A Leap with a Leaf

On the whole, vehicles are one of my non-interests, along with football and cricket, talent shows, fast food, misery memoirs and a few other tedious topics.

In a discussion on cars I’m interested in reliability first, followed by comfort and economy in equal measure. In a blatant betrayal of gender stereotyping I have opinions on colour, preferring black over any other but accepting of anything except pink, orange, red or lurid.

My first car, like many first cars, was a humble, ancient, faded turquoise Austin A40 with steering wheel so huge that steering around a corner was akin to half an hour’s workout on a rowing machine. Subsequent vehicles became newer, though never new. My least old car was also the worst, an indigo VW Polo that exhibited some kind of electrical fault and let me down with irritating frequency-most famously by giving up at traffic lights at a busy roundabout whilst I was wearing nothing but a bikini and flimsy sarong. Let this be a lesson, readers. This was also before the days of mobile phones.

Now, however it is time for my trusty, comfortable, economical, black Peugeot to find a new owner. It is also time for Husband and me to put our money where our mouths have been for so long and leap into the unknown with an eco-friendly, electric vehicle. They are cheap to run, cost nothing to tax and, most crucially do not belch noxious fumes into the environment. What can go wrong? We’ve adhered to our rule regarding no new cars and have purchased a two year old Nissan Leaf, an alien road ghost with a mysterious array of buttons and beeps.

We’ve begun to learn the ways of this enigmatic machine. We’ve learned that it drives as an automatic, that your left foot must never stray unbidden on to the ‘hand-brake’, which nestles on the floor under your left foot in a sly, provocative challenge as the result is a screeching kind of emergency stop. We know that it will refuse point-blank to cooperate unless your right foot is on the foot-brake [a more benevolent pedal].

We’ve begun to unravel the secrets of the ‘rapid’ charger at motorway services, having spent a frustrating half an hour unravelling the cryptic instructions for insertion, another half an hour in the dispiriting cafeteria [where you are at the mercy of the provision and the prices] and a further half an hour of mild panic discovering how to remove the charging nozzle.

We now know that the extravagant claims of 100 miles per charge are somewhat exaggerated, that a degree of planning must go into any journey of length and that the prices at motorway cafés render the price of the ‘rapid’ charge a little less economical.

We don’t expect to use the car for long journeys and we no longer have regular commutes to make us dependent. The change is a leap of faith in a time when leaps of faith may seem foolish or imprudent. It isn’t possible to make radical changes in the volatile climate of this unstable world but perhaps taking a deep breath and helping to clean some air is a miniscule step towards improving our immediate environment. Who knows?

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Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.

The Jones and their Phones

                Years ago, in my childhood [ie many years ago] a popular phrase was: ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. Who were the Joneses? And what did ‘keeping up’ with them mean? Well in those days it meant the acquisition of new-fangled gadgets and appliances and labour-saving devices.

                My mother would scoff. “What would I do with one of those?” she would jeer, at the idea of a twin-tub washing machine. “I can get the washing much cleaner by hand”. And there she would be, sweating over an old ‘copper’ which she stirred with an ancient, bleached and tapered pole, boiling up the sheets, wringing them out in an aged mangle before taking them up the garden to the clothes line.

                Presumably some previous generation must have derided coppers and mangles as new-fangled fripperies, since these machines were not strictly doing it all by ‘hand’, but other than taking everything down to the river and dashing it on a stone, this was ‘hand washing’ to my Ma.

                It was the same story for all contraptions; vacuum cleaner, TV, electric cooker and later, video recorder and microwave oven. Once these items were installed they were deemed life savers and no mention was ever made of life before their arrival.

                Whilst the phrase, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has fallen out of use, the concept remains and is alive and kicking in these times of rampant technological development. I am proud of the way my mother responded to her neighbours’ purchases, although once she’d belatedly installed her own versions she became evangelistic about them, wondering what she ever did without them and spending hours watching the revolving tub of the automatic front loader or raving at length about the attributes of the video recorder.

                When someone recently described to me a gathering of friends who ridiculed her for her modest [non-apple] smartphone I was shocked. Indeed, of all those gathered, only one, apparently was appropriately equipped phone-wise-with an ‘iphone 5’. What does this say about the rest of us, those of us who have opted for a budget model with a supermarket contract? We are to be pitied. We have not ‘kept up’. Some of us [me] are even still using a plain, bog standard laptop with a keyboard. Imagine that!

                This is not a competition to see who is first to get a new, labour saving device; this is a shameless bid for admiration via one-up-man-ship. On my humble smartish phone that no one has ever heard of I am able to text, call, use Facebook [a debatable advantage], Google, take snaps and send them, email people, catch up with the news and find out where I am. There are also innumerable facilities which I have no interest in [such as games] and many more I know nothing about and am unlikely ever to avail myself of. I like my old fashioned laptop despite the fact that a visiting friend was unable to swipe on to the next photo I was showing her. So there!