the state of our roads

Following on from a groundbreaking article (car ban or carbon?) written on the traffic congestion plague affecting Oxford, investigative journalist Jan Futchinelle’s latest piece focuses on the roads themselves. With kind permission, what follows is the full and recently published article, which many point to as responsible for triggering the recent wave of local popular support, lying beyond the city’s college halls. We are talking here, about the #roadsituation.

THE STATE OF OUR ROADS
Controversy broke out yesterday, after a leaked budgetary document sourced from the luxuriously furnished office of the city council’s head spokesperson Heather Headwoman (42), confirmed less than 20% of road tax revenue is spent on maintaining the county’s road system.
Asked to comment, resident city analyst Marc Bolam (70) told me, “I’m no expert but neither am I surprised by this finding. Nearly everyone in Oxford knows that unless you wish for a broken axle, some roads are effectively no-go areas as a result of potholes. This includes several main arterial routes leading into the city centre.”
Invited to join him if I bought him a sandwich, we both stood standing at a majorly busy inter-section. We watched as cars, motorcycles and bicycle riders bobbing and weaving around potholes as large in diameter and circumference as a family-sized frying pan and as deep as your average common or garden jam jar.
Recognised by passerby Atricia Partmann (52), long time resident of Pigeon Toe Lane for more than fifty years and counting, I asked for her own two penneth on the subject and got back three and six.
“How long before an accident occurs due to a driver swerving to avoid a pothole, or being theatrically thrown off course by driving into one? But nobody cares!” She continued, her eyes watering up. “There’s global developmental delay rife and abundant within the council chambers, while the college knobs mostly travel around Oxford using the university-owned underground tunnel network. You’ll not get any change out of those ƒ∇⊆Κ∃ℜš!”
Elsewhere, I found emotions running high on the subject. Despite displaying my credentials, one elderly gentleman I approached for interview angrily beat me off with an antique walking stick. Although he hadn’t fought in the war, if he had, it wouldn’t have been this he’d have been fighting for, he told me.
A burly youth who helped me off the pavement, shared his experience of remedying potholes himself, in his own street.
“A week later, I woke up to the sound of workmen outside my house, digging out all the repairs I’d done.” He told me. “When challenged, they said it was all about liability and only the council could commission repairs!”
The council is failing in its statutory responsibility to maintain the road network. In place of repairs, expensive leather upholstered office chairs are bought to seat over-salaried senior managers. For the upcoming local elections, I encourage each of my readers to simply write across their ballot paper: “FIX THE BLOODY ROADS”.
Jan Futchinelle
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#roadsituation

 

phone a friend

Although a familiar face and often seen in the city of Oxford, I had no idea as to his name. Adopting the style of an over-fed 11th century Anglo-Saxon peasant, he wore the same brown rags and moss-green holed jumper every day. A length of thick rope tied around an expansive waist, held up his trousers. For a hat, he had chosen an aviator’s leather helmet, complete with goggles parked up onto his forehead. A red and blotchy face suggested poor health, while a bushy grey coloured beard grew out in all directions from his chin, cheeks and jowels. As a cyclist, his proclivity for carrying a roughly-hewn wooden stick, along with an armful of plastic bags weighing him down, seemed ill-conceived. Put altogether, he brought to mind the caricature of a rather plain-looking jouster. How did I ever get talking with him? Unusually, the initiation of conversation had been by me. Earlier, having grown bored of waiting for a bus, I’d set off for the next stop on the main road heading out south from the city. As is often the way with these things, I could only watch as two empty buses sailed past at the halfway point of my journey. A few moments later, as another bus stop came into view, I saw him standing motionless on the brow of an arched road bridge, with the bike leaning against his hip the stick held upright and his gaze apparently transfixed, on what I knew not.
I can’t remember why the decision to chat with him came about. I recall anticipating a considerable wait for the next bus and felt emboldened, following the consumption of a double espresso coffee an hour beforehand. With the caffeine coursing through my veins, the option to engage in light conversation with the fellow presented no difficulty.
“You sir!” I called out, as I doffed and re-donned my cap in his direction. “I wish to enquire of your position and the circumstances leading to where you find yourself now.” Eyes widening and then quickly narrowing, his expression flickered from surprise to suspicion, as he processed the greeting I’d extended to him. “I want to know,” I said, seeing further explanation as necessary, “how did you get to be like this?” It was an upfront, honest question delivered with eye-contact for additional impact.
He stared at me blankly, while a spasmodic facial tic underneath his left eye contracted and expanded in rapid succession. I could hear his breath wheezing and whistling out of his lungs and noticed mint green coloured nasal mucus pulsating at the entrance to both nostrils. Preparing himself to reply, he’d wiped his nose with a dirty sleeve and drew in a lungful of air.
“I was once like you, not so long ago. I had what you had.” Hearing this, I suppressed the urge to inform him of how unlikely I felt this to be the case. Instead, I smiled kindly and nodded my head sympathetically. “I once had a life,” he continued, “but I made some errors, wandered from the path of righteousness. Just a few small mistakes is all it takes for you to wind-up like me.”
“There but for the grace of God go I.” My reply sounded wistful, yet lacking in conviction.
“Everything I once owned,” he continued, oblivious to my unconvincing interjection, “I threw away, gave away or had it taken from me.”
At this, there followed a moment of  funereal silence, as we both cast our stares out across the canal waterway. Watching the pinkish light of the sunset play amongst the ripples of the water, I suddenly came over all queer and reached out with my hand to the cast-iron guard rail for support. From the corner of my eye, I saw the fellow repeatedly pushing his bottom lip outwards, then drawing it back over his top lip. The act appeared much exaggerated, because of the wiry beard sprouting from his face. The image of an exotic sea anemone came to mind, convulsing its body, unfurling tentacles, sensing food nearby.
The lip movement had been a precursor to the resumption of our conversation.
“It was addiction that done it for me.” He said, without turning his head. I believed it had ‘done it’ for his powers of observation, also. The man appeared unaware of the state of unsteadiness in composure befallen to me. Nor did he notice my frantic hand fanning, directed toward my face. Right then, I wished for the existence of a portable air pumping device designed specifically for such situations, where revival of the senses is urgently required. Through short gasps of breath, I managed an utterance to maintain the rhythm our exchanges were beginning to develop.
“What was your poison, dare I ask? Several flutters too many on the horses, the cursed drink or perhaps the smoking of opium?”
“Friendship. I was addicted to friendship, due to an overwhelming sense of loneliness.” Reluctant to countenance the idea of friendship as a cause for addiction, I implored – nay demanded the man to explain.
“How could this possibly be so?” I asked, my face frozen in an expression of dramatic disbelief. The very concept of having friends is akin to the air I breathe, both necessary and something I had taken for granted up to now. Decades of therapy had taught me, the world was brimming full of strangers yearning to be friends. How could this transmogrify into a negative, such as an addiction?
“Do you have a phone?”
“Yes I do.” I replied, “A so-called smart-phone, the very latest, swankiest model.” I wished not to rub his nose in my good fortune and yet, a fact is a fact!
“My downfall.”
“How, on this world,” I spluttered, “could a handheld telecommunication device possibly serve towards your downfall?” I gasped at what I perceived as his growing incredulousness.
“I made calls with it. Calls to people I didn’t know, made up numbers, random-like.”
“For what purpose?” I enquired.
“To talk to people, to create a chance to make a friend. It had started off with three or four calls in the first hour, but by the end of the day, I’d racked up thirty calls and conversations with complete strangers. It developed from there.” Turning from a notably taciturn disposition, the man’s explanation of himself began expanding rapidly. “Each morning, I had my own routine, one I rarely strayed from. Once sat with a coffee, an open packet of biscuits, pen and pad of paper on my lap, I began dialling. Beyond a legitimate telephone code, I randomly selected the sequence and numbers. Occasionally, I’d get a continuous tone indicating a dead line, but on most occasions, I got through.”
“Complete strangers! Random numbers!”
“That’s right. Although I kept most of my dialling to landline numbers, rather than mobile phones. With the privacy settings on my phone as they were, it quickly became obvious that most people refused to accept calls from a withheld number.”
“A shrewd observation, may I say.”
“Shrewd and observation are my two middle names. I worked out a reasonably reliable system, based upon the number of rings. Once seventeen rings were reached, it was unlikely the call would be answered and I’d hang up. There wasn’t any point waiting for an eighteenth ring, as this would likely trigger an automated message service, requesting that I please leave a message, after the tone.”
“You would hold on, for seventeen rings?” It had been a rhetorical question. I held my hand up in a vertical position, palm facing outwards at chest height to stifle his response. Repositioning the goggles on his forehead by several sixteenths of an inch, he appeared simultaneously hesitant and unsure of what to do next. During this moment of confusion, I withdrew a phone from the inside pocket of my plaid patterned jacket and proceeded to mime the act of making a call. Pretending to dial a number, I then pressed the handset to my ear and imagined the pulse of a ringing tone. By nine make-believe rings, I gave up, concluding with certainty I would not hold on for more than this number.
My antics had been observed, shrewdly no doubt and the cause of some amusement to my conversationally skilled companion. After he’d finished chuckling, I noticed his confidence had returned.
“You didn’t get past nine, did you?” Rolling eyes upwards and from side to side, I scrunched both my lips together allowing them to come to rest in the lower-left quadrant of my face. As I wrestled myself free from a vague feeling of discomfort, he continued. “An answer at seventeen rings suggests an array of possibilities. A chance the person is busy at the bottom of the garden, upstairs asleep or involved in an intimate moment. Perhaps they are frantically fumbling with their keys outside the front door, balancing overflowing bags of food shopping in their arms.”
I assumed a quizzical pose, right hand supporting left elbow, while bent index finger gently rubbed against the vestigial medial depression between my nose and upper lip.
“Surely,” I proposed, “an extended number of rings would influence the way a person accepted a call. The sleeper, bather or lover would certainly be annoyed at the interruption. Whereas I would consider the gardener and returning shopper more likely to answer with a tremor of anxiety, having rushed to reach the phone.”
“Let me show you how a typical conversation goes.” He said. “I’ll be me and you can be you.” His logic appeared obvious, but then he changed his mind. “No. You be a woman answering.” With this, he formed his hand into a position to suggest a telephone handset. Three fingers curled into his palm, while his thumb and pinkie extended outwards. Using his thumb with unusual dexterity, he typed out an imaginary telephone number, before placing the ‘phone’ to the side of his face. Next, a sound designed to imitate the British style of a ringing tone, emitted from his lips. “Broobe-broobe, broobe-broobe, broobe-broobe…” Whilst doing so, he motioned for me to answer. I scrambled for my phone once more, but he flapped his fingers at me in an annoyed fashion, jabbing a stubby index finger at my hand. I deduced he wished for me to create my own ‘hand phone’. In compliance with this demand, hand to ear, I answered his call.
“Hello?” I said, slightly hesitantly. He looked at me and sighed.
“You’re a woman.” He said as his hand slid off the side of his face revealing an expression of mild exasperation. With an air of frustration, he motioned for me to answer again. Self-consciously, stood there on a bridge and busy pavement, I raised the pitch of my voice an octave.
“Hel-lo?” I said, clearing my throat awkwardly. Thankfully, his face relaxed as he grinned, satisfied with my second attempt.
“Hello, may I speak with Caroline please?”
I didn’t mean to play hardball with him, but the chances must be stacked against dialling a random number and getting the name right.
“I’m sorry, there’s no one here called Caroline,  you have the wrong number.”
“Oh, I am sorry, I was sure I had the correct number.”
“What number did you dial?”

“In the early days I got caught out by this question.” He told me, dropping the pretence momentarily. “I couldn’t actually remember what sequence of numbers I’d dialled, so I learnt to scribble them down. With one digit changed, I could confidently answer this query.” Moving back into character, he reeled off a telephone number.
“Ah, I see what you’ve done.” I said, playing my part loyally. “You are one digit out, the last number here ends in a seven, not six, it’s an easy mistake.”
“I can’t believe I did that, how clumsy am I?”
Wanting to return to normal speech, I decided to curtail the conversation without further delay. 
“Well, a simple mistake really, never mind, goodbye!”
Undeniably, he appeared disappointed.
“This is how many a phone call would unfold.” He said, looking down at his unlaced, scuffed leather boots. “But I didn’t get upset, no reason to, just because a call didn’t work out, life is too short.

The prize of one meaningful conversation in a day out of fifty or so attempts, made for a good return.”
“Fifty calls, every day?”
“At least. You know how some people say their name when they answer the phone?” As a customary practice I indulged in myself, I nodded my head in acknowledgement. “Well when this happens, it provides a whole new opportunity. I’ll give you an example.” With his hand at the ready to symbolise a telephone handset, once again he made a noise similar to the electronic pulse of a ring tone. Quickly, I composed myself and formed my hand in the same way. Seeing this, he furiously waved an out-stretched hand and shook his head. At seventeen rings, he switched hands.
“Hello, Marcus speaking.”
As I realised his commitment to play both parties in the conversation, a wave of disappointment washed through me. Yes, I had been uncomfortable before, but this had been because of the requirement to maintain a squeaky feminine voice in an exposed public space. For the character of Marcus, the man used a masculine, well-spoken and educated tone. The image of a stylish gentleman answering the telephone in the entrance hall to an impressive Victorian mansion-house, possibly situated a short distance off the Holloway Road in Islington, sprung to mind.
“Hello Marcus, Graham here.”
“Graham?”
“Yes. Marcus, how are you fixed for the following weekend? I have two day-permits for Saturday and Sunday up at the old quarry carp lakes. People have been pulling out 50 lb. beauties since the season opened. What do you think?” He’d quickly found his stride during the re-enactment, switching smoothly between hands and characters.
“Old quarry what? Sorry, who is this please?”
“Marcus, it’s Graham. Look, it’s a while since we’ve got out together and when I bumped into Cheryl recently, she mentioned you feeling a little low-spirited and having not been yourself lately. So how about it chap?”
“Cheryl? Who’s Cheryl?”
“I’ve still got that little fold-away barbecue, I’ll pick up some sausages, some finger rolls, a crate of lager. Are you up for it?”
“Who’s Cheryl and what has she been telling you about me?”
“Who’s Cheryl? Marcus, Cheryl is your step-sister and my ex-wife.”
“Hold up, hold up, hold up, no no no no no.” Although tested, I guessed from the dialogue Marcus’ sense of reality had begun to return.
“Look I’m sorry friend, there’s been some kind of very odd mix-up here. I have two brothers and as I don’t have a step-sister, let alone know anyone called Cheryl, it follows that I don’t have an ex-brother-in-law called Graham. Contrary to whatever you have been told by whoever, I am feeling perfectly fine, thank you. And furthermore, I have never gone fishing in my life so why would I want to, next weekend? And last but not least, I am a vegetarian!”
“Veggie sausages?”
“What..?! Look, who do you think you are speaking to? Please tell me, then we can clear up this misunderstanding.”
“Marcus. You are Marcus, aren’t you?”
“I am Marcus, but Marcus who?”
“You don’t know?”
“I am asking you.”
“Well, Marcus Robertson of course.”
“My name is Marcus Richardson.”
“Oh, that’s quite similar, how curious!”
I could only agree, what were the chances of such a similarity of names when he’d simply plucked Robertson from thin air?
“Curious it maybe friend, but it’s not me. I am afraid you have the wrong Marcus.”
I clapped my hands together in delight at this point, bringing them to my chest and under my chin, as if I were in prayer. My storytelling acquaintance hung up both hand phones one after the other in a highly precise manner, suggesting a fair degree of self-satisfaction.
“The conversation finished shortly afterwards.” He said, returning to his natural voice. “But as an example, it serves as an insight into what rapidly became part of my day-to-day life. Some calls I made weren’t picked up, or ended abruptly. I can’t begin to imagine the number of times I heard the singular phrase ‘Sorry, wrong number’ said to me. On other occasions, I received rather colourful, two-worded closing statements.”
Really?” I replied, taken aback.
“Hmm, unpleasant and unnecessary. To be honest, in such instances I’d fire a salvo of expletives back at them.”
“Well, I wouldn’t condone such a response, but I can see why you felt the need to.”
Rudeness, I cannot abide, nor the simplistic approach of fighting fire with fire. Yet, I felt a twinge of genuine sympathy towards the man standing before me. Beyond instilling a sense of bemusement in the people he’d called, what harm had come about from his actions? I had one more pressing question for him.
“Still, I don’t quite understand, how you got from there, to here?”
“I exceeded my phone plan,” he replied. “Five hundred minutes per month as an allowance doesn’t go far when your making the number of calls I had come to make, especially as nearly all of them were to different networks. You pay full price on those babies.”
“Couldn’t you have opted for an alternative contract, or simply topped up? I know my network provider affords this option on data. I am often over my limit before the end of the month, due to the numerous videos I watch online with my phone.” As a solution, it had seemed the obvious answer to me.
“I tried, they weren’t interested, they correctly identified a problem with this. I exceeded my agreement with them more than ten times over. They could see, no plan they could offer, would cover my usage.”
“So they cancelled your contract with them?” Absorbing the inevitability of the situation, I pinched at the bony part of my nose. With the setting sun casting a long silhouette upon the pavement, this despairing gesture projected a shadow puppet rabbit kissing my forehead. Then sudden inspiration struck. “What about ‘Pay-As-You-Go’?” I spurted out. “You don’t have to have a phone contract.”
“That was when things got really bad. I found myself jogging along to the corner shop to buy credit vouchers, ten times a day at its peak. I lost a little weight for a while, but this coincided with the period when I turned to selling all my possessions.”
“Well, with every cloud…” I said, puffing out my cheeks and holding my hands at waist height, supporting a large, imaginary gut overhanging my trousers.
“Not for long.” He replied, as a shot of snot leapt from his left nostril. “Once I had sold the cooker, I ate take-away food only and soon discovered these meals are highly calorific. For every few ounces I burnt off journeying back and forth, my diet added three or four pounds more each day.”
“Escalation, in every part of your life!”
“You better believe it. My only relief came from receiving cold calls from companies selling things, generally regarded by most as a nuisance, but manna from heaven to me. I loved it, the challenge of moving the tele-sales person off script. It could take a while, but more times than not, I did it.”
I thought to offer him my handkerchief, but as my fingers closed around the fine silk fabric nestled in my pocket, I reconsidered. “I can remember reading an article in the FT,” I said, “about how less than 3% of cold calls lasted no more than five seconds in duration. The report stated this to be the case until a year ago, at which point the statistics suddenly spiked. Research had shown the average call time lengthening considerably and marketing companies around the world went into a frenzy. Claims about cold-calling as a valid and proven advertising tool abounded within the industry!”
“That was down to me.”
“Down to you?”
“Entirely, me.” He nodded his head, his expression deadly serious.
“Well, yes.” I blinked my eyes in momentary disbelief. “And, I suppose this would have cost you nothing!”
“Well, let’s say I viewed it as a bonus. It cost me nothing until I traced their numbers and phoned them back. Most of the calls emanated from India and Bangladesh. I was dialling on international rates and rapid consumption of the credit vouchers accelerated.”
“And did you make any friends?”
“Not really.” With the mournful expression of a Bassett Hound, he punctuated his answer with an abrupt bottom burp. “For a short while, I got to know a young chap named Anay from Dharavi, a locality in Mumbai. But as I probed more deeply, he became less willing to talk with me. Ultimately, after I’d begun asking to speak with him specifically, he started refusing to take my calls and the company blocked my number.”
“What confounded bad luck!” I exclaimed. “If I was you sir, I would most surely consider throwing myself off from this bridge!” He grinned back at me exposing gingivitis gums and yellowed teeth. At the exact same moment a double-decker bus roared past sending vibrations through my head and chest, expelling any remnants of the queerness I had felt earlier. At this, the man sprung into action and with surprising agility, swung his foot up and levered himself onto the top edge of the guard rail with his stick. Before I could gather my senses, he’d rolled over and dropped to the water below.
Wrong-footed by the spectacle and scarcely able to believe my own eyes, I hesitantly looked over the edge and scanned the brownish-green coloured water below. Mostly, the sound of the large splash had been drowned out by the passing bus. I could discern a few bubbles rising to the water surface, yet all immediate indications suggested he had sunk to the bottom like a stone. Only his poorly whittled stick lay floating on the surface, moving off downstream upon the gentle current. While faintly regretting the delivery of my advice, I abided by my unilateral pledge of conscientious non-interference. Straightening my back and adjusting the cuffs of my shirt, once again I doffed my cap.
“Adieu mon ami, and farewell.”
As luck would have it and aided by a long stride gifted to me by mother nature, I caught a ride on the very same catalyst bus which had passed moments earlier. I made no specific mention of the incident to the driver, who inexplicably appeared reluctant to engage in conversation. Perched in an uncomfortable and smelly seat on the top deck, gradually enveloped by the unpleasant odour one associates with an elderly widower, I gave consideration to recent events.
After musing on this for a short time, recalcitrant thoughts materialised in my wayward mind in the manner of undiluted thuggery. Mental memoranda, lists, questions and assertions all began competing for the same limited attention span available. As the neurons in my brain reached the febrile level of a stock exchange in meltdown, I experienced a severe caffeine crash and with great ease, slipped into the arms of Morpheus. There, rocking back and forth as the bus swung sharply around bends on the country roads, I slept as sound as a baby, until discourteously ejected by several irritable members of staff at the bus terminus.

Extortionist Contortionist

Well, not a contortionist as such, more a yoga teacher. Technically-speaking, I’m not altogether sure if extortion is quite the right word, but along with her American gentleman friend, she robbed clients blind. However, the real scandal is I let them go. I did not report them to the police or to the Yogi High Commission, Instead, I left the sessions and blocked her text alerts. I still receive invoices for expensive weekend retreats I have never been on, found resting in my junk folder. The most bare-faced liberty occurred towards the end of a yoga session, the part where we are all ‘warming down’. Everybody lies on their yoga mats, some people place a blanket over themselves and tuck a cushion under their heads. When everyone is settled, Josephine initiates a guided mindfulness-based meditation, with focus on our own breathing for the first ten minutes.
Her voice is soft and kind, soothing and sensual. She asks us to create a state of awareness around the big toe of our left foot, suggesting we concentrate and process the sensation.
“It might be,” she tells us, “we feel nothing. Perhaps our toe is numb, or maybe we can feel it tingling. What temperature is it, cold or warm? Can we feel the air around it or the material of our socks touching our skin?”
And so she goes on, from big toe to little toe, the soles and top surface of our feet, the ankles, lower legs, knees and onwards. By the time she’s reached the hips and pelvis, many people have zonked-out, are fast asleep, dead to the world. Those people left, including myself, have reached a deep meditative state, not too far behind the sleepers.

Until on one day, due to the ingestion of three sugary cups of espresso earlier in the morning, I found myself unable to settle during the latter stage of the session. Instead, I wrote a long to-do list in my head, with many of the items mentally noted of little significance and quickly forgotten. Just as I had tried to picture the lawn mower in my thoughts and how to change the blunted blade on the confounded contraption, my caffeine infused senses picked up a slight movement to the left of me, coming from a direction I knew no yogi had chosen to settle down in.
Slowly letting my head fall to one side, I utilised the muscles around my eyes to form a tiny slot through which I could see, without giving away my wakefulness. What I saw, gave me an unpleasant surprise. From my position, I could make out a leopard print patterned leotard stretched across a backside belonging to Michael, Josephine’s assistant friend. Allowing my focus to adjust, the image cleared and I came to see Michael’s figure crouched over where everyone had left their clothes folded. He was going through pockets, removing some coins from purses and taking a few bank notes from people’s wallets. Jewelled brooches were unhooked from the outside of coats and I am certain I could see him sorting through various mobile telephones. There were also moments when he paused for a while, appearing to read people’s private correspondence, letters and prescriptions they carried with them in their handbags.
Due to its age, my phone remained safe and I only ever brought in money enough to pay for the class, which I kept hidden in a sock. Despite continuing with the sessions for several more weeks, I  suffered no personal loss. However, I continued to watch him each week. I kept myself buoyed and alert with the habitual consumption of three or more cups of espresso before each class, to remain awake during his shenanigans, while the others drifted off.
Nimble had to be his second name, his ability to move about quietly and with speed impressed me greatly. Occasionally, when a yogi stirred during the meditation period, Michael would spring into a ‘down dog’ pose until he was sure it was safe to continue with his pilfering. Shockingly, when a client discovered they hadn’t brought enough money with them to pay, Josephine played the injured party. These people were left to think it was their own, embarrassing mistake. She would lay it on thick, saying she’d have to go and ‘shake the magic money tree’ to make her rent. Frequently, other clients would help to settle any outstanding sums in response to her hard luck stories. Incredulous as it seems, this wouldn’t stop Josephine unashamedly pursuing the robbed client for the money they ‘owed’, the following week.
In the end, I wanted nothing more to do with it. I cut off all communications and circulated a rumour I’d emigrated to Canada. The experience had been damaging, denting my belief and trust in yoga teachers and facilitators of meditation groups.
“A wake-up call, perhaps.” Suggested one fair-weather friend. “Believe me, they’re all at it.”

 

the waitress part 1

Looking at how I set out my table when in a cafe, I will concede to the casual observer something evident to uggest behaviour akin to OCD. I rationalise this, by telling myself the layout is practical, logical, of good composition – easy on the eye and serving a good purpose in terms of energy efficiency. 
By design, I also see it as cooperative. The waitress can glide my plate down in a gentle descent, sliding it gracefully into the landing area between the neatly laid out cutlery. She has no obstructions to manoeuvre around or over. Bottles of sauce, salt and pepper, a glass of water, a coffee cup and saucer are distributed evenly in order of height, on both forward flanks of the table. At this stage, anticipating her approach, the paper serviette is already opened up and resting across my lap, ensuring the minimisation of unhelpful distractions within the busy environment of a dining area.
It seems to work, with no incidents recorded. I have yet to experience an upturned plate of food on my knees and so far, no coffee has been spilt. In point of fact, the waitress executes delivery to practised perfection. I frequent an Italian-run, traditional cafe where the many variations of a fry-up breakfast dominate the brightly coloured laminated menu. Mercifully for me, with reference to my chronic shyness, food orders are taken at the counter rather than at the table. Naturally, I still have to speak, but at least not under the imagined spotlight of table-service. I wait at the counter for my coffee and I collect my own cutlery and condiments, before finding a table as far away as is possible from anyone present.
Mia, the waitress at Angelo’s Cafe, likes the colour black. Her hair, tied up in an immaculate bun on her head is a natural, dark shade of black. She usually wears a long-sleeved, black cotton top with matching colour leggings and high top trainers with a white trim. She is slight of frame and possessing a refreshingly cheerful demeanour. I noticed her eighteen weeks ago, just as summer had started and the days were beginning to feel warmer.
As chance would have it, Mia often brought my food order over to me. It didn’t take her long to notice my table top layout, given away by just a hint of a smile as she approached. Over all this time, she’d never actually made mention of it and yet, I detected a light-humoured element of theatrical plate placement creep in, as she became familiar with my arrangement.
Today, Mia went further.
I have a tendency to watch her thumb as my food approaches, I can’t help myself. Subconsciously, I’m making sure the thumb doesn’t stray into the scrambled egg or baked beans – which if it were to, would make consumption impossible. I tend to become somewhat transfixed, with only sparing glances darting here and there around the table, checking everything is prepared and in its place. On this day, the plate swooped in and settled slightly off dead-centre between the cutlery.
As my eyes rested upon a decently produced breakfast, my peripheral vision gave information suggesting Mia had sat herself down in front of me. This was a first. I looked up, she had leant forward slightly in her chair, an elbow resting on the table and her perfectly understated chin resting in the delicate palm of her hand. Mia had cocked her head slightly to the left, her large brown eyes staring into my own. With eyebrows raised slightly, a red lipstick smile widened pleasingly, showing-off a suggestion of perfectly shaped white teeth.
My attempt to reciprocate resulted in a smile twitching unconvincingly at both ends. In a self-conscious manner, I flattened out the paper serviette across my knees. Quickly, I abandoned the action, fearing this could be construed as fiddling with my trousers. Meanwhile, Mia rested her head to the other side, bringing her other hand up and out across the table. I have no idea where she thought she was going with it, but before I could unravel the mystery, she’d knocked over the small, plastic topped, glass salt pot. As a result, I’d estimate several thousand grains of salt spilled out across the table.
“Oops!” She said, grimacing, “I’m so sorry, I’ll clear it up.” Drawing the side of her hand across surface, she began ushering the spillage towards the table edge. Although startled and confused by the antics, I knew in my heart she’d be unable to clear away the mess entirely.
“It’s okay,” I blurted out, “please don’t worry, it’s only some salt.” Mia ignored my intervention and continued with what she’d started, her other hand cupped ready to catch the wasted salt. What had started off as a miniature, snake shaped sand dune, soon became dispersed over a much wider area. “Honestly, please, it’s alright.” In a nervous reaction, I lifted up the paper serviette to my chin, only to realise I’d scrunched it into a tight ball while the drama had been unfolding.
“It was an accident, I’m sorry – I understand how particular and tidy you are. I’d noticed your fork needed straightening, I’d knocked it slightly when I brought down the plate, I hope I haven’t spoilt your meal.”
Had she done this on purpose I wondered to myself, was she getting a kick out of this? I scanned her expression trying to decipher a clue to indicate self-satisfaction, but found none. Mia ceased with the clear up and rubbed her palms together to remove the salt, casting the grains into a free-fall descent towards the checkered, vinyl tiled floor. With an apologetic look upon her face, she finished off by slowly rubbing her hands backwards and forwards across the tops of her thighs.
I twitched a smile and blinked a few times, forcibly trying to remove a muscular tic I could feel in spasm underneath my left eye.
“Would you mind?” Mia said, picking up the fork and twiddling it between her fingers before resting on a gentle grip midway along the stem of the implement. “I missed breakfast,” she whispered, “and I’m starving.” Without waiting for an acknowledgement she plunged the shiny fork into the succulent, perfectly formed Cumberland sausage, which had been neatly nestled between two hash browns on the plate. Establishing a firm hold, Mia rotated the sausage around slowly by use of her nimble fingers, before deftly dipping one end into a small pool of tomato juice, which had drained away from the main cluster of baked beans.
Elevating her quarry up to mouth-level, she proceeded to blow short, cooling breaths through her pursed, red lips onto the very tip of the sausage. Although cross-eyed at this particular moment, I couldn’t help but notice how sweet and angelic she appeared. Taking a delicate bite, Mia closed her eyes, let her head fall back ever-so slightly and chewed, while making sounds to indicate a mild sense of gratification.
Soon, she was ready for another mouthful, followed by another and another, until her lips pressed against the steel prongs of the vertically held fork.
“Do you want some?” A pointing hand gesture gave emphasis to her query. I dabbed at a bead of sweat tracing a line down my forehead using what had once been a paper serviette. Now melded with the sweat from my palm, it felt as hard as a golf ball.
The initial word of my reply emitted as a squeak, but after a short struggle, I succeeded in wrestling the intonation downwards in pitch for part of the second word.
“Yes… pl-ease.”. Without further ado, Mia proceeded to pick up the cutlery knife and cut a section of sausage off. This was then repositioned onto the fork, before squashing some hash brown and baked beans on for good measure. Her elbow and forearm swivelled into position and the prize presentation hovered temptingly before my mouth.
“Eat it!” she said, raising her eyebrows at me. Leaning towards her, I opened my mouth. Teasingly, she pulled away twice. On the third approach, I felt a warmth spread across my tongue and a taste I had been yearning for. She smiled and after a few seconds of delay, withdrew the fork from my mouth, returning it to the plate.
“You’ve shared your food with me, now I want to share a story with you.” Mia said, folding her arms.
“Really?” I said, politely holding my hand up in front of my mouth as I chewed on the food, savouring the flavour of the herbs in the sausage meat. My eyes moved between the plate of food and Mia’s face. Honestly, I really wanted to eat rather than listen to a story. As I looked once again at my partially consumed breakfast, a brief telepathic connection occurred.
“It’s okay Mr. Brinkinfield,” Mia said, “you can keep on eating, just listen with your ears.” With a sense of relief sweeping down from my head to my toes I eagerly collected the cutlery into each hand and began cutting the food into neat, modest-sized chunks suitable for ingestion.
“I believe you are a Writer, I have heard your name mentioned around this town a few times and have come to recognise you.” Mia continued. “And, I know you write short stories.”
“And flash fiction – and poetry, or free-verse.” I interrupted, just before depositing another mishmash of sausage, mushrooms and baked beans into my mouth.
“Yes, that too.” She said, with just a hint of a dismissive tone in her voice. “But I read some of your ‘OCD Stories’ recently. These interest me in particular, because you come across as rather OCD yourself, if you don’t mind me saying.” Still with a mouthful of food, I shrugged my shoulders a little, to indicate I didn’t mind her saying this and nodded my head to suggest agreement with her diagnosis.
“Well, me too. I am affected by Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder. Although I reject the term disorder, as I don’t recognise anything disorderly about the condition – it’s quite the reverse, don’t you think?” I could see her point.
“I see your point.” I told her, before bringing the gradually cooling cup of cappuccino to my lips to take a sip. My mind wandered for a few moments as I contemplated how well coffee mixes with both sweet and savoury flavours.
“So, Miss.” I said hesitantly, bringing the cup down harder onto the saucer than I had intended.
“Mia.”
“Miss Mia.”
No, I mean you can call me Mia.”
“Right,” I said, reading mild exasperation in her tone, “Mia, how does compulsive obsessive behaviour affect you?”
to be continued…

mon chapeau préféré

“I didn’t want to become one of those legions of old men looked upon affectionately, who wear the same hat for the last twenty-five years of their lives, it becoming ever more grimy and ragged by the year.” This, the opening statement by a stylishly dressed gentleman sat opposite me on the train to London today. In actuality, this is a translation of what he’d said, as the conversation directed my way had been entirely spoken in French. With a fair-to-middling grasp of the language, I found myself able to understand most of what I was hearing. With my replies spoken in English during our short exchange, it appeared he understood me too.
“Forgive me,” he said, laying his hand flat across his chest, “I saw you admiring my hat earlier.” He happened to be right, I had been admiring his hat. For me, it displayed all the qualities of magnificence. “Would you believe me, if I told you I came across this in a simple high-street clothes shop? When I tried it on in front of a full length mirror, it had felt like a coronation.” Providing a re-enactment of the scene, both raised arms descended slowly from above his head in synchronisation, while his hands and outstretched fingers encircled an imaginary crown. “Do you know the feeling Monsieur, when something  fits so wonderfully? Such great fortuity.” I slowly nodded my head in agreement and smiled.
“The problem is…” he paused and leant forward over the table separating us, “having found the perfect hat, what happens in three or four years time when it becomes worn out and unfit for use?” A good question posed, I thought. Having experienced this myself, I understood exactly the predicament. Images flashed through my mind, as I recalled the endurance required for those long and fruitless searches, the obsession of trying out new hats, only to discard them as unsatisfactory shortly afterwards. “Well, I found a solution my dear friend, the answer is to buy several copies of the same hat.” With a look of deep satisfaction upon his face, he stiffly reclined back into his seat.
“Of course what I could not do, I could not buy several identical hats all at once from the very same store. Would not the sales assistant think me mad, what do you say?” I scratched the short growth of beard under my chin and adopted a thoughtful expression. As a few minutes of empty silence passed inside the train carriage, he turned his gaze to outside the window. I tried to come up with something to say, but nothing came forth. So, I looked out across the rain-sodden fields we were being carried past and waited.
“No, it is unacceptable, I cannot have myself thought of as insane!” He said finally. “Instead, on the very same day of this purchase, I promptly returned home and visited the shop’s website. After trawling through numerous pages of little interest to me, I located the hat in the same style and colour and ordered five. All, of their available online stock.”
“Ah!” I said, changing my seated position slightly while raising my hand swiftly to form a hand-sign symbolising ‘perfection’.
“Now, with six hats in my possession, each having a life expectancy of four years with good care, this makes twenty-four years. Six hats should see me through until I am eating dandelions from the root up.” Surreptitiously, I studied the lines of wrinkles across his face and made a quick estimation of his age. Then, I added 24 and after several revisions to my final figure, I nodded my head in agreement once more.
“However, what if I were to lose a hat? Such an outcome would surely result in a period of being hatless. This, would also be unacceptable!” My eyes widened a little, as the thought struck me. Yes, of course, he was right! And, what if he lost one of them ten or twenty years from now? Surely, there would be no way to locate an exact matching replacement.
“This is why,” he said, while extracting a tiny piece of lint from the knee of his trousers by use of his thumb nail, “you meet me today, travelling on this train. I intend to visit a store they have in London, located on Oxford Street and buy one more hat, as an insurance policy.”
“Will you enter the shop with your hat on your head?” I asked him. He quickly made the connection I’d been considering.
“Ah, but no! The embarrassment!” Drawing an inward deep breath of contemplation, followed shortly afterwards by a slow exhalation, the answer suddenly came to him. His hand raised and a straightened index finger pointed up into the air. “I will enter the shop without my hat, having previously entrusted its safe-keeping to a nearby street vendor of newspapers, for an agreed sum.”
At this and with a smile upon his face, he closed his eyes, leaned back into his seat and drifted off into sleep. The remainder of the journey could be described at best as uneventful. The countryside views gave way to suburbia, which in turn blended into the greyness of the city. By the time we’d arrived at Paddington station, he had been snoring loudly for half an hour. As the brakes of the train engaged bringing us to a final stop at the platform, his head rolled forward gently and the hat slipped onto the floor of the carriage’s central aisle.
Instinctively, I reached down and retrieved it. It was a fine hat indeed and in wonderful condition. I held it between my hands turning it around several times to admire the design and workmanship, inside and out. My eyes flicked over to the French gentleman, who remained engaged in a deep, dream-ridden sleep. Triggered by the sound of a triple-snort of a snore and movement to re-position himself more comfortably, I whipped off my beige and white coloured Alabama baseball cap and silently placed it sideways onto his head.
I stared at him for several seconds, concluding that what sat before me was indeed, an incongruous match. Undeterred and without ceremony,  I slipped his hat on, rose from my seat and swiftly alighted from the train carriage.

cafe philosophy

“You’re a tall one!” The man said, catching my attention as I weaved my way through the crowded cafe dining area, busy with the lunch time rush hour. Acknowledging his comment, I smiled and sat down in a vacant seat at a small table next to his. Although struck by the broadness of his midriff, pronounced by the grubby tee-shirt stretched over his stomach, I noted he wasn’t so short himself. He beamed a smile over to me, before filling his mouth with a forkful of sausage and beans squashed together.
I made myself as comfortable as I could in a chair, which moved and creaked at each joint in the frame, challenged by my own eighty-two and a half kilograms. The queue at the front of the cafe extending from the service counter, had grown in the few minutes since my arrival. It’s August, the month when the locals who can afford to, move out as the visitors move in. I identified a high proportion of diners populating the cafe as tourists. While confounded in thought, wondering why they came here instead one of the popular high street establishments, my fellow diner delivered his second comment in my direction.  
“I’d kill myself if I was short.” A simple statement delivered with nonchalance, but not one I’d ever heard said before, word-for-word. 
“Really? You’d kill yourself?” I said.
“If I was short I would.” Without looking up from his plate, more English breakfast was eagerly consumed. “It’s the women, they all want a tall bloke, don’t they? Taller than themselves.” Juice from the baked beans ran down the knife he held and in a reflex action he licked his fingers, drying them on a tissue-paper serviette laid on the table next to his plate. He gave me another large smile. “It’s true, don’t you reckon? Just look around.”
“Why do you think that is?” I replied, undecided if I wanted responsibility for extending the conversation.
“Well…” leaning forward and lowering the volume of his voice a little, he said “It’s protection, they like to feel protected by their man.” His voice shrank to a whisper, “When I see a good-looking chap walking down the street who’s shorter than average, I think, poor bloke! He’s got it right in one department and badly wrong in the other.”
“But plenty of women are around five feet two, three, or four inches.” I said, feeling myself drawn deeper into an ill-prepared-for analysis. “A shortish man would still be taller than many women.”
Taking a break from his main task the man wiped his mouth using his forearm, finished chewing a mouthful of food, swallowed and hit a clenched fist hard against his chest releasing a loud belch.
“No, even small women want tall men, believe-you-me.”
The waitress arrived with my coffee, I thanked her, she gave a modest smile and returned to the kitchen. As she walked away, I estimated her as no more than five feet two inches.
Her man works here too,” my dining companion continued, “sometimes takes your order at the counter, other times brings out the food. He’s taller than either one of us. Short and tall goes together, proves it, see?”
With half-closed eyes and open hands held in a ‘voila!’ gesture, his look of satisfaction brought to mind a Disney character. I stirred the hot liquid inside my cup, forming a small maelstrom.

 

caught awkward

Sat in the cafe, after finishing a modest lunchtime breakfast of scrambled egg on fried bread, I rolled a cigarette, as is customary, to smoke on my way back to work. As I finished the task, an elderly white-haired man seated at the table next to mine leant forward, extending a shaking hand and placing considerable effort into straightening-out a stubbornly curled index finger to point in my direction. 
Earlier, I had observed him retrieve a folded newspaper, sliding it out from an aged and well-used plastic carrier bag, onto the table top in front of him. Unfolded, he’d proceeded to read, while eating a plain cheese sandwich, from which crumbs of bread dropped onto his knees.
“Young man,” he said in a voice as shaky as his hand, “here, in this country, it is unlawful to smoke inside a public space.” 

Having been mistaken as a visitor in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the smoking ban, I decided to playfully maintain his misimpression.
“Ah. Sankyou m’sieur, I am forgetting the rules, merci-beaucoup.” I replied, in a delicately understated accent. 
At this, the old man’s eyes sparkled. Caught in mid-action rising from the table, I felt his wobbly hand rest in the crook of my elbow, exerting a gentle – if uneven pressure, suggesting his desire for me to sit back down.
“Mon ami, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît. Je suis désolé, je voulais pas être désagréable. J’essayais seulement de vous aider.” 

His fluency took me by surprise and realising I must reply, I drew upon the little grasp of school-boy french I had.
“Oui, merci beaucoup, vraiment.”
“Asseyez-vous,  asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît.” he repeated, and from there, he began talking to me in perfect, beautifully pronounced french. With a prickly feeling on the back of my neck, I nodded periodically and interjected at various intervals.
“Oui, c’est vrai”, “Bien sûr que non!”, “Je suis totalement d’accord” and “Quand les poules auront des dents!”.

I’d understood about 20% of what he was saying and yet somehow managed to pull it off. By carefully watching the expressions on his face, I found myself making judgements regarding which phrase to use. If a look of surprise arose, I quickly said something like “Je rigole, c’est tout.” 
Monitoring the cafe wall clock, I knew I’d sat through twelve minutes filled by a somewhat one-sided conversation. When the old man reached a pause and sat back in his chair smiling at me, I quickly fumbled with the sleeve of my pullover to examine my wristwatch. Exclaiming some abstract french phrases about time and lateness, begging his pardon, I excused myself.
Offering gracious thanks for the chat, he bid me farewell. With aplomb, I took my leave, privately amazed and relieved to have got through and out the other side of the situation. What if we were both ‘irregular’ patrons of the cafe I wondered, would I be forced to continue with the charade if our visits coincided in the future?