Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stop making scents

One other unexpected side-effect of pregnancy has been the development of a superhuman sense of smell, like a dog. I've always had a good sense of smell, but now it has become preternaturally acute, to the extent that I could tell without turning my head that the man sitting next to me on a recent early flight to Canberra had not brushed his teeth that morning; that the person behind me on the train home from work had just had a cigarette; that the woman who got into the lift in my office building at the end of the week had applied Chanel Allure that day; that one of my colleagues had just enjoyed a cup of coffee; and that D had been cutting coriander from the garden as soon as he entered the room.

As with my other obscure skills (I can tell straight away if someone has had their hair cut; I'm very good at writing questions for pub quizzes; I can recognise an East Kilbride accent; and I can quote entire stanzas of poetry I learned at school as well as fragments of quotes from all over the place), one day I'll be able to make money out of this.

Monday, December 19, 2011


From Miss Perfumado by Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora (27 August 1941 – 17 December 2011).


Quem mostra' bo
Ess caminho longe?
Quem mostra' bo
Ess caminho longe?
Ess caminho
Pa Sao Tomé

Sodade sodade
Dess nha terra Sao Nicolau

Si bo 'screve' me
'M ta 'screve be
Si bo 'squece me
'M ta 'squece be
Até dia
Qui bo voltà

Sodade sodade
Dess nha terra Sao Nicolau


Who will show you
this distant way?
Who will show you
this distant way?
This way
to Sao Tomé?

The longing, the longing
The longing
For this land of mine, Sao Nicolau

If you write me a letter
I will write you back
If you forget me
I will forget you

Until the day
You come back

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The kick inside

There are a few side-effects of pregnancy which I didn't know about before it happened to me:
  1. Insomnia.  Sleep's never really been a problem for me before, even during particularly stressful periods at work, but since I've been pregnant, sleep can be elusive: often I'm awake at 3am, thoughts going round my head as insistently as a headache, with no apparent end in sight. (It's the hormones.)
  2. Kicking. Ah, what a delicate image! It's like butterflies, they (the books) said. No, it's not; it's like having a trampoline inside you with someone periodically jumping on it. Much as I enjoy the signs that he (for it's a boy) is active, and the sheer weirdness of the sensation, let's not be sentimental about it.
  3. Patronising language. According to medical staff (with a few rare exceptions), all pregnant women are "girls"; all doctors are male, and all nurses and midwives are female. The baby is "baby". Sometimes I have to remind myself it's not the 1950s.
  4. Guilt-trip marketing. It would be possible to spend a quite mind-boggling amount of money on equipment, and boy is there a lot of it. There are entire stores (out-of-town, of course) devoted to every little thing you may possibly need for your child, and a whole lot that you don't. And a lot of the marketing is couched in safety terms. Buy this, or "baby" will suffer!
  5. The demon internet. Not that I didn't already know this, but if you have any concerns about anything medical whatsoever, the last helpful place to look is an internet forum. Here, you will almost certainly discover that whatever you are worried about is decidedly abnormal, and will lead in the most terrible directions, all based on what experts (women who have had a baby themselves) are saying.
  6. Gestational diabetes. After a two hour test which involves drinking a glucose juice so horribly sweet I could feel it stripping my tooth enamel, and three blood tests, I've been diagnosed as a borderline case (my age, 43, being the major contributing factor) and am currently on a military-style regime of blood sugar self-testing and strictly timed, weighed and measured meals. If this fails, it's injecting insulin for me. (It's the hormones.)
Despite all the above, which reads like a numbered whinge, I've had a pretty good pregnancy so far, to the point where, prior to the appearance of no. 6 (diagnosed at 29 weeks), I was feeling almost smug.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Shine on

In summer 1988, at the end of my first year at Glasgow University, my boyfriend at the time, who was a medical student, got me a job at Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a domestic assistant (AKA cleaner). "The Royal" was a forbidding, time-blackened Victorian building between the M8 motorway and Alexandra Parade, complete with turrets and long dusty corridors; through the open windows you could see the beautiful, mysterious Necropolis in the distance and could sometimes hear the faint triumphalist piping sounds of Orange marches in the east end streets. A private company had the contract; the domestics, who were almost all women, had to wear a pale purple A-line uniform with white piping. Many of them were hard-bitten women in their forties who instinctively distrusted outsiders; unfortunately I ticked a lot of the wrong boxes, being a student, "English", studying for a law degree, and taking their jobs; I overheard one younger woman hissing to another "I hate that lassie!" as I left the locker room, and another took great pains to tell me that she couldn't afford Christmas presents for the weans this year. Most of them, though, were decent enough towards me under the circumstances; you'd be assigned to a more experienced domestic on each ward, and though a lot of them would set me to Herculean tasks such as cleaning the metal framework under patients' beds, a job clearly done so rarely that it looked like no one had ever attempted it before, and then sneak off to the "domestic services office" (mop cupboard) to stretch out the windows for an illicit fag, I had fun with some of them too and they taught me a lot.

That summer, I learned how popular Neighbours and Home and Away were: they were shown back to back on the BBC and ITV respectively, at lunchtime and just before dinner, and in every ward, even the terrible sweet-smelling burns ward where there were people in pretty bad shape, those who could walk walked, and those in wheelchairs were wheeled, along to the TV room at the end of the ward to watch every single episode, repeats and all. I enjoyed wheeling around the "maxpax machine" and asking patients if they wanted a cup of tea, coffee, hot chocolate or Bovril (a surprising number opted for the latter). I liked talking to the patients. But most of all I loved the glorious moment of clocking myself off at the end of a shift because I really didn't enjoy the atmosphere of fear and distrust, and in some cases bullying from senior managers, that seemed to be endemic within that company. Domestics were regarded by all other hospital workers as being right at the bottom of the food chain and in many cases treated accordingly. Also, the pay was pretty terrible; small wonder that the domestics seemed unhappy. They were doing a pretty important job, but being screwed by the company that employed them and looked down upon by everyone else.

I was pretty glad when the summer ended and I went back to university; I never worked there again, though they offered me a job the following summer. Some skills have stayed with me from that time, though: I can mop like a professional, make a floor shine with the unwieldiest of buffing machines, and leave a sink as clean as new. I also learned to appreciate the unseen, low paid workers who make things clean for everyone else.