Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Starbucks & Mattress


A few weeks ago, I mentioned my amusement and bewilderment at the array of names Starbucks staff manage to come up with, when given my name (or a variety of pseudonyms). They scribble their interpretation on the cup and then shout it out when the coffee is ready. Since they have begun this annoying habit, I have never been called the correct name. I was worried it was bad diction on my part but when a friend joined me and witnessed me loudly and clearly saying my name, we now think the staff are just unfamiliar with the names I give them.

In the past few weeks, as an ongoing scientific experiment, I  have given staff my own name 'Jules' to scribble on the cups. 'Jules' I have realised - especially for our Eastern European cousins, many of whom work in Starbucks - is not a common name. I have been called: George, Goose, Jude, Jud, Juice, and even Jew!! Imagine hearing that screamed out loud in a north London coffee shop! The creme de la creme, however, was last week. I was driving down the M1, a hideous road connecting the North of England to the South. It is a vile journey at the best of times, more so when it's 90º outside and I have no air conditioning in my car. I stopped at a motorway service station and went in to the lovely cool interior to get a coffee. I felt sticky, tired, flabby and somewhat melted. The girl asked my name, nodded at my response, scribbled it with huge confidence and then gave me my coffee a minute later.

I just burst out laughing because it summed up how I felt in one word.


A month ago, I purchased my dream mattress and wrote about it here. You might be wondering why I haven't mentioned it since, considering that I imagined my whole life would change with an expensive mattress and therefore, perfect sleep. There is a reason I haven't mentioned it.

The day my mattress was delivered I made the lorry drivers wait until I lay on it, to confirm it was my perfect mattress. I lay in starfish pose, then rolled left and right on each side. One of the men caught me frowning and said “You've got a good one here luv, this is an amazing mattress”. I sat up and frowned some more, then reached out and smoothed my hand over the surface. There was an indentation towards the centre of the mattress, a sort of concave crater about an inch or so deep spreading over two feet in diameter. As I ran my hand over, I could feel that it didn't have as much padding or support. It sort of sunk slightly. “It's got a dent in it” I said, on the verge of tears. The men looked at each other with an expression of… 'oh God, we've got one of those' and the other man said “Don't worry sweetheart, it’s been on its side in the lorry, maybe pressed up against something, just give it a few weeks to settle”. So I did. A week. But I kept rolling into the dip then had to sort of ‘doggy paddle’ my way out, clambering up the incline to the side of the mattress. Not good at all. 

I rang the shop and arranged for the manager to come and test the mattress. He duly came one Saturday morning and stood in the doorway to my bedroom. I began to go into a rambling explanation of what it was like to sleep on, with a horrified feeling in the back of my mind, that he wouldn’t be able to see or feel the dent and tell me I was imagining the whole thing. But no, he stopped me with a hand, stepped forward, peered down into the mattress and stated: “Collapsed internal structure. It happens sometimes”. I laughed and said “I know how it feels, I get that quite often too”. Not even a twitter. This man was here for one thing, mattress assessment. He was not in my flat for chit chat, amusement or a cup of tea and a biscuit (he had already turned that down… highly unusual). He scribbled something on a piece of paper and I said “Please put on your report that the collapsed internal structure is in no way the fault of the owner, they might think I've been bouncing around on it or doing something adventurous!“ I laughed. He gave me a look of disgust and was gone. 

So I have another 6 weeks of sleeping as if I'm rolling down a hill and then I will be the proud owner of another perfect, dreamy new mattress. Hmmm…what could go wrong?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

24 Hours in Cornwall

This past 24 hours has been, without doubt, the most absurd, surreal and hilarious time i have ever had with a bunch of complete strangers. The Cornish are so eccentrically English that it seems at times they are doing a cliche of themselves, but for their amusement, not yours.

It started with a hellish dawn wake up and a trip across London to start my 5 hour train journey south. Once again, I seem to have a knack for encouraging the worlds  worst passengers to sit around me. The first was an American businessman with one of those truly hideous contraptions known as Bluetooth, like a giant hearing aid strapped to the side of his face. Every few minutes he took, I'm sure, incredibly important calls. After hours of listening to him, I still could only hazard a guess at what his business involved. He talked a lot but said absolutely nothing  "ah ha, yeah totally, we are on the same page with this.  Yup yup, looking at the spreadsheet now, Brad it's fine, just on a train, can you hear me, no i can speak up. So i'm gonna put you on speaker a moment so i can input the data, sorry Brad, can you repeat that?" half the carriage at that point nearly yelled out what Brad had said! Then I had the 4 year old "why?" child, which begun irritating his Father so much that he threatened to leave him on the train if he said "why" again to one of his explanations. Then I had the music through the earphones too loud; the annoyed older couple complaining about British Rail; the drunk stag do (at 10am)....and finally, two girls in Ugg boots and fake tan, flipping through gossip mags announcing loudly which celebrity they would either shag, marry or avoid. That was quite funny actually and I had to stop myself joining in! But you name it, it was sitting near me! 5 horrendous hours. So at least my pre ordered taxi from the station to Fowey had no hiccups. Truly, nothing went wrong.

I got to Fowey and was greeted by Michael and Celia, the Bed & Breakfast owners. I went up to have a little nap before I met the Festival organisers and suddenly became aware of the church next door. Or rather the church bells... Ding dong dingaling dong ching ling dongalong dong ding dong ding ding ding bloody dong. EVERY 15 Minutes! Oh my god! Then I heard Michael whistling downstairs. One of those piercing bird impression whistles coming at me through the floorboards. Oh and the house is 410 years old so those floorboards ain't soundproofed! After the whistling came the joke telling! God knows who he was telling it to but he repeated the same joke 6 times: What do you call a door that's not a door? A jar. Now I am 43 and I have heard that joke a zillion times... Michael is about 83 and he was laughing so loudly each time he told it that I have deduced he is most probably a bit mentally unstable. That, or he's had his head in a box for 83 years! No one else was laughing and I discovered later, from his wife Celia, that he was probably just telling the joke to himself. Okay... Insane! I went downstairs to wait for Lesley, the festival organiser, and realised I was standing in a room full of old telephones. Michael came bouncing in and told me that the house was the old telephone exchange so he'd traced all these old phones and bought them on eBay! Not so out of touch after all. In mid sentence, whilst telling me the story of the house, Michael bursts into song. I jokingly said he should be the town crier with that voice (booming) and he laughed and said "but I am the town crier my dear, however did you guess?" ha ha. Then he showed me all his town crier photos. When I mentioned the church bells he said "oh I don't hear them anymore" and so I asked innocently, "oh why, where's your bedroom?" He screams up the stairs... "Celia, this young lady just asked me where my bedroom is!" and looked at me and said "we don't do all that bed swapping here you know!" This man is a total loon.

So Lesley finally turns up on Cornwall time (about half an hour late) and takes me up to the festival area. The literary festival consists of one large marquee tent, a beer tent (this is Cornwall after all), a tea tent (ditto) and a mini book shop. All the other events take place dotted round the village. Lesley then says in a very blasé manner: Juliet I've been so busy I haven't had time to plan anything for you. I haven't even put your story on the festival website yet, we haven't got time for you to read it out either and i can't seem to find a celebrity to give you your prize. It probably won't be on stage either but we might be able to get one of the organisers to shake your hand.  Wow, talk about coming back to earth with a bang! But I remained ever so positive and thought, oh it's fine. I'm here, I'll just enjoy having a wander round and Fowey is beautiful. So I did. I began walking back down to the village and suddenly heard a violent beep behind me. It was a large blue mini van full of old ladies. The driver leant over, wound down the window and said "are you the young lady from London staying with Michael and Celia?" um, yes. "Hop in" he said. He was the local bus driver but because Fowey has such narrow streets, they have a van instead. Everyone knows everyone here so I can only assume Michael must have mentioned me. I got in and had a little drive around Fowey as he dropped off all the old ladies. Then he took me back down to the village as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

I bumped into Lesley again who asked if I wanted to see a dress rehearsal for their am-dram play that evening as I was only here for one night. So I did. Completely hilarious... all the big village characters on stage, in various states of undress. Once they'd found out I'd done a bit of acting too I was suddenly asked for feedback. I also got asked to help with the costumes when they found out I could sew and I also babysat one if their children for an hour! Totally normal. What was even funnier was that they all forgot my name but as I had already met half the town of Fowey, I was referred to as that "young lady from London who's won some sort of writing prize but there ain't no prize" and they'd all have a good old laugh! After the play this chap walks up to me on the street and says "I own 2 restaurants in Fowey and I can do fish and chips for you if you like. Do you fancy a drink at the yacht club?" My God, your business really is everyone's else's. I had mentioned to one if the actors that I fancied fish and chips and asked him about the yacht club. Suddenly he tells someone else and it's common knowledge. As I was about to say yes to the drink he was accosted by some fisherman chums and I was bade adieu.

So I decided an early night was in order, the early start and sea air had made me super sleepy so I retired at ten o'clock. My nights sleep was appalling... Bells all night, weird scratchy sheets, freezing cold room and then 6am start as Michael whistled his way through preparing breakfast. Breakfast was an old fashioned heart attack... Fried white bread, fried egg, fried tomatoes, fried sausage, fried bacon, fried mushrooms, fried potatoes. He looked so offended when I left the fried potatoes and bread... "you'll waste away young lady!" he said. I love this man! I decided to dress up for my handshake (black tea dress, fitted jacket, silver brogues) just on the off chance they'd found a celeb for me overnight. I made my way up the hill to the festival, bleary eyed and stuffed full of fat! I had bought a ticket to see a wonderful author called Patrick Gale, read from his new book. He was lovely, funny, intelligent and a great reader (some of the best authors make the worst narrators, just look at JK Rowling!) So a very enjoyable two hours later we came out into the sun and suddenly I was pounced on by Lesley and two other organisers. Behind them was Patrick Gale's partner and agent and behind them was the Cornish press, all one of them! Whilst I had been inside they had organised an interview with the Cornish Guardian, lots of photos, a chat with Patrick Gale, lots of photos with him, all very lovely, tra la la and then he gave me my cheque, more photos! I have to record my story for radio in a few weeks time and maybe help judge next years competition. I was over the moon. Couldn't have asked for more... Well apart from being able to read my story out loud but hey, beggars can't be choosers! I am now sitting on the train back to London, happy, very tired and looking forward to writing my new short story... About an eccentric B&B owner called Michael. He is a gift! 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Story

The Ice Cream Van.

The ice cream van stood alone on the cliff edge, small, white and vulnerable, buffeted every now and again by sharp gusts of wind. Autumn rain poured down, blurring the van against the bruised sky, creating deep, muddy puddles below the wheels. Posters of ice creams, faded from summers gone by, were stuck crookedly on its side. The paint was chipped along the window edges showing dull metal beneath; fat raindrops fought for space on the glass. Condensation raced down the steamy inside, softening the outline of the large ice cream man as he moved around the van. The tyres squelched softly.
Inside, the ice cream man sighed and sat down heavily on a small stool, his large bottom enveloping the worn velvet seat. He picked up a newspaper and began thumbing through it as he hummed along to the radio. He looked at his finger, smudged with ink, and wiped it nonchalantly on his jeans. A distant rumble made him look up. He cocked his head to one side listening and leant forward to rub the damp window with the cuff of his sleeve.
Through the smudged glass, he watched a small dark car slowly wend its way down the narrow winding road, headlights playing hide and seek. After a few minutes, it reached the bottom of the hill, pulled into the lay-by and stopped. The engine idled, grumbling quietly. The windscreen wipers slapped back and forth, squeaking and juddering. The car lights pointed out to sea, blinking through the wetness. The ice cream man folded his arms and waited.

Far below, hidden by a steep mossy embankment, a dog barked, its strained yap full of anticipation. A lone surfer, encased in slick black rubber, sat astride his board several metres from the shore, legs dangling in the deep grey sea-weedy water. He looked out to the distant swells and waited. The surfer turned as he heard the dog’s bark carried fleetingly on the wind, then silence. He whistled soundlessly back and the dog, small brown and wiry, tore out from its hiding place, galloping across the damp sand, leaving tiny birdlike paw prints and gritty sprays in its wake. The dog barked excitedly all the way to the water’s edge then stopped, surprised by the intensity of the crashing waves and the coldness of the water. He backed up, growling. The surfer smiled at his neurotic friend, turned his board around and began paddling back to shore. He glanced up at the cliff top.

A sharp knock on the side-window made the ice cream man jump. He swore loudly and clutched his chest melodramatically. He stood up and smoothed down his over-washed checked shirt before unhooking the window catch and sliding it open on its sticky runners. Tinny pop music and warm sweat escaped into the damp air as he leant forward, hooking his chubby fingers over the counter’s edge, his large belly lifting up and over like kneaded dough. Wind whipped at his hair as he looked out.

Inside the car there was silence. The driver clenched his teeth, causing a small muscle in his jaw to flicker. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands, knuckles white. The passenger stared through the fogged up windscreen. Her heart pounded but she kept her breath slow and calculated. She twisted a large opal ring on her middle finger, round and round, and shuffled uncomfortably in her seat. She noticed an annoying tickling on the back of her neck where the t-shirt label was badly stitched and reached up to re-adjust it.
The driver tutted loudly and looked at her with irritation; she lowered her arm self-consciously and he looked away. An iPhone lit up in the well between them and beeped. She quickly reached for it but his hand fell on hers, gripping it tightly, his eyes burning into her with anger and despair. As his hold tightened, she let out a stifled cry and dropped the phone. She watched him as he picked it up and slowly read the screen, eyebrows knitted, index finger sliding over the glass, scrolling down the text. He looked up and let the phone fall to his lap.

The surfer wiped the tiny speckles of rain off his phone and put it back in his pocket. He gave an involuntary shiver and snuggled deeper into his down jacket. His wetsuit was discarded on the sand, inside out and twisted, like police tape at a crime scene. He kicked it angrily towards the open sports bag and looked down at his whimpering dog. The dog looked back at him with pleading eyes. He was shaking with cold, his fur spiked into wet tufts, sand covering his body like a dusting of icing sugar.
The surfer bent down and took a dirty towel out of his bag. He shook it vigorously and squatted in front of the dog, throwing the towel gently over its body and rubbing the small, shaking form. He felt his pocket vibrate and dropped the towel, leaving the dog shrouded in wet, wrinkled cloth. He took the phone out of his pocket and quickly entered his pin code, leaving damp fingerprints on the screen. He tapped once and studied the new message.

The ice cream man leant further out of the window. Instantly, the rain wet the top of his head and the wind blew into his face making his eyes sting. He looked slowly around the car park but saw no one. He heaved himself back inside the van, frowning, lips pursed. He squinted through the rear window towards the parked car but could see only two shadowy figures inside. He scratched his chin then reached forward to slide the heavy window closed, muttering under his breath. He listened to the seagulls overhead, calling hoarsely to one another, waiting for customers just as he was.

The surfer typed quickly, biting his bottom lip in concentration. After a few seconds, he stopped, thumbs poised and looked around him. All his worldly goods lay scattered over the sand: dog, bag, wetsuit, surfboard. He would have to leave two of them behind. He scanned the cliff top and pressed 'send'. He put the phone back in his pocket and sighed. He tucked his toe under the wetsuit and lifted it awkwardly. Its arms and legs were stiff and uncooperative; he hopped a few times to regain his balance. He flung it against the surfboard, where it stuck momentarily before sliding slowly down to the sand. The surfboard wobbled slightly but remained defiant, standing proudly, bright yellow and tacky with wax. He grabbed the bag’s long shoulder strap and hauled it up and over his head, feeling it pressing cruelly against his heart. He leant down and scooped up the dog, tucking it under his arm, squeezing it hard. The dog squeaked in protest and looked up at him. The surfer leaned forward, kissing the dog on its wet nose.
He headed off in the direction of the footpath, glancing over his shoulder. His board stared back at him, a luminous tombstone in the fading light. As he walked, he began typing again, the dog licking occasionally at his salty hand. He came to the foot of the cliff then veered to his left to climb a steeper, narrower path, a short cut, trodden into the soft earth by single footprints.

 She tried to open the passenger door but it was locked. She turned towards her husband, slumped in his seat, and whispered his name. She rested both hands on his forearm and he looked up. She squeezed gently, feeling her way through the soft layers of wool to the hard flesh beneath.
“Please, Jack...”
Empty, exhausted, he looked down at her soft, pale hands. The opal ring on her right hand glinted up at him, winking mockingly. On her other hand, he could see the indentation around her fourth finger, the band of skin slightly lighter in colour. He felt his throat tighten and a stab of pain so intense that he nearly cried out. He knew then, there was nothing he could do or say to stop her. He had no fight left. He put his right hand on top of hers and gently rested his fingertip on the place where their marriage used to be.

The ice cream man flipped over the last page of his crumpled newspaper. An engine revved loudly and he looked out in time to see the small dark car tearing out of the lay-by. He shook his head and swore. He turned up the volume on the radio; 'Ghost Town' by the Specials was playing. He laughed and began to slowly pack the chocolate flakes, ice cream cones and napkins away under the counter. There was a faint knock. He was startled but didn’t move; it was probably just the wind again. The second knock was louder and more persistent; it came from the driver’s door. He frowned and straightened up, rubbing the small of his back. He moved to the front of the van and leaned over the stained fabric seat, grabbing the door handle. The door flew open, caught by the wind, and slammed against the front wing. A woman stood there in the rain, shivering and crying, her t-shirt and jeans wet through, her canvas sneakers half-hidden in a deep puddle. She was clutching a mobile phone to her chest and saying something the ice cream man couldn’t hear. She looked so vulnerable, his heart melted. He slid awkwardly over the seat and stepped down onto the muddy ground.
She watched him get out of the van and adjust his jeans, self-consciously. He was looking at her with genuine concern. What could she say? Help me, I’ve ruined my life, what do I do? She took a step towards him.
“I’m lost” she said.

The surfer reached the top of the cliff, panting in time with the dog as it scurried behind him. He lifted the heavy bag off his shoulder and gave a sigh of relief. He wiped his face and looked around the empty car park. The dog began tugging playfully at his trouser leg and he nudged it away. He unzipped his jacket pocket and took out his mobile phone. He checked the car park once more. He dialed the number, held the phone to his ear and waited. It rang six times and went to voicemail. He ended the call and pressed 'redial'. Voicemail.
“Noooo! Come on, come on, pick up.”
The dog looked up at him anxiously, unused to his tone.
The surfer tapped the number again, pacing impatiently back and forth. Six rings. Voicemail. He growled at the phone and jogged across the car park and into the middle of the road. He stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the brow of the hill, shielding his eyes from the rain.
The dog had followed him and was barking at his feet.
“Lie down, Monty!” he shouted, annoyed, pointing towards his bag.
The dog hung his head and sloped off miserably. He reached the bag and slumped onto it, defeated.
The surfer looked at his watch and walked slowly back across the car park. He stopped at the cliff edge and looked along the coastline towards Polzeath, remembering all the times he’d surfed there. He leant forward, looking for the small tip of his yellow board; it peeped into view, making him smile. He realised the rain had stopped and glanced over at the dog already asleep, nose twitching contentedly in dream. The surfer pressed 'redial'. He heard only one faint ring before letting out a guttural shout of defiance and hurling the phone, with all his strength, into the elements.

The surfer stood alone on the cliff edge, small, white and vulnerable, buffeted every now again by sharp gusts of wind. Below his feet were the freshly made tyre tracks of the ice cream van.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Fame at Last...

Yesterday morning, in the misty haze of too late a night and an excess of tipple, my phone rang. It showed an unknown number and I immediately thought, cold call. I let it go to voicemail. Voicemail then rang me back and I heard a very chirpy voice say "Oh hello, this is Lesley, I've been trying to reach you for a few days and have sent an email already. I do hope I have the correct details, please give me a ring on...". My interest peaked I checked my emails but couldn't see anything from a Lesley so I rang the number. An even chirpier voice answered and Lesley very excitably explained that I had won their short story competition. Oh My God. My fuzzy head instantly cleared but all I could reply was "Oh My God" and "What?". This was a story I had written the first week of my creative writing class and over the next 2 months, my teacher had encouraged me to send it off to this Daphne Du Maurier short story competition, as well as editing it for me and making me rewrite it 6 times! Agony! I never really thought about it again. So I am completely in shock but really thrilled and once it is published and put up on their website I will send a link and people can have a read if they desire. The other thing is... The short story thing is one part of the Daphne Du Maurier literary festival starting next week in Cornwall. Lesley asked if I was attending so that I coul be presented with my prize. Prize... What? I suddenly pictures a new kitchen, laptop, holiday and so on, until she said "or if you can't come to the festival, we can put the cheque for £100 in the post." ha ha... This is obviously prestige rather than financial gain! So I had a think and thought, crikey, a 5 hour drive, it's a long way to go to just pick up a £100 and get a handshake, but then Lesley Got saucy, and I'm a complete sucker for a bit of emotional blackmail. She sent me an email saying "Juliet, we really would love to see you down here, the runner up will be attending but don't feel obliged. Just to let you know, if you do attend we will slot you into the festival timetable, maybe have you read it out and we will get a celebrity to award you your prize." Oh Lesley, me thinks you already know me too well. The offer of a stage and a celebrity in one, how could I say no?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

How bizarre.

You know those times in your life where coincidences or peculiar things happen one after the other in quick succession? Well it just happened to me. The last 24 hours has been a little peculiar.

1. I just finished writing a short story for a magazine competition and was about to post it when a man passed me holding a passport. Oh my god. I suddenly realised I'd forgotten to attach a passport photo to my entry! Thank you strange man I thought but then I remembered, the only photo booth I knew about was in the post office and it was about to close. I got there 5 minutes before closing and went inside only to discover a man already inside the booth. He was behind the curtain, just his bottom and legs on show, screaming into his mobile phone (I presume he was on a phone rather than just screaming at the machine) saying the bloody booth had swallowed his money and now it wasn't working. Not a good start! I was racking my brain what to do next as I wandered into sainsburys to get some milk. As I went in I stopped to think but couldn't concentrate because all this banging was going on in the corner, with builders everywhere, hammering and shouting. I glared in their general direction and then through the haze of dust, an appirition... Could it be? a photo booth? Oh my God. It was half covered with a dust sheet while they worked around it. Amazingly it was still plugged in and working so after a bit of a wheeze (allergic to dust) I got my photos. The embarrassing thing was that the photos were truly hideous, quite terrifying in fact. I had come out with my hair scraped back and not a scrap of makeup on, so if I do win the competition, there will be a photo of me looking like an axe murderer, prominently displayed in a very fashionable magazine!

2. I was at my writing class last night and we were all given this paragraph to study, to analyse the style, grammar etc. The extract was about a man finding a box in his attic containing a bundle of letters his wife had written. They were to an old flame of hers but she had never posted a single one. Oh my God I thought. I was then asked to read out my homework. As I read it aloud, everyone just looked at me with complete surprise, mouths open.  My story was about a girl going into the attic and finding a bundle of love letters written by her mother but that she had never sent! How weird is that?

3. I just went into Starbucks to get a latte. Starbucks have this annoying new habit of asking for your name. They scream it out across the cafe when your coffee is ready and it really irritates me so I always give them a fake name. I usually come up with something quite whimsical like Pixie or Summer but today I went blank and said 'Jane'. Very imaginative I know. The guy asked me to repeat it and I loudly said 'JANE' and he scribbled it on the side of the cup. A few minutes later, a different Starbucks person screams out 'Julie'? I look around but there is no one behind me so I just stand there. She looks at me, then at the scribbled writing again and shouts out 'Julie'... 'Juliet'? I swear to God I just gawped. I said slowly, 'is it for Jane, a tall skinny latte?' And she looks at the cup again and says, 'oh yes, sorry Jane'.  What the....?