Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Bitter Filter

I own a Brita water filter jug. It's a rather splendid bit of kit and very simple in both concept and design. The filter slots into a hole in one of the parts of the jug where you then pour nasty, horrid tap water. This is then "filtered" through the crystals that the device has inside it, and comes out as lovely, strained, pure water that now tastes better, is apparently better for you and is free of some of the nasty shit .The test to prove that this works is to make tea with tap water and then filtered water. You put the 2 teas into clear glasses. One will be cloudy, the other transparent.


I've realised that my life is one giant Brita jug and only recently has the water of my life finally dribbled through to the bottom part of the contraption. It all happened due to a chance conversation in a health food shop.

If I'm honest, it's fair to say I'm a fairly negative person at heart. I dwell on crap that happened anything back to 40 years ago. I tend to take insults personally (and then dwell on them) and my mind is churning with the maelstrom of thoughts and fears and paranoia and insecurities that ride with me from when I wake up to when I turn off the bedside lamp.

Recently I started taking B complex tablets to supplement something or other that I was assured I was lacking, by a nutritionist. I had explained that I get crippling hangovers if I drink to excess. Hangovers that don't just knock me down physically but also emotionally and psychologically. Nothing sucks more than lying in bed all day with a headache while feeling guilty about things you did when you were a kid.

This intake of pills started to work within about a week and I now feel a LOT calmer than I used to. It was only then that I was able to look at how I'd previously been feeling, to understand why these feelings had taken so long to shift. The B complex was the filter that had finally purged the nasty, horrible matter.

As a child I had to repress every single negative emotion. The only person in my family home who was allowed to get angry was my mother. She regarded her job and her life as containing levels of stress that only she could imagine and therefore had the right to be mean, vicious, surly and aggressive should her mood provoke it. I had to bottle up my bad feelings and keep them locked away. I vividly remember being told that stamping my foot was the pinnacle of aggression and wretchedness. It marked me down as a horrible little boy. So, the foot stamping stopped.

Then I was told that my "sulky face" was why people hit me, called me names, stole from me or just made me feel like a dog turd. I had to be smiling, happy and eager to please in order to make and keep friends. I came home one day with a black eye courtesy of a school bully. Even though the attack was unprovoked, my mother tutted and said (while shaking her head) "The way you look at people sometimes....!"

So I tried (with mediocre success) to not let my negative emotions show on my face.

At various points I was told that 'answering back' was rude. That coming back with a counter argument that proved an adult was wrong was "being too clever by half". On the rare occasions I actually lost my temper as I was growing up (which only ever amounted to shouting) I was punished with silences.

So.... my emotions got seriously internalised.

I had outlets. I had very violent fantasies in my head around revenge (never against mum though, she was right and I was wrong after all) and turned to horror films and the myriad violent Mad Max rip offs of the early to mid 1980s to deal with just how angry I was inside. Insults and jibes, personal attacks and piss taking, it all got locked away. Problem was that these things simply stayed there, they didn't go. They were sloshing about in the top part of the Brita jug, but no one had yet put a filter in to take the bad stuff away and make them pure.

A LOT of things were there and went on throughout my teenage and adult lives. I was told specifically, that I should be nothing but subservient and eager-to-please in a J.O.B situation. This meant that I endured horrendous bullying from petty, small minded supervisors and bosses from paper round at 13 to about age 37 when I quit the police. Not all the time, but when it happened I just smiled, agreed it was all my fault and carried on. Self esteem, assertiveness and pride were alien concepts for me. Owned and earned by only the 'deserving' of which I never dreamed I was or could ever be.

I had my heart broken not once but 4 times from age 26 to age 40. Each time I believed it was something I had done (or not done) that had brought such emotional pain into my world. A rather outspoken friend of mine once said "Lance, you fall in love with any woman who gives you the time of day." That wasn't true but I was so determined to fall in love that when I thought I had, I committed 100%. And got burned...every time.

I moved through life with gallons of negativity in the holding cell of the Brita filter, churning around in its rancid toxicity and never going anywhere. I got bullied a lot as I grew up and as a young man. So I would constantly feel that strangers (or even people I knew) were a threat. I believed they would betray me, hurt me and then abandon me. I would shy away from smiling and try and look 'hard' all the time when in public so no one would think of trying to wound me.

Two weeks ago I was out walking when I saw a pretty woman. I smiled at her and she smiled back. This was a very simple thing but one that would have brought me out in a mild panic attack as recently as a month ago. It wasn't a big deal and I realised that something in my soul had finally shifted.

I help out on a Krav Maga class for children. Every week me and the instructor pick a kid each who's shone out in the lesson. Last week I chose a 10 year old boy who got hurt and was crying but then jumped back in and was raring to go. I said in front of everyone that I was proud of him and admired his spirit. Before I would have been choking up at actually expressing genuine emotion and trying to suppress the lump in my throat. As it was...I just said it with feeling and moved on.

Same day I got caught in a traffic jam that lasted over two hours. I was annoyed but kept my calm. There was a time, very recently, where I would have been hitting the steering wheel with my fist; lamenting my sore left knee from dipping the clutch; listening to my music REALLY loud to match my bad mood. As it was...I was able to deal with it and didn't lose my temper.

Last week I got into an argument with a rather despicable Chav. While I would have got a low score for how I spoke to him, physically I dealt with it appropriately. Reason was I remained calm and didn't let my emotions rise to overwhelm me over the edge of the Brita jug. Finally the filter was in place. The B complex had sieved the impurities of my past life and what had come through was strength and calm and peace. The by products of successfully purging rage, bitterness and regret.

Two nights ago I had a dream that I attacked, grappled with and ejected a drunken young man from a night club where he was causing problems. I threw him down a short flight of steps and he didn't fall over but landed on his feet. I then shouted "AND DON'T FUCKING COME BACK!!!" He then began to cry, like little children do when they are hurt and in pain, and walked away sobbing. I felt beyond guilty for this and, even though it was only a dream I felt bad the next day about it (and now while remembering it to write this). What I had done in subduing and ejecting him when he was being an arsehole, was what I had always dreamed of being. A badass who could dispense justice. This dream was terrible because in it I had really upset the young man and hurt his feelings. It made me realise that I'm not a badass and never will be. The dream was showing me that my compassion was what was trying to come to the fore, not heroic fantasies inspired by unresolved anger issues. The Bitter filter had taken the anger and put something very different in its place.

Calmness and the ability to enjoy simply being alive were not things I thought I could ever achieve. 

Now I can.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Lovable Curmudgeon

Two weeks ago I met some friends for a drink at a pub about 5 minutes from my house. Hardly blog worthy but the people I met all hail from Plakias, Crete, Greece. A small fishing village on the eastern side of the island, that my father retired to in about 1998.

The people I met were my pals Carl and Rowena, a married couple who own a holiday home in the village, and by coincidence live in the same town as me back in the UK.

The other person I went to meet, and the reason we all hooked up in the first place was a bloke named Andy. He's a friend of my father's and also Carl and Rowena, and defines the expression "lovable curmudgeon" so much that his face is next to the definition in the Oxford English dictionary (Home Edition).

Like my father, he lives in Plakias most of the year but travels around occasionally visiting friends and family across the globe. I first met him at Christmas 2007 when I travelled out to spend Yuletide there and he was the driver who'd run Dad the 114km to the airport. Big guy, huge bushy beard, and shoulders like a prop for the England Rugby team. He was a man of few words but very friendly and good mates with Dad. I met him heaps of times over the next few years when I went to Plakias and he was always the same. A bit gruff but always pleased to see me and have a chat.

He had a cat named Lulabell who was the feline version of him. He apparently found her one day when she was a stray, scrounging for scraps of food. Andy left a packet of ham slices open on his porch. He came back later to find she'd scoffed the lot and then she adopted him. She was apparently very affectionate and looked like such a sweet little thing. I came to see him once and smiled, beckoning her to come to me. She gave me a look as if to say "fuck off you prick!" and hissed loudly, showing all her teeth before scarpering over the wall. I later found out that only two people in Plakias were deemed worthy of Lulabell's affections. Andy and the guy who fed her when Andy was away travelling. When I came to see him, if the cat was on the balcony, when he came out he'd usually point at me and go "KILL!!!"

Andy had some history, including tours of duty in the British Army with long service in Northern Ireland. Some of the stories he told me (and I heard from others) were eye opening but he was always calm, gentle yet gruff when I met him.

In 2014 his daughter visited him in Plakias and organised a surprise birthday party for him. It was organised like an MI5 operation with us all tip toeing to the chosen taverna at an appointed time, and avoiding a specific lane and it went past where she was having a drink with her dad, waiting for the right time to show up.  I caught him blowing out the candles on his cake, on film and it was in the video I made for that summer, with the (now ironic) song "Freeze Frame" by the J Geils Band as the theme. Dozens of people showed up and a good time was had by all. Andy took it with his usual calm and even cracked a smile.

When he turned up in Leamington Spa to visit Carl and Rowena I texted them to say I hoped we could meet for a pint and on the Saturday Carl said they'd finished dinner and to come join them for a beer. I was completely drunk and remember very little of the meeting beyond the usual banter and him replying "probably" when I asked Andy if he'd be in Plakias when I turn up in June to visit Dad. Being English there was the usual piss taking banter between me and Carl including my choice of headgear, a World War Z baseball cap. Carl "borrowed" it to try it on and plonked it on Andy's head. Wish I'd got a photo, as he failed to smile the entire time he had it on.

Yesterday I was down the pub with some friends and we were having the usual banter. Bit of drama, some drunken words then my mate and his family said goodbye and I moved to the bar to finish my pint before heading off home. In my mind were a multitude of everyday thoughts about my immediate future. Monday off work so maybe I'll be called to do my second job (classroom supervisor) if someone calls in sick; glad I'd switched to real ale instead of lager or Guinness as I wasn't feeling as queasy as normal and predicted a smaller or non existent hangover the next day; my friend in Moldova has applied for a visa and will be staying with me soon, provided it's awarded...and loads of other inconsequential little thoughts skipping across my brain as I savoured what was left of my Saddleback bitter and thought about what I'd eat when I got home.

Then my brother pinged me on Facebook messenger and as I squinted at the phone it said: "You there? Andy's dead."

Assuming he was taking the piss I stepped out to the smoking area, and phoned my father in Greece. He confirmed it was true and Andy had died a few days before in Canada. I then called Rowena who answered the phone in a somber voice. I didn't say hello but got to the point:

"I guess you know why I'm calling...?"
"Yes, I know. It's true."

I decided I didn't want to drink any more so finished my ale and went home, everything seeming just a little greyer than before and my desire to stay out and try and hook up with some pals later in the evening was  completely quashed.

I called Dad again when I got home and he said that Andy had apparently died in his sleep, possibly of a heart attack but it was too early to say. Everyone who knew him in Plakias was grieving and most were distraught that they'd never see him in the village again.

The trivial things I'd been worrying about and the inconsequential stuff in my seemed a lot less important. My brother and father were as upset as me and on Facebook, messages of condolence were springing up as people found out and were putting their feelings into words. The "little stuff" that had occupied my time didn't warrant much attention now. A larger than life and genuinely lovely guy was gone. The only good thing about it was that he had apparently died peacefully, possibly without even knowing what happened.

We all miss you Andy. Wherever you  are now, I hope you're having fun.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Julie & The Broken Man

Today I was waiting for the bus, at the stop near the river bridge. Due to the pissy English weather we’ve been having an abundance of lately the river was what could be politely described as “fast flowing”. I’d just been to the gym and was in a world of my own, thinking about nothing special. Next to me on the bench was a black guy in a suit who looked relatively normal apart from the fact that he was crying his eyes out. Holding his face in his hands he was quietly sobbing and his shoulders kept heaving with the exertion.

Living in a town that has several homeless bums, a lot of “special” people and a couple of halfway houses for recently paroled Chavs, I felt sorry for him but didn’t attempt to engage him in conversation, mainly because I wouldn’t have known what to say.

After a couple of minutes a woman and her little girl, aged about 3 walked up to wait for a bus. The mother saw someone she knew and sparked up a conversation with her. The little girl spotted the crying bloke and stared at him intently for a while. He was still crying and holding his face. The little kid had big, Malteser eyes and started to frown as she looked at the guy. Her mother was distracted and had her back to her daughter and didn’t notice as the child tottered forward and stood right in front of the guy, looked up at him and said simply.

“Don’t cry. It’ll be alright!”

Before I could digest this, she then put her head on his knee and hugged his leg with her arms, again saying “don’t cry, it’ll be alright!”

The guy froze and stopped crying, but was still holding his face. The mother turns round, sees the kid and snaps “Julie! What have I told you?!!” and snatches the little girl up in her arms.

Julie! I’ve told you not to talk to strangers.”

“But mummy he was crying, you said I should be nice to people who are…”

“You silly, silly…” she turns to the man. “I’m so sorry, she’s so young. I’m sorry if she embarrassed you.”

I’m totally gobsmacked. The equally confused bloke looks from the girl to the mother in total confusion, but no longer crying.

“Julie that’s VERY naughty!” the mother scolds, clearly embarrassed and upset. The little kid starts to cry.

“Mummy, you told me to be nice to people who are upset!” she says stubbornly, staring her mother in the eye from her vantage point near her shoulders. “He was crying!”

The man stands up and the mother backs off a step or two, holding her daughter. He holds his hands out, palms open then after swallowing hard says.

“I lost my wife last night to cancer. I came here to put myself in the river.” He turns and points to the churning brown water some way behind us. “All I wanted was to be with her again.” He smiles at the little girl and then says to the mother. “I am a Christian, what I was going to do is a sin."

The mother smiles uncomfortably, the friend she was talking to is looking as confused as I feel and also looking worried. The man reaches into the breast pocket of his suit jacket and takes out a necklace with some kind of bauble on the end. He looks again to the mother and says “may I?

After a pause the mother stammers “well, I don’t see why not” and the man unhooks the chain and gently places it around the little girl’s neck and stands back.

“That was my wife’s. Her name was Audrey. She would have liked you,” he says to the little kid, who’s smiling at him again. “Thank you, you’re a very special little girl.”

He nods to the mother and walks away, off up the high street. After a few seconds have passed that feel like about an hour, the mother turns to the little girl and takes the bauble in her fingers. “Well, that was….we…WELL, you’re a very lucky girl aren’t you Julie.”

“Yes mummy, he was nice.”

The mother puts her down and after another pause her and her friend start talking again in whispers.

“Well, you just don’t know do you, I mean he could have been anybody!”

The little kid is proudly looking at the necklace, holding the silver bauble up to see it.

My bus comes and I get on it. It’s probably about 15 minutes before I exhale again or can think straight.