My No-Frills Life

The Herefordshire border sign proudly says: you can.

But apparently we can’t.

Herefordshire Road SignMay 2013 – my local Council declares that libraries, museums and theatres are no longer important, and that the staff toilets in Thorntons chocolate shops and Thomas Cook travel agents must now be used in the absence of public ones.

Having buried its rustic head in the Herefordshire hop fields since Camshaft and Clogg said public services should be taken over by The Big Society – my mum at 92 quickly stepped in to run Brighton and Hove Libraries on her own – Herefordshire Council now finds it has run out of money and needs to take more drastic action than if it had spent the last three years making a plan.

But I’m okay with this. The removal of services called “inessential”, but which can enrich people’s lives and offer a social focus for communities (I wasn’t thinking of the toilets), will simply add to my no-frills existence. I’m used to it.

And, being only human, Thorntons counter assistants will appreciate the public’s dilemma.

‘Morning, sir. A 200gm assortment box? Mix of Soft Centres and Chocolate Truffles, gift-wrapped for the lady?’

‘No thanks, luv. Just the lav today.’

‘Thank you, sir. Straight through there. Enjoy.’

Until recently, I’d only associated “no-frills” with air travel. I’d thought Ryanair was the pinnacle (sorry trough) of this, as wonderfully expounded in the song Cheap Flights by Fascinating Aida. That is, until I came across Air Explore. In 2012, this Slovak airline was hired by Monarch when they couldn’t meet demand with their own fleet. It was a mistake. Amidst unsettling stories from fellow travellers with prior knowledge of Air Explore, we’d sat for an hour in the stuffy atmosphere of a 737 on Birmingham apron while security officials dealt with the captain who’d allegedly failed a breathalyser, only to be sent back to the terminal until a replacement plane was found after another hour.

Out and return, shortage of legroom forced passengers to wrap knees round chins, uncomfortable for older people and unseemly for those in skimpy clothing for Albufeira. Consuming the soggy cheese melt and cold mock-coffee was awkward, though being bandy I had a natural gap through which my friend could feed me succulent tit-bits and run a straw.

Air Explore

In the likely event of an emergency landing, we were at least in a brace position, albeit upright. Not that we’d have understood what this meant had we been first-time flyers. An expressionless, disembodied voice guided us through the safety instructions:

‘Lifebel-iz-under-sit-and-ossigin-iz-above-and-fall-down, own-first-then-children-iz-order, and-no-smoke-in-lavatory-haz-alarm.’

‘What-that-sound-from-speaker-iz-above?’ my friend asked me.

‘Iz-procedure-for-likely-event-emergency,’ I explained. ‘Iz-we-die-when-seatbelt-snap-and-plane-plunging-and-no-ossigin.’

‘Thank-you-iz-understand-now.’

So – “no-frills” is relative. Air Explore made easyJet look like the saints of the skies, though even it must think we’ve got it too easy as it announces a 64% reduction in the permitted size for hand luggage. No coincidence that it’s just taken over CabinBaguette, a manufacturer whose speciality is cabin baggage for short-haul travel. Buy shares now! And Ryanair, on a further cost offensive, still vies for bottom spot, announcing that from 2014, without payment of a fee, engines will be reined back at 30,000 feet and passengers must flap madly through aircraft windows while a whip-wielding cabin crew patrols the aisle like Vikings in a longship.

Back home, and Herefordshire Council mounts a further challenge in the no-frills race. My car already baulks at entering petrol stations:

‘Not at that price,’ it tells me. ‘We’ll just go out occasionally.’

And so it sits outside my house except for a weekly trip round the block to keep itself happy, when, to avoid Council-sponsored potholes the size of Vesuvius it veers wildly from side to side, dodging mobility scooters which navigate straight up and down the deep craters, looking from above like rows of egg-carrying ants.

Then I hear the Council might only collect my rubbish fortnightly, meaning the front of our neat terrace goes to back-alley squalor as wheelie bins overflow and black sack mountains attract foraging cats and rats.

But my bus pass is free. And while Council subsidies are fast disappearing, there’s still a good service to Hereford on top-range buses and a no-frills service to Gloucester on a shaking, breaking fleet with bold notices saying:Stagecoach

Stagecoach advises that passengers may experience upset stomach, severe nausea, giddiness, hearing problems, tremor and total breakdown. Please tell us any other side-effects, so we can add them to the list.

As my income is ever pinched by Camshaft, Clogg and Council, I plumb the depths of no-frills shopping, embracing Peacocks for underwear at a penny, Greggs whose Fatty Melts™ fill me for a quid, and Lidl where I can joust with other shoppers for the last box of Class 5 strawberries, nibbling quickly at the edges before white fur encases the fruit.

At home, I pamper myself in a bubble-bath of Strippit™ from the 99p Store, on offer at 20p when purchased with Skinright™, a soothing balm for burnt skin.100_21571.jpg And afterwards, my treat – a Special House Chow Mein from my Chinese takeaway, Wing On, cheaper than I could make it, and with ambience and service that leaves Air Explore looking classy.

Sadly, holidays are a thing of the past, though an occasional overnight at a Travelodge is affordable. The youthful receptionist at a pasting table babbles about breakfast packs and points you in the general direction of a bare-walled room, with its bathroom door that doesn’t quite shut, and its small balsa bed which, as you turn at night, moves in circles away from the wall, leaving you disorientated when you get up to look for the one-cup kettle that’s no longer provided.

But in one vital way, life is rich. My girlfriend, happy to share my no-frills existence, is first-class. Unlike an early girlfriend, Nancy Everett, who dressed plainly, had a figure like a plank and spoke in a muttered monotone. No-Frills Nancy, she was known as. She killed our relationship by yanking off the tabs on my long socks one day when it was Cubs after school. Which made me cry.

Paul Costello ©  May 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Utterly front cover - final Illustrated by Emma Hames.      

Publication:  spring 2013.    

Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

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Camshaft, Clogg & Co, Accountants

 

‘That’s it!’ yelled Camshaft from the de luxe swivel chair of his top floor suite. ‘Clogg – here a mo!’

Clogg emerged from the back office, bleary-eyed and bedraggled from working late into the Westminster night. When he accepted the job as Camshaft’s Deputy, he’d had no idea there’d be quite so much filing and tidying up.

‘What?’ he said, dazzled as ever by Camshaft’s awesome glow.

Parliament at night

‘Universal, that’s what!’

‘Sorry?’ said Clogg, a step behind his colleague’s wizard intellect.

‘The money we shell out for people who say they haven’t got any,’ said Camshaft. ‘Instead of lots of confusing labels, we’ll lump them under one title. How does Universal Credit sound?’

For the last two hours Camshaft had been deep in the Westminster Thesaurus, trying to find a perfect tag. Common and Comprehensive had no resonance; Preponderate, Omnipresent and All-embracing were too cumbersome; and Catholic Credit would have been insensitive, considering he’d chosen Duckan-Dive, an influential Roman Catholic with a benevolent family-man image, to front the changes.

But Universal – that was perfect!

‘Fabulous,’ said Clogg, proud to be under such astute and forward-thinking leadership.

‘And Universal also implies there’s something in it for everyone.’

‘Marvellous,’ said Clogg.

‘We’ll get people to claim online,’ said Camshaft. ‘That’ll save a bit.’

‘Is that fair?’ said Clogg, timidly. ‘What about those without computers?’

‘They can use Library ones,’ said Camshaft.

‘But aren’t they closing Libraries down, and charging for computers in the ones still open?’

‘A trial period will sort all that out,’ said Camshaft.

‘Suppose so,’ said Clogg. ‘And no-one will lose out? Like single parents or sick people?’

‘Shouldn’t think so. But if they get short, they can always find a job to top up.’

‘True. You know, I really admire your foresight, Cams,’ he said, risking the familiar. ‘And Duckan-Dive will love the idea. I’ll go and tell him.’

In a lower basement office Duckan-Dive was trying to make sense of the figures on his easy-read calculator.

‘We’re calling it Universal Credit,’ Clogg said, as if it was his idea.

‘That’s brilliant!’ said Duckan-Dive. ‘Universal sounds so, well – universal, that with luck nobody will question the sums. Very clever Cloggs!’

‘Thanks, Ducks,’ said Clogg in a tone not too obviously patronising. ‘Come up for a drink.’

By the time they arrived, Camshaft had downed a couple of malts and slipped the Glenlivet back into his desk. ‘Whisky?’ he said, proffering a bottle of Spar Blend. ‘To Universal Credit!’ they called, charging glasses several times before Camshaft marked the whisky level with a felt-tip and put it back in his drawer.

‘Now – let’s do it!’ he said with a cheeky glint.

‘You don’t mean …’ said Clogg, eyes flashing expectantly.

‘Well, it is the tradition!’ said Camshaft.

Duckan-Dive giggled like a schoolboy as he slotted his hands through Clogg’s perfectly placed jacket slits and Clogg in turn fixed on to Camshaft who led the singing:

We’re go-ing Uni-versal, We’re go-ing Uni-versal, La lah lah la, La lah lah la 

With unconfined joy, they snaked round Camshaft’s massive desk, chanting loud and off-key as men often do after whisky. Into Clogg’s office they advanced, circling his fold-up table and chairs, all the while raising legs right and left like a centipede in time to the beat. Then, as with any good conga, Camshaft took the line into the corridor.

We’re go-ing Uni-versal, We’re go-ing Uni-versal, La lah lah la 

‘Come on, luv, join in! What’s your name?’ said Camshaft, wanting to appear inclusive and universal as they passed a cleaning lady.Conga

‘Eleesha,’ she said, ditching her floor mop and falling comfortably into the conga’s Afro rhythm as she latched on to Duckan-Dive.

La lah lah la, La lah lah la …

Down the staircase they went, echoing their presence through the building. At the next level another cleaner tacked on, and a young Parliamentary Researcher swotting for the Wildlife Secretary, Theresa Green. As they carried on downwards, they were joined by a porter, a Polish security guard, three more cleaners, and a Parliamentary Assistant, her  clothing somewhat in disarray. The twelve-strong snake curled its way round the lobbies and into the debating chamber where the Speaker and the three remaining MPs, discussing the de-licensing of a Darlington dog home, fastened on to relieve the boredom.

La lah lah la, La lah lah la

Its universal gospel spread, the conga eventually petered out by the impressive front doors, and with congratulations all round, the hangers-on dispersed to the business of the night.

‘Best be off,’ said Clogg, unfolding a silver scooter from the bike rack and switching on his flashing trainers. As he pushed off along the pavement, Camshaft turned to Duckan-Dive. ‘I think your job title will need changing,’ he said. ‘There’s no point being Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if we don’t distinguish between the likes of poor pensioners and the unemployed. How does Head of Universal sound?’

The beam from Duckan-Dive’s face could have boiled the beans in a boy scout’s billycan. No longer a Secretary (which he’d always thought had girlie connotations), but a Head; and not heading the narrow and frankly dull subject of work and pensions, but Head of Universal! It could be Hollywood! Making off to catch the 159 to Streatham with a grin visible at fifty yards, he turned and waved to Camshaft, standing alone under the arched doorway.

Back on the top floor, Camshaft dialled his chauffeur and poured a single malt for the road.

‘La lah lah la,’ he muttered. ‘Shaft by name, shaft by nature.’

Paul Costello © May 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.utterly front cover jpg (207x280)

Illustrated by Emma Hames.      

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8