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I am domesticated

  Fri 12th February 2021

On Thursday I was alone in a courtroom, controlling the technical side of an online application hearing, which would normally have been held with all parties present in that room.

I get an email, which was sent round to everyone in the Court, from the post clerk. "Could whoever did this" -- and there was a photograph of an envelope I'd addressed to Helen in Norway, sending her my change of address card -- "please be careful in future. This was very nearly missed. Air mail must be clearly marked as such."

Coming down back into the open plan office, where every error is public, I was hot with shame. By the way she muted her normally perky chatter as she spoke to me, I knew that one of my colleagues had recognised my handwriting and had reported it.

I bade as cheery a good afternoon to everyone as my reddened face would allow, and resigned by text the following morning. I sent a separate message to my manager. "I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience this has...", then re-wrote it as "...I have caused." She was magnanimous. "It's alright, just as long as you are OK. Feel free to ring me for a chat."

But I wasn't going back, the photograph of the fraudster's envelope having been circulated as courtly samizdat.

It felt liberating, and as for work, there's plenty of cleaning shifts at the hospital, and I'm still working at The Big House. It's a liberation. Lettergate only hastened a decision to leave which I had planned anyway. I only wish my colleague who had found me out had just had a quiet word with me, instead of betraying me.

My family have been so pleased for me becoming a civil servant, which they see as an elevation into a respectable and ordered class, that I haven't told them that I'm back scrubbing toilets -- for an hourly rate inferior by ten pence.

On my first shift back at the hospital, as I was cleaning a sink, a patient said to me "this canula's still leaking." "Oh right OK, I'll tell a nurse." "Oh, sorry, I didn't realise you were a domestic." No, neither did I.


Me and Mel went to the new flat. We bumped into some of the other denizens of the block, all maskless. "Can I introduce myself? My name's looby and this is my girlfriend Mel." Nods and smiles all round. We stood about while Billie, perhaps the unofficial concierge, told us of the improvised social programme now that the landlord has forbidden us from using the capacious communal lounge. Those that like society meet up on Wednesday afternoons where the corridor turns a right angle outside her flat.

"We do a raffle and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. If you want to join in you can buy something yourself or you can give me a fiver and I'll get the prizes." I wondered about the "cup of tea", suspecting that the odd small sherry might form part of our games of chance.

Pleased at the opening account we gave of ourselves, we left them to go to the flat, where we ordered pizza and a bottle of wine. There being no carpets, nor a bed, Mel had to stand up to get her dessert.


But at the moment, I'm still sharing a house with Cath, who was enthused by reading the other day that people in our sub-postcode are encouraged to do "surge testing" -- so under her cosh, yet another bit of retching on a twisting cotton bud, cooking up her anxiety catnip for her, fuel for her evangelism of worry.

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A stranger gives me a new drug

  Sat 30th January 2021

On Sunday I was released from isolation. I felt a prisoner not of the virus but of Cath, who kept me in despite her taking us up to the local rugby club, getting tested, and both of us being negative. "But it's the incubation period," she argued.

I want to keep things sweet with her because I'm moving out soon, but seeing last Saturday's sun, brilliant on the snow, made me rock and pace like a lunatic confined. I'm reading a book about the history of corridors and the loony bin plays a big part in the way that corridors have become somewhat menacing spaces in our imaginations. By the end I was thinking "I'll be down the funny farm soon."


Mel came along with me to see the flat I've been offered. I'd been sent instructions about how to get the "key", a retro-fitted name for some sort of electronic device shaped like a huge teardrop. We stood fiddling with the key's lock box outside. A bus driver and two residents inside watched us through the glass-pannelled door as I tapped the fob ineffectually on various rectangular surfaces.

Eventually one of them let us in. I explained ourselves to the trio and we were pointed upstairs to what will soon be my flat. It was institutional, beige, with dilute cigarette smoke following us. The flat next door had a black and yellow sticker on its door warning that CCTV was in operation.

The flat's small, no separate bedroom, but with a cosy and worktop-rich kitchen. The floor is laid with some sort of composite panelling, and whatever you call the things that run round the perimeter of a room with tacks sticking up from them, that receive carpets. I've got various tatty bits of recycled carpet that might do in the short term.

Standing in the window, we held each other still, no stroking or effort to please, or to translate anything into movement. She was insulated thickly, but with my arms clasped round her, I knew what is underneath. "Don't just see it as a shag pad though looby. You've got to live here too."

On leaving, we had to ask to get through a crowd of people. I thought for a moment it must be a residents' meeting forced outside, but then I saw a wreath to "Gran".


I went round to Hayley's and met the man she's currently toying with. He walked in apologising for the smell of tarmac, him being a road worker. I said not to worry and that I don't mind a bit of solvent abuse myself. We got on well. He was a chatty Traveller with some enthrallingly horrible anecdotes of neglect and abuse from his mum, which he had the grace to turn away from quickly.

Hayley was tendentiously distancing herself from her boyfriend, criticising him in his absence in a way I found awkward. After Mr Tarmac had left, she was talking about the unexciting sex she has with K. "I feel like I'm on an extended German exchange trip."

She texted as I was on the bus. "He's nice isn't he? Needs grooming, but a bit more interesting than K." True, his hair was a mess, but I don't think that's what she meant.


I had a new drug last week, one which didn't even exist a year ago. ((4-hydroxybuytl)azaediyl)bis(hexane-6,1-diyl)bis(2-hexyldeanoate) won't give you anything more than a stiff arm for a day or so, but together with a couple of other chemical sesquipedalia, it'll protect you against a novel communicable disease. I got it early by virtue of still being registered as a casual cleaner with the NHS. I'm doing a night shift tonight, as I'll be paying two lots of rent for a short time.


I rang Trina. Relations are cordial at last. I asked her if she'd mind witnessing my will if I posted it to her. I could have asked Mel and Hayley to do it down here, but I thought it might please Trina to be entrusted with the task.

A minute or so after we'd finished talking, she rang me back. "It was just to say, I love you, and I think I always will."

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Bring out your dead

  Sat 16th January 2021

On the bus on the way home from work on Thursday, I get a text from Cath. "You're not going to work tomorrow! Ha!"

I assumed that there had been another slalom in government policy and that those of us whose lives are very boring because we're office clerks had been indefinitely released from our bondage. When I got home it was revealed that Cath's daughter had tested positive for the lurgy. Cath immediately placed us all under house arrest, her mood brightened by the thought of wiping everything all the time. Inwardly I was wailing for beer.

Work said they'd sort some online homework for me next week, but yesterday was bliss: I was put on "special leave".


And I had news of my own. I have been offered a tenancy in a housing association studio flat for which I just qualify by reason of my age: it's in an old folks' block safely equipped with grab rails. It crossed my mind that they might have removed a plague-struck corpse from the flat recently.

It has a huge communal room with wing-backed pink armchairs and bored plants. The neglected website advertises "bingo nights, a luncheon club, and outings," an attractive programme, in which I'd play around with that mildly suggestive banter that English old dears enjoy. It's in the close of a church, so I hope that Sundays are marked by ineptly rhythmned campanology. The most succulent pleasure there though, will be Mel, keeping me firm but supple.

After a year's probation, I will have a tenancy for life if I want it, and should I wish to move (it's a wee bit further from the city centre than I'd like to be ideally), I can seek a swap with any council or social landlord tenant in the country who'd like my flat. No more will I carry around, like a dormant virus, the insecurity that comes from relying on private landlords.

None of this solves the problem of how we are to escape our tenancy here five months early, but I imagine Cath to be a dogged negotiator, and she can now tell him that we have all found the exit.

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Cath takes me by surprise

  Mon 11th January 2021

Mel and I went on an essential business trip on New Year's Eve, which required hotel accommodation. There were two receptionists on duty; fortunately we got the Spanish one, who was less searching in his questions than his English colleague, who was asking for proof that the man he was checking in was in Bristol for work.

We had a completely enjoyable eighteen hours together. Drunkenness, and the kind of unhard, laughing sex that alcohol can produce, then I woke her in the middle of the night with something more serious, which continued episodically till late morning.

"You're a funny one looby." "Am I?" "Yes, all the clothes and shoes and rape fantasies." I thought "rape fantasy" was a bit of an overstatement but lit up at the casual, permissive way she said the phrase. "I didn't expect any of this from you."


Saturday morning and Cath is chatty as I make my coffee. She tells me that her and Ingrid are interested in a shared ownership flat which they want to buy. She will have to persuade the landlord to terminate our lease five months early, but should that be granted I'd have to start looking for a place around the end of March. I'd love to find somewhere self-contained if at all possible, and make a love nest where I can indulge my "rape fantasies" with a willing subject.

I discuss it with Mel, all the practical obstacles conjured away by a deus ex machina, gabbling on about the food I'd like to make for her, the films we could watch together, and of course, the sex we could have.


I was in a card shop on Saturday. Good-looking fortysomething running it, in a scarlet dress, reaching just below the thigh.

I was picking up some cards and reading them and she came up to me and she said "sorry sir, but could you only touch things you'd like to buy?"

This cheered me up a great deal. It really did look like a card shop.

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The last letter

  Sat 2nd January 2021

I got off work on Tuesday, remembering not to tell anyone where I was going, stowing my luggage under the desk, ready for a 4.30pm flit to Lancaster. My erroneously-issued and now out of date rail pass added another £170 to the thousands it has saved me.

Back in Lancaster I was clasped back into the bosom of my family, a warm and comforting place, full of wine, women and the occasional song. Long hugs from my thin daughters.

On Christmas Eve my mum rang to say that her sister had been told she's got breast cancer, and that my disabled brother had tested positive for corona. He was immediately placed under a needlessly harsh form of room arrest in his home. They wouldn't let him make or receive phone calls because they won't let him touch the phone.

As you might know, I've been writing one-sidedly to Wendy's dad for about three years, him being too infirm to reply. The letter I had with me to give to Wendy will never be read: on Boxing Day she me rang to say that he'd died on Christmas Day.

Later that day, my mum rang again to say that my brother went into an epileptic fit that wouldn't stop -- Wendy told me it's called status epilepticus -- and was hospitalised for a couple of days. He's out now and my mum has been able to ring him. He has been congratulating the "lovely porridge" served him during his stay. The staff still won't let him have the phone; a care worker holds it at two metres' distance so they both have to shout their conversation publicly.


Sunday evening, at Kitty's, I am watching her face as she unwraps her present. She used to live in Blackpool, and I had bought her a poster, one in a cautionary series advising against British seaside resorts.

"Oh..."she says, doubtfully. "Oh, erm...who's the artist?" "No idea love." "Oh well. I wonder who the artist is."

I'm puzzled by her reaction, until she shows me a gloomy C19th portrait of a tired-looking man dressed in black resting his head on his hand.


On Monday I met up with Wendy for a walk with the dog. We sat on a bench with a table next to a Christmas tree decorated with merrily colourful bulbs, where we drank port and smoked dope. She gave me the best present of all -- the last book that her dad had read whilst he was still able to read, Sweet Thursday by Steinbeck, with a dedication from the two of them to me.

She read me the obituary that her brother has prepared for the local papers, about his roistering life, financially supported by his career in a smokier and more alcoholic journalism than we have today; and the first paragraph of Cannery Row[1], which she'll read at his funeral on Thursday. "These were his people," she said.

We then went round to Kitty's, who, in a typically simple, kind act, had made us all soup. I wasn't sure about to what degree of talking about her dad, or wanting us to be merry, that Wendy wanted, but it was more important that we were just there, chatting, Wendy holding it back but still taking part.

Kitty made a comment about Wendy looking "beautiful", which means completely different things for a man and a woman. I jumped in to wrest the word from the sexless sisterhood's interpretation, and reminded her that she is stunningly beautiful, in the proper sense of that verb.

I came back via Leeds, where I spent a freezing cold twenty minutes in a churchyard with my old uni pal. I was hoping he'd allow me into their house, but we stood on the heatsink flags instead. I had an expensive coffee I didn't want.

At Leeds station, I made the decision to have a shave. I have never felt glad to wear a face mask until then, since the cheap plastic razor left me with several cuts, and the inside of the mask is now all bloody.

Walking home, I suddenly realised that I'd left my holdall on the train. Everything else can be replaced, but not Bill's book. I'm very much hoping it finds its way back to the lost property office in Bristol. I've done this before -- readers with long memories will remember the time I joined my family to travel to Brittany on our hols, and arrived with only the clothes I was wearing. The rest were last seen on a luggage rack on a train, and were never returned.


[1]
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink,
a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia,
a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin
and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement
and weedy lots and junk-heaps, sardine canneries of corru-
gated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and
little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses. Its
inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps,
gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Every-
body. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he
might have said : "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy
men," and he would have meant the same thing.

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looby, n.; pl. loobies. A lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person


M / 57 / Bristol, "the most beautiful, interesting and distinguished city in England" -- John Betjeman [1961, source eludes me].

"Looby is a left-wing intellectual who is obsessed with a) women's clothes and b) tits." -- Joy of Bex.

WLTM literate woman, 40-65. Must have nice tits, a PhD, and an mdma factory in the shed, although the first on its own will do in the short term.


There are plenty of bastards who drink moderately. Of course, I don't consider them to be people. They are not our comrades.
Sergei Korovin, quoted in Pavel Krusanov, The Blue Book of the Alcoholic

I am here to change my life. I am here to force myself to change my life.
Chinese man I met during Freshers Week at Lancaster University, 2008

The more democratised art becomes, the more we recognise in it our own mediocrity.
James Meek

Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

I hate the iPod; I hate the idea that music is such a personal thing that you can just stick some earplugs in your ears and have an experience with music. Music is a social phenomenon.
Jeremy Wagner

La vie poetique has its pleasures, and readings--ideally a long way from home--are one of them. I can pretend to be George Szirtes.
George Szirtes

Using words well is a social virtue. Use 'fortuitous' once more to mean 'fortunate' and you move an English word another step towards the dustbin. If your mistake took hold, no-one who valued clarity would be able to use the word again.
John Whale

One good thing about being a Marxist is that you don't have to pretend to like work.
Terry Eagleton, What Is A Novel?, Lancaster University, 1 Feb 2010

The working man is a fucking loser.
Mick, The Golden Lion, Lancaster, 21 Mar 2011

The Comfort of Strangers

23.1.16: Big clearout of the defunct and dormant and dull
16.1.19: Further pruning

If your comment box looks like this, I'm afraid I sometimes can't be bothered with all that palarver just to leave a comment.

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Another Angry Voice
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"Just sit still and listen" - woman to teenage girl at Elliott Carter weekend, London 2006

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