Mess With My Garden, Mess With Me. 

It’s a gloriously sunny day in the fair town of Swindon, Britain. The temperatures are scorching, children are playing about on the lush green communal lawns and there are men walking around topless who really shouldn’t be. So why do I find myself ripping my hands to shreds as I tug away at weeds and vines in my garden?

Crawling under my front hedge to pick up pieces of rogue rubbish, putting together an outdoor table and realising at the finish line I’d screwed one part upside down and thereby having to start all over again. When I bought a house they did no tell me this is how I would spend my finite time on Earth. My government sold me a lie! Damn you Teresa May!

As I look at my patio garden, now with correctly assembled three piece dining set, I acknowledge that to some the small outdoor space would hardly pass as acceptable. The fact that despite the owner’s hard efforts, vine and weed sprouts are already starting to poke through the wicker fence would be inexcusable. There is no water feature or decorative sculpture, no plants and excluding the weeds there isn’t a speck of green. Not a single blade of grass can compete with the paving stones which stretch from the back door to the boarder of my territory. In fact it could be said that the only characteristic feature of the plot is the clothes horse proudly plonked in the centre to catch as much light as possible. As I type my floral duvet in ruffling ever so slightly in the near still breeze. Foliage will make an appearance eventually, as soon as I have the money to buy pots, soil and greenery which requires zero attention to look fabulous. (As I reread that I realise that basically I’m asking to plant a tub of weeds…)

And yet do I care? Pfft, of course not! Because although it’s not perfect and it’s not a 20 acre meadow, it’s mine. Who wants perfect? Who wants to battle a wild meadow on their weekends just to use it as a five minute conversation piece at dinner parties? Not me. You can keep all that, I’ll take my perfectly small, perfectly improve-able garden. It’s not ugly but a work in progress.

It may not be full of colour, bees and landscaped features but it’s mine and that makes it more attractive than any one blossom in your garden. You mess with my garden, you mess with me and my poorly constructed table.

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Written in response to Daily Prompt Blossom

One Day, One Arm

Well this is a new one for me. Today I went to the doctors and, uninteresting story made short, my left arm was pumped full of stuff. Long term it’s great, but short term it doesn’t half make my life fun.

Said arm is currently in a state of varying nagging pain. Not insufferable, but not ignorable either. It’s a bit like walking through a field of sugar-coated stinging nettles which has been made home to a swam of wasps. Constant background pain with the occasional sharp stab with each false move of the arm. Irritating pain, irritating pain, irritating pain, STAB! Irritating pain, irritating pain, irritating pain, STAB!

Lucky, lucky me.

The result of said niggling pain is a reluctance to move said left arm and keep it as still as possible. In the short term this worked fine, but now it’s debateable what is more noticeable, the tight white bandage or the strawberry red hand which marks the collection point for bodily fluids. Despite appearances I’m still electing to go for ugly hand over hurty arm. Spending a day carrying out tasks with one arm brings no rewards but plenty of challenges. Prepping food, putting headphones on, bodily functions. Right now I am typing this, to the best of my ability, with one hand. In fact not even one hand, one index finger. And my gosh it’s so tedious, every upper case letter takes forever to implement! Going back to correct frequent typos takes forever (if you’re reading this and spotted many missed mistakes I’ve overlooked, sorry but not sorry – same for grammar). I’m currently pumping myself full of sugar to stay motivated enough to type one fingered. There could also be a number of drugs messing with my head, this I’m not too sure of because everything I write is just as equally likely to be natural, wacky, me. It reminds me of the days at school before I learnt to join up writing, when every letter was written out one. By. One. It also reminds me of when Mumma Bennett used to insist on typing each letter on the keyboard.

“Let me help you mum.”
“No, it’s ok.”
“But it’s so painful to watch!”

Today’s events have also reinforced my firmly held belief that very British person chooses to ignore the blinding obvious out of fear of causing offence. Why do we do it? Say no evil, there is no evil (that’s how it works, right?) Returning back to the office from my not so merry outing with a large white bandage it did cross my mind that the fashion statement might come into water cooler dialogue. I had it all prepped, “oh goodness Alice, are you ok?” someone would say. “It’s fine,” I’d wave off “just medication, this is temporary.” Total times I had to pull out this comment? 0. Now, I will accept that I wasn’t particularly desperate to tell my co-workers the full details, but I was surprised by the lack of comment. People looked at the bandage enough, so much that I was actually quite relieved that the medical wrapping wasn’t positioned on my head or chest. They knew it was there, some of them may have even notified my attempts to shift through paperwork one-handed (FYI not easy) but nope, we will let the strangely limp human carry on. It’s character building. I elected not to tell clients on email/phone of this development. When I am chasing for something or vice versa the last thing either of us care about is the state of my left arm. Do you still have four limbs? Yes. Am I getting my quote today? Yes. Ok, well I’d love to chat but I really would rather not. Bye. Simples.

The minor pain will be gone by tomorrow, but going through this makes me value those who have to put up with pain constantly. Fair play to those sorts because, as you can tell, I’ve barely made it through twelve hours without going cuckoo. I feel like Peter Griffin that one time he was in a wheelchair.

(Apologises for image quality, YouTube scroungers can’t be choosers)

I’d like to write more on this but my right arm is beginning to ache from the typing, my left arm has been stung my wasps again and my brain is trying to work out how the stuff to prepare dinner and tomorrow’s lunch with minimal limb usage. It’s going to be interesting and quite likely coffee stained. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a hot beverage burn in there for good measure.

5. One Man’s Car Crash is Another’s Failed Mortgage Application

Disclaimer: The names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.

When I found myself sat in the non descript office of a finance advisor, sipping on tepid water and discussing my death it did cross my mind that I’d had more upbeat birthdays. The situation was made all the more bleaker when he asked me how I planned to spend the rest of my day. With a Christmas brass band playing outside the window, I said half-humouredly “oh, you don’t understand, this meeting IS the highlight of my day”. He laughed out loud, I cried a little inside.

The above paragraph is lifted from the opening of Happy 100th Birthday, Sorry, Blog Post to Me. It marked the start of a funny spell and probably the closest I’ve come to acting since I was fourteen years old. Sick with stress and fury, whilst having to plaster on a cheesy grin for the rest of the world. Angry phone calls one minute, cheerful conversations with business suppliers the next, ended by crashes in the evening. Seldom few people knew about it and fewer still knew the realities. When the sale almost fell through days before exchange the inner circle shrunk to only those who could be counted on one hand.

But here I am, getting ahead of myself as always. Let’s get back to that insipid meeting room, with the overly sweet hot chocolate and Bono playing on BankUK* FM in the background. Take it back to when I met Jack and learnt about his boyfriend’s Christmas tree, his mother’s house in Evesham and his love of dogs and cats. Jack*, my first mortgage advisor.

Having sailed through the telephone interview for my Mortgage in Principle, I spent the following couple of weeks pouring through paperwork, digging out statements and venturing to the dark recesses of my office collect old payslips. Having asked others of their experiences, I’d prepared myself for a long meeting, involving heavy financial gruelling to determine suitability. I also had the unwanted assistance of the Cotswold’s answer to Gok Wan sorting out my wardrobe.

“Use that bag! No, the other one! Put your hair into a bun! Wear that nice dress!”

“So, shall I assume it’s a no to the wolf hat then?”

“Alice, do not wear that bloody wolf hat!”

I had always imagined bank lenders to be bespectacled, scary and fat, puffing on a cigar while they scrutinised your documentation. Really I suppose I expected Jack to be the spitting image of a cartoon character from Punch magazine. In reality he was anything but. I had to fight back my surprise when he made casual remarks such as “wow, you’ve got as much in savings as I have in debt!”, and “I really should start saving money, but I’m just too addicted to using the credit cards.” How could this man be in charge with lending such high value sums?

As we neared towards the close of the meeting the only element of my spending Jack had queried was that on food.

“You spent £40 a month on food? Really?”

“Well, it’s £10 a week maximum. I struggle to spend more than that.”

“No wonder you can afford to buy a house,” Jack muttered, before moving swiftly on.

Before the meeting I’d clued myself up on what I could borrow and on the best rates. For getting what I wanted at a fixed-term rate BankUK came out top, hence why I was sat in their bland appointment room, not the bland room of another bank. I felt very confident that I’d pass the second approval with flying colours.

“Oh. The computer says you can’t borrow that much…” He showed me the red screen.

Thoughts ran like crazy in my head. Are mortgage advisors just chimpanzees who hit keys into a computer? Because I could have done that at home. Also, I spent fifteen minutes explaining very carefully the difference between the charity I work at and our competitor’s, this man owes me. Thirdly, he must be mistaken. Of the three, it was the latter which was verbalised.

“Ok, ok, let me try something.” Jack quickly twisted the screen round, quickly typed and clicked a few things in and sighed with relief.

“There, all sorted. It’s been approved.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, well it needs to be approved by the bank manager but I’ve worked some magic on it and I’ve got you through. Your figures all match up, it’ll get sign off next week when I’m in the team meeting. Now, we need to have a second meeting to sign the paperwork off, can you do next Saturday, 10th December?”

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

“Great, I’ll see you then. Enjoy the rest of your birthday weekend!”

“Thanks, I’ll try to!”

That was first and last time I saw Jack.

On 6th December, a day after my birthday, a letter turned up on the parent’s doorstep.

“You expecting any late birthday cards or post?”

“No.”

Inside the envelope was a girly birthday card signed by Jack “…and all the Heathley* BankUK team” was shoved in the corner as if it were an afterthought.

“Ok…”

“That’s amazing. Why did he do that?”

“New policy? ‘We’re going to bleed you dry of money, but here’s a nice birthday card to make you forget about it’?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well, there’s a first for everything. I’ll stick it with the others.”

And that was that.

A couple of days later an email.

Hi Alice,

Hope you enjoyed your birthday.

I’m afraid I can’t see you Saturday, I’ve been trying to get the application approved and the branch manager is out of the office until Monday and the service manager is on holiday which of course isn’t ideal.  To make matters worse, I break for Christmas on Wednesday next week, which gives us a very small window to complete.

I can book you in for the first Saturday in Jan for you.

I’m sorry about this, I hope it isn’t too inconvenient.

I was a little perturbed by this minor set back, but accepted that with everything shutting down for Christmas and New Year the delay of one week shouldn’t affect the house sale. I wrote a half-cheery, half-formal response in which I asked him to book the meeting for 7th January. A quick reply back confirmed this had been done. So with nothing else to do than to wait for my application to be approved, I sat back and focused on Christmas.

January rolled in as the tinsel rolled out. Like every January the streets took on a more dark and slippery persona, very much like those who worked in my mortgage bank. I emailed Jack to wish him a happy New Year and confirm the appointment time (a finer detail which hadn’t been set pre Christmas). Nothing. I emailed again two days later, a little more formal this time. Nothing. On Thursday morning I sent a third, more concerned email, asking for a call back. Nothing.

Not wanting to spend all of my Saturday waiting in a bank (I can think of a million things I’d rather do on a day off), I called the 0800 number on Jack’s email. Eventually I got through to someone based in India. I was a painfully slow process but eventually I persuaded the lady to send a direct email to Jack and to get someone to call me back to confirm. She said she couldn’t see the booking, but my advisor could have made the reservation outside of the booking system. Starting to feel a bit uneasy, I spent the Thursday lunchtime walking around town and telling myself to not panic.

About an hour and half later my phone lit up with a 0800 caller ID. I scooted from my desk and went out into the office reception. It would be Jack calling to apologise. He’d bleat on about being busy and then confirm the appointment time.

“Hello, is that Miss Bennett?” Came the female voice.

“Oh, err yes it is,” I replied, confused as to why Jack wasn’t calling me.

“Hi there, my name is Katie Smith*, I’m calling in response to your enquiry into a new mortgage application.”

“Well it’s not new per say, I just wanted to know what time my meeting was with Jack on Saturday.”

“Your meeting with Jack?”

“Yes, we have a meeting booked this Saturday. It’s our second meeting, he emailed pre Christmas to confirm the date, but he’s yet to get back to me on the time. When is it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m calling about a new enquiry. The call centre in India passed your details onto this branch.”

“Well I’m talking to you about my existing application.” My voice raised a little.

“OK. Unfortunately Jack went off sick yesterday, it was a bit unexpected. Was he your advisor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, um, he hasn’t passed any details onto me. I can start a new application, but because he went off sick I can’t do anymore than that.”

My blood started to boil. “He said it would be approved before Christmas, in which case I only need to sign it off. I’ll be on your system, please look it up for me. You have my name, it’s a three bedroomed house in Swindon.” I said through gritted teeth. Watching people coming and going around me I realised that this was perhaps not the best place to be having this call.

“Here we are,” Katie said down the phone, “I’ve got your records here.”

“Ok, and…?”

“Yes, it says your application has been declined.” Came the blunt reply.

I hit the roof. “WHAT?!” I yelled down the phone. “It can’t be!”

“I’m only telling you what I’m seeing on the screen Miss Bennett.”

“You’ve done me wrong!”

“Miss Bennett, I can assure you…”

“No, no, you listen to me. Jack sat there and approved my application. He had all my information. He told me not to worry about it, it would be approved. Why are you telling me this?”

“Well Jack went off sick yesterday. He was in a car accident. I don’t know why it was declined, I can only tell you the outcome. We’ve been under a lot of strain, no one expected him to be off sick…”

“That’s not the point! My last appointment was over a month ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me my mortgage application was declined? Why am I only finding out now? Why have I had to telephone a call centre in Mumbai to speak to someone in my local branch?!”

“Miss Bennett, a mortgage can be declined for a number of reasons…”

“How many times? I sat there with Jack, before Christmas, we went through it all and he approved it. He told me it was fine. Why would he, a mortgage advisor, tell me that if it wasn’t the case?”

“Well Jack has unfortunately been involved in a car accident so we can’t ask him that, can we?” Katie’s tone grew sharper.

“Just admit you’ve done me wrong. You have, you know it. Just say that right now and we can start to pick things up from there.”

“I’m only here to book a new mortgage appointment Miss Bennett, that’s why I called you. I don’t have your detailed records in front of me, just the outcome and all I can see is that the application has been declined. I’ll also remind you to watch your tone and use of language when on the phone.”

That was the final straw. “After what I’ve been through in the past five minutes please don’t lecture me, the customer, on how to react to a unreasonably failed mortgage application. I need to go back to my desk now and do the job I’m paid to do, but you go and look through my records properly. Call me back on this number when you understand why I’m not happy. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you. Trust me Ms Smith, my tone of voice could be a lot worse.”

I hung up.

This marked the start of Fake-Face syndrome. I went back to my desk and put on a brave face, trying to carry on like the nothing unusual had happened. “What do I do now?” I thought, “why was it declined?”, “in all that time, why didn’t Jack or his manager chase to get the application approved?” I punched keys into my computer in a zombie like fashion, anything that didn’t require thought or emotional attachment.

A short time later Katie called back. This time her attitude was very different. She’d been through my file and discovered it to be, by banking standards, an absolute mess. Handwritten notes, random print outs, missing financial documents, it was in a real state. However, she also acknowledged that the bank manager had only seen the application two days ago.

“We will probably have to book you in for another appointment. Financial conduct I’m afraid, I can’t pick up Jack’s clients or any work he’s already started. We’ll also be unable to lend you same money the interest rate you originally applied for, our borrowing limit has changed.”

“You’re joking. I didn’t choose that figure because I wanted to borrow more. I need every pound of it to buy my house. You think I can just magically conjurer the difference out of thin air?”

“It’s all I can do Miss Bennett.”

BankUK had me in a headlock and it was clear that my irritation was, right now, as useful as shouting at the wind. While this wouldn’t mark the end of the war, I begrudgingly had to accept defeat at the battle.

“Fine, when is the earliest Saturday appointment you can do?”

“I only work every other Saturday, so it’ll be Saturday 21st at 9:15. That ok for you?”

“Just book it. I have no words right now.”

“Ok, that’s done for you.”

“Please be advised Katie that I’m not happy. A BankUK mortgage advisor lied to me and you manager failed to conduct his job by not approving an application within the time frame BankUK policy and finacial conduct dictates. Don’t think you can brush this off.”

“Ok, well we can pick this up when I see you.”

A thought popped into my head. For the first time that afternoon a wicked smile crossed my face.

“Tell your manager I have the emails too.”

“Sorry, emails?”

“Yes, it’s all documented. Jack’s confirmation that it would be approved, the suggestion that the house could be valued over Christmas, the meeting reservation. I saved them all.”

“Urm, ok, I’ll pass that message on.”

“And there’s the birthday card.”

“The birthday card?”

“Jack sent me a card for my birthday. It says ‘To Alice, Have a Great Birthday! From Jack and all the Heathley BankUK Team. Kiss, kiss.'”

A long pause.

“Hello?”

“Yes, urm, hi. Urm, I will speak to my manager about that. I was unaware Jack had sent a card. Can you bring everything in when you come to this meeting?”

“Sure, I certainly can. I need to go back to my desk now, but I’ll see you on Saturday 12th. I look forward to meeting you then Katie.”

“Yes, ok. Have a nice weekend Miss Bennett,” Katie’s uneasy voice replied as I cut the line. I returned to my desk feeling more exhausted than a marathon runner.

Shortly afterwards a colleague tapped me on the shoulder to assist with a work problem.

“Did he say that in an email?” I asked.

“No, unfortunately not.”

“Rookie mistake!” I said, turning to my personal archive of emails. “If there is one thing I have learnt from working in an office it is this; always, always, get it in writing.”

This post is part of the First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far), click here.

Five Minute Review: The Classic Cocktail Bible

How do I sum up this book? Alcohol, that’s how. Lots and lots of alcohol.

Amusingly you open the cover and see not a Drink Aware message, but instead a warning against consuming raw eggs (a foodstuff that features in some of the recipes.) Sandwiched between the hard covers of this recipe book are some very attractive looking images and nice little introductions to each drink (where their name comes from, the type of ingredients in the drink etc.). You’ve got the classics, your Mojitos, Bloody Marys Martinis, but you’re also got the different, for example Kinky Witch, Rusty Nail and Bobby Burns. In many ways there is something for everyone here* (unless you’re teetotal or under eighteen, in which case no, there isn’t).

All this however doesn’t detract from the simple truth that, as with all cocktails, you need about 100 different spirits and mixers tucked away in the cupboard to make them. The Classic Cocktail Bible is a classic by name and a classic of its genre; it is a book which sits on one’s shelf for many months/years until one day you think “oh, I really fancy a Cosmopolitan right now, I’m sure I can make that”. You open this book to mild disappointment when realise you can’t so instead you reach for a can of cider and consume that instead.

The Classic Cocktail Bible is a must have for the coffee table of the young professional or the kitchen cupboard for the impulsive buyer but be warned, it takes more than vodka and coke to make a good cocktail.

Come Sit With Me

Come sit with me. Come sit here in the caffeine filled haze we call paradise. The legal high that our fathers and their fathers before have relished, for here we are one. The mothers, the students, the disapproving men with broadsheets in hand, everyone has a home here.

Let me pass you this extra I have acquired. Do you take milk? The sugar is over there. The chair next to me is a little worn and mismatched, but that is the norm. Brush off the crumbs of the previous tenant and join me in weekend conversation.

The background music will lull you into a false pretence of your own class and status. The type of music you recognise but do not know. They are the backing beats that serve as melodic distraction from the mess surrounding us. I have heard in booksheleved corners that it improves the taste, what do you think?

See that man behind my left shoulder? I know him to be a regular. The frustrated writer who huffs and sighs over work that will never make it to print. Chomping on cheap nuts and downing brown goo in paper cups, for he cannot afford the china. He is a freeloader of the establishment, clinging desperately to an image that cannot be sustained. I remember when he used to sip on only the finest quality beans and nibble on pastries with young women, but those days are gone. We have all changed since those days.

My friend, you look a little troubled. Don’t be. In this world we are all addicts of our own making. I only seek to show you the truth that lurks in the steam. Save your pity for Africa, it is a wasted emotion in this Latino supplied space. I see you have finished your drink. Would you like another? It would be my honour. They serve only the finest cheap substances here, it is why we never leave.

I am so happy you came to sit with me my partner. Now stress no more and relax, the fresh coffee will be here soon.

 

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I’m The Classiest Thing to Happen to Swindon Since Billie Piper

With a title like that you’re probably thinking one of three things, “too right Alice is”, “this girl has got right up herself since she set up a Facebook page. Who is she, Donald Trump?” or “huh, I did not know Billie Piper came from Swindon”. Either way, I’m going to say it loud and proud* (*not in real life you understand? Just online).

Two weeks ago was carrying an unzipped suitcase down the stairs when all my belongings tumbled out. At that very moment I thought to myself “you really are a piece of something” and now I know what that something is. It’s pretty obvious that I am the embodiment of class and comedy gold (I’m also the embodiment of a minor caffeine addition and sleep deprivation, but I’ll leave that to the obituarists).

Backtracking a little, with a name that translates as “Pig Hill” not a lot of celebrities have graced the streets and houses of Swindon. Case in point: when was the last time you saw Jude Law in the Canal Walk McDonald’s? Exactly. And don’t get me started about the fact Canal Walk is no where near water. I’m going off on a ranty tangent here, but Swindon needs to have a serious rebrand. Why not change the name to, say, “Swingdon” and make the place full of jazz or “Richdon” (subliminal messaging for the dumb rich people)? I pay you enough ruddy money in taxes, sort it out council.

Until a new name is implemented or Jude Law decides to unleash his offspring into the concrete jungle that is Swindon’s Tented Market (really, it is made of that – WHO WORKS IN BRANDING?!), then I’m going to claim the title of classiest female to grace Swindon. Sure, I spill tea quite literally everywhere and yes, I can be reduced down to a child-like mentality when presented with new pillows, but given my competition is Billie Piper then I think I have good grounds for asserting my case. For anyone not in the know, Piper made her name in the late 90s/early 00s as a pop star and then as an actress (more commonly known for playing Rose Tyler in the reboot of Doctor Who). She’s good, don’t get me wrong, but Swindonians don’t half like to harp on about her like she’s a big claim to fame. You know who my local town of Stratford-Upon-Avon had? Shakespeare, that’s who. Trust me, there’s no beating that, however competing against this I think I could take Piper on:

(Seeing bins melt into men, billboard cartoons come alive and rhino bouncers? Yep, it’s called a standard Saturday night out in Swindon.)

I write stuff, good stuff, and despite my frequent Calamity Jane moments I like to think I represent a good role model. I walk to work, go to the gym, I even do the occasional bit of baking. I tell you what, get Anthea Turner (star of How to Be a Perfect Housewife) on the phone, she’ll support me (and in doing so knock back Feminism to 1969 but hey, we’re talking about me here.)

In short, I’m a ruddy aspirational professional.

And you know what? I think my presence is having an effect on this town. For instance back in 2014 you would never see this type of thing out and about:

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You might have come across a cider can or an empty beer bottle, but never a wine flute carefully placed on a window ledge. It’s a sign!

Not wanting to brag, but I’m the classiest thing to happen to Swindon since Billie Piper.

(Disclaimer: before writing this post I had consumed a large, strong, coffee. This may explain pretty much all the comments made in the above. Do I regret them? Not at all.)

Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

“Crossing the stage, Catherine Mayer strikes a formidable figure as she throws down her bag and proclaims, “will there be rock?!””

Check out my review on Catherine Mayer here:  Catherine Mayer on Equality, Red Heads and the Manifesto She Wants You to Steal

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