Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Old People are Great

I was in the supermarket on Saturday and watched an exchange between an old lady and the girl on the checkout.

The girl on the checkout was a bit stressed. I would be too. It can’t be much fun having to sit there for hours whilst your bum goes numb and you have to watch other people going about their daily business and probably off to do more interesting things than you. Just having to say, “Do want help with your packing?” in a way that communicates that no aid would be forthcoming if the customer was ever daft enough to say, ‘Yes’, must bring its own mental burden.

She could have been nicer to the old lady, though. I subscribe to the opinion that advanced age should entitle the OAP to a bit of respect. Not ‘Prostrate myself whilst you lecture me about rationing’ respect. Just, ‘You’ve been around a lot longer than me and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt’ respect.

The old lady was short 2 quid on her bill of 65 quid. She was distressed at not having enough money, distressed at the fact that the girl on the checkout was saying repeatedly, ‘You’ll have to put something back,’ and distressed that she was holding up the queue.

I had a quick check in my pocket, then leant over and stuck two pound coins in the cashier’s hand, smiled at the embarrassed but grateful old lady and allowed us all to get on with our day with minimal fuss.

I’m an old people lover. Not in a way that might require counselling or corrective training, I find them fascinating. I always have done. My own grandparents were all dead before I really got to know them and I was always a little bit envious of my mates who would pop in to their grans on the way home. I’d sometimes tag along and would really enjoy those visits, not just for the biscuits and endless tea, but because they had interesting things to say. It was an absorbing experience to try and square the sparrow-like, little ladies with their tales of putting out fires and saving lives during World War 2 or driving through Europe in the 1950s.

I even quite enjoyed the suspicion that a lot of what was being related might have been embellished a bit or could have even been out and out bullshit. So what? They were great, colourful stories and there was – probably – a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

A lot of the things about getting old must be shite. I’m only in my mid 40s but lament the fact that my bones and joints creak a lot more when I play 5 a-side. If I imagine another 30 years of reduced mobility and failing eyesight, I can see why some of them come across as curmudgeonly and that embroidering your past a bit might be an enjoyable way to pass the years.

Of course, the inexorable march of time isn’t all bad. Old people get to do things that we can’t. They can wear trousers up to their armpits and say what they like. My wife’s grampa, who died a few years ago, was a classic example. He used to love coming out with outrageous statements, always suggesting that shotguns or other firearms presented ready solutions to most modern problems like peaceful protest or traffic jams. Some in the family used to take what he said at face value and upbraid him in shocked tones. He always made me laugh, though, as I could see that he was doing it for effect. Basically, he was saying,

“I’m 85, I can’t drive anymore, I can’t drink the whiskey I love any more and I’m pretty much immobile. One of the pleasures I still have in my life, is the look on your bloody face when I suggest that the Newbury bypass protesters should all be blown out of trees with shotguns.”

I was in another supermarket a few years ago, getting my lunch, when I spotted a very old chap, who looked bewildered. He was standing in the entrance with two full shopping bags and something in his body language made me ask him if he was alright.

He replied in a sad and resigned voice, “I can’t remember where I live.”

The people in Sainsburys didn’t consider this their problem when I took him to Customer Services, he’d already spent his money so they weren’t interested. Eventually, after playing twenty questions, we worked it out between the two of us that he lived round the corner in sheltered flats. I walked him back to my car and gave him a lift there. In the five minutes that it took us to get there, I had a conversation with this confused old man, who looked like he weighed six stone, wet through.

It turned out that during the Second World War, he’d flown a Sunderland Bomber, helping to counteract the German U-boat threat and helping to rescue sailors from torpedoed ships. He’d flown with distinction throughout the war and along with his mates, had been responsible for saving hundreds of lives.

He might have just been blagging me, to save himself the taxi fare and fair play to him if he had, but I suspect that people like him are getting fewer and further between so we should be nice to them while we still can.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Kerb Falling

Last Wednesday, I came a bit closer to dying a daft death than was comfortable.

Because her car’s off the road, I dropped my wife off at the Art class that she teaches in Didsbury. I had an hour to kill, so thought I’d go for a little stroll, buy a paper, have a coffee and then go and pick her up.

I ambled down the main street in Didsbury, stopped off in the newsagents and then carried on walking. It was a sunny afternoon and time was on my side so I wanted to select my brew location carefully. Not too empty, but not too full (of prams or loud people). When I came to the end of the row of shops, I was daydreaming a bit and didn’t notice that the kerb dropped away. I stepped into three inches of space and went down like a sack of spuds.

Before I knew it, I was performing a primary-school-level forward roll into a busy road. It was my good fortune that I didn’t time my Luis Suarez dive at the same moment that a bus was passing, as I’d have been simply flattened, the bus driver would have been traumatised and one or two people on the bus would have took their Ipod earplugs out and said,

“Ooh, what was that?”

I quickly jumped up and experienced a quick snapshot of reaction to my tumble. As I got out of the puddle that I’d fallen into, a lad walking past gave me a quick glance and clearly thought,

“Uh-oh, pisscan alert!!”

He studiously avoided eye contact and kept walking.
Two old blokes in a van, waiting in traffic on the other side of the road were pointing at me and howling with laughter.

To be fair, I was in a bit of a state and must have looked a right nana. I fully defend their right to take the piss and would have joined in, had I not just had a brief flirtation with the Grim Reaper.

Another guy came out of a restaurant, concern etched deep in his face.

“Are you alright, mate?”

I gave the standard British Male response to his enquiry, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“I’m absolutely fine, thanks.”

I picked my newspaper up out of a puddle and threw it in the bin. Exposure to my own mortality hadn’t subsumed the skinflint in me, as I chucked it, thinking

“One pound twenty down the swanny!”

Through the power of Google Earth, I can show you the exact location of my mishap. It’s that bit between the two bollards and the lamp-post.

It’s hardly the Grand Canyon is it?

When I’d had time to think about it over a brew later, I cringed at the thought of my wife having to explain the circumstances of my downfall at my funeral.
With the embarrassment increasing slightly with each telling, she’d say to concerned relatives and friends, who were clearly trying not to laugh.

“Well… he fell off a kerb.”

“Oh! Was it a big kerb?”

“No, the problem was more with the bus than the kerb.”


Monday, 4 February 2013

The Perpetual Poppadom Puzzler

We’ve used the same Indian take-away for the last ten years.

The Mahbub is a brilliant little place. The food is always great and sometimes excellent. The prices are fair and Amir and the lads that run it are always friendly. You can see your food being prepared in the front-of-house kitchen and they’re even nice enough to offer you a coffee while you wait (though only for main courses, cautions the sign!).

I love my take-aways and I’m a creature of habit. Once I find the right one for my pocket and taste, my loyalty is steadfast. As well as the Mahbub, Mario’s Pizza (till it closed) and The China Garden earned my allegiance through the simple process of not charging too much, getting the order right and knocking out lovely food that requires no preparation or effort on my part.

I only have one problem with the Mahbub and it comes in the form of the occasional freebies they chuck in to my order – or don’t!

There’s absolutely no consistency to Amir deciding whether to drop a couple of extra poppadoms or bhajis into the bag when I come to collect. If I’m in luck, he tips me a quick wink and says,

“There’s a couple of extra bits in there for you, Charlie.”

I say ‘thank you’ in a way that tries to convey surprise rather than expectation. As soon as I’m in the car, I frantically check my booty, then do a quick air-punch because I’ve got 80p’s worth of big crisps for free. It is a scientifically proven fact that stuff you have to pay for does not taste as nice as stuff you get for free. I’m not going to dig out the research, just accept what I say.

But then I’ll go in on another day and get nothing.
All the circumstances are the same. The order is similarly priced, I’ve not done anything to offend him (I think), but the poppadoms are not forthcoming.

He’s still friendly, but there’s no wink. The reassuring weight increase of the bag is absent. I go to the car and check and sure enough, the order is exactly as dialled in. Nothing extra. I might not have even eaten them but I wish they were there. Anyone walking past the car would think i'd just had some really bad news.
They'd be forgiven for tapping on the window and asking if I was alright.

"Yeah... i'm ok. They never gave me any complimentary food in the take-away."

This is the trouble and I’ve spent a decade trying to work it out. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to my likelihood of getting a bit of free scran. None of the following factors seem to affect my chances:

Size of order.
Price of order.
Longevity of small-talk conversation with Amir.
How busy or empty the shop is.
Proximity to any of the National or Religious holidays.
Proximity to mine or Amir’s birthdays.
Day of the week.
Time of the evening.
Production of a sob story about recent utility bills.
Casual reference to how many kids I have.

The dispensing of the poppadoms seems to be an entirely random act, beyond my ability to predict or guess.

Purely in the interests of research, I’ve purchased take-aways from the Mahbub an average of once a month. In 120 visits I’ve failed to identify a pattern.

Maybe it’s a big game that the lads in the Mahbub play. Although the customers are always nice, it can’t be much fun working in a hot kitchen all evening, so anything that helps to entertain whilst time is passing has got to be a good thing.

I can imagine, just after I’ve left with my little heart broken, despondent at getting seen off and feeling that Amir might not be my friend anymore, that this conversation might well occur.

Bloke Who Works the Tandoori Oven – “Bloody hell, Amir, you’re really messing with his head.”

Amir (laughing) – “I know. Did you see his face? I thought he was going to start crying.”

BWWTO – “You’re a tight bastard. You should go after him and give him a free Chicken Chaat. I bet you’ve ruined his evening.”

Amir – “You know the rules. I have to get him to the point where he grabs me by my lapels and begs me to tell him the secret of what he has to do, to consistently be given those little extras he loves.”

BWWTO – “I know, mate. But I reckon you’ve gone too far. Most people cave in after a year or two. This bloke’s been coming back for gone ten years. I reckon you might send him over the edge.”

Amir – “No, I know what I’m going to do next time. When he comes in, I’m going to shake his hand and ask him all about his family. I’m going to congratulate him on being one of our nicest, regular customers. I’m going to talk wistfully about my plans for the future and share a cup of coffee with him. Then I’m not going to give him the free poppadoms. As well as that, I’m going to give him two of those shit bags of salad that nobody eats. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll give up and just tell him.”

BWWTO – You’re a cruel man, Amir, but I like your style.