Last weekend was rather odd. On Saturday, my step-mother-in-law revealed that her 83-year-old brother had recently tried to become a porn actor, while on Sunday, we narrowly missed a mysterious chemical cloud, during a trip to the beach. I’m not sure which was the biggest shock.
The porn incident was certainly a surprise, as the gentleman in question was a very respectable, somewhat dour Scot, who had spent his whole life working in insurance. What possessed him, at the age of 83, to sign up with an agency that promised to find roles in the ‘adult entertainment’ industry is something of a mystery. I’d almost salute him for raging against the dying of the light, but sadly his actions had consequences for his family.
Like many men of his age, Alistair had learned to use the internet, but was unaware of the finer points of user history, spam, ad blockers and viruses. As a result, whenever his wife logged on to book tickets for a concert, pop-ups would suddenly appear featuring ladies and gentlemen doing unspeakable things to each other. The laptop was sent off to be repaired on more than one occasion, but the problem persisted.
Nobody suspected Alistair.
Next, money started to disappear from the joint bank account – four-figure sums that couldn’t easily be explained. These were the fees that the agency required in order to find two compatible women who would share the billing. The address of the company was fake.
At this point, the details become hazy, as Alistair still hasn’t told the whole story, but it would appear that he arranged to meet a woman in London and by an extraordinary bad stroke of luck (for him at least), was spotted in Victoria Station by his daughter.
Alistair’s daughter was delighted to see him and asked him what he was doing in London. To her dismay, he seemed annoyed that she’d found him and muttered something about going to an insurance conference. For a man who’d retired two decades earlier, it was an improbable story. Did they even have insurance conferences on Saturdays?
As the truth gradually emerged, the family joined forces and managed to stop any further assignations or withdrawals of money. The children told themseleves that Alistair’s uncharacteristic actions were probably a symptom of dementia and if that’s the story they need to tell themselves, I quite understand, but in every other respect he is fully compos mentis.
The one thing everyone agrees on is that there is no fool like an old fool.
The chemical cloud incident was also baffling. My wife and I took our younger son to a beach near the Seven Sisters and intended to spend the whole afternoon there, but he kept complaining that he felt tired and wanted to go home.
It was a really beautiful, late summer afternoon – comfortably hot, but with a cooling sea breeze. I had no intention of leaving early and would have happily stayed until the evening, but there is only so long that you can ignore someone who isn’t enjoying themselves. After an hour, we agreed to go back.
At the time, I felt rather hard done by, but later learned that we’d narrowly missed an incident that resulted in six miles of coastline being evacuated, as a mysterious chemical cloud came in from the sea. People who had been happily sunbathing, swimming and building sandcastles, suddenly found themselves suffering from stinging eyes, nausea and breathing difficulties.
Unsure of what was happening, the emergency services responded in full force. Paramedics appeared in breathing masks, while the police began to evacuate the area. The nearest hospital prepared its A&E department for a sudden influx of patients.
It was like a John Wyndham story, albeit one with less lethal consequences – slightly stinging eyes and feeling a bit off colour isn’t quite the stuff of a classic science fiction story (although its mundanity is suitably British). But it was alarming that a cloud of gas could appear out of nowhere. Where had it come from?
The gas was quickly identified as chlorine, but the origin remained uncertain. A factory in Northern France seemed the most plausible explanation, but the wind patterns made this improbable. Others fancifully suggested a terrorist attack launched from the sea, or even toxic algae. One week on, we’re none the wiser.
I’d always seen the British beach as a safe place or, if you prefer, a safe space. A contradictory environment that was both unchanging and transient – time and tide. No longer.
From now on, I will have an eye out for deadly clouds, malevolent algae, krakens and, most terrifying of all, libidinous 83-year-old men.
The following post was originally published in my old blog, just over nine years ago. As very few people read the blog in those days, I thought I’d give it a second outing.
It was written a couple of weeks before I walked out of my job as a Waterstone’s manager. I was very unhappy and in a mood of desperation, applied for a training course that later turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. Thankfully, I realised that something was wrong before I handed over any cash.
But I digress. I’m reposting this not because of any literary merit, but because it almost feels like a short story, although every word is true:
Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower – a grim, 1960s office block on the fringes of Greater London, next to the busy A3 road. When I booked the tests, I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said that I had been there before, but didn’t mention that it was when I was on my first date.
I was a very young 17 and had wanted to ask a girl I knew out, but didn’t know how to go about it. Then, for some reason, I hit on the idea of suggesting tenpin bowling. I’ve no idea why.
I found her number in the phone book and dialled it. To my delight, she said yes and three days later, we met at the bus stop and caught a 281 to Tolworth Tower’s bowling alley.
I thought the day had gone well. After a game of bowling, we took the bus back to Teddington and had what felt like a romantic walk in Bushy Park. It was a beautiful spring day. Sadly, she didn’t share my view and I never saw her again. I quite upset and resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.
After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were quite a few changes. Every other building now seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a solidly white, slightly down at heel area, had been augmented by more exotic faces and languages.
I walked down to the River Thames – a part of Twickenham that hasn’t changed much in 250 years – and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers.
How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with over a thousand other local children and, within a fairly short space of time, feel like an outsider? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.
Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. ‘Okay that’s fine.’ she replied ‘When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly – you really have to slam it.’
I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this. But by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she was gone.