Sunday, 15 May 2016

Of Grandchildren, Dear Friends, Sandwiches And Sometimes Being In A Right Place

I swept up an armful of sandwiches. "Are all those for you?" enquired the young man behind the counter.

"Cheeky buggar," I thought. "No," I said.

Later in the day, in another town and at a supermarket checkout, another young man asked me, "How has your day been?" Despite the intrusion into an area of a stranger's life in which he probably had little truthful interest I answered, "Interesting."

"Interesting good, or interesting bad?" he asked. Maybe his initial enquiry was more than simply an expenditure of hot air.

"I'm still thinking about it," I replied.

I had started the day in Hampshire.  The third day in succession and the fifth this week of grandfatherly duties after a cry for help from one of my daughters.  This daughter is usually very independent and has rarely, if ever, called for help, but she has had a tough couple of weeks.  My son-in-law was really struggling to meet deadlines at work, my year-old grand-daughter had been unwell for a fortnight and was barely sleeping.  A cold, a post-inoculation hangover and a new tooth were making life impossible for everyone. She could not possibly be left in her usual nursery. I made the first trip earlier in the week when my daughter needed some childminding help in order to be able to attend a getting-back-to-work job interview, but life was getting on top with a stack of commitments and exhaustion building up.  Being SATs week, my regular school had cancelled and, now having a few days bunched together with no impending gigs or rehearsals, I had planned to test out the boat engine repairs, by taking a river-trip to the accountant to deliver last year's books and coming back to the farm the long way round.  The twenty-five minute road journey took me six hours by water last year. This year I had bought both a key to the lock enclosure and the right sized windlass for the lock paddles on this system, so I was hoping for a marginally shorter journey, assuming I could avoid getting grounded again at an overnight mooring spot. 

I was going to start out on Tuesday and be back by the weekend. I'd half planned the route I was going to take, but the weather was so bad I put off the start of the journey for a day.  Wednesday was better and I started prepping the boat for the trip.  Then the text came through. It was a group text to selected family members and a cry for help.  I really wanted to ignore it, let one of the others respond and get underway, but I knew I wouldn't. Perhaps if I left it long enough someone would step in before me (after all, I'd just got back, it was someone else's turn), or I could start the journey and then say I was too far away from my van to be able to help by the time I saw the message. I knew I wouldn't go through with either plan, but I continued prepping the boat anyway. Eventually my conscience became an itch that would not go unscratched. It only took hearing the catch in her voice and my soft, old heart melted. She is not manipulative and I knew the exhaustion and frustration were very real. It may have been nearly forty years since she had placed me in a similar situation, but I knew what she was suffering.  "What time do you need me by?" For once I was in the right country at the right time.  Arrangements were made for me to be the designated adult to pick up the older grandchild from school.

It had been a lovely few days reconnecting with my grand-daughters.  Who knew that a five-year old could bounce solidly for three hours on a trampoline in the garden after a full day at school and a visit to the park on the mile and a half walk home? I also rediscovered that delightful satisfaction in having the younger one snuggle into my shoulder and fall asleep for three hours after only having slept for two hours the previous night. When she was awake we played with her toys, read stories and sang songs (okay, I did the reading, the singing and most of the playing, but she was an active, if somewhat captive, member of my audience) and I loved every minute. 

As it happened s-i-l made good progress on the end of year assessments for his college students and I would now no longer be needed on Saturday. He was able to bundle both girls into the car as he took the older one to her weekly dancing lessons and my daughter left for her Saturday teaching job with a different dance school. I was going to call round and visit my eldest son's family with two of my grandsons on the way home. My son's oldest is fourteen and flexes his growing personality using appropriately challenging behaviour. He is also a very talented keyboard player and drummer and loves to compose - which he does very nicely albeit still somewhat derivatively while his knowledge and skill are developing.  Even so he is far, far in advance of anything I achieved at his age or indeed until I was much older.  He generally talks to me about bands I've not heard or have never heard of, so I always look forward to spending time with him and learning new things from his world. The first thing I had to do upon hearing that he went to see Bring Me The Horizon was check them out on YouTube when I got home. To his credit, though, he is, like his father, a big fan of both Bellowhead and The Treacherous Orchestra. I am looking forward to the time when we can converse in complete sentences. I worry that I probably work too hard to fill in the gaps between each monosyllabic utterance and condescending glare. I didn't let them know I was coming and they weren't in. A joy of living in the moment.

Nearby, however, was one of my oldest school friends. It seems our entire cohort has used well our six decades to rack up troubles, anxieties and failed relationships. He married and started his family nearly twenty years after me. His youngest son is younger than my grandson. My friend and his wife have medical issues, and a severely depressed daughter, which have impacted the lives of everyone in the family.  Their oldest daughter is just finishing university and came out a couple of years ago. She is someone I could envy. She learned to know herself at a much earlier age than I did and avoided some of the heartache my late coming out caused. Surprisingly my friend understands completely how my circumstances made my situation so different. I haven't seen him for decades, although we have kept in occasional touch by e-mail and telephone. For some reason his number is not stored on my phone and all I have is an e-mail address and a LinkIn connection. I sent messages and didn't really anticipate a reply.  I was trying to remember how I located his telephone number last time we spoke and enlisted Google's aid. Google didn't supply the phone number, but via an entry on the Companies House website did supply an address that sounded familiar, so I entered that into the map app on my phone and drove as directed. I pulled up outside a house at the end of an unmade cul-de-sac and rang the bell. He answered and my erratic visual memory failed me yet again.  As I stared to try and find a face I could recognise on this older man he spoke and I knew it was him. My visual memory may be disconnected, but my aural memory is better than average. He and the family were on the verge of going out. I promised not to stay long and only wanted to make contact while I was in the area. We sat, his wife came in, we all talked and shared some of the darkness and joy of the last few decades. Four hours later we hugged our goodbyes. So much for fleeting visits. It still felt fleeting, though, and there is still so much of the world that needs putting to rights. It felt good to have been in the right time and place for those few hours. I am sure that meeting again will be easier next time.

The journey on the M4, M25 and M1 was straightforward as the traffic was relatively light, but I was tired and the van was beginning to wander as I struggled to stay awake.  I had to pull over for a break, a nap and the safety of other travellers. British motorways are rubbish!  In France one cannot drive more than a few kilmetres without passing an "aire" - one of those very civilised pull-overs that, even at their most basic, have toilets and a place to park overnight if required. In England we are often forced to travel for dozens of miles before having to endure one of our motorway service areas, which often have crowded, restricted parking with undersized parking spaces and cramped, smelly, poorly attended toilet facilities in overpriced and usually closed food halls - ah, the food halls of despair. Even when they are open and busy they still look closed. From getting on to the M4 at Reading it is scandalous that the next service area would not loom into view until I reached Toddington on the M1. I made it ... just. I would like to apologise to anyone who was anywhere near me on that journey. Because I drive a van I usually park at the further reaches of public car parks and I headed for my usual corner at Toddington. Immediately the reason for the high speed blue-ing and two-ing of passing police cars became apparent. Near to the space where I often witness peculiar and mysterious exchanges of vehicles among recovery vehicles in the dead of night was an articulated lorry. There were two police cars. A number of police officers were gathered in congregation at the rear of the lorry which had been opened to reveal packages on pallets and perhaps a dozen or more people, mostly men, but including at least one small child, whose journey from who-knows-where had now come to a stop in the sort of circumstances they must have been praying would never happen. The passengers looked exhausted, bewildered and resigned to whatever horror fate would inflict on them this time. All were dressed in uniformly drab non-European, non-African outfits looking like jumble-sale mannequins.  I couldn't tell whether the quilted jackets were helping against the chill and the Arctic wind of our recent Spring weather. I assume this was a party of "illegal migrants" about which our printed press so frequently needs to warn us. They looked more pathetic than the fanatics the media tries to portray. Immediately I wondered whatever could have been the events that would force them to undertake such a horrible journey in the most squalid, dangerous and uncomfortable of circumstances. I wondered how long they had been in the lorry, when did they last have anything to eat or drink, when did they last have access to a toilet ...? It struck me very forcibly that, but for the fortune of circumstance, it could have been me in the back of the lorry. What would it take to force me to go on a similar journey, where my eventual destination and fate would entirely depend on the goodwill or otherwise of other people who had no interest in my personal welfare? I thought how not even the love of my man and the promise of a home in a country that is sympathetic to my circumstances has motivated me to move from the UK during the past decade. How desperate must these people have been to give up everything they know for being kept in the back of this lorry by Bedfordshire's finest until someone made a decision about the next stage of the journey for them?

I still needed to sleep, so I shut my eyes and nodded off. I came round an hour later and everything in front of me looked more or less the same, except that I could no longer see any children and the lorry was now surrounded by several emergency vehicles, including two ambulances and a fleet of police vehicles of most of the types used by the Bedfordshire Constabulary. The men were being held among the pallets at the open rear door on the lorry. I hoped the children and at least one parent of each had been taken somewhere more comfortable than this bleak car park. Police officers congregated or ambled, presumably with purpose and awaiting further orders. I wondered again when these people had last eaten. I considered approaching the police and asking if I could buy them some food. I was pretty certain I would be turned away and told to mind my own business, so I decided I might have more luck if I were a little more pro-active. I set off for the food area of the services, and realised this was not a simple task.  For a start I could only guess that there might be cultural and ethical considerations about any food I decided to buy. I suppose most people apart from me and and other relatively well-off Westerners eat animals, but Muslims wouldn't eat pork products and many Africans cannot digest milk. I supposed there were also many other constraints to take into account, but I didn't know what they might be. I opted for sandwiches and Greggs was the closest place. They only had egg or cheese sandwiches anyway, so I bought my armful of sandwiches and filled a carrier bag. I turned back to the unfolding tragedy and, removing my sunglasses, approached a policeman and police woman on the edge of the action. "I was wondering when these people had last eaten," I explained.  "Is it all right to give them these sandwiches?" The policeman looked at me for some time and it felt like he was trying to size up what this old hippy in a headscarf was up to.

"Under other circumstances that could be me.  I couldn't not do something. May I give them these sandwiches?" I swear I saw a moment of watery-eyed humanity flicker in his expression, but he regretfully informed me that the travellers would not be allowed any food until they had been formally medically checked. The British authorities could not be allowed to be held responsible should any of the people in the wagon prove to have undisclosed allergies. He wanted me to go away and to take the accusatory sandwiches with me. I said I could not eat all the sandwiches and I would leave them with him where they might have at least a chance of doing some good. "Even if you and your colleagues end up eating them, please take them," I insisted. Both police officers verbalised their recognition of my "incredible kindness" and took the bag.

As I walked away I felt angry with myself that I hadn't the courage to break the cordon and give out the food personally. I felt angry and ashamed that the powers of authority valued back-saving over simple humanity. Here were men who had been prepared to sacrifice everything and everyone they knew in order to be able to find safety for themselves and their families, who had already endured unimaginable hardships with enough stoicism to get them as far as the UK - well, I know it was Toddington, but there are bound to be worse places - who were now facing a very uncertain future in a completely alien environment perhaps fearing that the authorities here valued life as little as those they may have experienced at home.  On top of these fears, dangers and indignities they were being infantalised. Here were grown men being refused food in case something in it might prove bad for them. It was like the pub landlady I know who puts up notices all round her pub warning customers not to feed her dogs cheese or chocolate because either might prove fatal. I would assume that the men in the back of this lorry might have some idea of the foods they could safely eat. 

I wonder when and where they sat at a table with proper nourishment or had a place to lay their heads.

Right place?  Who knows? Yes, it has been an interesting day.

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