Dear Auntie Paula
I could tell they were a sporty lot the moment I arrived.
The exits at Shrewsbury station had been turned into starting stalls like at a racecourse, and passengers were queuing to watch. With all exits showing red crosses, I saw five staff – ticket collectors, litter pickers and a Pumpkin person – champing at the paddles, as the barriers are called. A sixth person, acting as judge, switched the red crosses simultaneously to green ticks, freeing the contestants to gallop fifty yards to the plate glass doors and back, with the judge declaring the winner.
No wonder it gripped the assembled crowd – such an innovative use of Arriva facilities, and a great way for employees to pass an idle moment, I thought.
I spent much of my afternoon by the River Severn which, unlike the picture, is in full flood. Leaning on the railings by Welsh Bridge (an inappropriate name I’ve often thought since it’s clearly not Welsh and the authorities shouldn’t encourage them to lay claim to it), I was fascinated by the wood and weed flotsam bobbing downstream in the swirling current, probably from miles away. The debris was piling up against the arches, leaving ever tighter spaces for water to funnel through.
Large items stood little chance, so when I saw a cow approaching I feared the worst. It wasn’t what you might think, Auntie Paula, a corpse, but a very much alive and aware cow, floating majestically on her back, legs pointing neatly skywards and head turning from side to side to get her bearings. Using the trailing tail as a rudder, and stabilised by a full udder spread evenly down her flanks, she steered carefully towards the highest arch and just squeezed through.
Intrigued, I followed her downstream into The Quarry, Shrewsbury’s beautifully landscaped park, where she made for the slower current on my side of the meandering river.
‘That doesn’t look much fun,’ I called out, as she came alongside.
‘It’s always the same,’ the cow said. ‘They know-oo it’s going to happen, but leave us on the flood plain at Welshpool until it’s too-oo late.’
‘What will you do now?’ I said.
‘I’ll eventually run aground and someone will pho-oo-ne the number on my udder.’
‘Oh-oo,’ I said, slipping into her parlance.’ At least you’ll be safe.’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but last time, five of us were washed up together in Frankwell car park, and the lo-oo-cals used us as bicycle racks for three days before the farmer came.’
I left her to it, and wandered up to The Dingle Garden, where in summer you’re guaranteed a dazzling display of bedding plants around the lake. The solitary heron was standing, peering, as if it hadn’t moved since I was last there five years ago. Leaves were blowing about, and the empty beds were being planted with bulbs by a workforce of twenty.
There was something unusual about the bulbs; they were chunky and long, a bit artificial looking. The man in charge told me that with cutbacks Shrewsbury Town Council had reappraised their planting, and this was a one-off exercise to make huge savings over fifteen years.
The bulbs were plastic and each contained a microchip. At the touch of a button on his remote control a newly-planted bed came to life with green sprouts like young daffodil leaves. Another touch and they grew a further inch. It was amazing! When he held the button down the daffodils shot up to their full ten inches and yellow petals opened up to expose bright orange interiors. Each bed had different bulbs, and they’d ordered ‘bedding plants’ for the summer to make further savings. No more annual planting or clearing out; no watering or dead-heading; just a little weeding from time to time. He reckoned it would save two hundred pounds a year.
You’d have loved them, Auntie Paula; and having symmetrical plants is surely a small price to pay in these hard times. I do admire the imagination of local Councils, always coming up with enterprising ideas.
On my way back through the town centre, I was struck by how quiet it was. Pride Hill Arcade felt eerily empty as I browsed for Christmas presents and sat alone in a small cafe for tea and an Eccles cake. But Mcdonald’s was busy, as was Greggs where I queued a long time for a Fatty Melt, my treat on the return journey to Hereford. The reason for the hold-up became clear. As with so many retailers, the customer assistants were more intent on asking if you wanted ‘anything else’ than serving what you wanted. It must be so you spend more, but I find it irritating. Greggs are past masters; as I approached the counter I thought,
‘No, no, please don’t say it!’
But too late. Before I could speak, the assistant called out,
‘No, please not that,’ I said. ‘Please may I have a Fatty Melt?’
‘Anything else?’ she asked.
‘No, really – just a Fatty Melt.’
‘Anything else?’ she said, staring blankly over my shoulder.
‘Okay, can I have one Anything Else please?’ I said, thinking this might fox her into giving me a Fatty Melt. Instead it got worse, as an assistant at the ovens spotted the bull’s-eye on my forehead and joined in.
‘Anything else?’ she called. ‘Anything else?’
‘Anything else?’ said the first assistant.
‘Anything else?’ called a third lady from behind the cake counter.
To this intimidating echo I left the shop, foodless, wondering how Greggs did so well. But escape wasn’t simple. As I made off towards the station I turned to see a gaggle of hair-netted assistants exiting the shop in my direction, the original three in the vanguard, then another trio who’d presumably been buttering bread out the back, followed by a fresh hatching of fully fifteen, intonating their mantra in the same menacing voice as the gas-masked schoolchildren in Doctor Who chanting : ‘Where’s my mummy? I want my mummy.’
‘Anything else? Anything else? Anything else? …’
I ran as fast as I could, and I tell you, Auntie, I was glad the train left on time because I could just see hairnets appearing on the stairs up to platform 7b. Even now on the train, I’m looking over my shoulder.
Anyway, see you soon, and say hello to Prince Benjamin of Beijing. I do like Pekinese.
Paul Costello © October 2012