Street Angel, Road Devil

Somebody called me ‘gentle’ this week. It was on Twitter, actually, and it surprised me. 

I’d never think of myself as gentle. Although, thinking about it now, I suppose on Twitter I am, mostly… gentle. I certainly don’t come looking for fights or conflict and I like to take an overview on stuff whenever I can.

In life too, I guess I’m pretty gentle. Maybe that’s too strong but I don’t go around screaming at people or mugging them or stealing their handbags and such. Yes, ‘gentle’ is definitely too strong – it really is – but non-aggressive is about right, maybe even a bit kind. Sometimes. That might fit. 

So, okay, maybe I’m gentle…ish.

Except in my car.

Twitter doesn’t get to see me in my car. Hardly anybody does. And whenever anybody else is there to see me, I tend to temper my behaviour. Which is just as well because if I didn’t, somebody would probably try to lock me up.

The simple truth is, I’m not so gentle in my car.

Oh no.

In fact I’m a bit of a git in my car. Something of a bastard, a fuckwit, a gobshite. 

It’s not that I drive aggressively, I don’t. I feel a huge responsibility when I drive. I try to do it as well as I can and with a weather eye to other people’s safety as well as my own.

The problem isn’t with me, it’s with everybody else. I am hyper-critical of everybody else’s driving. You are either too fast or two slow, too big or too small, too old or too young. If you are in my vicinity in your car, when I am in mine, then chances are I will find fault with you. And I won’t just do it in my head either, oh no, I will tell you about it, out loud.

Of course nobody can hear me. Nobody except me. If you saw me in full flow, there in my little car, you might assume I was having a passionate discourse with someone on a hands-free mobile phone call. Not so. I am berating you, sir. Yes you.

Nobody is exempt from my vociferous critical attentions. From learner teenagers to octogenarian bottle-spectacled granddads, you are all cannon fodder for my righteous ire. You are all completely and utterly in the wrong.

It’s quite a recent development, this cynical commentary on the world from within my car. I always did a bit of it but I would position the escalation at about the time I had to give up jogging on account of my knee. 

Sometimes, when someone is in the car with me, I forget that they are there and I do a bit of my ‘diatribe’ thing. They look at me as if I’m mad and who is to say they are not right? Maybe I am mad, sitting there behind my windscreen, railing against you because you cannot walk a bit more quickly across the bloody road.

It’s not terrible nice and it’s most certainly not gentle. But I don’t think I’m mad. Not yet anyway. It’s rude and childish and pretty much unforgivable but it’s contained too and, if I didn’t write about it like this, you wouldn’t ever know it was happening.

I tend to think it’s my overflow valve. 

Alone in my car, I get to spit a little vitriol in the eye of the world. I let off a little steam and the car ventilation system deals with it and disperses it to the air harmlessly. I also kind of amuse myself a little, letting my bad side out in this way. Who the hell needs to be gentle all the time? The trick is to pick a place to be non gentle where you can do no harm.

And, yes, perhaps my car is not the best place to do that. Perhaps I should have a punch bag out in the shed or something. Perhaps the car is still too public a place to vent a little steam.

I’ll think about that now and see if I should try to change my nasty little car habit. The point for today is that I’m maybe not quite as gentle as you think I am. 

In one place, at least.

Reflection on a River

Wednesday afternoon saw me sitting on a rock beside a river for five minutes when I really should have been racing on to the next thing. Sitting there, looking down into the coppery water, I was reminded of something from my childhood, something I hadn’t thought of in years. 

Polaroid sunglasses. 

When we were kids, in the early seventies, Polaroid sunglasses suddenly became a huge object of desire. A quick internet search shows that they had been around for a darn sight longer than that but, for whatever reason, an advert campaign or something, they suddenly became hot to us at that time.

It must definitely have been an advert campaign that set us off on our Polaroid fixation because it wasn’t the looks or the image of the product that grabbed us. Oh no. It was one thing and one thing only… the glare reduction.

We lived beside the river, you see, and our summer’s were largely spent wading about in the river, looking for stuff. Eels under rocks, lost lures snagged in weeds, pirates’ treasure. You name it, we were looking for it down there in the brown coppery water.

And we were invariably hampered in our search by the glare on the surface. We couldn’t see through it. We had to feel around blindly beneath the awful shine and hope for the best.

Then, suddenly, there was Polaroid sunglasses and their amazing, truly amazing, ability to cut out the glare on the surface of the river and allow you to see beneath. 

They were right there too, in the local chemist’s shop, on a rotating rack. Too expensive to be owned. We used to offer to pick up prescriptions and such just so that we could stare at them and, if the shop was quiet, perhaps risk trying a pair on. Trying them on wasn’t much use, really though, because there’s wasn’t any watery glare in the shop to try them out on.

Eventually, somebody got a pair. It was one of the older boys, I can’t remember who. The clamour by all the other kids to try his Polaroids out on the river was terrifying but we all got a go. Did they work? Well, yes, they did. Perhaps not as earth-shatteringly well as they did on the telly but still the bottom of the river could be seen and that, for us, was all that mattered in the world at that time. 

That’s what I thought about when I sat down at the river on Wednesday. Polaroids. It was a good little memory that I wouldn’t have got if I hadn’t taken the few minutes to pull over and look into the water.

It had been a stressful day and I was all about racing past the river spot and getting to where I was supposed to be but the sun was shining, I could afford a few minutes, a something said ‘stop’. 

A friend of mine is looking into Mindfulness at the moment. I don’t know anything about it, really, only hearsay and Chinese whispers. If pushed, I would say it’s about being in the moment you are in, without apology and without projecting forward to where you are going or backward to where you have been.

I said I would take this riverside pause to be as ‘in the moment’ as I possibly could be. I took a self-conscious breath and looked around, as hard as I could, at where I was. There was the river, of course, fast flowing and remarkably brown, as if it had come from some iron-rich land. There were reeds, on the further bank, and the place were they entered the water created a little rivulet in the surface which expanded and recreated like a tiny pebble thrown in. There was a bird then, a tiny guy with a red hood over his head. He was busy, darting here and there in a very small region within a clump of bushes. Under the water there was clumps of grass where part of the river bank must have fallen in. The grass down there still seemed to be growing, despite the alien conditions it found itself in. 

Lastly, in a long list of inconsequential things, there was a telltale plop in the centre of the river as a small fish came up and sucked down a surface-ridden bug. It came up again and again and I watched to see if I could see the actual fish as opposed to the spoor of his movement on the surface. Alas I never did. If only I had those Polaroids then.

It was a good exercise, that five minutes out of time. For at least three minutes of it, there was no thoughts of ‘what happens’ next’ or ‘what just happened’. There was only the place and the quiet little things that were going on there.

It’s not something I would tend to do much and, here, I have to confess one element which seemed to enable me to do it was this: my phone had died. The battery had run out, a thing that I never allow to happen. Deprived of the potential for contact from the world at large, I think I felt more licensed to take a Ferris Bueller moment and just look around a bit. 

I’m glad I did. I must do it again sometime soon.

And I must remember to bring some Polaroids.