Thursday, 25 March 2010

Birthday List



It's Flatmate's birthday next week.

Here's what he's said he wants: Oriental Princess hair remedy, a crystal star to hang in his window, lots and lots of Kinder chocolate.

Here's what I'm thinking of getting him (in addition to the above; after listening carefully to unrelated conversations): an Avril Lavigne poster, an electric toothbrush, a long blonde wig.

Naturellement, I will also bake him a cake in the shape of a monkey.

Flatmate is, of course, a 30something-year-old heterosexual male and NOT, as this post may indicate, a pubescent girl.




Friday, 12 March 2010

Gillingham



Or "Gin-um", as we locals pronounce it.

It is strange being back. Time, and indeed my interest in life, has stopped since I arrived. Suburbia can be a desolate place.

My Lovely Sister and her hubby are very kindly letting me stay with them until my momentum reappears. Their house stands on a newish estate, built on land that used to be the old army barracks. When I was at junior school, my best friend Lucy Jeffries lived here with the terrifying Mrs Jeffries (who was also our teacher), the handsome, remote and god-like Capt Jeffries (who was mostly Not There), her little brother Bendy, and their lumbering mountain of a dog Sebastian.

Visiting Lucy for the weekend was always exciting, not least for the fact to enter the base we had to pass through a barrier manned by SOLDIERS, and to reach Lucy's house we had to drive very slowly over SPEED BUMPS. Speed bumps! It was the first time I'd encountered them, and they were almost as thrilling as a promise of a trip to the seaside.

Mrs Jeffries, though, was a different matter. She had dyed red hair and wore lots of jewellery and had a big barking laugh that exposed huge horses' teeth, often decorated with smears of lipstick and bits of food. She was loud and gaudy, nothing like my quietly-spoken, mild-mannered mum. At school she read us exciting stories and shouted if you couldn't do your maths and taught us a song about a kookaburra. Once she told me about a time she'd been eating dinner and she'd laughed so hard a piece of chicken went up the back of her nose. It was always a worry that one day she might laugh so hard she would suck you into that gaping maw.

Weekends with Lucy involved avoiding Mrs Jeffries, exploring the Darland Banks, and teasing Bendy.

The Darland Banks haven't changed much: fields and trees to the left, the ugly swathe of Luton, Lordswood, Walderslade, Chatham to the right. At the Chatham end of the Banks is my old grammar school. I walk past it sometimes and see the girls in their navy uniforms who used to be me. The school hasn't changed much either. There is the music room where Nicola and I got banned from sitting together in recorder lessons, owing to our habit of snorting with laughter into our instruments. There is the playground where I played Pom Pom before I got far too grown up for that sort of thing. There is the art room where I would paint and draw like someone obsessed and secretly dream of going to art college, while knowing only Real Artists did that.

Even though you can't see them from the road I know that round the back there is the common room I helped paint yellow one summer holiday, the gym where I was informed after a PE lesson by two bossy classmates I needed to start wearing a bra (that day my childhood ended: I was so ashamed), the biology lab stinking of death and chemicals, the sixth form block that reminds me of Tom Stoppard and Dylan Thomas, trees that smell of spunk in the summer.

From a side road you can see the school playing field. I dreaded this in summer for its hideous, pointless, athletics and because it meant I had to expose my fat white legs. In winter, I despised it slightly less because it afforded the chance to get muddy and wear comfortable tracksuit pants and to thwack a hockey ball with a satisfying clack. Look, there's the same goalpost where as a young right back I used to gather with fellow defenders Jo and Yvonne for a lean (sometimes a sneaky sit-down) and a gossip, content to believe our forwards were invincible.

After school I used to walk to the bus stop along the alleyway next to the playing field with Andrea with the Very White Teeth. She went on to be head girl, even though she dyed her fringe pink and was therefore A Punk. Andrea used to tell me that her nana used to say blue and green should never be seen, but what about the sky and the trees? At the bus stop a gaggle of us would wait, and I would peer at approaching buses with the squint of myopia willing the 135 to appear and that the seat at the front upstairs would be free and hoping and praying the swoonworthy Phil Rowntree would get on outside the Howard.

Here's the building society on the corner, boarded up now, where now and again I used to deposit the pound coin my mum gave me for bus fare and walk home, sometimes up Edwin Road, sometimes down Star Lane, because I needed the quiet time.

Here's the scene of my second-ever snog, an unpleasant ordeal outside the chemist's, made even more embarassing by Nicola seeing me as she sailed past in a mustard-coloured mini driven by our French teacher Mrs Donovan who used to give her a lift home every day. And just along the road there is where I passed my driving test first time (even though I was "hesitant" emerging at a right-turn junction onto a main road), and the place where Simone and I were walking home from the nightclub one night and she glanced behind us and uttered the single, chilling word "Run", and the flat I nearly bought with my first proper boyfriend Nigel. Also the flat I lived in for a few years with my second before we moved to London, then Liverpool, then Auckland.

And of course there's dear old Anamika where I have been buying takeaway curry since adult life began. They give you beautiful hot creamy free coffee while you wait, and put out bowls of bombay mix for you to pick at and never mind that you only eat the nice bits, and then when your chicken dhansak's ready the nice man always opens the door for you as you leave. Bless. I'm almost tempted to go in just to see if he remembers me.

And that's the problem with being back. I haven't had to confront these things since I fled the Medway towns in the early 90s. It's why I'm finding it all rather difficult. Memories crowd around, clamouring for attention. They take up space, use up oxygen, block out the sun, trip me up, jostle me, wherever I go.

I forget what I'm supposed to be doing.