Friday, 25 July 2014

Blog holiday dates

Hello everyone!

There won’t be a Contact update on Sunday as I will be gallivanting round London enjoying the sunshine.
I’m also away the weekends of 10 and 17 August, so there won’t be updates then either. Apart from that, it should be business as usual.

Amy x

Sunday, 20 July 2014

84. The new online fast-track system

I'm sitting under the desk in the disused office on the third floor, drinking whisky. It is 11.30am and I'm supposed to be in a meeting about the roll-out of the new online fast-track system.

It's quite possible I am having a breakdown, I speculate, as I swirl the whisky around the glass and breathe in its clean disinfectant smell. Oh well. It's been coming for a while. Just one thing: if I am to be insane, I don't want to be dirty or badly dressed, please. If I end up standing in the middle of roundabouts “directing traffic” with a vibrator, or some similar activity, I fully intend to continue to look and smell as fabulous as is possible under whatever my current financial circumstances are at the time.

Being smelly and unhygenic, and wearing ripped or dirty clothes, is something I find deeply distressing. It upsets me in myself, and it disturbs and scares me in other people. It's some kind of deep fundamental association with lack of control, it's like people are actually choosing the ugly side of life.

I'm also distressed by rooms where the furniture is all over the place and doesn't flow properly, and by ugly ornaments and pictures, and by cluttered environments. It's not just dislike, it is actual, physical distress and I can't stay in places like that or around people who don't take care of themselves for very long. One of the reasons this office has become one of my safe spaces is because it has nothing in it except a desk, which is in its right place. Calming.

I think of the picture of two owls which was doing the rounds on the internet a while ago. One owl is saying to the other owl: “I have CDO. It's like OCD, but all the letters are in alphabetical order, AS THEY SHOULD BE.”

I think I probably have some kind of mild OCD, but then I also probably have post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and the treatment for all of these things is the same and involves a lot of pills and it doesn't get fucking fixed unless you do it yourself anyway because the doctor's surgeries are full of people with mental health problems and there are just too many of us to get the concentrated attention and tailor-made medication required to fix us. You do it yourself, or you stay ill. Lie down and die, or get up and start fighting. Up to you.

At that point, Chris walks around the front of the desk and squats down in front of me. He is half-smiling.

I've been wondering where you and your boyfriend disappear to,” he says.

I stare at him. I am under a desk, clutching a glass of whisky. I didn't hear him come in. How did I not hear him come in? Although, to be honest, in this situation I was fucked the moment he opened the door.

Martin's not my boyfriend,” I say.

He takes out his phone and takes a picture of me.

You know I'm with Jena now?” he says. He is still disturbingly hot. It sickens me that I am fucked up enough to feel turned on by him in this situation. It's also strange that we are communicating better – seeing each other better – than we did when we were actually dating.

I realise I haven't seen Jena for a while. I need to get in touch with her. If this is the guy she's with, she needs me.

What do you have to say for yourself?” he asks.

About what?” I say.

He waves a hand. “This,” he says. “All of this.” His lips twist into a sneer.

Amanda would have a comeback – or a roundhouse - that would send him reeling. Gin would smile, make a joke, charm him till he'd do anything for her. Sally would play the submissive, oh how he would love that.

I am Alice. I say nothing. I realise my skirt is rucked up to my thighs and my hair is greasy. I say nothing. It's my gift to myself, I will never say another unnecessary word to this man.

I'm going to get your geek boyfriend fired, you know,” he said. “The hearing's next week.”

I see how much he's enjoying this. I also see that I have done exactly what I set out to do to him. I've cracked his facade. This is the man behind the mystery. He is having an emotional response to me, just like I had one to him.

Christ, this is actually a love affair. We are tied to each other and, because he doesn't know how to do anything but hurt and I don't know how to do anything but get hurt, there is some horrific way in which we are absolutely perfect for each other.

Oh, fuck that train of thought. I replace the cap on the whisky and put the glass down next to it and stand up.

Where are you going?” Chris asks. “Where do you think you're going?”

I walk out of the room without answering. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

83. It is huge and uncharted

Amanda, Gin and I are in a cafe bar. I have a pint. Amanda has a pint. Gin has a pot of tea and something which was advertised as a “cake”, but can be more accurately described as a pile of cream with cherries and chocolate.

Gin rakes through her pile. “There's supposed to be some sponge in here somewhere,” she says.

It is huge and uncharted. If you go deep enough, you will find a lost tribe,” says Amanda.

Are you saying that because I'm black?” demands Gin. She says this a lot, mostly to freak out white middle-class liberals who don't know her very well, and I have to admit it is fun watching the absolute horror on their faces as they start apologising.

Yes,” says Amanda. “There's some of your relatives living in the bottom of that cake.”

I'm Jamaican. I don't know anything about the indigenous people of the Cake Region of East Africa. What, you think all black people are the same?”

At this politically incorrect point, a man taps Amanda on the shoulder and they greet each other. His name is, apparently, Adam. He is very attractive. I watch him walking over to join the group on the other side of the room and then become aware that Amanda is talking.

"...What?" I say, coming back to reality with a start.

"I said Adam is in a relationship," says Amanda.

Figures. A man like that is not going to be single.

I say: “Oh well, at least that means I don't have to put myself through the frantic trauma of working out how to convey my interest within the next three hours without getting friendzoned, humiliating myself in front of everyone in the bar or terrifying him with my intensity.”

(I am naturally an intensely emotional person, and a lot of people seem to equate that with "crazy". I am not arguing that I'm "normal", because I'm not. By anyone's definition. But neither am I insane, although I appreciate sometimes it comes off that way)

I intended that to be funny but Amanda and Gin both stare at me, and I realise my low self esteem has made them feel sad. It makes me feel sad too, I'm just not sure how not to do it. But now I feel even worse, because they were having a good time and I poured a chill on it. There's a reason why that's the kind of shit you are meant to think twice before expressing, and it's because it brings everyone else down.

Amanda says: “We need cocktails.” She gets up and goes to the bar.

I'm sorry,” I say to Gin. “I just sometimes feel like there's something that stops me from communicating with other people, especially men - “

No, stop, Alice. You aren't making this better.

I feel that no guy I like would ever go out with me. I mean, I thought he was stunning but I'd never have the nerve, and even if I got the nerve he'd probably laugh in my face because who would want to go out with me anyway?”

I trail off, knowing that I've said the wrong thing, not sure what the right thing is. Gin is looking at me solemnly and I notice she is wearing turquoise glitter eyeliner. It's a great colour on her.

She primly takes a sip of tea, then shifts her shoulders back so her cardigan becomes loose around her shoulders. She pulls it up over her head like a shawl in one swift movement and squawks: "I - AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO!"

"Fine," I say. "Why don't you do that, then."




Gin, people are looking.”

Adam and all his friends have stopped talking and are staring at Gin as if they can't believe what they're seeing. I can't believe what they're seeing either.

I say: “I mean, it's not even current. We're the only people in this room old enough to know who Cornholio i-”


At this point Amanda comes back, carrying a jug of margaritas and three glasses. She stands by the table, and silently considers Gin.

After a moment, she says: “I'm going to go up to the bar again. And I don't want any of this to be happening when I come back.”

As she leaves, Gin pulls the cardigan down and picks up her fork. She pokes around in the pile of cherries and cream on her plate for a couple of moments, and then looks at me.

She says: “It made about as much sense as everything you said.” 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

82. This debate misses the point

I am in my flat, alone, doing magic. I know magic doesn't exist. I also know that it works.

The phone and the internet are unplugged. My mobile is switched off. The room is lit by flickering tealights. On the table in front of me I have a black candle and a bowl of salt water.

This is a cleansing ritual. I want to disentangle myself from Chris, Derek and Martin. The last few months have left me feeling dirty and confused. They are all wrapped round me like used bandages.

There is a big debate about whether magic is real or not, and whether practitioners are crazy or deluded for thinking they can influence reality. This debate misses the point.

Human beings work in strange ways. In primitive societies, the shaman would point the bone and pronounce the curse and his victim would wither and die. The opposite can be seen with the placebo effect – if someone tells you a sugar pill is medicine, you get better. Not always, of course. There isn't much a placebo can do for a broken leg, or for a ravening cancer. But more times than can be accounted for by chance.

I use pagan rituals, because they appeal to me aesthetically. I like the pretty coloured candles, and the herbs and incense, and the sense of being in touch with nature. Other people might pray, or meditate. But it's all the same thing. You're getting in touch with your deep, expanded self, which is also the whole universe. One is a metaphor for the other, although I'm never entirely sure which way round it is. Maybe they are both metaphors.

I think of it in terms of focusing my intentions. I think that's why magic - all magic - spells, voodoo, praying, meditation, anything which involves getting in touch with something bigger than ourselves which is not necessarily ruled by logic – works.

It doesn't actually matter whether what I'm doing is “real” or not. I am lighting a black candle, putting some salt water in a bowl, and saying a few words, that's all. Any of you could do it.

What matters is whether you believe it's a spell, because if you believe that then a black candle will protect you and disperse negative energy, and salt water is for cleansing a space and a person, and I'm constructing something – might be mental, might be a physical force, I have no idea which and it doesn't actually matter – which will help me to get over a confusing and unhappy time.

We don't see reality, not the whole of it. Everything we experience, and everything we think about what we experience, is filtered through our own assumptions, perceptions and personalities. This is obvious at its most casual level in the way we are more likely to notice things which reinforce our own interests and values.

You're single and unhappy about it? You see attractive people and happy couples all around you. You're single and happy about it? You see bad relationships, people arguing and making each other miserable. You're into nature? You could walk through the middle of one of the world's biggest cities and you'll see trees and birds and animals, because that's what you're tuning into. You see a garden, where other people, who might be into architecture, see the towering buildings. It's as simple as reading the online news. We select the stories that interest us, and not the ones that don't.

All those things were already there. The close, loving couple and the arguing couple are sitting next to each other in the same bar. The tree is there. The buildings are there. And you do, if you think about it, see both.

But you only really notice the one you have programmed yourself to see. And because reality exists inside your head, then in effect what you see is “reality”, for you anyway, because you have nothing else to go on.

We miss so much.

The barriers and filters keep going up inside our heads. We put them up ourselves. Knock them down, they go up again in a different place. Don't get me wrong, to a certain extent they have to be there. If you experienced reality as a whole, everything equally important, you'd be unable to function because there would be too much sensory input. We have to filter. But it's good to be aware that what we see is not all there is to see. All we experience is our idea of what's real. If you bear that in mind, sometimes you can take a step back and see a situation or a person differently.

So I'm tuning into something, and I'm telling the whole of reality inside my head that a line is being drawn under my obsession with Chris and my fear of Derek and my conflicted feelings about Martin. I don't know yet what I think of Martin, but I do know I need to relax about it, whatever it turns out to be.

I light the candle. I pick up the bowl of salt water and look into it, I can see candle flames reflected on its surface. I close my eyes and focus.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

81. Escaping the coming apocalypse

I run my hands through my hair and stare at my computer screen. I'm not sure what to include. I drink some coffee and try and concentrate.

It's 11am on a Tuesday morning. I'm at work. I'm ignoring the post I am supposed to be writing for the website (subject: it is in the best interests of everyone - especially our customers - if we double the penalty charges for late repayment) in favour of compiling a list of items I need to acquire to give me a fighting chance of escaping the coming apocalypse.

I've been concerned for some time that humanity is heading for meltdown, one way or another. If you look at our filthy, violent, disease-ridden and brutal history, it's plain to see that at the moment we live in a golden age of health, peace and prosperity. Which we have used as an excuse to be decadent and profligate beyond the dreams of Roman emperors. It can't last.

It's difficult to say what the final straw will be. Global warming? The death of the bees? Nuclear war? We finally consume all the resources and there's nothing left?

My personal bet is a disease. Some wild pathogen with a 99 per cent kill rate gets into someone's blood-stream somewhere and ends up taking out the majority of humanity. It would need to be airborne, because fluid transmission wouldn't spread fast enough, and it would need a period of four or five days maybe before you knew you were ill.

But if something that lethal – some Ebola variant, or a superflu like Stephen King's Captain Trips – ever did emerge we would all be completely fucked within a couple of weeks. Considering you can cross the world in less than 48 hours now, all a very contagious flu-type would need would be one infected person reaching a major city with an airport. This is not just possible, but actually likely. It's happened before. The Black Death. The Spanish flu. And that was in the era before global travel.

The only way to avoid something like that would be to lock yourself in total isolation until the disease had burned itself out, and then you would have to contend with whatever came afterwards (bodies decaying in the streets, meaning disease and contaminated water; no food; other survivors).

Of course, I am doing everyone concerned the courtesy of assuming that such a thing evolved naturally. I know there are people out there working on bioweapons. Of course there are. I can think of it, therefore other people can think of it, so somewhere it's happening. Honestly, sometimes I think the universe would be better off if a species as dumb as us made itself extinct before getting off the planet.

I'm not entirely sure I want to survive the apocalypse, considering I'll probably end up fighting off packs of starving dogs for a scrap of food, but that's not the point of the game.

I start typing.

Boxes of disposable gloves
If it's a disease, I don't want to be touching anything that might have virus on it
Tough biker leather gloves
Going to run out of disposable gloves at some point. Also, God knows what I'm going to have to be handling.
Face mask, or gas mask if I can get one
See above re disease transmission. Also, if the city is full of decay, which it will be, you run all the associated risks of illness. And the smell is going to be horrific.
Water purification tablets
Absolutely vital. Clean water is unlikely to be available during this level of crisis. Boiling water for more than five minutes and then filtering it through clean cloth will serve the same purpose, but I might as well use the tablets until I have to start doing the other.
Fire lighters/matches/candles
There won't be electricity and any food I eat is going to have to be cooked to destroy bacteria. Also, if it's winter, I'm going to need to keep warm.
Wind-up torch and wind-up radio
See above re electricity

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my colleague Maria approaching, clutching an envelope. I panic, randomly click buttons to cover myself, and only succeed in bringing up Facebook and accidentally clicking on the top post. Maria arrives at my desk just as I notice that the top post is from Sally and features an arty black and white photo of a naked and heavily tattooed pre-op transsexual. She is tied to a window-frame. There are tits and dick everywhere.

There is a horrific moment when I realise I am genuinely about to lose my job, but Maria leaves the envelope on the corner of my desk without looking at my screen. She smiles and moves on. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

80. Plastic boxes that go beep

Gin is sitting at the other end of the sofa with her feet in my lap, and I am painting her toenails. Amanda is lying on the floor painting my nails, with her legs crooked up into Gin's lap so Gin can paint hers. I would love to see what we look like to the outside viewer.

It's seven o'clock. We are listening to the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and drinking our way through a jug of Gin's homemade margaritas. The original plan was to go out for dinner and then on somewhere, but it's starting to look as if it has been cancelled due to not moving.

Gin has chosen bright parrot green nail varnish, Amanda sunshine yellow. I've picked midnight blue.

"How's Martin?" says Amanda, slyly.

Amanda and Gin don't mention Martin all the time. They sometimes go weeks without mentioning his name. I think the plan is that if they drop him into the conversation suddenly I might react somehow.

"He's fine," I say.

"Have you made a move on him yet?" Gin is flank-attacking from the right.


"Has he made a move on you?" Amanda again.


They look at each other.
"Did you get the tickets for next Saturday?" I say, hastily.

"Yeah," says Amanda, stroking blue across my big toenail.

"How much do we owe you?"

"Nothing." Amanda blows on my toenail softly to dry the varnish. "I got the tickets for free."

"Free? Free?" Gin says. "What? Who from?"

Amanda suddenly looks caught out and I realise she's said more than she intended.

"The box office website is a bit - antiquated..." she says, trailing off. Oh dear. I know where this is going.

"You hacked into it and got free tickets?" Gin says.

Amanda looks wounded. "Well, if you want to put it that crudely."

"I do," says Gin. "I do want to put it that crudely."

"Music should belong to everyone. I hate the way it's become just another way for The Man to make money."

"Don't turn this into some kind of political rebellion against the system," says Gin. "I don't want to be caught with a skeevy ticket at the door. I have more self respect than that."

I don't know a lot about computers. Amanda doesn't talk about her job much and I am not sure exactly what she does, except that it is freelance and she seems to make quite a considerable amount of money. She works from home, in a room full of happily humming plastic. She ignores the usual sleek black minimalist computer-geek style in favour of covering all her equipment with street art stickers she bought from Redbubble.

Machines respond to Amanda in exactly the same way as animals respond to animal-loving humans. Everyone she knows brings her their laptops with screen-freeze, sulky touchscreens and PCs shivering with viruses, and she delicately presses and searches with her long, sensitive fingers until the hidden door pops open or the screen flickers, and she smiles.Then she presses a couple of buttons, maybe types a word or two, and they work. Sometimes she hands it back and says there is nothing she can do, and she always looks sad to break such terrible news.

This leads me to some strange conclusions. A machine is a machine. How can it know? But there's no denying that some people can make anything work and some people break everything they touch. Is it just a matter of being heavy handed? Or is it some fundamental lack of sympathy?

"Alice! Tell her!" Gin's despairing voice makes me tune back into the conversation. I've lost track of what's going on and I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to tell Amanda, but fortunately Gin launches straight back in with: "There's more to life than plastic boxes that go beep!"

Amanda grins at her. "Look, if you're not comfortable, I'll give your ticket away. You don't have to come."

Gin looks uncomfortable. This promises to be a fantastic gig, and it's sold out. This is the only way she's going to get in, and she knows it.

"I'm not happy about it," she says, capitulating. "Musicians should get paid for their work."

"It's sold out," says Amanda. "They're sold out all over the country. They'll make enough to eat tomorrow."

"But if everyone had the same attitude as you - "

"If everyone had the same attitude as me, all gigs would be free because musicians would receive billions in state funding from the Ministry of Music. I consider that a much better use of public funds than nuclear missiles." 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

79. I kept getting turned down

I remember a time once when I was unemployed. I had been made redundant. At this time I was overqualified and underexperienced. I kept going for jobs. I kept getting turned down.

But of course, I'm ok. I'm middle class. I have a degree. The politicians and pundits aren't talking about me when they talk about unemployment and benefit scroungers and zero hours contracts and whether benefits give you enough money to "live" on.

Except they are. The "they" who try and exist on benefits is also "me". I could tell you about all the adding up of pennies and the counting down of days, the 10pm visits to the supermarket to see what had been discounted because it would save a precious £5 which would allow me to buy deodorant or a chocolate bar or a couple of halves of lager in the pub on Amanda's birthday, the realisation that living is more than just staying alive.

The time when my only decent pair of shoes got a split in the sole and I cried because I couldn't afford new shoes. I just quite simply could not afford them and still eat. But I had to have new shoes, because these were my interview shoes, and if I started turning up for job interviews for professional jobs in trainers then I would have no chance whatsoever. So I lived on value pasta. With no sauce. For a week. 

I could tell you all that, but instead I'll tell you the story of Joe. I knew Joe vaguely through friends; loud, obnoxious, given to making generalisations about immigrants. Estate agent, too much hair gel. I did not like Joe, and I avoided him at parties, because he would get drunk and attempt to grab my boobs.

But one day he asked me out. He said: "Can I buy you dinner?"

I had £5 in my bank account, nothing to eat at home but beans on toast, nothing for breakfast tomorrow, five days till the money came through, and he was offering to buy me dinner. Oh the idea of dinner, a proper meal out, with meat, and a starter, and green veg, and dessert, and in that moment I understood how skint people have ended up as prostitutes and courtesans throughout all the millennia of human existence.

Just because you are struggling to get by doesn't mean you don't have eyes, brains or a stomach and the satisfaction of doing the honourable thing lasts about as long as it takes for you to stare at your plate of Tesco Value tinned spaghetti hoops and think: "I could be sitting in a restaurant knocking back red wine and eating steak."

It's not even so much the spaghetti hoops themselves. It's the knowledge that you will be eating spaghetti hoops pretty much forever. That for the foreseeable future there will not be a time when you don't have to watch the pennies, that if you're careful things might get easier - but they will never actually be easy, not while you are living like this.

This is the thing I think politicians and people with money in general don't understand, that it's not about the lack of cash, exactly. It's about the knowledge that there is no end in sight to the lack of cash. There will never be a time when you can relax about money for even a second. You live in a world where one piece of bad luck - the electricity company has miscalculated, for example, and you've been underpaying a direct debit without your knowledge, and you suddenly get a demand for £400 - could tip you over into homelessness, because you live in a world where people might as well ask you for a million pounds as for £400. You've got about as much chance of meeting either request, after all.

And that or something like it could happen at absolutely any time, and you have no control over whether it does or not. You live on a knife edge.
But just because you live in a world with no room for fripperies doesn't mean you don't like them.

At this time, if I was invited to someone's wedding, I had to make the tough decision of whether to spend £15 on a new dress from Primark, whether to wear an old dress and take them a better gift, or whether to wear an old dress, take a cheap gift and eat properly that week. I remember spending time walking round really high-end clothes shops and department stores. Just to be in them. Just to look at clothes which weren't cheap, and smell perfume which wasn't market store knock-offs, and see how there was a designer vase for £100 - £100! Imagine that! Imagine a world where I had enough money to spend £100 on something to put flowers in! It was almost beyond imagining in a world where every pound I had was earmarked as soon as it fell into my bank account for necessities like food, or rent, or knickers without actual holes in, or shampoo.

On the rare occasion I could afford flowers, they were £1 daffodils and they lived in a converted coffee pot. And people who had money came round and said "Ooh, isn't that cute, what a lovely idea," and the truth was they were in the coffee pot because it was better than putting them in a saucepan, which was the only other option I had because I had sold everything I owned which would sell. I can speak from experience when I say there is but nothing more annoying than people with money admiring your desperate skint contrivances as if you chose to do them because it was cool.

Did I let Joe take me out to dinner? Yes, and I ate and drank as much as I could, and stole all the rolls in my handbag when he went to the loo, and took all the uneaten cheese off the cheeseboard home wrapped in napkins, and flirted and smiled and laughed in all the right places in the frantic hope he would take me out again. I did not agree with his racist statements - but I also didn't exactly disagree. I was embarrassed and horrified with myself about that at the time, but I felt a lot less awful when I woke up the next morning with a wealth of fancy cheese and handmade luxury bread rolls for breakfast.

Did he ask me out again? No. Not surprising, to be honest. In some ways it was a good thing, because it saved me from the next dilemma: if he had, would I eventually have slept with him so he kept funding my food?

Probably. It was a rough time. A girl has to eat.