I’m a dedicated and sometimes not very subtle eavesdropper. When we were travelling on the London Tube a few weeks back, two hipster types were sitting opposite chatting away. Naturally, I listened in.
‘Called the doctor today to get my hands on some Champix. I really need to quit the fags. He asked me if I felt suicidal which I thought was a bit odd. I said no. I’d already had a G and T so I was feeling prettygood. Then he asked me if I felt positive about the future. I laughed. I said as we’re in the middle of a pandemic, with Brexit, more austerity and mass unemployment ahead, I found it hard to be positive. Fair enough, he replied.
I should be getting my pills soon. So, depending on how well I cope with the pandemic, Brexit, more austerity and mass unemployment, I should be smoke-free by 30!’
All masked up, Liam and I jumped on the bus to Norwich to take a gander at In Memoriam by artist Luke Jerram, flapping about in Chapelfield Gardens. The installation premiered in Belgium and is now on tour across Europe. Made up of bed sheets arranged in the form of a red cross, In Memoriam is a tribute to all those health and care workers who risk their own lives caring for the sick during the COVID-19 pandemic. We meandered through the forest of sheets in grateful silence. Lest we forget.
We wear face masks when required – on public transport and elsewhere – not because we want to. No one wants to. We wear them because it helps protect us and those around us. That’s the socially responsible thing to do, the civilised thing to do. We don’t think wearing them is any more of an infringement of our civil liberties than, say, wearing a seat belt or stopping at a red light. So my message to those ignorant refuseniks who think they’re striking a blow for freedom, don’t be a twat, wear a bloody mask.
The tail end of August saw us in old London Town to commemorate what would have been the 59th birthday of an old friend who died unexpectedly in January this year. It was our first trip to the Smoke since lockdown and we were understandably anxious. It’s only about 100 miles from here to there but it might as well be another country.
The shiny new train wasn’t busy. We almost had the carriage to ourselves and most passengers complied with the ‘new normal’ – face mask-wise. Booking into a hotel for a couple of nights gave us the chance to test the waters. We rode the Tube and drank in familiar Soho haunts. It was fine.
The early August heatwave gave us hope that we might have a picnic in St James’s Park – a fun and fabulous tradition developed over many years – but, alas, the weather turned blustery so we made do with a restaurant as ‘Storm Clive’ passed overhead. We came together under the shadow of Eros on Piccadilly Circus – except of course, it’s actually a statue of Eros’ less well-known sibling, Anteros, but everyone calls it Eros anyway.
I can’t share any images of the actual birthday bash. Some of the assembled are social media shy and don’t want their images online. And who can blame them? Suffice it to say it was a joyous occasion – old friends talking old times through a jolly, drunken haze. And Clive was there in spirit.
I’m all for people stepping out of their cars and getting on their bikes. It’s good for the body, good for the soul and even better for the environment. And pedal-power has gone into overdrive since the pandemic. With quieter roads and cleaner air, people are turning and returning to cycling in their droves. New bike sales are up and old bikes are getting a makeover after years of rusting away at the back of a shed.
The flatlands of Norfolk provide an easy ride for cyclists and there are few better places to pedal push than the highways and byways hereabouts. On sunny days, it can be the Tour de Loddon along the high street with riders top to toe in fancy kit dismounting for coffee and cake. It ain’t always pretty. Okay, we can’t all look like six-times Olympic champion Chris Hoy with his thunder thighs and buns you could butter. But if all your spare tyres are wrapped round your waist, it’s best to go easy on the lycra. It’s enough to turn the milk in my flat white.
Having escaped the unwanted attention of the men in black, John and I found ourselves lost and hopeless by the side of a dusty lane. What happened next?
We trekked along the road for about fifteen minutes, not really knowing whether we were heading towards or away from home. By early afternoon, the heat was suffocating, relieved only by the dappled shade of an occasional pine tree. Our ankles throbbed – our fashionable flip-flops had long since lost their allure.
Suddenly, we heard rumble, rumble, crack, crack, vroom from behind us. A car was looming towards us at full speed, engine roaring, trailing a smoky flume. We screamed like girls and threw ourselves at the kerb, John stumbling into the baked-mud gutter snapping the thong of his flip-flop.
I shouted across to John as the car sped past. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah yeah, I’m fine. Wish I could say the same for these crappy flip-flops.’ He slotted the thong back into its socket.
Meanwhile, the car skidded to an abrupt halt just ahead, cloaking it – and us – in a cloud of petrol-smelling dust. Out leapt a slightly-built, middle-aged man in baggy suit and cloth cap, an unlit cigarette drooping from his mouth.
‘That’s it,’ said John. ‘We’re done for now. We’ll be kidnapped and sold into white slavery.’
‘John,’ I said. ‘This isn’t the Barbary Coast.’
The driver beckoned us and we took a few steps forward. ‘Where you go?’ he said.
I hesitated. ‘Turkuaz Villas.’
‘Come! Come!’ he said, masterfully. ‘We go.’
‘See, John. Nothing to worry about. Your taxi awaits,’ I said, giving an exaggerated sweep of the hand as we approached the car. We peered into the muddied old Fiat. It was rammed with a multi-generational clan – grandma in the front, three kids and mum clutching an infant in the back – all staring back at the curious yabancılar.
‘We go where, exactly?’ said John. ‘The glove compartment?’
‘What glove compartment?’ I said, looking at the twisted wires dangling from beneath the dashboard.
And that’s when poor grandma, dressed in traditional weaves – floral headscarf, crocheted cardigan, clashing pantaloons and socked clogs – was bundled out of the car. No dignity was spared.
‘So where’s she going?’ said John. ‘The roof rack?’
Grandma just smiled and squeezed into the back, the driver shoving her in from behind. Grunts and giggles ensued as the occupants resettled like loose vegetables in a shopping bag.
‘Come! Come!’ the driver said again pointing at the front passenger seat. We obeyed. John climbed in first. I followed.
‘Watch that gear stick,’ I said to John. ‘Don’t want to lose your virtue, eh?’
Tightly wedged against the door, legs plaited with John’s, I fumbled behind for a seat belt. There wasn’t one. Our cabbie jumped in, lit his cigarette, pressed his nose up to the soil-streaked windscreen, started the car and sped off, heading God knows where.
John kept his eyes firmly shut as we tore along the pot-holed road, flying over bumps and speeding into hard bends. It was like a scene from Wacky Races as our crazy driver swerved round a leisurely tractor, waving at the toothless farmhand at the wheel and barely missing a startled goat, which darted into the scrub with a pissed-off bleat. It was at that point I decided to take off my glasses; at least then I wouldn’t see the Grim Reaper coming. Meanwhile, our fellow passengers partied in the back, talking across one another and sniggering – at our expense, I suspected – along the lines of these stupid Eeenglish. I could see the joke. They’d found us stranded in the middle of nowhere frying under the midday sun in fancy flip-flops – Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that, as famously penned by that grand old queen Noël Coward. Yep, stupid English was about right. Our driver threw himself enthusiastically into the jolly banter, looking back so many times and for so long, I nearly found Jesus.
A few minutes later we were deposited at Turkuaz Villas and rolled out, shaken and stirred but otherwise undamaged. I pulled out a wad of cash from the side pocket of my cargo shorts and examined the zillions of lira, placing my thumb over the last three zeros to get a vague sense of its worth. I held out some notes to our hero as payment for saving us (from ourselves). He just shrugged and brushed his fare aside. Then, with a parting wave, he leapt back into the car and motored off into the distance with grandma and four little faces waving back at us through the rear window.