Back to our roots (Part four)
I don't know much about cars but I have discovered that there are a myriad of automotive acronyms. For example, MDPV (medium duty passenger vehicle) which may have gHCCI (gasoline homogeneous charge compression ignition) – neither of which I have.
What I do have is an auto, FWD, PAS, SSW, TP, KOW (automatic, front-wheel drive, power assisted steering, single steering wheel, twin pedal, knackered old wreck – with AC that doesn't work).
Basically it can all be nut-shelled into my SUV - Scabby, Uninspiring Vauxhall.
I regularly drive it to the builders merchants. It's a round trip of about six miles. Outbound I'm empty and my vehicle is skittish. It performs like a featherweight ballerina, dancing from pothole to pothole. On the return trip I'm usually laden, sometimes heavily, with timber, cement and plasterboard which make my dear old motor's undercarriage groan. These materials are required to make a hash of my latest project. Actually the outbound trip is not always empty because I take a diversion to the local tip. More often than not I'm bearing the fruits of my most recent cock-up depositing low-mileage raw materials in a large bin, materials that frankly deserved a better fate.
Anyhow, this is not wholly about my shortcomings, it's partly a reflection on what's going on in the world's sub-conscious. As we drive from A to B (sometimes via A(i) due to roadworks or a dead end due to a sat-nav irregularity) we are cocooned in our vehicles, in a safe, soundproofed haven, isolated from reality, oblivious to the ire and angst of the world-weary beyond our isolated luxury. To be honest you can't really term my SUV experience luxury travel, unless you compare it to the lass I've just struggled to overtake. She's battling along in the drizzle on her fixed-gear bike.
But let's pause for a moment to think about what's going on outside? What if we could read people's thoughts? If we could see speech bubbles showing us what is going on in others' minds we might be more empathetic - to the cycling lass for example thinking, 'what have I done to deserve this?', who's furious demeanour is rotten preparation for her working day ahead, particularly if her job means she has to smile and grovel for eight hours. The world around us must be full of thoughts, a miasma of random ideas, wasted and unfulfilled as they drift away into the damp Pennine morning, leeching into the air like smoke from a damp bonfire.
Those less fortunate than me (and there are not many) watch as I glide by in my SUV. Back in the mists of time Prometheus was probably full of optimism when he created mankind, generously donating the fire he stole from Mount Olympus to help us on our way. Has evolution gone quite the way he anticipated during the intervening aeons? Not sure, but quite what he would have made of the bloke at the bus stop peering out from the depths of a menacing white smog is anyone's guess. It's actually the exhaust from his vaping machine (to which he's taken in an effort to get fit). He glares at me with snakey, steam-filled eyes and I know what he'll be thinking, 'lucky bastard. There he goes, lording it in his fancy motor, nose in the air. Hope you break down you prick, then we'll see just how smug you are.' He's actually still in the same bus stop an hour later when I return. Either that particular bus route has been discontinued or he is so well hidden in his cloud that the bus driver failed to spot him.
And he's wrong. My nose is in the air because I have to peer over a parabolic windscreen smear where a bluebottle got mashed under the windscreen wiper. Meanwhile I'm being overtaken by one of those annoying plonkers in an 'on the drip' 4 x 4, 'I'll just piss everybody off', as he sneaks down the outside lane hoping to make up a couple of car lengths on the two-hundred yard school run. I have my own thoughts. Less well versed in the English language than bus-stop man, my thought is singular and frankly unprintable.
I need fuel. The lady in the petrol station is politeness personified. (Petrol note, not diesel, mine is an environmentally neutral SUV.) Poor lady hasn't got time to think due to the never-ending stream of vehicles pulling in out of the permanent traffic jam. Smiling (or at least appearing to be pleasant) is a skill that must be conquered by those in service jobs. Frustrated as she may be by the repetitive nature of her work she shows remarkable self control. People are impatient these days and always appear desperate to re-join life's traffic jam after topping up. Customers' impatience is reflected in stilted conversation ending, with luck, with a terse thank you. But the lady in the petrol station has to treat everyone with equal respect - which must be a real test at times. It takes seventeen muscles to form a smile but only three or four to thump someone in the face, so she shows great restraint.
I always try and make a conscious effort to be pleasant, try and spark up a conversation, however brief. My efforts don't always break the ice. I asked a chap in the DIY the other day what measures he was taking to treat his facial spots. An innocent enough question you would have thought which didn't deserve the side-of-the-mouth mutterings I received in response. People rarely have much time to chat these days unless they're selling you something. I'd only asked because I have developed psoriasis. This a new one for me adding to the growing list of late-middle-age irregularities. Blotchy, flakey stuff suddenly erupted on my face and forehead. I put it down to stress and too little red wine, one of which I can address forthwith. The doc was less sure and prescribed me something that would get me a ban if I was an elite athlete. I'm going to persist with the wine in case the doc is mistaken. She likely though that I treated my body less as a temple than a sewage farm.
I pass a lollipop lady and a chap on a ride-on mower trimming the grass on the central reservation. Lollipop lady probably wondering 'what turns her life has taken to find her shepherding kids across a road looking like someone from a 1960s Watch with Mother programme', he wondering where he can 'have a poo without attracting the interest of passing motorists'. Both wear yellow uniforms. Actually 'uniforms' is pushing it a bit, outfits more like, but both are taking their life in their hands working so close to us motorists. They are high-vis but it only takes one twat on a mobile phone to cause carnage. It's dangerous work despite the fact they both have weapons. One a threatening lollipop, the other a chopper with which to relieve you of your feet - but they are both doing their best for all of us.
Closing in on my goal I get held up by a bin wagon. They are emptying blue ones today, relieving us of our surplus cardboard which will be burned to keep the council offices at a pleasant seventy degrees. The operatives also wear yellow, public servant yellow. Sure, they are all highly visible, but the local council is highlighting where our tax pounds are being spent, they are the council's public face. Because they stand out it feels as if there are more of them than there actually are. In fact, the remaining 99.9% of council employees, the ones who collect the taxes or refuse planning permissions or design automated telephone systems to tell us the library has closed, all wear mufti. The invisible hoard, hidden behind smoked glass and discontinued phone lines. The freedom of information act doesn't seem to apply to council hot lines.
As I head into town I pass through a predominantly Asian area where thoughts and cultures collide. I've seen an extraordinary change during my lifetime. There are no-go areas, not because of danger but because there seems to be little common ground between the incomers and indigenous. I'm not referring to fanatics here, there are fanatics in every culture, no, I'm talking about ordinary everyday folk who just want to live. The problem is that there are so many different backgrounds, histories and cultures that there just doesn't seem to be enough common ground. Things seem to be getting more disparate.
The overwhelming majority of people of every creed and colour are decent. Filth and murder lurk in dark corners, corners where mercifully most of us don't tread. But when sexual predation or wanton violence surfaces it does so in such a blaze of publicity that we want to tar a whole race with the same brush. Mass retaliation, whether by word or deed, is unfair and not the answer, much as we want to lash out and gain disproportionate revenge. I see Asian kids on their way to school smiling and skipping, innocent youngsters who I sincerely hope avoid the clutches of mind-altering lunatics who live by a creed formed from a few ill-chosen verses of a religious text. Seeing the innocence in a child's eyes is one of the great joys. It's only when we adults mentally slap them around that the smiles fade and suspicion and anger surface.
I had set off in reasonable spirits but as my rumbling journey progresses the world around seeps in and spoils things a bit. It's not helped when a car of continental origin charges through a gap between parked cars forcing me to test my brakes. The fat git sitting above and behind a four-ring badge waves a thank you as I am forced to give way – both of us know he had no intention of conceding. This little exchange is indicative of today's world – if you don't push you rarely get off the start line. A frustrating little interlude for sure which is put into perspective as I stop at a zebra crossing and allow a disabled man in a wheel chair to be pushed across the road.
To regain perspective I think of my upcoming project and how I will transform our house into a mini palace fit for my queen. Today I'm starting to build a wall in our bedroom, converting one third of our main bedroom into a bathroom. This will allow me to subsequently re-convert the existing (over-large) bathroom back into a third bedroom. The house was built around the turn of the twentieth century – three upstairs bedrooms, tin bath in the kitchen and outside bog. Simple days when convenience was not of primary concern. The chamber pots of that era now sprout house plants in the homes of the decor-conscious. Many of us are persuaded by large-breasted TV presenters that selling our home (for loads of grand) will only be achieved by scattering lavatorial accessories amid lurid colours.
Just for the record we have retained the outside loo (although it is now enclosed by a rather nasty wooden structure I have cobbled together over the outside yard, optimistically called a workshop). Not only does my super-shed have it's own lavatory, it also has a comfy chair near a cupboard where I keep a bottle of grouse. It's a place to where I can retire after an unsuccessful disagreement with the management, a place where I can contemplate my next balls-up in comfortable, mind-dulled isolation.
I pull into the Builders Merchant in my roof-racked SUV and park among the vans and trucks of rigger-booted tradesmen. One of the lads who works in the timber department pokes fun at my sandals. He asks if I want to borrow a pair of black socks to make me look a complete tosser. I'm forced to admit they're not the most apposite footwear for a builder, after all, dropping a breeze block (or draught stone as my mate's wife calls them) on a non-steel-toe-capped foot is an unpleasant business. My inappropriate uniform is matched only by my ignorance, but I'm learning all the time. I now know the distinction between, for example, scant, CLS or rough-sawn timber and can request what I need with a modicum of authority. Previously I would walk around the timber shed, spot what looked like the right stuff and ask for 'some of that'. Then ask the footwear expert to chop it up into lengths that would go on my roof rack without it poking out over the front - to avoid turning myself into a jousting knight. The last thing I need is to return home with half a dozen natives skewered on my lethal proboscis.
I've been a customer here long enough to have arranged a cash account, thereby I'm now awarded a reasonable discount. But raw materials are still expensive. In no time at all you're up around a hundred quid, and that's for stuff I'll probably make a cock of and take it straight to the council tip on my next procurement run.
Actually I've messed up a bit this time. I'd been distracted by the speech bubbles on the way in and quite forgotten I had to call in at the bank in the centre of town. Consequently I park in front of the town hall with a pile of timber on my SUV. I seriously doubt it will be there when I return after the inevitable row with a bank employee. I've had to 'come into the local branch' to activate the key pad that allows me access to internet banking - so I can find out how little I have left. I had tried to do it on line but one of the 'memorable answers' wasn't recognized and they froze all my assets.
It actually took them an hour and a half to sort it out during which time I got caught short and needed a loo. They don't have customer facilities in the bank so I had to walk a quarter of a mile through a shopping centre dressed in paint-splattered overalls. My sandals slapped on marble floors, drawing the attention of the neat and tidy, as I rushed to find a public convenience. When I got there I found I needed 20p to open the bloody turnstile to get in! I tried to explain to the yellow-jacketed cleaning attendant that my assets were frozen solid but he obviously didn't understand the complications of high finance, and was not for budging. I argued that 20p for a pee was a bit steep. What would a stomach upset cost? I was forced to wait till he went on a tea break (not long) and crawl under the barrier. No doubt I'll be on CCTV and a cardboard-heated council employee, sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, will inform the appropriate authorities. For the next few days I will wait, in a state of some agitation, to be arrested for gaining illegal entry into a public building.
I'd tweaked a calf muscle crawling under the loo barrier so limped back into the bank where we had to start again because of a 'system time-out'. Little sympathy was offered and I find it amazing how difficult it is to manage my own money. I was rather irate when things were finally resolved.
'Could you spare a moment to complete a questionnaire about you banking experience,' I'm asked as I leave.
'Better not,' I tell her, as I exit to find a traffic warden lurking near my lumber wagon. I'm actually still within the three-hour free parking limit, a limit they've obviously set with visits to the bank in mind.
I make my way home through a minefield of roadworks, passing a very tidy grass verge and a man in a cloud. But at least its stopped raining so my damp wood might not warp too badly. I arrive with some optimism realizing that converting a house will be a doddle compared to venturing into the world beyond in my SUV.
Jo May 2017