Sunday 10 April 2011

Garage 2, Customer 0

15st 11lb, zero units. I noticed that someone from the garage had rung while I was out on Friday morning, but hadn’t dared to leave me a message. There wasn’t much point ringing back, because I knew exactly what they were going to say – had known, indeed, from the moment I pointed out the damage to my car on Thursday afternoon – but I felt that it had to be done, and so I made the call. Guess what? My car had been filmed on CCTV from the moment it entered their premises until the moment it left, and at no point had anything made contact with the driver’s door that could possibly have damaged it.

Well, that’s very interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that the door was in perfect condition when I brought it in, and now it is badly marked. Any theories?

‘The only thing we can think is that maybe it had been previously damaged by a stone or something like that. And then, when we pressure washed it after your service, that dislodged the paint.’

Hmmm. Only there was no sign of any damage before, and the mark looks very much as though it has been made with a sharp metal object rather than a stone. (It has not been made by an accidental collision with another car door, say, because there is no dent around it.)

‘Well, all we can say is that we have studied the CCTV footage and you’re very welcome to come in and look at it yourself …’

I suppose I should have called his bluff. If only I had the time. Instead I postulated the hypothetical scenario in which I brought their courtesy car back with an ugly chip out of its paintwork. Whose fault would that be, even if it had happened when I wasn’t in the car and knew nothing at all about it? And who would be paying to put it right?

Why me, of course.

Yet when the damage happens to my car in their hands, as luck would have it they can prove beyond a peradventure that it is my fault, too.

Garage 2, Customer 0.

I told them that they could forget about my order for a new car, though no doubt whichever dealer I order it from will prove equally disobliging. I suppose it’s in their nature, as the scorpion said to the dying frog.

After this I drove for five and a quarter ghastly hours back to Cheshire, arriving a few minutes before I had to leave again in the taxi booked to take me to dinner. I dislike dinner at the best of times – lunch is my meal of choice – and this one proved particularly difficult because (a) I was in the world’s worst mood, (b) I knew hardly any of the other guests, and (c) no one wanted to speak to me, probably reasonably enough in the light of (a) and (b) above. The hotel where the dinner was being held was stuffed with overdressed scratters who had somehow made it back from Ladies’ Day at Aintree, where the word ‘lady’ is clearly interpreted with considerable liberalism. I left by taxi, rather earlier than Mrs H would have liked, and might even have lit the special ‘row candle’ that the vicar gave us at our wedding, with instructions to light it at moments of domestic discord, but for the fact that someone proved to have moved it onto a window sill just in time for this week’s unseasonal heatwave, with rather deleterious results.

Not what it was: our row candle. We would have had a row about how this happened, if only we could have lit it.

After a day of solitary recuperation yesterday, while Mrs H disported herself at a 'hen weekend' in Herefordshire, I was looking forward to enjoying the sunshine with my little family today.  However,   a lorry crash in Nepal affecting one of my clients put the kibosh on that and I ended up spending most of the day at my computer or on the telephone. Though I did manage to get out in the garden for long enough to watch The Boy playing with The Dog, a duty which he takes very seriously indeed …

Thursday 7 April 2011

The pharmacist who wants to be a doctor

15st 11lb, 5.0 units. A busy few days in Northumberland, having the house cleaned, getting my hair cut, buying some shoes, putting my car through one of its remarkably frequent services and lunching with an old friend. I was going to see my doctor, too, until he e-mailed a reply to the letter I wrote him last week about my stiff one from my cardiologist. He said that the cardiologist was right and I should re-start taking the pills originally prescribed in January and find out whether I could tolerate them. (He added that I should have that ‘gold standard’ angiogram, too, if only I wasn’t such a bloody coward, without actually using the words ‘bloody’ or ‘coward’).

So I cancelled my appointment to see him.

I then remembered that I only had a small handful of the aforementioned pills left, prescribed by a private GP in Chester, so I had to e-mail him back to ask for a prescription. There ensued a surreal e-mail correspondence with the surgery, who pointed out that I wasn’t allowed to pester the doctors with personal e-mails requesting prescriptions, but could register to order them through the NHS patient website. Yes, but only repeat prescriptions, I pointed out, and this was a completely new one. Well, it was showing up as a repeat prescription now. Yes, and I would order it that way in the future, but on this occasion …

Even so, it appeared, I was in breach of ‘protocol’ and should have kept my appointment and wasted ten minutes of my doctor’s valuable time asking him in person to write out the prescription for the drugs he had already e-mailed me with instructions to take.

Bureaucracy. Don’t you love it?

And there was more of it to come, when I wandered into the branch of Boots to which all the prescriptions from my doctor’s surgery are automatically despatched (does the Competition Commission know about this?)

The woman behind the counter handed them over with the usual look of amazement that assistants in chemist’s shops adopt when anyone says that, yes, they do pay for their prescriptions, but asked whether I had time for a word with the pharmacist before I left.

I didn’t, really, but I said ‘yes’ out of politeness (not what you’d expect, I know), anticipating that someone would come across to the counter, lower their voice and ask whether I was aware that taking these particular pills would increase my sexual appetite ten-fold (which would still be nothing worth blogging about, to be honest).

Instead, to my amazement, I was ushered into a newly created ‘consulting room’ at the back of the shop and asked to take a seat opposite a man with dark hair and reassuring glasses. (Reassuring because, so far as I can see, the only important qualification for being a pharmacist is the ability to read.) I really did not have time for this, being due to meet a friend for lunch in Newcastle, so I asked what this new-fangled nonsense was all about.

He explained that he wanted to have a word with me about my medication.

I pointed out that my doctor had just prescribed said medication (and could have added, if I had time, that he had done so on the advice of an Honorary Professor in Cardiovascular, Sports and Exercise Medicine, no less). Did he think that my doctor did not know what he was doing? (A question to which an affirmative response would not have been particularly surprising, I must admit.)

“No, no, nothing like that,” he explained “But rather than simply handing the drugs over, we now like to make sure that our customers know why they have been prescribed them and how to take them.”

How to take a pill. It’s an overused phrase, but my mind genuinely boggled as I attempted to get a grip on just how stupid this bloke evidently thought I was. “What’s it got to do with you, matey? You’re just a glorified shelf-stacker” were the words forming in my brain, but what I actually said as I turned on my heel were “I have a first class degree from Cambridge – I can read!”

I wished, with the benefit of hindsight, that I could have come up with something quite a bit wittier and considerably less self-glorifying than that.

Then I drove to Newcastle, fuming, thinking how much easier life must have got for pharmacists since I was a child, when they had to decipher prescriptions scrawled in pen and ink and make up evil-tasting concoctions in glass bottles (returnable) with real corks. Now they just have to be able to read a computer print-out and count. [My further reflections on where it might all end can be found in my subsequent newspaper column].

After an excellent lunch in Newcastle I drove back up to Alnwick in my ‘courtesy car’ and hung around the garage for a good while so that I could talk to a salesman about the possibility of ordering a new car for Mrs H. Then I went outside and admired my nicely cleaned, not-so-old car, focusing particularly on the large chip in the paintwork of the driver’s door, which had definitely not been there when I brought it in this morning. So naturally I went back to remonstrate, and someone duly came out, sucked through his teeth, and promised to study their CCTV footage to work out how it happened.

I wonder how that will turn out …

Saturday 2 April 2011

The greatest show on Earth

15st 8lb, zero units. We celebrated April Fool’s Day at the Zoo. Chester Zoo, to be precise. We thought long and hard before selecting a nice, quiet day during the school term for our visit. Encouragingly, there seemed to be plenty of space in the car park when we pitched up, but there was still a queue at the gate. The sort of queue that is deliberately manufactured by saying to every would-be entrant, ‘Would you like to increase the value of your donation to us by gift aiding it, at no extra cost to yourself?’ so that everyone can hang around kicking their heels while the bloke in front gives his postcode, then explains that he hasn’t got a house number, because he lives in a pub. A pub that does not exist on the Zoo’s database, probably because the brewery renamed it last month after 300 years as the Rose and Crown and it is now called The Oscillating Parrot and Scrotum or something of the sort. On and on it goes. It makes me see red every time, because it is such a blatant scam (I am not making a donation, I am paying for entry to an attraction), it wastes so much of everyone’s time, the sums involved are trivial – oh, and purely by coincidence, the attraction ends up with your name and address on list so that they can pester you until the crack of doom, and quite possibly for years thereafter.

Mrs H now anticipates my answer to the polite query about Gift Aid (‘No, I f***ing wouldn’t!’) and interposes herself to hand over the money. But she still feels obliged to say ‘no’, with me breathing threateningly down her neck. The girl in the ticket booth pulled as sour a face as I would expect her colleague on the switchboard to be wearing on April Fools’ Day, after half a morning wearily explaining to people responding to post-it note messages to ring Mr C. Lyon as a matter of urgency that they have been had.

Through a triumph of planning, we also discovered that 1 April is designated as the start of high season, when the Zoo jacks all its entry prices up.

Once inside, we are immediately overawed by the sheer scale of the place, and how much there is to see. Namely Scallies. Thousands of them. Chavs, scratters, call them what you will. Many displaying their traditional plumage of a grey tracksuit, and attempting to express themselves in that strange foreign language known as Scouse. Some had babies and very young children with them, but there were many young couples simply wandering around hand in hand. Perhaps a visit to Chester Zoo is part of some mysterious Scally mating ritual. At any rate, we quickly realized that this was one zoo where the fences around the enclosures were intended to protect the animals from the visitors, and not the other way around.

We started with the elephants. Well, what is so wrong with the obvious? The elephants shared their house with a depressed-looking bird and a plant that looked like a huge cock.

The Great Indian Hornbill, wishing it was in India
Amorphophallus - no, really. Fnarr, fnarr

Clearly God had been reading Viz on the day he dreamed it up. Apparently it doesn’t flower very often, but when it does it smells of rotten meat. You’ve got to admit He has a sense of humour, hasn’t He?

The elephants weren’t actually in their house, but a man with a mechanical digger was there, scooping up pachyderm poo. The Boy can’t say ‘elephant’, but he does a cracking imitation of one by raising his arm above his head in imitation of a trunk and trumpeting. One of the three highlights of his day was ‘man digger [arm raised, trumpet] poo’.

The elephants weren’t in their house because they were outside in the sunshine playing with a stick. It was immediately obvious that someone had sawn all their tusks off, though whether this has been done by Scallies, or as a preventative measure in anticipation of their interest, remains a mystery.

Elephants - with stick, minus tusks

We moved on to the rhinoceros enclosure, where someone had sawn off the rhino’s horn. I sensed a pattern.

He definitely hasn't got the horn

Then we walked over a bridge by the cheetah enclosure, where three cheetahs were sitting in a row wondering how the hell they could get over or through the fence, and how fast the Scallies would run if they did. And no doubt whether the poo would show through their grey tracksuits right away when they shat themselves.

If only ... the cheetahs daydream

The Boy, careering wildly over the bridge ahead of us, fell flat on his face and bit his tongue. There was quite a lot of blood. The cheetahs sniffed the breeze with interest.

Luckily he brightened up very quickly when the lion clambered down from his platform and did a spot of roaring. We decided, with the benefit of hindsight, that the lion and his mate were the only big cats in the place that seemed reasonably contented with their lot. All the others were clearly either sitting looking for a way out, or pacing endlessly around their enclosures in search of an escape route they had somehow overlooked. But lying around, having a wee and roaring from time to time, in return for all meals found, seemed to suit the lion down to the ground. I reckon The Dog would adjust to zoo life pretty well, too. ‘Lion come down’ was the second highlight of The Boy’s day.

Lion, before he come down

After this it was time for lunch, which smelt and looked like something one of the animals might have done. El Bulli for Scallies, obviously.

Then there was a tiger, pacing; spoonbills, looking a bit ridiculous; a big green lizardy thing lying around under a sun lamp; a juvenile Komodo dragon, playing silly buggers; lots of flamingos; and a pair of Asian short-clawed otters, being seriously cute.

Next we saw some penguins, which The Boy decided were rubbish because they did not sing ‘Dum, dum, dum de dum’ to the tune of ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream’ like the battery-powered one he plays with in his bath.

I was naturally very much looking forward to the monkeys. Sadly I realized that they were no longer allowed to indulge in tea parties with their keepers, but at least I felt sure that they could be relied upon to stage an entertaining frenzy of masturbation, or to hurl their own excrement at passers-by, a sport at which the only orang utan I have knowingly seen before, at Phoenix Park zoo in Dublin, was a world champion. It was most important to move on before he got his eye in. I shall never forget the obvious pleasure with which he weighed a turd in his hand, surveying his audience, assessing the right trajectory and listening to them scream.

Sadly at Chester the chimps are on an island and the orang utans behind glass, so that avenue of pleasure was firmly closed to me.

We were wearying by now, but felt that we had to see the jaguars (pacing) and the giraffes (beautifully camouflaged against the Cheshire stone house where they live).

Then The Boy finally got up close and personal with the animals that constituted his third and greatest highlight of the day: the sodding ducks.  The very tame wild ones that have chosen to make their home in the Zoo, and presumably get some sort of perverted pleasure out of taunting the other avians which are confined to cages. I know I would. The self-same mallards that frequent our garden pretty much every day, and which he could see out of the window without paying £14 per head to the North of England Zoological Society for the privilege.

The highlight of his day
But look how happy it made him. Bless.

Everything after that was an anticlimax, though it looked like we might be in for just the opposite of that when some things that looked a bit like donkeys (but weren’t) started shagging. Onagers, they were, apparently. That was what it said on the sign by their enclosure, at any rate. It’s lucky that they cannot read or no doubt they would become hugely self-conscious about the rest of the animal kingdom laughing up its collective metaphorical sleeve because they are an anagram of ‘oranges’.

Not oranges

Then it was a quick gawp at a couple of very scruffy Bactrian camels and a seemly progress towards the exit.

Mrs H wanted to see the spectacled bears en route, but the plan fell down because they weren’t en route. We made more of an effort to find the meerkats, in the hope that they would all be talking in Russian accents and trying to sell insurance, but our hearts were not really in it and we gave up.

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘We can always come again.’

Oh dear. I do hope not.