Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Down and Out in London (Part 2)

... Continued from here.

In Shoreditch, even the adverts are trendy.
And so to Wandsworth, only moments away on the Overground. While our flat-hunt originally centred on trendy Shoreditch, these days we're grateful for any viewings at all, anywhere. Our one stipulation ('not Clapham') has started to look a little shortsighted, now that we're practically in Portsmouth.

Oddly we're shown a home suited to a young family with child. We have none. But the estate agent's rather good-looking and BOF is delighted ('No we're not together, no…' he comments - indicating me - when she asks if he'd like a glass of water). Katy the good-looking estate agent says that she's had offers on the place but she's holding it in case we're interested (BOF: '… because she fancies me'). 

We don't want it. She knows we don't want it. We don't want to say we don't want it, because it is so great, and it has a cellar. So we chat about the area and BOF gets her number. (From me.) So convincing is our spiel, we almost make ourselves believe we can afford it.

In Oval, we wander tentatively down the Brixton Road. There seem to be hundreds of flats advertised all over the place. Confidently, we march into an estate agent's. Fourteen people sit typing without pause. Clearly processing millions of perfect flats for us. 

Brixton: Flat Mecca?
'Hello, we're looking for a 2 bed flat, for around £300 a week in this area.'
'Er, sorry?' (We laugh, feeling a bit awkward.)
'There's no flats available at all.'
'Nowhere in London?'
'How about if we…?'
'There's nothing. Sorry.' (He turns away. The thirteen others eye us malevolently.)
'Perhaps if you took our details…?'
'Oh OK. We'll let you know if anything ever comes in.' (General laughter.)
BOF: 'Goody.'

Friday night sees us at another grafittied door. Inside it is lovely, if you ignore the odd stains by the toilet, and one of the beds. The couple living there are charming also, though not (of course) in charge of the rental process. 

We rue the precious flat-hunting minutes spent on small talk but leave happily, passing two frowning middle-aged women on the steps, holding notepads.

'This place couldn't be less suited to them,' we chortle, secure in our momentary, East-London-lent chic.

Outside we debated whether to call the estate agent immediately to take it. Surely impolite, we worried. It's a Friday night. These people are not bankers, they're estate agents. 

So we call early the following day. The middle-aged women have put down a deposit. They are going to live in our Shoreditch flat. The estate agent will let us know if anything changes. (But it's unlikely to.)

Homeless once more.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

In the Court of the Recruitment King (Censorship Lifted)

Happily Beverly (the Employment Inquisitor) and I have not crossed paths in the last few weeks. I've been hiding away from people who ask me questions like 'What are you doing with yourself at the moment?' Meaning all people. In short, I haven't left the house.

But this lonely life is occasionally punctuated by calls from people with names like 'Tracy' and 'Bella'. Astonishingly they are all from 'London's top recruitment agency' - though not, it seems, the same one. They leave endless voicemails. They really want to 'catch up with me' or 'have a good chat about what I'm really looking for'.

'Babe seriously, the company's got
great career progression.'
It's not the endless phone calls that grate (I rarely answer anyway), or Tracy and Bella's exhausting enthusiasm for jobs for which I'd apparently be 'perfect', but rather the irritating artificiality with which Trace and Bells make like we're best friends. I'm not averse to having a good weekend, or - at a push - a fabulous Friday, but I'm not keen on sharing my life's ambitions and next year's holiday plans with someone, just so they feel they've earned their commission.

But the combined persistence did pay off. Last Wednesday I found myself at a day of recruitment fun. We were instructed to arrive dressed in corporate fashion very much on time for an application day for a 'super-duper' job. The final message contained four exclamation marks and a smiley face in the subject box alone. A scam perhaps? No - just the cheery world of recruitment.

Recruitment Blueprint
It started too early and there were too many people around. And not enough lunch. The recruiters had warned that we'd be being graded on the way we interacted with the other 'candidates' (Sugar-style), so interact we did. Competitively. The fake bonhomie was retch-worthy. Someone next to me managed to speak for a full five minutes on panini choices, in a terrified attempt to appear approachable.

And then, having listed our greatest achievements, we were on to the team-work exercises. The recruiters seemed intoxicated by having so much freshly recruitable meat at their whim. They kept us from 9 until 6.30 with dictatorial delight. By the end it smacked of a junior school field weekend I once went to in Devon. Though at least we weren't forced to go 'caving'.

At last, the most pompous recruiter (the Recruitment King) asked for our attention. He called names. People wept. Sharon Osbourne made a moving speech in the corridor about how the trials we'd all been through would make us strong. I and six others were summoned into the largest conference room. A miserable looking girl in high heels (Tracy, probably) closed the door. She turned to us conspiratorially.

'Guys,' she said. (Our best friend, remember.) 'Guys, I'm sorry to say that ... unfortunately ... well ... YOU'VE GOT THE JOB.'

This, recall, is not the X Factor. Or Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It was a contrived exercise in self-justification for an overpaid recruitment firm.

As the other successes started peaceably high-fiving, I found myself bemused by Tracy's galling performance. The company makes money from this.

Perhaps I should start one myself some day.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Down and Out in London

Fleet-footed followers of Kate in the Countryside who read last week's Censored Episode will have learnt that I've got a job in London. But finding somewhere to live in the Big + Scary City is proving problematic. Flats put up for rent on Gumtree are being taken within three hours of being posted. And not by me. I have a flatmate, a salary and a coffee machine,* but nowhere to place these articles. 

My best friend / Belligerently Optimistic Future-flatmate (BOF) had made detailed plans for flat-hunting. Clutching an A-Z (his) and meticulously typed list of potential flats (mine), we arrived twenty minutes early for our first appointment near Victoria Park, both wearing our smartest coats. As we crossed the road to get to it, a man in a van drove past. 

'Watch out you don't get stabbed in there,' he called gaily. 

We stepped over half a bike and a pile of vomit and climbed the stairs inside.

'My brother's knocking this place down after Christmas, falling apart a bit,' said a man called Jim who was showing us round. 'It'll be great when it's all been redone again though, he's going to make a mint.'

I had never been inside a crack den before. 

BOF looked around dispiritedly. He finds flattery the best and easiest form of small talk and I could tell that even he was struggling here. 

'Windowsill's a bit rotten,' pointed out Jim, looking uncomfortable.

'Er yes. Um … (pacing around) Gosh … what a great kitchen,' BOF ventured helpfully. 

Worried that his fear of offending Jim would extend to his placing a deposit on the den, I suggested we leave, unfortunately forgetting to avoid the vomit on the way out.

But not to worry, an appointment in Canada Water came next. 

It had started to rain fairly persistently. At this, BOF explained that he'd read that drizzle was the perfect weather for viewing flats - 'Means you get a realistic impression of the place Kate.'

There are only two reasons you'd be in Canada Water: if you were trying out the shiny new East London line (it is rather good) and got out on a whim, or if you already live there, having failed to see the place before putting down a deposit. The best thing I can say for our visit is that it prevented such an error.

Canada Water Station:
making up for something?
Fred the estate agent had generously offered to drive us to the flat, so we met him at the shiny station. Racing out, he fled to his car as we struggled to keep up. Head jutted forward, Fred didn't stride, but instead took the car park with a series of rapid tiny steps, like a chunky little ballet dancer. 

'I've been told I walk quite fast,' he observed.

His pace is the pace of a man trying to rent out flats in Canada Water. It is a suburban desert, broken up only by the occasional zebra crossing and small, crying child. The house - with its hanging wires and collapsed sofas - added to the brutally lonely feel.

'Great to have some outside space,' enthused BOF. 

When we told Fred we'd walk back to the station he looked defeated. We would see the area after all.

To be continued…

*NOTE: The coffee machine is actually imaginary at this point. But I know exactly which one I want.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Goodbye Childhood Home

Desperate Dan the Estate Agent Man is back. He's showing people around my house. Here they are, pointing out the flaws, weighing up whether or not they'd deign to live here. I don't want them to want to live here, you understand, but equally I don't want them making snide comments about the place. We don't need your opinion thanks, it's not Escape to the Country.

I asked Dan if I could do anything to help with the viewings. I know a small amount about the house, after all. 

Looks good in an apron
'No dear,' he replied. 'Perhaps you could just drape yourself somewhere artistically and make the place look more attractive. And don't say anything about the house to the viewers, OK?' 

Presumably Aunt Aggie puts up with this kind of chat, but since I don't have a flowery apron stitched to the front of my dress, or spend my life in pursuit of cow pie perfection, it did grate rather. 

Anyway, to be balanced about this, not all potential house buyers are vile. However when they were terrible, I at least didn't feel guilty about hating them and the thought of their snotty little faces living in my childhood home. 

The worst lot flounced in early on a Monday morning. Not ideal.

'Hello,' I said, struggling to restrain Dogface from manic destructive prancing, 'nice to meet you! Sorry, we've got a new puppy - bit hard to control!' [This is Jovial Winning Kate by the way - she speaks with exclamation marks.

Vile-and-Bald's loose change
'I can see that,' responded Vile-and-Bald, looking out of the window. 'Don't let it get on my wife's coat.'

Tough crowd. Dan tried to warm them up a bit with some of his best lines, including 'so what brings you to Oundle' and 'where are you from then?'

Vile-and-Bald glanced about disdainfully. 'We're from London actually. We're looking to downsize, we've got several properties worth in the millions. And four acres near London. Not really sure about "Oundle" to be honest, you know….' He tails off, to ponder his fat piles of cash.

If only MD were here, I found myself thinking, she could wow him with the microclimate. Or kill him. One of the two.

'Er right yes, lovely,' Dan mumbled. 'Garden next?'

An acceptable view
'No,' said Vile-and-Bald, 'I've seen gardens before. And - as I say - we've already got four acres, not really looking for more green space. HAR.' (That last bit was his laugh - like one of those robotic text readers interpreting emotion.)

With an awkward glance at me, Dan shepherded them into the cellar. A wiser man than I'd thought. 

But some normal people are apparently buying our house. I'm not sure they know exactly how great the place is, as I wasn't allowed to tell them. But they're keen for it at the moment, or will be until I write and tell them fictitious tales about dead bodies in the attic.

In fact the normal people must be alright as they weren't even put off by Dogface crapping decisively in their path as they arrived. MD tried to distract them with observations about Oundle's numerous hairdressers, microclimates, that kind of thing, but they just stepped delicately past it and admired the garden. 

I've trained him well, dear old Dogface. Just a shame I controlled him so successfully when the Baldy Bunch were round.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Suffering from the Cuts

Could this be Oundle?
Oundle is a quaint little place certainly. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in the multiplicity of its hairdressing establishments. And its microclimate apparently. ('It's always sunny here isn't it Kate?' MD regularly exclaims, through sheets of rain. 'Lovely Oundle.')

The other day, MD decided to take me along to a drinks party with some of her chums. This agreed, she started shooting me sceptical looks. She had realised she didn't like my hair: 'Do you think we've got time to do something about your hair before tonight?' she probed. Note the cunningly inclusive use of the word 'we' there.

I quite liked my hair. I've been growing it ever since MD stopped forcibly imposing regular trips to the hairdresser when I was sixteen. 'But you look so sweet!' she would croon of my painfully uncool bob. That, MD, was exactly the problem. 'Sweet' is not the ideal look for a teenager.

Oundle boasts no fewer than four hairdressers. One caters for grannies, one for the cool kids, one is closing down and one has nice premises in the middle of town. To that one I was sent. The uberstylist - we'll call him Bryan - does my mum's hair, and once gave her free highlights. Clever man. Now he is feted all around town, and MD thinks nothing of sacrificing her daughter's head to his whims.

In we go, Dogface in tow. 'What a beautiful doggy,' squeals Bryan, retreating behind the counter to prevent Dogface's beautiful paws from getting on his black Armani skinny jeans. MD says, 'Hi Bry, can you do something about my daughter?' They laugh gregariously. I am not going to like it here. 

My hair, innocent of the horror awaiting it, is at the emergency stage preceding wash-time. Bry looks at it; he looks at MD. They chuckle roguishly. 

A preferable hairdresser
'I just would like…'
Bry: 'That is a mess isn't it?'
'Yes,' chips in MD helpfully, though - for the record - I suspect it was a rhetorical question. 
Bry takes me delicately by the shoulders. 'OK, why don't we just shorten it up and take it back to your natural colour?' 
['Oh God no,' I think.] 'Er, I don't know,' I reply, 'I would just like…'
MD: Bry that's a great idea!
Kate: But
Bry: Thing is, I'm the hairdresser, so let's just trust me yeah? OK?
MD nods vigorously. MD is paying. K submits. 

Of this there will be no photos. Here are some more swimming pigs to take our minds off the horror that ensued:
Have you been injured in a hairdressing accident that wasn't your fault? Let me know.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

A Dog With No Name


The naming of a dog round here is a dangerous business. Because, firstly, the Oundle community takes a very active interest in new local dogs. Secondly, our puppy (hereafter known as 'Dogface') isn't even a proper dog yet. How are we to know what will suit? Over the last few days I've heard endless dog names. Plenty are catastrophic. Turns out many monstrous beasts are called things like 'Snuggles', because the proud puppy-owners spoke too soon.

A trivial issue, you'd think. 

One day, pre-puppy, MD popped round to see Dogface's original family and take him to visit his future home and meet our cat Spikey. On MD's return, Mrs Dog-Owner asked MD what she was thinking of calling young Dogface. MD, poor fool, flippantly told Mrs Dog-Owner some of our thoughts. The puppy is an Irish Terrier, so most of our ideas were names like 'Paddy', 'Seamus' and … 'Beckett'. But of course. Mrs Dog-Owner nodded vaguely:

'It's very important to have a name early, you know - vital for training.'
'Oh yes, well we'll think of something soon,' laughed dogless MD, 'but at the moment he's just little Dogface.'
Mrs Dog-Owner (instantly insane): 'How can you insult him like that? I knew you weren't dog people! He doesn't deserve it - it's just appalling. I've a good mind not to let you have our little baby now.'
MD (sheltering from spit and clods of dog-poo that Mrs Dog-Owner secretes in her jeans to throw at the inept dogless): 'Ah, OK. Sorry, er. Bye. Bye Dogface.'
MD Flees, as motherdog of Dogface chomps her ankles vengefully.

Happily, Mr Dog-Owner later tranquillised Mrs Dog-Owner, and we took young Dogface while she slept.

Poor Nameless Dogface

My contribution to the Name Game was 'Baldrick'. I, uniquely, find it an endearing and dog-friendly name. MD not so sure. I'm told it's supposed to be the ugliest word in the English language. Soon after we took Dogface home, I snuck the name 'Baldrick' onto the Vet's records and tried to convince MD that Dogface looked so much like a 'Baldrick' that the Vet had just guessed this was his name. She wasn't fooled. 

As we trotted through the Market Place yesterday, Dogface and I, he was the most admired chap in the village. Top Dog. Little old couples stopped us to enquire after his health. We were nearly home when we were stopped by a Smiling Elderly Lady.

SEL: Oh what a beautiful little chap. Ahh. What's he called then?
Kate in the Countryside (still convinced by 'Baldrick'): He's called Baldrick.
SEL: Sorry dear?
KitC: Baldrick.
SEL (loudly): What?? (Angrily, to Dogface - who is, recall, a dog) What are they doing to you? How could they call you that? You're a beautiful dog. 
Dogface: er.
KitC: er.
SEL (to me again, voice raised): What a horrible thing to say. He's a nice dog - how could you do that to him? What a disgusting thing to call him. (Lunging forward grabbing me hard by the wrist) Don't you dare call him that. (To Dogface again) If I were you I'd run away.
KitC: OK, sorry. Have a nice day. Bye then.

We managed to outrun her, but it was a close thing. So that's the end of Baldrick. Poor Nameless Dogface. How long until schizophrenia sets in?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Paradise and Pigs (Kate not in the Countryside)

Just tucking in to my burger

Daddy Mason (DM) lives on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Excellent choice, you’d think. Chaps – the name is a con. Unless Paradise is a giant orange package hotel called ‘Atlantis’ with adjoining yacht park, packed out with obese Oompa-Loompa-like Americans gorging themselves silly on fluorescent burgers. The place used to be called ‘Hog Island’ anyway. Prescient.

So for the weekend DM excitedly booked a flight across to Staniel Cay, in search of ... The Swimming Pigs. Suppressing my fear that sun and solitude had driven him crazy, I packed for the weekend.

Staniel Cay, the island of sea-faring pork, is about half an hour away from Paradise via DEATH-plane. Not that I was nervous about it you understand, but most of DM’s favourite anecdotes involve near-death experiences in planes smaller than his suitcase, with no seats apart from the pilot’s, from which passengers merely hang, swinging from side to side to help with navigation etc etc. But it was mostly fine. Except when it rained on the way back in and I got wet. Bit of a shock that.

Picked up by golf-cart from the airport, we trundled straight to the beach and borrowed a pair of kayaks. Very into sport is DM. I’m quite keen on it too, if it comes to that, but rowing-based physical activity is sadly not my thing.

Then we went for a walk.

Then swimming.

He then suggested a bike ride, which was when I observed the heat of the day, the numerousness of the mosquitoes and the danger of calf-strain when cycling.

Instead, to cut to the chase with this pig thing, I suggested we head out to find them. Seated comfortably in a non-Mason-powered boat (at last), we rounded the bay into a cove of clich├ęd seclusion. And there they were. My first thought was ‘Blimey, they do exist.’ Closely followed by, ‘Oh God, they’re giants.’ Perhaps this would be less surprising, say, on a farm, but to see beasts larger and infinitely less suited to swimming than Atlantis’ Americans was disconcerting.

We’d brought scraps to feed them. Piggish as they are, they co-ordinated the implausible skill of swimming with the – frankly absurd – ability to tread water while lunging for food. Their nonchalant swimming action was the same as their walking motion. It was as if they had just forgotten to stop when they reached the shore. But, at the arrival of scraps, things turned barbaric. It was like watching porcine waterpolo. Each pig found itself submerged in turn by its fellows to act as a launch-pad. They were nearly in our boat.

‘Fancy a swim?’ asked my dad. Obviously.

I hesitated.

‘I’ll race you.’

I can’t believe I still fall for this. Without another word, I plunged into the water beside the marauding super-pigs and started for the shore. Did I win the race? No chance.

(DM had a head-start don’t forget.)

Once on shore, we found Swimming Piglets. But no – these were Non-swimming Swimming Piglets. How disappointing for their talented ancestry, I thought. But then a Piglet made for the sea. Immediately the largest Pig, squeaking and snapping, drove it back ashore.

Racing DM unsuccessfully back to the boat, I empathised with the youngsters. Covetous of their talents, these old Piggies.