In which I make a complaint and end up being banned from a shop.
Oscar is thinking twice about jumping into the normally limpid river Ravensbourne this morning. He’s been a bit of a wuss about water since (I think) he fell into the pond in our garden as a puppy. He loves paddling and splashing in puddles but never goes out of his depth, preferring instead to tiptoe gingerly around the river bank to find a safe place from which to lunge and grab a stick.
It’s terribly frustrating for him as he stands and whinges, too frightened to swim, despite having webbed feet specifically designed for use by a water dog. He’s only swum properly once, when safely attached to the Boywonder or the OH, already in the water, with a lead. We’ve even thought of buying wetsuits to encourage him to swim.
On this occasion, however, it was pouring with rain and all the rainwater from the surrounding flooded fields was cascading into this normally slow-flowing stream. I’m glad Oscar didn’t dive in, I didn’t fancy going in to rescue him. Not that it would have made any difference: I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet on a dog walk.
I recently lost my engagement ring. I’d had it for 22 years and to was hard-won, believe me. When I say I lost it, it just suddenly vanished in all the kerfuffle surrounding obtaining my Overseas Citizenship of India and being so ill with that horrid coughing virus and taking my mum to India with her dementia and that. It disappeared from the ring holder in the kitchen where it had been placed for safekeeping while I did the washing up. I’ve had bad luck with rings lately. Two of them keep shedding their stones or breaking, and I’m now very cautious about wearing the engagement ring I used to have constantly on my finger.
So we duly processed the insurance claim and I have more or less chosen a replacement. It’s not exactly the same as the brilliant solitaire diamond in the original largely because nothing could replace the original that has such emotional value attached to it.
I telephoned the sales representative of our regular high-end London jeweller last week and made an appointment to choose the sort of thing I’m looking for. On Friday I duly walked into the shop with my husband. We were the only customers and, despite being greeted warmly, the staff did not appear to know who were were. So OH introduced himself and shook hands with the assistant, the one with whom I had spoken at some length on the phone, who continued to look at me quizzically and with complete incomprehension”
“And you are?”
And I watched as it suddenly dawned on him that I was neither my husband’s PA not the maid nor, perhaps, the mistress but the very person to whom he had spoken about the replacement ring. He knew I was coming in at that time with my husband, but somehow could not reconcile what he was seeing with the details of the appointment. Was it something about the way I was dressed? Or had he not expected me to be…err…brown?
I’ve encountered this sort of thing before. When I worked, our cleaners were let in by our nanny every Monday but I regularly dealt with the cleaner over the phone. Once I had a day off and opened the door to them and the woman’s face fell.
“Oh,” she said, with some disdain. “Who are you? The new nanny.”
“No. I’m Mrs B. We’ve spoken on the phone. A lot.”
“You don’t look like I expected. You don’t look like you sound.”
I wonder just who she expected.
It was shortly after we moved into that same house, when I was in my dressing gown late one morning as the Boywonder was about 3 months old and I wasn’t really coping very well. The doorbell rang and I opened the door to my neighbour across the road, who had arrived with several bags of clothes.
“You take in washing, don’t you? Could you do mine?”
She’d observed the weekly arrival of my laundry company to collect my ironing and jumped to conclusions. It was her husband, I later discovered, who asked other neighbours at parties, to which we were never invited, how they liked living next door to us. I wondered whether he complained about the smell. I never cooked curries. This is why I am never surprised at the popularity of the UKIPs.
Funny, isn’t it? You can present some people with all sorts of evidence and facts and they still prefer to stick to their prejudices.
*This is a quote from My Fair Lady. Still pretty true, I’d say.
The Bruch Violin Concerto has been going round and round in my head for the two weeks since its spectacular performance by the lovely Chloe at the school’s annual concert at St. John’s Smith Square, the London concert hall. Not all of it. Just those few bars about six minutes into the first movement where both violin and orchestra explode into a torrid flourish. To me it’s an expression of a battle against incipient and seemingly unavoidable doom. Yes. My earworms have an uncanny way of encapsulating my mood.
It is the Boywonder’s final full week at school ever. As I write this, he will have had his last trumpet lesson ever and bade farewell to his respected and admired, beloved actually, trumpet teacher of the last seven years, who has given him nothing but support and kindness and patience and encouragement. The Boywonder was once a very promising young trumpeter, you see, and a musical career was just one option of many. Having firmly decided at two years old that he wanted to play the trumpet, he started learning on a cornet four years later, when he was able to hold it. He delighted everyone with his solo playing and in concerts, and I think the music was the one thing that prospered throughout his dismal time at international School in Paris when we lived there. He passed his Grade 5 with the highest mark in the whole of that exam session in France having a few months previously secured music scholarships and awards at several local London day schools.
Yes, a bright future lay ahead of him. And then things suddenly became difficult, beyond his comfort zone. Just doing the practice became hard to fit in with a daily commute to school, hours of homework, co-curricular activities and a piano practice too. Yet some people manage it.
What happened for the Boywonder? Well, he seems to have given up. His teacher felt that he was playing so well at Grade 6 that he should progress directly to Grade 8 level where the pieces suddenly required more stamina and, we discovered, a complete change of approach for the Boywonder and his full half-Indian lips. He was required not to play anything challenging but instead to practise playing easy exercises in a revised lip position, or embouchure. This often happens to young players when they go off to music college: they have to unlearn everything they have previously assimilated in order to progress.
He tried, you know. But the embouchure change became an insurmountable obstacle for a teenager who was determined to dig in his heels and do exactly the opposite of what everyone around him was telling him. Despite all the support from school, from teacher, from music school tutors who at one stage put him touch with the Royal College of Music’s embouchure change expert, he never quite managed it. Because sometimes in life you’ve just got to plug away at stuff for years before you get where you want to be.
Music making that was originally a joy had become a chore. Having passed Grade 7 piano, all the extra practice required for Grade 8 was simply too much and he gave that up, despite being a fine pianist. Having once been Principal Trumpet, the poor Boywonder watched as all of his music school trumpet crew jumped over him in seniority. It did not help that his year at school also contained at least two fine and ultimately better trumpet players. If you’re quite good, it can be demoralising rather than a positive challenge to be surrounded by brilliant people. More than once he almost gave up the trumpet too, and it was only my begging that persuaded him not to. Giving up the piano when overwhelmed by O level work at 15 was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, you see, and I wanted to save him all of that heartache.
Yet he has struggled on and his undoubted musicianship has carried him through. Despite all of these setbacks he still plays in the Youth Windband, winning gold medals in national and international competitions. He has managed to secure a position as one of four trumpets in the prestigious Symphony Orchestra. Yet my daydream of being in the audience to watch him play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto at Smith Square has come to nothing, and nor has he ever played the trumpet solo in St James’s Infirmary Blues. Not to my knowledge, anyway. Grade 8 has eluded him thus far. We don’t know what he will do next.
Sadly the progress with music has mirrored his academic performance. An academic scholar, the Boywonder has only recently himself come to the realisation that not even prodigious natural ability will ever succeed without a an equal or greater amount of hard work and effort. It is not for lack of support from us, from teachers, from everyone. We have torn our hair out. It has been the most frustrating challenge in our lives for the past seven, ten years. But sometimes, people just have to earn these lessons for themselves. There is no telling them. And people often tell us that boys are more likely to behave like this than compliant, hard-working girls. Is this true? I don’t know. Perhaps boys do take longer to mature. It is just such a pity that so many life-shaping habits and hurdles crop up in the years before they are fully mature. Besides, there are plenty of boys who do seem to manage it.
Many, many rows have been had and it’s convenient, at the moment, to blame me. So I inevitably blame myself. Was I too pushy? Not pushy enough? Should I have engaged tutors or just backed off completely and left him to find himself in peace? I really don’t know although I’ll guess that there are plenty of people just queuing up to let me know. I’ve already had one extremely hurtful character assassination. How do I feel? Weary, frustrated, sad.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know. He’s 18 now and must make his own life. We sat in the sunshine on the garden swing seat a couple of days ago, sadly contemplating this last week of school ever. I mentioned that a former schoolmate of his told her Grandma, my friend, that she’d like to go back and start all over again.
“So would I,” replied the Boywonder.
“Would you?” I was taken aback.
“But this time, I’d work harder.”
My mother has dementia. Fiercely independent, she lives in conditions that healthy people might call squalid. She has not been well for the last couple of weeks. She has chest and urinary infections and, though she protests otherwise, it is clear that she has not been eating or drinking, She will cheerfully tell me that she has made her porridge for breakfast or masala rice for her lunch and she probably believes that this is the truth. In fact her condition is such that she probably actually believes what she is telling me.
As I write, my mother is “blocking” a bed in the surgical ward of our local hospital, having been admitted from A&E yesterday. She is utterly frustrated. More so since, as I discovered this afternoon, somehow her hearing aid has gone missing and her precious lifeline to any sense of reality has been cut. Apparently, she is medically “stable” and ready to be discharged but in fact if she refuses to eat or drink and cannot remember whether or not she has taken her medication, it is difficult to know how her care can be managed until I can take her to India next week. She wants to come and live with me and is furious that I will not say yes to this. I can understand how awful things must be for her.
But yesterday, when I cast an eye over her filthy sofa cushions, trying to decide what she should take to hospital, I found this letter tucked away in the corner. A scrap of pale blue airmail paper, amazingly well preserved for 53 years. I’d never seen it before and it moved me profoundly. It was written in 1961 when my mother was 26, on the P&O ship S.S. Strathnaver, on her way to join my father, who had moved to the UK as a student 9 years previously. He had gone back to India to find a bride, seen her ad in the paper, married within days and then left again for the UK. My mother had no idea what awaited her in the UK. She has always said that she was ready to work to fund her return home if my dad had not been at Tilbury to meet her. This is what she wrote in what, we should remember, was then her third language, to a man she barely knew:
I received your letter of 20th and am eagerly waiting for receiving from you another which I will have towards evening when the ship will reach to Marselles. One thing I want to let you know beforehand that I am having two baggages with me, I will reach to Tilbury Dock at 12.45pm, Those who are travelling independently will disembark first that means at 3.30pm, so I will allow to get down at 3.30pm. As you told I did not purchased any ticket for London and it is good that if you will reach to meet me at Tilbury towards 3pm. Don’t you think so?
I purchased cigars, widies (on ship) and the rest things you have told me but I am sorry that I could not help myself in purchasing the Camera you want, as you know I hardly collected 75 Rs with me. I could not ask to your father as well as my father too. Whatever I owes, I managed to start with that only. Howsoever my father gave me 100 Rs intime. Really speaking I don’t want to explain all this at all but I hope you will agree that the essential things I ought to buy I spend money.
Did you get the remaining sum back from Cooks? We have the problem what hour and when to be returned. You can return it soon. I know that I must not worry but when I seems a thing is to be done (especiall of money) I starts thinking over that. I am your partner, no? Then it is clear that I too must partake the problem which you have to solve.
I left Port Said on 24th I felt sea-sick too much. For two days I was absolutely bed-ridden, no tea, no food, nothing. But now I am getting used of this sort. It is too cold outside. I had
fourthree cardigans with me, but no idea what will be there when I reach to Tilbury. Now sea is quiet and I am thinking about our future, ‘Keshav’ really I cried and cried when I left Bombay and your father too. I promised him that I will come back soon but do not know quite when!
Here on the ship everything is quite nice, (food too. Of course I am vegeterian I do not like any of that but still I realise what is an English food suppose to be, Tur Dal or Mug Dal is available there? If so will you have it so that soon I will be in our home I will manage to cook. This evening we will reach Marselles. I will get ashore just to have a look, but return soon anxiously for having your letter.
Keshav I really do not know how to express my thoughts, I want to see you, to meet you, to be with you and to be in our home but when? I am counting hours, minutes and passing my days. I am yours
Thought I’d share my letter of complaint to the Passport Agency, just in case it gets “lost”:
I have been helping my elderly mother with her passport renewal application. My mother is 79 and now has mid-stage Alzheimer’s-related dementia so is unable to process complicated paperwork like this.
Due to her having been categorically failed by her NHS GP and local Social Services Department, I am hoping to take her to India, where she can be cared for in a culturally-appropriate environment, which is why I needed to renew her passport.
I elected for her passport to be delivered to her by courier but, as she is so forgetful and cannot process information very easily, she was out when the courier tried to deliver her new passport. She was sent a letter by DX explaining how she could take delivery of her new passport. She promptly forgot that she had this letter. So far, so easily remedied.
I tried to arrange online for a redelivery but DX are unable to deliver to me ( a different residential address) or my husband (a different person at a work address.) Clearly, my disabled, elderly mother cannot take delivery at her work address as she does not have one.
I then called the DX office to arrange for delivery, explaining the situation. At first your call centre representative did not want to listen to my explanation of my mother’s issue, a common problem with Government employees, I find, but then she was quite helpful. She explained that I could collect the passport this morning at the Eccleston Square Passport Office if I produced a letter of authorisation, signed by my mother; two utility bills as proof of my mother’s address and photo ID for me. As my mother cannot work a computer, I produced a letter of authorisation and asked her to sign it, which she did.
On arrival at your Passport Office this morning, I was told that my mother’s signature was not exactly the same as that on her passport and that they thought that someone else had forged her signature. I assured the rude, abrupt “customer services” employee that this was not the case and that she had signed both documents herself in her own hand. I even produced my mother’s expired passport to show that the three signatures were the same, and explained that my mother has dementia and therefore her signatures might well not exactly match, although to my untrained eye in this case they did.
More surly denials. In fact this was irrelevant, as surely a courier would not have checked for matching signatures in such detail? Your customer services assistant was very rude and abrupt and did not seem to want to listen to me. In fact it was my word against hers that my mother had actually signed both the application form and the letter of authorisation. This woman made me wait, without explanation, until her more conciliatory colleague confirmed that both signatures did in fact match. Then she pushed the passport in its envelope towards me under the counter silently, and with a sneer. I had to check that I could indeed take away the passport.
I was very upset to have been treated like this. Is life not difficult enough for those of us who have to care for elderly relatives with dementia without being impugned and doubted in this way? Is this really the way that your government wishes to treat people like me who give up our time and effort for free and are worn down by faceless, unaccountable bureaucracy? How, exactly, was I supposed to prove that my mother had indeed signed both documents? By remembering to take a photograph of her signing them, with a date imprinted on the shot? No doubt I would have been accused of faking that. What if your over-reaching jobsworth employee on a personal powertrip had decided to retain my mother’s passport? What recourse would I have had then?
This attitude is really disgusting and unacceptable in so-called “customer service” staff who are, after all, paid by the taxpayer to serve the public.
I would urge you to ensure that your staff treat those who pay their secure salaries with a little more respect and compassion in the future. And might I suggest that if you are going to make cuts, that this staff member is the first to be cut?