Sunday, 25 January 2015

One by one (by one, by one)

There's a small woman hopping up and down on my right shoulder. She looks a bit like me, but for some reason she's speaking with a gorblimey accent. She's leaning forward with an agitated air and saying into my ear: "Don't. 'E's not worth it. Walk away!"

I try to listen to her. I take a deep breath to calm myself. But it doesn't work. So I turn, and stride along the aisle, past eggs and dried fruit, in the direction taken by a young man a couple of moments ago. At the top I look left, only to see him disappear behind swinging doors into a staff-only area. I exhale, and square my shoulders.

"'E's not worth it!" hisses the mini-me again.

But I'm walking over to the door, beside which a senior-looking staff member is ticking things off a list. 

"Excuse me?"

She looks up. Beside us, an industrial-sized rotisserie splats and fizzes, turning rows of browning chickens.


It's been a good weekend, so far. I've seen friends and relaxed and felt enthusiastic about things again. In slightly giddy mood I went to Waitrose and piled my trolley full of rich, tasty food, planning to cook a big meal for my family. I thought: I am nearly well, my loved ones are all well - Grace is calm, happy and productive - January is nearly over. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Then I turned a corner and two young people, dressed in the supermarket's uniform, came towards me from the opposite direction. The young man -  jaunty walk, shoulders back - was just about to arrive at the punchline of a story that was already making his female colleague giggle. As he walked past I caught the end of his comment: ".. like a special needs one, you know? So you have to look after 'em!" His colleague smothered laughter. They walked on.

But I was stuck. A victim of a walk-by shooting in the bakery aisle. I felt like I'd been splattered against the shelves of finest organic flour. Someone was laughing at my daughter again. I felt sick and sweaty. I felt like I was overreacting. I felt like I wanted to run after that young man and shake him til his teeth rattled.

I looked at all the food in my trolley. I didn't want to eat any of it. Up popped the worried little woman on my shoulder - the one who fears being a spoilsport, a humourless, professional complainer. I batted her away. One by one, I thought. I have to keep tackling them one by one, until there are fewer people who think it's ok to make Grace an object of fun.

Thus, when the senior-looking staff member looks up and says "Yes?" - I say: "I've just overheard a member of your staff make a joke about people with special needs that I found offensive. Do you think I could speak to him?"

The woman blanches, and says very quickly that she will go and get the duty manager.

"It's just - " I begin, - "I have a daughter - "

She stops me and says: "Me too. I'll be right back."

I wait for five minutes. I still feel sick. Then two young men walk up to me. One is the duty manager, who looks very uncomfortable. One is the young man who spoke. His face is a perfect blank. He looks at me, and fixes a bland smile, and clasps his hands together.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he tells me. "They were taken out of context."

Wait, what? Out of context?

"That doesn't sound like an apology," I retort. "Whatever is going on in your head you should not be voicing it here. Do you have any idea how upsetting it is to be here and shopping and overhear someone making a joke about that?"

Urgh. I am so very un-eloquent.

He smiles blandly at me again, and presses his hands closer together. His expression doesn't change.

"I would like to apologise for my comments," he says again.

Go on then, I think.

There's a pause.

"I have a daughter with autism," I tell him. "And I'm sure I'm not the only person in your shop right now who is living with someone who has special needs. Do you have any idea what my home life is like?"

Double-urgh. Why one earth did I say that? Why can I not explain such an uncomplicated thought. Use your words, I tell myself, as though I am four.

The duty manager is still silent. The other man smiles blandly at me again.

"I would like to apologise for my comments."

Oh, enough.

"Ok then," I say tiredly. "Thank you. Please don't do it again."

I walk away and I don't look back. I think: I don't think I did that very well. I think: That was embarrassing. Then I think of Grace, and I think how glad I was that she wasn't with me, to overhear someone walk past and mock her so blithely.

One by one. It doesn't matter if it doesn't always come out right. It just has to keep being said. Until maybe, at some point, we don't need to say it at all.

Postscript: On Monday Jan. 26 Waitrose contacted me at home after seeing this post, widely circulated on Twitter. A spokeswoman said: "These kind of comments are not expected and not allowed. We will be contacting our learning and development department to comment that this has been happening, so it can be incorporated into future programmes, and a team sent out to reiterate our policies."

Friday, 9 January 2015

How Calamity Jane helped me through depression. (Minus sasparilly.)

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about being depressed. But at the moment there’s a lot that I can’t remember.

I have spent hours, lately, walking around my house looking for things I have forgotten or lost. Normally, I don’t lose things. When I do, it makes me very anxious. It also tends to happen when I’m not well.

Things that I have lost lately include keys, books, phones, letters, various items of food. Information I have forgotten: how to drive to my husband’s office, whether I washed my hair this morning, what the name of this blog was.

Amid the fog, however, there are a small number of things I have not forgotten. Among them are all the words to The Deadwood Stage.

In the evenings I sit down in front of the television. My husband builds me huge leaping fires of coal and wood and I scorch my skin trying to sit close enough to get warm. My youngest daughter turns around and around on my lap like a little dog marking her bed before settling.

Then the screen lights up, with a blast of golden trumpets and technicolour, and we stop fidgeting.

Calamity Jane. It’s such a ridiculous film, so silly and out of date that I am smiling by the first minute and the first line of the first song - which is of course about The Deadwood Stage, careering into town in clouds of dust and flapping curtains, and bearing a bright-faced, curly-haired heroine. 

I love Calamity Jane. I love her for her name – patron saint of those of us who can’t remember anything and keep banging their heads and bruising their elbows in the process of looking – but I also love her because she’s only been on screen for three minutes now and she is literally – literally -- slapping her buckskin-clad thigh while rhyming ‘heading over the hills’ with ‘Injun arrows thicker than porcupine quills’.

Encircled in my arms, five-year-old Betty gives a great shout of delight.

For the next hour and a bit we watch Calamity Jane gallop like mad, shoot anything that moves and sling back "sasparilly". We watch her tell tall stories, make mistakes, fall in love with the wrong man, and match him up with the wrong woman. We watch her try to pretty herself up only to fall in a muddy creek and get laughed at. And we watch her come up smiling – and usually singing -- time after time.

Yes, it’s terribly cheesy. But it’s also funny, mostly on purpose, and it’s a tonic to see this young woman clowning and capering and not caring what people think of her.

When the film has finished and the fire has crumbled to embers and my daughter is asleep in my arms with her cheeks flushed, I think to myself that I must try to care less and laugh more.

The next morning it’s raining and the sky is dark and my first thought on waking is “Oh no” quickly followed by “I can’t.”

But Betty needs to go to school so I get up and get her ready and we leave the house. I have managed to find my keys, which is a good thing, but I am also struggling not to cry, which most definitely is a problem, particularly as we are still only at the garden gate.

Then I hear something. Beside me, Betty is singing a faint tune. As I make out what it is I start to smile. I look over, and my daughter tilts her head back into the rain to see me from underneath the curve of her bee-embroidered umbrella. She reaches out her spare hand.

“Whip crack-away!” she urges, grinning. "Whip crack-away, Mummy!"