Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The sound of the suburbs

I heard the cheerfully innocent tune from an ice cream van today – the first of the year. And it hit me with a juggernaut of memories: of summer in the suburbs when avenues were leafy, when people had front gardens instead of concrete parking bays and we could still play tennis up and down the road because there were hardly any cars. I was Sue Barker, my best friend was Chris Evert. What can I say? She was the sporty one. We’d spend all day up the park making dens in the bushes or flying so hard and high on the French swing that our skulls would creak. There was hopscotch on the tarmac and jacks on the pavement, and I’d ride pillion on the back of my best friend’s bike, both of us clad head to toe in denim. The parky would tell us when it was time to go home for tea.
Nowadays, there is no parky, and any man who watches children play from the doorway of his hut under the trees would most certainly be arrested.
So am I bemoaning the loss of childhood halcyon days? Of course I am, but I also feel that my generation is to blame for all this. We’re responsible for a fast and furious trajectory into a modern age so mind boggingly alien to those balmy days back in the seventies/eighties that it beggars belief. I’m talkin ’bout those of us in our early 40s.
We never had it so good, but then, we wanted it even better. Along the way, granted, we had a lot to put up with. We were the ones who had a computer plonked on the desk at work, circa 1988, and told to get on with it. (RSI was poo-pooed and thrown out of court). We were the ones who had to replace our entire vinyl LP collection with CDs, and throw away our cassette players, only to have to upload it all, within a mere decade it seems, onto a laptop. {I bet you there many of us who still have those back-breakingly heavy LP boxes in the attic stuffed with the first Madonna album, some Big Country and a complete set of Police singles in blue vinyl.}
But we all wanted the new stuff, we all wanted a car -although how I was able to run my Fiat Panda on £4,175 per annum is anyone’s guess. We became three-car families. It was the late 80s and we wanted the latest thing cos MTV drummed it into us. And so the front lawns were cemented over, ready meals were invented and it all went wrong from there.
Oh well, never mind. I think the ice cream van’s just come back round the block and I want a ninety nine.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Probably the worse temp in the world

Let me take you back to a time when it was okay to wear jacquard jumpers with shoulder pads, pencil skirts made out of sweatshirt material and navy ribbed tights with flatties… yes, that’s right: January 1988.
Nine months before I was due to start at journalism college I recklessly gave up my job as a secretary at the Beeb to try my hand at temping. The masterplan was to secure a variety of exciting jobs at magazines and newspapers to get an insight into the world of print media before I started my course. I ended up at Bovis, a construction company in South Harrow.
Working for one of the directors – straight to the top, impressive huh? – I found myself in a deathly quiet, deathly boring office with glass partitions and beige carpet, reminiscent of David Brent’s but without the stapler captured in jelly.
Within the first hour I knew I’d not be counting the days, nor the hours, or the minutes until I could leave - but the actual milli-seconds. During my first lunch break, I dashed out to a phone box on the corner to call my old boss and beg for my job back.
Back at Bovis, when I had finished taking shorthand dictation, I had to ask the director (a very patient, very nice man, actually) if he’d say it all over again, only this time more slowly. My typing was good, however, as I had been taught to touch-type at the BBC and can do it with my eyes closed. And perhaps for this reason, I ended up working at Bovis for a four painfully long weeks (killing time until I could slope back to the Beeb with my tail between my legs).
Someone must have taken a shine to me. My money is on one of the bosses who crept up behind me one day as I was bashing away on my electric typewriter and massaged my neck – I don’t think sexual harrassment was so much of a buzz word in the late 80s.
In the meantime, I made coffee – in time-honoured secretarial fashion - for some Very Important visitors and was so nervous that my hand shook as I spooned coffee grains into the perculating machine, scattering grains all over the formica. I walked in to the conference room with the tray like Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques. I was advised, once the visitors had gone, that I really should have used the fine china from the special cupboard and not the plastic cups from the vending machine.
My parting shot was to take a telephone message from a client of Bovis last thing on the Friday before I scuttled off into night. The message was simply nothing more and nothing less than this: "Terence Conran is hopping mad." [This strikes a cord with me now as I work on Homes & Gardens magazine, the pages of which are dripping with Conran products. Back then, Sir Terence must have been building his empire of restaurants and shops with the assistance of Bovis Construction.]
What on earth could have befallen Sir Terence to make him so cross? A Very Important report mis-typed perhaps, leading to a vertiable catalogue of disasters? Perhaps I did have my eyes closed after all.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Nurse! The screens!

Back in 2001 I contracted bacterial pneumonia. This is what happened…

My husband wanted to go to Leeds to watch the football so we planned a weekend trip north. Fare enough, I thought, I fancy hitting the shops in the city centre.

The night before we left, in the small hours, I had a stomach upset. Rather annoying I thought, but I’ll get over it. And then I felt cold, so intensely cold that extra socks, jumper and another duvet would not stop the shivering – the chill was coming from my core. A sharp pain deepened under my shoulder blade. In the morning I thought, oh, I’ve got a bad back and I’m sick but I’ll get over it. We can’t miss the football match. At least I can rest at the posh hotel.

While he packed the car I tried to eat some cereal, but unsuccessfully: I could not hold my head up, I had to prop up my head with my hand, resting my elbow on the table. I lay down on the back seat for the 250-mile journey and then bedded down in linen sheets at the hotel to sleep it off. I had no idea I was desperately ill.

It was a different story the next morning when I could barely breath and began to cough up blood. My husband called a GP to the hotel – at great expense – and he said I must go to A&E. Now.

Inside the cubicle I overheard the doctor on the phone to a cardiac specialist. He thought I was having a heart attack. ‘Where did that come from?’ I thought, ‘I’m only 35.’ They gave me oxygen. A nurse tried to take blood from an artery deep in my wrist – ineffectively – I hit the ceiling. Then the doctor tried. They had to hold me down. Such was his expertise, I didn’t feel a thing. And yet the pain in my chest intensified. There was not enough oxygen in my body. The minutes were ticking down to kick off. Three o’clock came and went.

After long stretches of time, waiting for x-rays, a full body CT scan, and sitting next to the token Saturday night drunk, I wondered why I was in a wheel chair hooked up to a drip. Then I realised: I could not walk.

At 1am I was admitted to an enormous old-fashioned ward full of the cries of the elderly and a teenage delinquent who kept getting out of bed. The charge nurse, a stout man, was in control but I did not feel safe. I woke in the morning to the sight of the yellow fluid oozing from the catheter of the man in the bed next to mine. My chest felt as if all my ribs were broken, caving in, stabbing me. I cried out; tried to get someone’s attention. I screamed with the pain. Inexplicably, a nurse offered me ibruprofen but was mercifully over-ruled by the charge nurse who gave me some pink pills. The ward began to change shape: it lengthened, it widened. I saw kaleidoscopes of colour. I might have even giggled.

The consultant swooped round the ward followed by a posse of students. Pneumonia, he told me, and I was pushed up to a respiratory ward - all elderly patients, bedpans and phlegm pots. The rattle of the drugs trolley coming round was enough to make me sit up in expectation of more pain control. An antibiotic drip was administered every 12 hours, but my veins kept breaking and the liquid oozed under my flesh, so that I could not bend my swollen arms. My tongue was green, my skin was yellow and blotched with red, but the pain began to fade and, a nurse commented, my face was not so twisted in agony.

And then, the low point. The doctor pulled the screen round the bed and told me to lean over the table so he could extract the pint of pus that had collected in my pleural cavity. The local anaesthetic did not work the first time the needle went through my ribs. I tried to put myself in a different place while I listened to whatever had invaded my body sluicing into a bucket.
But then I turned a corner. It was someone’s birthday on the ward and eating my slice of cake was an incredibly new and beautiful sensation. At night, nurses like silent angels, continued to find unbroken veins where they could inject me with the antibiotics that were saving my life. I got better.

Released into a fresh, bright world after ten days of confinement I was shocked, weak and humbled. What strange and cathartic places hospitals are. Fifty years ago, I would have been dead. And I never did find out who won the football.