Adrian Sturrock: ‘The bigger part of what I am is what I’m not.’

Student:           Sir, with twins, yeah …

Me:                 … Yeah

Student:           … Twins?

Me:                  (Sigh) Yes, twins … Yeah?

Student:          How do you know which one to tell that they weren’t planned?

This isn’t a question that I would have anticipated from one of my students – mostly because I teach Business.

     ‘Why would you tell either of them?’ I ask.

     ‘Well, it’s about honesty, isn’t it,’ he says. ‘You shouldn’t lie to your children.’

     ‘Fair point,’ I say. I’m buffering a little here.

     ‘Well? Which one?’ he insists.

     ‘The ugly one, obviously,’ I say. (Hey, I’m already riffing on a ridiculous conversation!)

     ‘But what if they’re both ugly,’ he persists. ‘What if they’re identically ugly twins?’ (This boy knows how to bounce back!)

     ‘Then we’d have to have a dance-off,’ I say.

     ‘A minger dance-off? That’s gross.’

     ‘That’s life, I’m afraid,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

     ‘They’re lucky to have you at that school,’ says Nat, as she pours another drink.

     We’re sat in the garden enjoying sunshine and squirrels. In a few days, the summer holidays will have started and I can pretend that I’m unemployed for the next six weeks. This is by far my favourite part of my job – the not going to it.

     ‘What are your plans for the holidays? Nat asks.

     ‘When we get back from our trip, it’s back to office hours for me,’ I say, ‘until I finish the book.’  

     ‘You’re the only person I know who works harder during their time off than they do during their day job,’ she says.

     It’s not the idea of work itself that I hate, it’s the lack of opportunity to be myself that I resent. I love my ‘not-the-day-job’– my writing life.

     ‘Once I get to sell the film rights to the novel I haven’t yet written, I can give up the day job and become a tax exile,’ I say. ‘Alternatively, I could try selling superfluous bits of myself. How many kidneys do I have?’

     ‘Two – but you’ll need to keep at least one.’

     ‘That’s disappointing,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

The best thing about keeping ‘office hours’ as a writer is that the ‘office’ is wherever one choose it to be – it’s just me and a laptop. I have a shortlist of cafes, restaurants and bars that I alternate between and, in summer, I might add the odd park, riverside or, occasionally, a beach to the list. This comfortable detachment from the world makes me ridiculously happy. It’s all about this and travel; everything else can go to hell.

     ‘But how do you deal with writers’ block,’ asks my friend, Jason.

     ‘By denying its existence,’ I tell him. ‘I’m always either in the driver’s seat or the passenger seat – either way, It’s all about moving forwards. If I know what I’m writing about, I drive the experience; if my mind is blank, I’ll riff off whatever comes out of my pen. Me and my pen swap driving duties a lot.’

     My ‘Not-the-day-job’ does, however, come with a very tough boss who reviews my work on a regular basis, and with brutal honesty. I generally refer to this boss as my wife, though Grammar Nazi fits her equally well.

     ‘I learned from the best,’ she tells me. ‘As a child, I remember walking past a butcher’s shop in Somerset with my grandmother, when she suddenly picks up the chalkboard that’s pitched outside, takes it into the store and demands of the butcher, ‘Tell me what’s wrong with this sign’. That’s how I learned to spot whether an apostrophe was in the wrong place. She was the same grandmother who would mark my ‘Thank You’ cards with red pen and send them back to me. She was very cool!’

     Turns out she was also the person who taught Nat basic French. At the same age, I was still in Wales, nursing the psychological damage brought on by my bowl haircut, and bouncing tennis balls off passing cars. Our beginnings were not similar.

 

 

* * * * * * * *

If I can’t yet give up the day job, I can at least find ways to lessen its impact on me, on my time, and on my writing. I’ve recently been having discussions with my current day job boss, which has resulted in me leaving work today with a big smile and a touch of the Geldorfs about me. Roof down, I found myself revving my way out of the school premises while singing at the top of my voice: ‘I don’t do Mondays, I don’t do Mon-da-ays’. (I had requested Fridays off – but it’s a start.)

     ‘All I have to do now is make enough money from Mondays to afford to give up Tuesdays … and so on,’ I say to my ‘not-yet-the-day-job’ boss, Nat.

     ‘Well, you’d better not be rubbish then,’ she says.

     This is the start of my freedom … and my paranoia. But at least I have my Grammar Nazi to keep me focussed.

* * * * * * * *

Earlier today:

            Student:           Sir, about the twins …?

            Me:                  Really!? Go on …

            Student:          My aunt didn’t really like the idea of a dance-off.

            Me:                  Tell her it was me and I’ll deny everything.

            Student:          That’s not fair, sir; that’s dishonest.

            Me:                  And, right there, another invaluable life lesson for you. It’s quite
                                     an education, coming here, isn’t it. Think of me as your personal
                                     guru.

            Student:           My what?

            Me:                 Never mind.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘On any other day, all my troubles seem so far away’

I was very disappointed earlier this week to find that I’d eaten the entire pack of Maltesers that I’d bought for the cinema before the main feature had even started.

     ‘I don’t think they put as many of them in the box as they used to,’ I say to Nat, shaking the empty container upside down to help illustrate my point. ‘I also think that the adverts go on far too long.’

     Nat seems to feel adequately justified in reducing this frankly chilling example of big business manipulation of us proletariat to simply referring to me as ‘a ravenous pig-child’.

     ‘That kind of attitude does little to stem the march against us by the larger corporations,’ I protest.

     She is clearly out of her depth on this issue and reverts instead to merely locking eyes with me while reaching into her handbag and taking out her own chocolates. ‘Mmmm!’ she says, slipping one into her mouth.

     ‘Today, it might be chocolate,’ I warn, salivating slightly, ‘but tomorrow it may very well be … whatever Orwell said.’

     I feel I have managed to retain the moral high ground here, even if I haven’t managed to retain my Maltesers. (I seem to have mixed feelings about this, however, and take one last look inside the empty box, just in case.)

* * * * * * * *

Eventually, the main feature starts. I’m rather glad that the lights have dimmed further, as my lips are currently bright blue from the raspberry flavoured iced drink that I’ve been guzzling to relieve myself of the overwhelming thirst that wolfing down an entire box of chocolates has left me with.

     I look at the empty plastic drinks cup. ‘Do you think that Mr Malteser also owns this drinks company?’ I whisper to Nat, holding the cup up in front of her.

     ‘Shh!’ she says, lowering my hand.

     ‘I wonder whether Maltesers are actually just a deliciously cynical ploy to get us to consume more of the company’s drinks products.’

     ‘Shh!’ she repeats.

     ‘Shh!’ says the lady sitting to my right.

     ‘Sorry, lady,’ I say. ‘Sorry,’ I whisper to Nat. I put my cup down and decide to concentrate on the film.

     After a few moments, I’m feeling a little confused. ‘Are we watching the right movie?’ I ask.

     ‘What? Why?’

     ‘Is this a Harry Potter film?’ I point to the character currently on screen.

     ‘No, that’s Ed Sheeran,’ Nat says, slapping my hand away from her chocolates which, I have noticed, are currently nestled invitingly on her lap. ‘Mmmm,’ she says, looking directly at me as she pops another one into her mouth.

     I pretend not to care.

* * * * * * * *

The film is quite good. It’s about how a band called Oasis wouldn’t have existed if an Indian guy in Suffolk hadn’t fallen off his bicycle. A novel premise, I consider, that is bound to appeal to any Liam Gallagher denier. So far, the movie has grossed over $57 million, which leads me to conclude that Liam must be disliked by an awful lot of people.

    I hear rustling on my right. The lady beside me is tearing open a large bag of peanut M&Ms. I smile at her but she doesn’t offer me any. ‘It’s ok,’ I whisper, ‘I’m full.’ She doesn’t smile back. I don’t think she heard me.

    To its credit, the film is well researched in that it also touches on the inspiration for Oasis: a black and white band called The Beatles who, apparently, want to hold your hand. The songs are mostly nice, and we sit through the end credits while most other people are leaving, so that we can hear more of them.

    ‘What did you think?’ I ask, as the lights finally come up and we leave our seats.

    Nat opens her mouth to speak but only smiles at me before looking away.

    I’ve heard it said that behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes, and we are no exception. (Well, perhaps I am!) I think that the real reason why Nat is keeping a few paces behind me as we walk out through the foyer is because of the almost glow-in-the-dark blue lips that my stupid drink has left me with.

    ‘I’d forgotten about this,’ I say, catching my reflection and trying to wipe my mouth with my sleeve.

    ‘Sorry? Do I know you?’ says Nat, loudly, sidestepping me and walking on.

    ‘Harsh!’ I shout after her. ‘Very harsh!

* * * * * * * *

Back home, I’m making tea for us both to take up to bed. It’s not particularly late, it’s just that a cup of tea in bed strikes us as a much better alternative to a cup of tea on the sofa. I listen to Nat singing Yesterday to herself as she scans the fridge for a snack to accompany her drink.

    ‘I’d have quite liked to have been a rock star,’ I say to her, ‘Just for a while. Well, when I say while, I mean long enough to have earned us an island retreat somewhere nice.’

    ‘You’ve done ok for yourself,’ she says, kissing me as she passes me to get to the sink. ‘And you’ve also got a Me. No rock star has a Me.’

    ‘Are you happy to forfeit the island retreat though?’ I ask, pouring milk into the tea cups.

    ‘The island retreat I can go without,’ she says, ‘though I never thought I’d marry a blue-lipped husband.’

    ‘Ah, yes,’ I say, again rubbing my lips with my sleeve. ‘I guess there will always be ‘even-better-if’ moments in life.’

          She looks at me. ‘You’ll do,’ she says, kissing me again as she brushes past me to pick up her tea. ‘You know what they say, if your cup is only half full …’

          ‘… You’re going to need a smaller bra?’

          She looks up at me. ‘And …’

          ‘… Sorry?’ I say

          ‘Sorry, indeed,’ she says. ‘… You have such a blue mouth sometimes,’

          ‘I see what you did then,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: Extract from ‘THE SAT NAV DIARIES’

Chapter 5 – Feeling Jung in Kesswil – (Kesswil, Switzerland)

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 Today we enter Switzerland, home to watchmaking, chocolate and assisted suicide. I’m wondering what to take back for the relatives.

     Having left Strasbourg relatively early this morning and having now crossed into Germany, we enjoy a far too brief scenic drive through the edges of the stunningly imposing Black Forest. I’m wishing I’d uploaded some equally imposing Wagner onto my iPod as an apt soundtrack to this section of road. Instead, I am destined to listen to my wife repeating the German for ‘black forest gateaux’ over and over again—she tells me she learned the phrase at school and likes the sound of it, apparently.

     Eventually the terrain flattens out a little—as does her enthusiasm for orating the name of said dessert—which she’s been doing in a variety of voices—and we arrive at the Swiss border. Our next job is to buy a vignette, a compulsory road-tax display disc for driving on main Swiss highways. I enter the official roadside building and approach the desk to pay my forty Euros but am instantly made to feel like a child as an officious sounding man in a military hat tells me off for queuing at the wrong desk.

     ‘This is the desk for people leaving Switzerland,’ he barks. ‘Go to that desk.’ He points, equally officiously, to another desk behind me.

     This seems strange. Surely, if I were driving from Switzerland into Germany, I would now be on the other side of the motorway and ‘this desk’ would be on the wrong side of the road.

     ‘Somebody should tell that guy that he’s on the wrong side of the road, then,’ I reply, pointing to Desk One. ‘Though let him down gently,’I add, leaning in a little and lowering my voice, I’m sure he’ll feel quite silly when he realises.’

     I leave Mr Military Man glaring at me as I turn and approach the other desk.

     I buy my vignette and return to the car. I now feel very European with my shiny red Swiss tax disc adorning my windscreen. I am happy and excited. I’ve never been to Switzerland before.

     ‘The man in the traffic shop wasn’t very nice,’ I tell Nat.

     ‘Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte,’ she replies.

     ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’

     I reach for my iPod. It’s playing ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck. We merge into the traffic and make our way to our first Swiss destination.

* * * * * * * *

It’s late afternoon by the time we reach Kesswil. I’m not impressed. It’s bland and grey and nothing like the Swiss movie that has been playing in my head all day.

     ‘So, where’s the friggin’ cow bells?’

     Nat is currently failing to convince me that Switzerland is beautiful.

     In guidebook speak, Kesswil is a municipality in the district of Arbon in the canton of Thurgau. In road trip speak, it is an almost adequately placed rest stop for the night, before the new excitements of tomorrow. All I really know about it as we enter the town is that it is the birthplace of Karl Jung. And it has a lake.

     As Bernice (our sat nav—keep up!) takes us along the final road to our destination for the evening, we are slightly confused to see only residential houses. No hotel.

     ‘Ah, yes,’ says Nat, ‘maybe this one is the B&B I booked.’

     ‘What? Why a B&B?’ I ask.

     ‘It was cheaper,’ she says. ‘You said keep it cheap so that we could have two nights in St Moritz.’

     Damn, I did say that, though I was thinking cheaper hotel. I don’t reply, as we have now arrived on somebody’s driveway.

     ‘Okay, you knock on the door while I grab the bags,’ I say, as I switch the engine off.

     ‘Why don’t you knock?’

     ‘Because you know the German for black forest gateaux?’

     She looks blankly at me.

     ‘Well … it’s a start,’ I offer.

     I hand her the paperwork and move to get out of the car, my gesture intended to imply both conclusion and agreement on this matter.

     By the time I’ve retrieved our bags from the boot, locked the car and started to walk towards the front of the house, Nat has managed to drag her feet just far enough to reach the door alongside me. She rings the doorbell, but even before she has time to take her finger from the button, the door is opened by a tall, elderly man with an implausibly fixed smile.

     Eerie.

     We look at each other, and then turn our attention back to who we assume to be our new host.

     ‘Hallo.’

     ‘Hello,’ replies Nat, ‘we have a reservation for this evening?’

     Behind his smile, he clearly doesn’t understand much English. I move to step in when, suddenly …. No, not suddenly. What happens next is too weird for a mere suddenly. What happens next is that Nat, my wife—whom I have lived with for six years, been married to for nearly five—inexplicably bursts into fluent German. As if this is the most natural thing to do when in a German speaking country.

     ‘Wir haben eines reservierung für diesen abend.‘

     I have no idea what is taking place now. My mind has just pressed pause on the day, and I’m watching a random scene unfold in front of me—as though I’m watching television. But my wife is on this show. And she’s been dubbed into German. And I don’t understand a thing. When the hell did my wife learn to speak German?

     ’When the hell did you learn to speak German?’ I spit out.

     ‘Shh!’ she says and continues to discuss our documentation with Mr B&B.

     Once they have concluded their commerce, the man’s smile turns to me. I decide to sidestep the language barrier by offering a very safe ‘Hi’ and holding out my right hand for a friendly handshake. It is at this point that Mr B&B holds out his left hand. This is because, I quickly realise, he has no right hand. Or right arm. I take a step forward to distract from my slight of hand as I quickly swap, um, hands. And voilà(French, you know!), no harm is done. We have successfully greeted. Sometimes, I am very proud of my quick thinking.

     ‘I think that went well,’ I whisper to Nat as we are led indoors to be greeted by Mrs B&B, who is approaching us along the passageway. She now takes over and efficiently introduces us to the dog and the television—in that order.

     We follow Mrs B&B upstairs as Mr B&B returns to the living room where, presumably, he had come from. She is turning to speak to me at almost every step. I have absolutely no idea what she is saying but she is smiling and laughing a lot so I assume they are happy things. On the other hand, I quickly begin to irritate myself by repeating the word ‘Cool’ to everything she says. I try to answer with other things but my default setting appears to be stuck.

     ‘Cool … yeah, cool … Ha! Cool …’ God, I need a new strategy for these kinds of situations.

     I’m a little relieved when Nat whispers to me that she doesn’t understand Mrs B&B either.

     ‘She’s talking too fast,’ she whispers, ‘and I’m not sure of her dialect.’

     It puts me at ease to have someone on this side of the confusion again.

     Mrs B&B is, however, picking up on the language barrier. But where she could simply have handed us the keys to the door and wished us good luck (as I would have preferred), she chooses instead to persevere through the medium of mime.

     Firstly, she introduces us to the bed, the bathroom, the balcony and the wardrobe (with its open-and-close doors), all of which we can clearly see from where we are standing in the room. I want to inform her that we now have bathrooms and wardrobes in the UK, but I consider that Nat would probably tell me off, so I stay silent. There is also the fact that I don’t speak German, of course—unlike my wife, the MI6 spy. (I will clearly need to discuss this with her later.)

     I think that Mrs B&B is now going to leave, but she hasn’t finished yet. In her attempt to make us feel at home, she has switched on the TV and is kindly—and rather frantically—flipping buttons, eagerly trying to find us an English-speaking channel. She is getting visibly frustrated by this search. So am I.

     Eventually landing on an American music channel, she smiles and puts the handset down in order to next introduce us to her A4 wipe-clean breakfast menu.

     And this is my next out-of-body experience of this trip. I can hardly hear her over the volume of the rap channel she has chosen for us and as she points to pictures of various sausages on the menu, her words are drowned out by the Afro-Caribbean gentleman on the television warning me about how he is going to ‘fuck up my hoe’ (though I believe other gardening tools are available).

     My mind is flitting between feigned interest in what Mrs B&B is failing to communicate to me and a clutch (I shall use this collective term) of black ‘booty’ being enthusiastically wobbled at me—presumably for my pleasure—on the screen beside her.

     Mrs B&B is fast becoming Mrs R&B, I feel.

     And then yet another out-of-body experience kicks in. While I have been having my previous WTF experience, her conversation has clearly moved on (to the shower temperature, Nat later tells me), and while Mr Rapper off of the TV goes into detail about which way up he prefers his ‘bitches’, Mrs B&B is standing in this same room that I am meant to be sleeping in this evening, with one hand raised above her head and the other rubbing her chest as she wriggles (seemingly to the music) while repeating ‘douche … douche …’ I am making a mental note to sleep with the light on tonight.

     By the time we have completed our full induction to our stay and finalised breakfast arrangements, Nat has found Treasure Hunt on TV. I resign myself to retrieving the final suitcase from the car.

     ‘Well done,’ she says, as we settle down to a coffee on the little sofas by the window.

     ‘What for?’ I ask.

     ‘For saying nothing during all of that.’

     ‘How do you know I had anything to say?’

     She smiles as though she has been reading my mind the whole time. ‘Well done,’ she repeats.

     ‘So, just out of interest,’ I add, ‘of all the serial killer couples you have ever heard of/met (delete as appropriate), which couple did we just meet?’

     ‘Fred and Rose West,’ she says, without even slight hesitation.

     ‘I think Jung had something when he talked about collective consciousness,’ I reply.

     ‘I don’t want to frighten you,’ she says, but did you notice that the balcony is shared by both our patio doors and Fred and Rose’s?’ She points.

     ‘Luckily, we have been blessed by that screamingly loud freight train track just a twenty foot suicide jump from the balcony. I feel this will probably remind us to shut—and lock—the patio doors before we sleep.’

     I suggest we beat Fred and Rose at their own game by appearing silhouetted against their glass doors at 3am, dressed as The Shining twins. We both like this idea, but it is now raining outside and so, instead, decide to venture out to the small lakeside restaurant we’d passed earlier.

     Despite a great view of sunset over the lake, all foods at the restaurant taste of vinegar. So we settle back down at Fred and Rose’s, excited about the coolday we have planned for tomorrow.

* * * * * * * *

Breakfast is conducted totally in German. It is here that we meet the only other couple presently staying at the B&B. They seem nice. Nat dips in and out of the conversation (using her sudden fluency in German) while helping me along as she might a special needs child she has been put in charge of. The actual child in me is quite pleased when the guy from the other couple suddenly explodes his boiled egg over himself as he tries to cut into it. I don’t know, somehow this helps level the field a little.

     I notice that yesterday’s wipe-clean breakfast menu was more of a survey than an order, as there is little relationship between what I’d previously ticked and what is now laying on my plate. I’m not overly bothered though, as I’m excited about getting back on the road. Today, we are heading into the Alps.

* * * * * * * *

I finish packing up the car while Nat settles the bill with our hosts. As I re-enter the house to say goodbye, I find that she and Rose are engaged in some kind of mutual disagreement. I’m not too sure what the issue is. I look over at Fred. He is still sat at the breakfast table where we’d left him, though now he is waving a pastry at me.

     I eventually get the gist of the situation. Rose is asserting that we had not pre-paid 30% of the total charge. However, the printed details that Nat is waving at her asserts (unfortunately in English only) that we have.

     We conclude that being the difference isn’t a lot in terms of Sterling, and being that the language barrier is evidently too large to allow clear establishment of business understanding here—and, as I quietly assert to my wife while nodding in the direction of the living room, one should never fuck with a one-armed Swiss pensioner wielding a croissant—we duly pay the difference, and I start the car.

     Nat offers to drive this next section of the journey, and so I’m free to settle into the passenger seat, check the music, and start to enjoy the slowly evolving scenery.

     Soon, we are back on the motorway.

     ‘What are you eating?’ she asks, after a few moments.

     I’m about to answer but she cuts me off …

     ‘That’s Fred’s croissant, isn’t it.’ There is an accusatory tone in her voice.

     ‘Well I wasn’t sure if he was threatening me with it or just offering me something for the journey. I didn’t want to offend him so …’

     I tail off as Nat’s face starts to turn to a warm smile. Next stop is Davos.

* * * * * * * *

 

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IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING IT ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA PAGES FOR OTHERS TO ENJOY TOO.  (Even us poor writers have to eat!)

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘It turns out that when you donate blood, it has to be your own’

Nat passes me on the stairs as I’m about to leave for work. ‘You have beetroot risotto for dinner,’ she says.

     ‘In what way have I upset you?’ I ask.

     She stops to look at me. ‘You will like it and you will make sounds of ecstatic enjoyment,’ she informs me.

     ‘Will that be before or after dinner?’ I ask.

     She smiles at me as a parent might smile at a small child who doesn’t yet understand the ways of the world.

     ‘You are welcome,’ she says, kissing me before making her way upstairs, while I leave through the front door and head for my car.

* * * * * * * *

I’ve had a blood test. Worse than that, I’ve had the results of the blood test. I knew that agreeing to the test at all would be a mistake, and now, as confirmation of this, I’m destined to eat things like … beetroot risotto.

     It all started with one of those carefully worded letters that the surgery nurse sends out to ‘men of a certain age’, in which she tries to woo them with middle-aged-dad humour about it being time to ‘come in for your MOT’.

     I’d put it off for a while – two years, to be exact.

     ‘Just make the appointment,’ said Nat, after my third reminder, ‘if only to confirm that everything’s fine.’

     ‘Everything is fine,’ I said.

     ‘Then what are you afraid of?’

     ‘I’m not afraid of anything,’ I said, ‘I’m just bothered about being treated like an old person before I’m actually an old person. It’s the same reason why I don’t wear reading glasses even though I can’t see a bloody thing.’

     ‘Is that why you keep walking into books?’ she asks.

     ‘Has anybody ever used the words ‘devastatingly funny’ to describe you?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘Do you find that at all strange?’

* * * * * * * *

They don’t check your trouser parts any longer at the Well Man clinic. I needn’t have showered.

     The upshot is that while all of my other blood readings are fine, my (bad?!) cholesterol level is currently what I might describe to friends as ‘shot to shit’.

      That’s notably higher than my dad’s,’ says Nat, running her finger down my results letter. ’And he’s seventy-two.’

     And this is why dinner this evening will consist of beetroot risotto. It is why my entire diet has recently taken a severe sideways step. I’m told that the upside of beetroot risotto is that it will turn my wee bright pink. As excited as I am by the idea of glow-in-the-dark wee, I’d still gladly swap it for a steak sandwich dripping in soft French cheese.

     Over the past eleven years, Nat has cunningly de-skilled me in the cooking department, slowly chipping away any memory I might have had regarding how to fend for myself in the kitchen, until I’ve finally became her food hostage. It is only now that I’ve come to fully understand her objective – now that the house has become a cake-free zone and I’ve been banned from real butter. Out went dairy, in came rice milk; out went red meats, in came soya proteins. From a dietary point of view, I am officially ‘semi-vegan, with occasional lapses’ – or ‘vegan-lite’, as I now describe myself to friends.

     ‘There’s no such thing as vegan-lite,’ says my vegan friend.

     ‘Think of it as vegan without the conscience,’ I say, as I watch the muscles at the sides of his jaw flex a little.

     Nat likes to point to things like her recent discovery of empty packets of pork scratchings in the shower as reason for her food embargo on me. She claims this as the probable cause of my raised levels. I, on the other hand, put it down to a faulty reading at the clinic. We are currently no closer to reaching a consensus on this issue, but I am losing weight quite rapidly, as well as saving money on both our food bill and on shirt buttons.

* * * * * * * *

     ‘Trust me,’ she says, this evening, as she serves up the most clown-coloured dinner I’ve been handed since my seventh birthday party. ‘You’ll thank me when your next blood test reads better.’

     ‘So this is …’

     ‘… Yes, it’s beetroot risotto,’ she says. ‘You’d better like it, you’re having it again tomorrow – cold and in your lunchbox.’

* * * * * * * *

It’s now three hours since I ate my beetroot risotto. I quietly accept that it wasn’t horrible, though I’m still ignoring her. My trust in her has diminished considerably since my experiment, ten minutes ago, in the bathroom, when I switched off the light only to find that I’d been lied to … it doesn’t glow in the dark.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘Marty McFly used a Delorean; whenever I wish to travel back in time, I simply step inside our local post office.’

‘Why are you texting in capitals?’ asks my wife, looking over my shoulder.

     ‘It’s my uncle,’ I say. ‘he’s a bit deaf.’

     She looks at me, then looks away, then looks at me again. ‘I, um … never mind.’

     We’ve been standing in this post office queue for over half an hour. We thought that we’d just ‘pop in’ quickly to get our International Driving Permits organised ready for an upcoming road trip, and then go for breakfast at a little country restaurant we know. At least this was the plan.

     WE’RE CURRENTLY FOURTH IN LINE, I text.

     Well, give my regards to Princess Margaret, pings the reply.

     ‘Isn’t Princess Margaret dead?’ asks Nat, continuing to read my phone over my shoulder.

     ‘I’ve no idea,’ I say, ‘I’ve only ever known her as a person off the TV, like … Ian Beale or Homer Simpson.

     ‘Ian Beale and Homer Simpson are fictional characters,’ she says.

     ‘Exactly my point,’ I say. ‘… It’s complicated, isn’t it.’

     I text my uncle back: I MEANT FOURTH IN LINE IN THE POST OFFICE QUEUE, NOT TO THE THRONE.

     A moment later, he responds with, Well, that’s far less impressive, and adds a sad emoji.

     Nat smiles. ‘I see where you get it from,’ she says.

     ‘Get what?’

     ‘… Nothing.’ She glances back along the queue that is deepening around us.

* * * * * * * *

The bad news is that we were fourth in line when we entered this queue. This is because the elderly lady at the front of the line, with an armful of individually wrapped brown paper parcels, is refusing to divulge to the counter staff what is in each package.

     ‘That’s my business, not yours,’ she keeps insisting.

     ‘Them’s the rules, I’m afraid,’ repeats Post Office lady.

     ‘I don’t ask you what’s in your parcels,’ demands the old lady.

     As irritating as standing in this queue is, I’m quite entertained by the old woman’s totally irrational, though quite understandable, stance.

     ‘It’s only for security purposes,’ says Post Office lady, ‘I’m not looking to pry.’

     ‘To be honest,’ I say loudly, across the queue, ‘those packages do look a little bit bomb-shaped to me.’

     The old lady turns around abruptly and stares at me. ‘Since when did a few cardigans and books look like bombs?’ she protests.

     I smile at Post Office lady. ‘I believe my job here is done,’ I say, curtseying coyly to her.

     ‘Job done, indeed,’ says Post Office lady, smiling back at me.

     Nat leans into me and whispers, ‘Who says that bombers vests can’t come as cardigans?’

     ‘Hmm. Good point,’ I say. I consider the idea of the first terrorist device to arrive on the market with a ‘Don’t boil wash’ label attached.

     ‘And don’t be fooled by appearances,’ whispers Nat, ‘that seemingly defenceless old lady might actually be knitting a whole military as we speak.’

‘What? Like a slightly more pastoral version of the Terracotta Army?’

‘Exactly.

I consider the scene: ‘Is that a boiled sweet in your pocket, grandad?’ ‘No, it’s the detonator! Back off!

     ‘Ssh! Lower your voice,’ says Nat, looking around us. ‘But, yes, I think you’ve got the gist.’

     ‘I read the other day,’ I say, ‘that the UK spent close to £50 billion, last year, on its military. If this old lady can produce an entire militia on a pension, someone should consider putting her in charge of our defence budget. Look at her demanding that all of her parcels go as second-class post – put her in charge of Defence and we’d probably still have change left over for custard creams and the bus ride home.’

     The old lady has finished haggling with the Post Office staff now and stares right at me as she walks past. ‘Bombs, indeed!’ she says at me.

     ‘Come the revolution, sister!’ I say, raising my fist up in a ‘power to the people’ pose.

     She doesn’t respond.

* * * * * * * *

Processing our International Driving Permits is a new thing for the two ladies behind the counter. ‘Bear with me,’ says the older woman, ‘this is only the second one of these I’ve done. In fact, this Post Office has only been doing them for the past two weeks; it’s still quite new to me.’

     ‘No worries,’ I say, handing my passport picture to her.

     ‘Is that you?’ she asks, turning it around to take a closer look.

     ‘Um, yes,’ I say, confused by the question.

     ‘My passport picture is horrible,’ she says.

     ‘This one was my third attempt,’ I say ‘I was going to do this last week, but it rained and my hair went silly. And then I got a spot here.’ I point to an area just under my lower lip. ‘And just as I was …’

     ‘… Shall we just get on with it?’ says Nat.

     I hand the lady my driving licence, and she starts to copy the information from my UK licence into my new old-looking international licence, in her best, slowest handwriting. ‘I’d best not make a mistake,’ she tells me, looking up in order to get my full attention, ‘or I’ll have to start all over again.’

     ‘OK,’ I say, ‘Best concentrate then.’

     She asks where I’m travelling to and I reel off the countries while she hunts for each of the country names on her A4 crib sheet. ‘You’ll need the 1968 version,’ she tells me.

     ‘Ok,’ I say.

     ‘Do you know why it’s called the 1968 version?’ she asks.

     ‘Because it alludes to the 1968 Treaty?’

     ‘Because it alludes … Oh, you know that.’

     ‘I do,’ I say. I smile to show no hard feelings.

     ‘If you were to go to some of the countries further away, you might need the …’

     ‘1949 version?’

     ‘Oh …yes … the 1949 version. That’s because those countries were agreed in a Treaty in …’

     ‘In 1949?’ (I must stop doing this, I think to myself.)

     ‘Stop doing that,’ Nat whispers into the back of my ear.

     Eventually, Mrs Post Office has finished copying all of my details from my UK licence over to the International Permit in her best, slowest handwriting.

     ‘How much is that?’ I ask.

     ‘Oh, I’m not finished yet,’ she says. ‘Jenny, do you have the glue stick?’

     ‘I thought you had it,’ says Jenny.

     I look at Nat in confusion as Mrs Post Office and the young Jenny rummage through drawers and shelves for their communal glue stick.

     ‘Ah, here it is,’ says Mrs Post Office, eventually waving her glue stick at me. ‘We can’t carry on without this.’

     ‘I should hope not,’ I say, wondering what the hell she’s talking about, but smiling anyway.’

     She takes my photo and glue-sticks it to the driving permit, before taking her special ink stamper and pressing it half onto my picture and half to the buff-coloured cardboard page. She then holds my driving permit at arms-length, to admire her handy work. ‘There you go,’ she says, ‘Nobody can forge your licence now.’ She smiles at me and hands me my completed document for me to check through and sign, as she pushes the lid back onto her glue stick.

     ‘What? No glitter?’ I ask, thinking that the document looks so out of keeping with modern technology, with its handwritten details, glued-on photo, and its numerous ink stamps to illustrate what types of vehicles I can and cannot drive while abroad.

     Post Office lady looks seriously at me before deciding that I’m joking and relaxes. ‘It would cheer the card up a little, wouldn’t it,’ she says.

     I turn the document over in my hand. ‘I think it might,’ I say, ‘It does look a little like a ration card; the sort that one might rock up with at a soviet bread queue.’

     I’m guessing that Mrs Post Office is having trouble accessing this image, so we both say our thank yous and goodbyes, and Nat and I leave the counter.

     ‘Why do we even need one of these?’ I ask Nat, as we get out into the sunshine.

     ‘Because of men in hats,’ she says. ‘And you know how men like to wear hats, it makes them feel …’

     ‘Taller?’

     ‘Yes, probably,’ says Nat.

     My phone pings. It’s my uncle. What are you doing in the post office?He texts.

     TRAVELLING BACK IN TIME, I text.

     Then I refer you to my previous message, he texts, Give my regards to Princess Margaret.

     I think back to the lady with the secretive packages. I THINK I ALREADY MIGHT HAVE, I text.

     Jolly good, he texts.

     Nat looks at her watch. ‘We’ve missed breakfast,’ she says, ‘Shall we just call it…’

     ‘… Brunch?’ (I wish I could stop doing that, I think to myself.)

     ‘I wish you’d stop doing that,’ says Nat.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘If you want to know how stupid you’re perceived as by big business, check your junk mail.’

I’ve just been congratulated. By post. Apparently, I’ve been ‘pre-selected’ for congratulating. So, that’s nice.

     ‘Who’s congratulating you?’ asks Nat.

     I scan down to the bottom of my congratulations letter. ‘Catherine Lewis,’ I say.

     ‘Who’s Catherine Lewis,’ she asks, ‘And what’s she congratulating you for?’

     ‘Um,’ no idea, and … nope, no idea,’ I say. ‘She hasn’t really gone into detail about what I’ve done to deserve her congratulations, but the fact that she’s congratulating me is good enough for me.’

     ‘Give it here.’ Nat motions to take the letter from me, but I’m too quick for her (which is something I inwardly congratulate myself about).

     ‘The main point is, I say, ‘whatever I’ve done, Catherine – or Miss Lewis – has deemed it worthy of her praise. And she’s offering me a prize for it.’

     ‘Ok,’ says Nat, already visibly beginning to tire of our conversation, ‘What’s your prize?’

     ‘It’s a … it’s a credit card.’

     ‘Why do you want another credit card?’

     ‘I don’t’ I say, ‘but I don’t want to appear rude, especially as Catherine has gone to all that trouble to pre-select me.

     ‘I don’t think she actually ‘pre-selected’ you, herself,’ says Nat, wiggling her quotation fingers at me. ‘I think she might have used an algorithm generator for that.’

     ‘Don’t you disparage my pre-selection,’ I say.

     ‘You’re right,’ says Nat, ‘Congratulations on your achievement, and on the official recognition of your worthiness for such a prestigious prize. I shall look forward to seeing you on the front cover of Junk Mail Weekly, in the coming months. In fact, in the words of Yazz and her rather musical chart-topping backing combo, The Plastic Population, ‘The Only Way is Up!’’

     I consider the possibility that I may be detecting a degree of sarcasm in Nat’s voice, but I refuse to diminish my own achievement here by succumbing to it. ‘I think you’ll find that ‘The Only Way is Up!’ was a hit way back in 1988, and therefore has no specific relevance to this moment in time.’

     ‘Tell you what,’ says Nat, ‘I’ll leave you to enjoy your moment in time, while I take a shower. Oh, and don’t forget that it’s bin day, today. Can you put the bins out, please?’

     ‘To be honest,’ I say, ‘since receiving official confirmation of my personal selection … about twenty three minutes ago,’ (I check my watch), ‘I feel that putting the bins out is now a little below me.’

     ‘No worries,’ shouts Nat, from the bathroom, ‘You can always use your new credit card to pay for the pest control people to come round to curb the rat problem we’ll have when our rubbish mounts up.’

     ‘I’m just on it,’ I shout.

* * * * * * * *

I shall probably politely decline my prize, though I really should thank Catherine for taking the time to congratulate me, and, of course, for going out of her way to pre-select me. I might also enquire into what it was that I have done to deserve such pre-selection; what it is that puts me above the un-preselected, unwashed masses. Who knows, it might even be CV-worthy.

     I decide to draft my reply to Catherine while Nat is in the shower, so that Nat can’t continue mocking me. I pour myself the remnants of the coffee pot and settle down with my laptop: ‘Dear Catherine …’ No, best change that to ‘Dear Miss Lewis’. Nope, best not be presumptuous … ‘Dear Ms Lewis’ – better to keep things business-like, at least until we get to know each other better.

     I search for a return address, but it’s not obvious from her letter. Eventually, I find an address amongst some small-print at the bottom of her first page to me. Technically, the address provided is to be used in the event of my ‘not wanting to be contacted for marketing purposes’, but once they realise who I am, I’m sure that they will quickly let Ms Lewis know that it’s me, and pass my letter swiftly on to her.

     It’s only when I re-read her message that I realise my prize isn’t as automatic as I’d first thought. It turns out that what I have won is the right to apply for my credit card, though I note that Catherine has added a personalised password for me to use online (a secret code between us both, perhaps),  in order that my application can be fast-tracked. It’s almost as though she wants me to receive my credit card as soon as possible. I am already warming to her; I shall thank her for this, in due course.

     I admit that I’m a little disappointed to learn that Catherine has ‘already helped over 4 Million people in the UK get the credit they deserve.’ This somehow takes a little of the shine off my own sense of achievement here, as I find that I wasn’t in the absolute forefront of her mind when she put her initial list of names together. On reflection, however, I decide not to be precious about things, after all, she did come clean about this in her very first letter to me. This transparency deserves my respect, I conclude. It’s also nice to see that she has granted me 24/7 online access to her, though I do hope that she will have help with this, as being on-call all the time must be draining. (I resolve to only contact her during office hours – unless I have a real need to speak with her … or unless we get on really well.)

     ‘What are you doing?’ asks Nat, appearing behind me, draped in a towel and rubbing her wet hair.

     ‘Nothing,’ I say, and close my laptop.

* * * * * * * *

A few days have gone by since I began my reply to Ms Lewis. I find her initial letter in the back pocket of my jeans as I’m turning out the pockets ready to put them in the wash. I unfold the letter and glance at her name again. Beneath her signature are the words ‘Customer Service, Vanquis Bank’. Something doesn’t feel right. ‘YOU COULD BE APPROVED TODAY’ is written in big letters to the right of her main message to me.

     ‘Nat? Do you think that there might be something a little insincere about Catherine’s – I mean, Ms Lewis’s – letter to me?’

     ‘Who?’

     I hand Nat Catherine’s earlier correspondence with me.

     ‘Is this your ‘Congratulations’ letter from the other day?’ (She’s doing that ‘quote’ thing with her fingers, again.)

     ‘Yes,’ I say.

     She looks at the letter, then up at me, before crumpling the letter into a ball and bouncing it off the side of my head.

     ‘… Is that your final word on it?’ I ask.

     ‘Uh-Huh,’ she says.

     ‘… I think I see your point,’ I say.

     I’ve gone off Catherine a little. I bet she doesn’t even know what it was I was doing on the day she congratulated me.

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘Gender equality shouldn’t come with conditions – though it seems it does sometimes come with attachments.’

She did toy with the idea a while ago, but I didn’t think she’d actually go out and buy one. So, when my wife approached me in the bedroom as I was reading, sprawled across our bed, I thought for a second or two that perhaps the parcel she was holding in her hand might be a gift for me. I like gifts.

     ‘How’s your day?’ she asks, as she leans over the bed and kisses me.

     ‘I had to go to work,’ I remind her. ‘What’cha got there?’ I look at the package she is clutching, noting that it is still sealed.

     It’s my new accessory for our next road trip,’ she says.

     (I guess it’s not a gift for me, then.) ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Do I have one?’

     ‘You don’t need one.’

     ‘I always need a present,’ I say, smiling.

     ‘Not one of these presents, you don’t.’

     ‘Why?’

     ‘Trust me.’ She rips open the packaging and pulls out a bright purple nylon bag, which she holds up for me to see.

     ‘I lean over to read the label. ‘… Shewee?’ I say.

     ‘Yes. It’s a Shewee,’ she says. She beams a smile at me.

     ‘They actually exist? I mean, Shewees are actual things?’

     ‘I Know, right. Now, we’re equal.’ She loosens the drawstring on the bag and pulls out the device. ‘See?’ She models it for me via a series of faintly disturbing poses. ‘And it has an attachment.’ She pulls out a secondary piece of plastic piping and pushes it onto the first, thus doubling the length of the Shewee pipe.

     ‘We’re not equal,’ I say, ‘not if you’re also going to use that section.’

     ‘Is this Shewee envy I’m witnessing?’

     I pause for a second. ‘I’m actually not sure,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

I can’t help thinking that this is a bit of an unnecessary purchase on her part.

     ‘That’s such a male thing to say,’ she accuses me. ‘Men can wee anywhere. This just levels the playing field a little.’

     ‘But where would you like to wee, that you can’t already?’ I think of the many times I’ve been caught in traffic, desperate for the toilet. A Shewee wouldn’t have saved me then. It occurs to me to hope that Nat isn’t thinking that she would use her new purchase inside the car.

     ‘… Of course not,’ she says.

     ‘Are you sure?’

     ‘… Yes.’

     I look at her suspiciously. ‘Good. Because we wouldn’t want to have to live with the results of any unfortunate leakages or spillages,’ I say, ‘especially not on a three-week road trip amongst the heat of Eastern Europe. And don’t forget that the seats are heated and so have electric wiring running through them; one unfortunate mistake would have you fused to the chair as the car’s headlights flicker and the radio begins to crackle off channel.  A great tabloid story, yes – and, come to think of it, it would probably make an equally memorable movie clip (In fact, I should probably write this down) – but not a great end, or start … or, in fact, middle, to our road trip.’

     ‘… You’re weird,’ she says, before adding, ‘Look. It comes with a free hand sanitiser.’

* * * * * * * *

Later that evening, I’m still thinking about Nat’s new purchase.

     ‘Is it really such a big deal,’ I ask, ‘the difference between weeing standing up or crouching down?’

     Nat looks at me in silence, as her face screams, ‘You really need to ask?’ at me.

     This makes me feel the need to legitimise my question a little further. ‘I mean, on the very rare occasion when I might be forced to pop behind a tree during a journey, I’m not sure that it would overly matter to me what pose I struck whilst I was there.’

     ‘And how are your shoes, generally, at the point of après-wee, I mean?’

     ‘My shoes? … Fine. Why?’

     ‘Trying weeing crouched down next time, and then ask yourself the same question.’

     I play this scene out in my mind but am still not sure what she’s getting at.

     ‘Look,’ she says, my Shewee will just make things more convenient, not to mention a little less conspicuous at the side of a road.’

     ‘Are you actually saying to me that the sight of a woman weeing into a bush on the side of a road, standing up like a man, is less note-worthy to the average passing driver and his/her family than if she were discreetly squatting behind her car, with the passenger door open as a visual barrier?’

     ‘Well … yes … Um.’

     ‘So, riddle me this, Jester: if discretion did, in fact, play a part in your Shewee purchase, why did you choose to buy a bright purple one?’

     ‘Purple’s my favourite … Oh, I see what you mean. Well, I’ll be facing away from the traffic.’

     ‘I’d kind’ve hoped that was a given,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

My mind soon moves on to wondering about the physics involved in incorporating a Shewee into a game of which of us can wee the highest up the side of a tree, but I don’t share this with Nat; I feel I might be winning my current Shewee argument, and I don’t want to spoil things. I don’t win arguments often.

     There have only been two occasions during our road trips together when a desperation to find a bathroom has turned into an emergency for Nat. The first was when we got lost and accidently found ourselves in a traffic jam in the centre of Geneva. (When I say lost, we shouldn’t have been anywhere near Geneva – or, in fact, Switzerland!) The second was the following year, when we had to make an emergency stop in Germany’s Black Forest. 

     During the first occasion, I managed to find a garage to pull into where a nice man with no English but a good grasp of mime eventually allowed Nat to use the staff loo. On the second occasion, we took turns to sneak behind a cluster of trees on a country road. My personal worry was that this was potentially bear country and that we may have inadvertently just stepped into a bears’ convenience. Nat, it seemed, had a different concern on her mind, as she returned to the car carrying her soggy flip flops in her hand. (On reflection, perhaps I better understand her Shewee purchase now.)

* * * * * * * *

It’s early the next morning when Nat wakes me to ask whether I want to go into the shower before or after her. I open my eyes to see her standing next to the bed with her Shewee in one hand and the instructions in the other.

     ‘It says here that it’s best to practice with the Shewee in the shower before using it outside for the first time, in case of any …’

     ‘I think I’ll take the first shower this morning, if it’s ok with you’ I say.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘It’s the easier jobs that I tend to be most rubbish at.’

‘You know why birds sing in the morning?’ I say to Nat, utilising the sandpaper tones of the amateur drunk, ‘Because they don’t have to go to work after only 4 hours sleep and three bottles of Pinot Grigio.’

     ‘Well, you did it to yourself,’ she says, dismissively.

     I hate all that you’ve-only-yourself-to-blame nonsense. There’s no satisfaction in blaming oneself. ‘No,’ I say, standing my ground, albeit while hunched over the bedroom chest of drawers with my head in my hands, ‘YOU did this to me. It wasn’t me who picked up a caseload of wine on their way home from work.’

     ‘And it wasn’t me who made you drink it,’ she says, eyeing me in the mirror while applying her lipstick. ‘don’t have a hangover.’

     I’m not a fan of smug, either (unless, of course, it’s coming from me). ‘But you laid them all out in front of me,’ I say, miming her pulling bottles from the box and setting them in a row. ‘What was I supposed to do?’

     ‘How about … I don’t know … exercise judgement?’

     ‘Enabler!’

     ‘Freeloader!’

* * * * * * * *

After a delicate morning and a full day at work, we are now to spend the next four hours driving to Wales in order to celebrate my mum’s birthday. There are three reasons why Nat is driving this evening (four, if one considers that I may still be drunk):

  1. We have agreed that taking my two-seater car would mean that either my mum or Nat would have to lay curled up in the boot if we were to go out for the day. (Neither of them is happy to do this – I’ve checked.)
  2. My mum hates being a passenger in my car. She says the seats are too low down and she can’t get back out of them. (You just can’t please some people.)
  3. The solution to ‘1’ and ‘2’ above is for us to take Nat’s car. But Nat doesn’t like me driving it; she alleges that I don’t have an acceptable grasp of gear change. (The truth is that I am actually a very good driver. And Nat is just not a very good passenger in her own car.)

     Anyway, this means that I am relegated to the position of commuter for the entirety of this journey, which is fine by me. My job is simple: I am to be DJ and conversationalist only. These two tasks are ones that, I feel, I can be trusted with.

     Fifteen minutes into the journey, I’m still trying to find something on Nat’s music system that I like.

     ‘I give you one job to do …,’ she says, smiling.

     ‘I’m trying to find something good,’ I say.

     ‘Rude!,’ she says. ‘And anyway, on this journey, you are the DJ and I am the audience. It’s not about you.’

     I set her music to random play and put the iPod down.

     ‘Ooh! That’s better,’ she says. ‘Good choice.’

     ‘I aim to please at least one of us,’ I say, grimacing at her.

     ‘Now talk to me,’ she says.

     ‘What?’

     ‘Talk to me. You’re meant to be my DJ and conversationalist. Tell me things.’

     I think hard, trying to push away the clouds of sleepiness that are gathering in my head. ‘Um … Indian police officers get paid more if they have moustaches,’ I say.

     ‘Moustaches?’

     ‘Well, just the one, I assume. Each, that is.’

     ‘Why would they get paid more for that?’

     ‘Something to do with a belief by bosses that underlining their noses gives them an added air of authority?’ I say, ‘Though I’m probably paraphrasing.’

     ‘That’s just silly,’ says Nat.

     ‘Added ‘hair’ of authority,’ I say, attempting to stretch a little more humour from my random fact. I search for proof of my claim on my phone, and stumble upon a Daily Telegraph article from 2005, entitled Indian police pay goes up by a whisker. ‘See,’ I say, waving my phone screen in front of her.

     Well, it’s still silly,’ she says.

* * * * * * * *

My mind drifts off into the online article and Nat and I fall silent as she drives, her iPod continuing my Dj-ing work for me. I’m considering how much money a job would need to pay me before I might agree to whoring facial hair for it. It’s bad enough that I have to wear a tie at work. ‘Archaic nonsense,’ I aside to myself.

     I’m in mid decision that such a price doesn’t exist, when Nat sounds up to remind me that I have again abandoned my car duties.

     ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘The easiest jobs have always been the ones I’m most rubbish at. I think this is because I get bored so easily.’

    ‘I’m sorry I’m boring you,’ she says, in her best sarcastic tones.

     ‘You’re not,’ I say, ‘but when I’m bored – generally – I forget to pay attention. It’s the easier jobs that I’ve tended to get fired from.

     ‘Ok,’ she says.

     ‘I took a waitering job at a fish restaurant, once. I was terrible.’

     ‘So why did you do it?’

     ‘Money?’ I say. ‘There was a time when I could hardly afford to pay the electricity bill. Those were dark times.’ I leave a space for Nat to catch up with my amazing comedy.

     … Silence.

    I repeat, ‘They were dark … times?’

     Nothing …

     I sigh and move on. ‘I was so bad at waitering that I felt it was only a matter of time before the whole restaurant industry would add the word ‘syndrome’ to my surname when teaching new recruits how not to do stuff.’

     ‘You weren’t a natural, then?’

     ‘I got tipped well by the diners, but only for my entertainment quality, never for my waiting on them. I was probably the worst person for the actual job. Come to think of it, I was probably the worst mammal for it.’

* * * * * * * *

The two guys who ran the restaurant were a difficult pair to please, and an impossible combination to work for. I didn’t go to restaurants while I was growing up, we were too poor. The closest to eating out we experienced was my mum serving chips in rolled up copies of The Daily Mirror, and sitting us on the garden wall in the sunshine to eat them. So, when I took this job, which came with no induction or training, and was expected to decipher the ridiculously embellished menus – which changed weekly – I quickly found that I was out of my depth:

       Diner: ‘Crafted marrow balls with rice and activated butter? What is activated butter?’

       Me (speculating wildly): I believe the chef passes a small charge through it, sir.’

       Diner: ‘And the Frightened monkfish? Frightened? Really?’ (He points to the offending
                    word on the menu.)

       Me: If you were suddenly hauled out of the sea by a big-faced, gnarled-looking old
               fisherman, wouldn’t you be just a little panicky?’

       Diner: ‘Fair point. I’ll have the lobster.’

       Me: ‘With or without the crafted marrow balls, sir?’

       Diner: ‘Tch. You can’t beat this chef for his pretentiousness.’

       Me (leaning in closely and whispering): ‘You could with a long enough stick, sir.’

     During the shift in which I was fired, I pointed out to the owners, while waving their menu at them, that, ‘Just because nobody complains, that doesn’t mean that all parachutes are perfect.’

     I don’t think they understood my meaning.

* * * * * * * *

     ‘What are we going to have for dinner this evening?’ Nat asks me, as we watch the sun set over the motorway.

     ‘Well, as my mum is organising our meal, it’s likely to be hand-selected artisan goujons of organic, free-range pollock, dusted in a light jacket of deconstructed ciabatta, and crisply sautéed, served on a bed of hand foraged potato julienne, and complimented by a foray of locally harvested pureed micro greens and, finally, served with an optional Pomodoro and vinaigrette reduction.

     ‘Sorry, you lost me at goujon,’ says Nat.

     ‘Fish and chips with mushy peas,’ I say.

     ‘I don’t like mushy peas.’

     ‘No,’ I say, ‘neither do I.’

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘If I’ve got to have problems, let them all be first world ones.’

Nat is annoyed because, apparently, I disturbed her while she was applying moisturiser for bed.

     ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ she says, ‘I’ve gone and put day cream on instead of night cream.’

     ‘Really?’ I pick up both jars and study them closely. I can’t really tell the difference between the two. ‘Are you worried that your face might suffer some kind of jet lag by the morning?’ I ask.

     ‘Very funny,’ she says, sliding a dollop of day (or night – who knows!) cream across my cheek with her fingers.

     ‘To be fair,’ I say, ‘my face hasn’t fully recovered from the clocks going forward … in 1998.’

     ‘So you haven’t always looked this bewildered?’

     ‘Very funny right back at you,’ I say, rubbing my cream-smeared face across hers.

* * * * * * * *

First world problems, of course, take a number of shapes. I realise that there are many people without food in the world but, earlier this evening, I heard myself complaining that my pizza box wouldn’t fit in the fridge.

     ‘It’s all a matter of perspective,’ Nat tells me.

     ‘Well, I tried standing further away from it,’ I say, ‘but, annoyingly, the fridge gets smaller too. And at some point I still have to get close enough to both in order to attempt wedging the one into the other. Bloody physics.’

     ‘That’s not what I … never mind!’ She gets into bed and switches off the light.

    I stumble around a bit longer, stub my toe, then give up on my day altogether and get into bed too.

* * * * * * * *

I lay here, thinking about the things that annoy me on a daily basis, turning each one over in my mind, assessing to what extent any of them really matter in the scheme of things. After considering the hair that the cat fastidiously lays over the sofas each day, in preparation for my return from work, and the fact that we live in a hard water area and so we’re reduced to having to buy bottled water in order to stop the kettle furring up, my mind inevitably moves to the biggest irritation in my life – the fact that I’m employed. This, in turn, directs me to the words of that great philosopher and social commentator, Morrissey: ‘I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now.’

     I have always understood his dilemma, and I continue to feel his pain – my pain – on a daily basis. But I’ve only now considered how very first-world this actually is, as problems go. I blame Durkheim. If it wasn’t for him, spending his time being all French and inventing the ‘insatiable appetite’, I’d probably be happy with what I’ve got, would stop striving for things that I can’t attain, and would spend more time comparing myself to those who have less, rather than to those with more. Who knows, this might even lead me to performing more charitable acts.

     But such is life (or ‘c’est la vie’, as Durkheim and his mates would have one believe), I am destined to continue complaining about having to buy bottled water to supplement my clean tap water, while watching African street children on television drinking from polluted streams.

     Like it or not, I am part of the great Western problem. I might offer up my £3 per month to WaterAid but, as Joey from Friends points out, ‘there’s no such thing as an unselfish act– I do this to salve my conscience, in order to give myself the mental space to thirst for other unnecessary things that I don’t have in my life.

* * * * * * * *

I’m jolted out of my thoughts by Nat, who suddenly turns over and knees me in the spine.

     ‘We need a King sized bed,’ I huff to myself.

     ‘We’ve already got one,’ whispers Nat, in response.

     ‘I thought you were asleep, I say.’

     ‘I am,’ she says, ‘this is merely the voice of your conscience.’

     ‘My conscience sounds remarkably similar to you,’ I say.

     ‘I can’t help that,’ says my conscience, before turning over again and going back to sleep.

* * * * * * * *

I lay here a few moments longer, irritated by the purgatory being inflicted on me by my pillows, as they imprison me within my current ‘one pillow is too low, but two pillows is too high’ conundrum. Finally, I turn over sharply, take hold of the top pillow, and frisbee it across the room.

    Immediately, I feel a second knee connecting with my back, as a voice behind my right ear whispers up closely, ‘Hello, it’s your conscience again. Just a quickie to say that If you don’t lay still and go to sleep, I’m likely to stab you to death with your own bedside lamp,’

    ‘My bedside lamp isn’t very sharp,’ I whisper back.

    ‘Exactly! It’ll hurt more.’

    ‘… Point taken,’ I whisper, and resign myself to laying still.

* * * * * * * *

I suppose that being stabbed with my very own table lamp would be considered a first world problem in some corners of the world, with the fact that I’m rich enough to own one being the clincher.  I think this to myself, quietly … in my head … with as little movement as possible.

    (It is quite a nice lamp.)

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘If these were meant to be the best days of our lives, then I’m clearly doing something wrong.’

I wake up from a horrible dream in which I’m eight again, it’s a Monday morning, a school day, and I’m dreading bumping into the school bully – or Mr Thomas, as he likes to be called.

     As I come downstairs for breakfast, Ziggy, our dog, passes me on the landing. ‘I’ve eaten your homework,’ he says, ‘and no one is going to believe you. No one.’

     Suddenly, I’m in my classroom and Mr Thomas is bearing down on me. I’m trying to explain my situation to him.

     ‘And how do you know your dog ate it?’ he snarls.

     ‘Because he … told … me?’ I whimper, knowing that Ziggy has totally out-manoeuvred me.

     I look up at Mr Thomas, then down at my feet. One of my shoes is missing.

* * * * * * * *

And this pretty much sums up the trauma that my school days have left me with.

     To be fair, it wasn’t so much a school that I was forced to attend, as a slightly sadistic day centre. If you liked rugby or cricket, Mr Thomas liked you. If, like me, you were interested in neither, and were just biding your time until you would discover skiing, in your mid-teens, then he really didn’t. Mr Thomas wasn’t a large man, but I was eight, and when you’re eight, most men are large-ish.

     I didn’t really learn very much at junior school, other than how to keep out of trouble. Sometimes, I even managed this. It was the school psychopath, Jason, who taught me Biology. He was in the year above me and was made to sit next to me by Mr Thomas, as punishment for Jason’s intimidation of other children in the playground, though I’m still not sure whether the punishment was aimed at Jason or me.

     What I was convinced about, however, was that it wasn’t completely fair to punish Jason like this. He was the kind of kid who could intimidate you just by existing. In retrospect, I don’t think Jason had any choice in the matter, mostly because of the way his words and his face worked out of synch with each other. He could be offering to share his sweets with you, but his face would look at you in the way a sinister stranger might stare you out while threatening to kill your entire family.

     One morning, Jason trapped me in a corner of the classroom in order to instruct me on how babies were made. He even drew me pictures to illustrate his points.

     ‘Um … ok,’ I said, feeling slightly freaked out. I didn’t believe him, mostly due to my own scepticism over whether my parents would ever involve themselves in such things. To be honest, I was still grappling with the existence of Santa at the time. ‘First thing’s first,’ I thought.

     This kid, who took it upon himself to suddenly be my best friend, followed me around for weeks, which resulted in my real friends being too scared to hang out with me at all. He’d sometimes impress me with his brilliance, and sometimes surprise me with how dumb he could be, like when he asked me whether I thought all Australians were marsupial. Some days, you could feel the IQ of the entire room shooting up merely because he’d been granted permission to go to the toilet. I instinctively knew that he would one day grow up to be the sort of person who would give out unsolicited advice while playing a fruit machine.

     Sometimes, Jason would come out with the most random things, often at the most random times. He once turned and whispered to me, as he was being manhandled out of the classroom by the Headteacher for filling the classroom door locks with purple play dough, ‘You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.’ He winked at me as he said this, as though he was passing on a special secret to me. I still wonder whether this was an insanely brilliant piece of cryptic philosophical metaphor that even my middle-aged self continues to have difficulty unravelling or whether he was, in fact, merely insane.

* * * * * * * *

A few days ago. I discovered a friend request from Jason on my social media page.

     ‘This is what has probably prompted my schooldays dreams,’ I say to Nat.

     ‘It could be worse,’ she says, ‘it could have been a friend request from Mr Thomas.’

     I feel my left eye twitch slightly as she says this.

     ‘So, what was Jason like?’ she asks. 

     ‘He had a habit of walking into things – shops mostly. He was a prolific shoplifter.’

     ‘Ok,’ says Nat. ‘Maybe that’s why you haven’t heard from him in a while. I’m not sure they allow social media in prisons.’

     ‘Fair point,’ I say to myself, as I move to decline his invitation, block his profile, and, just for a moment, consider officially changing my name.

* * * * * * * *

As I reflect on my dream of last night, I think to myself that perhaps he really was just a guy with an overly inquisitive mind, a total lack of self-awareness, and an inability to empathise … but these are still not acceptable credentials for a school teacher.

* * * * * * * * 

 

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