"You're NOT getting on with THAT!" the bus driver snaps at me.
I blink in surprise, and simultaneously have two thoughts. The first is that my reaction - the blink - is a completely useless defence mechanism. What use, I reflect, would a sudden blink and accompanying head jerk be if, in the Great East African Rift Valley, about two hundred thousand years ago, I was suddenly confronted by a large, voracious predator? A blink is hardly likely to scare the critter. Geary, will have to be consulted, and I will have to immediately disagree with him. My second thought is "What is the driver talking about?". I check my person in case I have inadvertently brought a halberd on my shopping trip, but the driver intercedes,
"No drinks allowed" he nods at my coffee.
I try the Irish approach - attack by infallible, and completely unreasonable logic
"Well I would have drunk it if you had turned up ten minutes later. Then it wouldnt have been a problem". I grin to show I'm joking.
"Its a health and safety hazard. And there's signs on the bus. And the mess....."
He then does, what is almost exclusively an English cultural trait. He lets me on the bus with a reluctant nod of the head, then loudly discusses how rude I am with the person who has been patiently queuing behind me - "Cant read some of them. And holding everyone up. They think you're born yesterday." Both the driver and his elderly confidante tut loudly, shake their heads and say, synchronously "Well, never mind then".
This exchange confirms the way today has gone. I have taken a rare trip to town, abandoning the Crosstowner because its rear axle and my right knee have finally succumbed to the injuries sustained in the hit and run of two years ago. I'm after a new rear axle for the bike, and a new doctor for me. For pleasure, I have also added a purchase to my list - a selected item of computer technology.
THE BIKE STORE.
In the bike store, the first sales assistant I approach looks at me, decides I am not going to buy a £1000 bike and walks away. Specialist bike stores share with exclusive London tailors a breath-taking snobbery. Staff can tell if you are a "serious" cyclist just by looking at you. "Proper" cyclists have bandy legs with thighs that resemble in shape a killer whale's body. They also have slightly hunched backs and very large elbows. Perhaps it is my own large elbows that allows the assistant to interact with me, briefly, after a chase round the store that resembles the final stages of the 1994 Tour De France prologue time trail.
"I'm looking for a rear axle for my bike - the Crosstowner".
"Never heard of it " he says and walks off.
I set off in hot pursuit - a short, but vicious, climb through the hybrids, then a long straight run past the road bikes, draughting another customer through the mountain bike section before summiting the Col de Stairs and taking him on the finish line by the customer service desk.
"Hi" I pant, "it's me again. We were talking about an axle"
With nowhere to run, he realises he finally has to serve someone who, in his mind, might well have a bike, but is hardly a cyclist - where's the shades?
"Bring it in, we'll have look at it" he says and tries to dodge past me.
At this juncture, I decide that tactics, perfected by the males of my family over aeons, should be employed, so I block his escape route and set out to bore him into submission. On this occasion this consists of an incredibly detailed, jovial explanation of why I need the part, starting with a short road tour I took with my younger brother two years ago, a detailed description of my bike, the accident that caused the damage, the problems wih the bike I have had since, a short exposition on societal justice and a few humourous anecdotes about the cats . The trick is to pretend that you dont realise that the sales assistant, after about a minute, develops a growing comprehension that he has stumbled across a raving lunatic and his afternoon would be more enjoyable if he were to pass the time by plunging knitting needles into his eyes. It works a treat. I dont need to invoke the cats, because this guys is nothing if not sharp-witted, and within a few minutes I have my part, at a discount.
THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE
The same tactics will not work as I attempt to persuade a new doctor to take me on, and I know it. This desire for change of doctor is driven by a complete failure to get treatment for some damage to the old knees. After a long, acrimonious fight, in which I have now been told that the problem is "not serious enough" to warrant treatment, I am looking for a new doctor, so I attend a new surgery that I have been told is good. I approach the receptionist and tell her that I would like to sign up.
"Why? " she asks me.
Unwisely, I tell the truth. "My current doctor is no good. Complete idiot. He wont treat my knee".
She raises her eyebrows. "Has he examined your knee?" she asks.
"Well, yes" I agree "but he says the problem isnt serious enough"
"And are you medically qualified ?" she asks.
"Well no " I admit, but then add, somewhat reasonably, I think "It is my knee. I know its broken"
"Broken?" she asks.
"Well not broken, but not 'right'" I say "And he wont do anything about it. He said that if I was younger, and played sports, I could probably be higher priority, but with me, its just ageing. I dont accept that."
She looks sceptically at me."Do you wish to complain about your doctor?" she asks. I tell her no.
"Well if you dont want to complain about him, why do you want to leave his practise?" she asks. I curse infallible, but unreasonable logic. She's probably of Irish descent. But she is also a doctor's receptionist. I am facing an unclimable wall and none of my tactics are working. One fact in the complex of relationships that govern life in the UK is that one cannot adopt the same mien in the doctors that one can in a bike shop. Its a class thing - doctors and their staff are immensely more important than practically everyone else. And they know it. With that natural superiority, I am overwhelmed and stumbling. I have one last argument, so I say, rather meekly
"Well, I though the...er...patients, er Charter.. and all that..er...meant I could choose a, er, my own doctor..." I tail off.
She looks at me as if I have just said "There's a gathering of Elves in Rivendell, I've heard" and says
"Well, there's more to it than just turning up. This isnt a shop you know. Its up to you, but probably the best thing to do is to go back to your doctor and talk your problem over with him."
It definitely isnt "up to me", so I slink off, a little deflated. As I am leaving, I catch a glance of the receptionist miming an exchange of "tut"s with a colleague. The ability to silently "tut" is not only culturally unique to England, but is also only truly mastered by a few select groups including doctors receptionists and French Teachers. If you are a clinical psychologist, dont even try it because it doesnt work if your head is slightly tilted sympathetically to the left, and the results could be disastrous.
THE COMPUTER STORE.
THe computer store is my third, and final stop. It's advertising tag is "For all things computer". In this store, there is another different experience awaiting, one that reminds me of trips to Canadian Tire, a building and automotive supplies retail chain in Canada. The Canadian Tire experience was mainly characterised by interactions with store assistants whose breadth and depth of ignorance about hardware was utterly comprehensive. There was nothing that they didnt know anything about, from plumbing to carpentry, from electrical to paint. Many Canadian houses, although well built initially, transition gradually via a series of Canadian Tire-inspired renovations into active killing zones, held together only by Duct tape and drywall.
In the computer store, I ask for a Midi interface, something I have been informed is not sold in music shops. It is, however, with the growing trend for home recording, a very common piece of equipment. The manager is called after some initial confusion. I explain what I require. I even bring a badly photocopied page from a magazine, as an example. The manager studies it.
"So its like a modem then?" he asks.
"Well, not really..." I say and point to the bit on the page he has just read where it says 'a device to connect your MIDI keyboard to a computer's USB port'. "Its actually a device to connect my MIDI keyboard to a computer's USB port".
"Cant you get one on-line?" he says.
I explain that I can, but I am trying to support local stores. He still looks puzzled, but flicks randomly through his store catalogue, quickly flicking pages. This seems to be anervous affliction of certain professions - particularly automotive parts dealers and computer parts specialists.
He blows out his cheeks. "I dont know mate, thats a pretty uncommon bit of kit, that is" he says, his finger running down a list of SAT NAV products.
"Erm, that's the Sat Nav section you're looking at" I inform him, "Perhaps if we looked at 'computers'? ..."
He quickly checks the index of his catalogue and closes the book.
"The thing is, mate" he tells me "there's so many different types of software out there, you're better off going to the original manufacturer if its broken" he tells me. I have no idea what he's talking about, but before I can interject, he carries on - "We more specialize in the hardware side of things. Games that kind of thing. Have you thought about just getting a new computer? It can be cheaper to just to get a new one than trying to patch something together. Most of the new ones come with this type of stuff built in".
In answer, I could have said 'Its not, it isnt, no and they dont' but I just give up.
I abandon all hope of either understanding anything he's saying, or of supporting my local computer store, and set off for the bus. I have, as mentioned a distinctly Canadian Tire feeling, so in celebration I buy a coffee and a doughnut on my way to the bus.
At home, I review my mission. Definitely not an overwhelming success.But not a catastrophe either. And, in a sort of 'make do' way, a lot of fun as well. "Life in Hull" I think and settle down for a cup of tea. There is a strange lemony smell in the kitchen, not unpleasant, but the cats dont look disturbed, and are not sitting near a scene of disaster trying to look nonchalant, so its probably not a repeat of the time Tosh tried to attack a small bubble emerging from the top of the dish washing detergent (just after i had used it), pounced enthusiastically and spread a jet of lemon fresh right across the kitchen. But the scent is very reminiscent of cleaning materials, and is getting stronger. I am drawn to the washing machine, and sitting on top of it is a bottle of floor cleaner. I only hope I didnt include any of RHB's clothes in the wash that I started that morning.