Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I never knew you, you never knew me

When I met American Girl in Neros for an almond croissant, I thought we would be gossiping about mutual friends, not discussing the merits of proportional representation. But it turned out she was still a bit excited about her first vote as a new citizen of this sceptred isle. Whenever I tried to move the topic onto X’s hideous new handbag or how Y had been banned from the John Harvey’s for eating beer mats, Am-Girl behaved as if these were trivial matters unworthy of consideration.

‘Yes, the Gardeners threw him out as well’, she said dismissively. ‘Anyway, can you explain this Alternative Vote system?’

I wasn’t much help on AV, nor on how the newsreader managed to announce ‘Theresa May gets equalities role’ with a straight face, nor what a coalition actually meant in practice (though to be fair to me, the ‘government’ also seemed unsure).

As I wiped the crumbs off my chin, preparing to leave her to an intensive study of last week’s newspapers, she said casually, ‘Weird about the BNP, isn’t it?’

‘What, weirder than usual?’

‘You wouldn’t think they’d get almost 600 votes in Lewes, would you?’

‘How many?’ My shriek caused all the baristas to spill those little espresso glasses they mess about with.

She showed me the stats: 594 people who looked at the numerous options and thought, ‘Well, that Nick Griffin, he’s got a point.’

A lost deposit, sure, and less than the Green Party (though not by much). But considerably more than I’d have guessed. And oodles more than the poor Independent candidate, who with just 80 votes couldn’t even have counted on all his Facebook friends.

I walked home, not in my usual happy perambulating mode, but anxiously, paranoid-ly. I scrutinised the faces of passers-by. Did he vote for them? Did she? Later, I looked up the history of Lewes voting (there was nothing on telly), and discovered this was the first time the BNP had stood here. Though back in 1979, when skinheads had a brief fashion moment, the National Front gained 764 Lewes votes.

When Aging Lad popped round, I was lost in melancholic thought. ‘You live somewhere, you think you’ve got the measure of it, then it turns out there are hundreds of people who don’t read the Guardian after all’, I whinged.

‘Ah’. He looked embarrassed. ‘You know how you forced me to vote?’

‘Yes indeedy. Universal suffrage, not to be taken for granted.’

‘Well, as you know, I’d never done it before. Got flustered. Couldn’t remember if it was a tick or a cross. Dropped the pencil. Got the BNP muddled up with the SDP.’

So that accounted for one of the votes. I had just another 593 to track down.

‘The SDP weren’t even standing, Lad. Because they disbanded twenty years ago.’

‘I’m very sorry’, he said. Then brightened. ‘But it didn’t make any difference, did it? My vote didn’t count, anyhow.’

There were many of us who could say the same.

Beth Miller, 19th May 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it

Cherry blossom pinked the pavement, and out of a charabanc stepped Uncle Adultery, debonair in his lemon-yellow Parisian suit.

‘Niecey’, he cried, hailing me with a silk umbrella. ‘Marvellous news! I’m getting married!’

Shocked, I hustled him into the café formerly known as Artisan, which is now three numbers (192? 197? 172? No, the 172 was a bus I used to get to school). Over a stiff glass of cloudy lemonade, I pointed out that he runs a dating agency for restless married people and is the embodiment of romantic cynicism. When this didn’t budge him, I recalled his own words, spoken after the dust had settled on the fourth of his exciting-but-better-duck-for-cover marriages.

‘You told me’, I said, ‘That if you ever teetered towards another nuptial bond, I should lock you in a wardrobe until the madness had passed.’ I threateningly waved a wardrobe key that I always carry.

‘Ah, the foolish fighting talk of my younger self’, Uncle A smiled, dropping the key into my lemonade, and ignoring the fact that he had been fifty-eight at the time. ‘It will be different with Emmanuelle.’

I was amazed Emmanuelle had said yes, given the unveiled contempt with which she mostly regards my uncle. He admitted he hadn’t yet asked her.

‘When we visited you last year’, he mused, and a flashback of the fracas outside the Charcoal Grill made me shiver, ‘Emmanuelle saw an item of jewellery she quite liked.’ This constitutes gushing praise from the austere French lady. ‘If I buy an engagement ring from the self-same shop, it will swing the deal.’

He drained his glass and stood. ‘Lead on, Niecey! This needn’t take long. I’ve a table booked at La Gavroche tonight. Bottle of Pétrus and bended knee. Done and dusted.’

I quailed at the size of our task.

‘Nonsense, Niecey – it’s a small town. How many jewellery emporia can there be?’

When I told him I had easily thought of nine, his face went the colour of his suit. We made a start, and Uncle A sifted through sapphires, and discarded diamonds. But when, after three hours, I discovered a new jewellery shop had pupped, where Laceys drycleaners once stood, Uncle A admitted defeat. He rang Emmanuelle for clues. As he spoke – his end of the conversation mere repetition of the word, ‘yes’ – he wilted and aged before my eyes. There’s no accounting for love in the Springtime.

‘She only remembers that its name had a z in it’, he said, straightening slowly. ‘And she said – but this can’t be right – that it sold leg-warmers. She must be going loopy, poor old girl.’

Watching Uncle Adultery negotiating with Tizz’s multiply-pierced and dread-locked sales assistant was a uniquely uplifting experience. He chose an amber ring that cost several noughts fewer than his budget.

‘Two bottles of Pétrus tonight’, he cried, jumping aboard a hansom cab and waving his handkerchief. ‘I’ll call you with the wonderful news tomorrow.’

That was last week. I’m still waiting to hear.

Beth Miller, 11th May 2010. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, June 2010.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I’m on the pavement, thinking ‘bout the government

Not long now till we set off to put that vital X on the ballot paper. Thing One is beyond excited. Since last time we voted in Lewes, for the County Council, or whatever it was, she regards elections with an awe bestowed upon very few other activities. Going To Vote is in the same league as spending an hour in the Build-a-Bear Workshop in Churchill Square, or being allowed an ice cream and a cake at the Grange.

If only it were the spirit of democracy that so fired her imagination. I wish she were enlivened by a deep and historical understanding of the struggles Emmeline Pankhurst and the Monster Raving Loonies went through to bring suffrage to all. But no. I’m afraid the reason for her anticipation is because at the Council election, a kind man at the desk gave her a gobstopper. She’d never seen one before, due to my Lewes parent’s internal checklist, in which gobstoppers are clearly listed as a choking hazard, between ‘gherkins’ and ‘golf balls’.

She reverently took the sweetie and popped it in her mouth. Then I voted, which doesn’t take nearly long enough, by the way. All that fuss, all that campaigning, all that media hype and canvassing, all that listening to commentators sticking the word ‘gate’ on the end of every gaffe, all that watching three white men in different coloured ties arguing on telly, and then it’s just one quick squiggle on a piece of paper. I did a little smiley face next to it, to spin out my time in the booth, and to show that I understood the importance of the thing.

I remember the strength of my conviction, when I cast my first vote as a student in 1987, that my choice would get into power. They were bound to, simply because I was now participating. I was staggered to find this wasn’t the case, and it was a useful life lesson, I guess. One I’ll have to explain to Thing One in twelve years or so.

We left the church hall and I made the mistake of telling Thing One that when I was a kid, and before gobstoppers (and British Bulldog) were banned, they changed colour as you sucked them. She took the sweet out of her mouth to inspect it, and dropped it instantly into some mud. It did change colour, right enough, but only to brown. She was pretty good about it, sobbing for little more than forty minutes.

So that’s why she’s excited about going to the polls. She’s hoping to have another shot at a gobstopper. Something about her optimism reminds me of all us voters, shlepping off to make our mark. Even though we know that whatever we do, the government will still get in. And once they’re in, whoever they are, experience shows us that it won’t be long before the shiny coloured sweetie slips, and falls in the dirt.

Beth Miller, 5th May 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My stethoscope is bobbing to the throbbing of your heart

It’s not that I don’t feel sorry for poor Thing Two, holding out his painfully twisted arm to me and sobbing uncontrollably. Of course I do. My maternal heart-strings are properly tugged.

The reason I’m smiling, as I administer soothing kisses, is because, for once, I Know What To Do. When a child staggers in, their knee geysering blood, or displaying a lightsaber-shaped wound to the forehead, the Lewes parent can confidently say, ‘Righto. We’re off to the Minor Injuries Unit. Again.’

In an uncertain world, where people can’t get back from their hols, and other people think Nick Clegg will make a suitable prime minister, it’s good to have something as reassuring and stable as the Victoria Hospital up the road. A hundred years old, shy and low-key, it’s always there. Even on Sunday afternoons.

I’ve been to the Minor Injuries Unit a lot since having kids. Not quite enough to have my name noted on a secret ‘child at risk’ register when I swish through the door, but certainly enough to have been gently interrogated last time (septic cut), as to why I hadn’t brought Thing Two sooner. The real answer was: ‘Because if I brought him every time he got a scrape we might as well move in, in which case these joined-together chairs will have to go.’ But instead I explained that I’d been too busy smoking reefers and watching wrestling. This is the sort of answer they are looking for.

Those of you used to the high-tech hospital car-parks of Haywards Heath and Brighton will be astonished to find the one at the Vic is free and unregulated. Therefore you will never get a space. Don’t even try; it’s heart-breaking. Walk, if the injury allows. Otherwise get a cab.

Twice I have been seen straight away (I was the only patient). However, if you do have to wait, you will be pleased to see that there is a chocolate vending machine, a smattering of Lego, and a telly. The telly, tuned permanently to an unsuitably confessional programme, and situated too high up to change, is extremely useful in distracting children from their pain. The small price to pay later will be them asking you what a foreskin is.

When I mentioned my love of the Minor Injuries Unit to Pells Girl, she tried to tell tales of unsatisfactorily mended elbows, but I stopped her mouth with a Garibaldi. I’ll not hear a word against the Vic. The nurses are angels, the admin staff heroes and comedians. It’s not just for children, either. I was once quickly cured of a dreadfully painful and debilitating injury*, and sent humorously on my way.

Minor Injuries Unit, open 8am-8pm, seven days a week. See you there.

* It was a splinter. Look, I couldn’t get it out by myself. I couldn’t find a needle. And it WAS very big. The nurse said it was a whopper, so there.

Beth Miller, 28th April 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith