Back from the march – the morning after gathering in my Hebden Bridge room
“I read your book, young man.” Mrs Regular placed her comment carefully between two sips of Darjeeling, with the milk added first. I was quite flattered, twice over. It wasn’t the first time she had called me young but a few months had passed since the last time so perhaps I was ageing well. Mind you, everything’s relative. I was doubly flattered by the fact she had bothered to read my book, especially as she didn’t seem to be your most obvious target market for online literature.
“You cheeky bugger,” she added. I reddened slightly at the accusation but this lightened to a more delicate shade of rose pink as she smiled at me in a semi-approving manner.
“So, you, erm, liked it?” I asked, fishing for compliments whilst fearing I might catch something inedible.
“I’m saying nothing.” There was something in her eye which could have suggested amusement or reprobation. I decided to treat myself and believe the former. I also decided not to push it and diverted my attention elsewhere.
I was quite surprised to find Mike, James and John in Hebden Bridge; they weren’t sitting on the leather-effect sofas but were, in their usual semi-erect poses, leaning against whatever was available. They were in deep conversation with Mr and Mrs Tourist as they had all been on the bus to London the previous day to protest against Brexit and the dire mess otherwise known as British politics in 2019. Well, since 23rd June 2016, to be more precise.
Mr and Mrs Tourist had become almost regular, by which I am not referring to their bowel movements. They were, as some of you may know, former Leave voters who had changed allegiance very quickly when they had seen who was leading Brexit and where it was going.
“Yesterday really proved my point,” the female half of the partnership was saying, even though a large proportion of her audience had never heard her point before. She enlightened them. “There were at least a million people on the streets of London yesterday, some say closer to two but let’s go with the conservative one million so no one will argue, and was there any trouble?” It was the type of question Mike often asked. “Not an ounce! And yet the woman who started the online petition to revoke Article 50, which now has almost five million signatures in just, what is it, five days, gets hate mail and death threats.”
“Shame!” chorused the Cape Town trio.
“There are so many Leave supporters who just turn nasty whenever the tide turns against them.”
“Fascist scum, the ones who do things like that.” Mike rarely minced his words.
Lois, who was clearly missing Matthew and Mark sufficiently to migrate from Granada, had also been on the bus to London and rolled into Hebden Bridge with her face still showing the visual after-effects of a blue flag and gold stars. Obviously, she didn’t use the right soap. She descended on Mrs Tourist as if she had made a new life-long friend on the journey.
“My friend has sent me some pics,” she announced, waving her phone in the Tourists’ faces. Long gone are the days when you took a roll of film to Boots and eagerly awaited the prints a few days later. “I can’t decide which is the funniest!” She sat on the sofa, sandwiched between husband and wife and with Mike, James and John leaning over the back.
“I love that one,” said Mrs Tourist, laughing at a handwritten sign declaring ‘I’m British – I’m on a march – things must be bad’. “That’s me; never been on a march before. I just never saw it as a British thing to do.” I could have indicated that she was in possession of a short and/or selective memory but that would have been churlish.
“I think that one is almost an insult to Ikea,” said James in response to a placard stating that the author had seen smarter cabinets in the said Swedish furniture store than in the higher echelons of British government.
“That’s just so British, isn’t it?” laughed Lois, displaying a placard saying ‘I am quite cross’. “Classic restraint!”
The next photograph was of a foot dressed in a British flag with the owner shooting it. “Yep; that’s Brexit to the rest of the world – Britain shooting itself in the foot!” Mike commented.
“Trump and Putin think otherwise,” James pointed out.
“So proving the point!” said Mike. “Just what they want for their own ends!”
“I think this has to be my winner,” said Lois, showing a cardboard sign written in black marker pen: ‘Brexit grass is greener because it’s fertilised with bullshit’.
“Close call, but yeah, that’s clever,” agreed John. “More beers, please, Kal!” It was rather early in the day, but who am I to argue with a would-be multiple purchaser of my wares?
By the time I came back, Lois and the Tourists were still engaged in active conversation and it was soon evident they had been talking about Lois’s job as an English Language Teacher. Mr and Mrs Regular edged over to join their group, which actually involved a certain level of discomfort given the arrangement of furniture.
Allow me to rephrase; Mrs Regular joined the group as a participant, while Mr Regular was coerced by his spouse to lend his physical presence, if not exactly that of his mind.
Mrs Regular was curious about Lois’s job and some of the language she was using. “So, what’s all this?” she questioned, rather openly and a little aggressively. “How do you get students to produce a word without translating it for them first?”
Lois smiled patiently, as though she had been asked this question thousands of time before, which she probably had. “Let me try,” she said. “At the moment, Britain is in a bit of a mess…”
“And therein lies a major understatement,” contributed Mike from the fringes.
Lois, used to ignoring Matthew and Mark, ignored Mike with consummate ease, which, I have to say, was quite an achievement. “Theresa May says it isn’t her fault and instead blames the MPs. She also says the people don’t want a second referendum when the majority clearly do. What phrase can we use to describe Theresa May? She’s… in…”
It perhaps wasn’t the best piece of conveying and eliciting I’ve ever heard but it was definitely on the right lines. Mrs Tourist and Mrs Regular looked a little bemused.
It was one of those moments when those partaking in an interaction didn’t have to fake surprise or double takes, although looking at the ceiling for inspiration might have been a little over the top. It was probably only the third time I had ever heard Mr Regular speak without being prodded into action by his wife’s blunt fingernails or umbrella tip, and many of his fellow customers had probably assumed he was dumb, but his contribution was both timely and valid.
Lois, looking delighted at having successfully drawn her target phrase from an unlikely source, decided to continue her teaching demonstration. “Does the majority of the country think Theresa May is to blame?”
“Yes,” came the choral reply.
“Does someone who is in denial believe this?”
“Does the majority of the country want a second referendum?”
“Does someone who is in denial believe this?”
Lois took a seated bow and there was a smattering of applause from her immediate entourage.
Mike decided to ram home the message by being repetitive, just in case anyone had missed the point of the mini-lesson. “If anyone wants to know what ‘in denial’ means, they just need to look at Theresa May. At the moment, she is denying she is responsible for the mess and isn’t to blame for the Brexit crisis – wrong. She is setting the country against its own MPs by suggesting it’s all their fault and believes her press conference didn’t inflame public opinion against parliament and its MPs – wrong. And she’s claiming that she’s on the people’s side and is insisting they don’t want a second referendum – wrong – when every poll conducted suggests completely the opposite.”
“Didn’t I just say all that?” said Lois, in the manner of one whose thunder had been stolen.
Mike looked a little taken aback; he wasn’t used to being challenged. “I was just reinforcing your argument,” he countered, with a touch of rarely-seen humility. “And to lead into my assertion,” he continued with more confidence, “that Theresa May is your archetypal drowning autocrat who fakes listening like…” He was suddenly lost for an analogy.
“Some people fake orgasms.” John’s intervention, quietly delivered though it was, produced expressions ranging from embarrassment to hilarity. Mr Regular seemed to be whispering in his partner’s ear, presumably asking for a definition. Mr and Mrs Tourist retreated into their empty cappuccino cups. “Oops, sorry!” He then made the mistake of trying to joke himself out of a hole. “Denial isn’t just a river in Africa, you know.” The diverging emotions in the room coalesced into a chorus of groans. Mike looked briefly ashamed to count him as a friend.
James, wisely, decided the mood needed changing. “Here’s a joke for you,” he began, perhaps less wisely after his drinking colleague’s recent lamentable effort. “Did you see the news last night? Nigel Farridge standing on top of a bus…”
“I assume it had a pack of Brexit lies written on the side?” John questioned, a comment which produced whimpers and chortles in equal measure.
“I didn’t notice,” replied James, “but he was there so that’s a big enough lie in itself. Anyway, he told the two hundred people listening that the million plus on the streets of London were not the majority and that they, the two hundred, were actually the 17.4 million! Is he just bad at Maths or is there something more sinister going on?”
“More sinister!” called out someone, although this remark of genuine concern was almost drowned in the laughter.
“Oh yeah,” commented Mrs Tourist, “this is the pro-Leave march which originally attracted about 70 people and Farage couldn’t even be bothered to be one of them!”
“Except when the press said they were coming to take pictures!” added her usually more reserved husband.
“Pathetic!” a customer was heard to sigh.
“That guy would perform more of a public service if he started selling used bog roll,” added James. There was a moment of silence while the gathering considered such a prospect.
“Here’s another joke,” said Mike, recovered from his momentary Lois-inspired awkwardness and trying to clear his mind of James’ lavatorial imagery. “Jeremy Corbyn.” The two words alone barely raised a giggle, but Mike, as always, wasn’t done. “First, he attends a meeting aimed at trying to resolve a national crisis but walks out when he sees the much more politically able and responsible Chuka Umunna is also present…”
“Pathetic!” chorused two of my customers.
“And then, when the largest national protest ever is taking place on the streets of London, where is the great rebel leader? Canvassing by the sea!”
“The invigorating air might bring him to his senses,” commented James. “Support your party or retire.”
I love a good-humoured café – it was a shame, however, that the underlying despair caused by Brexit, took the shine off it, even if many us were, at long last, starting to see light at the end of the three-year tunnel of gloom.
I deemed this to be a successful excursion into my Hebden Bridge space. I’d been called young, I’d found out I’d been read as an author, I’d been called a ‘cheeky bugger’, a few customers had tried a new room in my café and seemed to like it, and two of my former Leave-voting customers (possibly my only two) had attended a ‘Put it to the People’ march in London whilst carrying pro-EU banners and EU flags. Result or what?!
Love and romance (or not) in my Beirut room
If you’ve read the 2018 eavesdropping, and, if not, why not, you will know that my Beirut room is so named out of affection for the said Lebanese capital even though the inspiration for the furnishings came from a royal palace in Dubai and an unlikely teashop in the centre of Katowice, Poland. I see it as my intimate, romantic room. The customers who mostly frequent it have deemed otherwise.
On this particular afternoon, Micky was propped up against the cushions looking sad. This was nothing to be surprised about as the man was a walking romantic disaster area. There may even have been a touch of perverse pride in his admission that in former times, four of his girlfriends had left him in favour of one of their exes. Neither I nor his regular companion, Jo (female and tactless in approximately that order), actually believed this claim as Micky was as shy as Jo was blunt.
However, we can’t always be right.
“I’ve done a recount,” announced the unexpected ‘Casanova’. At this point we hadn’t been oriented to the topic of the conversation and his miserable expression did not provide enough contextual clues.
“I don’t think there’s a daily limit on the safe consumption of Yunnan Green,” Jo guessed incorrectly.
“I think it was six.” We were none the wiser.
“I know what you mean.” My contribution was pointless and uninformed.
“Six women I went out with went back to their husbands or exes.”
Jo spluttered in response; whether this was in disbelief or astonishment was made inconsequential by the fact her mouth was full of Algerian mint tea at the time and those of us in the line of fire got unexpectedly damp.
Had I been Micky, I would have kept this confession quiet, unless he was considering setting up a business with the mission of reconciling broken relationships by going out with the female half to make them realise how lucky they had hitherto been.
Jo found a packet of tissues and tried to alleviate the effects of her liquid outburst. At that moment, the curtains covering the entrance to the room billowed suddenly and Misha stumbled in, failing, as always, to see Jo’s clumsily placed footwear and consequently getting tangled up in the loose fabric (note to self: check health and safety about that). In his frantic efforts to remain upright, he dislodged his sunglasses with one hand and then, in trying to push them back on mid-stumble, only succeeded in knocking them to the far side of the room. The whole, brief spectacle was mildly amusing.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he mumbled in a somewhat disoriented manner.
“I didn’t realise we had an appointment,” said Micky, unperturbed by the disturbance.
“Or a date,” said Jo wickedly.
Even though Misha, along with old readers (by which I mean previous readers not those of a geriatric disposition), was well aware of Jo’s lack of interest in men of any age, shape or size, his de-shaded eyes looked rather startled. He covered his bemusement by trying to rearrange both shades and dignity at the same time, unfortunately not succeeding in achieving either.
It took him somewhere in the region of thirty seconds to regain something of his usual composure. “I’ve just been waylaid by that Mike character in Cape Town,” he finally said. “He was ranting on about The Hypocrisy of the Ostrich. Is that some kind of 1980s concept album by a substance-laden rock band?”
Jo dissolved into only semi-mock hysterics and even the sad one raised the corners of his mouth into some semblance of a smile, although it rather resembled a grimace.
“Allow me to explain in simple terms,” said Jo, condescendingly. “You’re not the first to be accosted by Mike today and I very much doubt you’ll be the last. The ’ostrich’ is Theresa May, so called because her head is stuck so far in the sand, she is outside the range of common sense. The ‘hypocrisy’ is that she keeps bringing her damned rotten deal back to parliament and is bullying and bribing and pleading to get it passed no matter how many times it takes, while the poor old British public only get one shot at a referendum.”
“Ah,” said Misha with dawning realisation. “You’ve got to admit he’s got a point.”
“A hundred per cent got a point,” concurred Jo.
“You see what happens when you only get part of the intended communication,” said Micky. Having almost forgotten he was there in the kerfuffle of Misha making his entrance, Jo and I looked at each other and, in a burst of synchronicity, mouthed the word ‘Rebecca’, the said girl being just one byline in Micky’s dismal catalogue of non-relationships with the opposite gender. We had been on the receiving end of his communication model and his inability to follow his own advice a few months ago and the information had surprisingly remained in the longer-term memory.
“Anyway, I don’t like seeing my country turned into an international laughing stock so let’s leave the politics in Cape Town,” redirected Jo. “We were just having an, erm, interesting conversation about Micky’s lack of numeracy skills in counting the women he’s driven back to their exes.”
“What, again?” Misha was dismissive, as he often was when someone else’s lothario-like behaviour was in the spotlight rather than his own.
“Apparently, it was six.”
Misha looked almost impressed. “It isn’t all that bad,” he said, almost consolingly. “At least, you get the fun without the commitment.”
“Who said it was fun?” responded the object of the consolation prize.
Misha raised one eyebrow and then the other with an expression typical of a commitment-phobe who doesn’t see much beyond the benefits of short-term relationships.
Micky rethought, again. “Actually, most of it was fun but I didn’t like the endings. Rarely happy ones.” He thought again. “Actually never.” Glumness returned to his visage and one was once more reminded of a Basset Hound having a bad day at the office.
“You need to get back on the horse,” said Misha, returning to his more familiar unsympathetic nature. Jo didn’t like the analogy but only displayed it through a facial contortion Misha couldn’t see behind the shades which seemed to be covered in finger marks following their recent bid for freedom. “Start courting again and stick to one at a time if you feel you must.”
Jo laughed out loud. She was spluttering and chortling as though she was personally responsible for maintaining the bonhomie in the room. “Courting? You’re showing your age, Misha, my dear! No, Micky, I think you should woo someone instead.” The word ‘woo’ was uttered as dramatically as she could muster, accompanied by an equally dramatic and sudden waving of her arms which once more endangered Misha’s shades. She continued giggling to herself and her cheeks reddened a little as the two targets of her sit-down comedy routine exchanged glances of bafflement. She returned to her mint tea and, thankfully, this time, managed to send it in the right direction.
Misha recovered more quickly from the insinuation that he was lexically dated than he had from his flailing arrival. “If we’re talking about the past,” he began, although I detected a tenuous link on the horizon, “don’t you think things were better then?”
This was clearly a very open question as there can be little doubt many ‘things’ were better in the past while, just as irrefutably, many ‘things’ are better in the present day.
Jo didn’t appreciate the potential for ambiguity in the word ‘things’. “I presume you have something specific in mind,” she responded with a rising intonation indicating the interrogative form.
“These days, you have to think all the time about being politically correct and doing things according to nanny-state regulations.”
“Ah,” chorused Jo, Micky and, I think, I.
“These days, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t climb trees…”
Jo had clearly pictured Misha halfway up a tree and once again broke into a fit of giggles. I had never identified her as a giggler before so she was either in a very good mood or just faking it. I was yet to determine which.
“I was referring to kids,” said Misha with slight annoyance. “When I were a lad,” he continued, displaying his very northern roots, “we could stay out all day long, play in the streets, walk in and out of neighbours’ houses and, yes, climb trees without anyone making a fuss.”
“Well,” said Jo at some length, “that’s part nanny state and part a sad reflection on the way society has changed, certainly in terms of health and safety.”
“I survived without being pampered by the state!” Misha’s annoyance seemed to be growing, which wasn’t a common occurrence.
“Those who did, did,” retorted Jo, rather obviously. “And those who didn’t are the reason for all the regulations.”
Misha opened his mouth to speak but realised there was some logic behind Jo’s argument. He decided to try another tack. “What about the laws concerning touching?”
If Micky was having trouble counting his exes who had performed a volte-face, I had certainly done likewise with how many times Jo had burst out laughing.
“I might have known women would be involved somewhere!”
“Actually, I didn’t initially mean that,” said Misha, whose anger seemed to be rising stride for stride with Jo’s amusement. “I was referring more to ideas that grandparents shouldn’t be allowed to hug their grandchildren without their permission. I don’t know if that’s a law or some extremist’s suggestion but either way, it’s ridiculous.”
“Fair point,” said Micky, who had said so little recently, I’d wondered if he’d got lost in the cushions.
“And touching is nice!”
“We’ve been here before, though,” said Jo. “If it’s wanted by both sides, and in your case, I doubt it always is.”
“But, as a relative, you have to show affection for children,” said Micky. “Children can’t grow up without love and contact is one way of showing that.”
“Not everyone who touches a child is a molester,” Misha agreed.
“I agree it’s a shame the actions of a very small minority have made people think otherwise,” sighed Jo.
“And I grew up in a period when touching was seen as a normal,” Misha continued. “I know I’m probably over-tactile but that’s something which was a feature of my time. It’s the times which have changed rather than me and it isn’t always easy to keep pace.”
“Especially if you don’t particularly want to.”
Misha shrugged in a blending of acceptance and helplessness.
“Like many other things in life,” Jo pronounced, “it’s a matter of balance. With adults, you need to be sure it’s wanted or completely inoffensive, and with children, you need to be sure they and their parents or guardians are happy with it. You’re right to say children need affection and love but these days, sadly, you’ve just got to think and be careful, and not act on impulse.”
It seemed, after a long meandering path through a jungle of opinions, an unlikely consensus had been reached on at least one point. Several others remained up in the air, no doubt to be brought back to the debating chamber known as Beirut just as often as that damned deal on Brexit.