…versus the car park

photo

Since becoming a father, I admit that there have been occasions when I’ve found the dramatic reduction in my ‘free time’ a bit frustrating. Whilst this is just one downside in a field full of positives during parenthood, I’ve realised in the last 24 hours that less time to yourself can actually be a good thing.

Let me explain: This week, my wife and daughter are away for a couple of nights, so my time in the evenings is my own. Last night was the first night that they were away, but I had a dentist appointment after work. After this appointment, I came back to find a parking ticket on my car. I was so annoyed by this (technically justified) ticket that I subsequently spent the remainder of the evening – including 10 minutes eating microwaveable noodles – thinking about it. Needless to say, if my wife and daughter were at home, I would have been preoccupied and therefore not given more than a passing thought to this annoyance, let alone spent time and effort writing a lengthy note to the offending council. This is how it went:

Customer Services, Epsom & Ewell Borough Council

12th August 2014

Dear Sir/Madam,

Earlier this evening, I was the lucky recipient of one of your parking charges, which was stuck onto my car windscreen at Hope Lodge car park because I was parked ‘without clearly displaying a valid pay and display ticket or voucher or parking clock’ (whatever the hell that last option is).

It’s true, I was parked without one of those fine objects, but I was really annoyed by the ticket, so I wish to give you some background and also tell you why I’m annoyed. I’m sure you don’t care, but I’ve had a lot of caffeine today and it’s my £50 (or £25 if I pay within 14 days – again, how lucky am I?) that you’re taking from me, so I’m going to tell you anyway.

I’d left work in Weybridge a good 1 hour and 10 minutes before my 6pm appointment in order to make what, outside rush hour, is a 25-minute journey. Having been caught in stop-start traffic on three separate occasions, I eventually arrived at Hope Lodge car park a minute before my appointment. I parked up, went over to the ticket machine and found that the parking charges appeared to have increased yet again since my last visit to Epsom, which, considering how much it costs to stop here, was surprisingly not that long ago. This time around, I apparently needed £1.50 to park as it was after 4pm. As luck would (not) have it, all the cash I had on me amounted to £1.40. I had mistakenly believed that this would have seen me through my appointment quite comfortably – how wrong I was.

“Not to worry”, I thought to myself, as I assumed that Epsom & Ewell Borough Council would have one of those fancy new systems like ‘RingGo’ where, if you don’t happen to have enough cash for a ridiculously-inflated parking cost, then you can instead pay through your mobile phone, either via an ‘app’ or by ringing an automated number. You know, like old times.

Sadly, there was not this facility at Hope Lodge car park (the irony of the name was not lost on me).

Even in Dorking, where I live, these new-fangled systems are commonplace, which is a surprise considering that you’re nearer London and have lots of shiny new infrastructure – but maybe that is just confined to the train station.

So, I was stuck. I had no means to pay for my brief time at Hope Lodge and, now late for my appointment and with a bladder straining against the weight of all of the aforementioned caffeine, I made the decision to just go straight to my appointment.

Whilst in the dental surgery, the hygienist told me that I needed “to relax” my jaw. This was difficult because there was a wasp flying over my head, a Gary Barlow CD playing in the background and the tube that was sending water down my throat made me feel like I was being water-boarded. It was only once the appointment was over and I left the surgery that my jaw, not to mention the rest of me, started to relax. Unfortunately, I clenched up again 30 seconds later, when I saw the ticket slapped on my windscreen.

By the way, my teeth are fine, just in case you were wondering.

Normally, I would be very happy because of this, but I’m instead angry that both unfortunate circumstance and your draconian, inflexible car parking measures have ruined my evening by forcing me to spend my time writing you this letter instead of watching ‘Sharknado 2’, despite the feeling that I’m sure it will be even worse than the first one.

This is not to mention the time I’ll have to spend actually paying your penalty charge. Yes, I’ll pay, despite the gnashing of my newly flossed teeth.

However, the main point of this letter is that I wish to point out that your car parking charges are a complete rip-off, both ridiculously excessive and pointlessly changeable, whilst the methods to pay are archaic, inflexible and show no concession to modern life. But, maybe you don’t want to make it easier for people to pay? No, it’s much better to keep fleecing the general public, avoiding the extra administration of upgrading to a newer, mobile phone-led system and also pocketing the additional revenue that will probably go towards paying for this year’s council Christmas party (seriously – where does the money from these charges go?)

After all, it’s not like I haven’t cumulatively over-paid for actual parking time in the last 15 years or so that I’ve been coming to Epsom (and not just for all the cinema trips). Do I get a refund for that? Of course not.

Sarcasm aside, I do hope that you’ll have had enough complaints about this to revisit both the cost and the method of parking within Epsom & Ewell as, currently, both are ridiculous.

In the meantime, you may take my money, but you won’t take my freedom (unless that actually becomes the overnight parking cost during the next price increase).

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Dockett

So there we go, I’ll certainly let you know if I get a reply. In the meantime, this was a reminder that time spent with my little family brings out the best in me or, at the very least, dilutes the sarcastic bits.

Advertisements

Of mice and many

Life is hard. As Benjamin Franklin once said: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.

On second thoughts, it may actually have been Brad Pitt in ‘Meet Joe Black’..?

Anyway, it’s tough out there and all parents want to protect their children as best they can from the grim reality that is the modern world and the heartache and upset that it brings with it. It’s an impossible task though and there is one early trauma that many of us will have gone through as children – the gut-wrenching heartbreak that is the loss of a favourite toy, whether it’s only a temporary loss or something sadly more permanent.

Most people have a story to tell along these lines. My mother, for example, lost her beloved pink rabbit in Scotland when she was little and still hates being reminded about it (sorry, Mum).

My own particular experience did not involve a rabbit, or another stuffed companion such as a bear or even my prized Garfield, but ‘Benny the beetle’. Benny was a small rubber beetle (naturally), who was included inside a party bag following a friend’s birthday. I’m not entirely sure what it was that made me connect with this tiny insect toy, but a bond was formed and I ended up taking Benny with me everywhere I went. He even accompanied me during a family holiday to France a couple of years later. On one lovely sunny day during this trip, my parents and I had been out for a picnic. However, when we got back to the holiday home where we were staying, I realised that Benny was nowhere to be found. Panicked and upset, I forced my parents to join me in a frantic search mission that took in the entire house, surrounding grounds and eventually involved us going back to the picnic area, despite (I think) it being at least an hour away. I’m sure one of my parents can verify this, as it obviously wasn’t me doing the driving.

Having painstakingly combed the area, Benny was still missing. With the light fading, and with me feeling tired and dejected, we headed back to our temporary home. However, shortly after arrival, my mood changed completely when I realised that I had actually left Benny wedged between the pages of the ‘Asterix’ book next to my bed.

In this instance, mine was a temporary loss, however this is tempered by the sad fact that I don’t actually know where Benny is these days. Due to his small frame, he got lost again years later, this time for good. Despite the fact that I am now 35 years of age, I’m like my mother in that this genuinely makes me feel rather sad every time I think about it.

Fast-forward to the present day and I am aware that the day may soon come when my daughter loses one of her cherished toys. With this in mind, my wife and I were given some wise words of advice from my mother-in-law, who said we should always have a duplicate in reserve should anything happen to whichever one ended up as the favourite.

Being very young and fickle, M has only recently developed an interest in soft toys, previously preferring to play with objects that made more of an impact when they were whacked against her high chair or dropped down the toilet. But there has always been one constant presence, which has been especially useful at bedtime as it has become her comforter. When you hand it to her, she automatically grabs it with one hand and sticks her other thumb in her mouth. It’s like flicking on a rather loveable switch.

The toy in question is a little stuffed animal called a ‘Chimboo Mouse’ made by Jellycat, a company that makes really cute little toys. I don’t wish to cast aspersions, but if you don’t make at least one ‘awww’ noise when looking at their website, then frankly you have no soul.

So, given the level of attachment that M has to her mouse, we decided to follow my mother-in-law’s advice and buy a spare in case of accidental loss or even potential damage as a result of it being chewed beyond recognition. The problem is that Jellycat have since amended the range. The new mice on the block are still the same size, colour, fabric, dimension etc. and the only difference is that the face is more rounded, less narrow. This is presumably to make them look even cuter but it also makes them look strangely less mouse-like. It is a noticeable difference though and one that I’d guess would not get past most children if you were to try and replace their favourite toy with an imposter.

So, after a lengthy deliberation, we decided not to purchase the not-quite lookalike mouse from Jellycat directly, but instead search for a true duplicate elsewhere. In such circumstances, all roads lead to eBay.

The good news was that we did indeed find two of the older Chimboo mice for sale, both unused and with tags. The bad news (and I don’t think I’m overstating this) was that the people aiming to sell these mice were pure evil and clearly trying to exploit desperate parents in a bid to make a large profit.

I don’t like naming and shaming, but the worst offender was (and still is) an eBay business known as ‘cheddargorgetoyshop’. Despite the fact that you can buy the new Chimboo mouse for £9 from the Jellycat website, they have listed one of the original range for £24.99. They’ve even described it as a ‘rare piece’. Now, you can argue whether that’s technically true or not, but I personally think they’ve got more cheek than Beyonce.

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 20.45.24

(By the way, I’m sorry if I appear to have gone all ‘Daily Mail’ on you, be assured that I’ll be having a shower after writing this in order to try and scrub off all of the middle-class rage).

Meanwhile, the other seller was a fellow parent with a spare mouse that had never been used. Again, this seller had described their mouse as ‘rare’. The starting price was £0.99, so my wife swooped in, contacting the seller to say that she would be happy to pay £10 (£1 above the standard Jellycat price). The seller refused, clearly believing that that she could get even more by sticking with the auction format. With my wife refusing to join the auction on principal, I formed the other half of our tag-team and entered the bidding. Six days later, the final hours and minutes of this auction turned out to be more tense than ‘Gravity’, ‘Apollo 13’ and a World Cup final penalty shootout put together. But, I’m proud to say that I prevailed and the mouse was won for a price of £6.80. Victory was ours.

There’s a slight twist to this winning tale though, as we accidentally introduced both mice to M at the same time, so she’s now used to having two of them. So, it’s back to the search we go, this time for a third mouse…

Scrambling to buy a replacement need not be the only course of action though, as social media has provided a platform for potential child/toy reunions. In December, my sister-in-law shared a link on Facebook in which somebody had found an old teddy bear on a train to Kings Cross and posted a picture of it in the hope that the bear might find its way back to its owner in time for Christmas. I duly shared it as well and, in the coming days, there would be a number of times where I would wonder whether the bear did make it back home. Similarly, this week I saw another shared plea, this time for the safe return of a stuffed toy lion who had been separated from its owner in a local branch of Tesco.

So, in the event of a lost toy, the modern world does actually give us hope.

Now, I can’t offer any solutions to bigger problems such as the global economy or how to make Piers Morgan disappear, but what I can do is to reach out to you good people on behalf of the lost toy cause. People of the blogosphere and the wider world: If you come across a lost toy, look after it, share its details and do what you can to get it back to its rightful owner.

However, If a toy is tragically lost, I hope all sellers and vendors will consider the greater good and offer potential replacement toys at a reasonable price, instead of trying to squeeze as much excess profit as possible from frantic parents (I’m looking at you in particular, ‘cheddargorgetoyshop’).

If we all come together in this, both parents and children will sleep easier at night in the knowledge that childhood companions are safe and sound.  We can do this, so let’s try and make the world a better place, one small soft toy at a time.

image

Rubbed up the wrong way

There are often events in life that turn out to be the exact opposite of what you’d expect. This can work both ways. A night out that you thought you were too tired for can turn into a fantastic catch-up that lasts until the early hours. On the flipside, an interview for a job that you thought you were perfect for can sometimes turn into a disaster that you can’t escape from soon enough. I think we’ve all been there.

One such occasion occurred a few weekends ago, when my wife and I had booked ourselves onto a massage course in London. At this point, I should probably point out that it was massaging in a ‘sports therapy’ sense rather than anything more erotic. If you were reading this post expecting the latter, then I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed, ’50 Shades of Grey’ this isn’t.

Anyhow, these massage courses are not cheap and we had booked ours at a discount through Groupon. For anyone not familiar with Groupon, it basically sells a vast number of deals at a heavily discounted price. These deals can be anything from beauty treatments and short breaks to meals and days out. I’ve bought a few things from Groupon in the past and it is, one the whole, a pretty good website, providing you don’t object to receiving 2-3 emails every single day, usually sent around 3am.

The course was to be held at one of the city’s universities and so, armed with our 75% discount, Mrs.D and I headed towards North London.

However, the alarm bells went off initially when we arrived at the venue. The tutor was nowhere to be seen and there appeared to be a lot of people waiting around, all looking vaguely bemused and somewhat uncomfortable. The security guard at the front desk was unhelpful and had the look of a man who was badly hung-over and in desperate need of a bacon sandwich and some Alka-Seltzer.

When the tutor did arrive, 20 minutes late, we were ushered to an upstairs room that was part gymnasium and part hospital ward, where we all sat down for a further 10 minutes whilst the tutor rummaged in his bag in silence. The feeling of discomfort increased further as it slowly dawned on everyone that there were only 6 massage benches and surrounding curtains, but a good 30 or so people had turned up for the course which was roughly double the number that was expected. The slight panic was emphasised by the first words that our tutor spoke to us. ‘Are you all supposed to be here’, he said. It was a great start and it quickly dawned on us that our tutor (let’s call him Joe) hadn’t been doing this for long. He was in his early twenties and quite shy for a man built like a professional athlete. As he explained to us, he was only trained at a basic level and was still a student. This did not bode well and already I could see people looking around as if to say ‘would it be rude if we left now?’

However, nobody had the bravery to do so. So there we were all sat round the room, waiting for Joe to begin. He proceeded to the door, head down, turned around and proceeded to ask everyone why they were here, what they wanted to learn and how experienced they were. This would have been much more effective with a smaller group. Whilst initially amused at the schoolboy humour of people saying ‘I’ve received but I’m not good at giving’, any cheap laughs were firmly gone by the time everyone in the room basically repeated what had been said before.

Having got these ‘pleasantries’ out of the way, Joe then started to read, very slowly, out of a massage guidebook. He talked about eight different techniques, repeating them constantly as it became apparent he was also trying to teach himself as he went on. It was like Jackanory with essential oils. Even if some of this was potentially useful, there was no handout or accompaniment, so people typed away on phones and scribbled notes on random bits of paper they’d stolen from the room’s printer tray.

After the painful dictation, it was now time for the demonstration. This was always going to ramp up the awkwardness to epic levels, especially as Joe asked for a volunteer. Eyes were raised to the ceiling, down to the floor and anywhere that wasn’t near the bench he was gesturing towards. Eventually, a voice from the side of the room piped up and our volunteer turned out to be a rather ‘heavy-set’ gentleman of a certain age. Everyone seemed relieved but also rather embarrassed, mainly because the volunteer was happy to whip his shirt off without the aid of a curtain and then lay down on the bench like a beached whale.

Anyhow, the towel went on the whale and Joe proceeded to work his magic. Of course, by ‘magic’ I mean he repeated himself numerous times, kept stopping and starting to ask for help from the group to remember the key phrases he had tried to drum into us in the first place and general looked rather dismayed that he was rubbing a old bloke. This went on for a good 90 minutes, during which time somebody actually fell asleep (not the volunteer) and a few others secretly checked their phones for the nearest train times. Truth be told, I did feel a bit sorry for Joe, as the poor devil was out of his depth and this had clearly been dumped on him by bad organisation somewhere between Groupon and the university.

Fortunately, lunchtime arrived and just before we were dismissed for 30 minutes, Joe promised us that the afternoon would feature a colleague of his who was a specialist in Indian massaging techniques. This proved to be crucial as some people who were initially ready to rush out of the door, individually decided they would hang around. After all, everyone else appeared to be leaving so that would mean that onset of chronic boredom and the limited number of beds wouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wrong. Lunchtime came and went, but nobody left. People were hanging their hopes on Joe’s colleague who, relative to Joe at least, had to be an expert.

I shall call the expert Marco.

Marco was a small, Mediterranean gentleman with facial hair straight out of a Victorian novel and the cold, dead eyes of a serial killer. Fortunately for the group’s second volunteer, who was thankfully not the same person as before, Marco had been a massage therapist for about 30 years, which is a lot of time spent in the company of lavender. Despite his outward appearance, he was a skilled man of the oil.

So, to another 90 minutes, but this time it was a lot better. Even so, Joe would pipe up every so often with phrases like ‘remember I told you this before’, as if he was somehow the brains behind the whole thing, except more in the manner of a man who had just been prodded awake at the end of a long train journey.

Anyhow, after Marco’s demonstration, we were collectively re-invigorated and ready to try out some Indian massaging techniques. Or so we would have been had Joe not walked towards the bench to demonstrate again. This time, it was even more stilted, with him basically trying to copy Marco’s moves without success, relying again on participation from the group in the manner of a really bad pantomime.

Any energy had been sapped from the group by the time it eventually came for us to try the techniques out ourselves. Of course, the limited number of beds was still a major problem. Joe ‘solved’ this by suggesting that couples combined to make groups of four, thus each having use of a bench. At this point, if awkwardness had an alert, there would have been a huge red light flashing in the corner of the room, telling us to evacuate the building. Sadly there wasn’t. So, in a bid to escape the awkwardness, Mrs.D and I told our designated other couple that they could have the bench first and we would have our turn afterwards.

Joe was circling the room like a vaguely depressed shark and appeared strangely perplexed that Mrs.D and I chose to wait our turn rather than join in massaging random people we had only briefly met that morning. It made me wonder what he does with his weekends.

Anyway, half and hour later, our ‘turn’ arrived and we walked behind the curtain whereby my wife said that I should be the masseur first.

So, it began. I grabbed her foot and started trying to remember the sequence the Marco had talked us through. What I ended up doing was not as Marco had demonstrated but, in all honesty, I was pretty confused as I attempted to pick out the relevant bits from watching hours of massaging, tried to remember the order of the hand movements as well as decipher the auto-corrected notes that Mrs.D had made on her iPhone. What I needed to do was just take some time and work through it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to happen.

For the most part, my wife and I make a really good team. However, in occasional moments of uncertainty and awkwardness, it is fair to say that we are not always at our best. In a nutshell, Mrs.D tends to get controlling and bossy, whereas I tend to get flustered and stubborn. It’s a not a good combination. So, what followed was not 15 minutes of massaging brilliance, but 15 minutes of hushed arguing behind a curtain. Imagine, if you will, that I am shaking my wife’s ankle as if I am trying to remove the last bit of ketchup from a bottle. The accompanying conversation went something like this:

Mrs.D: You’re doing it wrong.
Me: I’m just trying to remember what he said. Hang on a second.
Mrs.D (gesturing): It was supposed to be like this.
Me: I know. Can you just let me get on with it?
Mrs.D: But it’s wrong. I knew you couldn’t see during the demonstration. You should have moved.
Me: I could see perfectly fine, but there was a lot to take in and I’m also trying to look at your notes. I’m working my way through it.
Mrs.D You obviously can’t remember and couldn’t see.
Me: I could see, just let me get on with it.
Mrs.D: If you were interested, you should have moved so that you could see.
Me: For the last time, I COULD see. Just keep quiet and let me concentrate!
Mrs.D: But you’re doing it WRONG!
Me: Look, we’ve been here long enough already and this isn’t working. Can we just go?

This exchange was repeated, on loop, a number of times before my flustered stubbornness took hold. When it came to my turn to be massaged, I refused and decided it was time to leave. Needless to say, there was not a great deal of talking on the train home except for the odd repeat of the conversation above.

So, having parted with a decent amount of cash (despite the discount) to get up at the crack of dawn in order to travel to North London, we had spent virtually an entire Saturday feeling very awkward and uncomfortable – and then had an argument to top it off.

Despite all this, I still maintain that Groupon deals are still very good value (unless they are over-subscribed). A massage course is still a nice idea as something for a couple to do together. Plus, I realised that despite what your expectations are at the start, certain things tend to work better when you relax and don’t think about it too much. Unfortunately though, I still haven’t got a clue what essential oils are.