Whitby Abbey

My dears, I have a few days holiday and I intend to spend them with Sigoth and as many of the Offspringses as possible. We are aiming for a confluence of bodies over the coming weekend, and until then I must manage with only one fully vacationing child for the first half of the week. The rest turn up Wednesday and Thursday. Treats will be perpetrated. Weather permitting there may even be excursions. Certainly there will be games and films and talk and wine.

Whitby AbbeyNaturally Sigoth and I were keen to get some practice in regarding excursions, so we took the early-vacationing Offspring to Whitby Abbey on Monday. We do like our ruins, and there are so many around this area it can be hard to know where to start. Funnily enough we have never started with Whitby, or even ended with it, until now.

Inside Whitby AbbeyThe Abbey itself is not the original of course, the one founded by King Oswiu and presided over by the Abbess Hild from 657 AD, and the location of the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD to decide whether the English church would calculate Easter by the Irish or Roman method. Nor was it even the Benedictine one from the 1190s. No, this is the modern makeover one from the 13th century, standing proud on the headland looking over the sea cliffs and being embarrassed by a richness of fresh air, most of which is travelling with considerable speed and vigour.

Whitby Gargoyles

Back at the Abbey we wandered around the museum, pulling faces at the gargoyles on display, before having a cup of tea then heading off to town to find some fish and chips for lunch. There are steps to be climbed down in order to achieve this; you walk from the Abbey through the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin and arrive at the top of a long and winding stair. 199 of them to be precise.

Top of Whitby StairsThere are seats and waiting spaces at various intervals in case the climbers need a rest. In fact on our way back up there was an ambulance at the bottom dealing with someone who had been talken poorly.

The other big thing about Whitby Abbey is the connection with vampires. Bram Stoker had Dracula come ashore at Whitby and in recent years the town has become a centre of Goth attention as a result. There is a Goth festival every Halloween, and it remains popular with the alternative community throughout the year. The tourist shops sell either traditional Whitby jet jewellery or else Goth fashions. Both are black and ornate, so there’s a natural fit.

Changeable beach weatherIt was a blazing hot day on Monday though, with nary a Goth in sight, so we ate our fish and chips inside then waddled down to the beach before the rain set in. Being England, this was the inevitable consequence of a hot and sunny morning which tricked holiday makers into going down to the sand with no more protection than a knotted hanky on their head and a deckchair under their arms. English weather has a sense of humour.


Dark clouds began to gather.

The seagulls hesitated then took to the skies with screams.

Suspicious shipIt was unclear whether they were perturbed by the change in air pressure or the arrival of a suspicious ship from Transylvania.

We went home and found the sun was still shining. It had rained while we were away, so we enjoyed the best of the weather all day. Sometimes things work out that way.


The great British tea ceremony

Today, my dears, I am somewhat exhausted from a drive down south and back to collect the Southern-based Offspring. Sigoth and I ignored the hysteria on the radio and set off with no more than a packet of chocolate hob nobs to sustain us through the perils of March snow. The journey was fast, uneventful and slushy. Coming back was faster, although I regretted my cavalier haste, discovering I had picked up the Yorkshire road atlas by mistake and was faced with having to improvise when we learned the M1 was closed on the northbound carriageway. We took the A1 instead and very jolly it was. By the time we reached God’s Own County there were patches of blue sky and the occasional glimpse of sunshine. The thermometer rose above zero for the first time. We were nearly home.

The worst thing about the trip was the utter lack of potable tea. To a true-born daughter of this sceptre isle, set in a silver sea, this is a calamity. The hotel we use when visiting the Southern-based Offspring is convenient for location, has ample parking and is close to an excellent Indian restaurant. However, the proprietors, no matter how sound in every other respect, feel that sachets fo UHT milk are acceptable for the in-room catering. My dears, they are wrong.

The result was that I arrived home having been deprived of the elixir of life for almost 48 hours. I was a wreck. The kettle was boiled and tea prepared within minutes of our return, and order was restored to the planets orbiting in the heavens. I felt strong enough to deal with the emails that had flustered into my in-box.

For those of you who are not familiar with the place tea plays in civilised life, I urge you to study this introduction to The Tea Code in British Etiquette. It may be of service if you ever visit.

Meanwhile, for those of you who need a musical version, please enjoy the tea rap – but only if you don’t mind some naughty words. Apparently rap is about rage and rage is about swearing. You have been warned.



My Green Foot

When I was seven, my parents took me to Canada to visit my aunt and uncle. Fortunately they let us stay for more than just tea, and we had a wonderful three weeks. I learned to speak Canadian, and call Autumn “Fall” and pavements “sidewalks” and all kinds of crazy things. It was a huge learning experience.

The most wonderful thing I learned about though was someone we didn’t know in England in the 1960s. He was large and friendly and on TV all the time, with his merry laughter and exotic cuisine. England in the 1960s was a very different world. In bohemian Ste Anne de Bellevue I discovered sweet corn and the Jolly Green Giant. It was an Epiphany.

I was very taken with the JGG, and terribly sad to find out you couldn’t get his sweet corn back home. Nor could you get root beer. Exotic cuisine indeed! I don’t think I have ever had root beer since I last went to Canada in 1981. In my curmudgeonly old age I suspect this may be a blessing.

Anyway, my aunt and uncle were wise and compassionate people and they realised I was pining for Jollity of the Green variety. That Christmas I received the most marvellous gift – a Jolly Green Giant Footprint Bedside Rug! That rug, my friends, has been beside my bed, welcoming my bare feet on a daily basis since 1969. It is a little more worn and stressed than it used to be, as are so many of us. Over the years the strenuous effort of caressing my tired toes caused poor JGG to lose his own toes. The middle three quite parted company from the main foot and just hung about pretending they were still connected, like forlorn puppies.

Have I mentioned before how much I adore my Sigoth? I’m sure I have. The Jolly Green Giant Footprint Redside rug is an item he despises with a passion. It is his one weakness as far as I am concerned – well, that and not drinking tea or eating dried fruit. Really, I’m a martyr to his strangenesses. It’s a wonder the Offspringses were not taken away at birth by Social Services. Anyway, he hates my poor foot.

Here’s the best bit. This weekend he took that foot and its sad, detached toes and sewed them all back on, and washed the rug and cleaned it up, and got some backing material to give it added strength. Once the backing is put on my beautiful Jolly Green Giant Footprint Bedside Rug will be restored to its rightful place and my toes will once again know the luxury of its gentle welcome every morning and evening. And Sigoth will still despise it but nothing in this Vale of Tears is entirely perfect.

The world will turn upon its axis and the universe will unfold in its allotted time. No further disturbance or disruption will trouble its being. I thought you might like to know and be reassured.


Snow train

The train had arrived early in Leeds in spite of Snowmageddon. Our management had told people to leave early in case of travel problems, with a predicted 15cm of snow across the Pennines which would inevitably cause difficulties for those travelling more than a few yards from Leeds City Centre. I left at my planned time and the train arrived early. It hadn’t read the memo, or, indeed, the weather forecast, and had crossed the Pennines in excellent time.

At York we sat outside the station for a long time, trapped as two other not-very-useful Engines gossiped idly on platform 5. We imagined them stamping their wheels and rubbing their fenders to keep warm, sheltered snugly under the Victorian roof and thinking little, caring less, for Engines which had arrived early or kept to their timetable.

“We’re waiting for two other trains to move so we can come in on Platform 5,” the conductor announced, keen to demonstrate his frustration and lack of culpability. We were all in it together alright.

The minutes crawled by, slow in the frozen wind, and we waited. There was sighing and tutting and raising of eyebrows. None of them achieved a forward momentum. I played Sudoku on my phone. It didn’t seem worth calling home where Sigoth was snuggling and thinking of dinner. Other passengers however chose to share their outrage with loved ones, and many conversations ensued along the lines of “I’m stuck outside York now, we’re waiting for a platform.” It was generally followed by a character-defining pronouncement of either “hopefully not long now” or “probably be ages, bloody trains”.

Eventually another trian strolled past heading north.

“That’s the culprit!” the conductor told us. “Feel free to gesticulate as he goes by!”

And everyone laughed. Some of us waved, ironically I’m sure. People turned to their neighbours and smiled and agreed it was good to have a conductor with a sense of humour. We felt warm and companionable, thanks to a single quip. Onward, fellow travellers!

One man made everyone’s miserable, cold, frustrating journey better. How easy it is to share a little joy, if only we remember to try.



City Square, 3 A.M

City Square, LeedsI like my sleep. It is a rare and precious thing. I often sleep badly, which is strange to me even after several years of sleeping badly. I blame the pesky hormones and keep hoping it will settle down, but so far it hasn’t.

Last night was my second night in a hotel room overlooking City Square in Leeds. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine room with a fine view. I’m quite fond of City Square. In December it has a massive tree with sparkly lights, and sometimes Occupy protesters around the bottom like a modern Nativity. (Take that, St Paul’s, with your eviction notices!) In milder weather, if there is such a concept north of the Watford Gap, there are hanging baskets with pretty flowers looking pretty as only pretty things can. Often they are pink, and none the worse for it.

I’m looking out the window now as I write this, the sky greying and the buildings awash with yellow spotlights shining upwards and dawn shining downwards and streetlights filling in the gap in the middle. It’s 7.30 already and busy and soon I will venture down into the sleepy, shuffling commuter crowd to stride purposefully to the office.

City Square has bicycle lanes criss-crossing it as well as a wild tangle of bus lanes and normal roads in a bewildering one-way system, and lots of different traffic lights and many , many pedestrians so confused by it all that they simply wander where they will at great personal risk. Taxis erupt from the station in all directions like champagne from a vigorously shaken bottle splattering everyone in its orbit. Buses chug and wheeze and occasionally glide along the central, bus-only, roadways. Busy, busy, busy.

It’s all well and good at 7.30 on a Friday morning. It’s a work day and a school day and a doing day. When I toss and turn in my bed at night, missing home, gnawing at a work problem, wondering if my alarm is set and checking it for the third time, I expect a bit more peace and quiet. City Square does not oblige. Sometimes there are sirens for dark, night time emergencies. Last night there was singing.

I lay and listened to the inebriated group of gentlemen singing as they staggered through the square. It felt like they were under my window, serenading me. I am sure the other guests enjoyed the concert as much as I did, way up on the 5th floor. But I was proud of myself, because I was awake for other reasons so it wasn’t their fault and I did not blame them for disturbing me. Rather I thought to myself:

“There’s some pretty good harmony and two part singing going on there; that’s quite impressive given how drunk they are.”

They sounded like they were happy, and happiness is not a bad thing to be heard, even at 3 o’clock in the morning. They eventually found their way out of the immediate vicinity, hopefully in the right direction and not to the canal (unless they were Yorkshire Gondaliers I suppose). I turned over (again) and tried to relax (again) and this time I did. So they sang me to sleep after all, bless them.


The Invisibles

Today I went to the dentist for a check-up. That’s not what I’m going to tell you about though. I am going to speculate wildly about the automatic doors at the train station.

Usually you see, when I catch the early train, there is a constant coming and going, a turmoil of busyness, thrashing about the station waiting room-cum-ticket hall. The young folk who travel into York to attend school are huddling and shrieking about homework and OMG-ing about so-and-so’s new nail varnish or football boots or electronic device of choice, or moaning about Miss Battleaxe in Divinity who gave them detention for not being able to name the Apostles or worrying about the cross country run they have to do in the afternoon because they forgot their kit and everyone knows that Mr Satan in PE will make them do it in their underwear in front of the girls and what the hell is a bunga-bunga party anyway? Among their rumbustious throng the grey and weathered commuters stumble and bumble, breaking skin and shins with laptop case edges and dropping phones and e-readers and iPads as they scrabble for tickets or credit cards.

In other words, dear friends, it is a hubbub and frothing, frenzied confusion. It is Life’s Rich Tapestry in market town hues.

Throughout it all the doors open and close as travellers come in from the cold or go to wait on the platform so they can be first on the train and get a seat. They swish and slide for everyone and often for no one as the queue for the tickets gets too close or the teenage ant’s nest swirls into their orbit. The blast of cold air from outside acts as a prompt for the perpetrators to move aside before their legs freeze off at the knee, and so doing the doors whisper closed again for a few moments. Then it all begins again. It’s not like Brief Encounter, I can tell you

There is a tea room on the station, but it doesn’t open until after the early trains have gone, so I rarely see it on the inside. The tea is dark and thick, just the way I like it, and very reasonably priced, as we like to say in these parts when we mean cheap.

All of this was history when I went to catch the later train after my dental appointment. I am aware that some people across the Atlantic don’t realise we have dentists in this country. We do, and many of them are quite good and some even do all that cosmetic nonsense for people with more money than sense. The rest of us don’t care what the teeth look like so long as they masticate efficiently. I get irritated with my dentist for polishing my teeth each visit and removing the carefully built-up layer of tannin. Honestly, white teeth are just so shiny and sometimes one wants to be the Shadow. I don’t want to smile at the driver who waits for me to cross the road and blind him so he runs down the little old lady along the street. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. It’s a worry. Even now I am having to type with one hand so I can contain the nuclear-powered glow f my freshly minted chompers behind the other hand, for the sake of humanity

Anyway, back in the ticket hall things were quieter than the early morning rush. There was still a reasonable number of people waiting for the train, but not the dense throng catching the 7.23. Various people came in to buy a ticket and wandered outside to wait, only to return as the bitter wind and flurries of snow persuaded them of their folly. In between the incursions the rest us,, wiser and more patient, sat and waited quietly and peacefully. Waiting for an English train is akin to Zen meditation. I’m almost certain the noise of the tannoy is one hand clapping; certainly it is a bit buzzy and not recognisably a sound of the everyday world, which is how I imagine the Zen hand sounds too.

The doors at the front of the hall opened. No one was there or even walking about the ticket office, which can trigger the doors. We were all sitting down. No one came in or even walked past on the pavement outside. Interesting.

The doors closed again and then the doors to the platform opened. Still no one was there or even walking about the hall. We were still all sitting down. No one came in or even walked past on the platform outside. Interesting.

Clearly there was only one sane and rational conclusion to be drawn. There were silent, invisible creatures passing through the ticket hall. You couldn’t see their reflection in the glass, so they could be vampires. Now, I’m not mad enough to suggest they were necessarily catching a train. That would be not be supported by the evidence. They may have been trainspotters. Or lost tourists. From Alpha Centauri.

What did they look like under their invisibility cloaks? If not Romulans, then sufficiently large – humanoid equivalent at least – to trigger the doors. Of course, they also allowed us to walk through their bodies, or they would have been detected before. So large and substantial but also invisible, silent and insubstantial to human touch. Perhaps some kind of phased timey-wimey distortion or portable wormhole solution. Interesting.

The biggest problem I can see (or not see, I suppose, in this context) is how to communicate. I guess they can’t talk to us or they would have asked for help with managing the rail network. Everyone does, in the end. I have not noticed any written notes, but will keep an eye out for the next couple of weeks in case. They may not be substantial enough to hold a pen but perhaps they can use a touch screen and tweet us. Some of the tweets I see certainly seem to originate on another planet.

They wouldn’t need much intelligence of course. Pigeons can cope with travelling about on the London Underground, hopping on and off trains at various stations, and waiting patiently near the doors in order to do so. Pigeons may also, of course, originate from Alpha Centauri, and in fact be pan-galactic, hyper-intelligent beings like the mice. No one seems to have published conclusive evidence either way. At least they don’t tweet.

I don’t think the Visitors can be very heavy because this phenomenon is only noticeable with automatic doors. I have been typing this on Leeds station while waiting for the delayed train home, and the old-fashioned doors are behaving entirely in accordance with the well-known Law of Human Interaction, and only opening when a visible humanoid operates pressure. The Visitors may be sidling through the doors after the humans, as the doors are quite slow to close. Clearly more research is needed.

In an infinite universe, as every hip frood knows, anything is possible. Even Invisible Visitors on the National Rail Network.

Tell me I’m not the only one to have noticed!



Home Work

Home working is such a brilliant thing, isn’t it? I am blessed to have a home-based contract, which means that I have the shortest commute to work known to humankind. I struggle from the kitchen to the office, mug in hand, surrounded by hordes of no one and log in to my computer. Outside January has arrived in force and snow is beginning to pile up on the ground, with the promise of blizzards by Friday.

I wasn’t always sure that I liked the idea of home working, but today I am going to tell you what it is like, and why it suits me.

I was supposed to go to Head Office today, but cancelled. We are doing on-line meetings instead (it’s a fancy, high-tech name for a telephone call, in some cases). I am so grateful, and hesitate to rub your noses in it, but thought I would anyway.

There are probably plenty of articles about the pros and cons of home based working, referring to social isolation and the difficulty of switching off from work at the end of the day as negatives. Certainly when I was offered the post three years ago I was not at all certain it was a good idea. Despite being socially inept, I know I become depressed when not out and about with humans. Sigoth dreads it because he otherwise comes home to a wreck of a creature, unable to have rational conversation.

I sat in the interview and actually said I wasn’t sure about the contract being home-based.

“Oh,” said Boss-to-Be, “don’t worry, you won’t be home much!”

She was right of course. Sometimes I am not home at all for weeks. It’s exhausting. It means hotels and eating at that special table at the back reserved for business customers on their own, out of the way and forgotten, too dark to read. You eat and leave as quickly as possible. You then go back to your room and watch junk TV or do more work; either way your brain is abused. Living in a hotel all week is unpleasant. In fact it is the least enjoyable thing, for me, about being a home based worker.

Even if colleagues are also around, and you spend an evening with them, inevitably you talk a lot about work. Sometimes you make decisions as if in a meeting, and that risks missing out people who didn’t happen to be staying over that night. It can be tricky. At the very least, the risk that you don’t switch off at home is multiplied when you stay away and have other colleagues for company all evening.

What Boss-to-Be didn’t explain, though, was that the company is geared around home-based workers. We are over 50% of the workforce. This means that all the technology and planning and assumptions are based on people working from home. The difference is amazing.

In previous jobs I have Worked At Home (WAH) for a day a week when possible. It was a chance to catch up on things without so many interruptions. It was peaceful and serene. I would write up reports or analyse data or just catch up on admin. If anyone called, they would preface every conversation with “Sorry to call you at home,” as if I was on holiday. It could be irritating, but it was also a blessing because they didn’t call unless it was really important. It was incredible how many times I picked the day nothing important happened to work at home. Whenever I was in the office I was bombarded with calls and questions. On WAH days it seemed they didn’t arise, in the way that there’s usually no news at Christmas. Interesting.

Now I have a contract which says I am home-based. The company provides me with a computer and broadband and phone. All I need to do is find space for a desk and chair, which can be difficult, and they do the rest. I am on the phone all the time, if I am not on webinars. If you looked at my diary you wouldn’t know where I was, only that I had meetings booked or not. It makes no difference most of the time, and this is because almost everyone else is doing the same thing.

The team I joined was quite new, and we learned together. There is a different rhythm to working remotely, to holding meetings where you can’t see expression or read body language. You have to have more directive chairing because people can’t judge when to speak so easily. A classic example is that it’s no good asking “Who’s here?” on a telecom because people don’t know when to speak and either say their names all at once or wait too long. We find it’s easier to run down the list, like school register. Equally the chair has to ask people in turn if they have anything to add. On the one hand it is easier to drift off if the subject is not keeping your attention; on the other hand you need to concentrate very hard not to miss anything, which is more demanding than sitting in a room passing round the biscuits someone has brought in.

Most interestingly we also found tha some meetings had to be in person. The more creative, problem-solving meetings, and some of the team meetings, simply need human contact to maintain relationships and to spark ideas. So we have a mix.

It’s true that I find some disadvantages too. I hate to leave my desk even to boil the kettle or nip to the loo. There’s no one to cover me while I’m gone. I also lose track of the time and either start early or work late without realising. The temptation to check something in the evening or at the weekend has to be resisted. Self discipline is important. I have learned to manage myself better than I did before.

However, on the plus side, being at home means I can get the boiler serviced without taking a morning off. I can put laundry on before I start work and then hang it up at lunchtime, or while I make a cup of tea. I can work slightly odd hours (meetings aside) to suit myself, so if I need to take mother to the doctor, or talk to her care manager, it fits more easily into my day. I can eat my own food, and don’t have to make a packed lunch or buy a terrible sandwich. I can write my blog in the time I would usually be commuting (hello there!). Sometimes I even manage a half hour of yoga. I achieve greater balance, and not just by standing on one foot like a tree in an earthquake.

When I started working at home I faced the change with trepidation. The old, old lesson is that change can be good, but we let fear get in our way.

How do you work best, and what have you tried that worked or didn’t?

Meanwhile I count my blessings and am grateful, which is pretty much all we can ask for.


Slip Sliding Away

Those of you who have been kind enough to spend time in my corner of yon t’Interweb may remember that I often catch the 6.55 bus to town in order to transfer to the 7.23 train. Usually this is a seamless process and I tend to be half asleep as I am transported to the delights of Head Office.

Today I awoke to the shock news that it was winter and that there was ice on the roads. In this part of the country the council is very efficient at gritting. We are the leading Winter Olympic Team in Laughing at the Soft Southerners Who Can’t Cope with a Bit of Frost. We chortle at London’s hapless attempts to keep trains running after a millimetre of snow, and snort at their feeble cries that it’s a really, really hard thing to do. (Note for those not familiar with English geography: for the purposes of identifying a Southerner, anyone living in the Southwest counts as a Northerner when referring to snow, ice and gritting.)

So this is a shout-out to North Yorkshire County Council who spectacularly failed to grit the lane last night. It is unusual, to be fair. The consequences, however, were entirely predictable and underline why they should grit the damn lane as a matter of course.

The 6.55 bus was a little late. Three of us were waiting at the bus stop: myself and Sigoth, and our lovely neighbour, Marathon Runner with Diabetes. We were stamping our feet and puffing into our hands and talking about the owl we could hear, badminton tournaments and Christmas parties at work. It was convivial and we were not surprised the bus was a little late because clearly the roads were not in peak condition. We had all slithered precariously across the glacier at the roundabout so we knew it very well and were considering Writing A Letter to the Council to voice out displeasure.

As we waited at the bus stop a car fishtailed round the roundabout because he was going at more than one mile an hour. We all ducked into the shelter to avoid being walloped.

The bus eventually appeared about 15 minutes later, chugging along very slowly as befitted the conditions. We all dug out our passes and change and watched him inch his way round the roundabout. Our stop is at the end of a lane and the buses come up, go all the way round the roundabout and head back to the main road again. It confuses the hell out of tourists because you can’t tell so easily where the bus is going (north or south) after that. There’s a trick to it called “reading the destination on the front,” but this is not always possible because it scrolls and you have to catch it at the right moment.

Anyway, this was the bus we wanted. It slipped as it approached the roundabout and slowed down even more. Then as it started to go up the incline and round the edge it lost all grip on its rear wheels, slid sideways and stopped. After a couple of minutes it was obvious there was nothing for the wheels to grip and it sat there, hazard lights flashing and one road junction completely barred.

An oil lorry came along behind it and skidded into the verge. Eventually he got the vehicle under control but couldn’t get past the bus.

The bus inched forward slightly then slid back. It began to spin a little. The woman in the upstairs front seat displayed true Yorkshire grit by sitting calmly throughout, no matter how the bus danced and pranced. It was like dressage for motor vehicles.

Time went by and the sky grew lighter. Cars and vans came along, skidding and sliding too. They had to go the wrong way round the roundabout to get to their exit. The bus inched forwards a little more. After 20 minutes it had got round the first quarter of the circle. We cheered and stamped our feet and Marathon Man posted pictures on Facebook. Sigoth tweeted the Council to let them know about their dangerous and inept #FAIL.

After another 20 minutes or so it was clear the driver could do no more. A small van arrived from the bus company with sand and a shovel. The bus driver got out and apologised to us for the delay and offered us some of his coffee from his thermos. The man deserves a medal.

The rescuer used up all his sand and the bus began to skate towards the third quarter leading back to the bus stop. A large oil lorry slid into a hedge, recovered and carried on down the other exit. As the bus crawled towards us the man with the sand pushed the left front wing to guide it along its way. It was so slippery on the road that this actually worked.

The driver got the bus to where we were standing and appeared to stop although he was moving slightly without volition.

“Jump on!” he said, voice tight with stress.

We hesitated at the thought of imminent disaster, then jumped on and sat down and everyone on the bus said hello and smiled. We wobbled off down the lane, crawled over the hump-backed bridge and lurched towards the main road. Traffic on the main road roared by. The main road had clearly been gritted. Cautiously we felt our way onto the carriageway, although it was hard because our lane was very icy at the junction too so we had no power.  

It was an hour late, but we were on our way. By the time the kids come down for the school bus I hope the ice will be in retreat and they will be safe.

I understand that some drivers get frustrated when they are caught behind the slow moving gritting lorries. They are idiots. Those lorries are absolutely vital and you don’t know how much until they miss you out.

So here I sit in the station café with a steaming mug of tea, waiting for the next train 2 hours after my usual one, and wondering what it will be like when I come home on Friday.



Away from it all

I am away from home for the rest of this week because the world will end if I don’t spend more time in Head Office. You will have heard about the Prophecy; this is what it is really about. Well, I like to think that, but in fact it’s more a confluence of meetings all in one week, which at least gets them out of the way and means I can then tidy up at home before the family arrive for the festivities.

So much for the housekeeping announcements. If the fire alarm goes off, it is not a test and you should follow me to the nearest exit.

This preamble was intended to continue and state for the record that, if I get any time in the evenings, I would quite like to use this opportunity to write. I won’t be posting here probably; limited access to yon t’Interweb may preclude it. Unless you hear from me, of course. It’s all a bit speculative.

I don’t know if you travel away for work. People who don’t, seem to think it’s a marvellous perk. Those who do, generally agree it’s like having your soul eaten by the anthropomorphic manifestation of dreariness. If it had a face it would be the girl from the BBC test card, sitting with the creepy clown doll and playing noughts and crosses. She would smile at you and devour you from the toes up as you lay helpless in the beigeness of the hotel room, deadened to life and laughter by the total neutrality of the décor and the blandness of the food, served earlier at your neat little table for one in the darkest corner of the restaurant (for the business woman of taste and discretion – the sub-text being “and no friends”).

That test card was presumably supposed to imply fun things kicking off; in practice it was stultifyingly boring. She sat there for hour after hour. She never moved or even blinked. I know because I used to watch her when I was a little kid. For ages and ages I watched, but nary a flicker. Sometimes the picture would lose its quality and there would be dots and lines crawling around the screen. If the horizontal hold went you had to fiddle with a button at the back and if that failed, thump the TV. The youth of today will be looking at these assertions blankly (a bit like test card girl in fact) because I really can’t remember the last time I had a TV that acted like that, but it was before they invented colour. Now the digital switchover means that everything pixellates when the pigeon lands on the aerial, but that’s different, plus we have BBC iPlayer to overcome such misfortunes.

Hotel TVs don’t get any kind of decent reception as far as I can tell. I don’t watch much TV but I do like to have it on when I am away to add some noise and movement to the blankness of the room. This is how I found out about CSI, and it’s a real balance to decide whether to put up with that or look at the neutral décor for the evening.

What I mean by all this moaning is that being away for work is utterly boring when falls the eventide. Hotels aren’t fun unless you are on holiday. There are only so many hours I am prepared to soak in a bath. Being alone in a hotel room is solitary confinement that has somehow crept under the radar of the Geneva Convention, and allows companies to seclude their staff in a very special kind of purdah (in the segregation sense, not the election sense). You get a Gideon’s Bible and then you are left to it, without even a Red Cross parcel or Amnesty International postcard to provide hope. It is particularly a problem for lone women working away from home; you don’t want to get me started on hotel bars. So obviously I fill my time by doing extra work.

Except this time I have a cunning plan: I am taking my knitting and my novel and looking forward to some me-time. Hurrah for me. It can work quite well, because I have tried the knitting thing in the past. I haven’t tried the writing though, so we shall see how the environment affects the Muse. At least it will be quiet. Although I could go to the bar as typing on a laptop is almost as good as wearing a sign saying “Hello, I work for the Inland Revenue and am particularly interested in cacti as my hobby.”(Although there are probably websites even for that.) I don’t have anything against cacti, of course, nor even the Inland Revenue, so long as they have nothing against me.

Enough rambling. It’s time to go and pack. I hope your week is filled with joy and friendship. I hope mine is filled.


A day in the life

What is it like to live in a small rural village in the early 21st century? Well, my dears, draw closer and I shall reveal to you a day in the life of a typical village resident.

The alarm goes off at 6 am. It isn’t a surprise. I have been lying awake for at least half an hour. I have two old fashioned wind up clocks that chime, usually a minute or two apart, and I heard them strike the half hour. If I listen carefully I can hear the church clock too, slightly off set again. It’s easier in the summer because the bedroom window is open but in the winter the sound is muffled by the double glazing we had installed about 3 or 4 years ago. A woman in the village is responsible for keeping the clock going and no one knows what will happen when she is no longer with us; she is quite elderly now and not in the best of health so it is a pressing matter, but church attendance is very limited. Only a handful of villagers attend the services, and these are spread between a number of churches which are the responsibility of the local priest. I am not an Anglican so I do not attend but I am sad to think the church may not be able to continue.

Sigoth gets up to make a cup of tea and we stumble through our early morning routine, in and out of the bathroom, dressing and getting ready for the day. We both have to travel today and need to catch the bus which comes at 6.55. The next bus isn’t until 8.55 and it is about 8 miles to the nearest town or train station.

Downstairs we put the breakfast news on so we can keep track of the time and I download the newspaper to my e-reader to read on the journey. After the local news and the sport it’s time to go. I have to travel to Leeds to go to head office for a couple of days. Tomorrow I am going to visit an Offspring overnight before heading back to Leeds for an afternoon meeting.

Sigoth and I find our way carefully down the street, slip-sliding away. It is a good thing there is a moon not long past full to light our way. The streetlights here are further apart than in the town, so it is dark. There has been a heavy frost, or perhaps light snow, and the pavement is white and slippery, and we are the first to tread along it. In the distance a barn owl is hooting, and we crunch the frozen leaves which have fallen from the horse chestnut. In the summer we are serenaded by peacocks as we wait for the bus, but in the winter it’s the owls. Sometimes there is a cockerel, but today he is too cold to shout.

When we reach the bus stop we look at the stars and moon and feel blessed. Sigoth has an app for identifying stars and we find we can see Mercury, Venus and Saturn towards the east, all in a tidy line. It’s very kind of them to queue up to be viewed.

We often meet a neighbour at the bus stop on his way to work, but today he must be working at home. It’s just me and Sigoth waiting in the freezing darkness, and the bus is unusually 10 minutes late. I worry I might miss my train, and Sigoth worries he might miss his connection to another bus.

The bus usually connects quite well, but last week there were problems because of delays on the journey caused by diversions around flooding. The late bus still gives me 5 minutes to lurch across the road in the dark and ice and reach the platform just as the level crossing comes down to announce the arrival of the train.

I scramble into my seat in the last of 3 coaches. My ticket is pre-booked so I can reserve a seat but the regular commuters are not so lucky and it can be difficult to find somewhere to sit as the journey progresses. Quite a few children use this train to get to school so it is noisy and boisterous.

By the time we reach Leeds about an hour later the train is crammed with commuters standing in the aisle and their bags all end up in the face of whoever is sitting nearest to them. Luckily I have the window seat today. Most of us are playing with gadgets: e-readers, smart phones or tablet PCs. There is no phone signal for much of the journey however, so blessedly few loud conversations. We have to travel through the Howardian Hills which block signals, but which are home to rabbits, deer and foxes if you are quick to see them, as well as fields with sheep, horses and cattle. When it is light there is a lot to see, but at this time of day you can only see your reflection in the glass.

I have put my suitcase in the overhead rack for the journey. It is difficult to reach it when we are ready to get off in Leeds because the press of people trying to leave the train prevents me standing up and reaching it. I have to wait for a gap and then get it down by which time the people on the platform have surged forward and now I have to fight past them all with the suitcase, my laptop and handbag. At the same time I am clutching my ticket in hand ready to negotiate the automatic barrier to get out of the station.

I stumble onto the platform and manage to find my way to the escalator, trailing my suitcase. An eager commuter rushing for the train trips over the case and we both apologise to each other, then hurry on our separate ways. I go up the escalator, across the bridge and down again to the exit, juggling bags, tickets and crowds.

By the time I reach the barriers the main crowd had already gone through and luckily no other trains have arrived so the way is fairly clear. Just the last few stragglers like me.

Now I have made it through the first hurdle I head for the hotel where I will be staying tonight. I leave my case with the concierge, exchanging a few cheery words as we now know each other quite well. I am a regular, which affords me certain privileges with the staff. I set out for the office with laptop in hand, already running late for the 9.00 meeting. I make a point of stopping on the way to pick up lunch; there won’t be a chance later.

Arriving at the office the lift isn’t working so I use the stairs, carrying laptop, handbag and now a coffee and lunch as well. I swipe my ID card to open the door, sign in and take my lunch to the fridge. Already colleagues are asking questions about the new release, the issue with the system and the workshop we are holding at 10.00. I find my way to a hot-desk where I can check emails in the 5 minutes before I have to dial in. I need to speak to Finance about the capital budget, and plan to do so at 9.30 after the teleconference.

The rest of the day is a whir of meetings, questions, emails and discussions in odd corners. A colleague and I have to take part in a telecon in the first aid room because there is nowhere we can go to dial in that is quiet. I fail to speak to Finance because the gap I had planned is taken up with a more pressing crisis. I eat my lunch in one of the meetings, along with other colleagues on similar schedules.

My last meeting is with a colleague who has had a busy day too and we decide to go for a pint of beer to recuperate. It’s great to have an hour or so to talk about something other than work. I check into the hotel properly at about 8 pm but they are so busy that I end up using the restaurant instead of room service for dinner.

Eating in a hotel restaurant on your own is very depressing.

When I get to my room the heating has broken down. It’s December in the north of England, so not very warm. The staff rush up with heaters for me, and I begin to thaw out as I type this story.

I call Sigoth; his buses ran fine and he got home at a reasonable time. I also call Offspring to be visited, and agree where we will eat tomorrow night, assuming the weather does not prevent my visit.

Tomorrow is another day, and I plan to head west across the Pennines after work. Who knows what adventures await? I will cross Saddleworth Moor, the site of appalling murder, and also the highest train route in England. Or I may use the Leeds – Settle route across some of the most beautiful scenery in the country (although it will be dark). I will visit a medieval cathedral city which isn’t York, the site of the gaol where George Fox, father of Quakerism, was imprisoned in the 17th century.

What will you do today?