2 June 2010

Found on a city bus: a student newspaper from one of the universities in town. In protest at a poorly-organised meeting of the Students’ Union, the editors have printed the front page upside down.

I have to turn it over several times before I realise what they’ve done. (Like that joke about the idiot: ‘What does it take to keep an idiot in suspense?’)

This is the second found thing that’s made me doubt my sanity this week.



6 May 2010

Day gives evening a proper hand-off in Southampton, in the quadrant between the new-builds and the hospital. The last workers and a few students are going home; most of the students, and some different workers, going out. Responsibility passes its time-sheet to abandon. Abandon shrugs, says, ‘Ah, what are you going to do?’ to no-one in particular, and leaves it on the back seat of the taxi.

It’s my turn not to leave work until the change of shifts outside (damn proofs; damn index; damn, damn, damn distracting call from a jobsworth at my bank). As I cross the road, a pick-up truck looms up, with spotlights hanging from its roof-rack. A girl dressed for clubbing leans out of the window and shouts, ‘Wooh!’

The pick-up truck is longer than it should be. It’s a pick-up truck front, extruded into a limousine. Is that actually a Hummer? Bloody hell.

That’s one more thing I’m never going to do, I think to myself, start a night out in a big pick-up limo. There’s a Marianne Faithfull song about a housewife who throws herself off a rooftop because she’s never driven through Paris in a white sports car. I cried when I first heard it because I thought it was about Diana. (I was already a student. I blame changing my Pill.) Of course, I’m not a housewife, and I’m not planning to throw myself off anything.

In fact, I won’t be that unhappy if I never have to ride around in one of those.

Town quay

23 April 2010

Once, Spanish holidays all finished in Southampton. This week, a new cruise liner put aside its maiden sailing to collect two thousand package holiday customers from southern Spain, and now forty coaches are waiting at the docks to take the passengers back up the spine of England.

According to the BBC, that is. I wouldn’t know. Unless the coaches all rumble down the main A road in convoy while I’m trying to go to sleep, which is always possible in this little quadrant of the city.

I wouldn’t know because Southampton makes nothing of the docks. No shipbuilding, no ancillary light industries, no work, just lots of flat land inviting shopping centres, multiplexes, luxury flats. The image of urban regeneration through the docks had to go through several reflections before it could finish bouncing from Olympic Barcelona over here. Cut corners, sheared-off floor plans, walls like the sides of the containers we don’t stack any more. Out we spread to east and west and north, encroaching into the New Forest and tangling our outer limits up with Portsmouth.

There’s a full-size railway station, ironwork roof, the lot, where the early tourists would have disembarked, last stop for the pier. A single railway track leads seaward through a padlocked gate. I don’t even know how it connects with the real rail network into town. Crowds don’t go to wave their relatives ashore. There isn’t anywhere to stand. Some weekends, when the banks are off their game, there isn’t even anywhere to pick up euros on a Saturday. ‘This is one of the biggest port cities in the UK,’ I grumbled to the woman in the bank. She told me to come back during the working week.

Shouldn’t we be remembering how to do this port stuff, in case we really have to do it again, some day?


17 April 2010

I might as well. Everybody else is. And I was on the wrong side of it until about twelve hours ago.

Well, not on the wrong side, technically. That would have put me 40,000 feet up in the air, and then we’d be talking about more problems. All I really was was somewhere my home isn’t.

‘Was’, because either the things I read and write or the work I do, or both, leave me thinking things like ‘Act at the first sign of trouble’, not to mention ‘Volcanoes don’t stop erupting in six hours.’ I hate to go somewhere without knowing at least two ways back, and most of the time I end up feeling silly. (Ever since the flu scare, my kitchen cupboard has been full of tins.)

I still write worlds where something like this always happens. Being single, solvent, non-visa-dependent and reluctantly cat-free, disruption isn’t really that upsetting. (I didn’t used to think that. I think more like a protagonist since I started to create some.) The sense of What if things didn’t go back to normal after all, and nobody thought it was remarkable?, maybe. An extra night in a big city with a hotel room booked, not so much.

I still dreamed about trains. Not unconsciously, like the kind of dreams I had for days after reading Paul Cornell’s novel about a civil war in Britain, and then I dreamed I had to promote a concert full of soldiers, and then there was a wedding in a two-up two-down house, and then a famous novelist arrived to make the seating plan. Not dreams like that. I dozed off thinking about European trains, my schoolfriends in a three-person couchette laughing at petty gossip into the night, painting my fingernails for me with a glaze I chipped off day by day until we finally flew home, and me wishing somebody mature would knock on the compartment door just to tell us how petty we all were. Now I’m that age, and maybe about to travel a lot more on European trains, and I’m nowhere near as mature as I thought somebody that age would be.

I still think I’d rather leave my characters to go twitching at the curtain on their own.

Anyone for tennis?

7 April 2010

The road to work has little trace of how Southampton used to live before the War. The German air force flattened half the street; estate agents and pubcos accounted for the rest. One solid brick building still held out for the days when advertisements just told not sold, with a ground floor like all the rest but an original twenties or thirties sign in its blocked-up corner window on the first floor: Tooley’s for Tennis!

They must have listed it, I thought when I moved here: no other way it could have stayed there for so long, with its crumbling lettering painted in green and cream.

Mr Tooley was proud of the shop he kept, you could tell. The doorbell rang all summer while he re-strung racquets. For three years in the 1930s, he moved the household radio downstairs by the counter, not to miss a second of Fred Perry’s games. Young Jimmy or Bobby or Arthur Tooley, eldest son, made someone else’s father glad the day he nervously approached him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. They went through the same sadnesses as all our English families: strikes, sickness, war. When Tooley had to close the shop, the new owners kept the sign, of course.

I know nothing about the Tooleys. But, if that isn’t the story, then there’s something like it.

Today, I saw that Tooley’s for Tennis! has gone. An IT company has its logo there instead, in shiny black and lime. The sign calls it ‘a full service digital agency, driven by a furious love of all things digital.’ And, obviously, of absolutely nothing bloody else.

So now nobody is for tennis any more.

Newcastle, a few weeks ago: I’d been up since four, so that I could fly up from Hampshire to an event. The closest metro station to my hotel is bookended has Italian delis, posh breakfast caf├ęs, dress agencies all along the nearest terrace. Trust my homing instinct to drop me straight in yummy mummy land.

Opposite the dress agency a puffy car pulls out of a side road while I’m crossing. The back bumper slides right up to my shins. I swivel round and try to make out the driver. This calls for eye contact: …and take your Boden catalogue with you or Ehhh, at least you weren’t accelerating towards me, that’s happened before! ?

I incline to something closer to the second and carry on.

Past the T-junction, the driver runs up to me from behind, in tears. I don’t recognise her with her glasses off. ‘I could have run you over,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry.’

She keeps on saying it. I realise: I don’t know who you are, but today is when your story happens. You’ve just had the phone call or the letter, or you’ve found the evidence, now your plot begins. Before you know it you’ll be off on the attack and you’ll become the hero. I’m just that little incident that shows your state of mind.

Instinct tells me she needs some human comfort. It must be the quiver in her voice, more than the tears. I amaze myself: most of the time I’m reserved to the point of shyness, but I touch her shoulder through her woollen coat and speak the password of the concerned bystander: ‘Are you all right?’ And ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’

Am I going to have a broken wife and mother on my hands, in a suburb of Newcastle where I know nobody?

She doesn’t want a cup of tea. She isn’t all right either, but I let it go. I tell her to take care, and I carry on. I don’t say: please go and have a sit down before you do anything else.

I can’t say: I wish I could just find out how it ends.

The hooded man

29 March 2010

It’s raining so hard that the main road out to London is covered in standing water. Even more reason than usual to stand back from the bus stop when the car transporters rumble past.

A man in a green hooded raincoat climbs on to the bus, carrying a pole with plastic bags wrapped around the point. A harpoon? A set of golf clubs? Part of a bike?

Some filed-down version of a scythe?

At least, since the clocks went forward yesterday, I didn’t have to meet him in the dark.