Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I need a wall

In fitness class sometimes I say “I don’t have any triceps”.  And in gymnastics years ago I was nicknamed “short arms” by the coach for complaining “my arms are too short” when I couldn’t stretch as far as he expected. 

But when I say “I have no wall” I really mean it.  More to the point: I need to get one! 

Regular readers know the background:

1)      I was dumped recently by my supposed fiancé as abruptly as if he were throwing out garbage: no warning, discussion, or (God forbid) kindness. 

2)      I was then shafted by my landlord who promised a long lease, got me to do extensive cleaning and repairs on his property in July on the strength of that promise, availed himself of my generosity to stay in the same property for two weeks (after playing the ‘friend of a friend card’) while I was overseas in October and he was passing through London… only to leave the house, not with a thank you card or financial contribution, but an eviction notice.  Apparently I’ve done such a good job on the place he wants to live here. 

Needless to say it’s awful, in either case, to be done over so comprehensively.  

More generally, though, I struggle variously with the ‘tone’ of London.  I love the theatres, galleries, intellectual stimulation and buzz.  But it’s a cold city in many ways; far removed from living in an Aussie beach town or surrounded by bonhomie, vines and olives in Tuscany.  For example:

1)    I found an old lady lost on the street late one Saturday night recently, and it turned out she’d been lost and disoriented for some hours.  She obviously has memory problems and was in no way a threat.  Yet not a single person she asked for help would pay attention, and she couldn’t find a policeman.  By the time a new friend, Dan, and I chanced upon her, she was anxious and confused, and an hour later extremely grateful we’d got her out of the rain, into a taxi, and worked out where she lived.  That experience at least left us pleased we’d been in the right place at the right time to help.

2)      By contrast, another night when the weather was suddenly cold and blustery, I returned home in the dark to find a woman and little boy at the front door to my apartment block.   As I approached with my key I could see the awning offered them no shelter from the rain.  “Hello”, I said “can I help you?”  She replied “no, we’re waiting for someone”.   “So they know you’re waiting do they?” I asked, as I lent beside her to get my key in the door.   “They’ll be here in a minute” she said curtly.  “Ok, so you’re alright then” I confirmed and moved into the doorway.  Just as I was shutting the heavy external door I heard her say to her little boy “how rude”.  I couldn’t believe it.  I opened the door again and stared at her.  “Madam” I finally managed to stutter “I was wanting to make sure you were alright as I thought you might have preferred to wait inside out of the cold.”  She stared blankly.  In complete defeat I added “what is the matter with Londoners? How could you possibly misinterpret such a genuine gesture…”  As I closed the door I heard her mumble “oh, sorry…”.

I went through the adjacent door to my ground-floor apartment, slammed and double bolted it. 

Living in London is like escaping a daily series of real or potential assaults.  London is aggressive so seasoned Londoners have personal walls.  Thick ones. 

Another day recently I was sitting in a café at the rear of the BFI (love that place) and two wonderful girlfriends arrive for a long late lunch just as I am being accosted by a teenage lad who wants some money for his youth club.  He holds up a piece of paper, like a petition, and gives a well-rehearsed spiel about how Arsenal used to fund them but no longer, and these inner-city youngsters need financial support to keep their activities going etc.  Requests for money are frequent in cities like London, but his pitch is polished.  He looks clean, bright, with a positive future if he can get a decent start.   I give him 5 pounds and say “that’s for the quality of your pitch… but make sure you spend it on what you say please”.  He smiles, runs away, and I turn to face my two girlfriends.  They are staring in disbelief.  Oh, oh.    

Turns out I was too far into it for them to feel they could stop me, but they point out quickly then that I have “been had”.  “Really” I ask “no chance he could be sincere?”  They shake their heads in unison.  Damn.  

Thus the “I NEED A WALL” discussion starts again (a recurring theme with close friends lately) and THIS TIME I agree it absolutely must be constructed!  It must be fitted ASAP and the “new Julie” will be more discerning, more judicious re who she trusts or puts faith in, for large and small matters.  After another bottle of wine it is jointly decided that I can still “choose” to “be nice” on appropriate occasions… “or generous”… but it will no longer be the “automatic default”… and I will give up any guilt or discomfort around allowing myself the freedom to “not be nice”… or “not to be seen as nice”… or better still, “be neutral”… “ignore people”… “look after myself” etc.

So what you need to know is that this ‘reprogramming’ is not an easy task.  I have my training wheels on.  Then yesterday, despite my best efforts to “KEEP UP THE WALL”, things don’t go according to plan….

I’m in a greasy-spoon café at 3pm, feverishly hungry and waiting for a big plate of bacon and eggs, as it’s the first chance I’ve had to eat all day.  The waiter puts down my plate and I grab my knife and fork, enthusiastically diving into the first of two naughty hash-browns.  Immediately I hear whispering from across the room but presume it isn’t for me.  Three mouthfuls in the voice grows louder: “can’t you hear I’m talking to you”.  I turn to face a woman alone at a table on the opposite wall.  With the egg I’m dying to taste hanging impatiently from my fork, she looks from it to me and says: “I’m hungry.  I’m homeless.  I’ve been sitting here for hours waiting for my brother to come and buy me breakfast but he hasn’t come yet.  Can you please get me something to eat?” 

The word sigh doesn’t cover it.  I simply can not believe how bad her timing is. 

I take another breath, looking from her to my fork and back again.  Instantly I feel bad.  Then I feel resentful.  Hunger wins out.  “Look lady, I’m sorry, but I simply can’t stop and respond to requests like that every single time… I haven’t eaten all day either.  Please, excuse me.”  I turn back to my plate as she mumbles “oh, sorry”. 

I could really swear about all the pathetic “oh sorry” I’ve been hearing lately, none of them sincere and too little too late.     

But I say to myself “remember the wall… THE WALL…” as I look longingly at my food.  But she’s wrecked it for me.  I simply can not eat now without feeling guilty.  Damn and double damn.  “It’s not your responsibility” I remind myself.  “She should’ve asked you at a better time… you can’t be expected to stop in the middle of your meal and rummage in your wallet.”  But every bite for the next five minutes is tasteless. 

Bloody London.  Bloody wall.  I’m going to need therapy or something.  But how can I eat now and enjoy it when she might be hungry? 

I do persevere until I’ve only got one piece of bacon left, and two halves of grilled tomato.  “It’s just bad luck for her.  I have a wall.  I need a wall.  And I’m only taking it down when someone deserves it” I whisper to myself – now clearly the mad one. 

And then eventually - not because I’m a nice person but because my construction of the wall is still pathetically inadequate – I get up and go to the counter and pay the café guy a few pounds for the standard ‘all day breakfast’.  “What does she want” he asks “tomatoes or mushrooms?”  “Would you take her order directly please” I request, “I want to get back and finish my meal”. 

I catch another woman’s eye at the counter, who shrugs like I’ve probably been had.  I don’t tell her about the wall. 

I go back to my cup of cold tea and last spoonfuls of food.  I realise my problem is that I don’t feel free in this situation; to genuinely give or not give.  But what’s harder, I muse, to go against your instincts… or to get taken advantage of? 

Now the ‘homeless lady’ is at the counter and the conversation for some reason is protracted.  Gradually the volume increases and it becomes clear she is asking for more than I have paid for – she wants a fancy omelette with black-pudding and a cup of tea and toast, which isn’t in the ‘all day breakfast’ deal.  My jaw drops.  I catch the same woman’s eye.  She shrugs again.  “Is she trying to leverage my investment” I ask sarcastically, trying to cover my real mix of awe and disbelief.   She smiles and nods knowingly. 

Damn.  And then I hear the café owner say “ok, ok, the lady has paid for the ‘all day breakfast’ but I will give you what you want and I will make up the difference… go and sit down please”. 

My handbag is now on my shoulder and I’m preparing to leave.  The café owner shakes his head and shrugs. The ‘homeless lady’ says “God Bless you, thank you” and sits down with hungry expectation.  Only God knows the extent of her need. 

The door jingles as I walk back out onto the Fulham Palace Road.  My stomach is full but I don’t feel satisfied.

Bloody wall.