Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mud bath

Finally. Everybody left. It was so nice to see them all here. My family, here in South Africa, for Christmas. My mom and dad, who came to Africa for the first (and I’m thinking, now, last) time. My sister, the dearest closest love of my whole entire life. And my four kids were here too (the boys from universities in the States, Aphrodite from England.) And of course Miss T, to her eternal sorrow was here already. So, the whole family reunited, together, in Johannesburg.

Christmas in Africa. What’s it like? Nice, lekker, nice.

We went off to a game park near Botswana before Christmas. Saw every kind of animal (save buffalo and wild dog, for the game-counters amongst us), even a leopard on the hunt -- very exciting. The fresh air was invigorating, the sunsets breathtaking, as they always are here in Africa. And the night-time ride through a lightning and hail storm in an open Land Rover was thrillingly indescribable.

Aphrodite said it was like being in the movie “Twister” and it was. Lightning cracking all around, left, right, behind, to the left again, and then again! Closer even! Chasing us! And again! Crack!!! Again over there. CRACKKKK!!!!

We were racing toward the lodge. Rain pelting down. Sliding on slippery mud roads at 80 kph, the fastest you could go. Gobs of mud flying up from the wheel wells, landing everywhere, and hail pellets smacking your eyes and lips and cheeks. I spent a bit of time thinking about that physics thing, where the car shields you from lightning, because it makes a shell around you, and the lightning goes around and to ground. I'm wondering how that works on a Land Rover, with no top. Ah fokkal, not to worry. Life’s short, hey? Live it up!

The kids were screaming with laughter, singing songs, yelling, ponchos flapping in the crazy wind, shouting into the storm. What an adrenaline rush! But “Nana” was uber-pissed off -- drenched and wet and recovering from bronchitis. She thought it was a bit too much. And we all knew it was too much for her, because we’d seen her, curled into a tiny ball in the front seat of the Landie, cowering. As one would do, IF one were sensible. “Nooo, me thinks it’s been too much fer yer gran, hey yeah!”

She had brekkers in bed, next day, and by later on in the afternoon, no problemo. We tried to tell her it was a kind of spa health treatment but she wasn’t buying our line of kak.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Oscar of Malawi

You may be able to imagine the adjustment involved in having full time household help. Or maybe not. I have to slap myself some days. It’s just too bizarre, really. We’ve hired Oscar, a man from Malawi (another country in Africa, for the geographically challenged amongst you) to work around the house here. He dusts, he vacuums, he does the dishes, and the laundry and ironing. He is so much neater than I could ever be. He has such high standards! “Ellie, this room is verry verrrry dirrty!” I look around, some dust, yeah. But Oscar does his magic and it looks so much better. I didn’t even SEE the dirt, and now it’s gone. Wow.

Oscar’s a great guy. He irons beautifully, and even those golf socks of Mr. D’s are all pressed! Oscar and I, we’ve been doing a lot of house projects together, like hanging curtains and so on. As long as we can both find our reading glasses, we do fine (I bought him a pair the week after he came on board, when I realized that neither of us could see a damn thing.)

For someone who’s living hundreds and hundreds of miles from his wife and children, he is remarkably steady. He works here, and sends money home monthly. This time of year, his pay is really critical, as it’s planting season, and seed and fertilizer need to be purchased. These things are, by Malawian standards, extremely expensive. And due to an extensive drought, the worst since 1992, food is already in very short supply, months before any harvest can be expected. That, along with the ever present scourge of HIV/AIDS, has put the entire population at risk of starvation.

Malawi has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world. About $170 per person, per year. Can you imagine? You can’t. Don’t even try. By the way, if you are interested in donating to Malawian hunger relief, the World Food Programme (, in association with the UN, has been doing fine aid work there. Oxfam as well. ( Check out those web sites (Southern Africa/Malawi pages). Right now, hunger programmes for Malawi are seriously underfunded, due to ... Well, who knows? Natural disasters right and left all over the globe? Donor burnout? Lack of effective publicity? At any rate, anything you give will surely mean a lot to people who earn less than 50 cents a day. Think about it. One fourth of the cost of your FIRST Starbucks of the day feeds an entire family in Africa for a whole day. "Aiysh!", as they say here.

But back to Oscar. I know he thinks we’re really a strange bunch, Mr. D, me, and Miss T. Over the years, we’ve accumulated so much “stuff”,even just in terms of dishes. With four kids, and all their friends as well, it seemed I always was cooking meals for at least 10. So one needed to have at least a dozen soup and cereal bowls, just to cover the mealtimes and manage breakage issues (especially with all those teenaged boys sloping about, balancing cereal bowls on top of the TV or whatever). Now, that stack of bowls stays standing in the cupboard. We use two, maybe three dishes and then they’re washed, dried -- all clean again immediately after the meal. We could in fact get by with only three of anything.

And Mr. D’s been traveling a lot, so Miss T and I have developed some strange habits. It’s hard to get geared up for cooking when there’s only two of you... and one person only prefers pizza. The other morning, Oscar stopped me and said, "E! E! .... Sorry! Sorry! ..... I must.... I have been wanting to ask you. Aiysh.... What do you people eat? I am thinking you buy food only for me.”

I had to stop and ponder. What WAS in the fridge? Beet root chutney, some pesto, a tube of wasabi. Diet Coke, sparkling water, half a bottle of Mr. D’s favorite Chardonnay. A brick of mozzarella, a few ears of corn, some yoghurt, and a couple of eggs. My gosh, what HAVE we been eating? Ai yi! And, hmmmm! Good question! For Miss T it’s been pizza and pasta. For me, fresh corn on the cob, biltong, anchovy toast, and pickles. (Yes, I must be salt-deprived in this heat.) For Mr. D, when he’s here, the Atkins diet (ugh.) Yes, we’re an odd lot.

And then there’s Vladi, who hasn’t been eating anything. He was getting awfully scrawny looking, even for a poodle. He was starting to look like a starving African dog, for crying out loud. Then last weekend, he seemed oh-so-sick, and he just lay around all day. We ended up taking him to the veterinary hospital late Sunday, where he was diagnosed (after numerous tests) with Addison’s disease. Same as in humans, it’s a failure of the adrenal gland, quite common in male standard poodles around five years of age. Bingo. He’s got that. A poster child for genetic poodle disorders. Oh well.

Fortunately, with a lifetime regime of inexpensive pills, he can lead a long and healthy life. A week later and he’s already almost himself again. Of course, this makes him one of the more expensive dogs in the world -- a few international flights, those grooming fees, special food, meds, boarding on occasion. Somehow when we took on a puppy back in the year 2000 we forgot to open a mutual fund to finance his upbringing. Ach. What can I say? He’s good company in this strange place.

But then think on this. I’m spending all this money on my dog. My dog. I do love him, it’s true. He’s kept me going, faithful companion, through some tough times. But I could feed families, whole villages, with that money. Life’s tragic ironies. Dogs owned by Americans and Brits have health insurance and Science Diet Adult Large Breed dog food, and then babies and two-year-olds and young mothers and old people starve and die of malnutrition in a country you’ve never even heard of. Where’s the fairness in all of that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Sock tan

But here’s a new worry I have, which has NEVER been an issue before, NEVER. Never, never! It’s small, I know. It’s not earth-shattering. But it’s been bugging me.

All our married life, I’ve mocked Mr. D for his red neck and his “sock” tan. It’s a golfer’s issue, mostly. Shorts, shirt, golf socks. You look good on the 18th green with your 82 on the card, but pretty damn strange in the shower afterwards (not that we were really looking! Please! I have some important knitting to do!) White feet, brown calves. But your tan only goes two thirds of the way up your legs, to just over your knees at mid-thigh, and then it’s back to a white body and that crazy red neck. I imagine tennis pros and rugby players have similar problems, not that I’ve been watching any of THOSE guys in any locker rooms. (Sorry to say, and more’s the pity. I could use the variety. Any volunteers, boys? Come on, you know it’s tempting.)

The problem? Uneven melanin distribution. It’s an aesthetic issue. But, hey, I was an art major. I GET to have an opinion on beauty, or the lack thereof. What if Tiepolo’s cherubs had been all oddly and unevenly colored? With nappie/diaper tans? Or if St. Jerome in the Wilderness had had painfully sunburned forearms, holding that Bible out there in the blinding light in the desert? Or maybe, maybe, the Angel Gabriel appeared at the Annunciation, and his feet were brown, but his body. Hold on! Wait! Angels don't have bodies, do they? Never mind, it doesn’t bear thinking about. OK, we move on.

So. Now? WELL! The tables have turned.

I, the usually marvelously pale and bookish Danish/Norwegian-heritaged creature, have been playing too much tennis OUTSIDE. Really, I’ve only played tennis indoors, for EVER. Chicago: snow, ice; England: rain, rain, rain. What else could a sensible girl do? My favorite tennis coach in the UK used to try to get me to take the occasional lesson outside -- so HE could get a bit of fresh air, for once -- but that was mostly like pushing a rope. I had every excuse in the book. “Mike, my sweet, it’s too hot. It’s too windy. No, no, it’s too still, there’s no breeze. I don’t have my outdoor shoes. I forgot my sunglasses. Hey, babe, I can’t serve if I’m wearing a hat, let’s go back inside. My knees hurt.” Oi! Whot nonsense!

Fortunately, he was too much of a gentleman to tell me to stop my effin’ whinging. Ever the civilized Brit. Don’t you love ‘em? And how I miss him! So, so, SO much! Now I have no one, though perhaps I can talk Russell into coming over to my place for a bit of a hit? But it won’t be the same. Russell’s calves are so.. so... so scrawny, compared to Mike’s. Ah well, what can one do? One has to adjust, I suppose. Wonder what time Russell gets off school? Maybe I should ask his mom?

Ach, back to my problems. So here, well, all there IS, is “outside”! Not an enclosed tennis court in the whole of Gauteng province, I’m sure. As a result, my hair is bleaching out, going from a deep brunette toward strangely tawny tones. (Hey, it is NOT gray! NOT! Button your lip, smart arse!) My skin is getting more and more brown, and I’m sweating in the 30C degree heat (90’s for Americans on the Fahrenheit scale). And I’m getting a freakin’ SOCK TAN. My feet are white, my calves are brown. I look like ... a weirdo.

Please don’t tell me to lie in the sun to even things out. That’s just too much, even for lazy old me. I could read a book, out there in the lounge chair by my pool, but it’s so decadent. Someone recently said to me, “You’ll know you’ve become South African when you can actually concentrate on reading a book while the maid/houseman is working nearby.” I shivered in the sweltering sunshine, but it’s probably too true.

Most of us women (the women who “don’t work”-- and let’s not get going on THAT one) have to actually leave the house when someone’s there, cleaning. It’s just hard to watch someone else doing “our job”, doing what we’re supposed to be spending our time on. Never mind that we’re working from home, paying bills online, writing a newspaper column, organizing a charity drive, communicating with our children’s teachers... whatever. It’s not really the “work” we’re supposed to be doing. What we’re supposed to be doing is laundry and cleaning toilets and ironing and ....

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hallmark cards for you

Hey, guys, it’s not all bad news from here, not ALL horrible problems. Really. For example, good news! Albert, the waiter who had a gunshot wound in the very first installment of these South African stories, has made a full recovery. We met him the other day, back at work in the garden restaurant “Buitegeluk” (loosely translated Afrikaans, “outdoor happiness”). As good as new, he was, so he said. All smiles. The gunshot wound only hurts sometimes, a little. Yeah, you can hardly ask for a better report than that, hey?

In fact, I’ve even written some poetry to perk us all up. Or perhaps it’s a song. Hum along, now, everyone!

We can all be light hearted, and happy, and gay....
No one I know ‘as been shot at, today....

lah-dee-dah...! lah-dee-dah!
lah dee DAH da, dee DAH da, dee DAH!

See our house in the ‘burbs, by the pool, in the heat,
The electric fence snapping -- security’s sweet!
The gate is rolled shut, alarm’s set to “stay”
That ought to keep all those bad okes away.

So we’ll sing and we’ll dance and make music and merry,
‘Cuz life in South Africa isn’t SO hairy!
We’ll play the piano, all ten fingers flying
(’Course I started with twelve!) (......No, really, I’m lying!)

lah-dee-dah...! lah-dee-dah!
lah dee DAH da, dee DAH da, dee DAH!

(Supply a tune from any Gilbert and Sullivan musical of your choosing.)


Or maybe I should write something more like a Hallmark greeting card...

Here’s hoping when the bullets fly
You’re nowhere near the scene
And when you see police nearby
They’re not corrupt or mean.
Stay far away from jewelry stores
And cash-in-transit vans,
Just linger by the pool, and, Doll,
Keep working on your tan.

.... Wishing you a Lekker Day from South Africa!....
Love, ...

Whaddya think? Do I have a career ahead of me in show biz or in the commercial stationery industry?

Missing ring fingers

Richard called for another volunteer, and picked a lovely dark-haired woman whose son had been the robber in the previous scenario. She was the one who’d sat in the front row during the first half of the course. When Richard had asked, at one point, “What would you do, madam, if the police tried to pull you over on the highway, while you’re driving?”

“Shoot at them!”

“Madam,” Richard laughed, “You have a truly violent nature!”

So Mrs. Violent settled herself into the driving seat, and Richard closed her car door. He talked about the importance of making slow, obvious movements, because robbers are nervous and trigger-happy, and with any sudden fright, muscles contract, and if your hijacker’s finger is on the trigger of a gun, well... one can have some unfortunate and unexpected results.

Suddenly, “BLAM!”

“BLAM BLAM BLAM!” Mrs. V screamed, involuntarily, inside the BMW, as Richard slammed the flat of his palm against the driver’s side window.

“Makes a helluva noise, doesn’t it? When they hit your window with a spark plug, it sounds like an explosion when the glass shatters. Now, same thing. Hands up. Cross your right hand over to unbuckle, unlock the doors with the central locking.” Mrs. V was better than Blonde Girl with left and right.

“Now,” continued Richard, “you must get out of the car and away from it as quickly and smoothly as possible. Don’t look at your attackers. Don’t make eye contact. Get out, turn sideways, and scrunch your neck down into your shoulder blades as much as possible. Put your arm and hand up to shield your head and neck. Turning sideways gives them less to aim at, and you want to put more bones (like arm bones and ribs) between a bullet and your head or vital organs. Obviously, any bullet IS going to go through your arm or hand, but at least you’ve slowed it down a little before it hits your head or your heart.

We all looked a little pale at this point.

“And then, they may still rob you too. Hand over your wallet, anything they ask for. And for heaven’s sake, ladies, when they point at your rings, hand them over too. If you can’t get your ring off, DO NOT under ANY circumstances put your finger in your mouth, to spit on it so you can get it off more easily. That can give him the terrible idea... to put YOUR finger in
HIS mouth... and bite your finger off. Through flesh, through bone. Heckuva lot easier to take your ring off when your finger’s not attached to your body anymore.”

Apparently, the wife of an executive at ABSA bank here in South Africa has a missing ring finger. She, as well as six other wealthy women in Jo’burg who kept their rings on one day longer than they should have.

So, since I play the piano, albeit not brilliantly, I’ve given up wearing rings. A missing fourth finger on my left hand would make things difficult. Although Alex, my jazz piano teacher, could probably still have me playing the blues. I’d just have even more to be blue about.

As a postscript, we were talking with Mrs. Violent and Richard after the class was over, and it turned out her husband had himself been attacked. He was shot six times, and he’s completely lost the use of his left arm. That’s why SHE was there, with her son. I guess that would change your life.

Let’s hope we all stay out of harm’s way.

No, no, the OTHER "right"!

Finally it was time for the personal safety part of the course, and an actual physical demonstration. Richard led us into the BMW showroom, and asked for a volunteer. Of course, no one volunteered, but that’s life all over, eh? So he pointed to a pretty blonde girl, and asked her to get into the X5. She buckled up, shut the door.

He turned to a young guy, and handed him a gun.

(Oh fer Pete’s sake, y’all, not a REAL gun! It looked like one, though. Not a plastic water pistol....)

“Ok, hold up the car! You’re the hijacker. Point the gun at her and tell her to get out.”

The guy halfheartedly waved the gun toward the girl in the car. Obviously his skill-set was in something other than highway robbery. Hell, what ARE they teaching kids these days?

Blonde Girl, a bit embarrassed, reached down to unbuckle her seat belt.

“No no no! Stop!” Richard opened the door of the car. “You mustn’t do it that way, dropping down or making fast movements. This is how you do it. One. You hold up your hands. Two. You very obviously cross your right hand ACROSS your body to unbuckle your seat belt.” [Americans: cars in South Africa, as in England, are right-hand drive, so all the ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ are opposite what they’d be for you.] “And then, three, you unlock all the car doors with the central unlocking button.”

“Let’s try it again. Hands up.... Cross with right hand..... Unlock..... No no NO! Your RIGHT hand!”

Oh oh! Blonde Girl, like me, had left/right impairment issues. Guess we both missed boot camp.

“Let’s do it again. Hands up. Cross with right hand. NO, RIGHT HAND! RIGHT! Hoo boy, any of you ladies know your right from your left hand?” We all shook our heads and hung our heads in shame.

“You don’t want to use your left hand to unbuckle, because then your right hand stays down at your side, and it could look to a hijacker like you were reaching into the door pocket to get your gun.”

Your GUN! Yeah, your gun! And I thought that was only in New Jersey that people had guns in their door pockets. Like in The Godfather, or The Sopranos.

Man, I just usually have a map and reading glasses. “Here, you vile car thief! Let me beat you nearly to death with my Surrey book of maps and then poke your eyes out with the pointy ends of my reading glasses! Then for good measure, I’ll garrote you with the curly-cord of my phone charger. Yeah, take that! Maybe even pistol-whip you with the latch end of my dog’s spare leash and.. and... and then I’ll spray some Holt’s De-Icer into your eyes for good measure!!!!”

Ooooh, I’m getting carried away! I haven’t felt this vicious since the kids were small.

Off with the wedding ring!

I took off my wedding ring.

I’m not wearing it anymore. Twenty-six years on that finger. It was so hard to get it off. Took soap and water, and about 10 minutes. But now, I’m free of worries. I don’t have to care about it anymore.

Of course, Mr. D had something to say about it all. He was not happy. He’s continuing to wear his ring, stubbornly. But I don’t care what he thinks, at least about this. It’s all about me, now. And from now on.

I can hear you asking, “Well, what the heck happened, E? Are you throwing in the towel? What’s wrong? Was it the move? The stress? Is it all over? What?”

Nawww... it was the rest of that crazy anti-hijacking course. Let me tell ya.

We came back from the tea break slightly restored, but maybe even a little jumpier, thanks to some caffeine and sugar. Richard started in on part 2 of the presentation.

“You’re half awake, half asleep, in the middle of the night. Lekker, that’s sweet. But you hear a noise. What do you do? Probably nothing. You wait for the same noise again, a second time. Maybe a third time, and then you say to your partner, ‘Babe, go check out that noise, hey?’”

Everyone cracked up.

Richard continued describing a scenario where thieves have actually broken into your home. And why didn’t your dog bark? Because he’s already been poisoned or worse. So suddenly, thieves are there in your bedroom, pointing guns at you. That’s what those noises were! They take your car keys, tie you both up, and leave with one of your cars, or two. All they need is fifteen minutes lead time, so they can get the car away from the property, and disable the tracking system.

Maybe you get free, after they leave, and you call the police. You can hardly remember your own name, and now you’ve got to remember your car registration number? Good luck. While you’re dealing with the trauma, the car heist is already over and done with. Your loss, the Porsche’s gone. So’s the Beemer. But at least you’re still alive!

There have been cases where the police showed up, discussed the crime with the victim, called it in.. then sat around smoking and waiting for “back-up” but it turned out, they were rotten police, paid off by the robbers, and were just delaying things to give the car thieves more getaway time. In another case, the “police” asked for the registration documents, which were duly handed over, making it even easier to transfer ownership of the car to some black market dealer. Yi yi yi. Very clever thieves, these days. And who knows who’s on their payroll?

The Coke bottle ploy

Richard carried on, giving us more tips on personal safety. He told us about how to stay safe in a car park garage. First, make sure you’re not being followed. (Is this all starting to sound really familiar?)

Walk all the way around your car, checking both sides, in case someone is hiding on the passenger side, waiting for you to unlock the doors so he can jump in. Check to make sure your license plates are still attached -- a classic ploy is for a thief to unscrew your front plate and leave it on the carpark floor in front of your car. You back out, and oops! You see that your plate has fallen off. You get out to pick it up, leaving the car door open and the keys in the ignition, probably, and oops! Your car is gone! Ha ha!

Or another trick. A thief puts an empty plastic Coke bottle just behind your wheel. You back up, and “pop!” You think you’re tyre has popped, and, yes, you get out to check, and yes, Oops! Your car is gone! Ha ha!

And then there were some safety tips for ATM machines. Obviously, cover the number pad when you enter your pin number. In fact, when you first approach the ATM, check to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with. Insert your card, and then immediately press “Cancel”. Your card should pop right out again. Re-insert the card and complete your transaction. If the card doesn’t pop out upon cancellation, the ATM may have been rigged to keep your card. You would have entered your pin number numerous times, and finally called the help line phone. Meanwhile, the next “customer” would have surreptitiously fished out your card with sticky tape while you were on the phone, and has memorized your pin number already. Soon money is flying out of your bank account, to Nigeria.

Oh maaaa gawd. We all had to take a tea break. We all stood up on trembling legs and tried to look calm and relaxed.

The best was yet to come.

Pooot fooot! Floor it!

Seventy-six percent of carjackings take place in driveways. Not even necessarily YOUR driveway. Could be someone else’s, someone you’re visiting.

And now Richard launched into a whole riff about awareness, and paying attention.

“Ladies, use your mirrors! Not for your eyes and lips, girls, but for looking around you! Check to see if you’ve been followed home from the grocery store. If you see someone behind you, go around the block and try again. It’s just a few more minutes, but it’s important!”

“How many times have I heard, ‘Richard, they came from nowhere. Just knives, guns, everywhere! They came from the sky!’ What’s the problem here?No awareness, people! The guy was on his cell phone, talking to a friend, not paying attention, and he got hijacked. Bad news.”

“And”, Richard continued, “you’re to check up and down the street, too. A hijacker could be waiting, watching at the next corner, and in the time it takes for you to signal, look, and turn (3 seconds) and then the time it takes for your gate to open (15-22 seconds), they’re racing toward you and have you blocked in. Guns pointed. “Get out, get out!” Your car is gone. But hopefully, not your life too. And don’t do anything stupid, like throwing the keys into the bushes or something. You want them to take the car, and their knives and guns, and go away as quickly as possible. The longer you’re with the hijackers, the more dangerous it all becomes for you.”

So, you must leave yourself an escape route while waiting for the gate to open, make sure you haven’t been followed, and then once you go through the gate, stop immediately inside it while it closes, so no one can follow you in.

Sounds like REALLY defensive driving, doesn’t it? I don’t remember learning this back in driver’s ed in Wisconsin.

And then, what if you’re being followed home? Well, first of all, you’ve already, ALWAYS, locked your doors, and your windows are all closed. You check your rearview mirror, often. But someone is behind you. So reduce your speed, and force them to catch up. Put on your left indicator (blinker). Slow down to 20 kph, and force them to overtake you and hope they’ll go pick on someone else, I suppose.

But there’s another scenario, more threatening. There’s a car cruising along next to you on the expressway, it’s after nine pm, dark. There are four big okes (“blokes” in Brit-speak) inside the other car, and it looks like they’re trying to force you off the road.

Richard’s advice? If you’re lighter, you’re faster. With four guys in that car, you have an advantage. Don’t hit the brakes. “Poooot foooot”, as they say here. Floor it! Try to outrun them, to a police station, a hospital, a filling station, whatever. And stay inside the car until the bitter end.

Yet another situation. You’re at a light, in traffic. You’ve left ample space between you and the car in front of you, so you can see where their rear tyres touch the road’s surface. About a car length of space. You get bumped from behind. You must think, “Is this bump enough to worry about? And do I feel safe? No?” So put on your hazard blinkers and drive to the nearest hospital, police station or petrol station. If they don’t follow you, it’s no loss. No loss of your LIFE.

And, if you look behind you and see four big dudes storming out of the car behind you, while you’re waiting at that same light, turn the steering wheel, hard, to where you want to go (around the car in front of you) and slam on the gas. At the same time, drop your head and body completely down below the level of the windows and accelerate for as long as it takes to count “1001, 1002”. Then pop up again so you can see where you’re driving.

This tactic has multiple things going for it. First, by dropping down in your seat, you have more metal between you and bullets, and your internal organs are more protected. Not to even mention your brain. Secondly, I suppose if you end up crashing the car, they might not want it so much after all.

Did I tell you I plan to become a stunt driver when I return to the States? I’ll be an extra in the next “Fast and Furious” sequel.

Baby you can drive my car

So. Why do people decide to hijack a car? Your car?

For financial gain. For personal image. For power.

And the last reason is so much more dangerous, much MUCH more dangerous, than the first two.

Let’s look at some types of hijackings.

First up, the hot hijack. The syndicate (the SA “mob”) and a shady used car dealer are in cahoots. The dealer asks for the model and vehicle -- he already has a buyer in mind -- but the dealer will take whatever he gets from the hijacker, including bullet holes in the driver’s side door, blood on the seats, broken glass and shattered taillights.

Of course, these ... drawbacks.... will influence the selling price of the vehicle. Usually the hijacker gets between 17 and 32 percent of the used car value of the vehicle. For a BMW 330ci the hijacker can get R12000 - R25000 (that’s about £1000 - £2200, or $1800 - $ 3700 ).

So that’s for your bullet riddled car, your very own blood staining the driver’s seat, and you on the pavement, most probably dead. You, YOU! Your heart, your soul, your unique and exquisite mind are worth only R12000.... £1000.... $1800..... That’s it. Or more accurately, you, your heart, your soul, your unique and exquisite mind are worth nothing.

It’s only the car, Jack.

And the car is hot. Very hot. It has to “go away”, get sold, immediately.

Next up, the cold hijack. For this one, the buyer/dealer specifies the year, model, color, interiors. Almost like buying a car the regular way, but..... not quite. The method of choice is to bribe a person, preferably a woman, at the registry department. Give her a big bunch of money to start out, and she goes into her computer database, and changes the registration details on the car. The VIN number or whatever. Now a new registration number/license plate can be issued for this “new” car.

All is going along fine, but then, the next time the hijackers are going to make a payment to this woman, they call her up and note that they know where she lives, where her kids go to school, and maybe, maybe, if you want to see your kids again, you might not “need” so much money next time. A different kind of downward spiral for this amateur criminal. And now she’s stuck. Screwed, really. Too late to change her mind, now. She has to continue altering VIN numbers and assisting organized crime.

The reality of it is, there are 100,000 cars that have “disappeared” in Gauteng. But they’re all still driving around. With new, different VIN numbers in the system. Thanks to the people who slipped that once and gave into temptation. And then did it again and again and again.

Then, thirdly, there are the opportunistic car jackers. The house burglars who take the cars along with the household goods. In this case, the guy has the car, after the house burglary, but doesn’t know what to do with it, because it’s not his usual thing to fence. So he has a tougher time finding a market, and might sell your Mercedes for next to nothing.

But there’s also another kind of motivation. The simple desire for personal gain. A guy steals your car... because he likes your car. This one deals in firearms or drugs. And he’ll only trade for another hot car if people are talking.

He might also steal your car, your E class Mercedes or your 5 class BMW, because both of those models have a low center of gravity and can be used to knock over cash-in-transit vehicles (Brinks trucks, for American readers.) This is the big new popular pastime for criminals. A gang of guys in a Merc or Beemer sideswipes a cash-in-transit vehicle. With the low center of gravity, they can simply tip over the cash-in-transit truck, onto its side, and then they cut off the roof (using the Jaws of Life, or in this case I suppose, the Jaws of Money) when the truck is disabled. These heists are happening all the time, multiple times a week, all over Gauteng.

So what does this mean? It means if you have a Merc or a BMW, you have a desirable car to a hijacker, because your car can be used to create further ill-gotten gains. It’s not just your car’s value, it’s the value-add. The contents of those cash-in-transit vehicles that the gang is going to hit up.

And what’s the problem, though, for the hijacker, with stealing a Merc or a Beemer? Two problems, really. First, the thief has to get the keys. With all the new technology, immobilizers and so on, you can’t hot wire a car anymore, very often.

And so you, the driver/owner, have the keys. In your hand. He needs to get you to give him the keys. This is where things get dangerous.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hijacking 101

A good start, for a Saturday. We’re fresh, we’ve found our way there -- why, it’s a “family outing”! Who knew? What fun!

“Take a tea or coffee, sit down, make yourselves comfortable. And thank you for coming today.”

I really couldn’t believe it. Here, Saturday at 9 am. A crowd of what, 50, 60 people? All here to listen to a program on preventing carjackings. When they could have been out at breakfast, or at their kid’s football match, or sleeping in. So.... it must be a real problem, hey? A REAL problem. Aiiiii.

Our instructor introduced himself. Richard.

What a dynamite guy. Just a pistol! (So to speak.) He plunged right in, talking a mile a minute.

“What happens when a one year old baby gets shot in a hijacking? What’s that all about? Someone gets shot at 14 times, gets hit four times? It seems senseless, and it is. Most of these crimes are committed by 13-22 year olds. And you know what they’re thinking. Nothing.”

Thirteen year olds. And you think you’re peeved because your 13 year old son handed in his history project a day late? Things could be worse!

The first carjacking in South Africa, the first recorded one, was in 1976, on the 17th of April.... in Bloemfontein.

At this point, the audience completely cracked up! “Bloem! Maaaa Gawd! NOTHING happens in Bloemfontein!” Hysterical laughter. We three Americans were a bit lost, but figured it was probably like Peoria, Illinois (though speaking of which, Tarquin was the victim of an attempted robbery at gunpoint, on Main Street, in Peoria, Illinois... the most ordinary town in the world. Fortunately, the robbers spooked themselves as Tarq was fumbling for his wallet. “Sh-t, man, we’re on Main Street! Main Street! We can’t do this on Main! F---! F---!!!” And they floored it and sped off in their white car to rob someone else on... 7th Street, maybe? Tarq was stunned. “Mom, I was all ready to hand over my wallet and everything... it was so weird!”)

But the name, “carjacking” didn’t enter the official lingo until 1997. That was the first year the South African government started keeping statistics on carjackings. So in terms of analysis, the stats are only 10 years old.

In 2004, 10,981 cars were stolen in Gauteng (the province surrounding and including Jo’burg). Of those 10,981, 5-7% were actually insurance fraud. Someone calls up their insurance company: “Maaaa Gawd, my car was stolen in my front drive just this instant!” And then the person puts in a claim, and buys a boat or something. Nasty business.

But 10,981 cars. That’s out of 6.7 million cars registered in Gauteng. Not so bad. You do the math. Your odds are better than you thought.

Now other provinces, well, the statistics are slightly different. Only 1,021 cars stolen in the Western Cape, but that’s out of a total of 784,000 cars, so the percentages are about the same, really. Odds, percentage-wise, are similar that you’ll be carjacked in the Western Cape. It’s all in how you bend the numbers.
And then, in the North Cape. Well, there were 6 cars hijacked in the Northern Cape last year. So your odds look good over there. But, “there are only 7 cars registered there”, so.... percentages are TERRIBLE!!!! Again, mad laughter from the audience. Nothing, but NOTHING happens in the Northern Cape. Who knew?

21 gun salute upon my return


Just heard gunshots. Again.

Which reminds me of my first full weekend back and the anti-hijacking course.

I did get back to Jo’burg. Did my usual stuff. Nothing. Tennis. Pilates. Paperwork. Sounds so thrilling, doesn’t it? Wrote up my fantastic UK police escapades for y’all.

Then, on Saturday morning, we went to the BMW dealership to learn about hijacking prevention.

Now, this was the thing that initially put me OFF South Africa. The American School of Johannesburg, for one of its parents’ evenings, had a scheduled talk on “Preventing Hijackings”. I saw the notice on the web site, and thought, bl----dy freakin' heck, why would I want to move to a place where the parent nights are devoted to this stuff, instead of “Get your kid into an Ivy League school”? Furrr-get it!

But then. Surprise, here I am! In South Africa. At an anti-hijacking course. Oh well. Guess I don’t “hold firm” very well. At all. So much for being bossy and getting my way. Not.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Reader commentary

So, yeah. What’s up in the world?

Tricia wrote and said, “From America, to The Storyteller: ...I'm so jaded...
I need more sex and violence in these stories. Could you work on that? fact, fiction, who cares? love ;) T ....”

I told Tricia I’ve only been violently vacuuming up spiders. Will have to break my marriage vows and/or go on a shooting spree, I guess. God, some people are so HARD to satisfy!

Then Teri wrote, sending me a wonderful book... and... inside the book were PHOTOGRAPHS of one of “Matt the Plumber”’s trucks. Can you believe the timing?

And finally Raechel wrote, the actual Raechel of “Raechel and the Tradesmen”, and said, “What do you mean, I'm not that type of girl? Why do you think I needed so many repairs? Maybe it's having those buff guys around who do what you tell them to do, AND clean up after themselves. Or maybe it's those tool belts. (Oh, those tool belts!) One time, I spotted one of their tool belts slung over the porch railing, and I elbowed David to just go slip it on for a short time... just the tool belt. Oh, please....”

Now there’s a buncha girls, whot knows wha’ they likes....

But, this brings us, brilliantly, to the anti-hijacking course. I promised I’d tell you before, but frankly, it was so terrifying that I’ve had to let it all settle a bit. But, no sex,Tricia, only violence!

It was on Saturday morning, October 15th. I’m out of jail. (And who knew I’d get to say THAT, ever!) I’m back in South Africa (another type of jail, it feels like, at the moment -- out of the frying pan and into the fire!) And we’re off to the BMW dealership: Mr. D, Miss T, and I. Going there to ensure that, among other things, Mr. D’s new BMW X5 doesn’t get hijacked “to order” for some high level government official in Zimbabwe.

The death of the fax

But we did have a small tragedy here, this week. It related to electricity, in fact.

Johann was here, fixing the security cameras and setting up the tvs with the cable company.

“Here, fill out this application for DSTv and we can fax it in.” This was to sign up with satellite tv.

“Oooo. Fax. Hmmm. I’m not sure I can fax it, but let me go plug in the machine and we can try.”

I couldn’t get a line out of the house. Strange dial tone (another thing about a new country, you don’t know a normal dial tone from one that’s telling you to drop dead, piss off, and/or hang up... and that, in no particular order.)

“Ok, now I’ve got a dial tone. Plug in the machine,” said Johann.

I plugged it in. The keypad lit up, and then went out again. Suddenly, the machine was making a strange buzzing noise.

“Why’s it doing that? What’s wrong?” Johann scratched his head.

“I don’t know. It’s not how it usually sounds.”

A strange fried electronics smell began to be apparent....

“Oh my god. I blew it! I blew its brains out. I cooked the fax!”

Johann looked puzzled.

“110 volts in America? 220V here? Johann, I plugged it in to a 220 socket, but didn’t use a transformer! I forgot! It’s toast! I’ve killed it! Ai yi yi! So stupid!!”

Johann laughed. “Why do they make converter plugs like this?” He pointed to the plug adapter that had allowed me to plug my American appliance into a South African power point. “It’s dangerous and it doesn’t make sense!”

I said, “Well, sometimes it’s useful, for electronics things that can use either level of voltage.”

Johann grinned and said, “Ah well. You Americans! You’re so clever. We South Africans could never make sense of all that!”

“Such self-deprecatory humour, you South Africans have!” I replied, laughing.

It took me another full five minutes to realize that he was having me on. I’m so SLOW sometimes! After all, who was such the clever one today? Not the American. No, not really. Duhhhhh!

That Johann, what a smart arse!

(I think I’ll have him back again, sometime....)

Amateur electricians

Ok. Enough of that. Really. No more plumbing.

Because now we have to move on to electrical. And I’m not even going to discuss the electric security fence, which beeped and hummed all night long last night and nearly drove me mad. (Mad, mad, I tell you! And you know I don’t need any help in that department, do I?)

No, now we’re going to talk about wiring.

You know how, when you’re a kid, you get taught stuff and you think, “When am I EVER going to use this information?” Well....

When I was just a wee lass, my dad was always coming up with “Projects”. Projects, with a capital “P”. Building something out of wood, putting up a flag pole holder on the front of the house, repairing the screens on the back porch. He would always have me come along to help. To hold the screwdrivers, hammer some nails, measure the lumber. And he was great about explaining how to do things. “No, hold the hammer back here, at the end of the handle, so you can really whack that nail and get the full use out of the tool.” “Measure twice, cut once.” “If you make a little pilot hole with the drill, the screw will go in more easily, and straight.” “A bit of bar soap on the screw will let it slide straight into the wood.”

I learned so much, and he was so patient. So many fathers wouldn’t have bothered messing about with teaching their daughters these skills, but my dad... well, he loved passing on all those tips. When I went off to college, one of the best things he gave me was my own toolbox. Which has been a source of numerous arguments over the years with Mr. D, who always maintains that all the good tools are his, and I’ve stolen them and put them in my toolbox... but never mind, I’m sure Mr. D is right, yeah? (My point, by the way, is always that he’s not going to be NEEDING the vise grips on a flight to Barcelona, now, is he? Who’s USING the tools, eh? Oh, oh, I’d better quit arguing while I’m winning, don’t you think? But it’s so nice to get no back talk, just this once!)

ANYway. One of our projects one summer was rewiring a lamp. We’d brought back this ancient lamp from great-aunt Ruth’s Lake Michigan cottage. We found the lamp out back, in the studio, covered with cobwebs and smelling all mildewy, like the lakeside air that stayed trapped in the old studio, with its stored canvas canoes and all the old deck chairs.

The lamp was lovely, in a vintage 1930’s way. So we brought it home with us, frayed fabric-covered cord and all.

Do you remember fabric-covered electric cords? So thick and bulky. And then this massive conical plug at the end, half coming undone. Very hazardous looking.

So my dad decided we’d rewire the lamp. Off to the hardware store, for new plastic coated wiring and a new plug.

He fed the wire through the lamp’s base, and rewired the top part of the lamp. “See, just strip off some of the plastic, and then tighten down these tiny screws onto the bare copper wire you’ve exposed. Done. Now we do the same thing at the other end, and attach the plug. There, see? A new lamp. Good for another 50 years.”

We put in a light bulb, plugged the lamp into the wall, and voila! Light on the subject.

But honestly, how often do you come across a lamp that needs a new plug? In America? You have to look pretty hard, these days, to find that kind of a project.

Ah, but yes.... We’re not in Kansas, or even Illinois anymore, are we, Dorothy? Nope, England for a while, and then now, South Africa.

Not sure if you Americans actually know what British electrical plugs look like. They are massive. Massive! Probably three times the size of an American plug. They have three prongs, always, and they make American plugs look anemic and utterly frail. Of course, they do have to deal with much more power (220 volts, versus America’s 110v). So it makes sense, I suppose, that they are so robust. Anyway, British plugs are just gigantic, and have rectangular prongs. And South African plugs look just like British plugs, except that South African plugs have cylindrical prongs. You see where we’re headed, don’t you?

The rewiring project for 2005-2006. I may be exchanging plugs for the next several months. Unscrew all the screws. Take off the British plug. Re-strip the wire, trim it up, insert into South African plug, tighten screws again. Next please.

All the lamps. The iron. The computer plugs. The cd player. The stereo. The blender. The hair dryer(s). The amp. The coffee grinder. You get the picture. And so there I am, these evenings, at the dining room table, rewiring plugs and thinking of my dad.

Good for the soul, and for my fine motor skills. And happy birthday again, Dad! You’ve taught me and helped me, again and again and again. You deserve the happiest of days!

Thursday, November 3, 2005

Desperate Housewives, Chicago style

Well, what’s been the most popular response to the last e-mail?

“Jeez, E, why are you SO darned repetitive?”

Nawww, just kidding. Only my good buddy Tim pointed out that I’d sent him the same e-mail twice the other day (and also twice to so many of you! ). For that I blame my erratic internet connection, which sometimes comes back saying “The message could not be sent”.

Then I usually panic, thinking, “My goodness, these poor poor people will not be able to read my next fabulous installment! Deprived of my genius! What to do? What to do?” And in a frenzy, I push the send button five more times, or redo the thing entirely, with multiple mailing lists, only to find that .... yes, it did indeed go through the first time after all! Hmmmph. Makes me look like an idiot. I know.

(And no comments from the peanut gallery, please, as to whether appearances reflect reality, thank you VERY much....)

So, “howzit“ here in South Africa?

Fairly dull, I suppose, this week. I have been working on “moving in” issues, unpacking boxes, buying household supplies, trying to get the phones to work, supervising painters and electricians and security company reps and cable tv installers and ... and ... and... the list seems endless. And it’s Johann and Fred and Fernando and Calvin and Edouard and Piet and Derrick and Arthur and Jan and Kelsie and Sipho .... in and out of the house, all day long.

But in a way, it’s nice to have the male companionship. All those guys! As Mr. D is off in Europe again (Paris, Geneva, damn it! I’m so envious!) Eight days, just me and Miss T, in this huge house by ourselves. Soon I’ll be one of those women who break things, just so a handsome phone company guy will come by to do repairs. “Women who break stuff, and the men who service them”. What an excellent, saucy title!

Years ago, in Philadelphia, my friend Raechel seemed to have someone at her house, working there, every time I ever phoned her. I threatened to write a short story, titled “Raechel and the Tradesmen.” Never got any farther than that title though. I would sit down to write it, but I think I found my day dreams were always much too lurid to write down, so I couldn’t have marketed THAT story to anyone but Penthouse Forum, and Raechel wasn’t that kind of girl!

But then we moved on to Chicago, and I forgot about Raechel’s marvelous tradesmen. With four little kids, I couldn’t afford to hire out repairs, and I had mostly learned to fix stuff myself over the years, or live with it “as is”, somehow. But finally, in 1994, I had some kind of a serious plumbing issue. Something that I couldn’t fix myself. A backed up main drain, I think. It needed a power auger or a line snake. Out of my league, for sure. So, I looked in the yellow pages, and picked the nicest looking local advert I could find. “Precision Plumbing”. That sounded like a competent plumber.

The plumbing truck drove up, and out of the cab stepped the most gorgeous creature I’d ever clapped eyes on. Matt, the Plumber. Tall, dark and handsome. White T-shirt and pressed blue jeans.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

I’m sure I was nearly speechless, a frumpy tongue-tied thirty-something housewife in a baggy tracksuit, with four little kids hanging all over her. And I was embarrassed at the same time to present such a smelly and terrible problem to someone who looked so ... sweet. And he was such a pleasant guy. He fixed the drain, no sweat. I soon after had him install the new garbage disposal. Then the ice maker on the new fridge. The sump pump. The new washer and dryer. A utility sink. Gas piping for an outdoor grill.

And the bathroom renovation. He hefted a new toilet up the staircase like it was nothing at all. And as he knelt on the tile floor and jiggled it into place and connected the fittings, no plumber’s arse either! This boy could really wear a tool belt!

It turned out, he was a really smart guy. He’d attended university for two years, but just wasn’t into it, so he apprenticed on with a licensed plumber and went to trade school. He was just branching out, starting his own plumbing business, when I hired him the first time in 1994.

So after that, when anyone ever asked me, “Do you know a good plumber?”

Well! Gosh, did I!

“Let me tell you... Precision Plumbing... but be sure to ask for Matt. He’s ... exquisite...”

Book groups, PTA meetings, church coffee hour. Soccer field sidelines, grocery store aisles. Whispers, scribbled notes.... “Ask for Matt. Sooo good!”

And now? In 2005? Well, Matt doesn’t actually come out on jobs any more. He’s now got a fleet of 25 fully fitted trucks. Probably a staff of 40. Secretary, computerized billing, you name it.


All the housewives of Glen Ellyn are suffering, still, a little bit. A little bit heartbroken, a little bit bereft, hoping that one day, the toilet will stop up, they’ll dial Precision Plumbing, and Matt will show up once again on the front step, with his dark eyes and his gorgeous smile.

I think Matt always knew how appealing he was. Fantasy object of all those desperate housewives. And do you know how I know that?

Because Teri told me this summer, she had some major news, MAJOR NEWS, about our fave plumber! He’s just had his logo redesigned, and had all his trucks redone!

And what’s on the trucks now?

Matt’s beautiful face, enlarged to 6 feet tall.

Now there’s a guy who can market himself. Selling the fantasy, the dream.

“Let me come over and check out your pipes, baby...” Mmmm....

Friday, October 14, 2005

Lust at 30,000 feet

WELL! And here I thought all of you were better than that....!

I mean, there WERE a few of you. Raechel donated blood the other day.

Twenty-three other people wrote and said “thanks, I’ll take a taxi from now on, if I’ve had too much to drink -- appreciate the reminder and thank you for your honesty.”

Two true friends, Teri and Cat, wrote to remind me that all is forgiven, in this life and the next. Thanks for that also, it’s a comfort.

BUT, the overwhelming response has been this: “E, we love your writing. Are you going to write a book?!?!?! It’s so much fun to read about all your adventures, what with the police in the UK, and things in South Africa, and all about the crime and the birds and the wild animals and the hijackings and all of it. So very VERY exciting. But ... we WANT more SEX!”

Ladies (and gents), I am shocked. Shocked. Has it all come down to this?

Apparently, yes.

So, I guess I’m going to have to entertain you. But be warned, it’s pretty tame. Mr. D has acquired copyright protection for all his tricks, so can’t divulge any of that. Sorry about that, Moira, since you asked. But your speculations ARE correct.

I'm afraid that you’ll just have to be amused by my near misses. First up, the flight back to Jo’burg.

Well, what could have possibly happened... that I could write about? I sat down in the plane, in my window seat. FINALLY, I got a window seat! Maybe because I was NOT flying with Mr. D and Miss T? Such selfish pleasures. I would be able to lean against the window and SLEEP, perhaps SLEEP, at last. First time in ages. Not like my time in the ‘slammer’, those fabulous four hours in Woking, where I refused to even SIT down. Not like my last night in the UK, worrying about whether I’d be jailed the next morning, or fined £5000, or what? No, I could sleep, maybe, this evening, this night, on the plane.

I pulled out my “Learn Afrikaans” book and my CD player and snuggled down to wait for takeoff and then dinner. My two seat mates stifled snorts.

“You don’t HAVE to learn that, you know,” said an older woman, on the aisle. “I mean, English is the main language in South Africa. Afrikaans is just truly, TRULY not necessary. Besides, there are eleven official languages in South Africa. Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and so on.”

“Yeah, yes, I know that, but thank you very much. I just enjoy studying languages, really.” I replied. “I took French and Russian in high school, then French in college and more or less continued it up until now, plus also a year of German at university. I like a challenge. And a good friend of mine, his first language is Afrikaans. So I thought it would be fun to try.”

“Well, then, if it’s for fun. Why not?” We chatted a little. Her kids, like mine, were spread all over the planet. Hers: Australia, England, New Zealand. Mine: England, US, South Africa. We commiserated, then settled down for the flight.

But the guy between us was reading over my shoulder and at the same time, trying to choke back his laughter.

“Goeiemore, Meneer. Hoe gaan dit met u?,” I read, silently. (“Good morning, sir, how are you?”) My Dialogue Number One was obviously incredibly stupid and entertaining for a native Afrikaans speaker.

“So, is this easy for you?,” I asked him.

“Easy! Hah, ja! Are you just beginning?” This strapping Boer farm boy couldn’t conceal his amusement.

“Well, yes, I am. Is this your own tongue? What you spoke growing up?”

“Sure, ja. Good luck.” He laughed again. He was sweet, and had a very strong Afrikaans accent.

“Thanks, m’dear. Are you going home? Are you from South Africa?” I couldn’t resist inquiring.

“Sure, ja, I’ve been living and working in Ireland for the last three years. Just going home now. Finally. At last.”

“Will you be going back to Ireland later?”

“Nee. Never. I’m going home now.” He stared at his hands.

And he rubbed his hands together. Over and over. Big hands. He was a big, tall farm boy. Strong, really handsome. They ALL are handsome, here, ladies. You’d better come visit and see for yourself. This guy was going home to sunshine, to his land, and to his family.

Our plane taxied out to the runway. I was mentally doing the Dialogue One exercises, and out of the corner of my eye, watching my seat mate stare at his hands.

We took off. He rubbed his hands together, again ... again.... again. Then, as we climbed into the sky, he sank back into his seat. Relaxed now, maybe? Relieved? Poor baby. He must have been tense about the takeoff.

We had dinner. We watched movies (me, “The Interpreter.”, with Nicole Kidman, about Africa. How appropriate!) I shortly after decided to pursue the sleep that had been eluding me for months and months, and curled up in my seat to snooze. I was conscious of the fact that this big farm guy next to me couldn’t, wouldn’t possibly ever get comfortable in the middle seat. I felt guilty -- that’s the seat where I’m usually tortured, flying between Mr. D and Miss T. My farm lad squirmed around a lot, trying to find a restful position. He tried to stretch his long legs out in front of him, but he didn’t settle down. Because he just couldn’t fit, quite honestly. I surreptitiously folded up the arm rest between us, in order to give him (and me) some more room to spread out in.

At about two am, I woke up. Gosh! I HAD been sleeping! Surprise! O, joy! But the plane was bouncing all around in major MAJOR major turbulence. I turned on the tv’s map channel. Just approaching the equator now, flying over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Past Kinshasa, Bandundu, Mbuji-Mayi. Well, thunderstorms would be normal here. Looked out the window. I could see lightning flashing, and massive thunderheads all around. The night sky lit up. A thick soft cotton-wool carpet of clouds was illuminated far below. Flashes of lightning popped here and there, muted and dimmed, looking like a torch beam playing under a blanket, perhaps. Here... there... again there... again... again.... It was spectacular. And above us, beautiful stars, brilliant, shining still, above the storm below. It was hard to believe that we were way up here, so far above the weather.

And then all of a sudden, we were flying directly into a pile of clouds. All the way up here.

You can’t imagine the jouncing. I closed my eyes, trying to sleep again, pretending to sleep. Up! Down! Down again, more and more. Up, up, bounce! UP!!! My Boer friend, poor thing, was shifting in his seat, wringing his hands. All the plane’s lights were off, now. Dark, except for the lightning, which was exploding all around us.

Suddenly, the plane bounced up really violently. I couldn’t help it; my eyes popped open and I found myself staring into his terrified eyes in the lightning’s brilliant glare. Eyes big as saucers. Both of us. I grabbed... well, his muscled thigh, actually, since I’d thoughtfully put up the arm rest between us. We looked at each other for a moment.. and another long moment... and... then I smiled, loosened my grip on his leg, and turned away, toward the window. And tried, again, to go back to sleep.

I mean, really. What were the alternatives? Could have invited him back to the loo for initiation into the Mile High Club, but hey, I’m not a member myself. Although it might have calmed him down and distracted him. But he seemed way too preoccupied to be much fun. And besides, the “seat belts” sign was on.... and you know me, I like to follow the rules most of the time. So I worked on my “sleeping” plan instead. Successfully. It was truly restful, being bounced to sleep at 30,000 feet. So things CAN go well! In a controlled, sensible, nice way. I can pretend to be normal, and do things like normal people do things.

But I just do lovvvvve turbulence!

We landed in Jo’burg on time, a little early in fact.

As we touched down, he wiped his eyes. Brushed tears away, actually, from both eyes. He hid his face in his big hands and sighed deeply.

I said, “Hey, man. You okay? You glad to be here?”

“Ja. Ja.... ja,werklik....” or something like that. “Yes, yes, ...yes, really....”

“Will you ever go back to Ireland?”

He sat up straighter, and looked at me. “I will never fly again. Never. Ever again. Never.”

My God. Was it me? Or was it the weather? Poor guy.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Scarlet Letter

I texted Sooz “I’m free!!!” and we met at the car. I’d spent a bit more money than Sooz had this morning (because you KNOW what a bargain TKMaxx always is!) Free, free, free! I’m free! (Well, not “free” to Mr D. I’m the most expensive wife he’s ever had. Good thing he has no basis of comparison or he might trade me in.) Texted the dear man, and Aphrodite, and a few friends, and time to pack, eat lunch, and grab a cab to Heathrow.

Thus, Parents’ Weekend. It couldn’t have been more memorable, really.

A couple of follow-up notes in this whole deal. One was that my friend, the hostess on Friday, was simply horrified to hear what had happened. She said, “Gosh, we only opened two bottles of bubbly amongst the three of us, and more than half of the second bottle was still here when you left! What HAPPENED?” To which I can only say, “Who knows?!” I hadn’t had anything to drink before I went, but I also had hardly eaten anything all day. Half to three-quarters of a bottle of champagne, starting on an empty stomach, and the last glass close to midnight? I guess I’m a cheap date. Take note, boys. Although of course my darling Mr. D is finding me more and more expensive by the minute. Poor baby.

But the most interesting thing about this is how many people have written back and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.....” (All quotations are unattributed, by the way, to protect the innocent... or rather, as my sister pointed out, to protect the “not-yet-caught”. As Martha said, “If a person has driven while over the limit, but hasn’t been caught, it doesn’t make her a more virtuous person than the person who has been arrested. It simply means she hasn’t been caught. Yet. That’s all.”)

Or others who said, ”Thanks for the wake-up call, E. We’ve all done it. You were just so unlucky. So thanks for your honesty in sharing the story! We all needed to hear it!”

Or “That happened to me in 1995...”, “in 1989....”, “in 2000....” Who knew? Thank goodness we don’t all have to wear scarlet letters for our failings. Frankly, my bosom isn’t big enough to hold letters for all the sins I’ve probably committed. (That’s the problem with being flat-chested, you always have to have the letters made so damn small.)

But the very best response, because it made me laugh so hard, was from Ana, who said, “I was surfing the web, and came up with this support group for you just, follow the link.

Yeah, sometimes all you can do is laugh. It’s so much better than the alternative, a bathtub full of tears.

It's all about me

The usher beckoned to me... come over here.

I crossed over to stand behind a barrier. “Are you Mrs. D, of Ascot? Is your date of birth.... “ The identifying questions began. The charges were read. “And how do you plan to plead?”

“Guilty, sir.” There, that part’s done.

The duty solicitor had come in when I was called forward, and now he described my situation for me to the magistrates (so I didn’t have to represent myself after all!) The clerk, the magistrates, and the solicitor went over the charge (which was “only” drink/drive, not insurance too -- whew!) They discussed my intention to ask to take the Drink/Drive course if I could, and my ability and intention to pay my fine. I was grateful that I didn’t have to speak much myself. (In fact, I’ve always really enjoyed public speaking, but somehow this wasn’t quite the same thing. From high school graduation speaker, speaking to 3,000, to a criminal in court, speaking to 8. Hmmmm.)

The magistrates adjourned to decide my fate.

“Mrs. D. In view of the circumstances, and the fact that you will be leaving the country today, we wish to proceed in the most expeditious manner. We thus impose a fine of £250, with an additional £55 court fees. Unfortunately, and I think this will hit you harder, we must also suspend your license for one year, the mandatory minimum revocation time period. However, we will allow you to take the DDE course, if you are able, which would reduce the revocation period by three months. Understanding, of course, that it may be impossible for you to schedule it, since you will be living in South Africa. And you will be able to reapply to get your license back again after the year is up. Meanwhile, you are not allowed to drive on any roadway in the United Kingdom, in any motor vehicle, for a period of one year. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Very good. And may I say best of luck in South Africa, Mrs. D. The usher will show you out.”

Well. Done and dusted. The best news was that I would be able to get my license back in a year. I so valued it, and had worked so hard to FINALLY get it. Interestingly, they don’t put “points” on your license, they just take it away. So the “New Driver’s Law”, which suspends your license if you get too many points, and means you have to start all over again, with theory and practical tests repeated, didn’t apply! How perversely lucky for me!

I paid my fine by credit card, and then remembered to ask for a copy of the criminal charge sheet, since I had nothing else to document this ... unique.... experience. The usher was only to happy to make a photocopy, two even. She smiled radiantly and said, “Well, I don’t know why you shouldn’t have a copy. It’s all about YOU!”

Right. All about me.

Thank goodness there’s more to me than just that.

The unfortunate Mr. Brooks

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Good thing they don’t have clocks that make that noise anymore. It would have made me crazy. Like I needed the encouragement! So I watched as person after person signed in, sat for a while, and got called into court. It was a big crowd, but slowly dwindling.

And it was a pretty interesting collection of people. Some of the young guys knew each other.

“Oi, mate, whotcha doin’ here?” with a big slap on the shoulder.

“Ah, criminal mischief. You?”

“Drinkin.” They all laughed.

Another girl, all dressed in black, signed in with the receptionist. When asked to fill in the “Means” form, she said in a clear voice, “Ah can’t read na write.” The boys in line behind her giggled, poked each other, and whispered.

“You can go over there to that desk, Miss, and those people will help you out.” An elderly couple sat together at a desk across the room, ready to assist. The girl headed over that way, but she almost walked by the desk. Perhaps because she couldn’t even read the sign, “HELP DESK”? My goodness. This was definitely a different group of people than I usually hung out with on Mondays.

There was a red-headed French girl with her solicitor. I eavesdropped to practice my French but never heard what the charges were (nosy!) There was a woman who looked like she slept on the street, and like she’d recently been beaten up. And fully 2/3 of the people in the waiting room were holding the DDE pamphlet (Drink/Drive Education, whereby you can reduce the length of your license suspension). So I wasn’t the only silly prat in on this charge. Not by a long shot.

Time passed. Files were delivered, numerous times. At last, the receptionist looked over at me, and flashed me a quick smile. My file had arrived. “You’ll be next.”

Now, the usher for Court 2 showed me into the courtroom. Again, “Just sit in the back here, while the magistrates finish the case before you. You’ll be next.”

So I got to listen to the case of poor Mr. Brooks. This thin, somber 20-year old kid had backed out of a train station carpark at high speed, run over a grassy bank, crashed his car, and had gotten arrested for reckless driving.

The clerk read out the complaint, and then the clerk said, “Well, Mr. Brooks, do you have anything to say for yourself?”

The kid replied in a small voice, “Ah was stoopid?”

“Well, yes, agreed, but can you explain your actions?”

“Nah, not really.”

The clerk continued questioning. “Apparently, your license was revoked in 2003. When did you apply to get it back?”

The kid looked confused. “Ah didn’t. Ah didn’t know ah had to. To apply.”

“They would have sent you a letter, telling you to reapply.”

“Ah can’t really read.”

The clerk interrupted. “You can’t read?! How on earth did you pass the theory test?”

“It was hard.... really hard.” whispered the boy.

“So you can read and write a little bit. But now also, it seems that you were driving without a license. And thus, I’m sure, without insurance. Do you understand that these are additional crimes?”

Expressionless, the boy answered, “Yes. Yes. Ah do now.”

The magistrates adjourned to another room to deliberate. They were gone forever.

When they came back, they ended up revoking his license for a further year, fining him for multiple charges, and querying him about how he’d pay the fines. It seemed like an impossible puzzle, because the kid needed to be able to drive to get to his job, so as to get paid, so that he could then pay his fines. It didn’t look very promising. And somehow I imagined that tomorrow, he’d be driving to work again, revoked license or not.

“You may go.” And he left.

Annual income? Zip

You want to know what Magistrates’ Court in Woking is like, on a Monday morning in early October? Here ya go.

I was waiting in line, upstairs in the courthouse waiting area. Well, I wasn’t really in the queue anymore -- I’d been processed already. But I couldn’t sit down. I was too tense, worrying about whether my Woking police report was going to show up in time -- for me to be tried, to get back to Ascot to pick up my luggage, and to grab a cab to Heathrow for my 7:05 flight to Jo’burg. So I was (calmly) pacing around, lurking near reception so I’d be aware when my file arrived. If it did.

But I also had something else to worry about this morning. When I checked in with reception, and the woman asked what I was charged with, I answered, “Drink/drive.”

She replied, “And lack of insurance?”

Insurance? INSURANCE!!!! Bl-----dy effin’ heck, no one said anything about INSURANCE! I couldn’t believe it.

“Hey, I DID have insurance. I DO have insurance! No one said anything about charging me about insurance. And the police didn’t tell me to bring in my insurance certificate.”

“Oh, well, it’s standard procedure. Usually people don’t carry their insurance certificate in the car with them. So ordinarily, the police charge you with drink/drive AND lack of insurance. That way, you have to prove you have insurance when you show up.” My heart sank.

My GOD. I wracked my brain. I KNEW no one had mentioned insurance.... although.... now that I thought about it, Aphrodite had mentioned that while she was in the Honda, while the officer drove her home, he had asked her if I was insured to drive that car.

Aphrodite, my darling daughter, had been indignant. Coolly indignant, of course, but still. “Of COURSE she’s insured! You should hear, she’s given my older brothers the ‘what-for’ about insurance so many times it’s not even funny. She’s a complete stickler about that. No one can drive our cars unless they’re insured. It’s absolutely no joke in our family.”

I thought about that, and I tried to relax. Thinking that surely someone would have told me about the insurance charge before now, if there was one. Really, it didn’t seem likely, given how kind and helpful the Woking police had been.They wouldn’t have charged me, I didn’t think, without making it quite clear. But now I no longer had my own copy of my charge sheet. I’d left it with the crabby magistrate in Redhill, so I couldn’t be sure. Grrrr.

Are you good at dealing with anxiety? You think so?

Try worrying about this stuff. It does put things in perspective, that’s for sure. And still, even, it all could have been so so much worse. Someone could have ended up dead, something awful could have happened. An irreparable mistake might have been made. This was not SO SO bad, in the vast scheme of things.

I saw the duty solicitor, lovely man, who explained what would most likely happen. I had to fill out a “Means” form, where you describe your financial situation (income,outgo). Hmmm, how much do I spend on electricity per month? council tax? shoes? cappuccinos? (not really those last two!) What’s my yearly income? Zero? (Ooooh. Hopefully Mr. D enjoys my company, because I sure don’t contribute much financially. More of fiscal DRAIN, don’t you agree? Especially today.) Then the duty solicitor sent me back out, to wait.

Free advice from a lawyer?? Wow.

Sooz gave me a ride to court on Monday morning. She decided she really needed to make a trip to TKMaxx in Woking, and since the courthouse was right nearby, well, why not go together? A little bit of shopping, a little bit of the criminal justice system.... just the thing for a dull Monday. Gosh, I have such nice friends. Where would I be without them?

In fact, my first reaction regarding this whole thing was, “I’m not telling anybody!” But that’s just not me. I mean, if you don’t tell anyone, you just have to go it alone, while at the same time you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. That is, someone who’s perfect, and who doesn’t make mistakes.

A friend of Mr. D's, from a long time ago, is a pilot. One of the expressions that Dave often used was from pilot school: “Climb, Confess, Communicate”. That is, if you make a mistake while flying, Climb (gain yourself some altitude, and thus some time), Confess (admit your mistake and get it out in the open so people can know how to help you), and Communicate (keep talking until you’ve sorted yourself out). I always thought that was a pretty good motto for life too. Although some days I can’t remember all three c’s... let’s see, climb, communicate, collide?........ uh, no... that’s not right.... hmmmm)

So I started telling some of my friends on Sunday, and knew that eventually I’d have to spill the beans to everybody, because, let’s face it, it’s such a great and stupid story, really. And for all of you, I hope, so flippin’ EDUCATIONAL. Here you are now, my pal, reading this. What will I go through to entertain you? And I really hope you learn something, too. That IS the ultimate point.

Anyway, Sooz was probably a little bit fascinated to be driving a criminal to court. Wouldn’t you be? Isn’t it interesting to be my friend??? (Don’t answer that please.)

We got to Woking at 8:45 am, and I trotted off to find those solicitors’ offices. Rang the bell at the first one, and explained my situation. “I was arrested on Friday night, I have to appear in court in 45 minutes, and I need a lawyer.” American brass, 8:55 am.

“What kind of offence?”


“We don’t do that kind of law. But they do next door. Try them.”

Ooooh-kay. Fifty percent of the options eliminated.

Rang the bell next door. I explained myself again (maybe I’ll just wear a sandwich board, or a scarlet “D/D”?) A woman invited me into her office.

“Here it is, then. It’s pretty cut and dried if you were over 35 but under 50 on the breath test. They’ll take away your license for a year, and fine you. You can ask to participate in a Drink/Drive Education course, which would reduce the license revocation by three months. Though of course, if you’re living now in South Africa you might not be able to complete that course. And ask for the duty solicitor when he comes in. He can give you more help if you need it.”

I thanked her profusely, and she said, “Well, we don’t usually give out free advice.... but it IS Monday morning....” And there is a God.

Off to the courthouse. I was first in line for the duty solicitor, but as I checked in at the front desk, my heart sank when the receptionist said, “You’re not on my list.”

Not on her LIST! Omigod! Not again! How could this be? I explained what had happened so far.

“Oh my, your file is probably over at Redhill today.”

Redhill? REDHILL? RED effin’ HILL!!???!!

Arggghhhh! I was starting to feel seriously hysterical, but managed to hold all the raw, soul-scorching screaming inside me. Honest, I’m surprised she couldn’t hear it herself (“excuse me, my dear, can you hear the wretched tormented cries of 187 damned souls, dancing over the hickory scented flames of some Louisiana bonfire? No? Bless you, you must be a good, truly God-fearing woman.....cuz what I’m hearing right now in my head is ... pretty much like what I just described.....My God, the screams.....”).... OK, la dee dah. Oooo, yes, I deal with this sort of thing every day, no problemo. Tra la la. Let’s get a grip here. My thoughts were just spinning around and round.

“Oh dear.” I tried to look calm.

“But don’t worry, we can probably get a copy of it. The police station is right next door.”

Well thank goodness for that. I thought about offering to walk over and pick it up myself but figured it was pointless. Although I could have had a little reunion with my new police buddies. They were so much fun.

“Just have a seat. The duty solicitor will call you in, after a while. And you’re first on my list for unscheduled appearances in court.”

So then I got to hang out and watch the show.

See you in court!

Oh no! Oh Lord! I’m representing mySELF! This is TERRIBLE! I can’t represent MYSELF! Why didn’t I watch more Perry Mason? Or even Rumpole of the Bailey? Or Inspector Morse! Anything! Man, I’m really in the shite now. Panic set in.

“We understand you were arrested for a drink/drive offense, and because you are flying out of the country on Monday, the Woking police sent you over here this morning. However, they really shouldn’t have done that, so we will have to have you appear in court in Woking on Monday morning. What kind of a license do you have?”

What kind of a license? What kind of a license?? I was representing myself! O God! What kind? What KIND? My mind froze. What kind WAS it? Provisional? No. Learner’s? No. Permanent? God, I couldn’t think.

“Uh, a real one?” I answered. “It’s pink.”

The magistrate rolled his eyes. “No, no, NOOOOO! Is it a BRITISH license?”

“Oh, yes, sir, definitely yes. I just got it in June.” Sad, that. (Especially when my poor long-suffering driving instructor finds out.)

“Well, fine. Just make sure that when you show up in court on Monday, you bring both parts of your license: the photocard, and the paper counterpart license as well.”

I grimaced. This was going to irritate him some more.

“Yessssss?”, he hissed.

“Sir, my counterpart licence is in a container, sailing over the sea with all my other household goods, to South Africa. I’m afraid I didn’t forsee needing it in the interim.”

“Never mind. They can look up your record with the DVLA on Monday. You’ll need to mail the counterpart in later. Because you’ve shown good faith in showing up here today, the court releases you now, to appear in court in Woking on Monday October 10, at 9:45 am. Your case is adjourned until then.”

The usher smiled at me reassuringly, took my arm, and escorted me out of the courtroom.

Great! Free! And I’d have my license for the rest of the weekend anyway, which was convenient. So I walked back to the train station, caught the Gatwick Express back toward Wokingham, fell deeply, deeply, deeply asleep on the train (first time in three months!), jumped out at Guildford when they announced “Transfer here for Ascot”, left my favorite black sweater on the train (did manage to bring the pink coat), found that the train I’d chosen to transfer to had been cancelled (typical Southwest Trains... ), caught the next Gatwick Express, all over again, to Wokingham, and then got the local back to Ascot, and back to Sooz’s. What a trip. What stinking bad luck. And all for nothing.

At Sooz’s, I ripped the kitchen apart, looking for the yellow pages, to try to find a lawyer. Since now I figured one might be handy. However, the only phone book that turned up was for Slough, which was going to be no help in Woking on Monday morning. Looked online finally, and found two lawyers in Woking, right near Woking Magistrates’ Court. Walking distance. Do you think they planned it that way, for all of us license-losers?

I spent the rest of the weekend trying not to worry, and canceling my appointments for Monday (sorry Mike! sorry Ronalee!). I did have a super time with Aphrodite; we shared Sunday breakfast with family friends, and spent Sunday evening with more of my favorite people at another dinner party. No drinks this time, at all. Somehow that would have seemed ... a bit... stupid. And overall, I tried to really savor my last day of driving on English roads for at least a year.

One more night’s sleep... and then,tomorrow.... Woking Magistrates’ Court.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Mrs. D..., of Ascot

In the courthouse lobby, I was suddenly aware of a uniformed man coming toward me.

“May I help you, Madam? What are you doing here?” Man, I’m being “madam”ed to death this weekend. And this is not good. “What am I DOING here?” You tell me, brother! I’m trying to be tried! And this is already really trying!!!

“I’m supposed to appear in court this morning. Where should I go?”

The man looked at another uniformed woman who’d come over to join us. They raised their eyebrows, and then he smiled and said, “Well, you’re not on our list. Who sent you here?”

“I was arrested Friday night, well, just last night, 10 hours ago. And the Woking Police sent me over here, because I’m flying out of the country, to South Africa, on Monday night.”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” said the woman. “I don’t know WHY they keep doing this. They really shouldn’t have sent you here. This court is just for people who are still in custody, still under arrest. Those police in Woking! We know they’re TRYING to help, but.....”

Oh great, so now what? Suddenly I’m wishing I’m still under arrest?! How quirky!

The man said, “Let me go up and check with the clerk. Maybe they’ve received your file after all.”
Oh oh. Crap..... My 50-page file has gone missing in the five hours since I checked out of the Woking “Spa”? Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. This is suddenly looking quite bad.

“Wait here, madam, and I’ll go check.”

Eventually, the usher (that’s what his official title was) ushered me into the court room, where the clerk said, “Your file’s not here. This court is for people who are still under arrest. They usually arrive in a police van, and the file comes with them. I imagine your file is still at the Woking police station. But wait around for a half hour, and we’ll see if it turns up.”

Hoo boy. So, I sat in the waiting room. No, I (casually) paced around the waiting room. It just seemed like such a bore to sit down. I simply couldn’t.

Finally, at about 11am, I was recalled into the court room. The usher showed me in.

“Just sit here in the back. They’ll call you forward in a minute, to adjourn your case until Monday.”

I sat there, listening to the proceedings, daydreaming a little bit. And then....

“MRS. D ... OF ASCOT.” A deep voice boomed throughout the courtroom.

Time slowed down. Sort of a slow motion effect, really. All heads in the magistrates’ court swiveled completely around, turning to get a good look at me: MRS. D, OF ASCOT. (Just like in The Exorcist. Did you KNOW people’s heads could turn that far round? No, I was surprised too.)

The lawyers. The magistrates. The other people in the gallery. The transcribers. Everyone gawped shamelessly. I was suddenly conscious of how far away I was from Ascot, and how totally overdressed I was for this occasion. Should have taken off all the jewelry and not worn the fashionable pink woolen coat. Oh well, too late now. Mrs. D of Ascot must step forward to address the magistrates.

“Just stand there, at the back of the court. No, over there. No, No, NO! In FRONT of the railing.”

My God, it was already a huge production, because I couldn’t even stand in the right place, and the magistrate sounded very testy. He probably had other things to do on a Saturday, like trim the hedges at home or something, and here I was trying to ruin his day. The usher finally gently pushed me into the right place and there, we were ready to begin.

“Where’s her solicitor?” asked the magistrate.

“She’s representing herself, sir,” replied someone.

Punctuality counts

“Aren’t you having just a wonderful parents weekend? Isn’t it great? What have you been up to?”

Lynn had just run over and given me a massive surprise hug. What a wonderful welcome!

I was out on the football pitch at Aphrodite’s school Saturday afternoon, enjoying her soccer game and the wonderful crisp autumn weather. Well, not SO crisp, actually, because this was England, but good enough. Everyone was greeting me, hugs and smiles, and all were so curious. “What did you do this morning? Did you and Aphrodite do something fun? How’s Jo’burg? Tell us where you’ve been!”

And there I stood thinking, “What part of Magistrates’ Court on a Saturday morning in Redhill, Surrey, can I possibly explain?”

I smiled, and said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s been fun. Interesting, even, with a capital ‘I’...”

So. I dropped A off at school at 7:30 am Saturday for her SAT II exams, then zipped back to Ascot station to catch the 8:13 to Wokingham, for a transfer to the Gatwick Express (second to last stop: Redhill). I figured I was going to lose my license that very day, so I’d better leave the car at Ascot station, close to Sooz and Don’s, so I could get someone nearby to drive it back to the house later on.

The train ride was endless. Endless. And I had so much time to think about all of it. Insurance. My driving license. My new arrest record. The size of the upcoming fine. What were my parents going to say? My kids? My friends? Yuk. What a mess. Of course, I was sure I could think of something good about it. I thought. I kept thinking.... not much, really, is good about this.

I needed my Mom to show up, in some kind of shimmering vision, with one of her familiar and soothing sayings. “Every cloud has a silver lining?” Could work.

So! There! Good material to write about, hey? I won’t be worrying about writer’s block any time soon! Trala! I felt so much better. Thanks, Mom!

But somehow, the train just didn’t seem to be getting there fast enough. I was supposed to be there by 9:45, and it was 9:30 and we still weren’t close yet, and I had no idea how to find the Magistrates’ Court House, and almost no money on me. Only euro and rand, I suddenly realized as I looked through my wallet. How utterly inconvenient.

I got pretty tense, because you really can’t pace on a train the way you can in a jail cell, take my word for it, but the train finally arrived in Redhill at 9:40. I tore out of the train, down the steps, out of the station, threw myself into a cab, and said, “Take me to Magistrates’ Court! Please! As quickly as possible.” I could have said “on the double”, but that seemed over the top for Britain. And I’m sure we could come up with another cinematic film reference here, but none comes to mind at the moment. Suggestions? Some flick with Bogart in it? Or Jimmy Stewart?

The taxi driver gave me a look.... and off we went. For about 1/4 of a mile. Gave him the fare (£3.50, all the change in my purse), ran up to the door of the courthouse, yanked it open. (Pant pant pant. Good thing I’ve been training at high altitudes. I’m much quicker than I used to be!) The clock in the lobby read 9:44 am. Whew! Made it! What a sense of accomplishment! Beat the deadline by ONE MINUTE. I was flooded with pleasure. Something had gone right. At least I could be PUNCTUAL. Perhaps my only remaining good quality?


Reigate. Where in the heck was Reigate? Somewhere in Surrey, I figured.

“Ummmm, Reigate?” I asked. The same kind policeman printed out the train schedules to Reigate/Redhill for me. (Oh look! It’s almost to Gatwick. Oh goody. And here I was trying to think of something interesting to do tomorrow!)

The taxi took me back to Ascot, where Aphrodite let me into the house at about 4:15 am. She said, “You know, it occurred to me tonight, I’ve NEVER gotten a good night’s sleep before a standardized test.”

“I’m sorry, dolly. Let’s go to sleep.”

I slept until 6 am. All of about 2 hours.

And then I called Mr D.

“Good morning!” he said. “How are you?” (Crazy upbeat morning person! But he’s MY crazy upbeat morning person...)

“Not so good. I...(choke back tears here) ... got arrested for drink/drive last night.”

“Oh noooooo! I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you ok?”

“I am SO SO SO DUMB!!!! So stupid!!

And then, do you know what he said?

“Hey, no one was killed, everyone’s all right. Don’t be too hard on yourself, okay? Everybody makes mistakes. You’re only human, in case you forgot.”

That’s why I love this guy. Just what I needed to hear. I’m not sure yet that I can forgive myself, but he has.

Amazing. Amazing grace.

Jailhouse blues

“We’re just going to pop you in a jail cell for a little bit, until your paperwork is processed,” said the lady cop. “Sorry about this.”

Golly, they were all so apologetic and nice. “You mean you were just here for the weekend? And friends just gave you a little ‘do’? How.... how very VERY unlucky!”

Yes, that’s it... how unlucky. Or how incredibly, mind-blowingly stupid!

So, down the hall, turn the corner, and here’s your cell. Enjoy.

It wasn’t half bad really. About 15 x 15 feet, with a built in bunk bed with a gymnasium type foam mattress pad on it, waterproof and vomitproof, by the looks of it. Didn’t feel any temptation to lie down though. A toilet without a seat. No problem there, I wasn’t using THAT. A button to flush the toilet with, and a button to call for help. And a sliding door in the center of the cell door, which, surprise, you couldn’t slide open from inside. Oh well. I guess that’s where the tin plate and tin cup come through if you’re going to be boarding for a while.

And absolutely no obvious place to tie my shoelaces to, for hanging myself. I was surprised they let me keep my shoelaces, in fact, because they were awfully long and dangerous. But unless you’d tied the laces around your neck and then bashed yourself unconscious against the porcelain toilet bowl and drowned, there really wasn’t much in it. I decided to stand there until I was released.

After about an hour, the guy in the next cell was getting on my nerves just a little bit. He spent all his time screaming, and pounding on the cell door with his feet. Constantly.

“Let me the f------g bl------dy h----- OUT OF HERE! I mean it! Let me out! You b------ds!”

On and on and on. Pound pound pound pound pound. Pound-POUND. Pound-POUND. Pound-POUND! POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND!

He could take up African drumming if he ever gets out, he’s really got potential.

After another half hour or so, I decided that maybe I would sing, partly to calm him down, and partly since the acoustics in this cell were clearly just SO excellent. Maybe some... yes, some jailhouse blues.... that would be GREAT! But of course, since I am lyrically challenged, I can never remember more than one-half a stanza of any song (except for the Star Spangled Banner, which seemed inappropriate). So I gave it up as a total loss, and kept quiet. Which was fortunate probably, or they might have booked me again, for singing off-key, or for acting like a weirdo.

After another half hour, I was starting to wonder if they’d forgotten me. I tentatively poked the buzzer button. Five minutes later, the kindly officer came along and opened the small sliding door. “Yes, Madam. Are you all right?”

“Oh, I was just wondering how much longer it might be. I really need to get my daughter to her exams in the morning.”

“Sorry it’s taking so long, Madam. It should be soon. And I’m really awfully sorry about that ridiculous idjit in the next cell. Would you like to move to a quieter cell on the other side?”

Yes, that’s it, I would, and I’d like a room with a balcony and a river view and ... oh never mind.

“No thank you, Officer. This is fine.”

“And Madam, would you like a blanket?” Awww, so sweet. I declined.

Now the guy next door had calmed down, but had begun vomiting. And since he didn’t seem to be able to do ANYthing quietly and discreetly, it was exactly as you’d imagine. I think he finally threw up his toenails AND his gizzard and then collapsed, because at the very last, it got quiet. Bummer of a job to be on the janitorial staff at the jail house. Remind me not to apply. I know I was complaining before, about not having a job, but.....

Finally, the door opened, and they escorted me out to the front desk, where my personal belongings were returned. They had already called a taxi for me (what lovely people!) and after I signed off about 50 pages of forms, I was free to leave.

“Your taxi is waiting for you, Madam.” Why, how civilized! Now, why hadn’t I thought of a taxi four hours ago, in Bracknell? Dumb bunny!

“Since you’re leaving the country on Monday evening, going to Johannesburg, you’ll need to go to court tomorrow, Saturday, in Reigate. Be there at 9:45 am. Good night, Madam.”

35 mcg/100 ml

So, we sat in the police car, and they gave me lots more instructions, explanations, and a summary of what I’d been up to (driving 35 mph in a 60 mph zone.) A guy friend of mine said, “Gosh, E, that’s just plain embarrassing. Too SLOW? You might think of changing that when your book gets published....!” Mmmm, yup. Thanks, Mike! Any and all assistance eagerly accepted at this point!

The officers were so polite. It even felt like they were going to Woking Police Station via the long way, maybe giving me a little more time to bring my blood alcohol level down? Somehow I knew it wasn’t going to be enough time, in the end.

We drove up to the Woking police yard, got out, went into the waiting area. It was a cement block room with wooden benches around the perimeter of the room. A whole bunch of arrested persons, and their police escorts, ranged around the space. Waiting for Godot, in Woking.

“Could be a while, Madam. Would you like to sit down?”

“No thank you, I’m fine, sir.” Might as well start doing my penance early. “But I AM parched... could I please have a glass of water?”

“No, I’m sorry, Madam. You won’t be able to have anything to eat or drink until after your tests.” Right. That plan, to dilute my blood alcohol level, was out the window.

We stood there for 20 minutes, which I was thankful for -- more time passing. Finally, ushered in to the inner sanctum. More explanations, papers to sign, a thousand questions. They took my money, phone and ID, and put them in a sealed plastic bag.

And took my two necklaces. The woman officer said, “In case you want to, you know, ....” And she made a cross-eyed “hanged” face, yanking up an imaginary noose. Nawwww, I don’t think I’m going to be bothering to hang myself today. Too much trouble, besides, I have to get Aphrodite to her exam tomorrow morning. Carpool duty always takes first priority! Kill yourself later, if you still want to, AND if you still have the time, before the afternoon school run.)

Then, “Do you want us to call you a solicitor? Do you understand the charges? Would you like us to call someone else for you?” Hmmm, that last is a tough one. Which of my close friends do I want to wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning with this dumb news? No, I’ll pass.

“No. Yes. No.” Actually, I should have had them call a solicitor, because as it works out, you can only scare up a solicitor on the weekend WHILE YOU’RE IN CUSTODY, UNDER ARREST. I thought I’d deal with a lawyer later, or maybe even not, since I was pretty clearly guilty. But it would have been wiser to call in the duty solicitor. Because it’s too easy to continue to make even more stupid mistakes while in custody. Fortunately I was “calm, quiet, and cooperative” according to my police record. Just like always. (DON’T object, now, ANY of you!!!)

Then, into the interview room. You’re videotaped, and audio-taped as well. Two tapes in a sealed package go into the dual tape drive. It’s just like Prime Suspect. Great. I’m acting in my own stupid story. Blinkin’ American Idjit. Why couldn’t I have had Helen Mirren’s role instead? DCI Jane Tennant? Drat and phooey.

Finally, the breath test. Actually two. You get two tries. They count the lower reading. If you’re under 35 micrograms of alcohol/100 ml of breath, you go free. If you’re between 35 and 50, you move on to phase 2, where you can request a blood test. If you’re over 50, it’s no contest -- we’ll see you in court, man. My low test reading was 48/100. (The other was 50). Not brilliant. Not escapable either. No way a blood test was going to change things, so I declined it. (Ordinarily, it would be wise to take that option, because it takes 6-8 weeks to process your blood sample... and that’s 6-8 weeks you get to keep your license, before you lose it for a year. However, I was flying back to Jo’burg on Monday night, and didn’t want to have to fly back again in 6 weeks just to go to court and accomplish the inevitable.)

So, failed the test. Twice. Now I was going to NOT pass go, and ... YES, go to jail.

But first, fingerprinted with a cool high-tech fingerprint reader. Much cooler than getting prints done with the ol’ ink pad, as I did just two months ago in Bracknell for my criminal background check. (That was for my upcoming South African visa application. Fortunate timing, really, that I did that before this arrest. Gadfry.)

Next, DNA sample from inside your cheeks .... brush brush brush... now your genetic makeup is on file in the national database. Oh, and now, help yourself to all the water you’d care to drink from the water cooler over there...... Gosh, thanks, Officer.