Sunday, August 12, 2007

DSC_6046 - Blue-Brown BlindOne advantage of this whole zen foot in mouth farrago is that introductory conversations suddenly become much easier. Rather than have to explain that I have come to you today from X, near Y, which is south west of Z, where the other party has only heard of Z, now, as my brother pointed out by interrupting me mid-explanation, I can simply say I drove up from the foot-and-mouth. Plus this has the wonderful effect of making the hard-of-thinking back away in fear from me, saving me from both having to explain geography to them and explain everything else I make the mistake of mentioning.

So thinking of conversations mired in dread, a while ago was GA's delayed birthday party. I pull outside late after eating beforehand (she said 7, though confirmed there would only be party-food, not food-food, stubbornly resisting the convention that 'at 7' means being fed) and managing to be waylaid by family communications (much noise, not so much signal), and whilst gaining congratulatory heckles for my parking, I head towards the source of the pounding music, rapidly realising it's not coming from the flat I'm going to. Stumbling over the threshold, with a distracted kiss in greeting as my sleeping bag bounds away, I find I'm the first to arrive. Once again. This always seems to happen, regardless of when I turn up, except for when I'm an hour-and-a-half late, when it turns out they've been waiting for me before putting the spinach on (I can't cope with the concept that anything in any town can be more than ten minutes from anything else, even when the town is London; it's just wrong that in the capital everything is at least half-an-hour away).

So I settle down to chat having been handed a coracle of Cava, safe in the knowledge that everyone comes late. The next guests arrive shortly after me. A couple. Such a couply couple they've actually got married. So the assembled people consist of the hostess, her flatmate, her flatmate's girlfriend, her friend from uni, her friend from uni's husband and me. So two couples and a distinctly non-couple. Rapidly it becomes apparent that this will be it, as the other two likelies either have prior engagements (he used that excuse last year, despite it being a different weekend) or prior illnesses, and it transpires there were only two more possibles, despite the mass invitation list. This may reflect past experience of GA's parties, or more kindly it might just be that it was a popular weekend for parties, as demonstrated by the two other sets of music coming in through the windows, one of which seems to have much whooping accompanying it.

It's always rather depressing to be able to hear a better party than the one one is currently at (ouch, ugly sentence). Apparently it's not the done thing to comment on this, regardless of how readily everyone bar the hostess agrees. I only mentioned it because the party beyond were playing a song they'd already played earlier. We did consider gatecrashing, but weren't sure exactly where the noise was coming from; it's much easier to gatecrash if there's a single obvious gate which to crash, rather than pounding entry-phones until buzzed up.

So instead we sat through the inevitable revelling in university tales, during which the blushing bride blushed perpetually. It seems she was once much less dull. Fortunately that cluster ran out of embarrassing material so conversation faltered once more (is it a good sign if people check email while at a party?). Instead, and here comes the advantage of partying with former reserve members of University Challenge teams, we a had quiz.

The teams split into the marrieds grabbing GA leaving the flatmate and I together, as his girlfriend was reading the questions. Infuriatingly the answers weren't on the same page as the questions, which meant our cunning plan of sitting behind the laptop was somewhat scuppered. Despite this, we still did reasonably well. Reasonably meaning we got over double the other team's score.

But then they did answer the first question "Catch 21", which is no doubt the prequel. The second sought the only assassinated British Prime Minister. We answered Gladstone, then crossed that out and went with Asquith, on a whim based on obscurity. Yes, we were wrong, but rather less wrong than the other team, who thought the assassinated Prime Minister was Oliver Cromwell, who was neither.

But having said that it's probably best to overlook me writing Sue Ryder down as one of the female winners of BBC Sports Personality of the Year. We got Sue Barker (who didn't actually win it) later, but neglected to correct she of the hospices. And we won't mentioned writing Luxembourg not Liechtenstein for the shares-the-national-anthem-tune question (the other team wrote 'Britain', which, although logical, suggests they hadn't quite listened to all the question). They also thought Celine Dion sang for Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest (whereas I got Switzerland from thinking of a Francophone country tolerant of weird accents). I suspect this is one of those things one should intentionally get wrong, just like I failed to do with the names of Madonna's biological children (look, I just happened to have made the mistake of listening to Radio 1 news; I have no urge to know).

The marrieds left shortly after their disgrace, back to an artfully John Lewis'd world (is it me, or is a third of the UK economy based on John Lewis vouchers? Everyone, bar me, seems to been given them, often in lieu of cash, recently. I think I've found the black market for the middle classes). So after talking, Wiiing and tidying (I got told to stop after I was spotted with clingfilm) it was time for bed. It's probably ought be worrying that the best of the party was the quiz. I think it was less a party, more a slight gathering.

The next morning brought the fun of a rented shower (where the noise indicates the approaching type of pain) and not much else. I left, leaving my car outside while I wandered Wimbledon (or wombled Wimbledon, if one wanders Wandsworth. I'm not sure what one does in Clapham though). Back up the hill to ship stuff over to my brother, I discover GA just departing, late, for the station. Dropping her off by a busstop, having been told to turn left for the forecourt only to find it's blocked by cars coming out, I ad-lib my way north towards my brother's flat. Tooting on a Sunday goes on a very long way.

Appear, dump boxes, help pack the same, hang round long enough to get treated to a speciality of my brother's: tuna and sweetcorn pasta. I've never been convinced by the combination - in potatoes fine, in sandwiches passable but hard to eat, with pasta just no - and despite cooking it I'm still not, as there's only so much one can do with four ingredients.

Sometime later I return to his place for yet more packing, this time with the added entertainment of being cut-up repeatedly in solid traffic on Streatham one-way system, having come the Google way, resulting in wisps, then clouds of something ominous coming round my bonnet. Cue hazards and stopping on those nice double red lines, hesitantly opening the bonnet after much uncomfortable probing to find the catch. There's a plastic bottle of something, with a bit of brown at the bottom at a New York's worth of steam hissing from the top. Oh. I think it might be a bit hot. So I anoint it, then douse it with water from a refilled hypo-Coke bottle. Still hissing, at which point I notice the police car behind me, and the policeman approaching. He asks me if it's my car (no, I just felt like flooding someone else's engine) and if I have insurance, which he has to ask repeatedly due to the passing police bikes. I'm not sure why he wanted to know about insurance. I assumed he took one look at the bonnet venting steam on a car possibly older than his sidekick and assumed, as it was in South London, that it would be without MOT, tax or insurance. He also asks repeatedly if I've tried taking the lid off. I nearly consider attempting it at his prompting, before I realise he's telling me not, otherwise I'll get scalded (somehow sticking my hand into spears of steam hadn't appealed so far). I ask about sidestreets where I can it off the main road, and get directed to the next right.

Closing her up, I hop in, do the traditional mirror, signal, manoeuvre, thank that comes with the necessary London technique of rampantly carving people up (having a rusty, dented car, billowing steam, with police in attendance, does make it easier). The right hand turn leads me to another red route, with cramped legit parking one side and a blue car dumped on the single red line on the other. Rather than attempt parking properly I drop behind the blue car. The police car following me pulls in down the lane, the policemen joining a cluster near their car. There's a few looks in my direction, but none approach.

Shortly after by kitchen-towel brainwave, I realise the reason for the permanent cluster of police men down the road, and the red lines outside the nearer big, imposing, brick building. I've managed to park, with my suspiciously fume-laden car, onto which I'm pouring a mysterious liquid, right outside St Reatham Police Station (and I call it that because I keep forgetting it's not th) in Shrubbery Road (Ni!). Eventually the bottle shudders like B&B plumbing with boiling fluid jerking back into it and the temperature needle begins to dip. I tire of waiting round and drive off down the road, having plotted by route back to the A23 northbound. Naturally enough this is soon overruled by one way streets, so much improvisation eventually leads me back to the wrong end of the one way system.

Cue sitting through the same traffic jam, fan on full to cool the engine, but this time being the one doing the cutting-up as I've learnt now. Northwards easily enough, driving as expected, not as the road markings (I shall invoke my brother's phrase de jour, and blame folk memory). Then comes the fun of parking where I can get the car so far in, but no further, however much I try. It wasn't badly parked, but neither was it London parked.

And having done that I find he's not home yet. So I wander the streets of Brixton, discovering improbable windmills, highly photogenic chrome and surprising yet flattering winks. My brother rings to say he's home, which means he probably went past me. I reply I'll be back soon (how very Oliver!), but I'm by the Bovril, so it'll be a while. He claims to have no idea where that is, so I leave him to work it out.

Back at his I help pack - if you want to be the best, if you want to beat the rest, oooh-ooh, tessellation's what you need, if you want to be a record mover. And then the bribery (or is it corruption?) arrives, fresh from Khan's of Brixton (whose food the SIL reputedly dislikes because it hasn't got enough food colouring in. Odd girl) and just in time for Heroes. Judging by my brother's face, I think he's rather envious of my Indian standard of lamb biryani, usually ordered because I know the rice comes with it (and because I get mocked for ordering the korma). Combined with the naan (plain - we thought of getting Peshwari, in homage to our mother, because it's got sultanas in it and therefore by her culinary logic must be either a curry or a cake [occasionally both]), the included vegetable curry and the poppadom... well, I probably shouldn't have eaten it all. My brother had served half, and I'd eaten it with half the naan, and, er, that was enough (can I blame it being August, therefore hot, therefore I need less food, rather than getting old and slowly become one of those people who is sustained on a third of a tin of soup each day?). But the rest was there, and it was mine and still warm, and leaving food is wrong, unless part of the original plan. Very nice though. Just filling.

Then onwards with the packing, with the rumble of Radio 4 in the background, and so to bed. My brother's bed slopes towards him. The uphill side is against the wall. The wall in a basement flat, so the wall permanently maintained at 11 degrees Celsius. To the other side is the human storage heater, and over the top, the thick quilt, of which I hadn't quite enough (much later I realised that was because it was hanging off the other side, cue slight sausage rolling). So I was stuck between a hot place and a cold place, neither of which was comfortable, unable to average the two. So instead I got lay listening to my brother's range of snores, vastly expanded since I last slept in the same room as him. The sleeptalking's got quieter and less persistent though. Still as infuriatingly lucid (hence, while answering his questions, asking mid-reply "you're not awake, are you?" and getting the succinct response "no").

I don't think I slept very much, if at all, but he complained my snoring woke him. Up, breakfasting on a improvised Weetabix and apple juice (I mean together, in the same bowl, in lieu of milk, which is not kept in the house of the brother with the greater expression of the Norwegian genes. I thought orange juice was bad). Then under the hills and far away to the land where the little SIL lives, which involved thinking that the exit from Finsbury Park doesn't normally bend this much, shortly before walking back round the perimeter of the station (I used to know).

Chat and pack, with much asking about what is hers. Her friend of the chocolate fountain, who I invariably want to call the wrong name, due to him looking, and sounding, and acting, and moving like a friend of GA's, which leads to several internal dialogues as I struggle to remember he's the straight one with the girlfriend who lives in South Africa (or was it Canada? Alberta who lives in Vancouver, right?). The straight one, with much eye-contact (look, I know you've got stunning eyes, you don't have to keep showing me), who has a tendency to burst into song. The song was by Mika. He knew the words well enough to get the colours in the right order, including that one I can never quite hear clearly.

He's got a girlfriend; she lives in Durban, her name is Joanna Berg.

Of course.

He also is very enthusiastically bouncy, making a great show of doing things, while neglecting to finish doing some of them. Either he was showing off, or he knew he could quit before the tiredness started to show, unlike us.

So we pack, and clean, and fend off the new inhabitants, who've turned up to meet the landlord, who hasn't turned up, so instead quiz us on the flat (newbie's sister or mother: smells a bit, like, but you get tha in t'old places. Reet mousty it were doonsteers, bey they frount dour, like), flatmate (SIL: Och*, she's quai-ert, bay nice, though quai-ert... [silence as no more polite comments remain]), the area (NSOM: weighed hue-erd tha [road] was di-ed vilunt, like) and London (I'll skip this bit as I did the first time round).

* She actually says "och", though it's soft och, rather than a hard och [cafe].

And then it was southwards, for the first time ever down through the Congestion Zone while it's actually functioning, recognising places, getting lost again, clocking a building, recalling a busstop, and wondering what the Bank is doing there. We flit, well, zoom, grind to a halt, creep, stop, and finally stumble out over London Bridge. Yes, to save navigating the SIL was following bus routes she knows, hence not attempting as the crow flies.

Down to the new place to unload (not having many stairs helps). Quickly down to my brother's. Rapidly load, then lunch, which ended with the SIL's insistence that we should have some Percy Pigs, responded to with two looks so blank it was hard to tell they were looks. Percy Pig is apparently a type of chewy sweet, which is pink and aptly made of pork gelatin. My brother and I aren't really big on sweets, except perhaps those green and white ones one used to get at the museum at Ironbridge, which possibly reflects how often we bought sweets. We both have undampened blood sugar levels, so sweets go in, we go fleetingly mildly hyper, then sag in achy tiredness for the rest of the day. Plus I have memories of what happens when one eats a whole tube of Refreshers while in the back of a car out of sheer boredom. It's disconcerting when sick doesn't taste of sick.

So the SIL & I finished off the load, with me being able extrapolate her past movements by the number, type and positioning of hoards of sweets (I'm guessing sweets are her apples; the crutch that props up the day). Off to the new flat again, while I wonder where the blood from the blood blister on my thumb has gone (I was trying to open the back door of the van and having problems).

Unload, ignoring pain, shuttling, shuffling and shunting boxes to fit better in all available spaces. My brother later referred to it as playing trains, thus foxing the SIL. He was referring to the name my mother used for the end of term ritual of moving boxes about, in compressed lines, over classroom floorboards (avoiding that nail and that hole) and along tiled, linoed or polished concrete corridors, out to the top of the steps, above the car waiting patiently yet incongruously in the playground (I was always amazed by the concept that someone could drive on the huge expanse of tarmac). I think she had the measure of us.

The timely approach of a traffic warden (sorry, parking attendant, which makes them sound like they should stand by the car behind telling you how much room you've got left. Yes, I had to do this for the SIL, whereas I normally wait till I see the other car move) sent us scampering back to the other flat. It's not looking terribly packed. I spend a while trying to help, but trying not to upset unexplained plans by packing things left out to remind, then discovering the SIL elongated on the bed while my brother rummages nearby, I curl up on the settee. I wake to the sound of my brother complaining about deep sleepers. Then more packing, in relays, where my brother covers the packing, the SIL shuttling things up to the gate, and me carting stuff off to the van down the lane. And I use carting metaphorically, more's the pity.

Suddenly that seems to be it. We head off, SIL driving, me shotgun, my brother the marauding Indian on a bike, thus undertaking in buslanes nearly as much as we overtook him. More unpacking, sorting, being asked if that's my blood on the lid of one of the boxes (Oh, so that's where it went). They go off to return to the van, while I move my car, after which I realise there isn't very much to explore. There's a cellar that's fairly short and is only the size of the hall, but explains that manhole cover by the front step. And it's mostly full of broken Ikea furniture, ungainly toys and scattered Christmas decorations, crunching underfoot in place of coal.

Being locked in an unfamiliar, yet-to-be-unpacked flat isn't fun. I had keys, but had enough problem getting in the first time with them (I suspect the locks/doors are another item on the snag list), so wasn't going to risk it. I knew where all the books were, because I helped pack them, and so knew they were lining the base of every box, hence not wholly accessible. I considered setting up a radio, but didn't know where they'd want which, nor where the wires had been packed. One gargantuan television had been left mating the couch, the other holding up a wardrobe, so they were pretty much unobtainable. I couldn't even go into the kitchen to read cereal packets as they were all yet to be bought. So I sat leaning against a door that cannot be closed, trying to extract as many shots as possible from the light coming through the blinds, aware that I'm running out of options. There wasn't really anything I could just fiddle with, as it was all in boxes, not to be touched until the promised professional cleaning happened.

So I sat and waited, that's what I did, and tick did not follow tock as not even my brother's irritatingly loud alarm clock had yet been unearthed.

No tick.

No tock.

No voices nagging or narrating.

No cars opportuning or tolerating.

No sirens or Sirens wailing for effect.

Just nothing. Nothing more than a dusty blind, marked by abandoned cleaning, an overgrown bush and the blankness of the building opposite.

Only the distant sound of planes Heathrowing belies the beyond.

Eventually comes the call to collect people from the fish and chip shop, only it's not there anymore, so they're in Tesco's, but haven't bought anything yet.

Then the next call, four minutes later, asking where I am (you said you hadn't bought anything yet).

So through lumpy, buckled streets, in loose London mode, cavalier and considerate. And back again.

Food is cooked, up to the point where it is discovered that the grill doesn't work and the only frying pan has been left behind. Sausages are nearly cooked on a baking tray across the hobs until I realise the wrapped fruit bowl I moved earlier is a wok. Food and phone calls (friends, a street away, want to do housewarming, and ignore warnings that the only space left is in the hall or the shower). I help dig out vital things, and then depart, without the promised Wiiage*, grinding to a halt half on the High Street, before going back the engrained route.

* My brother thinks it's a brilliant name for a product, evoking whee for fun, wee for little and we for multiplayer. I can understand that view, but get distracted by all the resultant verbs and nouns conjuring up the other meaning of wee. It's as bad as "Good Moaning, I was... "

A couple of days later I was rung to ask if I knew where I'd put the clips for the SIL's television stand. Apparently "in a box, because they started falling off when I was putting it in the van" is not a helpful answer. But then I refuse to feel very guilty - it must have been one without a lid, does that help? - because as I was speaking I could hear a bowling alley in the background, thus suggesting they've got the Wii up and running, and that the SIL is having the same problems she has in normal bowling.

They promised me Wii, you know.


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