Monday, 26 July 2010

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka

I have been reading this book aloud to two people - a blind lady I support and my boyfriend. I strongly believe that is a book that needs to be spoken out loud, so that the different voices can be heard. I actually think that this is one of the best books I have read, though I admit I haven't yet read "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" also by Marina Lewycka, which has good reviews also.

I understand from reading other reviews, that many people have found the voice of Dog annoying. I also found him hard to tolerate at first, since he has no grammar and always uses capital letters, but there is a point to him being one of the story's narrators. I believe that the author intended Dog's voice to be a stepping stone to that of the chickens in the factory farm. It left me thinking, what would the chickens say if we could interpret their squawks and screams? We are used to seeing images of factory chickens, but it is easy to be so horrified that we cut off emotionally and then we cannot really think about what to do about it. Lweycka uses humour and little breaks in the plotline to allow the reality of the chicken factory to settle in. The reader is reminded that animals, of course, are sentient beings and we recognise, of course, that this situation is deeply, morally wrong. We are told that the chickens are being prepared for a supermarket BOGOF offer and it does not take much to connect the dots. When we buy chicken, even if it has a nice name - in this case the pleasing sounding "Buttercup Meadow Farmfresh Poultry" - we are getting a chicken or pieces of a chicken that has been tortured for the whole of its short life, burning in excrement, stressed, stuffed cheek-to-jowl with other chickens, stuffed full of food and antibiotics to the point where it cannot well support its own weight.

I assure you that while I aim to buy Free Range, I have not always done so. After all, you can sometimes buy a whole chicken for £2. To quote Ciocia Yola (admiring the man with calves like marrows) "Well, in this situation, what woman would not?" After reading this, I cannot look at the chickens in the supermarket in quite the same way again, even the cheapest ones seem to be too high a cost to me. Poor chickens.

Back to Dog and to respond to those who do not see his purpose within the story. It is clear to me that Dog, as well as being the stepping stone to our connection with the poor chickens, is also the voice of freedom. While the humans are bound by the chains of so-called 'civilisation' and must work hard for their money (and see little of it unless they are willing to sacrfice their morals in some way), dog is a pure voice. He does what he wants, when he wants and he shows kindness and compassion for the immigrants that he attaches himself to. Even Dog has his opinions, though these are based mainly on smell and doggy values/ preferences. Dog is self-sufficient. He is an excellent hunter and catches (free-range) birds and rabbits whenever he likes. He plays when he likes and he sleeps deeply and contently whenever he likes, unlike some of the humans.

I think that this is a novel that asks the reader to think deeply about their morals, but does this through plenty of humour and character interest.

If you read this story, do yourself a favour and speak the words out loud. Have a go at speaking the different accents and get to grips with 'being' the different characters within the story. See what it feels like to play Vulk who is big and dumb and dangerous, or Neil, the teenager at the chicken factory who is trying oh-so-hard to learn how to smoke properly.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Great Expectations

A beautiful hotel just twenty minutes from home. Two nights together, just the two of us. A romantic dinner for two in the hotel's classy restaurant. I thought I knew what this was about. "You alright?" I asked, sipping on a small glass of white wine. "Bit nervous." he admitted.

I bet you are, I thought. I smiled at him.


So, he was nervous, but that wasn't the only sign. Only a couple of days ago, he'd gone to see a cricket match with his Dad. He got back just before 10pm and put his arms around me, giving me a big hug. "So how was it, then?" I asked. "Did you enjoy it?"

"It was good," he said, "but on the way there, all I could think about what where I'd like to take you on our honeymoon."
"Really?" I asked, "Where?"


Wow, I thought. Things were definitely looking up.
We had been talking about getting married almost since we'd first got together, but he still hadn't popped the question. It was driving me crazy. Every time we'd go out for a meal or did something special together, I'd be sure it was going to happen. And each time, I'd been wrong. But this time he'd been so keen to arrange this romantic break together and now he was talking about honeymoons.

I was confident that something special was brewing.
And clearly I wasn't the only one who thought so. Apparently, his work colleagues had got wind of our upcoming romantic break and had teased him with renditions of the Wedding March. Dum-Dum-dee-Dum! His boss even joked that he should leave early to buy me a ring. I smiled when he related this to me. I really hoped that this would be the time. I really hoped so.


We chatted easily, happily. Our starters arrived. I was enjoying every moment, even as the rain fell outside, soaking the plants and flowers. Sweet, summer rain.
The main course came. It tasted wonderful.

Ed excused himself. I figured he was still nervous and was going to compose himself. I smiled to himself, thinking that it would be very sweet if he did get down on one knee, because he'd 'slid out' at a roundabout earlier in the week on his commute to work and his knee was still very raw.

He returned and seemed more at ease. He sat back in his chair and carried on eating. Time passed. The waitress cleared our plates.

I realised my chances were ebbing away. Surely he wouldn't propose over desert? I sipped my mint tea, trying to keep my cool as he tucked into his apple and rhubarb crumble.

"Delicious." he proclaimed, pushing the dish away.
"I guess that's that, then." I said, quietly.

"Yep." he said. He leaned back in chair and rubbed his belly, looking full and content.

I managed to keep a certain level of composure in the restaurant, but back in the room, it was obvious that something was wrong. He watched, alarmed, as my face broke into tears. "What's wrong?" he asked.

I pulled away, still sobbing. "I can't talk about it! It'll ruin everything!"

Except not talking about it would mean he'd be left to guess, which might make things a lot worse. Dammit. I would have to talk about it. I met his eyes, took a deep breath and told him, straight. "I just thought that this was it! I thought you'd

He let my words sink in and then spoke slowly, carefully: "You thought I would ask you to marry me."
I nodded. The tears kept coming. He watched, helpless.

"I'm so sorry." he said, meaning it. "Please don't be sad. I love you so much and I really do want to ask you."

"I know." I said, sighing. I tried to smile, but with no success.

"Oh no!" he said, suddenly. "These last few days, you must have thought I was giving you
signs." I nodded, then blew noisily into a tissue. I let my shoulders drop. "Well, yes... but, people often see what's on their mind. It's like when you break up, every song is about heartbreak."

I was so annoyed at myself. He was a good man and not only had I ruined our romantic break, but I had also screwed up any future proposal.

A good friend of mine advised me to forget about a proposal now. She pointed out that men have very different ideas about things and cannot be relied upon to know what is going on in a woman's head. Her now-husband had tortured her by nonchalently displaying the engagement ring in its little box on their mantlepiece for three whole months before proposing.*
She suggested that I opt out of the pain of waiting and just discuss what it means to get married like adults, decide whether we want to and take it from there.

That sounded good to me. What a ridiculous charade we put ourselves through, anyway! Dreaming of fairytales. Ruining perfectly good realities with impossible expectations. I decided to reject romance for a more realisitic outlook and proposed this alternative to Ed.

My handsome young man thought it over. He said that this was all very well, but he'd already decided what he was going to do and that actually he'd been thinking about it for months. I felt a dawning sense of regret and apologised, sheepishly.

"Don't worry," he said, cheerfully, "I'll just have to surprise you."

So romance isn't dead after all.
Although it looks like I'm back to waiting.


*Although she now gets her revenge by reminding him of this fact whenever she likes, which luckily he takes in reasonably good humour.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Thumping Hell

Those who know me on Facebook or otherwise will know that I recently got hit at work in my duties as a support worker. This is the story behind it. It's a bit long, but it needs to be to understand a bit about the lady who hit me and what happened to me next, including how my workplace responded.

Two weeks ago, I was working with a lady in her sixties. This lady, who I shall call Joan, has complex mental health problems, including dementia and schizophrenia, as well as mild learning disabilities. The dementia means she will forget staff names (so it is common to be called 'Thingy') and the names of common words (milk, coffee, cigarettes). The schizophrenia means she thinks she knows people on TV and is sure that her father is alive and goes to her local church. She lives in her own home, a rented bungalow, and has staff 24/7 to support her in her daily living.

This is one of the rare times when she has 'double up', which means there are two staff working with her.

The other staff member goes off to buy food for Joan.

This is better done without Joan, since she can get rather upset in supermarkets. Joan doesn't understand the value of money and its limits. This has led to her causing scenes (shouting, wailing, hitting) and it is usually staff who get the brunt of her aggression.

Meanwhile, I help Joan get showered and get dressed. I shower her, getting half-soaked in the process. Joan seems in a good mood, but her memory is poor today. A sign that she is not so well.

After her shower, I help her get dressed and we have a bit of a laugh while doing this. I brush her hair - quickly since she doesn't have much patience and I ask if I can dry her hair. Joan is already distracted and says no. She asks for a cigarette, which I provide and light for her, then I take back the lighter to stop it from being lost by her. She often takes her most important things and puts them somewhere 'safe' - in a bag, cupboard or drawer - and then forgets where they have been put. She then blames the staff for stealing it. Again, this can be a trigger point for aggressive behaviour.

The other staff member returns and we prepare a picnic for Joan. Joan loves picnics. She has a large thermos flask to fill with coffee and is very pleased with it. However, today, Joan becomes upset when we cannot find her picnic blanket. We reassure her that it will turn up; it always does. I feel that I have seen in somewhere and eventually come across it on her bookshelf and show her that I have found it. She seems pleased, but continues to be focused on looking for things. I do not know what she is looking for and she cannot tell me since she has forgotten the names for things. She seems lost.

Before we go, we examine the bag of belongings she has collected for the journey. Some are completely unnecessary, so we talk her through what we have collected - sun lotion, picinic blanket, thermos, plates, cups, sandwiches etc. and encourage her to put down some of her things she really will not need: A coat, not needed on this pleasantly hot day. Shampoo. A broken toy. And many many other things. She agrees to take just a few items.

We go out to a beautiful spot on the moors - suitable for Joan because there is a fairly level, short track to a river. The spot is perfect this time of year, lined with rhodedendrons and the weather is fine. On the way, we have stopped at a supermarket and purchased a fold-up chair for Joan to sit on when she is at the picnic, since it is very hard to her to get up the floor once she sits down. This is achieved by me going into the store alone while the other staff member keeps her company and they both smoke cigarettes.

While we are there, Joan seems disappointed that there are no shops and keeps mentioning things that she would like to buy. We assure her that she will have her chance on another day and try to draw her into the surroundings, which she normally enjoys - flowers, birds, stream, passing dogs and a horse, the odd sheep as well as the picnic itself. .

We return to Joan's bungalow and Joan seems focused on one thing - her Blue Badge, which allows staff to park their cars in a spot that is sometimes more helpful for Joan. The other staff member and I quickly discuss it and decide that we should really try and keep the Blue Badge in the staff room since otherwise it can be lost by Joan and lead to her blaming us and attacking us. Joan becomes very demanding and we try to convince her that we can hang on to it for her, but that of course she can take it with us next time we go out.

This doesn't work. Joan becomes distressed and we try to make a compromise and give her the leather pouch that the Blue Badge is kept in. This does not please Joan who is now in tears, asking why we are doing this to her? We ask her to leave the staff room to give her the space to calm down (and us the protection from her aggression). Instead, she punches me hard and square on the jaw. I am shocked and find myself shouting at her, "How dare you! Get out!". Joan continues to stand in front of me, threatening me. I tip her off balance so that she falls back safely onto the staff bed in a sitting position (and so less able to punch me again) and then the other staff member and I forcibly escort her from the staff room and lock the door.

My heart is pumping madly.

Joan shouts at us through the door, tries to break down the door, smashes some of her plates. She then goes out onto the road and is shouting at anyone who speaks to her.

I call the office. Somewhat tearfully, I ask for a manager to get down here, explain what happened and that they may wish to call the police since she is heading for a populated area. I also request that they find someone else to fill the shift I had agreed to do later in the day. The other staff member goes out to try to control or at least monitor the situation while I fill out the Incident Report Form. I am not ready to interact with Joan right now.

My jaw is swelling up and is painful, so I get some frozen peas from her freezer and apply that. The manager shows up and is able to convince Joan to return in from the street to her house for coffee.

I can't get through to my doctors and so I end up going down to A & E, who tell me it will probably hurt pretty bad for a couple of days, but that it isn't fractured and I should be okay if I take painkillers and that unless I am entitled to free prescriptions, I am best off taking paracetamol and ibuprofen together. I am very annoyed that I have to pay for parking. Someone who has suffered an accident or sudden illness and has driven themselves to hospital shouldn't have to worry about parking charges.

I return home via my local shop, which will not sell me more than one type of painkiller, despite me explaining my situation. I assure them that I'm not suicidal; I would just prefer not to be in pain after being thumped in the face. The cashier is adamant. Apparently, they can be personally prosecuted. I also have to buy something over £5 to use my card. Some joker in the shop suggests I go for a 'Lucky Dip' scratchcard. I grumble back that I'm pretty sure it's not my lucky day.

I head five minutes' walk down the road to the nearest chemist, grumpy and raw. I burst into tears. The staff there seem a little shocked when I say I've been hit.

A few days pass. Work calls. Am I willing to work with Joan again? I say no, I am not. She has attacked me many times. Generally, I have been able to flee or block the attack, but this has been the second time she's really 'clocked' me and it is not good. I am concerned that when working on my own, what might happen if I was knocked out? How long might it be before someone finds me?

I ask if pressing charges could be helpful to Joan since it might force more staffing hours to appear, so that she gets double up all the time. I am told that this will not happen, that funding is poor at the moment and more cuts are being made.

I ask for a Supervision, which I get, and counselling, which I don't. I am told that they don't have a 'counselling infrastructure' in place at the moment and that meanwhile I can get counselling through my GP. I counter that this can take months and I need support now. I am advised to get 'emotional support' from Victim Support.

My resentment for my employer grows and is not helped by a letter from the Director saying that we will no longer be able to share the food we have helped purchase and cook and will have to bring our own. This seems impractical on a long shift, since it would require us to bring breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also means us spending more money on our living expenses, without being offered a proportionate pay rise.

Do you hear that? The winds of change are calling...