Ask not for whom the App pings, it pings for you

Freedom Day
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July 19. Freedom Day. Mid-morning. I’m staring at our bedroom ceiling tracing the cracks in the plaster growing out from the overhead light like the emaciated arms of an octopus. I’ve been doing this for more than an hour, weighing up what to do with Freedom Day, Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s wonderful gift to the Nation.

I’m not keen on personal responsibility

I know I should be grateful Bojo has given me back the chance to exercise my personal responsibility, but I’m not feeling very boosterish yet. Perhaps it’s the thought that it’s going to cost hundreds of pounds to fix the maze of cracks on the ceiling that’s dampening my spirits or maybe it’s because I’ve got a love hate relationship with personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is OK when there’s an easy option to take but tricky when there isn’t, which is why I outsourced my Personal Responsibility to my wife years ago. She makes the decisions, I enjoy the benefits. It’s a similar arrangement to the Blind Trusts used by public figures to make money, while they pretend they don’t know they are making money.

Other than personal responsibility, what exactly it is de Pfeffel says I can do today that I couldn’t do yesterday?

I can go to a nightclub now

Well, I can go to a nightclub. But, so what? I haven’t been to a disco since I met my wife on a small wooden dance floor in a basement nightclub in Chelsea at the end of the Age of The Bachelor (circa 1690 AD) where I bamboozled her with my (then) flexible hips and a full head of hair. Unfortunately, I also perjured myself by swearing I ‘loved to dance’ and owned the complete works of Abba. Going to a nightclub now would only stir up memories for her which might trigger a psychotic episode or a call to the divorce lawyers. Besides, I’ve got a groin strain from playing bowls too vigorously last week and wouldn’t be able to do myself justify under the strobes.

What else does Freedom Day change?

‘You can order your drinks at the bar,’ a friend while sipping a hipster lager called something like ‘Thyroid Balm’.

Compulsory table service should stay forever

Is that freedom? Compulsory table service could be the greatest legacy of Lock Down and should remain on the statute books along with face masks in public spaces. My rationale?

First, ordering at the bar is lost drinking time. Table orders mean punters can focus on what they’re good at: drinking. Two, men make more trips to the bar than women. Compulsory table service evens up the booze ordering burden between the sexes. Three, ordering at the bar causes high blood pressure, especially among male Boomers, because bar staff prefer to serve young people rather than Boomers,  even if the Boomer has been standing at the bar since before breakfast and the young person has only just come into the pub. Keeping compulsory table service would reduce Ageism and the risk of strokes. Why can’t the Government see this?

I should be getting up, but my pyjamas whisper to me: ignore the siren calls of your shirts and shoes to get suited and booted. My duvet says: don’t rush away, it’s warm here. The pillow says: the pub won’t be open for another hour. I snuggle a little flatter onto the mattress.

I must get up before my wife sees me

My wife is coming up the stairs, her flips flops clapping like a teacher calling a class to attention. I must get out of bed before she sees me. I should be doing something which requires me to be vertical, not horizontal, but I’m not sure what. Maybe I’ve just got a guilty conscience?

Luckily, like all experienced husbands and good-for-nothings, I know how to look busy faster than Superman can change his suit. I swing my legs out of bed and, in a flash, I’m pretending to do yoga, standing upright by the bed with my arms and fingers stretching up to the ceiling in an approximation of the tree position.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Yoga,’ I say.

I breathe out, bring my palms together at my chest and whisper ‘namaste’ to her, bowing slightly.

‘Are you packed yet?’

Packed?

Oh, so that’s what what is Freedom Day for. I remember now. We’re off to Worcestershire for a holiday. Specifically, to stuff our faces in the eateries of Ludlow: ‘The Kettle & Limescale’; the infamous ‘Cream Crackered’, a novelty savoury biscuit shop, and the ‘French Lieutenant’s Pantry’, which is rumoured to be in the running for a Michelin star in 2035. My job was to packed my clothes for a noon departure.

Sometimes it’s no good pretending

‘I’ve sorted my holiday reading.’

I point to a pile of paperbacks on the bedside table. It’s a lame distraction strategy and she sees through it.‘They’ve been there for months. You haven’t done anything, have you?’

She looks me in the eye.

‘I don’t want a rerun of Menorca,’ she says, firmly.

‘Nobody wants another Menorca,’ I say, thinking of that blighted holiday and my role in it.

‘I could do with some help packing the car.’

‘Down in 15.’

‘Not in pyjamas.’

‘Battle fatigues, of course,’ I reply.

Why are we taking Worcester sauce to Worcestershire?

My son and daughter aren’t coming to Worcestershire. Despite that, the kitchen table is covered with cardboard boxes full of provisions. We’re taking enough to make a regiment of Doomsday Preppers happy to face the Apocalypse.  I’m worried this will mean too much cooking at the holiday home and not enough out and about in Ludlow and the local pubs. My wife is even taking a bottle of Worcester sauce.

‘Coals to Newcastle,’ I say holding up the bottle of Worcester sauce.

‘Eh?’ she says.

‘Surely, they have Worcester sauce in Worcestershire?’ I ask.

‘Don’t get smart, get packing,’ says my wife.

Is that the Boris Bounce?

After half an hour, the car is full. I’ve started to take responsibility. Not for much. But it’s a start. If I do the bulk of the driving, I may even recover the brownie points I lost lazing around this morning. Is that a little Boris Boost I can feel surging through me or just the thought of lunch?

I walk into the sitting room. My son is standing in the window.

‘You’re up early,’ I say.

‘Don’t come near me,’ he says sharply.

Now and again, he pretends he doesn’t like me. Sometimes, he really doesn’t like me. It’s a father and son thing. We both grit our teeth and hope it’ll pass.

‘Everything OK?’ I ask.

‘I’m positive,’ he says.

‘Great. Optimism is important at your age,’ I say. ‘What with Brexit, Covid and climate change there’s lots for young people to feel down about.’

‘No, you idiot. I’ve tested positive for covid.’

My wife is in the doorway of the kitchen.

‘We can’t go,’ she says. ‘I’ve checked the web site.’

‘But we’re double jabbed?’

‘Even so, we have to isolate for ten days.’

‘Even though it’s Freedom Day?’ I ask.

‘It’s our responsibility to others,’ says my wife. ‘Let’s get on with it.’

‘On with what?’

‘Unpacking the car and claiming on the holiday insurance I asked you to buy.’

Holiday insurance?

Oh cruel God of Holiday Catastrophes. It was my responsibility to buy holiday insurance exactly for this circumstance. I didn’t. It’s Menorca, all over again.

 

 

A version of this blog originally appeared in the chiswick calendar 

Father’s Day was a flop again

Father's Day was a flop again
Photo by Daniel Reche on Pexels.com

Father’s Day was a flop again this year. It took seven hours to drive down the creepy crawly Great British motorway to celebrate the day with my children who have been play acting at Californian beach bums in North Devon for the last week. Seven gear grinding hours at a cruising speed so imperceptible we could have got here quicker on the back of a Galapagos turtle. And what did I get as my Father’s Day present after all that effort?

A ladybird.

Not a Maserati or a hair transplant or a men-only weekend retreat for Boomers full of lectures from media types entitled: ‘Face Facts: Your Best Years are Behind You’; or ‘Managing Inter-Generational Conflict Without Alcohol’ or ‘One Pot Dishes for a Healthier Third Age Colon’.

All I got was a ladybird

No, nothing useful like that. Just a single, spotty ladybird. Not even a bloom of ladybirds (the collective noun for a group lady birds). Would it have harmed them to extend their student loans a few quid or to have broken open their childhood piggy banks to rustle me up a few extra insects?

It is clear they’ve been so busy this last week learning to body board and drink pre-mixed cocktails in the house’s hot tub that they’ve completely forgotten about me and their gifting obligations on the Day of the Patriarch.

I’m feeling a little hurt. In fact, the growing hole in my self-esteem would sink a battleship. But I can’t let my disappointment show. I’ve seen ‘King Lear’ and I know what happens to old men once they let their children get the upper hand. However, I’ve also learnt it’s the job of every father to live on the minimum of praise, like the kangaroo rat which survives in the Australian desert without water all its life.

But last year I got nothing

The fact they’ve remembered to buy me a present at all this year is an improvement on last year, when the only thing I got was the bill at the end of the slap-up lunch I booked for myself to mark the occasion.

I take a long look at the digital certificate from the Woodland Trust, which my daughter has posted in the family WhatsApp group. It’s has a ladybird on it and the words: ‘It’s a bug’s life’. Well, there’s no disputing that.

The family are waiting for me to say something about their gift. I decide to dissemble. I wobble my chin and blink rapidly, as if I’m about to cry.

‘This is a wonderful Father’s Day present,’ I say tremulously. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d have rather got for Father’s Day.’

‘Are you feeling OK?’ asks my son.

‘Your grandfather was an amateur lepidopterist. This present has stirred up memories of him. Forgive me for being so emotional. I’ll be alright in a minute.’

My father was a lepidopterist

I wobble my chin again. The children look at each other suspiciously. Usually, they can smell a kangaroo rat at twenty paces, but my chin twitching and broken voice has them bamboozled.

‘We knew you’d like it,’ says my daughter.

‘It was the ladybird or a drinks voucher,’ says my son.

My knees buckle and tears well up in my eyes. They’ve given me a digital certificate for a virtual ladybird instead of an actual voucher for real life booze. I’m flabbergasted. Have they learnt nothing about me in the last 20 years? What has their education been for?

‘Can I go see the ladybird?’ I ask my daughter.

‘No.’

‘Can I give it a name like a pet?’

‘Um, no.’

‘Will it send me a newsletter telling me how it’s getting on?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘So, it’s a present I can’t see, hear, touch, smell or form any emotional attachment to,’ I say.

‘Correct,’ she says.

‘It’s a virtual present,’ says my son.

‘You mean it doesn’t exist,’ I say.

‘Except for the certificate,’ says my daughter.

At least it the present has a zero-carbon footprint

‘On the upside, Dad, it has zero-carbon footprint. You’re an eco-hero,’ says my son.

‘You said you wanted to support the Woodland Trust,’ says my wife. She hasn’t fallen for the chin trembling and wants to end the discussion before things get serious and I say something dangerous to family unity. In short, the UN Family Peace Keeping Force has arrived.

‘How much was the drinks voucher for?’ I ask.

‘£20,’ says my son.

I sigh. That’s four bottles of beer or almost three glasses of decent French or Italians wine at the local bar.

My wife looks at me, a plea in her eyes. She’s saying: don’t make a mountain of out of this ladybird sized molehill. You could choose to see this as a sign that you are washed up beyond the high tide of their indifference. But don’t. It isn’t.

Father’s Day is a capitalist guilt trip

She’s right. I shouldn’t get wound up. After all, Father’s Day is nothing more than a marketing exercise to sell the recycled garbage left over from Mother’s Day, another of capitalism’s guilt trips. It doesn’t mean anything unless you let it. And I am old enough to know better. Or ought to be.

My wife suggests we have a drink to celebrate Father’s Day on the terrace. The kids start to chant ‘hot tub, hot tub, hot tub’.

‘Good idea,’ I say.

‘No skinny dipping, dad,’ says my son.

‘I’ll go get my trunks,’ I say.

I nip upstairs to our bedroom. There’s a half bottle of champagne in a cooler bag in the corner of the room. It’s still cool enough to drink. I take it into the bathroom and lock the door.

‘Will you be long?’ asks my wife from the stairway.

‘No, darling,’ I shout.

‘And we’re over the ladybird, right?’

‘Water off a duck’s back.’

‘See you in the hot tub,’ she says.

At my age everything sags

I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror, naked, except for my old Hawaiian swimming shorts. Everything is saggy and loose including the shorts. I wonder if a hot tub is an appropriate place for someone my age and physique anymore?

The muscles in my left foot are twitching incessantly. It’s the result of the 37,000 gear changes I’ve had to make on the seven-hour journey here. I wonder if ‘Smart Motorways’ will make things better?

‘Plantar fasciitis,’ I say to myself, diagnosing my twittering under sole muscles.

I need some Dutch courage to get into the hot tub. The whole half-bottle should do it. The only glass in the bathroom has toothbrushes in it and a smear of toothpaste congealed at its bottom. So, I peel off the foil and pop the cork.

‘Here’s to you, Grumpa,’ I say, raising the bottle to my lips. I wonder if I can drink it all in one go like I could in the good, old days.

 

This blog previously appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.

Wrapping a present for my son’s birthday

Wrapping a present for my son's birthday
Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

Slowly, Mother is folding tissue paper around a book which is lying on a small table between us, cover face down. She’s wrapping a present for my son’s birthday. She’s intensely lost in the task like a code breaker and hasn’t spoken to me for over ten minutes, which is five minutes longer than her previous lifetime personal best for ‘Not Saying Anything While Awake’.

Is she still alive?

Normally, I would have pulled the emergency cord hanging next to her bed if she had been speechless this long or, at least, put a mirror up to her mouth to check she was still breathing. Conversation is her life blood, its absence a bad sign like a poor pulse.

The last time she was speechless this long was when Chris Waddle smashed his penalty kick over the German goalpost in the 1990 World Cup semi-final and England sank into a peat bog of disappointed pride. That night, she got up from the sofa and wrote Waddle a consoling letter, reminding him that every young life has its setbacks and it is how you recover from them that really counts. In return, she received a signed photo of him with his signature strung out like a necklace below his mullet haircut. She never watched England played football again.

Faced with a silent room, Mother would always say something to kindle the conversation. Silence was a void she needed to fill. My brother and I used to joke that ‘At home, Silence never gets a word in edgeways.’ It was our parody of the strapline to the movie Alien: ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream.’

She can’t chat and wrap anymore

How things change.

The task of wrapping presents for her beloved grandson is eating up more of the processing power in her brain than it would have before. She can’t chat and wrap. Her fragile fingers no longer have the power or precision they once did in those long-gone days when all our birthday presents came with knotted bows and were wrapped in paper as neat and pressed as the doorman at the Ritz.

How long will this take?

Mother has folded half of the sheet of paper over the book. Her left palm is pressing on the book holding the paper down. The midnight blue veins on the back of her hand throb like a river running through a ravine. She picks up the other edge of the wrapping paper and with her righthand folds it over the book which bring her right hand and left hand together, the craggy knuckles of her index fingers adjacent, like two peaks in a mountain range. Both her hands rest on top of the book.

‘Quick. Sellotape,’ she says without lifting her head.

I am opposite her with uneven strips of sellotape hanging off my fingers like translucent biltong. I’ve been poised waiting for this moment for a while. But, right now, with both her hands pressed down on the book the only thing I can Sellotape are her hands. The book and the polka dot tissue paper are inaccessible below her palms.

‘You need to move your hands,’ I say.

‘But the wrapping paper will fold away,’ she replies.

‘Not if you’re quick,’ I say.

‘I don’t do quick anymore,’ she says, hands still pressing down on the book.

‘This is what they call a Catch 22 situation,’ I say.

‘You never were a very practical boy,’ says Mother with the faintest rock of her head.

I hear my wife and children giggling gently somewhere.

‘It’s your hands that are the problem,’ I say.

I’m becoming absurd

Mother looks at me. Her look says I’m as absurd as a Gordon Ramsey quiz show.

‘I can’t lean on this book forever, you know,’ she says.

‘It won’t kill you to hold on for a while,’ I say, playing for time. What would Bear Grylls do in this situation?

‘I wouldn’t bet on it,’ she says.

There’s only one way out of this cul-de-sac.

‘We need to start again,’ I say.

‘I can’t possibly do all that paper folding again,’ she replies.

‘How about you sign his birthday card and I finish the wrapping at home, later,’ I say.

‘Deal,’ she says.

She leans back and the tissue paper folds away from the book very slowly. If I had been quick, I could have sellotaped the paper down. Mother was right.

‘Tea?’ she asks.

‘Why not.’

I get up to go to the nursing station to order a cuppa and make a note to tell my children never to waste my time or theirs by asking me to wrap up my grandchildren’s birthday presents once I get to 70. After all, it’s the thought that counts, not the wrapping paper.

A version of this blog appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.

 

Escape to the country? Why Not?

Escape to the country?
Photo by Gianluca Grisenti on Pexels.com

As a child, I hated watching ‘Last of the Summer’s Wine’, the BBC sitcom about old men with nothing much to do with their lives but fool around. Now, I’m living it.

Once upon a time, I pitied Compo, the clownish one of the trio. Wrapped in tweed and a cloth cap, his relentless joie de vivre was as tedious as a recurring hernia.

Now, I wish Compo was here with me on this pub balcony overlooking the Thames, with the other old toads who pass for friends, musing away this sunny afternoon.

The party is flagging

This party needs pumping and Compo might have provided the spark to get it going. We’ve been sitting around for half an hour and barely a word has passed between us, let alone anything jovial or stimulating. It’s like an induction meeting for Trappist monks. Everyone’s  left their gags in a locker outside.

‘Too old to rock and roll, too young to die,’ one of my mates whispers into the froth of his pint glass.

‘Chin up,’ I say.

He lifts his eyes, smiles and says nothing.

‘Anyone got any good jokes,’ I ask.

‘Yes. Coventry’s the new capital of culture,’ says someone.

It’s five years since Mischief Club launched

This august body of ancient mariners and Compo look-a-likes is what my children would call ‘a friendship group.’

We call ourselves ‘Mischief Club’.

The name is a self-conscious, ironic joke, of course. The most mischievous thing we’ve done in the five years since we incorporated was to return a corked bottle of wine to a snotty sommelier.

If we valued accuracy, we would rename ourselves ‘The Dull Men’s Club’. Or disband.  We’re so wet we could extinguish the flame of fun at the Hell Fire Club’s Christmas bash.

‘Got stuck next to two Covid-Idiots on the train here. They spent the entire journey without a mask sitting next to a sign saying: ‘Wear a mask.’ Moaned on and on and on out loud about their human rights being infringed,’ says one of the group.

‘U-Kippers?’

‘Millennials,’ he replies.

Dr Frankenstein comes to our rescue

A fizz of energy passes through the assembled members of Mischief Club as if Doctor Frankenstein had plugged us directly into the mains. Nothing is guaranteed to reanimate the lifeless conversation of a group of bored Boomers faster than the chance to whinge about Millennials or the young, generally. Mischief Club is no exception.

‘Wouldn’t know their Human Rights if they bit them in the arse,’ says someone.

‘Exactly,’ says another, with the triumphant air of a barrister concluding a case which he thinks is a slam dunk guilty verdict.

Excited by the positive reaction to his train story, our storyteller puffs on.

‘One was a dead-eyed, man child of about 18 with a scar on his cheek. The other a girl in a fake tan and furs. About the same age. Thick. Entitled. Ghastly.’

‘Just wanted to provoke you. Age Baiters.’

‘Did you report them to the ticket inspector?’

‘There wasn’t one,’ says our storyteller.

‘Typical,’ sighs everyone simultaneously.  It’s like the sound of a thousand shawls being wrapped around a thousand old shoulders.

‘My father didn’t fight in the War so the young could travel on trains in fake tans and furs,’ I say.

The conversation halts. A few heads shake.

‘Is that your idea of a joke?’ asks someone.

‘We’d just got up a head of steam,’ says another. ‘Now you’ve ruined it.’

‘Sorry,’ I say.

The river flows past

A man in a motorboat with a megaphone shouts at a rowing eight who have fluffed their stroke. I feel their pain.

At the beginning, we had high aspirations for Mischief Club. It wasn’t just an excuse to meet pals for a boozy lunch. Oh, no. It was going to be a place to foster fellowship among a band of friends as they trekked into the Third Age. We modelled ourselves on the USS Enterprise. Our aim was to  boldly go where old men had never gone before.  To seek out new civilisations, culture and cuisine (as long as it was inside the Circle Line and we could be home before Rush Hour).

In the early days, we travelled to faraway places like Shoreditch to marvel at Hipsters sipping macchiatos faultlessly through their perfectly trimmed beards and drank ourselves politely cock eyed with gin and tonics on the early morning Uber boat to Greenwich. We were like the Fellowship of the Rings only armed with Museum cards not swords.

‘We used to go to a gallery before we started drinking,’ says one Mischief Club member. ‘Now we barely even drink.’

‘We used to have £300 in the club kitty. But he blew it all on a duff tip at Newmarket,’ says another pointing at the club’s self-appointed Treasurer and Chief Investment Officer.

Mischief Club is in danger of turning into a Salem Witch trial.

Silence descends as beer tilts slowly down flaccid necks.

One of us is escaping to the country

‘Have I told you I’m going to be on ‘Escape to the Country’,’ says one of the group.

‘The TV series?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘Where are you escaping to?’ I ask.

‘Scotland.’

‘I don’t advise that. Don’t like the English. Worse diet in Europe.’

‘Nonsense,’ says the putative escapee. ‘Friendly people. Beautiful countryside. Not like this.’

He points at the brown sludge passing for a river below the pub balcony and the overbuilt riverside next to us. Car horns bleat in the street.

Escape to the country?

Escape to the country. Four words which summarise the desire nestling in the collective unconscious of so many Londoners. So many, in their night sweats, longing to become Sarah Beeny or Jeremy Clarkson. So many, who have nothing left in their lives but to dream of striding around a newly acquired country estate shouting at their newly acquired estate manager: ‘Buy more owls for the barns’ and ‘Rewild everything before the weekend.’

Is Scotland a good place to retire to?

Escape to the Cotswolds or Cornwall. That makes sense. But escape to Scotland? That’s a different country (even if the Government wants to stop us saying so).

This member of Mischief Club has been a Londoner all his life. Will he understand a word they say to him? What happens if Scottish independence happens? Will he start wearing kilts? This is a lot of unknowns to take on so late in life. Compo would never be so radical.

‘Tired of London, tired of life,’ says someone.

‘Nonsense. I’ve got my eyes on a trout farm with 10 acres and still have money left over to pickle my liver.’

Ten acres and a lake full of trout? Plus money over for pickling your entrails? Hmm. The cogs inside the greying minds of Mischief Club’s membership turn this over silently.

A young waitress hovers at the edge of our table with menus. She’s hesitant to interrupt. Perhaps she’s shy? Or, perhaps, she’s never seen so many dinosaurs gathered together in one place, except the Natural History Museum, and is worried we might bite.

 

A version of this blog appeared in the Chiswick Calendar