‘He’ll do,’ I thought.  ‘I’ll take him.’

            I’d heard all sorts of lodger horror stories from friends.  My friend, Emma, divorced, and lured by the prospect of a lucrative side-line was driven to pasting notices all over her house to keep the lodgers under control.  When filling the kettle, think green, said one.

            ‘Just imagine - they fill the kettle to make one tiny cup of coffee,’ she complained.  I tutted at such wanton waste, determined that wouldn’t happen to me.  I’d make a contract.  That was the sensible thing to do, and so I wrote one.  The terms included being sure to shut the garden gate.  I also insisted on having privacy when entertaining.

            Brad arrived with his three thousand DVDs, a pine shelf and two furry monkeys.  I hovered in the doorway of his room as he poked around the cupboards and inspected the drawer space.  Then I thrust the contract under his nose.  Brad raised his eyebrows and I fidgeted.

            ‘How often do you have people to dinner?’ he asked, looking not-quite-so-friendly.

            ‘Well, it sort of varies…’

            ‘I’d find it claustrophobic being cooped up in that little room.’

            ‘But that’s why the rent’s so cheap.  House-shares are much more expensive,’ I insisted.

            It was not an auspicious start.  All the same, he was the best of a bad bunch.  He was neither a woman-hater nor a dog-hater.  Pedantic perhaps, but I reckoned I’d cope with that.

            ‘If you expect me to keep to my room, I’ll need a chair.’

            And so I picked up a chair for him in a local second-hand shop.  How I begrudged that fifteen quid!  Brad said it was rather small and more like a child’s chair.  Of course, he was right but his comfort wasn’t my top priority.  By this time I was pretty fed up with the intrusion on my life.

            Brad moved around so silently, in his soft-soled shoes, disturbing nothing.  I prefer to hear people coming and going.  There was a spookiness about the way I’d suddenly feel his presence behind me.

            ‘He’s such a creep,’ I confided to Emma one day on the phone.

            ‘You’ll have to have it out with him,’ she said wisely.  ‘Remember, it’s your house and he’ll have to toe the line.’

            But how could I tell him he got on my nerves simply because he crept around everywhere?  Said out loud it sounded like nit-picking.

            A few days after Brad’s arrival, Jerry came to dinner.  The wine was chilled, the tablecloth pristine white.  I opened the glass patio doors wide onto the garden.  Brad was sitting there on a deckchair, pretending he could do the Telegraph cryptic crossword.  He was wearing a pair of the longest shorts I’d ever seen.  I shuddered, but I wasn’t worried.  We both knew where we stood.

            Surely even an insensitive clod like Brad would not remain there playing gooseberry while I was entertaining Jerry.

            Jerry arrived, looking as sultry, dark and gorgeous as ever.  I glared at the back of Brad’s head with its nailbrush hairdo and little-boy’s neck and almost burst with the intensity of my hatred.  Jerry looked up from spooning his asparagus soup, and asked about Brad.

            ‘He’s here because his marriage broke up and he needs time to look around for a new pad for himself.’

            ‘Poor chap,’ Jerry muttered tenderly.

            ‘Poor chap,’ I repeated through clenched teeth.

            Jerry offered Brad a glass of red wine, which he accepted with a broad smile.  He then hovered until Jerry left around eleven.

            I phoned Emma next day.  ‘Do you know what that numbskull did last night?’ I fumed.

            ‘No.  What?’  Emma was agog.  She was horrified when I told her.

            I was cool towards Brad after that and sensing it, he withdrew into himself.  For a couple of weeks all he did was go to work, come home and sit out on the patio.

            ‘How Jerry getting on?’ he asked casually one evening.


            ‘Haven’t seen him around lately.’

            I shrugged my shoulders.  It was true.  Jerry hadn’t phoned but I tried not to get uptight about trivialities.  He was only a man, after all.  If he was busy and needed some space, then he must have it.

            Occasionally I joined Brad on the patio.  He’d put down his paper or novel and pour me a drink.  It was cosy.  I still considered him to be arrogant and a creep, but he did have a softer side.  Once, when I told him about the break-up with my boyfriend last year, he said, ‘So you’re feeling it too, then…’

            He brought home bones for the dog and once, some flowers for me.  My friends started making remarks.

            ‘Oh, there’s nothing to it,’ I said airily.  There wasn’t.  I mean, how could there possibly be? 

            Jerry still hadn’t rung.  I quietly tormented myself.

My social life improved but Brad’s didn’t and he made no effort to deal with this.  One day, as I was going to a party, I asked him if he’d like to come along.  He accepted and I introduced him to a businesswoman I knew, Melanie.  Melanie’s big blue eyes lit up.  I was pleased they got on so well. 

The next day I asked him if he’d made arrangements to see her again.

‘I’d like to, but I couldn’t,’ he explained.  ‘I’m always the same when I meet someone attractive.  I can’t seem to work up the courage.’

And so I fixed it.  The conversation went something like this…

‘Melanie, if Brad asked you out, would you go?’

‘Brad, Melanie would love to go out with you but she’s waiting for you to ask her.  She’s in tomorrow evening if you want to phone.’

Yes, I fixed it for the two of them, I really did.  Then, out of the blue, Jerry phoned and took me to an Indian restaurant.  His conversation was fast and lively, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected.  Brad wasn’t seeing Melanie that night and I’d left him with his novel, on the patio.  He looked so lonely…

Gradually, Brad got back into circulation.  One day, to my surprise, he invited me to a party.  It was a fifties night.  I went to Mum’s and rummaged in the back of her wardrobe.  I dug out the perfect dress with a red top and full white skirt.  Four-inch stilettoes and a purple fringe completed the look.

            I caught my breath when I saw Brad’s get-up.  His crop was slicked down with gel and he wore a black T-shirt, pink shirt and skinny black jeans.  He looked amazing.

            When we stopped at the petrol station, the attendant’s eyes almost popped out of his face as I teetered to the cashpoint and Brad put air in the tyres. We both laughed at the effect our gear had on the unsuspecting public.  And I loved every single minute of it.

            There was only one thing that marred a perfect evening…

            On being introduced to Brad’s friends, everyone gave me a strange look and remarked: ‘So you’re the landlady!’

            ‘What have you been saying to your mates about me/’ I asked Brad later.  He looked uncomfortable, but then, who was I to judge him.

            ‘I told all my friends you were a creep,’ I confided bravely.

            ‘I told mine you were a dragon,’ he replied.

            I began to regret my successful matchmaking as I thought about Brad and Melanie.  After all, we had more in common that I first thought.  There was a certain something about our time together.

            When Jerry rang, my response was lukewarm.  It was Friday and Brad was shortly due home from work.

            ‘I quite understand if you’ve got something better on the back burner,’ snapped Jerry, annoyed because I wasn’t immediately available after three weeks of silence.

            ‘That’s how it goes,’ I said cheerfully, replacing the receiver.  I put Brad’s favourite DVD on the player and began to think things over. 

            I worried about Brad, this arrogant guy who loved loud clothes and furry monkeys.  He was the same man who like opera, but was impatient with Shakespeare and couldn’t do the cryptic crossword.

            He asked me how I was and really wanted to know.

            He was going out with Melanie.

            I could stand it no longer.  When he arrived home, I asked him outright.

            ‘Are you seeing Melanie again?’ I blurted.

            ‘I’m comfortable with you,’ Brad said simply, ‘and I’d rather stay here.’

            That’s all very well, of course, but now I must prepare a new contract.  It’s essential to start how you mean to go on.  Know where you stand, that sort of thing.  It’s only sensible. No more Jerry-types for me.  Brad’s going to know exactly what’s expected…

© Janet Cameron.  First published in The Sunday Post 15 September, 1991 under the title My Uncertain Heart.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Meals on Legs

Copyright: Janet Cameron

'Here you are, Sindy," says Mum. "Nan's dinner's ready."
Carefully, she places a dab of mint
sauce beside the lamb and adds a
little broccoli next to the crispy
roast potatoes.  "They're not too
crispy, are they?" she worries. "Do
you think Nan can chew them, or
should I put more mash on instead?"
            ‘They’re fine,’ I assure her.  Nan always covers them in gravy anyway.’
            So Mum pops the aluminium lid on top of the plate and hands it to me.  ‘And there’s yours,’ she adds, placing my dinner on top of Nan’s.  It’s exactly the same except there’s no broccoli.  I hate broccoli and, fortunately, Mum understands. 
            ‘We could all go round Nan’s with our dinners.  It wouldn’t make any odds,’ Mum pops a couple of serviettes on top of the dinners.
            ‘Don’t forget, Mum,’ I say, ‘We agreed because Nan says not to make any fuss.’
            Mum smiles her secret smile.  ‘She always was a proud old lady,’ she murmurs, ‘but then, we wouldn’t have her any different, would we?’
            ‘See you soon, Mum.’
            I whizz off round the corner to Nan’s.  Mum, Dad, Phil and I live in a three up, two down in Short Street and Nan lives in Three Meadows Close in a lovely bungalow  that’s just the right size for her with tiny, yellow roses round the window.  When I reach her buttercup yellow door, I ring the bell, three short rings and one long, so she knows it’s me and I make a mental note her front lawn grass needs cutting and the roses could do with a prune.  My young brother, Phil, always does it for her.  Nan has an idea that if you’re doing a tough job, you need lots of cups of tea, and is apt to get a little agitated if you don’t drink it.   So Phil spends more time drinking tea than cutting the grass.  Actually, sometimes I think she does it on purpose so she can have more time with him, but I know Phil doesn’t mind.  Like all of us, he adores the old lady.
            It takes a while for Nan to reach the door, although she’s pretty good for ninety.  (Actually, she’s my great-grandmother on Mum’s side, but Mum’s parents retired to Spain so we look out for her day-to-day, although Mum’s parents visit as often as they can.)
            ‘Hi Nan,’ I greet her.  ‘It’s Meals on Legs.’  Nan laughs.  It’s become our family joke and we always laugh at it, even though, with the constant repetition, it shouldn’t really be funny anymore.
            ‘Sindy, what a good girl you are?’   I follow her inside.  ‘Why have you brought me two dinners?’ asks Nan, bewildered.  ‘I can’t possibly eat all that.’
            ‘The other one’s for me.  I’m going to have mine with you, today.’
            ‘I told you I didn’t want any fuss.’  All the same, Nan sniffs appreciatively and then looks anxious for a moment.  ‘Now you’ll miss your Sunday lunch with the family.  You don’t have to do that, Sindy.  Now that I can’t get round to you anymore doesn’t mean I can’t eat mine on my own.  I know I’m lucky to get such a lovely dinner every Sunday.  After all, you always come round and have tea with me.’
            Dear Nan.  She’s so independent and always anxious not to be a burden, not that she ever could be.   Like everyone, she has her funny little ways, but she is the most unselfish person I know and a fountain of good sense when you need a listening ear.
            ‘But I want to eat with you, Nan.  I eat plenty of meals with Mum and Dad and Phil on weekdays.  Anyway, I want to talk to you.’
            ‘All right, my love.’ 
            Nan has already laid the table for herself, so she gets another placemat for me and a knife and fork then hands me a bottle of Rosé and a bottle opener.  ‘You’re a nice strong girl, Sindy, can you get the cork out?’ she says.  Secretly I think to myself, ‘But you didn’t want any fuss, Nan!’ although I daren’t say so.  Trying not to spill the wine, I manage to remove the cork.  Nan’s little rosebud mouth lifts up approvingly as the wine gurgles happily into her favourite crystal sherry glasses.   ‘That’s the ticket,’ she says. 
            She has lots of funny little expressions like that, from when she was a girl and sometimes it really cracks Phil and me up.  As we sit down, I notice she’d had her hair done yesterday and it sits in neat little curls on top of her head and around her ears.  And, am I imagining it, or has she had a silvery-blue rinse?  No, I’m sure I’m not.   Anyway, she looks great with her light hair and her sun-browned, smiley little button of a face.
            We both taste a small piece of everything and have a sip of wine, then I say, ‘Nan, there’s this boy I like.  I don’t know if he likes me, and I’m not sure whether to…well, you know… do anything about it.’
            ‘Is he really a very nice boy and worthy of you?’
            ‘Well, yes, of course he is.  And he’s quite incredibly attractive and gorgeous with black hair and he always talks to me as though he likes me.  He loves dancing, just like I do.  It’s just that…well, I’m not sure if he’s really attracted to me, in a romantic sort of way.’  I trail off, starting to feel a bit daft, but I can see Nan is thinking about it very carefully by the way her head is nodding.   After what seems like forever, she looks me straight in the eye.
            ‘Then of course you should do something about it.  Of course he’s attracted to you.  Why shouldn’t he be?  I mean, Sindy, my sweetheart, just look at you…’
            I start to giggle.  ‘But you’re prejudiced, Nan.’
            ‘That doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about,’ says Nan firmly, spearing a piece of broccoli and inspecting it as though it holds the answer to the meaning of life, the Universe and everything in it.  Honestly, who needs therapy for self-esteem when they have a Nan like that!
            ‘You wouldn’t be here if I’d been lily-livered when I met your great-grandfather.’
            Lily-livered!  That’s a new one!  I almost choke on a roast potato.
            ‘What happened?’
            ‘He’d never have asked me out, let alone asked me to marry him if I hadn’t guided him very firmly in the right direction.  Young men don’t always know what’s best for them and need a little help in making up their minds.  But you needn’t worry because they won’t ever do anything they don’t really want to.  You just have to make it easy for them and let them think it’s their idea.  Never mind all these high-faluting new ideas.  Male psycho…, what d’you call it?... male psycho…ana…lology. well, that hasn’t changed a bit.’
            I think about this.  Suppose I mention to Ben, sort of casually, as though it was neither here nor there, that I’d really like to see that new romantic comedy with Hugh Grant, then perhaps he’ll offer to take me.  In fact, I’m sure he will.  The more I think about it, the more sure I am and I start to feel more confident and, yes, even empowered.
            For a short while, Nan and I eat in companionable silence, then I say:  ‘You’re right, Nan. 
            ‘Faint heart never won fair lady – or gentleman, in this case.’
            Again, she was right.  There was something gentlemanly about Ben, gentlemanly and respectful, although he was no shrinking violet.  Shrinking violet!  What am I thinking?  Nan’s jargon’s beginning to rub off on me!
            ‘That was delicious,’ says Nan at last, gathering up our plates, and, right on cue, there’s a ring at the bell.
            ‘Goodness!  Who can that be?’
            I don’t offer to answer the door for Nan, because I don’t want to spoil the second little surprise of the day for her.  Quickly I take the plates from her, pop them through the kitchen hatch and follow her to the door.
            ‘Well I never!’ says Nan.  ‘More meals on legs!’
            Phil, who is standing on the doorstep with three dishes with aluminium lids on top, begins to chuckle, setting me off.  We all troop back into the dining room with our desserts, Phil ducking his head as he goes through the door.  He’s growing so tall, he’s left me way behind.
            ‘It’s Mum’s home-made Bannoffie pie, your favourite,’ says Phil.  ‘And the cream’s here, somewhere, in my jacket pocket.’  It’s wedged rather tightly, so it takes him some time to extract, then Nan gets a little china jug and pours in the double cream and gets us some forks and spoons.
            ‘Yummy!’ says Phil.  Phil’s my younger brother and he’s just nineteen and as little brothers go, he’s pretty cool, although I have to remind him to take off his baseball cap at the table before Nan does.  
            ‘I said I didn’t want any fuss,’ says Nan.  All the same, she tucks in as though she’s never had Bannoffie pie in her life and has just discovered its naughty delights. 
            ‘You’ll need to cut Nan’s grass soon,’ I remark, by way of conversation which has been flagging rather since we started on the pie which, because of its excellence, demands our undivided attention.
            ‘OK,’ says Phil, pouring on more cream.
            ‘How’s Amanda?’ asks Nan suddenly and both Phil and I freeze.  Poor Phil – he broke up with Amanda last week and he’s absolutely gutted.  I told him he should ring her, because it only sounded like a silly lovers’ tiff to me and I was sure she was suffering too.  I was so upset about their quarrel and trying to think how to help get them back together.
            Phil has gone quiet so I answer for him, whispering as though it would make it less awful, ‘Nan, they broke up.’
            ‘Why don’t you do that thing on your little machine,’ says Nan.  ‘That funny little machine like a writing telephone.’
            ‘You mean, text her’ says Phil. 
            ‘Yes,’ says Nan, ‘test her.’
            ‘It’s text, Nan, not test,’ I say, thinking about the strange irony of Nan’s little mistake.
            ‘Text,’ repeats Nan.  ‘Good gracious, you children do have some funny expressions!’   And, in spite of the sadness, that set us both off again into fits of laughter.
            ‘Talk about the pot calling the kettle black,’ I remark, pleased with myself for remembering that one from when Nan told me not to criticise Phil for being untidy.
            We are all sorry when our desserts are finished.  Nan gathers up the plates and Phil excuses himself for a few minutes then they both come back and sit down.  Phil is looking decidedly smug with himself.
            ‘What’s up with you?’ I enquire.
            ‘I tested Amanda,’ he says and winks.  I lean over and squeeze his arm in sisterly empathy and he says, ‘Gerroff!’
Then the doorbell rings again.  Neither Phil nor I get up and Nan looks at us a little perplexed.
            ‘There’s someone at the door,’ says Phil.
            ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Nan says severely.  ‘Got lazyitis?’
            In any case, she gets to her feet and answers the door and Phil and I linger behind her, bristling with expectation.  There on the doorstep are Mum and Dad, beaming fit to bust.  Holding an enormous cake with pink icing and all lit up with ninety gleaming candles (you need an enormous cake for ninety candles) was Mum.  I peered over Nan’s shoulder and could just make out, beneath the tiny candles, the words ‘DEAREST NAN’ in a darker shade of pink.
            ‘Let us in, Nan, this is heavy,’ says Mum.
            ‘I said I’d carry it,’ says Dad, ‘but she wouldn’t let me.’
            ‘You might have dropped it,’ says Mum and it’s true, our Dad, lovely as he is, can be accident prone with anything remotely related to cooking.  Mum won’t let him carry anything fragile, especially since he dropped a Coq au Vin once when she was having a special dinner-party.  Perhaps the lovely smells that emanate from Mum’s cooking send him off-balance.
            ‘I told you not to make a fuss,’ cries Nan, but there is a beautiful smile on her face and her blue eyes are glowing.  ‘I told you and told you but you don’t ever listen.’
            ‘We only came round for the entertainment, ’jokes Dad.  ‘We want to see you blow out all the candles by yourself.  Now, come in and sit down, Nan.’
            Quickly I get out some more glasses and serviettes and Dad places all the presents on the floor by Nan.  One or two candles have gone out, but they’re magic ones and Nan is intrigued when they light themselves again. 
            ‘Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  Just look at that!’ she keeps squealing.
            We all fall about as we watch her try to blow them out and she tells us we’re a crateload of monkeys and she doesn’t know what she’s going to do with us all.  What did she ever do to deserve all this? 
            Then, ‘We love you Nan,’ says Phil suddenly and there’s an instant hush and we all stare at him as he reddens and stares into the cake.  You see, Phil is such a loving bloke, but like many young men of his age, he’s slow in expressing his real feelings. 
            Dad saves the day.  ‘Yes, we do all love you Nan.  You’re the best.  Happy, happy birthday!’
            Then there are kisses and hugs all round, although we remember to be gentle with Nan.
            ‘You know it’s my ninetieth,’ says Nan.  We assure her, we all know that and that’s why she has ninety magic candles.  ‘Why don’t you count them to make sure?’ suggests Phil, cheekily.
As she cuts the cake, with enormous pride, I can see she’s almost bursting with the excitement.  Even so, she just can’t help commenting: ‘I told you I didn’t want any fuss.’

Copyright Janet Cameron
Published by People's Friend as I don't want any fuss, 16 September, 2006.











Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Driving Me Crazy

Copyright: Janet Cameron

I’m about to take my driving test for the second time.
“Just think of the first time as a practice run, Helen,” says Glen, my driving instructor. “And don’t forget, you’re doing great. You just need to work on your confidence.”
Glen’s right. He’s a really nice bloke, as well as decidedly dishy and he always does his best to bolster up my self-esteem. Even so, I’m shaking at the thought of the ordeal ahead and I’ll be glad when it’s all over and done with. Yes, I have a great driving instructor, but unfortunately it’s a different matter at work.
My boss, Carl, is a nightmare. I’ve felt like telling Carl, who happens to be the world’s smarmiest travel agent, just where to get off. He’s arrogant and unstoppable.  You’d think he’d have something better to do rather than try to wind me up all the time. I try not to let it get to me, I really do, but it’s hard.
"Better warn the neighbourhood to stay off the roads after 3.00pm tomorrow.”  It may sound like a joke, but it’s not. Once a joke is repeated fifty-three times or so, it’s an insult. But I won’t antagonise Carl, at least not yet. I can’t cope with the extra stress right now, so I swallow my irritation, realising he’s angry because I refuse to join his harem of shabbily-treated girlfriends.  
Lucky for me, Glen’s encouragement helps to make up for Carl’s negativity. “You’re coming along very well, just relax into it.  Think to yourself, I can do this.
I try some affirmations before I go to bed. “I’m a safe and confident driver”, that sort of thing. Carl says they’re just old-fashioned popular psychobabble but Glen says that doesn’t matter if they work.
“How did your lesson go yesterday?” says Carl the next day when I arrive in the office.  “Have you got your six point turn down to three yet?  Oh, and I noticed one of those new little trees the council planted in The Avenue is looking the worse for wear. It’s been collided with. A certain driving school car’s back bumper, I suspect.”
“Well, they do say you can get a blind spot in your wing mirror,” I say, trying to keep it light. “Besides, it was a very thin tree and difficult to see.”
Carl’s still smirking. He’s just had his hair done into vertical spikes, with a flat bit plastered over his forehead, which would be fine except he is thirty-eight. Oh, what a poseur! I’m really looking forward to wiping that smirk off his face. If only.
“Big day tomorrow,” he calls after me as I leave work. “Stay away from my new car though.  It’s a bright red Ferrari with a personal numberplate. You can’t miss it.  CARL1.”
Yes, well it would be, wouldn’t it!
It’s so terribly hard to like Carl although I know everyone is supposed to have some redeeming feature. Still, I know I’m a good driver, and Glen’s so patient I have everything going for me.
This is the last lesson before my test. It’s now or never.
“Helen, you’re getting anxious.  Now just take some deep breaths and slow down, take your time to think about what you’re doing. Everyone wants you to succeed.”
‘Okay, Glen,’ I try to swallow, as I stare at my driving instructor’s long, slim brown fingers, lazily adjusting the steering wheel. I imagine him touching my chin with those beautiful fingers, stroking my cheek. I let out a huge sigh, then I realise Glen is staring at me rather strangely and I feel myself redden. 
“Oh, cut it out, Helen.  It’s not going to happen!” I tell myself. 
“Are you okay?” asks Glen, clearly wanting me to be okay. He even takes my hand in his and squeezes it. That’s what I like about Glen. He’s not so into himself as a lot of blokes I know.
I feel a bit shaky. Probably it was the hand-squeeze. Then I hear a dreaded little clunk as we pull out of the driving school yard. Can’t believe I did that!  “Never mind about the wing mirror, Helen,” says Glen as he slides out to inspect the damage. “I’m sure I can stick the plastic rim back with Superglue.”  
“I’m going to do this. You just watch me,” I say, rather too loudly, but Glen grins his nice wide grin, the one that crinkles up his bright blue eyes, and I start to feel better. I’m even beginning to convince myself with my own enthusiasm. I’m a good driver. I just need truly to believe that inside my head.
 “This has been an excellent lesson, Helen,” says Glen in the end. Then he takes my hand, which seems strange as we’re both sitting in the car, far apart and stiff-backed.  “There’s no reason you shouldn’t pass, Helen. Your driving has really come together just lately and your theory is excellent. Try to keep positive thoughts in your head. You’re going to make it, girl.”
I don’t tell Glen about Carl, about how he chips away at me every day with his unpleasant comments. The rational side of me tells me that Carl has little thought for women, that not all men are like him, and I’d be mad to let him undermine me.  Somehow, though, when this kind of bullying is so persistent, it can get to you.
“Thanks Glen.” I feel a bit sick, as I can only think how much I will miss our lessons. It suddenly hits me that I may never see Glen again, at least, except in passing, rubbing shoulders in the supermarket or a quick hello on the street.
It comes out, almost without me realising it. “If I pass I’ll really miss our lessons, Glen,” I say.
There, I’ve said it.
“Yes, Helen, I will too,” says Glen gently. “Now, let’s get a quick coffee before you meet your examiner. I’ll tell you all the reasons you don’t need to be nervous.”
“Well, don’t hold my hand,” I think to myself. Because I really can’t bear any more excitement right now! 
It’s great, going into the office next day.
Carl’s sitting at his computer and peers over it at me.  “Well?” he asks, raising a pair of spidery eyebrows. He’s had the front flat bit of hair dyed a pinky red.
“I passed,” I say quietly.  Carl isn’t pleased.
“Well, you had a nice sunny day for it,’ he growls. “And I expect you dressed up for it, didn’t you? Men don’t have the advantage of looking all breathless and helpless like you. Works every time, doesn’t it, Helen?”
What an insufferable chauvinist! I’m so glad I did pass. 
“For my standard driving test, I actually had a woman examiner,” I tell him.
“Bloody women!” says Carl. “You all stick together.”
Honestly, you just can’t win! He really hasn’t taken in what I just said. He has no idea because, as I live locally, I always walk to work. Well, maybe it’s time for me to explain in simple language that even Carl can understand.
“But this time it was a man,” I say. 
Carl’s starting to look confused. 
"I’m afraid, Carl, I have my notice right here. You see, I’ve always wanted to be a driving instructor. And I have now passed my Advanced Driving Test. It’s a pretty gruelling test, as you have to control a vehicle at the same level as police driving. If ever you want any lessons, I’ll put in a word for you. That is, if you’re up to it.  Anyhow, I’ll be giving notice this Friday as I need to begin my driving instructor training.”
It’s worth it all just to see the look on his face!

Published by My Weekly, 18th October 2008 under the title "In the Driving Seat."

Sunday, 29 December 2013



Jennifer's Hierarchy of Fears

Worst Case Scenarios

It’s the wrong colour

It’s too tight

It makes me look fat

I look fat in everything anyway

It’s too young for me

I look ridiculous in it

Everyone is laughing at me

I can’t show my face in public again

Hierarchy of Symptoms

My mouth is dry

I’m sweating.

I can feel my heartbeat accelerating

My knees are giving way

I’m trembling

I’m weeping

I’m losing control


I’m useless and a total waste of space

While I’m actually writing down the Hierarchy of Fears I’m sitting on a wall in front of a church, opposite Waterstones in the High Street.  I get off on the feeling of satisfaction at seeing the words written down – a means to externalising thoughts.   Clarissa will be pleased with me.  If I’m inadequate, at least I’m undeniably, totally, almost irreversibly inadequate.  In fact, there’s something pretty outstanding about my Hierarchy of Fears.  And it makes me feel, paradoxically, rather special. 
My phobia is a complex one, for a number of stimuli affect me, both socially and personally.  The sight of the sea convinces me I’m about to drown.  A bird might fly in my face; a spider could crawl up my leg.  But this fear of being laughed at!   Why the compulsion which forces me to go through complex rituals to avoid disaster?   Why do I think stepping on a crack will kill me? Clarissa intends to find out.
Because a phobia is an irrational fear.  It’s not a disease, nor does it mean the sufferer is mad.  So says Clarissa.  ‘Will-power, morality, ethics, motivation – all these are nothing to do with a phobia,’ says Clarissa, punctuating each word with a flicker of her long eyelashes.  She tells me a phobia is one of the most seriously undermining conditions, capable of seriously disrupting the lives of the most highly-intelligent humans, even restricting personal freedom to such a degree that the patient becomes isolated.  

By the way, do I have the means to pay?  Clarissa doesn’t do NHS.  

I fiddle with the loose hank of light brown hair that always escapes from the careful swirl on the top of my head.  I close my pale eyes, as though I’m ashamed to say.

‘My husband will take care of it.’ 
Clarissa makes a steeple of her hands. ‘The thing about a phobia is this – that it is a learned response.  Phobias can be eradicated. However debilitating these situations might be – they are still learned responses.  They can be unlearned.’  Although in the end, it seems to Clarissa, it all comes down to a fear of losing control.  

‘You have an irrational belief you have to make everything come right, for yourself and everybody else and that the world is out to thwart you.  You fret over every action for fear of its negative consequences.’

‘That sounds just like me.’ 

‘Some people believe that affirmations can help.  Would you like to try that?  OK, this is your affirmation; repeat it after me, Jennifer.  ‘I don’t have to live with this phobia’,’ says Clarissa.
‘I don’t have to live with this phobia.’ 

‘That’s a start,’ says Clarissa.  ‘Well done.  It’ll help if you can take on board that it’s simply irrational fear.  When fear is rational, it is just that - fear.  When it is irrational, it’s a phobia.’


‘Actually, it’s just mechanics,’ says Clarissa. ‘Straightforward and simple.  Something must have happened to you, something that made you feel scared and trapped.’

‘My mother never locked me in a cupboard.’

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ says Clarissa.  ‘But you need to remember one thing.  If you believe you can get better, you will.  If you believe you cannot get better, you won’t.  Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re absolutely right!’ 

Clarissa clicks off her tape machine.'
Later, as we are lying together in bed, Gavin says:  ‘It seems a waste of time trying to find out why you have the condition.  What happens when you know what particular childhood incident caused it?  Will you be cured?  Or will you be exactly the same, while your psychoanalyst gets richer and we get poorer.  After all, it’s me who has to pay for it all.  You just swan around all day.’

Gavin has a point.   But I don’t want to be nagged right now.  I want a cuddle.  I press my hand into his warm side, for he is lying on his back, his rather noble profile looking even more aristocratic than usual in the soft glow from the little bedside lamp.  He ignores the pressure of my hand.

‘After all,’ says Gavin, warming to his theme, ‘If you were bitten by a snake, it would be more sensible to take an antidote than pay someone to go looking for the so-and-so who did it.’

‘Are you saying you don’t want to pay for my treatment any more?  Well, you needn’t.  I could go on the National Health.’

‘Don’t be bloody stupid!’ Gavin explodes, as I knew he would.  He’ll never cut off my private treatment all the while I threaten him with the National Health.  He’s annoyed, for he turns his back on me and yanks my share of the duvet to his side. 

‘It’s silly of me to be scared of so many different things,’ I tell Clarissa on my fifth session. Of course, Clarissa reassures me.  The treatment will take some time, but Clarissa will make a special priority for me.  It will be expensive, but it will be worth it to alleviate the pain.  Clarissa will concentrate on the phobias for now; after all the OCD is merely a symptom of the fear.  No doubt the problems are buried somewhere in my childhood.  

I’m about to walk out, when Clarissa says, ‘I’m going to give you a task.  I want you to write a diary every day, just a few words, jotting down your feelings, the time of day you had those feelings and where you were at the time.  Will you do that for me, Jennifer?’  

I trawl through my memory for a time when I felt good about myself.  Strangely, although it is easy to remember the occasions, it’s difficult to recreate the feeling.  It’s like pain.  You can remember but you cannot reproduce it in yourself. 

Next day, I come across Gavin in the conservatory, where the sunshine streams in for most of the day.  He’s sitting on the swinging chair with an album on his lap and he’s staring at a photo. 

Without needing to check, I know it’s a photo of him.   He stares and stares for ages, at the photo.  Silently I peer through the sliding glass door, trying to see which photo is the object of his fascination.  It’s the one of him standing on the top of a mountain on holiday.   He’s wearing his snazzy mountain jacket, the one she always teases him about, calling it ‘the coat of many colours’, Clearly, he thinks he looks amazing in the coat.  He cannot take his eyes off himself.

I know I hould leave him to it.  I shouldn’t embarrass him by catching him out.  But somehow the temptation is too great and I hover and I realize I’m actually enjoying how ridiculous he makes himself.  Still, he continues to gaze, enraptured at the sight of his other self so fetchingly caught on celluloid.   I shouldn’t stand here watching, without his knowing I’m there.  It’s mean and unworthy.  But so is he, as there are photos of me in that pile, photos he has carelessly glossed over.  Clearly I’m not as fascinating to him as he is to him.       
I shuffle around a bit, hoping he’ll look up and see me and blush a little for being caught out in this act of self-obsession.  He doesn’t.  I don’t tell him to come for his cocoa.   Instead, I wander out of the conservatory and up to the bedroom, open his wardrobe door and, distractedly, pull at the sleeve of the coat.  I am embarrassed for him.  It is such a tiny thing, a pointless foible, but he’s been diminished in my mind.  I want to find a decent reason for feeling like this, so ungenerous, so pedantic.      
I take the coat out of the wardrobe and slip my arms into the sleeves.  I stare into the mirror set into the door of the wardrobe.  I look like Michelin Man.  I don’t know why he likes it so much, the colours are not attractive, a vile orange, a vicious blue no self-respecting bluebell would aspire to.  There are zips all over the place securing pockets of various sizes.  The collar contains a zipped in hood and it rises up behind the head, making a sort of domed backdrop, like an alien. I fasten the zip at the bottom and slide the zip upwards.  At the top, I sense a bump in one of the pockets.  Unzipping the pocket, I draw out a little sheaf of papers.
I shouldn’t look.  Even husbands and wives are entitled to their bits of privacy, have the right to trust that they are not being checked over.  But I can’t help it. 
The sheets contain nothing but some credit card receipts.  Nothing juicy there!  Nothing at all.  But I won’t give up.  One by one, I unzip each pocket, plunge in one finger, five fingers, or a hand, according to the capacity of the pocket, withdraw and zip up the pocket again.  This takes some time.  I’m brooding about vain men, self-obsessed men, men who find themselves more fascinating than they find me.  

I’ve been turned off by his male vanity.  I want to find something incriminating.  Deep inside, I’d welcome an excuse to reject him.  I console myself with the thought that small things indicate trends.
Actually, I don’t need any evidence.  How I feel is enough.  I don’t need his approval.  He has made himself pathetic – and that helps

Next time I see Clarissa, it’s different. 

My pale eyes shine like windows and I haven’t put up my hair.  I tell her I have had an aha moment.

I'm leaving Gavin. 

‘It wasn’t quite what I had in mind,’ says Clarissa.  ‘Why are you leaving Gavin?’

‘I don’t like him.’
‘But what about your low self-esteem?’ asks Clarissa.  ‘What about your claustrophobia?  What about your childhood trauma?  I hope you’re not thinking of cancelling the rest of your sessions.’
I stare at Clarissa pityingly.  Sometimes I wonder if that qualification on the wall is genuine.
‘Something’s happened to me.  Something rather ordinary that’s probably hard to understand and I have you to thank for that.  I can deal with it. I know I can.’

‘It’s not normal to respond that quickly. Now don’t you think we’d better work this through?  What’s responsible for this – apparent – breakthrough?’  Clarissa’s eyebrows have scrunched together in the middle of her temple.  She looks so strange with one continuous eyebrow across her forehead, I’m distracted.  Then I catch myself.  She deserves, at least, a cursory explanation.

‘A big coat,’ I said cheerfully.  ‘A coat like Joseph’s in the Bible, of many, many colours, but an awful lot of empty pockets.’