My Mother 2

When you die, there is a process by which all the public authorities and utility companies are informed, so that existing arrangements can be brought to an end and all that is necessary is done to tie up any loose ends. I am the named point of contact in my mother’s case.

Two letters arrived in this morning’s post. In one, HMRC commiserated with me on my own death. They said that they recognised that it was a difficult time for me. More dramatic was the letter from British Gas. It starts:

Dear The Estate of Mrs J B-

We’re sorry to see that you have cancelled your HomeCare® agreement. But of course we understand that you have your reasons.

We’re still there for you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I would find the idea that I would have to share it with British Gas particularly chilling.


Restricted Access

Augustus Sly had some further questions for me, so we repaired to his rather dingy flat. Bella, our new dog, was with me and was lying on his drugget, rehearsing through the medium of REM sleep various encounters, remembered or imaginary, with sheep. Since her childhood, according to Battersea Home for Dogs, had been spent in London SW3, it’s probable that they were imagined.

(Imagine it. Brought up in a Crescent in Chelsea: the better half looked at the form when the Battersea person’s attention was distracted. Raised with certain expectations, with aspirations to wealth, or at least sophistication, and then turned unceremoniously over to adoption; taken to the far east. It’s better than a novel.)

‘I would like,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘to talk about the ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ sequence.

‘Is that really appropriate for your thesis?’ I said. ‘‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ is not available to casual visitors to the site. It is restricted access.’

Augustus Sly had evidently forgotten this. It did him, showing him to be a persistent follower of the blog, credit.

‘Yes, you have to sign on for it, when you become a Follower. There’s a special thing that you have to click. Terms and conditions apply.’

‘I had forgotten.’

‘People with ordinary unrestricted access don’t for example know Amy’s real name.’

‘I’d forgotten,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘The thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, seizing my advantage, ‘as it seems to me, is that Jesus is very small and the Rabbit is very big.’

‘Ah,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘I on the other hand thought that the point was that ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’ was channeling and at the same time subtly subverting the Schopenhauer world view…’

‘Shopping?’ I said. ‘How?’

‘Very funny,’ said Augustus Sly mirthlessly, and put down his pencil.

‘I suppose I should ask,’ he said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘The other thing about ‘Jesus and the Rabbit’,’ I said, ‘is that it’s rather smutty.’

‘I suppose I should ask,’ Augustus Sly said, ‘why we’re here.’

‘Not really obscene. A bit smutty, sometimes.’

‘In my dingy flat. As opposed to the chez vous celebrated in song and blog.’

‘Not its raison d’etre – but sometimes. ‘Dingy’,’ I added. ‘No, no.’

‘A student,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘That’s me. Student loans and so on.’

‘Druggets,’ I said.

‘Got it,’ Augustus Sly said.

Bella stirred in her sleep.

‘When I think of Schopenhauer,’ I said, ‘of whom to my shame I know little, I always think of those novels designated ‘S&F’, and I wonder if there was also a German philosopher called ‘Fuckenhauer’.’

Augustus Sly sighed.

‘But your question,’ I said, deserves an answer.’

The main building work on the chez nous celebrated in song and blog was complete by Christmas and we moved in. Since then however there has been a succession of little jobs that needed to be done, carpentry mainly, and our house has been shared, as it seems, by Ukrainian workmen. Every morning they hammer on the front door and I struggle down to let them in, since if I have a shower they will undoubtedly arrive just as I step into it. We call them Ukrainian but that is by no means certain. One of them may be Polish, although the real Polish builders say otherwise, and another claims allegiance to one of the Baltic states, but the songs that they sing are as far as I can tell Ukrainian, and that is good a test as any. Bella likes them, wherever they come from. It is irritating to have to take the long way round on one’s way to the sink, to avoid the bottom of a man who is crouched and addressing himself and his paint brush to the skirting board, but since he is addressing himself to my skirting board and at my request that is unfair.

‘And that,’ I said to Augustus Sly, ‘is why we’ve come to see you instead of the other way round. Bella may get bits of drugget on her lovely coat in your dingy flat but that is better than gloss paint, and I frankly have had the whole thing up to here. I’m fed up with the sight of them. And so is the better half.’

‘Can Bella talk?’ said Augustus Sly, picking up his pencil again. ‘In your blog?’

I didn’t tell Augustus Sly a further problem with the Ukrainians, since it is none of his business. We had noticed that one of them looked and smelled (a particular attraction for Bella) like an alcoholic. Occasionally, too, he would fail to turn up to work at all on account of some vague and mysterious illness. This meant that I had to spend the entire day in my dressing gown, a further irritant. Then we noticed that, like a former senior partner at one of my law firms, he became less coordinated after lunch. I assumed that he was supplying himself with wholesome eastern-European beer from the local Turkish supermarket, but it turned out, when I went one evening to gloat over my small but exciting collection of single malt whiskies, that he wasn’t.

What would have been wrong, I thought bitterly, with the Bells and the Morrisons Gin, the holiday grappa and the dodgy vermouth in its sticky bottle: all sitting there next to the almost empty bottle of Ledaig and all intact?

The better half became determined to help him. She is like that. It is, she said, after all an addiction: what the NHS is for.

‘Ah,’ he said, in Ukrainian, Polish or possibly Latvian, and with a sigh, ‘if only it were so simple.’

He explained that the HHS was restricted access: free at the point of delivery but only for those with gas bills.

And so it turned out.

‘Of course she doesn’t,’ I said. ‘She’s a dog.’

Journey to the East

We have moved from Clerkenwell and now live in Plaistow, in the not-yet-fashionable East End of London.

Somewhere in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – I can’t tell you where as the volumes are in storage, but presumably somewhere in The Kindly Ones – Nick Jenkins tells Hugh Moreland that it is impossible to write with the outbreak of the Second World War imminent. Moreland agrees that creative activity is suspended. It is the same with blogging and moving house. This is not because the inventive spirit is depressed by living among packing cases so much as that we no longer have broadband, and in the London Borough of Newham the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart, which enables (as attentive readers will recall) blogging in Montenegro and the stans further east, has been more or less eliminated on the grounds of maintaining traffic flow around Stratford at a modest but constant speed. BT have promised to install all their goodies, including Wi-Fi, and have sent a series of excitable messages to my mobile phone in anticipation of the visit of their engineer: we shall see.

It is surprising how much one has come to rely on broadband, given that it has been with us for a mere blink of the eye in the great scheme of things. One of the pleasures of life on which I have come to rely is the automatic arrival on my Kindle of the electronic version of The Spectator. This happens between midnight and one o’clock, usually, on Wednesday nights. I have got into the habit of having a lie-in on Thursdays and finishing it before breakfast. Last week I was reduced to going to the Westfield centre in Stratford and attempting to use the free Wi-Fi facility of which it boasts to download my Spectator. This is indeed free of charge but it likes in exchange to capture, as they say, all sorts in information about me. My Kindle is very good at reproducing books but it doesn’t go in for all that online banter and the Westfield Wi-Fi facility finally gave up in disgust. ‘Server error’, it said morosely and could not be tempted further.

Searching for the Westfield W-Fi facility, which was available to me in theory, I discovered all the transient ones that weren’t. Presumably a fair proportion of my fellow shoppers were also beaming away and could, had I identified them and asked nicely, have delivered my Spectator to me if I promised to forget their passwords afterwards. Some of the Wi-Fi accounts have pet names, like Petenleanne or The Patelster.

The Westfield centre is surprisingly good, in spite of the surliness of its Wi-Fi facility. It has a range of funky food stalls for example, which I think that you would not find in the rather bland original Westfield in Shepherds Bush. The Shepherds Bush version is frequented by the better class of drug-dealer, who buy their soft furnishings there and make life in the underground car park a challenge because of their difficulty seeing where they are going through the darkened windows of their 4x4s. We do of course have drug-dealers in Plaistow. The better half overheard one of them standing outside his front door with a pal (this was before the cold weather returned) shooting the breeze about the problems and rewards of being a drug dealer in E13. Later I noticed a degree of tentativeness on his part in putting his BMW (saloon, not 4×4; regular windows) in the street outside his house through a three-point turn; maybe it is a recently-acquired BMW. But they seem to be less in evidence at our Westfield.

The move was surprisingly stress-free. I am sure that in the old days you had to organise moving your gas, electricity and phone supplies well in advance if you were not to be cut off, but these days the companies seem quite relaxed. And gas companies are about the only organisations that don’t demand to see a gas bill before they will talk to you. I suppose that if you see them every day, as they must, they lose their magic.

We were moved by Aussie Man & Van. There were two Aussie Men and they arrived with their Van brashly yellow, bearing images of kangaroos and festooned with Australian slang: ‘hard wakka’ for example, helpfully translated as ‘hard work’.

‘I am Laszlo and this is Laszlo,’ said the boss, alighting from his cab. ‘We are from Hungary.’

They were very good.

When I saw our old house at the end, our home for ten years, dusty, the walls covered with abandoned picture hooks and the carpets liberally decorated by the dog in the final weeks of his disability and the stains no longer tactfully disguised by rugs, I guessed that I would not feel nostalgic and I haven’t. When we arrived at our new house three neighbours came up to say welcome and one of them gave me a very nice hug. We look out onto immense plane trees and in the distance that funicular thing, built at the time of the Olympics, for which Transport for London claims credit but for which I suspect that there is no free travel for pensioners or the disabled. Turn ninety degrees and there is the Shard: just as there always was except that, since we are in the east, we can now see the sunset glinting through the artfully incomplete panes at the top.

The streets are emptier than in central London and, thanks to the Luftwaffe, the sky is bigger. When we had the three or four days of summer last week it was unnervingly like being at the seaside.

Gas Bills are the Healing Force of the Universe

I am a trustee of a charity which makes opportunities for young people to perform music. The authorities by and large can take or leave the making of music by young people but they are determined that I should not take advantage of my position to abuse the children sexually. There has never been the ghost of an opportunity to do so even if I had wanted to, but it is a not unreasonable concern. There has after all been too much of that sort of thing.

So five years or so ago I filled in a long form and the charity parted with a sizeable fee. The questions on the form sought partly the sort of identifying information that would enable the authorities to track me on the Home Office database, if I were there to be found. Partly, however, it consisted of questions designed to trick you. By what previous names have you been or are you called, it asked. Those filling in the form with half an eye on the television might without thinking volunteer ‘Tony the Television Presenter’ or ‘Cardinal Charlie’. And then they’d be in it.

I didn’t; I concentrated and answered sensibly and truthfully and in due course I was approved.

But – five years or so on, the authorities started to worry. Has he lapsed? Better check again, they thought.

So I again filled in the form, with the same information. With what exotic handle have you scoured the internet for kiddy porn, they demanded – but subtly, so I wouldn’t catch their drift; with what nom de guerre have you prowled the tuck shops of our land seeking those with whom to interfere?

None, I replied.

There was however one new thing that they wanted.

Give us, they said, a copy of a recent gas bill: from Eon as it might be or the endearingly witless British Gas: we are platform- (as it were) neutral, they said

I was stumped. What did they want a gas bill for?

Possibly, I speculated, some thorough if – alas! – belated forensic investigation of Mr Savile’s caravan has revealed Baby Bellings galore but no Calor Gas bottles. Is it a question of the gas ring that didn’t roar in the night? Is there a natural incompatibility between his revolting behaviour and the comforting aroma of North Sea Gas?

Or maybe, I thought, the authorities have taken the bull by the horns and put something in the gas supply without telling us, like bromide in soldiers’ tea, and are anxious to establish that I am getting my fair share. Decades ago, in the first flowering of feminism we learnt that all men were rapists. Now perhaps they have decided that all men are pederasts, but that they will take drastic and universal action to stop them doing anything about it. They will, in short, gas us for the good of us all.

The incomparably great jazz musician Albert Ayler said, Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. Our authorities seem to have concluded, Sod music, but North Sea Gas is certainly the healing force of the universe.

Either way I was delighted to confirm my consumption of this beneficent facility. There has after all, as I say, been too much of that sort of thing and we have to act together to stamp it out, at whatever personal cost.

So with the satisfaction of a job well done I put the whole thing behind me.

Imagine my surprise then when a few days later I applied to a landlord to rent one of his flats. We are moving house and we need somewhere to live while building work is done on our new house. He presented me with a long form and relieved me of a £300 fee.

And I shall need a copy of a recent gas bill, he wheedled.

I was astonished, but I kept my cool.

Eon or the notoriously incompetent (I was losing patience now) British Gas? I said.

We’re platform-neutral.

He sniggered.

I sighed and let him have it. It was the same one actually.

But it does not engender confidence in the new flat. What on earth has been going on there?

We will be turning the mattress over, for sure.