Monday, 22 December 2014

Long Lost Object

When I was ten years old, I met my Dad for what felt like the first time. It felt like the first time because I hadn't seen him since I was 3, and I could hardly remember him. But only 7 years had passed, and actually that's not that long when you have an adult brain and you're good at storing and knowing things. So he was full of memories I didn't have. I was full of anger and fear and curiosity and I didn't know what to do with it. This story is based on some things that happened those first few times we met, and though I've condensed it into one visit, everything here happened, or was said, or felt. Oh and I changed my name.

As soon as I step through his garden gate the front door opens and he is there. He must have been waiting, watching through a window.
I know what to expect, vaguely, part from memory and part from photographs, but it’s still strange. Maybe because of the way he makes it look normal, with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face, and the way he calls out to me, ‘Hey’. Then, when I'm in front of him, ‘Hello, Eve.’
            I’ve practised this next part in the mirror, watching my jaw snap down and up. ‘Dad. Dad. Dad? I have a Dad. My Dad said… No, I can't, I'm going to my Dad's. Hi Dad.’
But here, I keep the word inside.
‘Hello.’ I pull the sleeves of my cardigan down and fold my arms, afraid he’ll try to hug me, afraid he is expecting something more beautiful.
He’s still smiling. ‘Come in.’
He doesn’t wait, doesn’t see me inside with something like, ‘Welcome’. I think about turning around. About going home to my mum and saying, ‘Yeah, I met him. And that’s enough.’ And my mum asking, ‘Is it?’
I step into the house and close the door.
‘What do you want to drink, love?’ He’s waiting again, in another doorway. I know the house, in a far away way. If things had been different I might still have had a room of my own. A second home. I’ve played with that idea too, before coming here today. Leaving school on a Friday and saying, ‘I’m staying over at my dad’s this weekend.’ It seems lavish, exotic, exciting. But here it doesn’t. Here, between known and unknown, is cold and unsettling.  
‘Love? To drink?’
Love, I hear. He’s confident, not just with his words but his movements too. At ease with me here. He walks into the kitchen, expecting me to follow. I imagine coming in from school, talking about my day. What would you like to drink, love. Or I’d help myself. Open the fridge, know the cupboards.
‘Orange juice?’
I nod, ‘Okay.’

In the living room we sit in armchairs, a gas fire between us. He talks. He asks about school and exams and hobbies, trying to find the parts of me that are his.
My answers are short, minimum: top set, exams ok, drawing.
He tells me about the people who are looking forward to seeing me. Relatives I don’t know. He tells me about places he used to take me to, things we did together. The Rugby Club on Sundays. Climbing onto the piano stool. Twice the size of you. So determined. Everyone in stitches.
I didn’t expect this, this advantage he’d have on me. This is why it’s easy for him, he thinks he knows me already. I look around the room, but not at the things I’m interested in. Not at his pictures or CDs or ornaments, the things that might tell me who he is. I fix my eyes on the walls, ceiling, floor. Anywhere but him.
There’s something on the carpet between us – a small, black, crumpled thing. A dead spider. I gasp and he hears it and says, ‘Ah. If that’s how you feel you probably shouldn’t look under the back window.’
So I get up and walk across the room, past him, to see four or five black and brown spiders, all dead and folded at the edge of the carpet. It’s one of those shocks where you feel your face pull across your forehead.  
He turns in his chair to face me. ‘I’ve just had a lot of spiders lately. Are you scared?’
‘No.’ And to make him believe it I look him in the eye properly for the first time.
‘Your eyes didn’t stay green. You used to have green eyes.’
‘I know.’
‘They were like mine.’
‘They’re blue now.’ Though sometimes they still look a little green, if I’m tired, or if I cry. I don’t tell him that.
‘I've been waiting for this day for seven years.’
I want to say I haven’t, or I want to ask why he waited, why he just accepted my absence. I don’t ask of these things, but he answers them.  
‘It was hard. I didn’t know if your mum would tell you if I got in touch. I thought if I waited until you were older, you’d at least be opening your own post and making your own mind up.’
I decide to yawn.
He smiles. ‘You've still got it, that stubborn streak.’ And he starts laughing. The
laughter takes hold of him, his body shakes with it. ‘So stubborn. There was this time, you were a baby really, two or three, and we were walking through Bluebell Wood, and…’
I let myself look at him, all of him. His stomach spilling over his waistband. His thinning hair, swept over his head like a lie. Something in the corner of his mouth. I want to be at home, on my bed, lying on my back so my own stomach disappears.
He's stopped telling the story. ‘Sorry, Eve. But you know you've always been stubborn, don't you?’
Yes. Mum tells me most times we argue, and ‘you get it from your father’.
He thinks he can see me and he doesn’t even know me. I want to hurt him. I stare at his head. ‘Does your hair grow like that naturally?’
His laughing slows, his smile drops. He looks at me a while, his eyes lit in the light from the window. Then he turns around, away. After a minute he says, ‘You don’t have to be here, you know.’
He’s caught me. ‘I know.’
I look to the door and think about my next move. Something black in the corner of my eye. Something on my leg. How many spiders there must be in this room.   

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Tips for Customer Service Workers Part 42: My Till is Going Slow

One of my day jobs is in customer service. Sometimes I write about it.

Extract from The Customer Service Workers' Handbook 
Part 42:
My Till is Going Slow 

Potential Settings: Anywhere which uses a single line queuing system, such as fast food restaurants / ticket booths / coffee shops / supermarkets / banks / virtually any retail

Keywords: transaction, inconvenience, technology

Your till is taking longer than it should to process a customer’s transaction. There is just you operating the tills, and you have a queue of people waiting to be served. This has happened before and you know it’ll just take a few minutes for the till to kick into life and catch up, so there’s no need to call a colleague or a manager for assistance. But you have in front of you a customer who is having to wait anything up to an extra three minutes for their transaction to be completed, not to mention the line of other customers who are also being affected by this three minute wait.

How can you best deal with this situation?
First things first: Apologise and explain to the person you are serving that the till is being slow. This is easily done by saying, ‘Sorry, the till is being slow’. Most people will accept this and wait patiently, but some may not. The most common customer response to your apology is: ‘It’s okay,’ but you will know by the tone and style of delivery whether or not it really is okay. The main thing to look out for is looseness or tightness.

Looseness: the customer smiles as they say ‘It’s okay’ and they are relaxed enough to lean on the counter with one arm and perhaps even engage you in conversation external to the business you are conducting.

Tightness: everything about the customer is tense, in particular their shoulders, neck and face so that when they say ‘It’s okay’ they do it without opening their jaw.

What to do if the person you are serving is visibly annoyed by having to wait 
Be careful here because the stony atmosphere they are generating might make you talk more and say ridiculous things. A common trap to fall into is to suggest the till is having a bad day. While it’s true that this approach would be welcomed by a friendly and easy going customer – one who might even take personifying the till a step further and say, for example if it’s a Friday: ‘It must be ready for the weekend!’ or if it’s a Monday: ‘It must have had a big weekend!’– a lot of people are just not susceptible to this kind of play acting and will look at you like you’re filth if you even try it.  

Saying ‘Sorry to keep you’: should you or shouldn’t you?
This is a good, although risky, way to phrase an apology. It’s risky because if the person is feeling ‘kept’ already, you will either highlight this feeling inside of them and make them more of an indignant prisoner, or – and this is the hope – they will see the idea that a human keeping another human just by a small delay in the transaction process is ridiculous and they will feel some shame at their behaviour towards you so far. If this happens, they will redden and say, ‘It’s okay’ again, but this time they’ll mean it and you will feel the self-worth shift back into your body.

Note: If your customer is friendly and finding the whole delay process a bit of an adventure, saying ‘Sorry to keep you’ might lead them to exclaim ‘It’s no problem!’ and laugh loudly. This will infuriate the people who are waiting.

Keep your focus on the till or the person you are serving.
Do not catch the eye of the customers waiting in the queue. Most of them will be wearing an expression, and doing things with their body language, chosen specifically to let you know how much you are inconveniencing them right now.

Examples: pursed lips, arms folded, eyes staring directly at you. They will be shifting their body weight from one foot to the other more than they need to because this lets the other people in the queue know how inconvenienced they are right now. There will be at least one person tapping their foot. In some cases, there will be some muttering, including the sound ‘fff’. However, there will be some people in the queue who are fine with waiting either because they are enlightened or they don’t have much on today.  

What to do if the person you are serving isn’t annoyed.
The friendly and relaxed customer will probably be chatting to you as they wait. Be aware that if you indulge in conversation with this person, the people in the queue will think you’re just pissing about. Be sure to interject your chat with serious stares at the till, and even if it’s not necessary consider looking around the back of the till as if you are solving a problem with the wiring.

At last! The till has caught up and completed the transaction.
How the customer exits this situation, and how you bid them goodbye, will depend on their behaviour during the last 3 minutes. If they maintained their annoyance it’s always nice to be extra nice to them in the hope that you will highlight their not-niceness. But don’t hold any hope for this.

You can use ‘Sorry to have kept you’ as you greet each of the customers who have just had to wait. Once again you’ll most likely elicit the ‘It’s okay’ response delivered with or without sincerity.

Your till is now operating as it should.
Congratulations, customer service worker, you can go back to working to full capacity  with maximum efficiency.   

If you enjoyed that, why not try this previously published extract from The Customer Service Workers' Handbook:

He or she is just not that into you: the disengaged customer - rude on purpose or by accident?


Thursday, 6 November 2014

How To Take A Selfie

Do you think you look good today? Best take a selfie to check.

Is it a good one?

Yes. Fantastic. Post to all social media outlets with caption ‘just chillin’.

No. Do another.

Is it a good one?

No. Do another.

Is it a good one?

No. Do another.

It must be the light in here. Close one curtain. Put that nice ambient lamp on.
Ruffle your hair.

Think about how sad you felt that time you saw a dead baby bird on the pavement and it made you write a blog post about the cruelty of life.

YES: hold that face.

But now think about how sexy you felt that time you went out with damp hair and the wind gave you the best blow dry you’ve ever had and when you stopped to look at the wedding dresses in the wedding dress shop window you caught a look at your reflection and your head looked FUCKING ACE.

Now add that feeling in. That’s it. Do your SADSEXY face.

Is it a good one?

Wow that’s really not what you were trying to communicate at all, is it. Do you really look like that? Go to your favourite mirror and do SADSEXY FACE in it. Looks better in the mirror. Get your camera and take a photo of your reflection.

Ooh wait - turn the flash off.

Oh and also light a candle and put it in front of the mirror.

DO NOT GET THE CANDLE IN THE PHOTO THAT’S TOO MUCH. You just want the mood of the candle. The glow.

Ok. Now take the picture.

Is it a good one?

Hm. It’s ok. It’s quite hazy. Quite arty. Ooh, arty is good.

Or maybe it’s wanky.

Point is even though it’s just a suggestion of your face it’s VERY natural and VERY effortless.

PERFECT. Post to all social media outlets.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

just so you know,

I am still here.

The past month or so has seen work life speed up and writing life slow down. 

I've felt disconnected from the writing side of myself so to balance things out I had a pull to revisiting some non-fiction. It's done the trick. I feel connected again. Once a diarist always a diarist?

This particular bit of writing started out as a letter for The Letters Page. They didn't accept it for publication, but I see why now. It was quite rushed, I had more to say than I could in 500 words. The version I've written this week is twice that. 

So, a good experience.

But writing about real life opens the door to the old inner critic. She wants to know why I'm writing this. What I'm going to do with it. Because it's quite personal, you know. Are you going to put it in your blog? Might do. Why would you do that? Attention seeker. No, not that exactly. To communicate. To share. Share what a weirdo you were when you were eight? What if (insert person who might judge you negatively) reads it? Well so what. I'm not that bothered about what that person thinks. Aren't you? Why you thinking about it then? Seriously, fuck off now. You're such a drain. 


I will likely share the letter with you in the next few days. Check back soon.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

There's been a lot of catching up lately.

Family visiting us, friends who live far away stopping by.

Then my best friend, Claire, got married just this weekend (she's been preparing since she was 4 years old; the rest of us since Andrew proposed back in Feb 2013). It was a lovely day. Romantic, fun, exhausting, happy. Here we are.


A few days later I attended a funeral. My Aunt Audrey, who was my Dad's sister, died last week. She was the youngest of three. My Dad and his other sister, my Aunt Edith, have already passed. So Audrey was the last of those Stenson children, and in that way the last close link to my Dad. But I'd only seen her occasionally over the last ten years or so, and usually at other funerals unfortunately. Isn't that the way? You see people at funerals and vow to meet again soon at a less sad occasion. We didn't manage to.

My Dad died when I was 16. When I was just getting to know him, or appreciate him. The last time I saw him we were talking about music I think (we didn't have the same taste then, but there'd be some cross-over now) and he told me he was a mod in the 1960s. This was possibly the most exciting thing I had ever heard. He then went upstairs and rooted around his wardrobe, coming back down with a mint and cream paisley shirt he'd worn in the 70s. It was 1997 and I was all about flares and collared shirts and long beads and anything alternative - earning me two nicknames at school: 'Indie Girl' from the cool 6th-formers in the years above me, and 'Sweaty Betty' from the townies in my year group. I WAS Indie Girl. And after that I was extra-original-authentic Indie Girl with my mint and cream paisley shirt.

It always felt weird for me around my Aunts and my Grandma after Dad died. Because I knew I was their last link to him, and it made me feel uncomfortable, and odd, and scared in a way. I'm not sure why. Pressure, maybe. No one did anything wrong, just the circumstances. Just the way it felt back then. Overwhelming.  

There are just a few Stensons I know now, pretty much just Edith and Audrey's children, my older cousins. But I can count on one hand how many times I've seen them in the past ten years. Despite this I feel a sense of unity of when I do, and I hang on to them a little tighter when we hug, maybe because - it's back to links - they are my only physical link to Dad, their Uncle.

At the funeral I got to meet one of my Dad's younger cousins for the first time and I asked him for any stories, any memories of Dad from when he was younger. He remembered my Dad being tall with a deep and booming voice. It was enough to bring a little physicality to memories that can become still over time.

Some photos of photos, so not great quality. Here I am with my Aunt Audrey. It's 1984, I'm about 3 years old.

And here's my Dad, in the South of France with his girlfriend (not my Mum) sometime in the late 50s, or early 60s. He's around the age he was when his cousin remembered him as tall, with a deep booming voice. (Perfect for singing Elvis covers, which he did when I was a teenager, in a band with his friends. Sooo embarrassing, I thought. Not now.)

Friends, a wedding, families and memories. A week of connections, really.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Connecting Writers: The Writing Process Blog Tour

Thank you Rachel Fenton for nominating me to be part of this blog tour where writers talk about their writing process.

Here I am answering a few questions.

What am I working on?

Today: my novel

Few days ago: adapting a short piece of writing into a poem

The week ahead: has to be novel, novel, novel. A little short storying.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Tricky question! I generally don't write in a particular genre. But I’m not a genre snob (hate them), I just don’t happen to write in one. But people do ask what genre my work is and I answer with that slippery useless term ‘contemporary fiction’, then wince at myself. So I don’t know how it differs, I just write what I like writing. My novel is half written in lists, so maybe that makes it different. I’m not the first to do that, of course. You might say my short stories are literary fiction but only because of certain characteristics, mostly that they’re not always conventional stories. Not because of loftiness, or better-than-ness, just because that’s what I happen to write.

Why do I write what I do?

I write short stories because … gawd maybe I’m not cut out for this. I don’t know. Okay I’ll just go with it. I like short bursts of stuff. I like jigsaws. I like questions. I like the way people talk. I like it when people talk about nothing (they’re not).

I’m writing my novel because ... it's a challenge, a bigger jigsaw, I found a character I like, am interested in, find funny, and I want to write her story. I want to get it published, I want other people to read it. This all sounds very basic doesn’t it? But then I suppose it is.

How does my writing process work?

On a practical level, I set aside one day a week for writing, keeping that day clear of any plans. On top of that I write when I can between going to work and living the other parts of my life with my boyfriend and friends. That one day each week is essential and I work hard to protect it. But there must also be bits of writing going on in some of the other days or there’s too much pressure on that one day to be perfect. Often I'll be tired and I never do as much as I think I could have done.

I’m a mix of being disciplined and very easily distracted. Part of one of my jobs involves mentoring university students with huge workloads so I try to take my own advice. I look at deadlines I want to meet (even for publications and prizes these are all self-imposed, I’m never contracted to write) and see what time I have. I breakdown the time into chunks - weeks, days, hours, depends - and then I do it. Not always as easy as it sounds. The internet gets shut off if I have to (yeah, I have to) and I take myself out of the house usually, even if there’s just me in, for an hour or two.   

I write by hand for a bit, I type for a bit, I look into space a lot. I earwig. I think about what I’m cooking for tea. I think about crisps. I eat some crisps. I look at the time and wish I had more. I reassure myself. I daydream about a book deal. I write a bit more.

It’s easy to think I should be somewhere else by now. I've noticed lately that a lot of the people I know who have chosen a similar path to me (day job to pay the bills, make stuff in their spare time) are feeling downhearted because they haven’t got to where they want to be, or think they should be yet. I’m never far away from feeling like that, but when I do I pull myself around, because you know – I chose this, and it’s what I want. 

And I think it’s important to measure yourself only on what you do, what you’re making, producing, not where you think you ought to be, success-wise.


Thanks, Rachel, for the baton.

I’m nominating ... the first person who comments and says they'd like to take the baton! If you do, you need to answer the same questions I have and then pass it on to another blogging writer.