Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Highwaymen and highwaywomen.

I awoke in the early hours on Sunday morning. Ever since the fire, I have had a preternatural awareness of any emergency vehicles stopping outside my house late at night, even without their sirens blazing As John Donne wrote, “send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee. “  Just in case the sirens are ringing out for me, I always slip out of bed if I catch sight of flashing lights reflected onto my bedroom ceiling and make my way over to the window.

I could see two stationary ambulances immediately across the way and a police van parked on my side of the road, but no one in or around them. It was a relief that there were no fire engines. In addition to my own house fire, (Fire,24th October 2009 ) there had been several others in the vicinity over the years, although presumably unconnected.

I began to speculate why there were two ambulances. When I had come to the aid of the foolish young man who had attacked his girlfriend and then tried to kill himself (Crash, 19th October 2009) two ambulances appeared on the scene, as a result of one being summoned and the other being en-route to hospital with a patient in the back. My mind raced as to the possible scenarios which would involve two ambulances. Eventually someone stepped out from the back of one ambulance and shut the doors before climbing in the front and being driven off. Finally the police van and the other ambulance left as well, ending the drama for the night.

I never know the etiquette for dealing with such situations. Unless you have witnessed the incident or have summoned the emergency services, there seems little one can do. However, simply returning to bed when someone could be fighting for their life mere yards away seems somewhat callous.

I recall looking out of the window one afternoon and seeing that a double-decker bus had broken down. It was full of school children apparently staging a mini riot. I telephoned the police and would have remained within the safety of my forth storey look-out had I not spied some schoolgirls unfastening the petrol cap. Fearing they were going to try and set the bus alight, I hurried out into my front garden. I stood on the low wall and spoke to the girls over the railings. I had calculated that from my perch, I would have enough of a head start to beat a hasty retreat back into the house if things turned nasty.
“I would leave that petrol cap alone, if I were you, “I warned one girl in particular. “The police are on their way and if you have any sense you will leave whilst you still can.” The school girl heeded my advice.

On the same stretch of road but on a different day, another ne’er-do-well was not so fortunate. I had just stepped onto the pedestrian crossing with the lights in my favour when a car hurtled past me, causing me to leap to safety. A police car happened to be on the other side of the road. It did an abrupt u-turn and by the time I had crossed the road, they had stopped the other vehicle, forced the driver out and had him spread-eagled against his own car bonnet as they searched him.
“I hope they throw the book at him,” I thought with quiet satisfaction.

On another night, I awoke to find two police vans had flagged down a car containing several young black men, I watched as the police carefully searched the interior of the car and the boot. They found nothing and were obliged to let the young men continue their onwards journey in peace.

Other than the broken down school bus, I have only witnessed one street fight outside. Two men were having an argument one evening. The younger man would run up to the middle aged man, taunt him to his face and then run off again. He accused the older man of punching him in a local pub and stealing from him. The older man lived nearby. I wondered why he didn’t just walk into his own house or perhaps he didn’t want the younger man to know where he lived. The younger man did not seem to pose any real threat as he would hurry away each time the older man was within sparring distance. Gradually their fight left the confines of the narrow pavement as they recklessly weaved in and out of the moving traffic. I went downstairs and into the garden after I realised that the Couple and the Original Freeholder were already outside, eavesdropping on the police from their side of the garden fence. It transpired that the older guy was both deaf and unable to speak. I was even more indignant at his assailant’s use of Anglo-Saxon expletives relating to the female anatomy, as I knew there were young children within earshot.

The street fight had originated in a local pub. There had been a public house or inn on the same site for centuries. A small plaque commemorated the fact it had once been the haunt of highwaymen in the 17th and 18th centuries. Doubtless some former patrons once hung out at another notorious locality; namely the gibbet by the common where their tarred corpses swung from chains as a grisly warning to other such malefactors. It is strange how the passage of centuries has added a certain romance to such felons, whereas their modern counterparts evoke nothing but contempt.

Same Old New Year!

I rarely celebrate New Year. In my childhood, I invested the future with all the dreams that made the present palatable. Now I realise that the light at the end of the tunnel is that of an express train. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed some memorable New Year festivities in my time.

In my early childhood, I was allowed to stay up until midnight on 31st December. We would eat freshly cooked gammon and fruit salad with cream before settling down to watch the most popular Hogmanay television programme of the era: Andy Stewart and the White Heather Club.

As an adult my tastes were more sophisticated. One year a friend and I celebrated New Year’s Eve within the art deco splendour of the old Penguin Café in St Martin’s Lane. The restaurant was hosting a 1920s themed evening and guests were expected to dress accordingly.  I wore a heavily beaded flapper dress with a matching beaded stole (later ruined in the fire). The male guests all looked dapper in their formal dinner jackets and bow ties. It is a look which can make even the most homely of men look rather sexy in my eyes. The young men had slicked their hair down to make them look as if they were extras from the Great Gatsby. After we had dined, a pianist on the café’s grand piano, accompanied other musicians in playing jazz tunes, which we enthusiastically shimmied and danced the Charleston to until Midnight and beyond.

It was not just my beaded dress that was ruined by the fire. So was my friendship with the woman at the Penguin Café. She would frequently telephone me late at night to regale me with complaints about her on-off boyfriend. I listened patiently as she babbled away into the early hours. Then one evening, just after ten o’clock, I had occasion to telephone her with dramatic news of my own. I explained that an arsonist had set my house on fire and I had been trapped inside. I said I was very lucky to have been rescued in time and had been treated in hospital for smoke inhalation. (Fire! 24th October 2009)  The intensity of the fire was such that it would be months before I could move back into my flat again. When I finished she simply commented: “I’m tired and want to go to bed” and hung up on me.

A far more enduring friendship has been with Mandip. It was her idea to spend a Christmas and New Year in San Francisco. We stayed in the charming San Remo Hotel on Mason Street. It was built in 1906 in the Victorian style and the rooms furnished to reflect that era. There were no televisions, telephones or en-suite facilities in the bedrooms, perhaps because to accommodate the latter would have compromised the integrity of the period rooms. Sadly for Mandip they did not have period bell hops. I had warned her that I was merely going to be taking hand luggage with me and she should only take what she could reasonably carry by herself. She took a large suitcase which she then had to struggle to haul up the stairs to the first floor reception. I had learnt my lesson as a teenager. I travelled to Scandinavia with an equally large suitcase, only to realise that the vertiginous steps on continental trains were designed for those travelling light or with porters. Worse was to come at a Swedish seaport. As I stood at the top of the escalator, my luggage escaped my grip and the suitcase arrived at the bottom long before I did. It was fortunate that no-one else was on the escalator at the time. After that, I travelled with hand luggage on the basis that there were always laundry facilities of one sort or another to be found where ever you were and if there weren’t, then sartorial standards were unlikely to be of much importance.

We had arranged in advance to dine at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco on Christmas Day. As befitting Mandip’s choice it, it was all very glamorous, but I remember it chiefly for the fact that I lost my packet of birth control pills there and did not have the nerve to ring reception and ask if they had been handed in. Trying to book a table on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco proved far more formidable. We traipsed forlornly from restaurant to restaurant, being turned away from them all. It looked as if we would be spending New Year’s Eve holed up in our hotel room with only snacks from the local supermarket to sustain us. Miraculously, when we tried the very first restaurant in San Francisco that we had ever dined in, a cancellation suddenly came through. How smug we felt on New Year’s Eve as would-be diners appeared in the doorway begging for a spare table, only to be turned away.

On one New Year’s Eve, I found myself in conversation with the then chairman of a nationalised utility, a fact I was determined to make good use of back at work. One of my staff had expressed a mixture of surprise and condescension when she discovered that a friend of mine lived in council accommodation. Her attitude rankled on a number of levels. But I bided my time.
“Where did you say that your husband worked?” I asked her one day in passing.
She repeated the name of the nationalised industry.
“Does he know the chairman? Socially I mean.” I enquired guilelessly.
She said that he didn’t.
“How curious”, I said.” “I was at a private supper party with the chairman on New Year’s Eve.”
After that, my colleague never ever made disparaging remarks about the social standing of my friends.

Potentially, the most fraught New Year’s Eve of them all was in 1999. Not only was there the fear of mass disaster as the world’s computer systems were scheduled to crash, there was also the social ignominy of not having anywhere to go or, if you were hosting a party, not having any guests. I solved the problem by staying with relatives at their lakeside chalet in Finland. On the phone, they had told me they had carved out a hole in the ice on the frozen lake and I would be expected to clamber down into it. I thought they were joking. When I arrived in Finland, they solemnly lifted up a tarpaulin and showed me the hole carved into the ice by the iron ladder at the end of the jetty. Having viewed it, I was even more dubious about venturing down into it.
On New Year’s Eve we set off fireworks by the lakeside and drank champagne to celebrate the new century. Later, I was teased as to whether or not I was going to plunge into the icy water. Feeling that the British bulldog spirit was at stake, I said I would go that very night. A female relative joined me at the lakeside sauna. Unluckily for me the sauna had a small glass pane set in the wooden door and through which my relative could observe me as I walked out, clad only in a swimming costume and a pair of plimsolls on my feet, across the deep snow and along the jetty to the iron steps. Having removed my plimsolls, I climbed down. I toyed briefly with the idea of just crouching and pretending that my feet had touched the water but then I gingerly extended a toe.
“I shall probably have a heart attack when my feet touch the water,” I thought grimly. To my surprise the water was not as cold as I thought it would be and I waded in. When I triumphantly re-emerged out of the ice, I made the mistake of not slipping my plimsolls back on again and I walked back across the snow in my bare wet feet, something I would not recommend.

My dancing days and exploring the icy depths of frozen lakes at midnight are long behind me. I shall be fast asleep when we enter the second decade of the 21st century. May it bring us all better fortune than the last!