Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mandi, the (emotional) vampire slayer

If only spotting an emotional vampire was so simple
Vampires are real, and they live among us.

I’m not talking about the coffin-sleeping, garlic-hating, reflection-free types who float through the movies on bat wings and an oh-so-stylish tux and cape combo.

Oh no, they’re the easy ones - easy to dispatch with a sharpened stick, a cupful of water genuflected and mumbled over by the local priest and the cleansing fire of daybreak.

I’m talking about the ones who can suck all the energy, joy and equilibrium out of you. The ones who are impervious to the cleansing rays of the sun, unaffected by even the stinkiest of tzatzikis, just waiting to seek and destroy your positive vibe. 

They're the ones who view your cheery “Good morning!” delivered with a genuine smile as a challenge to their natural supernatural powers. The ones who can shatter the serenity of the Dalai Lama in the space of snapped response and a killjoy comment. 

They’re the ones who turn joyful occasions like weddings and birthdays into battlefields or chase away the respectful melancholy of a funeral or memorial of a dearly-beloved into an unsightly mess of sniping and competitive shuffling for who was closest to the departed (usually with an eye on what’s left under their bed, in the kitchen drawer or written in the will).

But fear not! We CAN fight back. We just need to know how. And to help you keep your inner idealist, annoyingly upbeat Pollyanna or happy place alive and intact, we present our easy-to-follow guide on how to spot the emotional vampires in your life and how to send ‘em back where they came from.

First, you need to know how to spot them, preferably before they bare their teeth and start gnawing away at your happy vibe. So, look out for:

No.1) Addiction to arguments:
Friction and hurt feelings are their lifeblood, so they do everything in their power to stir up trouble. They’re shit-stirrers, gossip-mongers, fast-to-judge puritans, pedantic layers-down of the law – anything that can worm its way through the chinks in your emotional armour to prick your psyche enough to spread an itch of irritability over your contentment. They have the talent to provoke a screaming row between a loved-up couple over something as simple as the right solution in a crossword or someone else’s favourite ice-cream. Learn to recognise their attempts and resist them in any way you know – even if it means falling into a paroxysm of silliness, your best Aretha Franklin impersonation or a full-faced smooch with your partner, right in their face.

No.2) A love of background noise:
I’m not talking about the sound of laughter, children playing or Motown's finest. I’m talking about the constant drone of the TV turned up to full volume but not listened to by anyone, the constant moan of muttered comments from the corner or the need to pass loud comment on everything. Companionable silence is an anathema to them – it saps their powers and they’ll do anything to break it.

No.3) An absence of humour:
This one is crucial. Humour is a foreign country to them, and the healing powers of laughter is like a bathful of holy water flung int heir face. All one-liners are greeted with a determination to take offence, argue or slap down. Silly voices and surrealism is dismissed as childish. They know that laughter is the antidote for the woes and worries of the world, so they’ll do everything they can to nip it in the bud and – if possible – kill it stone dead.  Do not, under any circumstances, let them. Respond to their attempts to kill your happy buzz with more barbs of funny – a particularly well-aim sharp dig at their pomposity can be enough to disable an emotional vampire at fifty paces.

No.4) Refusal to see no shades of grey:
Their world view is strictly black-and-white, them-and-us, if-you-ain’t-with-us-you’re-agin-us. Anything that does not reflect their own view of themselves is wrong. Tolerance is weakness for them, diversity a disease and anyone who tries to introduce the other side of the coin is like a virgin bride exposing her lily-white throat to Bela Lugosi and screaming “Come and get me, big boy!”

No.5) A self-proclaimed state of eternal victimhood:
News of anyone’s misfortune is greeting with glee, rapidly followed by a long list of their own woes, which of course trump those of the victim and tell them to snap out of their clinical depression, or the fact they don’t have functioning legs. Their idea of compassion and sensitivity is telling you how much worse they have it. Mention that migraine that has been hammering your left temple from the inside for the past 48 hours and you’ll be treating to a diatribe of headaches they have known and loved, which will reduce you to a whimpering, quivering, wordless heap of jelly unable to form the words “PLEASE make it stop”. Better to say nothing and retire quietly to a darkened room.

It’s not possible to avoid or eliminate emotional vampires completely, but we can refuse permission to let them suck us dry of our feel-good:

·         Get a pet. In the worse-case, a startled cat thrown in the face of an emotional vampire can be a wonderful way to neutralise a full-on assault (an angry duck is even better).

·         Refuse to engage. They'll do everything in their power to drag you into their disputes. Don’t. Just walk away.

·         Crack a joke. Laughter is an enema for the soul. It boosts your endorphins (or “them dolphins” as my batty flowerpot hat-wearing ex-neighbour in Brighton used to say), increases your oxygen intake and increases your resistance to their daggers of darkness.

·         Do something! Get up from your chair and go for a walk, take a swim, hop on your bike, grab your camera, start wielding a paintbrush, dance, turn a somersault, learn to ride a monocycle….   anything but stand there like a sitting duck. A moving target is harder for them to hit with their negative vibes.

·         Eat chocolate. It won’t banish the vampires, but it sure as hell will make you feel better.  

Happy hunting, and let me know how you fare.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Counsel for the Prosecution

The yellow legal pad shone like a beacon against the jumble of papers strewn across her desk. A steaming cup of coffee she’d hoped would help focus her thoughts sat next to an ashtray that smelt of lost weekends and defeated dreams. It was crowded with squashed cigarette butts – some smoked down to the chemical sting of their filter, others abandoned halfway in disgust or distraction. 

Anna rubbed her eyes and stretched in her seat as she tried to reboot her brain to make sense of the papers littering the table-top like super-sized confetti.                                                                                                                         
It wasn’t HER case she was working on, she was only assisting. But she'd come to think of it as hers. She felt involved, intrigued. It was one of the oddest cases she’d ever come across – even in the pages of all those text books she’d waded through at law school. The facts were unremarkable: a fairly straight-forward case of sedition with a dash of blasphemy thrown in for good measure. But the people involved and the circumstances surrounding it would certainly make it one to remember. 

Personally, she couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Why so much pressure to convict and punish the sad, silent man who’d refused to take the stand, offer any kind of defense or even recognise the court?

Sure, he’d stirred up some unrest, but that was hardly remarkable in these days of disenfranchisement, disenchantment and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, was it? Every Tom, Dick and Harriet was out there rabble-rousing these days – and a good few who backed up their angry words with knuckle-dusters and knives had been overlooked by the authorities. So why pick on the bedraggled figure who had sat staring at his hands neatly folded in his cheap-suited lap at the initial court hearing last week? His frustrated court-appointed lawyer had failed to cajole him out of his silence, despite the fact that those he inspired had obviously become far too vocal for comfort.

But who was she to question? A high profile case would look good on her resume, especially as a conviction looked like a certainly, albeit a vaguely uncomfortable one.

Taking a sip from her coffee and lighting a fresh fag, Anna looked back down at her desk. Her eyes were drawn to the photocopied letter in a clear plastic folder. It was only background, circumstantial, unimportant to the case, but something about it kept drawing her back to it.

Dear Tom,

I’m writing to you because I know that you haven’t been swept up in the madness. You’re a man of good sense, not likely to get caught up in the mania that’s infected the others desperate to believe something more than the simple truth. 

I don’t suppose you’re happy to get this letter. I’m not going to win any popularity contests from now on, am I? But I hope you’ll read on.

You must be wondering why I did what I did? The answer is simple: I had no choice. I hate what I’ve done, what I’ve become. But I couldn’t let things carry on like they were, hurtling at break-neck speed towards destruction. I had to do something to pull him back from the brink of his madness before it ate him alive, and perhaps salvage something of the dream of mending a broken world that had brought us all together in the beginning.

I believed in him from the start. I saw something that could lead us to something better, kinder. Mesmerised by his charisma, I became his right-hand man, his most passionate advocate. Even - I hoped - his friend.

Until something changed.

I’m not quite sure when I first saw it, that odd glint in his eye. Something more than the spark that lit a fire in us – it was the glint of mania. It didn’t help that that she was always there, whispering nonsense in his ear about him being “The One”. Soon, he started believing his own rhetoric just as completely as the sheep desperate for something to cling to.

I still loved him. Maybe in more ways than he ever knew. I still do. But he scared me.

I’d helped him weave a web of pretty half-truths and I could see it was heading for something nasty, loud, maybe dangerous, and definitely too much of a threat to be ignored. And he’d be the one to pay the price.

I thought I could save him from himself. That's why I went to the media, and then the authorities. I thought they’d help. What a fool! I really thought they’d just pick him up and deliver him to calm-voiced, white-coated experts in quiet, pastel-painted corridors where they would soothe him, exorcise his demons, help him see things as they really were. 

But I was wrong. They chewed me up and spat me out like a piece of gum that’s lost its taste, making sure that I knew full well that it was me who had sealed his fate.
Now I’m hated, reviled, forever branded a traitor. 
Even you turned away when I tried to explain.

That’s why I’ll be lying on a cold slab by the time you read this.

I’m more sorry than anyone can ever know. I hope you can forgive me.

Don’t give up. You’re much smarter than I ever was. We need people like you to make a difference. We just don’t need any more martyrs.


Anna exhaled heavily. No matter how many times, she read the letter, it got to her. Something kept pulling her back to the dead man’s words. A sense of affinity, despite herself.

An urgent bleep brought her back from her thoughts. A text from Theo, her boss, reminding her that he needed the papers on his desk by 8am tomorrow – in just six hours – ready for their big day in court.

His words as he gave her the assignment echoed through her mind: “Let’s get this nutter sorted, so people like you and me can get on with things.” 

Like she was part of some secret cabala of privilege that couldn’t afford to let the boat rock too much.

Perhaps she was?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Mind your step

Starting at her shoulders, a deep involuntary shudder radiated through her body. She shook it off, gave a grimace, and said with a laugh “Someone just walked over my grave” before turning her attention back to the half-peeled potatoes in the sink.

Her eight-year-old granddaughter looked at her wide-eyed, her young mind whirring madly trying to work out the time warp and supernatural implications of the rosy-cheeked woman’s phrase.

It wasn’t the sort of thing she was used to hearing from her.

Nana meant security, shortbread, walking barefoot on the velvety green lawn, squealing in delighted terror at earwigs in the chrysanthemums, the soft drone of Radio 4 in the background, the scent of tea rose soap, and as many cups of tea you could handle.

What Nana was most definitely NOT about was hints of mortality and the macabre. 

The thought of her sensing someone from the future stepping on her final resting place years before she would be laid beneath the rich Sussex soil knotted Annie’s normally straight eyebrows into a question mark.

Maggie dismissed the young girl’s existential bemusement with a healthy dose of no-nonsense country practicality. Thrusting a bowl of freshly gathered green pods into the young girl’s arms, she pointed to the sunny doorstep opening onto the back garden.

“Make yourself useful and shell the peas,” she snapped, not unkindly. “And don’t eat too many before we cook them – you’ll get belly ache.”

Picking up a pod, Annie gently pressed against the seam until it opened with a satisfying soft ‘pop!’. She eased a slightly chewed index finger nail into the opening and pushed the peas into the battered saucepan set down beside her on the cool whitewashed doorstep. She popped one into her mouth and rolled its green sweetness around before crushing it with her tongue.


“Yes, darlin’?”

“When you die, can you still feel things?”

The white-haired woman stopped her kitchen bustling, wiped her hands on her pinny and fixed her granddaughter with a hard stare.

“What a thing to ask!” she said. “Why in heaven’s name would you be bothering your head with such things?”

“It’s just…  …well…   …if you can feel someone walking over your grave now. Does it hurt when it actually happens after you’re dead?”

“Of course not, you silly thing. You don’t feel anything after you die. You’re just gone. Now hurry up and get those peas done or dinner will be late. You know how granddad wants his meal on the table as soon as he gets in.”

Dinner preparations were completed in companionable silence, helped by a glass of cool lemon barley water placed next to Annie as she shucked the last of the peas. She smiled thanks to her grandmother and emptied the glass in a series of gasping gulps and smack of satisfaction. Nothing  more was said of her morbid query as they all tucked heartily into the turkey and ham pie, boiled buttered potatoes and fresh peas served precisely five minutes after  her grandfather came in from the garden, washed his hand and settled into his place at the head of the table…

…but on the way home that evening, holding Granddad’s hand as they chattered and competed for who could name the most birds, trees, butterflies and flowers spotted along the way, she was extra careful where she trod when they took the short cut throughout the churchyard.

Monday, 4 August 2014

And they all lived happily ever after?

We all love Happy Endings, don't we?
But the trouble with "Happily Ever After" is that they are precisely NOT what they claim to be. 

They're not an ending, they're the start of something new - and who knows where that will take us? There must be something that comes AFTER the Happy Ending - we just never hear about it. Maybe what comes after is the real Grimm tale?

So, in my quest for the truth (The Public has a right to know, you know), this occasional investigative journalist has dug deep to bring you the news of what happened after some of our better-known Happily Ever Afters:

Years of therapy have had only limited benefits for this former child performer, now in his late 40s. He now - finally - considers himself "A Real Boy" but continues to have body image issues and pines for the carefree days of his firm-bodied youth. Convinced that his nose it too big (at least some of the time), he is in discussions with several plastic surgeons about the possibility of transplanting the nasal tissue to another part of his body.

Most of her friends abandoned her when they were in their 20s, unable to tolerate her relentless optimism and insistence that they look on the bright side every time their hearts were broken. After hitting the menopause, she sunk into a depression and now needs a handful of Prozac to even think "I'm glad".

Snow White
Well, her Prince did come all those years ago, but there are times when she wishes he would go away again - or at least get out out of the armchair and do the dishes. Life is hard enough for her with a fat, balding, unemployable Heir to the Throne (will his mother NEVER die?) snoring in front of the TV, without her seven small but very demanding permanent houseguests. Sometimes she wishes she had eaten the whole apple. While it's good to keep in touch with her friends from before her marriage, she's had enough of the whole "surrogate mother" gig.

Years of obsessive brushing, braiding and supporting suitors clambering up walls have taken their toll on Rapunzel's flowing locks. After one particularly tearful break-up, she shaved her head and spent a year in a bobble hat to cover the grey stubble that grew back. Now considering having extensions.

Yes, she got her Prince - but her ugly step-sisters are still trying to get into his pants. They have had gastric bands fitted, Botox injected and spray tan applied. Traumatised after catching the three of them in a drunken orgy, Cinders turned to junk food for comfort. The only thing the glass slipper fits these days is her little finger.

Changed his name by deedpoll to Kenneth.

Dick Whittington 
Now lives alone with his cat, never leaving the house in Sidcup. He spends his days trying to fashion footwear for felines and plotting the gruesome, complicated and humiliating demise of both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson.

The Famous Five
Once inseparable, Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog rarely see each other these days. George finally had the op. Dick and Anne have set up home together and moved to a remote village where no-one knows they're brother and sister. Julian hit the hippy trail and fried his brain in Kathmandu. Timmy the Dog is now a leading Reality TV star.

Pippi Longstocking
Now making a good living as a pole dancer in a Moscow nightclub. Her signature striped stockings, plaits and freckles are a key part of her act (very popular with the Dirty Mac Brigade lurking in the darkest corners of the club).

Stig of the Dump 
Has opened his own home improvement and decorating business.

The Borrowers
After doing time for receiving stolen goods, Pod, Homily and Arriety face an uncertain future. The receiver has been called in and they have declared bankruptcy.

So, maybe there really is no such thing a Happy Ending, after all?
Just "the continuing story"....

Friday, 1 August 2014

The accidental island-hopper

Leaving Paros - hold on, that wasn't the plan!
The phone rings. It’s No.1 (and only) son, calling from Paros. No surprise there. I was expecting his “I’ve arrived” call round about now.

Early this morning, he was delivered by his dad to the ferry that would take him to the Cyclades for a few days holidays without us - the first time he was travelling solo outside of Attica. I wasn’t worried. The weather’s good. The trip’s just a few hours. He has a brain and tongue in his head. What could go wrong, right?

But there’s something in his voice that alerts me. 

It’s not the chirpy holiday tone I expected, but one laced with anxiety and frustration. 

He’s not calling from portside. He’s still onboard, having finally located his bag (helpfully moved to an entirely different part of the hold) only after the ship cast off and started steaming its way across the sea to Naxos, and then on to Ios. 

My heart twinges as I imagine his frustration and panic as he watched the port of Parikia get smaller and smaller and prepared to call us and tell us the news. Cue one frustrated 17-year-old, and an even more annoyed and anxious father.

So, as I type, instead of heading for the beach to splash around like a happy maniac for the next four hours, No.1 is enduring an extended sea trip that will see him do the Paros-Naxos-Ios-Naxos-Paros round trip.

I try to calm the men in my life, telling them that it’s not a big deal (especially as the officials on board told him he can do the round trip without having to pay any extra). It’s an experience, I say (hopefully a learning one). It’s an adventure, I say. Maybe he’ll even see some dolphins or meet new and interesting people.

But inside I’m screaming “My poor baby!” and fighting the rising sensation that it’s all MY fault. I had been uncharacteristically calm about my teenage traveller’s first solo trip. Not a single scenario popped into my head as I waved him off. So, of course, fate took note, was duly tempted, and decided to throw a baggage handler’s spanner in the works.

There’s nothing I can do. I have to get all zen about it. He’s on his own and he will be fine – even without me. It will be a lesson for him, and probably more so for us. I just know I won’t breathe freely until he finally reaches his original destination. At least he can just sit back and go with the flow, watch the seagulls and have a story to tell afterwards.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here chewing my toenails to the quick whilst smiling manically (and unconvincingly) at anyone who looks my way.

Blimey, this “learning to let go” deal is a bitch, isn’t it?

UPDATE - 5.50pm:
Teen traveler safely disembarked in Paros. Let the holiday begin!

Friday, 25 July 2014

The blogger’s dilemma

I’m finding myself in a state of semi-paralysis with my blogging lately. But I know why.

There’s so much news going on in the world right now – and most of it is bad.
No, not bad. It’s awful. It’s horrible. It’s terrible beyond words.

Bombs and rockets being traded between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. The innocence, limbs, sight and lives of children being ripped away by terror raining from the skies.
A passenger airline seemingly shot down near the Ukraine-Russia border.
Reports from Iraq that all women and girls over 11 in Mosul have been ordered to undergo female genital mutilation.
The continuing ordeal of Syrians fleeing the fighting in their own country.
Kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria still not found and returned to their families.
The daily depressing grind of the Greek economic reality as experienced by ordinary people, rather than politicians trumpeting fanfares of optimism based on data only visible from comfortable ministry offices.
Climate change, earthquakes, flooding, overpopulation... the list goes on.

Reality bites, that’s for sure.

I generally don’t blog about such grave matters, but it worries me that this might make me seem shallow, frivolous, uninformed or uncaring. 
I do care. Desperately. I just don’t know what to say about the state of a world that seems to be teetering on the edge of madness.

The main reason I don’t post about such weighty matters is the fact that the internet is already awash with people ranting and pouring out platitudes about the shocking events that bombard us from our screens. I don’t feel that me diving in and splashing about with the sharks, minnows and life rafts in that ocean of online noise would serve any useful purpose. 
Of course the news invokes an emotional response in me. Of course I’m outraged, saddened, sickened to my core. But do I have a solution? No. So, what possible positive contribution can I make by wearing my heart on my online sleeve?

Another reason is my awareness that the issues behind the simple, stark, horrible human cost that hits the headlines are incredibly complex. I don’t have all the information at hand to be able to play the pundit. Of course, innocent citizens being targeted is undeniably an outrage – but shouldn’t I have a full grip on the reasons behind it before I climb up onto my cyber soap box? 
There are more than enough people out there writing about the reality and the reasons behind it, including some frontline reporters of incredible courage, integrity and heart. My tuppence ha’penny’s worth would add nothing of value.

There’s another reason too. And it’s entirely selfish. But it's essential to maintain my equilibrium. 
Though fortunate enough never to have faced any major mental or emotional health issues, I simply cannot spend my days focusing on the horrors of the earth – whether they’re on another continent, a few hundred miles away or next door. I’m a pretty positive person (tempered with what I consider a healthy dose of cynicism/rationalism) and I try to focus on the good things in life rather than settling into a sulk at the state of the world whilst doing nothing about it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about paying my bills, if we’ll be able to fund our son’s further education or if neo-Nazis will rise to a position of power and drag us by the hair back into the inhumanity of an age from which we are supposed to have moved on from. 
Believe me, I care. With a passion (anyone who's seen me climb up on my high horse and launch into full soap box mode can vouch for that).

I just feel that we owe it to ourselves to appreciate the good things in our lives: the support of family and friends; a good belly laugh at something ineffably silly; the music of words well written; a hug; the kick of a really well-brewed cup of coffee; a cat’s purr; the kindness of strangers; a child’s laugh; the clink of teaspoon against cup; the glorious silence of sunrise in the country; the power of music; the velvety orgasm of chocolate melting on your tongue; nature’s summer symphony; the cold kiss of the sea when you slide in after a sweaty day’s work…

There’s a lot wrong with our world, but there’s also still a lot of good things to enjoy. Accentuating the light side won’t make the dark go away, but maybe it can give us the courage to really do something about the source of that darkness rather than letting it drag us down into depression?

So next time you heave a sigh at my latest fatuous post about cats, cellulite or cake, you'll know why.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Kitty Letter Chronicles: The (not so) Great Outdoors

There I was, minding my own business, prowling around the apartment, spreading myself on the cool tiles, having a nap, patrolling the balcony rail, sleeping, eating, playing with stray leaves blown in by the summer breeze, grabbing a small snooze… when suddenly everything changed.

I knew something was up. 

The humans were faffing about even more than usual. Big Red was pulling clothes out of cupboards, then stuffing them back again. Dangly Man brought up new and interesting bags from the dungeon of antiquities. And Noisy Kid…   well he just basically did the same as me but with long periods in front of the box of moving images thrown in. 

I guessed something was afoot, but how was I to know what was awaiting me?

When I was bundled into a box, I didn’t complain. I went willingly into its bowels before realising that a metal bars would slam closed behind me, leaving me helpless as I was unceremoniously carried down to the metal box on wheels and subjected to an eternity of bumps and low hums. When we we eventually stopped, the humans started making idiotic noises about “holiday”, “countryside” and “freedom” as they bumped me and my box down some steps and opened it up to some strange new world.

I think I was supposed to be impressed.
I wasn't.

There are so many smells. My poor nostrils are in a state of exhaustion trying to get a handle on all the new scents assaulting them. I must have burned about a zillion calories just twitching my nose.

Then there’s the noise. Whoever it was that waxed lyrical about the pace and quiet of the countryside is a dirty, filthy liar. 
I mean, have you ever been to the Greek countryside in mid-summer? The noise NEVER stops!

All day long, armies of weird prehistoric robot-insects sit in the trees buzzing. En masse. Like some kind of weird alien tachicardiac pulse. It’s deafening. I swear I’ve only had about 19 hours sleep a day since we got here. It’s been sheer hell.

And it's not just the noisy buggers. There are all sorts of weird critters crawling around the place. 

I mean what, exactly, am I supposed to do with this? 

I’m not proud of it, but I must confess I’m ever-so slightly freaked out by it all. Outside looks nice enough, from a distance. From the safety of the right side of the window, it all looks very interesting, with enticing bits and pieces that waving gently in the breeze. 

But it's SO flippin’ big. I kid you now, it’s enormous – you genuinely cannot see the edges. Heaven alone knows what’s lurking beyond the horizon.

I’m an urban, urbane feline. I’ve only ever known the comforts of my first floor flat. And now I’m supposed to embrace the Great Outdoors? Sorry human, but… I don’t think so.

OK, I might deign to see what lies beyond the back balcony. Or file my nails on that handy tree trunk. Whilst I’m at it, I may investigate to see what exactly those weirdoes making all the noise look like (or even taste like) up close and personal. And perhaps I'll see if I can get to know that cute tabby who decided to serenade me as I sat in my moonlit glory on the windowsill last night - at least until Big Red thundered out of bed and dumped me like a sack of spuds on the floor.

But right now, I've got more pressing matters to attend to...  spreading myself on the cool tiles, having a nap. patrolling the balcony, sleeping, eating, playing with stray leaves, grabbing a small snooze.

It's tough job, but someone's got to do it.