Wednesday, January 31, 2007


En route to the data centre this morning, I overheard a cluster of crocuses shivering in the breeze.

“It’s bloody freezing. I thought you said it was safe to come up.”
“I said no such thing. You’re the one who wanted to get a move on.”
“That’s a lie! You said, and I quote, ‘It’s been the mildest January since 1916...’”
“…so this is my fault? Like everything else is my fault? Failing schools? Your father not loving you? Save it for the pansies.”
The same bickering every year.

Rex the security guard was milking Geraldine, the Company X goat, sending candy floss clouds of moist sweetness trembling across the car park.
The warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.
Geraldine stared at me with her weird rectangular pupils, and I stared back.
Rex claims to have taught her how to whistle, fetch newspapers without leaving slobber, name the planets, identify the leaders of the main British political parties, but I’m not having any of it, much as I’d like to.

Inside, Stella, my eighties style yuppie witch of a team leader, has been planning a surprise mini-break for her friend Becky before she departs for Beijing.

“It’s a Horse Riding and Clubbing Weekend in Newquay.”
“That’s very harsh on the horse, isn’t it?” I said, but I don’t think she caught my drift.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Once Upon A Time 

"The presentation of barbershop music uses appropriate musical and visual methods to convey the theme of the song and provide the audience with an emotionally satisfying and entertaining experience. The musical and visual delivery is from the heart, believable, and sensitive to the song and its arrangement throughout. The most stylistic presentation artistically melds together the musical and visual aspects to create and sustain the illusions suggested by the music."
Barbershop Contest and Judging Handbook

I was born dour. Raised on The Cure and The Smiths, 95cm of annual rainfall and 30 hours of sunshine, my teenage years saw me succumb to high levels of melancholia and awkwardness.
Cross country running on Wednesday afternoons made me desolate and beautiful, and taught me that you can’t always stop just because you want to, but now I am middle aged and floppy, and my knees make Hammer House of Horror creaking sounds.
I’ve learned that melancholia will eventually go and bug someone else if you ignore it for long enough, but awkwardness is always with you, infuriatingly, unremittingly inappropriate, like having Noel Edmonds shagging your leg during a job interview.
Dourness is what made me. I am in touch with my inner grump and refuse to appear happy or sad to order.

At Barbershop practice, Sergeant Grimsargh (baritone) coaches us in non-verbal emoting. Expressing meaning through cheesy actions and facial expressions is as much a part of barbershop as anything else, and I confess I’m not keen.

Once upon a hill, we sat beneath a willow tree, counting all the stars and waiting for the dawn...
Sergeant Grimsargh wants us to look skyward, to smile and act serene. He demonstrates, and looks like a baby filling it’s nappy.
For the benefit of the judges and those at the back of the audience, we must amplify our emoting to grotesque proportions.
“… but that was once upon a time, now the tree is gone.”
He hams a sour face, a comically down turned mouth, seems about to bawl that he wants his nappy changing, and we are expected to want our nappies changing too.

I trust my own judgement and there is no fucking way I’m going to do that.
It’s a beautiful song, the lyrics are precisely weighted, delicately balanced, light and dark and poignant; the harmonies make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and take notice.
The noise we make is rich, warm, devastating in it’s simple purity. No sound engineer with all the technology in the world at their disposal could confect a resonance so perfect and whole as the one we produce in that rifle range, week in, week out.
The sight of forty grown men all conveying “I’ve just pooped!” kind of ruins it for me.

But that’s how barbershop is, and it’s an argument I’ll never win. What to be done?

I feel sad at the thought of quitting the chorus so soon. I had high hopes. But I feel sad at the prospect of staying.
Best just sit back awhile, try to detach myself from these two opposing sadnesses and let them battle it out for supremacy. Go with the one that loses.

Private Staining (tenor) keeps a scrapbook, photo albums, old concert programmes and newspaper cuttings going back thirty years. The other old soldiers flick through the pages, smile at the pictures.
I immediately recognise a kindred spirit: a keeper of journals, a chronicler, a hoarder of stuff, and - just my luck! - this also makes me feel sad. It’s like catching myself in a mirror and for a while I can’t breathe: a great wave of sorrow sweeping me away forever.

“That’s George. He moved to Australia. Died a couple of years ago.”
“And there’s Howard, look. He would always have us in stitches. Cracking jokes on the risers, even in competitions. You never knew what he was going to do next. He’s dead now as well.”

These are good, good people, bright and alive - “I’m a widower now, so there’s more to keep me busy around the house. But I cycle every day, three miles or more, always buy the paper on my way home” - but I am melancholic and awkward and never know what to say to anybody, and I’m not sure it’s right for me to be around here like this. I’ll give it a couple of weeks.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Handle With Care 

“Tim, the reason you’re going nowhere,” said Stella, my eighties style yuppie witch of a team leader, blazing into the conversation like she’d been shot from a cannon, “is that you don’t have clearly defined goals. You don’t know where you want to be.”

What I was actually intending to say, before she’d interrupted, was that I was going nowhere until I’d finished my lunch, in response to an order from Death to fetch some stuff from the data centre. I tried explaining this to Stella but once she starts, she’s not easily stopped.

She was wearing a black trouser suit, expensive looking, finished off with orange trim. It said “I’m a not to be fucked with executive, with a hint of Hare Krishna to show my spiritual side.”
I meanwhile was wearing my new jumper, in black of course, woven from a supernaturally soft fabric, probably wool or something like it, which I was casually splattering with tomato soup. It said “Boyishly cute. Sloppy eater.”
We appeared disconcertingly colour co-ordinated.

“You want to do this and you want to do that, but all your projects end up lost in the fog. You spend your time floundering, blah, blah…”

Oh for goodness’ sake. I looked outside. Today the world through my window - streaked with a thick layer of grime following yesterday’s gales - had a soft focussed, Vaseline on the lens quality about it.
Rex the security guard was clearing up fallen debris - broken slates, the former contents of dustbins, a milk float down by the generators - striding along with slow, deliberate purposefulness. He looked like a character in a bizarre litter themed porn film. Don’t dwell too long on that.

Tabs walked by with an armful of reports and Terry said, “January’s such a miserable bloody month. Some people seem to shutdown through sheer misery.”
“Do you actually have any ambition, Tim? At all?” asked Stella.
“Yes,” I said. “For you to stop bugging me.”
“It’s beyond me,” Terry continued, lost in the dimly lit cubicle of his mind, “how anybody is ever born in September.”

Rex was fishing milk crates out of branches with a long pole. It reminded me of those hooked poles they had at school for opening windows with. Terry said that sometimes he knows how those Jehovah’s Witnesses must feel. They keep knocking on the door but they’ve long since given up hope of ever being invited in. Milk bottles were scattered on the grass like rotting apples.

Later on, after the going home bell had sounded, Stella told me how her friend Becky has been offered the chance to work in China for three months. It would be a great opportunity for her, career-wise and as “an enhancing, you know, life experience”. She’s an ambitious girl, and the bank she works for would look on it favourably if she were to go. Less favourably if she didn’t. I guess this is what today was all about.
“Just three months?” I asked.
“That’s what she said.”
“And when does she have to give her answer?”
“Possibly longer if it goes well. And if she wants to.”

Ivan the Terribly Thorough swept into the room, a one man flash-mob with a vacuum cleaner. He switched off to dust around the window sills and said that ambitions are all well and good, but handle with care.
“They’re like wishes. Allow them a little privacy,” he said, as dust spiralled skywards above the radiator.
“It’s bad luck to say them out loud,” and then he was gone.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Standing On The Surface Of A Perforated Sphere, When The Water Filled Every Hole 

We went to the Lake District to research saucepans. We settled for an omelette pan but were hoping for more. I never realised we were such demanding consumers.

Still, a good drive out. On Kirkstone Pass, you could hardly see the woods for the water.

Saturday morning science project:
Calories in : 12992 *
Calories out: (eg. exercise bike, etc.) 600 *
Result: minus three (lbs)

* Figures for previous week. Obviously. Liable to be very fairly inaccurate.

Lunch shot: Healthy option.

Friday, January 12, 2007

When A Rainy Day Comes 

“It’s very windy!” exclaims just about everybody, except Mike, who communicates only via a series of monosyllabic grunts.
Which is fine, apart from that whenever I need to talk to him about something, I find myself grunting along in sympathy.

Me: Grunt grunt grunt. (Translation: Did you speak to Brian at Bolton Headcases about some license updates?)
Mike: Grunt. (No.)
Me: Grunt grunt. (He left a message. They’re not working properly. Can you get back to him before eleven, because he’s got a meeting then.)
Mike: Grunt grunt. (He’ll be lucky. I’m busy. I’ll call him if I get chance.)
Me: Grunt grunt grunt. (It sounded urgent. He said he was going to come round with a shotgun and blow my head off if you don’t speak to him before he goes into his meeting. Please try your best.)
Mike: Grunt grunt grunt! (I said I’d call him if I get a chance, didn’t I? What more do you fucking want?)
Me: Grunt. (That’s great. Thanks Mike.)

Outside my window, people trying to walk forwards find themselves helplessly going backwards, while others are going forward alright but WAY TOO FAST, sweeping along at fifty knots, only coming to rest when they smash into a wall or interface with oncoming traffic.

After work I join Bill Surname’s retired army chums for practise in the rifle range -
When a rainy day comes, or a cloud of grey comes, and I’ve lost my sunny day, Mister Music Master, make my heart beat faster, you can chase my cares away…
- and now it’s three o’clock and I can see faces in the plaster and there are ghosts behind the curtains, and the wind is howling like a wounded tenor and somewhere down the street a tin can rolls all night to its own Should I Stay Or Should I Go rhythms - clatter clatter clatter clatter, pause, clang clang clang clang, pause - and I should just bloody get up and put it in a bin, and I cannot sleep.

In the morning, we discover the wheelie bins have been playing houseswap sleepover. Ours has gone to number ninety five, and theirs has moved to twenty three, and sixty two’s, which was always restless at the best of times, isn’t to be found anywhere.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

True Love Ways 

Say what you like about Creepy Keith from Accounts, but the man has no idea of the notion of the concept of abandoned hope. He hasn’t a clue. It’s almost inspiring.

He was sitting at my desk when I arrived this morning, deep in conversation with Jeanette from the Introductions Agency.
“She can butter my toast any morning, Jeanette,” he slathered, one hand down the front of his trousers and doodling with the other. “I’d marry her tomorrow, I really would.”
He was doing it with my gel grip pen. Mine!

Stella, my eighties style yuppie witch of a team leader, walked by with a muffin and a mild limp. She’s been off crutches for a while but still gets sore now and then.
“But Keith,” she said, “you’re so desperate you’d marry a horse. If you could find one that’d let you.”
“I think she’s beautiful. I’m completely smitten.”

There was dust all over my desk, lumps of plaster and polystyrene and general mess. It looked like the big people had been dancing up in the ceiling again, and I’m not talking the foxtrot.

I passed some time gazing out of the window, watching Rex the security guard milking Geraldine the company goat, then swept up the debris. It was a metal bucket, good and heavy, so as not to blow over in the wind.

As it happens, Jeanette doesn’t have Keira “Look Mum! No breasts!” Knightley on her books, so Keith is making do with a dinner date with a girl called Karen from Keighley.

“Near as damn it,” I said, trying to look on the bright side, “anagrammatically speaking,” but he was busy googling to see if the Little Chef near Skipton had escaped closure and ignored me.

When I returned from washing my hands he’d gone, taking my pen with him. I thought it best not to bother and fetched a fresh one from the cupboard instead.
No news on the Little Chef.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Today we brought down the snowflakes and stars.

Along similar lines, I’ve begun a little science project.
Objective: to determine whether what goes up comes down again.
Starting point: to spare all our blushes, let’s just call it zero, shall we?
There’ll be data and everything.

The other day I looked out of my window and saw a heron on next door’s chimney pot. At least I think it was a chimney pot.
I've not seen it before or since.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The New Year 

All week Stella, my eighties style yuppie witch of a team leader, has been barricaded in her office with an anxiety of self-help manuals.
“Happy New Year,” I gurned at the window on Tuesday morning. She didn’t look up. I switched on my PC and fetched a coffee style drink from the vending machine, and on my return I’d received an instant message thingy that read “HNY 2 U 2”.

Not another peep all day, nor Wednesday either. She just sat alone in her room, like a question mark inside a thought bubble, engulfed in “Learn To Like Yourself In 24 Hours,” or “You? A Manager?!? Are You Having A Laugh?” with an unfunny introduction by someone off the telly.
No rumblesqueak of the walking machine, no yelling into her bluetooth earprobe, no rushing around with clipboards.
I tapped on her window a few times to gesture if she wanted a drink or sort of cake thing, but she just blanked me, an imaginary Do Not Disturb sign writ large in marker pen and draped around her neck.

Books and more books, flotsam and jetsam in an inky sea of questionable advice.
“Have You Farted? A Manager’s Guide To Creating Team Spirit.”
“What’s Your Problem Now? Empathy In The Workplace.”

Then tonight at going home time, a breakthrough. She sat on my desk and asked about my Christmas, and I said good thanks. You?
It had been hectic, family trouble, and then all the worry of that double selling business before the holidays to fret about.
“I thought you loved all that shit,” I said.
“Yeah. Well,” she shrugged. “I do. I suppose.”
Silence. It didn’t seem right to see her not herself, as if she’d stumbled into work in a dressing gown, unkempt, knotted up, altogether all wrong. There was an acrid whiff of privacy violated. It felt indecent.

Suddenly she blurted that War, Pestilence, Famine and Death had taken objection to her handling of the situation. There’d been shitty remarks said behind her back, nasty little sideswipes in the presence of Bill Surname CEO, snottograms cc’ed to the directors, bcc'ed to her.

Death in particular had been raking through the dirt, grubbing around for points of weakness. There’d been threatening emails, snide little blackmail attempts.
“Poisonous fuck. Who does he think he is? Nicholas Hellen?" I said. "He should be sacked for that,” but now she was smiling and talking about New Year’s Eve, the salty seaside, how she’d rented a cottage with her friend Becky.

“No obligations to anybody, no appointments to keep. No thinking about work. An empty schedule. Just me and my friend Becky for four whole days with nothing on,” she sighed. “Can you imagine that, Tim?”

Outside my window, we watched as cars emptied out of the car park, like a sink of greasy water slowly draining down the plughole. Eventually there was only soapsuds and a couple of teaspoons. A full moon slid out from behind a cloud and all too briefly bathed the bypass in a silver glow.

“I thought for a while you were never coming out,” I said, nodding towards her door as if to clarify, and she let out another sigh then sprung to her feet to make a phone call.

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