Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Waxing lyrical

When I lived in Hong Kong I had a long-standing relationship with a woman from Beijing called Sarah, to whom I entirely handed all responsibility for care of my eyebrows, as well as the waxing of my legs (if you are ill-acquainted with what this actually means, I won't offend delicate sensibilities by describing it; just imagine the sounds RRRIIPPPP and OUCH). I went to see Sarah once every six weeks or so over a period of 5 or 6 years; she came via recommendation from a colleague and was in turn recommended by me to countless friends. She worked in a rather odd beauty salon on the 9th floor of a commercial block in Central that had seen better days.

Considering its glossy rivals the salon itself was less than glamorous, with browning wallpaper decorated with random swatches of pot pourri, dinky ornaments strewn around the place and ancient peeling posters advertising long-unfashionable beauty treatments, owned by an eccentric  woman who took an uncomfortably prurient interest in the treatments, often barging in to talk to and inspect the work of her staff when, by complete coincidence, their clients were in various states of undress and/or arrayed in the awkward postures required by the waxing process. The unprepossessing surroundings and nosy owner were the price to be paid for being looked after by Sarah, a lovely, happy person who always seemed pleased to see her clients and chattered away in an endearing mix of English and Chinese. We developed a friendship and it was always a pleasure to see her. I used to advise her that if she collected all the hair she’d taken from my body over the years (and I probably went to see her at least 40 times), she would be able to make herself a little coat with it. (This is a truly revolting image, I know, but how we laughed!)

Since moving to Australia I’ve made some half-hearted attempts to find myself a new Sarah. It is a surprisingly intimate relationship however, and I’ve never felt comfortable with anyone else. Care of my eyebrows and the rest has, unfortunately, now passed to me and I look infinitely more shabby as a result.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Vicious cycle

There are some things you have to give up when you become a commuter cyclist, namely:

  •  Your dignity (especially when it rains): the words “high vis” and “elegance” would rarely appear in the same sentence;
  •  Any faith in the ability of car drivers to
a)      Drive;
b)      See anyone on a bike;
c)       Notice bike lanes; or
d)      Act sensibly when it’s raining.

Commuter drivers have already made a selfish decision, which is to take up space on the roads into the city in their cars with (in the overwhelming majority) only one person inside. Sitting inside their cars with the music on, in their own little self-satisfied micro-world, impatient at the lights, they seem to feel they are justified in taking any tiny shortcut that will cut down the length of their journey at the expense of others. This applies particularly to cyclists, against whom there seems to have been an increase in aggression, for which Australian shock jocks like Alan Jones must take some of the responsibility; but also, in their aggressive individualism, no driver likes to see cyclists sailing past them, which unfortunately is the norm in every city centre. My response to this is: every cyclist is one less car on the road, making your journey to work that bit shorter than if I had chosen to drive my car. You aren’t “stuck in traffic”, you ARE traffic. You are driving a vehicle that can kill me. And would you like to explain to my two year old son that you knocked me off my bike because you wanted to shave another two minutes off your journey? I’m looking at you, yes you, eg the driver of the car with the sticker on the back saying “DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT”, who this morning went illegally into the left hand lane ahead of me and sat waiting at the lights, blocking the cycle path, in order to get an advantage over fellow drivers at the lights by accelerating past them into the micro-feeder lane (which certainly is not there for that purpose) at the other side of the junction. I hope you got the shock of your life when your car fishtailed alarmingly on the wet road. The cyclist in front of me, just a metre or so away from being hit, certainly did.
  • Sadly, some faith in fellow cyclists. I have to bite back a comment (“this is why drivers don’t respect us!”) when I see cyclists do all the things I know drivers hate:
a)      Riding through red lights;
b)      Riding on pavements; and generally
c)       Ignoring the road rules.

The fact is, although arguably drivers are collectively unreasonable anyway, and it makes no difference whether you follow the rules or disobey them, I see every cyclist who flouts the road rules as someone who is needlessly angering drivers and ultimately putting my life in danger. For the record, I always follow stop signs. I always try to use hand signals to show my intentions clearly in advance. I rarely go on the pavement unless I’m accompanying a child under 7 – and yes, it is legal then. I wear a bright white jacket and put my lights on. Yet I’ve been in situations where I’ve been beeped at by impatient drivers (I’m in front of you, wait to see what I am doing as you would with any vehicle) – or, frequently, almost side-swiped by someone coming past way too close (as Ken Lay says: if you can’t leave a metre between us, you are too close to pass).

Having said all that, my journey to work is mostly a delight: 30 minutes of cycling door to door, along a dedicated cycle path by the railway for almost half the journey, and then through Royal Park on a  wide road with plenty of space for everyone and usually enough time to get up some speed and freewheel down the road enjoying the green-ness of everything. Towards the end I have a few slightly hairy minutes at Flemington Roundabout (the bike lane goes one way and I want to go another) and some close encounters until I get to my office at the corner of Queen Street and Little Bourke; but it’s generally been a pretty good experience and to my knowledge it’s the fastest method door to door. If I’ve learned that the majority of drivers are fools, and many cyclists are too, these are things that might save my life one day.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Flat out

In the mid-1990s I was working at a small Scottish legal publisher in Edinburgh and struck up a friendship with the PA to the Managing Director. L was smart, funny and irreverent and we became close; I tried as much as I could to support her as she went through a few major life changes: buying a flat in Bruntsfield, splitting up with her boyfriend who had moved out, and finally losing her job with the company I worked for.

I was going through a few life changes of my own at the time: I’d split with my boyfriend of four years, G, which entailed moving out of the flat we shared, a very much un-mutual decision; I was trying to negotiate a move to the London office; a new relationship was in its very early stages. My life was in flux, too. L needed help with her mortgage and had room in her flat; somehow a plan quickly coalesced and I moved in with her.

The whole experience was an utter disaster. Perhaps understandably, L was a very angry and unhappy person at that time: she was upset about being made redundant, heartbroken about her boyfriend, anxious about finding a new job and worried about money. She made a disastrous pass at my ex when he came round to see me and I wasn’t there; he ended up effectively being blackmailed into building a platform bed for her (a baffling sequence of events that I never quite got to the bottom of). She railed against the company and her former boss. She hated having to have someone living with her under those circumstances, and I was about the worst person possible: I had split with G but there was a new man in the picture, who was phoning me late at night and sending me flowers, and I still worked for the company she’d just left; I was happy about my new relationship, had plans for the future, and was positive about getting there. The atmosphere within her flat was poisonous and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was stuck with paying the mortgage for my old flat with no rent coming in and beholden to decision making in London about when I could move to that office and what I would be doing there, so I had to stick it out. 

Weirdly, every time L and I bumped into each other outside that flat – even just down in the street – we got along as well as ever and she was a totally different person. Within the walls of her own flat, however, she was sullen, hostile, and aggressive.

We avoided each other as much as we could, but three particularly terrible episodes stick in my mind from my time there (a matter of months, perhaps four months at the most, but otherwise an eternity).

  • ·         Cats’ feet are so delicate. I broke a wine glass in L’s kitchen (plus ├ža change) and cleaned up as best as I could. Not well enough for L, however, who left me the following note next to a tissue containing a few remaining fragments she had managed to scrape up: “I found these. Be more careful, the cat’s feet are delicate and you could have seriously hurt her”.
  • ·         Spanish boys are all the same. In September I went on a wonderful holiday to Barcelona and Madrid with my then-best friend Rachael (about whom more some other time). My friend Campbell put me in touch with his sister Jill, who lives in Madrid, and we spent two weeks being escorted around by her friends; we stayed in Pablo’s flat in the centre of Madrid and Jill, Pablo and Jaime drove us on excursions to hidden restaurants and took us to their favourite tapas places. We gazed at Picassos and Miros in the Reina Sofia Museum and attended a packed house party where we learned to cook tortillas and got gloriously drunk on Cava. In Barcelona, we sat on the beach in the sunshine and ate morcilla and blue cheese rolls from a little hole in the wall cafe. Pablo gave us the keys to his flat as a parting gift. It was a perfect holiday. Back in rainy Edinburgh, when Lucy asked me how the holiday had been, I told her how kind the Spanish boys were to us and what a brilliant time we’d had. Her response? “Oh they probably just wanted to shag you. I lived in Spain, Spanish boys are all the same”. I went to work and cried.
  • ·         I’ve hurt my back. In an effort to ingratiate myself with L, I decided to help her get rid of the enormous, mouldering pile of old newspapers that sat in her hallway (at least 15 heavy bundles, most long pre-dating me). I had hired a terrible little car for J’s visit from London and after he had gone home, I humped every one of those bundles of newspapers from her second floor flat to the ground floor, into the back of the little car and off to the recycling centre at Bristo Square. L was at home while I was doing it and I’d thought we could do it together, perhaps even bonding over the task. But instead, she watched me coolly as I huffed and puffed and remarked “Oh, I would help, but I’ve hurt my back”. Did she thank me for completing this Herculean task? Did she hell.

Not long afterwards I got confirmation of my move to London. I left L’s flat at the earliest opportunity, departing for London and then Hong Kong. I’m still in touch with everyone else in this story bar one; but from that day to this I have never spoken to L again.