My Mother… and The British Gas Debacle Part II

It seems that my mother has become an unwitting video star after waxing lyrical about her fiasco with her British Gas bill (here) and chewing the fat with my uncle Stephen over his pyromaniac neighbour (here).

So here’s an update on my mother’s British Gas saga (amongst other trivialities!):

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/109387621″>My Mother… And The British Gas Debacle Part II</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user33278695″>Palmersan</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

Park Life

It’s 8.37pm and I am sitting in a freezing cold church hall with 12 pensioners, discussing the best way to plant daffodil bulbs and how to tackle a voracious weed that goes by the name of Himalayan Balsam.

How I came to be here is another story but right now two things are going through my head: 1. The husband is going to want feeding and he has no idea where I am. 2. When on earth is this meeting going to end?!

In hindsight, pitching up unannounced at a committee meeting of Friends of The Park was a very foolish manoeuvre indeed. The rationale behind this madness was that as the house-that-we-bought-but-have-yet-to-move-into is on the edge of the park, it would probably be prudent to actually become a Friend of the Park.

So when I received a generic email inviting all Friends of the Park to their quarterly meeting at 7pm on Wednesday, in the spirit of neighbourliness I thought I’d bob along.

I imagined scores of friendly locals filling the hall, discussing local matters – such as the new bar down the road – over coffee and biscuits.

But as I walked through the door and took in the scene that greeted me – namely a cavernous and chilly church hall with a handful of silver-haired octogenarians shuffling in the shadows, I realised that I’d made a terrible mistake: I’d unwittingly stumbled across a real life episode of the Vicar of Dibley.

photo-310

To be fair, I couldn’t have been given a warmer welcome. After the initial shock of someone at least thirty years younger suddenly appearing at one of their meetings, the Friends of the Park flocked round me like bees to a pot of honey.

‘As you can see we’re not the most sprightly of groups,’ said a kindly woman called Sue. ‘It’s great to see someone young here.’

I perched at the edge of the table trying to look as inconspicuous as possible as chairman David gave his round-up of what Friends of the Park had been up to.

He started with litter picking, before moving on to tackling rampant weeds, malfunctioning drainage systems, slippery stepping stones, budget-busting building work… On and on he went, in his strangely soothing drone.

As I glanced around the table, I noticed one grizzled attendee had fallen asleep; another had a coughing fit, disappeared into the darkness and never re-appeared.

‘…. it was only once my initial indignation had abated that I decided to respond to the claims that I should have ordered 6,000 daffodil bulbs and not 3,000… ‘ David was saying.

And off he went again.

photo-309

Just as I was snatching a quick glance at my phone under the table and considering what sort of excuse I could give to GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE, there was a break in David’s monotone.

I looked up to find 12 sets of hooded eyes staring eagerly at me.

‘David was just saying we REALLY need someone to help with the website – someone youthful with a better handle on media stuff,’ said the woman called Sue.

In my experience of these meetings, Rule Number One is never to agree to help with anything. As my mother would say, once you’ve GOT INVOLVED, you’ll never be able to escape.

‘I’m afraid I’m utterly hopeless at anything related to ICT,’ I stuttered. ‘I’m just not the person for the job.’

Sue looked so crestfallen that I felt the need to offer a consolation prize.

‘I could take a look at the website though,’ I offered. ‘A fresh pair of eyes to make some suggestions?’

Sue seemed happy with this but David peered at me over his spectacles suspiciously.

‘I think we should get a designer to help us,’ he said. ‘We’re frightened of spending money but this is one thing that we really should spend money on.’

‘Perhaps we should have a meeting to decide on the content and look of the website first,’ I suggested. ‘And then we could find a designer to put it altogether?’

‘But a good designer would do that for us,’ argued David.

‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘But it’s probably better to approach them with an idea of the content we want first.’

David merely scowled at me.

At 9pm, the meeting finally began to draw to an end. I picked up my bag and shuffled to the edge of my chair in a manner that I hoped indicated that I was ready to leave.

My phone flashed with a text from the husband, no doubt racked with hunger: WHERE ARE YOU?

‘Is there any other business?’ asked monotone David.

‘Well,’ said kindly Sue. ‘As many of you can probably see, we have a new member here tonight…

‘Katy, would you like to properly introduce yourself?’

As I glanced in desperation at the door, the Friends of the Park settled back in their chairs and smiled at me expectantly.

Silver Surfers Crash The Party

It’s Monday night and the residents of my apartment block are gathered in Apt 11 for a meeting. With extreme nosy neighbours Susan and Dick no longer at the helm, we have become a rudderless vessel, flailing in a sea of overflowing bins, badly-parked cars and uncooperative bin men.

Following the departure of SuDick and others, there are quite a few new faces around the room.

Desperate housewife Diane – fan of the feather duster – is perched like a small bird on the sofa, her big eyes scanning the room anxiously; Valerie – a kindly-looking pensioner, new to Apt 5 – nestles next to her. She is sporting flesh-coloured pop socks.

Ironically, one of the main reasons SuDick sold up (apart from ongoing feuds with the bin men, gardeners, cleaners and the management company) was because they felt the apartment block was becoming overrun with party-loving young professionals. At this latest meeting, it appears the demograph has shifted; we now seem to be housing a horde of down-sizing retirees. I couldn’t be happier.

For some reason, I seem to still be receiving the occasional email from Susan, boasting about her harmonious new neighbours. ‘There are only eight apartments here and everyone gets on wonderfully,’ she wrote, with barely-contained glee.

‘I’ve already been asked to be the director of the management company!’

Her new neighbours clearly have no idea what they’re dealing with.

Back at the meeting, the slovenly solicitor from Apt 8 – Sonia, I learn – has sent her apologies. She is not, I note, apologising for permanently hogging the only free parking space with her cream Mini. In fact, when challenged, she purportedly outright refused to use her own space further down the car park.

Over in the corner, Belligerent Bill from Apt 1 is brandishing a sheet of paper; it’s a letter from the management company fining him £250 for refusing to park in his allocated bay. Allegedly, Bill received this letter after a litany of complaints from some unnamed residents. SuDick might be long gone but their legacy lives on. Slovenly Sonia had better watch out.

Florid-faced Bill isn’t happy. From time to time, he makes occasional puffing noises and folds his arms angrily. I can’t help but think this is retribution for my own parking wrangle with him last year.

One of the new down-sizers – Tony, I think – leans over and pats Bill reassuringly on the knee. ‘Don’t worry mate,’ he says. ‘No-one expects you to pay that. We’re all behind you’.

I say nothing.

Tony and his wife Pat sit ramrod on their hardback chairs. They haven’t even moved into their apartment yet but seem alarmed by the tales of resident woe: unruly tenants, all-night parties, pesky Dick almost arrested for harassing the noisy nuisance-makers in Apt 4.

I chip in my own tale about a recent visit from a pair of Bobbies on the beat. The aforementioned noisy nuisance-makers from Apt 4 are wanted on drug charges, I say.

The room falls silent.

‘I always thought I could smell marijuana,’ I add, warming to the drama.

Tony and Pat look positively horrified.

There was some discussion about the bin men. SuDick had fallen out with them so spectacularly that they are now refusing to empty our bins at all.

I am just beginning to wonder who might want to take SuDick’s mantle as chief complainant when George steps forward, husband of Diane.

‘This is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘I’ll lie in wait for them next Friday and get this sorted once and for all.’

‘Oh, George is terrible when he gets worked up,’ trilled big-eyed Diane. ‘Once he gets the bit between his teeth, there’s no stopping him. Bins, parking… he’s going to be the Victor Meldrew of the apartments!’

Eva from Apartment 16 and I exchange a look.

‘I don’t think he can be any worse than his predecessors,’ says Eva. ‘Susan and Dick were on a whole new level.’

‘Those are some very big boots to fill,’ I agree.

George merely grunts and folds his arms.

Those bin men don’t know what’s coming.

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

I never thought I’d type these words but I miss our nosy neighbours Susan and Dick. Every time I pass their apartment, I have a little pang of sadness that I won’t be able to feast on their moans and groans any more.

In a small tribute to Dick, I trotted across the road and half-heartedly picked a few blackberries off the neighbouring property. Dour Dick loved that bramble bush. He even carried his step-ladder down the road to reach the higher branches.

Although Dick’s long gone, I’m half-expecting to see him back at the blackberries in the next few weeks. He was never one to miss out on some free fruit.

IMG_5670

I’d like to say that SuDick’s departure was a ceremonial affair but in reality they just kind of sloped off quietly. Susan sent me a final email with her special ‘Welcome Pack’ attached (DON’T make any noise after 11pm but DO close the gate to the bin compound), should I wish to continue her tradition of passing it on to any new neighbours. (I think she saw me as a potential protege. I can’t think why!).

She gave me a final round-up of local goings on: ‘Apartment 6 is laying down new carpets as I write,’ she said. ‘Apartment 5 has a new owner; I think they might be retired.’ etc etc.

The woman who has replaced SuDick is very peculiar indeed. She’s straight out of Hollywood Housewives: heavily made-up, with big anxious eyes, hair permanently in rollers and constantly spring cleaning in a pair of marigolds. Her name is Diane. She looks like a Diane.

I had to knock on her door the other night to see if she’d taken collection of a parcel I was waiting for. Knowing that she spends most of her days dusting her apartment by the entrance gate, I told the parcel people to deliver it her flat.

I knocked on the door and waited.

There was a lot of clattering and eventually the door creaked open. Two huge doleful eyes peered back at me, marigolds donned and feather duster poised.

‘I was just wondering if you happened to take delivery of a parcel for me,’ I said, cheerfully.

‘Oh, I’m in a terrible mess here,’ she cried. ‘I did see a parcel man at the gate but I don’t think he could get in so he just drove off.’

Knowing that my parcel was only a few feet from her but she did nothing to help was very annoying indeed.

I decided ‘Marigolds’ was clinically unhinged so I left her to her dusting. On their second attempt, I asked the delivery people to try Apartment 8 instead.

Apartment 8 houses an inert tenant, who claims to be a solicitor but actually spends most of her days sitting on her balcony, chewing the fat. She seemed the perfect candidate for a daytime parcel delivery.

When I got back the following evening there was a message from the courier saying that Apartment 8 HAD taken collection of my parcel. Bingo!

I expected the woman at Apartment 8 to sign for the parcel and then leave it outside our front door. But there was no sign of it and she appeared to be out for the night.

When I got back the following evening, there was still no parcel. I found this weird.

‘Wouldn’t you sign for the parcel and then go and put it outside our flat?’ I said to the husband. ‘It’s odd that she just took it with no further communication.

‘In fact, how does SHE know that WE know that she’s even got it?

‘She’s effectively taken our parcel hostage!’

I went round and knocked on her door.

‘Do you have a parcel for me?’ I said.

She looked blankly for a moment, despite the fact my huge parcel was taking up most of her entrance hall.

‘Oh, that parcel,’ she said breezily. ‘Yes, it’s here.’

‘Thank you,’ I said.

The reason that I wanted the parcel fairly urgently is that it housed a new bathroom cabinet for my old rental flat down the road.

My latest tenant has moved out so I’ve been busy sorting the flat out. This loosely involves: the bi-annual chore of re-oiling my real wood worktops (note to anyone thinking about getting real wood worktops – DON’T DO IT), lovingly touching up my Farrow and Ball walls, ordering a new Brabantia bin (along with the aforementioned bathroom cabinet), and having all the carpets shampooed.

photo-288

I even went as far as buying a vase, a big bunch of flowers, and leaving a ‘welcome to your new home’ card for my new tenants.

They moved in last Saturday and I’ve heard nothing since.

‘Don’t you think it’s weird that they just moved in and never acknowledged the flowers and the card?’ I said to the husband.

‘Aren’t people strange?!’

A couple of days later, I drove round with the husband and sent him into the communal entrance to the flat to leave the bathroom cabinet outside the door (ready for the handyman to fix it to the wall at some point this week, the husband being unfortunately incapable of such high-level manual tasks).

While the husband was lugging the parcel up the stairs, I peered up at the window trying to work out whether my flowers were still in the cellophane in the vase, as I had left them – or not. I toyed with getting the binoculars out of the glove compartment – SuDick-style – but decided that might be a bit much.

The husband re-appeared and climbed in the passenger seat.

‘All done,’ he said.

‘Did you put your ear to the door to see if they’re actually in there?’ I said.

‘Why would I do that?’ said the husband. ‘That would be the behaviour of a mental person.’

‘To check that they’re in there!’ I said. ‘TO CHECK THEY GOT THE FLOWERS.’

Sardines On A Sunbed

‘I just want to walk into a hotel lobby and be anonymous,’ grumbled the husband.

We are on the penultimate day of our holiday in Sóller, Majorca. And the owner of the little boutique hotel where we are staying seems to be taking an overly-keen interest in our movements.

Everytime we walk past reception, he collars the husband to rhapsodize about the weather, England, the weather again, the restaurant we are planning on going to, even the clothes he is wearing.

The owner – Matthew – is actually a very nice man. But his very hands-on approach to hoteliering is making the husband on edge.

photo 3-12

photo-295

Despite the beautiful room here, we have begun to long for the relative relaxation and anonymity of the finca in the hills, where we resided for the first part of our stay.

The owner Marc might have had a fixation with serving gallons of coffee at breakfast and an over-inflated sense of what his bottles of diminutive water were worth, but because he was slightly autistic he left us largely to our own devices.

Before we left the finca, we also developed a mild obsession with a gravelly-voiced waiter there, who we fondly named Barry White. Barry had a most intriguing, soothing croon, as he cleared the table and served our food. I tried to get a bit of video footage of his strange baritone rumble but I’m not sure it does him justice.

Back in Sóller, I have developed hives. My skin has a tendency to go berserk when faced with too much sun, stress, the wrong food, wrong washing powder – or over-earnest hoteliers. I spent three days itching myself to madness before seeking help.

Luckily, there is a little old lady up the road who may or may not be masquerading as a pharmacist. To attract her attention, you need to ring a bell and she appears from behind a grill to deal with one’s ailments.

We asked for some anti-histamines; she disappeared for a while and then a little hand shot out to hand over the medication and take our money. It was ace.

We became so taken with the little old lady that we have been trying to think up new illnesses – just so we can visit her again. Here I am next to her metal grill and buzzer. When passing tourists saw me having my picture taken, they started snapping away too, convinced the hidden pharmacy was some sort of historic attraction.

photo-296

Over in Puerto de Sóller, we attempted to dine at one of the restaurants my coffee shop friend Malcolm recommended. It was full.

I don’t have the heart to tell Malcolm we didn’t end up eating there so I have memorised the menu (‘the rabbit and onions was sublime!’) and snapped the husband posing outside, as photographic proof of our visit.

photo 1-14

The sunbed situation at the current hotel isn’t quite the all-out battle to bag the best bed of previous years. Instead, there’s more underground tactics at work.

Put simply, the pool area is quite small and only about four sunbeds get the sun past 4pm. This means that there’s a secret bed-hopping war at play, in an attempt to secure the best beds at different stages of the day. As a seasoned sunbed bagger, I’m on it.

But at 4pm, people all begin to drag their sunbeds towards the dying rays, creating a sardine-like squash in one corner of the pool (spot the lonesome husband!).

photo 2-13

Owner Matthew prides himself on setting out purple towels throughout the whole pool area (he told us this in great detail) so it’s difficult to ascertain which beds are in use or have been used, having to rely a rudimentary towel ‘crumple test’.

It did make me wonder how Matthew knew which towels to change at the end of the day.

photo 1-13

It was only on Day 2 of our stay here that I uncovered a startling revelation: Matthew DOESN’T change the towels!

Unbeknown to him, I was stealthily spying on Matthew from the behind my copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, as the last vestiges of the vermillion sun dipped behind the mountains. Rather than whipping the used towels off the loungers, he merely smoothed them out with a deft flick of the hand.

This means that right now, I am probably lying in the sweat of that meaty man from Room 3.

When we returned from lunch today, chomping on ice creams, jittery Matthew was grinning expectantly from behind his reception desk.

‘Ice-cream!’ he exclaimed, a little too enthusiastically. ‘May I ask where you pur-chase-d your gelato?’

‘I just want to eat my ice-cream in peace,’ muttered the husband, as we returned to our squashed and sweaty sunbeds.

‘Get me back to Barry White… Get me back to the finca!’

Legs Eleven

I was once the doyenne of my local Caffè Nero, attracting the attention of a plethora of wrinkly retirees. Not any more. Now I have a new competitor in town who goes by the name of LEGS.

I’d never even heard of Legs this time last month. But there she is, batting her eyelashes at the oldies, driving Porridge-Loving Pensioner to hospital, and holding court with the morning regulars (Peter, Malcolm and co,) – while they all listen to her every word in rapt admiration.

photo 3-10

The woman can do no wrong.

According to a Peter (wet-eyed widow who gave Legs her namesake due to the fact that her well-toned pins are always on display), Legs is an amazing person: she’s studying for a doctorate in Sport Science or something, she’s a ‘strong and independent’ W-O-M-A-N (cue Beyonce soundtrack), she went travelling the world on her own; she’s probably about to make a breakthrough in finding a cure for cancer.

Apparently, her penchant for skimpy shorts and scanty vest tops merely masks her true wonderfulness. Even miserly retiree Linda is spellbound.

photo 2-12

‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ says Peter.

Our resident do-gooder isn’t called a Legs for nothing. She really does wear shorts every single day, rain or shine. I tell a lie: I might have spotted a pair of stripy leggings the other day. Still, it leaves me often pondering, what does she wear in winter?!

photo 1-12

photo 5-1

Peter came over the other day and said he realises that he’s been neglecting me now that Legs is in town. I didn’t disagree.

Peter attempted to introduce me to Legs in the coffee queue but she merely narrowed her eyes and smiled unconvincingly, in that slightly competitive way that only girls can fully understand.

Luckily for me, I have an ace card up my sleeve: I’m going to Mallorca in a week or so and Malcolm is still hellbent on imparting every last drop of knowledge he has on his favourite holiday destination.

photo-286

Not content with passing on all of his literature, he has now taken to recommending restaurants, the type of wine we should buy, and the places we should visit. He even had a recommendation on the local brandy.

Malcolm pottered in the other morning and made a beeline straight for me (bypassing Legs. Ha!).

I was sat in the window (which had angered Adrian The Academic who likes to sit in that particular window seat while he’s studying quantum mechanics and reading up on complex geometry – more on him another time).

‘I’ve barely been able to sleep for worry that you might not know how to get from Palma to Orient,’ said Malcolm.

I nodded in what I hoped was a suitably ‘I’ve-been-concerned-too’ manner, while looking up from one of Malcolm’s Mallorca books. I carry one around in my bag and then scramble to get it out and bury my head in it when I see him approaching.

‘There’s two routes, you see,’ he went on. ‘And I’m worried you might take the wrong one.’

An hour later, and following some very laborious directions, I reassured Malcolm that yes, I now knew the correct way to Orient and yes, I would stop at that quaint little village en route, and yes, I would try some tapas at that little taverna he loves so much.

I’m half expecting Malcolm to come in with an actual hour-by-hour itinerary for our holiday next week.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner, meanwhile, has been all but BANNED from Caffè Nero. That’s not strictly true; the manageress told him that unless he stop pestering people to give him a lift to the hospital and then getting irate when they refuse, he won’t be allowed back. PLP took umbrage at this and has now GONE ROGUE.

photo-285

He occasionally shuffles around grinning toothlessly at people but has taken to frequenting other eateries in the area. I saw him quite contentedly tucking into a large bowl of fries in the bar next door, bits of grease splattering his stained suit. The porridge days are over.

I went into Caffè Nero avec husband this weekend and who should be standing in the queue happily conversing with Peter but my nemesis Legs.

photo 4-7

‘That’s her!’ I said to the husband.

‘Who?!’ said gormless husband.

‘Leggssss!’ I hissed.

The husband studied her for some time, legs and all.

‘She’s actually a very attractive woman,’ he said.

Twisted Fire Starter

Drama at my Uncle Stephen’s house this week after his neighbour set fire to his runner beans!

‘He’d been nurturing those beans for months,’ said my mother, recounting news of this terrible incident. ‘He’d grown them since they were little seedlings.’

It emerged that Uncle Stephen – quite the eccentric himself – was tucked up in bed when his pyromaniac neighbour decided to strike.

But having taken out his hearing aid, Uncle Stephen was oblivious to the fact his prized vegetables had gone up in flames.

‘I was in me jim jams snoring my snout off, when I heard lots of banging,’ recounted Uncle Stephen.

‘I peered out of the window and the whole street was full of people.

‘They all waved back at me!’

photo-273

This isn’t the first time Uncle Stephen’s crazy neighbour has started a fire. On five separate occasions, she’s burnt down her garage, her back wall, wheelie bins, compost bins, and a row of conifers.

With his runner beans and bins reduced to ash, Uncle Stephen now fears for his onions and Brussel sprouts.

‘She’s a tiny woman but she does a lot of damage,’ said Uncle Stephen.

‘And when you tell her off, she just shrugs. She’s barmy!’

Living next door to a pyromaniac is real worry, mused my mother.

‘Mrs Smith, the neighbour, wants to remove those other conifers,’ she advised. ‘They’re too tempting for a local arsonist.’  (see video clip below!)

‘You’d think her husband would come round and apologise,’ my father chipped in.

‘For emotional damage as much as anything else!’

‘Her husband’s ugly as sin,’ said Uncle Stephen. ‘He’s the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.’

Odds and Sods

Our nosy neighbours Dick and Susan are moving out! Months of curtain twitching, bitter complaining and persistent emailing is coming to an end. And secretly, I’m a little sad.

Apparently, the sight of fellow residents entering the communal bin area and then either a: not closing the bin lids properly and/or b: not closing the gate properly (hello half-job husband!) has tipped Susan over the edge.

Dick has invested in a special pair of heavy-duty gloves to tackle the problem, which I’ve rebranded ‘Dick’s mitts’. Down-in-the-dumps Dickie seems to spend his days rummaging around in the bin compound – mitts donned – while Susan looks on from her perch in the window, barking the occasional instruction.

photo-252

Sanctimonious Sue sent an email telling me how glad she is to be leaving.

‘Someone had a party Sat night, with noise in the hall and distant party noises; I think it must have been 17,’ she wrote.

I complained in a very moderate way to one of the friends arriving about parking all over the front of the building and got sharp words in return.’

She added: ‘You may not be surprised to hear that all these comings and goings have reminded us – not that we really needed it – how glad we will be to leave here.’

Down the road at Caffe Nero, my interaction with retiree-at-large Malcolm has reached new heights.

photo-162

Malcolm seems to be under the misguided belief that I am some sort of literary don. He keeps coming over and throwing names of Dylan Thomas’s poems at me like some kind of bizarre quiz. It’s making me very nervous and I generally have to keep smiling and nodding along each time he mumbles, ‘What do you think of Under Milk Wood?’

Malcolm kept mentioning that he wanted to get rid of his beloved collection of classic novels and did I know anyone who would like them? It took my a while to cotton on but eventually, the husband said, ‘I think Malcolm wants you to have his books.’

The next time I saw him, I told Malcolm that I would love to take ownership of them.

For the next two weeks, Malcolm drove around with the books weighing heavy in the boot of his car, waiting to see me.

photo-254

The books now have a new home on our bookshelf; they’re actually really nice little leather-bound tomes. I like them.

But it hasn’t ended there. I mentioned to Malcolm that I was thinking about visiting Majorca and the next day, he appeared with another box – this time stuffed with literature about his favourite Spanish island.

I’m fearful that Malcolm is gradually emptying his house of his worldly possessions and foisting them onto me – the ultimate clutter-phobe.

He also keeps harping on about his favourite hotel in Deia. He’s mentioned it so many times that I actually think we might now have to stay there when we visit Majorca this summer – just to keep him happy.

Over in the corner of Caffe Nero, Porridge-Loving Pensioner has taken to reading a selection of bonkbusters!

Lately, he’s been completely engrossed in Jackie Collins’ Vendetta, which rather ambitiously bills itself as a nonstop, action-packed tale of sex, betrayal, drugs, intrigue, and murder.

photo-227

Porridge-Loving Pensioner has a new routine: he arrives by taxi at 7.30am, clutching his Co-Op carrier bag crammed with supplies. By 7.40am, he’s already on his first pot of porridge. At midday, he shuffles off to the pub next door before returning for one last pot of porridge and departing by taxi, circa 4pm.

One sunny day the other week, Porridge-Loving Pensioner went a bit crazy. He hobbled over to me and whispered that a strawberry milkshake was coming my way. I just nodded and smiled back at him, thinking, ‘he’s finally gone doolally.’

Then, 10 minutes later, a woman appeared in the doorway with a tray full of strawberry milkshakes and Porridge-Loving Pensioner started handing them out to all the Caffe Nero customers – me included!

He was the Milky Bar Kid gone rogue.

To this day, I have no idea where the milkshakes or the woman even came from. And I’m a little unsure on the policy of slurping non-Nero shakes on their premises.

It’s been a couple of weeks now Porridge-Loving Pensioner’s Milkshake Moment of Madness. He’s now retreated back into his corner to tuck into Jackie Collins’ latest bestseller.

The other day, I ordered my coffee and sat down with my laptop across from him.

photo-253

There was a sudden scuffle from behind and an avalanche of Cadbury’s Eclairs landed in the table in front of me.

I turned to see Porridge-Loving Pensioner’s wizened face leaning in.

‘Friends for life,’ he said.

Chasing Papers

Saturday mornings are about sipping extra-hot lattes, the occasional trip to the gym, and chewing the fat with the husband. But more than anything, Saturday mornings are about reading the Guardian Weekend magazine.

I love the Guardian Weekend magazine. I love the fashion pages; I love the weekly photograph competition; I love Sali Hughes’s beauty advice; I love the Let’s Move To… section; I used to LOVE Jon Ronson’s column (before he was succeeded by the dour Tim Dowling); I’m less interested in the gardening pages but you can’t have it all. I never miss a copy.

photo-13

This Saturday morning, I went to buy my Guardian as usual from the Co-Op and they didn’t have any! While I was in there, a woman came in and said she’d been to two shops in the area and no-one had the Guardian.

What was this? A national shortage of the Guardian? I decided not to panic at this point. We were going into town that afternoon and I figured I’d be able to secure a copy from there.

We parked up and on a whim decided to go to Everyman (‘posh’ cinema where you can recline on sofas, neck bottles of wine and tuck into the stingiest box of over-priced popcorn you’ll ever see). We watched Blue Ruin (gruesome, pointless plot, the husband loved it).

‘I must get the Guardian on the way home,’ I said to the husband, as we headed for a bite to eat (Nandos, natch).

I’d read somewhere that there was an interview with Diane Kruger in this week’s Guardian. I’m a bit obsessed with Diane Kruger. She’s just very, very cool and also dates Joshua Jackson, my favourite ever Dawson Creek character (who I once met at a film premiere when I had a cool job but then acted very, very uncool in asking for a photo with him. Sigh.).

Pulling up at home at 10pm, I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to track down a copy of the Guardian.

It was late and I was worried that the already depleted national supplies might make the mission almost impossible. But it made me even more determined.

‘I’m going to look for a Guardian,’ I said to the husband, grabbing the car keys off him and jumping in the car seat.

The husband simply shook his head in a ‘my-wife-is-deranged’ manner.

I drove to Tesco petrol station. No Guardian. Another Co-Op. No Guardian. Sainsburys Local. No Guardian but wait… What was that behind the counter? A great big bundle of the buggers. Bingo!

‘Please can I have one of those Guardians?’ I said to the shop assistant, pointing to them.

The officious shop guy shook his head.

‘I’m afraid it’s too late,’ he said. ‘They’ve been counted and tied up to be sent back.’

‘Is there no chance you could just sell me one?’ I said. ‘I’ll even pay double!

He shook his head in a way that said, ‘it’s-completely-out-of-my-hands-I-don’t-make-the-rules’.

I decided to go for a new tack.

‘Forget the paper itself,’ I said. ‘I just want the magazine bit.’

‘I’m not allowed to,’ said officious shop guy. ‘If there’s one missing, they will phone up tomorrow and want to know where it is.’

‘You’re not seriously telling me that the Guardian are going to call you up tomorrow, on a Bank Holiday Sunday, demanding to know where one of their missing magazines is,’ I cried, a bit hysterically.

‘The magazine bits go missing ALL THE TIME. In London, they just leave leftover papers dumped outside shops!’

Behind me in the queue, was a gaunt Scottish man, eyeing me with disdain.

‘Listen love, why didn’t you just buy one earlier?’ gaunt Scottish man said peevishly.

‘I tried! But due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to acquire one,’ I said through gritted teeth.

He bared his teeth in an ugly smile.

‘Good luck with your newspaper,’ he sneered, scooping up his four-pack as he exited.

Officious sales guy and I had reach deadlock. We eyed each other determinedly, the huge pile of Guardians sat on the counter between us.

But I had come this far. I wasn’t going to give up.

Officious agreed to go in to the office and phone the nearby Sainsburys Local to say if they had any Guardians left and, if so, whether they had already bundled them up to be sent back – like he had.

As he begrudgingly trudged into the back room, I did something bad. In the full glare of the CCTV camera, I grabbed hold of one of the magazines sticking out of the bundle. I tugged and tugged and it came free!

Heart racing, I snatched the magazine and fled the shop, leapt into my car and bombed off at speed, half-expecting officious shop guy to give chase.

As I put some distance between us and my heart began to regain its normal rhythm, I checked my rear view mirror for flashing blue lights. The cops weren’t onto me – yet. I felt an overwhelming sense of victory.

‘This is how Winona Ryder felt,’ I thought. ‘She steals purely for the buzz’.

Back at home, I clambered into bed, turned on the light, and picked up my stolen Guardian Weekend magazine with a contented sigh.

And then I saw the front cover: ‘Diane Keaton: I Slept With A Peg On My Nose’.

Keaton?!

Not Kruger, after all.

Shooting The Breeze With OAPS

I already have a very unhealthy relationship with Caffè Nero, spending around £1000 a year there purely to fund my coffee addiction.

But now I’ve managed to encourage a whole band of eccentrics who seem determined to befriend me, despite my generally aloof demeanour.

First, there’s the old man who sits in the corner all day eating porridge. He’s become a regular fixture in the last six months and now he’s there so often he’s practically part of the furniture.

When Caffè Nero opens at 7.30am, here’s already in position by the window, spoon in hand. Goldilock’s Three Bears have nothing on this old dude; he eats a least five pots of porridge a day, often staring forlornly out of the window.

photo-161

When I first set eyes on him, I thought he looked a bit lonely, so I threw him a beaming smile as I clattered out with my take-out coffee on my way to work.

And you know what he did… he scowled back at me cantankerously.

Undeterred, I continued to smile every morning, always receiving a frown back. This little game went on for about a month.

And then finally – a breakthrough! The scowl turned to a grimace… which finally became a smile. In recent weeks, I’ve even been getting a little wave from him. It feels good.

And then today, as I type away… the biggest breakthrough yet. Porridge-Loving Pensioner actually mouthed over to me, ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’, holding his teapot aloft.

‘I’m okay,’ I mouthed back. ‘I’ve got a coffee.’ I held up my cup to prove this, and hid back behind my laptop.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner appears to have turned from a miserly Victor Meldrew to a warm-hearted Werther’s Original grandad in a matter of months.

I even saw him offering a small child a sweet the other day.

photo-159

I was just getting back to work when there was a bang on the window – and a round, beaming face peered through the glass at me. Oh lordy… it was my portly friend The Italian Wanderer. I’ve known of The Italian Wanderer for a couple of years now but I’ve purposely been keeping a low profile for fear of encouraging him.

The Italian Wanderer is one of the stranger characters out of the motley bunch. He’s in Caffè Nero nearly every night with his Italian brother: a taller, goofier version of himself.

photo-163

I think they quite fancy themselves as a pair of extras in Goodfellas. But if I was to cast them in a movie, they’d play two hapless henchman, permanently scratching their heads and bumping into each other in a clownish fashion (if you think of those bungling burglars in Home Alone, you kind of get the picture).

I gave The Italian Wanderer his moniker due to his strange penchant for wandering the streets for hours on end. Come rain or shine, he walks up and down Harrogate Road all evening long (brother nowhere to be seen). This is no exaggeration. Sometimes he takes a break from the roam – and sits at the bus-stop watching the world go by.

photo-158

I’m mildly intrigued by his nomadic lifestyle but I haven’t dared to probe beyond a friendly wave for fear of Getting Too Involved.

Getting Too Involved is basically where you go beyond a simple smile and wave and descend into full-blown conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I like a smile and wave with an eccentric on the best of days, but I’m a solitary soul at heart – and the last thing I want to do is start sharing coffees and ruminating on life with these oddities.

Last week, The Italian Wanderer accosted me in Caffè Nero and starting firing a series of probing questions my way, ending with, ‘Is it okay if I say hello to you from now on?’

‘Of course!’ I said, smiling in what I hoped was a friendly but not-too-encouraging manner.

Talking of Getting Too Involved, one person I have Got Very Involved with is widower Peter (documented in My Coffee Shop Friend). He looks scarily like the bad guy ‘Mike’ from Breaking Bad.

photo-24

Well, it turns out Peter has a friend: Malcolm – another retiree at large, who keeps coming over to talk to me. I say ‘talk to me’ but he sort of wanders over and mumbles for a while, smiling in a vacant way before wandering off again – sometimes mid-sentence.

I usually hide behind my laptop under the guise of Being Terribly Busy but the other day, I was on the receiving end of a two-pronged attack from Peter and Malcolm, who came and sat with me for an hour regaling me with tales of Leeds’ glorious past. I secretly loved it.

photo-162

It transpires that they were both avid body builders back in the day, and trained with none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who joined them in Leeds for a year, living in a small flat in Crossgates (who knew?!), along with local legend Reg Park (former Mr Universe, no less).

Peter and Malcolm love to jest that they’ve managed to pick up a young girl (me!) and sometimes even comment on the length of my skirt!

‘It’s a nice outfit,’ says Peter. ‘Let’s just say, I’m not complaining.’

Malcolm nods along, approvingly.

When I go into Caffè Nero at the weekend with the husband, I’m now getting waves from all corners of the room – mainly from the over 60s.

The Husband is astonished.

‘Don’t you GET INVOLVED!’ he says.