Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Utility of Cowardliness

I have lost count of the number of times I have been spared embarrassment, - not by any exercise of wisdom on my part but rather by my unfortunate propensity to cowardliness. If fortune, as it is often said, favours the brave, then it cannot be denied that it sometimes intervenes on the side of the cowardly to save them from their own folly. This was amply illustrated in my own case recently when I foolishly took it upon myself to be civic minded. I had just set out on my usual gentle jog when going past my neighbour’s garden, I noticed a woman closing the lid of his “wheelie bin” (wheeled dust bin) as though she had just dropped something in it. My neighbour’s dust bins, like those of nearly all others in the road, are usually kept right next to the front garden gate, so that it is quite easy for strangers to drop waste material in it surreptitiously. Indeed, this kind of fly tipping, as it is called, has become quite a hot topic of public debate in recent months within the borough that I live in. The Borough Council has even coined a new label for it, - “Envirocrime”, and its monthly newspaper, exhorts civic minded borough residents to be active in helping to combat this new menace. The council’s exhortations seldom penetrate the dull brain of a 75-year old like me but somehow its campaign against fly-tipping had made a deep impression on me, and I was something of a recent convert to the need for vigilance against “Envirocrime” as I stepped out of the house that morning. Unsurprisingly therefore, it only needed the sight of a woman furtively closing the lid of my neighbour’s dust bin to stir the hesitant enviro-vigilante in me into a creature of fiery resolve, - or so I imagined. My initial reaction was one of indignation with words like “would you mind not dumping rubbish in my neighbour’s dustbin please, etc.” forming in my head. But predictably they never passed my lips, for that would have required uncharacteristic courage on my part. Resorting instead to discretion, I merely sauntered past the lady pretending that I had not noticed whatever it was that had just occurred. But however straight-faced I may have tried to appear, I realised straight away that in choosing to be non-confrontational, when nothing but bold action would have sufficed, I had failed miserably at the very first hurdle in my newfound mission to fight enviro-crime. The realisation made me feel wretched at my own cowardliness. But cowardliness had thankfully not diminished my capacity for cunning and in an instant it came to me that I could use guile to atone for my failure where courage had so miserably deserted me. So it was that I proceeded to enact an elaborate charade, which began by my stopping abruptly in my tracks and doing an about turn, having just scurried meekly past the fly-tipping lady. I then assumed a puzzled look and made an ostentatious show of checking my pockets in the manner of a perplexed man who had suddenly found himself bereft of something that should have been on his person. These actions of mine were of course designed to allow me to take a good look at the fly-tipping woman and more importantly, the registration number of the car that she was in, without arousing her suspicion or heaven forfend, her wrath at being observed. In the latter aim I succeeded admirably. Having noted the registration number of the car, I kept repeating it in my mind as I walked back to my house in order to commit it to paper before my notoriously non-retentive memory could set in. With the culprit’s registration number carefully recorded on paper for later action, I felt that I had done enough to take at least the first faltering steps to discharge the civic obligation that the council had urged on me in their crusade against enviro-crime. My next step was to go up to my neighbour’s house to advise him of what had taken place. It was of course quite safe to do so. There was no intimidating presence of a possibly wrathful fly-tipping lady to deter me, for I had taken good care to check that the lady had already departed from the scene in her car. To my dismay, my neighbour was out but that was probably just as well, as in my state of excitement, he would probably have found my breathless account of what had occurred a little too unnerving. Disappointing though it was, there was little to be done about my neighbour’s unavailability. As events were to prove, the unavailability of my neighbour was a fortuitous boon to me as it spared me some embarrassment subsequently. My neighbour’s unavailability meant that I could carry on with the jogging that I had intended to go on when I had first come out of the house that morning. Later that day, long after I had returned from my leisurely jogging exercise (it could actually be characterised as an exercise in “shambling”), I decided to go round to my neighbour once again to inform him of the “fly tipping” outrage that he had been the victim of in his absence. This time my neighbour was in and I proceeded to appraise him of exactly what I had seen. Recounting what I had witnessed only served to bring back an onset of righteous indignation, that left me spluttering incoherent phrases as I sought to offer my neighbour my sympathies, for having had to endure the outrage of his dustbin being misappropriated for fly-tipping. In contrast to my embarrassing agitation, my neighbour was the epitome of unruffled sang-froid. In a matter-of-fact voice, he merely said “let’s see what they have dumped in the bin. It was emptied only yesterday by the bin men”. We walked up to the bins with foreboding on my part as to what horrors were about to be uncovered inside the bins, when to my astonishment the first bin opened by my neighbour revealed nothing more shocking than an empty coke bottle. The other two bins were completely empty! For a second or two I was stunned and in a state of disbelief and complete denial: I could not possibly have been so mistaken about what I had seen that morning! I had most emphatically seen someone furtively opening a dust bin and dropping something in it! How could that be explained as anything other than outrageous fly tipping? But faced with the incontrovertible proof of the absence of any fly tipping, in the form of a solitary empty coke bottle, it began slowly to dawn on me that what I had witnessed earlier was not so much an act of environmental criminality, - rather a well-intentioned action of a civic minded woman anxious to avoid littering the street. It is perhaps a moot point as to whether the lady should have first sought the permission of the owner of the bin before proceeding to use it. I am aware that using someone else’s property without prior permission is not something that is to be indulged: it is termed colloquially as “taking liberties”. But in this case, the unauthorised use of a private bin was arguably not as reprehensible as the dropping of litter might have been. The pursuit of a higher goal sometimes outweighs the impropriety of its method and although the lady’s unauthorised use of a private dustbin was to be deprecated, it did achieve the laudable aim of keeping the street litter free. I was ashamed that I had attributed to this lady’s actions base motives that I had only conjured up in my own mind, but in my shame and misery I blamed not myself for my mind’s paranoia, but rather the high powered “enviro-crime” awareness campaign of the council. The campaign undoubtedly pursued a worthy aim but as often happens with well-intentioned plans, it seems to have been struck by the dreaded law of unintended consequences. In this instance, in trying to make placid mild mannered borough residents like me “enviro-crime aware”, the council had only succeeded in making us “enviro-crime paranoid”. As it was, it took all my innate cowardliness to ward off the embarrassment that could have befallen me. And therein lies perhaps a profound truth. Although, cowardliness can scarcely be considered a virtue, it too has its uses: as my example has shown, it is the best curb to rash acts of paranoia. If discretion, as the Bard tells us in Henry IV, is the better part of valour, then cowardliness is arguably the safer part of paranoia.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Old People

That I am now quite an old man, is no longer in contention. The mere fact that many men and women that I meet in the street address me as “Sir” is ample evidence that I am perceived as person of pitiable old age. But it never ceases to amaze me how so many youngsters routinely associate appearance of old age with some by-gone era that predates even the oldest living person of to-day: they may quite easily, for instance, associate a man of seventy with the trenches of the First World War, as has happened in my case. I recently visited my optician for a routine eye test. On arrival, I was greeted by a very pleasant young receptionist who asked me if I had visited the optician before, in which case, she informed me, she could easily find all my details on the optician’s computer system. On my assuring her that I was indeed an old client of the optician’s returning for a check-up, she asked me for my name and date of birth. With some, entirely irrational, trepidation I provided her with the required information: my forename, surname and my date of birth, which was of course, 22-2-1940. A flurry of finger tapping followed, to the accompaniment of echoing clicks from the ubiquitous computer keyboard that now adorns all shops and businesses. When the clicking ended, there was an ominous silence which I apprehended boded some inexplicable problem for which I might be held accountable. My foreboding was justified: my record, contrary to the receptionist’s expectations, seemed not to exist on the Optician’s computer system. And as I had feared, this eventuality only seemed to suggest to the receptionist that the information I had provided could not have been accurate; that she might have made an error in transcribing it into the computer, was a possibility that she was not about to entertain. Youth in its innocence tends to be oblivious to its own fallibility. Be that as it may, it was with the utmost courtesy that she asked me to repeat the details of my name and date of birth. More bemused than irritated, I re-stated my full name, followed by my date of birth. As I intoned my year of birth, 1940, I detected a faint smile on the receptionist’s face which left me in no doubt that she had just solved the mystery of my missing computer record. Curious to know how a computer record that had eluded the receptionist only moments ago, could now be about to make its appearance, I waited eagerly to hear what the explanation might have been. Alas when the explanation came, it scarcely served to flatter my ego. Showing scant recognition of any faux-pas that she might have committed, she said “Ah nineteen forty, - I thought you said nineteen fourteen!”. Unflattering as the assumption behind her remark was, it caused me more mirth than outrage. Mental arithmetic was clearly not her forte, or else she might have realised that even with my age-worn face, I was an unlikely centenarian. More to my disappointment however, what her unabashed explanation really revealed, was the inability of the young to comprehend the world of old age. To the still youthful, the aged live in a world in which there are no age differences: it is, in their perception, a world in which all the different generations of the elderly, however many decades apart, somehow coalesce into a single blob of longevity called “the old people”.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Senior Moment

Despite having reached an age that most would regard as being quite old, I cannot say that I am always cognisant of that fact, although my awareness of my old age does return swiftly whenever I find myself beset by the aches and pains that seem to accompany the arrival of old age. However, I have always convinced myself that whilst as an old man I might be more feeble now in body, my mind remains as agile as it ever was in my youth, - as evidenced, for example, by my considerable ability to solve Soduku puzzles and my still undiminished facility to recite poems that I had learned as a schoolboy. Indeed, like some keep-fit fanatic submitting his body to tortuous exercise, I tend to subject my mind to some energetic mental exercises such as reciting the 75 times table, - which, as countless devotees of “Countdown” will no doubt vouch for, is extremely useful with the show’s numbers game. Sadly, I have discovered that even meticulous care and painstaking nurturing of one’s mental faculties is no safeguard against the mind’s susceptibility to the sporadic stupidity that the ageing process engenders. One such episode of stupidity occurred to me recently when I tried to leave an underground car park in Walthamstow. It was early morning, - about seven o’clock, and the timing of the occurrence, - the early hour, may well have had some significance for the lack of rapidity with which my mind reacted on that occasion. I offer this as an excuse because there is, I believe, a theory that holds that the human mind tends to react rather lethargically to events in the wee small hours of the morning. Indeed it is this theory apparently, that underlies the police practice of staging early morning arrests, predicated as they are on the belief that the pre-dawn lethargy of the human mind makes it less likely to be disposed to offering resistance to arresting officers. At any rate, my mind was not disposed that morning to offering any resistance to the vagaries of technology that confronted me, even though they amounted to nothing more than a malfunction of an automatic door, in an underground car park. At that time of the morning, the car park was virtually deserted, as I parked my car and walked up to the exit that led to the street above. The exit was clearly marked “automatic doors” and on approaching it, I fully expected the doors to part before me like some biblical sea before fleeing Israelites but to my surprise they remained unyielding. It was annoying and it might have been tempting to blame modern technology. However, I am not as cynical about the efficiency of modern British engineering as many people these days affect to be. I therefore attributed this system failure, perhaps somewhat charitably, not to poor engineering but to a possible cost-cutting measure instituted by a parsimonious local council, whereby the automatic functionality of the doors was switched off outside of normal working hours. Undaunted, I made every effort to open the door manually but no amount of pushing at the door was of any avail: it remained firmly shut. Somewhat disappointed, I turned round to try and find another door that I could use to let myself out and as I did so, noticed a young girl walking in my direction. To my alarm, this young girl appeared to be heading for the same door that I had just tried and found wanting. Normally, as an old man I would be wary of accosting young girls but on this occasion my sense of civic responsibility welled up in me. In a display of public-spiritedness, I assumed my most polite manner as the girl approached and announced to her that the door that she was about to use “was not working”. The girl’s immediate reaction surprised and delighted me, - because she responded to my pronouncement with the sweetest smile that I could possibly have encountered from a stranger. To my dismay however, she seemed to take no notice of my warning about the problematic door. Charmed as I was by her smile, I could not help entertaining the uncharitable thought that this girl was so full of youthful confidence that she could not be bothered with good advice that was not only well intentioned but would soon prove to be to her clear advantage. Like some wise old sage about to prove the sceptics wrong, I waited with smug expectation to see the girl make a fool of herself. But my smugness turned the next instant to acute embarrassment when I saw to my mortification that the girl, far from being thwarted by the door, had sailed right through it by the simple expedient of pulling it open rather than pushing it shut, - as I had been doing. I stood open mouthed in grudging admiration, marvelling at this young girl’s mental alertness which enabled her to make light of a situation that had confounded me and which now made me feel feeble minded. Why, like her, hadn’t I thought to pull the door when pushing it did not work? Why wasn’t I sufficiently compos mentis to cope with this most unchallenging of situations? Slowly, the realisation came upon me that that my mental faculties for all their daily exercise had not overcome the perennial problem of age related stupidity, known euphemistically as a “senior moment”.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Beware Card Fraud - It Can Make a Fool of You

Life often has a disconcerting habit of making a person feel a fool just as he is beginning to think that he is being smart. I was a victim of this cruel propensity of life quite recently, although thankfully in my case, the experience, far from leaving me scarred, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the narrative below reveals. About a fortnight ago, quite unexpectedly, I received an unsolicited phone call, purportedly from my credit card provider. I had compelling reasons to believe that it was a purported, as opposed to a genuine call from my card provider, for reasons that I am about to explain. I am a septuagenarian, – at an age at which an old man’s mind apparently acquires a child-like gullibility that makes him an easy prey for tricksters and fraudsters. Friends and relations, with my best interest at heart, are constantly warning me of some diabolical swindle or the other, that they have heard of, that is targeted especially at unwary senior citizens. One such swindle that has been brought to my attention concerns credit card fraud. The intended victim of this fraud receives an unsolicited phone call, supposedly from the fraud prevention department of his credit card provider. The caller informs him that some fraudulent transactions, involving his credit card, have been detected and advises him to phone immediately, the emergency number shown on his card. The devilish part of this fraud is that although the victim phones the correct helpdesk number, - as shown on his card, he in fact ends up speaking to the fraudsters. Extraordinary as this may seem, this remarkable feat is easily achieved, allegedly, by the simple expedient of the fraudster’s continuing to remain on the line at his end and thus intercepting any subsequent call that the victim may make from his phone, - including the call to the card provider’s helpdesk. Having thus intercepted the victim’s call and duped him into believing that he is speaking to his card provider’s helpdesk, the fraudsters then inveigle from him, the card number and the pin details and use the information to make fraudulent transactions, - which now are of course actual as opposed to the fictitious ones used initially as a pretext for calling the victim. All of this detail, in this frightening scenario, had been firmly implanted in my mind by well-wishers, with an admonition not to allow myself to be caught out as other slow witted pensioners had been hitherto. Despite being thus forewarned, I was totally unprepared for the unsolicited phone call that I received one morning and heard the dread words that announced that the caller was from my card provider and that there had been a fraudulent transaction on my card. Although I recognised this to be the opening gambit of the diabolical fraud that I had been warned of, I could scarcely believe that I was actually being ensnared by it. Like many an optimist, I had imagined that the law of averages would somehow ensure that I would be amongst the numerous who on the balance of probabilities could expect to remain untouched by this unwelcome event. It was therefore a disappointment, that my justifiable optimism had not been rewarded. The laws of probability had clearly not worked in my favour but it was no use pondering over the vagaries of probability theory. Undeterred, I rose to the occasion and with great presence of mind informed the would-be fraudster that I was “right in the middle of something” and would he therefore call later. Congratulating myself as I put the phone down on having skilfully warded off an attempted fraud, I allowed myself a moment of triumphalism: these fraudsters would have to get up very early indeed to catch me out! But my elation did not last long and soon gave way to alarm as events began rapidly to take on a sinister turn. Having cut short the warning call that I had just received, I was keenly aware that I needed quickly to contact my card provider, to ascertain whether or not the call had been authentic. But mindful of the warning that the telephone must not be used on such occasions, to avoid being intercepted by the fraudsters, I rushed to my mobile to contact my card provider, - only to discover that someone had already placed an ominous message there, asking me to phone my card provider. This was now becoming a worryingly fiendish episode. Not only were the fraudsters lying in wait for me on my landline but they had also sealed off my only other avenue of help, - my mobile. For a moment I seriously contemplated going straight to the police but it so happened that I had a previous engagement to attend, - the computer class for senior citizens where I tutor. Reluctantly I decided that for the moment I had no option but to defer contacting my card provider until later. As events were to prove, that was the most sensible decision on my part that morning. For as I went to my local supermarket after my computer class and tried to pay for my shopping with my credit card, I found that it was no longer valid. This was an embarrassing development but it occurred to me that it could scarcely have been engineered by the fraudsters. They would have wanted to use the card, albeit unauthorisedly, but would not have sought to block it from use. Rather perplexed, I went home to phone the card company. By now the house phone, some four hours after the initial call from the people whom I had assumed to be fraudsters, should have unblocked itself and be available for normal communication. My inquiry at the card provider’s helpdesk, after the usual security related questions, brought forth an immediate explanation of the morning’s events. “We tried to contact you contact this morning, Mr. Keskar” the girl at the helpdesk informed me, “we were expecting your call, did you get our text ?”. It then transpired that my card had indeed been used for fraudulent transactions in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, of all places. In consequence, the card had been cancelled. As is normal in such circumstances, my card provider did not hold me liable for these transactions and asked me simply to await the issue of a new card. That the prospect of being a fraud victim had been averted, was indeed a great relief. But it was at the same time curiously disappointing, that what had appeared earlier in the morning to have all the appearance of becoming a drama, should have ended in such an anticlimactic fashion. There was really no fraud after all, - at least none associated with the phone call that I had received that morning. I had not acted with great presence of mind. Rather, I had been tilting at windmills. Fired by the tales of fraud that I had been subjected to, my wild imagination had conjured up villainy where none existed. In reality the fate of being the victim of a vicious phone scam had not befallen me, - nor had I been the plucky victim who had fought back. My ego, which had begun to inflate itself with the thought of having turned the tables on some despicable fraudsters, was rudely pricked. There was ultimately nothing to boast about in what I had done, and certainly no danger of resting on my laurels after a great triumph. There remained only the realisation that I had narrowly escaped making a fool of myself, - which I certainly would have done, had I gone to the police that morning as I had intended.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Epping Forest

I live pretty close to the Epping Forest in Essex and the changing of the seasons in the forest, particularly at year-end when nature is at its mellowest, has always been a fascinating phenomenon to me. My favourite season of the year happens to be the autumn. The tranquillity of autumn with its hint of the approaching bleakness of winter cannot be matched, for somebody of my disposition, by the vigour and exuberance of spring, - even with its promise of the glories of summer yet to come. I enjoy the gentler pace of life that is engendered by the rapidly shortening days of autumn and I warm to the thrill and anticipation of Christmas that the onset of autumn brings. But above all autumn enchants me with its brilliant display of colours as the trees prepare to shed their leaves. I can think of nothing more enchanting than a gentle drive along the Epping Road in early November soaking in the grandeur of trees bedecked in the hues of autumn. The red and gold of autumn leaves never fails to fascinate me even though I scarcely have the artistic sensibilities that one surely needs to appreciate such splendour of nature. And nature at its most splendid had been just as evident this last autumn in the Epping Forest as ever. However, last autumn, as though in an attempt to entice me away from my beloved Epping Forest, circumstances combined to present to me an altogether different autumnal scene which appeared to rival, if not surpass, that of the Epping Forest. I was in Canada last October and saw for the first time, in several years, the amazing variety of colours that autumn brings to the forests of North America. Here the trees are adorned not simply with reds and golds but also with shades of purple, orange and blue, - indeed all the colours, virtually, of the rainbow except, of course, green, although that is still to be seen on the evergreens. Faced with this extravaganza of myriad colours, I had to concede, much to my chagrin, that the Epping Forest had a worthy rival after all in the Canadian forests. Driving at autumn time along Canadian freeways, which seemed unfailingly to be flanked by forests, it was impossible not to be awestruck by the blaze of colours that stretched for miles on either side. Nevertheless, as someone whose aesthetic sense is lamentably shallow, the breathtaking beauty of the Canadian forests only served to remind me absurdly of the title of the famous song from the musical “West Side Story”, “Everything big in America”, and it occurred to me that like most things in North America, nature’s display of autumn beauty was on a much grander scale there than anywhere in the Epping Forest. Not that it in any way diminished my affection for the Epping Forest. The grandeur of the Canadian forests may have turned my head momentarily but I was always going to return to the charms of the Epping Forest rather like a man who returns ultimately to his first love. For the Epping Forest doesn’t just enchant in the autumn, in the winter too it has an allure that is irresistible. I took the opportunity to drive through the forest this winter during a particularly cold spell, - not long after a heavy fall of snow. As often happens in the days that follow a heavy snowfall, the landscape was still covered in snow but the road had mercifully been cleared so that I wasn’t beset by my usual anxiety about driving on snow-covered roads. On either side of the road, the trees, which had long since lost their red and gold of autumn and had stood bare in early winter, were now a frosty white, - their snow-covered branches strangely florescent in the gloom of mid-winter. Further into the forest, the forest floor that had once been strewn with the leaves of autumn was now resplendent in a blanket of snow. Under a grey winter sky, the snow on the ground had acquired its characteristic strip-light effect which in urban streets lights up the faces of passers-by and which here in the emptiness of the wild illuminated the forest in a cold white light. In the subdued light of a winter afternoon, the forest seemed to exude, to a town person such as myself at any rate, an inexplicable air of almost transcendental calm and quietude. Those attuned to the ways of nature might attribute it simply to the oft-talked-about winter absence of birdsong. Others with a more poetic imagination might ascribe it to winter’s eternal magic. I am scarcely poetic and seldom rise above the mundane. But that afternoon, even I recognised something in the beauty of the forest’s winter scene that was wondrous and quite sublime.

Halloween

Halloween up until recently had meant very little to me other than as a day in the calendar that had some strangely rustic associations with the world of witches, warlocks and ghouls. Until recently also, it was not a day that was marked by the observance of any particular custom. Children especially were as unaware of the passing of Halloween as the Ides of March. The 31st of October, in those days of pre-Halloween-bliss, was not a day that children awaited with anticipation, thrilling at the prospect of dressing up in ever more expensive witch-costumes and frightening the neighbours into handing over money and sweets. The thought of wreaking such havoc at Halloween scarcely stirred the childish imagination in those days and peace and normalcy prevailed at Halloween just as it did over Christmas. Little did any of my generation then suspect that these happy times would soon be a thing of the past. It is not possible to-day to say when exactly it was that the idyll of Halloween-obliviousness ended and the purgatory of Halloween “trick or treat” began. But “trick or treat” has now found a firm foothold amongst the popular customs that children in England follow; and the children’s adoption of this American custom has had some serious repercussions for the adult population as well. For adults, “All Hallows Eve” is no longer the inconsequential day in the church calendar that could easily be ignored. It has become a day that must be noted and carefully prepared for, - to ensure survival at the end of a demanding evening of “trick or treat”. Preparation for the rigours of modern Halloween can be a daunting task but the elderly like myself have found that they can do worse than to begin by acquiring a plentiful supply of sweets and chocolates in readiness for the evening’s trials. Also to be advised is the precautionary step of ensuring that a sufficient amount of small change is to hand to dispense to groups of importunate children arriving at the doorstep. Following these two simple guidelines has served me well over the past few Halloweens. I have always managed to send away “trick or treat” children knocking on my door with very little to complain about and in the process have given myself what I consider to be a well-deserved feeling of smug satisfaction at having coped adequately with a formidable challenge. However, life is always full of surprises and even great wisdom acquired through long experience is not immune to being frustrated by the turn of events, - as I found out for myself at this year’s Halloween. This year, to my great disappointment, all my diligent preparation for meeting the challenges of Halloween turned out to have been totally in vain. I followed all my carefully devised plans this year as in previous years, to prepare myself for Halloween. On the day, I went to my local Sainsbury’s and purchased a goodly quantity of sweets and chocolates. Next, to obtain some loose change, I decided to forego my usual custom of paying by credit card and chose instead to pay by cash at the check-out. With some trepidation but with all the charm I could muster, I asked the check-out girl if she would oblige me with some twenty-pence coins. Noticing that she showed not the slightest bit of irritation at this possible impertinence on my part, I went on to impose on her good nature by explaining that my strange request was actually intended to spread happiness amongst “trick or treat” children who were sure to be around later that evening. The check-out girl exceeded all my expectations and let me have three pounds’ worth of twenty-pence coins. Armed with my shopping bag full of sweets and weighed down with my small change, I felt confident that I was fully prepared for the ordeal that lay ahead that evening. Little was I to know, as I awaited the arrival of fearsome mask-wearing Halloween children, that the evening was to end without a single child deigning to grace my doorstep with his presence. I waited nonchalantly, with the confidence that comes with good preparation, for the ring on the doorbell but to my complete surprise and some disappointment the doorbell remained silent. The hours ticked by, - six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight, nine! At half past nine, I conceded that this Halloween night had gone by without troubling me with the ritual of “trick or treat”. I was more amazed than relieved. How could this have happened? Could this have been Sod’s Law working in my favour or had Providence rewarded me with a lucky escape for some good deed that I might unwittingly have performed in past life. With my usual mistrust of children, I was even tempted to believe that this might have been a fiendish trick played on me by the kids, out of sheer wickedness, deliberately to deny me the opportunity of giving them a treat and feeling smug about it, - but deep down I would have to admit that I was quite glad that this Halloween, “trick or treat” for once, seemed to have gone back to being what to me it always was, - not at all a very English custom, at least in my little corner of England.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A Visit to the Dentist

Last week I visited my dentist for my periodic dental check-up and came away, much to my surprise, quite elated. Dental check-ups are not an activity that I can claim to be able to take in my stride and my attendances at dental check-ups tend not be nearly as frequent as they ought to be. Received wisdom about the frequency of dental check-ups has equivocated over the years, - sometimes declaring six-monthly check-ups to be essential for good dental care and other times conceding that check-ups might be undertaken at longer interval such as a year, for example, without serious detriment to one's long-term dental health. This division of opinion as to whether six monthly or yearly check-ups are the more beneficial has been a welcome gift to a phobic like me whose fear of dental check-ups is incurable. With blatant opportunism, I have seized on the apparent rift in expert opinion, to allow myself to conclude that my own check-ups could be made at an even more extended interval of fifteen months instead of twelve months. I haven't of course taken care to appraise my dentist of this unilateral decision of mine to institute fifteen monthly check-ups. Consequently, at regular intervals of about six months or so, his practice continues to send me polite communications reminding me of the imminence of my dental check-up and inviting me to attend at my earliest convenience. I steadfastly ignore the first several of these entreaties in pursuit of my own agenda of fifteen monthly check-ups, although I am aware that this practice might well lead even some close friends to shake their heads and conclude wearily that this is simply procrastination on my part, designed to disguise a phobia of dental treatment. I choose on the other hand to characterise it, perhaps rather grandly, as my iron determination to adhere unflinchingly to my aim of extending the intervals between dental check-ups. Unsurprisingly therefore, when the usual series of reminders arrived in the post just prior to my last check-up, I carefully ignored the first several, until deciding in due course that it was at last timely to make an actual appointment with the dentist. As usual, on the day of the appointment, I was assailed, almost from the moment that I woke up, by a feeling of foreboding, which precedes all my encounters with the dentist. On my way up to the surgery I even tried to invoke the power of prayer to ensure an easy passage through the ordeal that I imagined awaited me. But the efficacy of prayer seldom offers much hope to frayed nerves, and I arrived at the surgery in a state of despondency and somewhat disappointed that prayers had proved so futile in my particular case. Mercifully, I didn't have to wait long before the nurse came out to escort me into the dentist's presence. My dentist greeted me cheerfully as usual. He is the personification of charm and good manners, and when it comes to examining teeth, he happens to have the gentlest touch that I have encountered amongst dentists - and I have been under the care of several over the years, including one who easily qualified as the "Butcher of Walthamstow". As I reclined in the dentist's chair and closed my eyes, as is my wont when undergoing dental examination, I could feel the dentist carefully probing my teeth and uttering the ritual intonations that dentists resort to during dental check-ups: upper right four, upper right five, upper right six missing, etc. They made little sense to me but I apprehended that they might possibly be a damning verdict on the state of my teeth. After what appeared an eternity, which in reality was no more than five minutes, the dentist stepped back and with a most pleasant smile announced that everything seemed to be alright, and that he didn't think we needed to anything to them, - meaning my teeth -, 'this time'. It took a moment or two before the import of his words sank in. If there were such an emotion as 'stunned happiness' then I had just experienced it and I was having some difficulty containing my joy. I should have remained calm and thanked the dentist politely but I did no such thing, and probably to my dentist's horror, disgraced myself by bestowing on him an undignified profusion of thanks, accompanied by several incoherent expressions of gratitude. The dental nurse, possibly mistaking my emotion for distress, came to my aid and escorted me out to the receptionist, to complete the formalities of form-filling and charge-payment. I left the surgery in a state that some dental surgeons might describe as 'post check-up' euphoria. Its effect was to cram my head with all kinds of joyful thoughts and as the euphoria subsided, the realisation gradually dawned on me that the most exhilarating moments in life were not necessarily engendered by extraordinary events such as one's rare achievements or even rarer strokes of good fortune but quite often by the ordinary and mundane things in life such as a visit to the dentist.