The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Working class germs

Passengers are requested not to speak to or obscure the driver’s vision whilst the vehicle is in motion.

This sign is near the driver’s seat on London buses.  We know what the author intended, and the formal style, motion, whilst, obscureare requested, reminds us to respect the message.  The bus company means what it says.  Well, almost.  Speak to the driver’s vision.  Some people might be able to.  It's a bit spooky, though, for the average bus.

I wonder what the company would say if I rang their helpline to point out the mistake in grammar.     

Sometimes we know what we’re doing is wrong, or stupid, but we keep doing it anyway. When I travel around London, I play word games in my head.  I start with a railway station, take the short ride, say, from Liverpool Street to St Pancreas, then move on by tube and bus to Cockfisters or Dickhead.  You can probably think up better ones.  

I got this letter from Adelaide, South Australia, from the cultured eastern suburbs.

One of the concreters has flu, according to him.  It's probably just a heavy cold, but either way we don't want to catch anything, so I had the dilemma of flu germs on the coffee mug after he'd had the coffee I made him. My husband wisely suggested finding an old mug, then throwing it away afterwards, because I didn't want it germing up the kitchen sink.  This was fine until they had to finish early and come back today, meaning another cup of coffee would need to be offered and I can't keep throwing away mugs.  I had to clean it somehow, so I stood it in the laundry trough with a little squirt of dishwashing liquid and poured boiling water all over it.  One cannot be too careful.  I dried it with a paper towel and now it's ready for his next cup of coffee on Monday.  The irony is, of course, that this cup of uncleanliness and germs is probably much cleaner now than my daily cups and dishes washed all together in the kitchen sink.

I like the scepticism, the nervous energy, the shared commitment, the regard for duty, the thrift, the creativity, and the meticulous care.  The sense of irony. 

I like the workman.  He didn’t ask if the mug was clean.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Bike sex

Seven years ago, a man in Scotland was caught having sex with a bicycle.  I missed it somehow.  It’s not a piece of news you’d forget.  A few days ago, the story popped up again on the BBC website, in the ‘most read’ section.  Thanks to the internet and our fascination with sexual content, the world is going to laugh at him forever.  Flogging a dead bike.

Most of us have experimented sexually.  Positions, people, places.  Some of us do it with animals, or corpses.  One of us, at least, with a bicycle.  But we are usually more careful, or luckier, than our Scottish friend.  Think back.  The last time you locked your bedroom door, then did something wicked, were sturdy women with mops in their hands waiting outside?

He lived in a hostel.  He must have thought he was safe in his own room, with his own bicycle.  He wasn’t outside the local school, or carrying it on the train.  (At peak times, only folded – Kama Sutra.)  It was right between his legs when the cleaners walked in.  They said they knocked.  Two ladies.  That was bad luck.  Men might have blinked.  And how many cleaners do you need for a single room? Two, obviously.  More bad luck, but convenient for the magistrate.  Two against one.  Our friend couldn’t deny it.

The BBC said he was “caught trying to have sex with his bicycle.”  He was charged with “simulating sex,” found guilty and sentenced to three months on probation.  I expect he was moving his hips in a certain way, like a bicycle pump, at the rear of the machine.   Three months’ probation for simulating sex.   What if he’d really done it?  What if he’d screwed the bells off his beloved bicycle?  They would have thrown away the key. 

For some men, a car is like a girlfriend, one you can’t get into the bedroom.  Our friend, Biceps Femoris, loved a bicycle, and he got it into his room.  He deserves a medal, or a yellow jersey.  Recently, young men in tight pants humped their two-wheelers around the English countryside.  People watched and cheered.  Women were among the crowd.  Some of them were probably cleaning ladies.  The police did nothing. 

Le Tour de France.  Apt name for an event on this side of the Channel. 

I said magistrate, but they’re not magistrates up there, are they?  They’re sheriffs.  Like Tombstone or Nottingham.  The Sheriff of Ayr proclaimed: “In almost four decades in the law I thought I had come across every perversion known to mankind, but this is a new one on me. I have never heard of a ‘cycle-sexualist.'" 

Neither have I.  Sexualist.  That’s a word in Scotland.

In the BBC report, there’s a picture of a bicycle chained to a fence.  These days, in England, at least, victims are treated with more compassion.  They are not arrested, let alone chained.  A bicycle can’t defend itself.  Its very structure invites abuse.  It is made to ride.  Town bicycle – you know what that means.  Although we are not told the gender of this machine, a barrister could twist things around to show that she brought it on herself.  As for the Sheriff, a male bike would provoke him even more, and what if it was only a few years old?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The sideways heart

Last week, one lunchtime, Varahna the piranha came to visit.  I heard somebody call her that once. She's in Year 2.  I was in Year 5.  The rooms are side by side.  I hadn’t seen her for a while. 

“You taught us about a rat.” 

I did.  It was actually a bilby, but it looked like a rat.  We called it Bob, Bob the bilby.  It wasn’t in the lesson plan.  I was pleased that she remembered.  While we chatted, Varahna drew some pictures on the whiteboard.  Then she went out to play. 

At the end of lunch, the children lined up in the yard.  Some Year 5 girls ran over to me with the latest tale.  “Varahna said, ‘I want to kiss Mr Spaid, and marry him, and live with him, and have babies with him.’”

I smiled and said that Varahna was a sweet girl.  They looked surprised.

“Do you want me to be angry with her?”  Then I thought to add: “It was a bit inappropriate.”  The girls still looked doubtful.

Back in the classroom, someone saw a drawing on the board, done with black pen in the bottom, right-hand corner.  Varahna had rubbed off most of what she'd drawn, except for one, little heart.  She told me to leave it there.  It was on its side, the pointy bottom facing right, as if it was lying down.  The Year 5s recognised it. 

“Varahna did that.” 

“How do you know?” 

“She does hearts like that.”

It wasn’t her first heart.  It got rubbed off later, but I didn’t do it.  Be careful with your little hearts.

          On Monday, at the girls’ school, we watched Of Mice and Men.  Year 10 after lunch.  Videos are helpful at the end of summer term.  All the copies of the book were shut and stacked on the teacher’s desk.  It was dark and warm inside the room.  Heavy curtains kept out the sun, but swelled from time to time with a gust of air.  We came to the part when Lennie kills Curley’s wife.  She tells him to touch her hair.  He's about to touch it.  You know he’s going to.  A couple of girls called out instinctively, “Don’t do it!”

“It’s too late, girls,” I intoned.  “There’s nothing you can do about it.  Destiny will take its course.”

The class exploded.  Then he killed her, and the bird flapped violently inside the barn.  I didn’t find much sympathy among the girls, not for Curley’s wife.  She was a slut, a man-eater who had it coming.

“You girls are hard-hearted.”

“Do you feel sorry for her?” someone asked, surprised.

“I feel sorry for everyone.”

The book is off the curriculum next year.  It won't be studied anymore.  A girl mentioned it in class.  I waited for the cheers, but none came.

I’ll remember that lesson.  And the lunch hour last week.  The sideways heart.  I’ll remember Varahna the piranha.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The importance of staying on green

When I was at school, there was a boy named Birdseye.  Our teacher called him Bird’s beak, Birdbrain, and so on.  I thought it was funny.  My name wasn’t Birdseye.  Or Wurm.  Sir called him Grub.   He didn’t connect the two, bird and grub.  These days, insults only come from little beaks.  Teachers get the sack. 

Home time.  I slipped out of the girls’ school and reached the bus stop, safe back in the adult world.  You’d think.  A group of girls had come through the gate behind me.  When they saw me at the bus stop, they chorused “Hallo, sir,” suggestively, the way that only teenage girls can do, but everybody understands.

“Hey, hey, hey,” said the man next to me.  He didn’t have to say it so loud.  “Male teacher at a girls’ school.  He must be gay.”

    Chigwell Row
            Move on.  I made it to Hainault.  It’s an outer London suburb.  I got off the train and walked towards the bus stop for Chigwell Row, which is up the hill, where it’s green, and there are lots of trees, with a church on top.  I don’t live there.  I was helping a wealthy Russian with her English. 

The bus stop is next to the station.  I was almost there when a man dropped his bag on the footpath in front of me.

“Can you pick it up for me, please?” 

It wasn’t pretty please.  I looked at him.  He was about my age.  He wasn’t drunk.  When I didn’t bend down straightaway, he carried on speaking, like someone who needed to finish a script.  But his tone was harder.

“I asked you to pick it up for me.” 

“I thought you dropped it on purpose.”

“Fuck off!”

He walked on, I walked on, we continued with our afternoon.  I wonder how long he’s been doing that, in Hainault of all places, and how he hasn’t been stabbed to death. 

It was very hot, a nice day for the beach.  I’d just got sand in the face.   The road outside Hainault station doesn’t look much like a beach, except for the litter and the bare-chested youths.  I don’t remember if Hainault made the news during the riots.  It doesn’t mean there weren’t any riots.  The youths of Hainault may have intended to riot, perhaps some of them even thought they were rioting, but people didn’t notice any difference, and it wasn’t reported.

          A child’s mother once called me a wanker.  Parents, like children, can say things teachers can’t.  In some schools you can’t even discipline the children.  I mean you’re not allowed to.  I was sent to a primary school in Hackney.  It’s London’s Wild East.  The deputy head explained their ‘traffic light’ system.  A lot of schools have it.  All the children start on green.  If they’re bad, their names are moved to yellow.  If they’re bad again, their names are moved to red.  She emphasised the importance of staying on green.  I thought she might have told the children that, not me.  The class teacher said the children never stopped talking.  I thought she might have told the children that, not me.  

           She came in later while I was teaching.  The children were completely quiet.  She was amazed.  Then she saw the traffic lights.  A lot of names on yellow and red.  She was horrified.  I was thrown out before lunch.