I went to see Home Alone 3 with a mate. We’d always had totally different tastes in cinema so, true to form, she was convulsed with laughter and I was bored rigid. For some light relief, halfway through the film, I nipped to the loo.
Business done, I went to open the cubicle door. But, the lock had jammed. I thumped the door. Nothing. I shouted myself silly. No-one came. This was back in 1997, I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I resigned myself to being stuck until my friend raised the alarm.
Because surely she’d soon notice I hadn’t come back.
Surely she’d soon realise I’d been gone for much too long.
After twenty minutes, I realised that either she hadn’t noticed I was gone, or had assumed I was having bum troubles and didn’t want to disturb me.
Another ten minutes passed.
As much as I hadn’t been enjoying Home Alone 3, being stuck in a toilet cubicle in a branch of the Odeon* was marginally less fun.
In desperation, I took off my shoe and started hammering at the lock. My impressive DIY skills did the trick (or perhaps the gods of misfortune felt sufficiently sorry for me) and the door popped open.
I made it back into the screen as the credits rolled.
My friend looked round at me. “Where were you?”
“I’ve been locked in the loo for the last half hour.”
“Did you not notice?”
“It was such a great film.”
So, there you have it. I am officially less great than Home Alone 3.
I am Jewish in the same way I am white and English. I don’t have a sense of triumph or superiority about it; it’s just how I happen to have been born. It’s only one aspect of my tumble of genetics—like my brown hair, my tendency to develop gall stones, and my long toes—and not something that defines me.
As an adult, I don’t specifically seek out Jewish friends. But as a child, my social life was a whirl of Jewish activities. First one Jewish social club, then another. Sunday school classes. Holiday camps. But it was one of the social clubs that lead to my first great humiliation.
It started with a quiz, one Sunday night. Now, I am good at quizzes. No, more than that. I am dangerous around quizzes. They awake a powerful beast inside me, one that’s constantly compelled to shout, “I KNOW THIS ONE”, and to hog the pencil and answer sheet. It took me a long time to realise that the actual purpose of a pub quiz should be to spend time with one’s friends and have fun, not to endlessly crush those around you with your unassailable powers of general knowledge.
I mean, it’s fun to show off your prowess (who knew what the last words were that Rimmer from Red Dwarf uttered*, thus winning the bonus round and the whole quiz for my team? Hi there!) But there’s also the opportunity to show tact and kindness to those around you, and to sharpen your diplomatic skills. Your teammates believe that number 7 in the picture round is a snap of Alanis Morissette, when you know it’s actually Dave Grohl**? This is your time to gently, insistently shine!
Anyway. As I say, I’m good at quizzes, which is how I made it through the first and second rounds of the national youth organisation’s quiz and into the grand final.
This final was a big deal. People had travelled from all over to be there. The grand prize was a place on the youth group’s foreign trip. The contestants were on stage, there was a big audience and and I was doing pretty well.
Until the Hebrew round. I had no idea there was going to be a Hebrew round. But there was.
Some bastard—some evil, evil bastard—had come up with a round where we had to write the Hebrew translations of English words on a sheet of A4. It would have been a breeze if you a) had a good working of the Hebrew language and b) knew how to write words in Hebrew.
Sadly, I had neither skill.
“Bicycle”, they announced. “Children.” “Ice cream.”
Around me, the other teens were scribbling the Hebrew equivalent on their pages. Me? I had nothing. I was seriously screwed. Actually, I did know one of the words; “yeladim” means “children” (this is the only thing I remembered from my many mornings at Hebrew school having repeatedly listened to the teachers bellowing “SHEKET YELADIM!”/”SHUT UP CHILDREN!”)
But it was no use. I had no idea how to write it—or anything, really—in Hebrew.
I had to hand something in. Blank pages seemed like too big an admission of defeat; I couldn’t sit there not writing while everyone around me flourished Hebrew across paper. So, I made it up instead. I drew elaborate squiggles across the pages, in beautiful colours, hoping that they would magically transform themselves into legible Hebrew, thinking I could hand them in, and no-one would really know.
And then, the answers. And then, the horror.
“As we announce each word, hold up your answer sheet for everyone to see. Bicycle. אופניים”
The other contestants proudly held their answers aloft. I reluctantly raised my fraudulent scribbles.
I could hear the titters from the audience, growing as the answers were revealed and I turned over yet another page of nonsense. One boy—who I had a mild crush on—was nudging his neighbour, pointing at me. And laughing.
“Ice cream. גלידה”
The humiliation, and the echoing laughter, dragged on and on.
Of course I scored a big, fat, well-deserved zero. It was enough to cost me the prize. It was enough to fray my relationship with Judaism a little further. It was enough to instil a fear of the spotlight that’s still with me to this day. But was it enough to sour my love of pub quizzes? Not even a little bit. I’m good at quizzes (unless they have a Hebrew round).
* “Gazpacho soup.” You’re welcome.
** Later, when the answer is indeed announced as Dave Grohl, you will cheer, vindicated, until your teammates shamefacedly confess that they changed the answer back to Alanis Morissette while you were in the loo. You will tell them that’s OK, while secretly wishing painful monkey-based death upon them all.
I’d been seeing a guy for a little while; he lived a long way away, so all our dates had been in restaurants and bars. Things had been going well, and I’d agreed I’d stay the night at his.
When I arrived, he was apologetic; there was a problem at work and he’d been thinking about cancelling, but still wanted to see me. However, he’d need to check in with work occasionally.
He left me with a drink while he answered a few emails. I checked out his books and his CD collection while he was gone (doesn’t everyone?) When he came back, he explained he’d have to keep an eye on his phone during dinner.
Well, there’s a difference between keeping an eye on your phone and giving it your full attention. We didn’t talk much during the meal, and he seemed to get more and more agitated about work. I tried to chat about his taste in music and books, but a frostiness settled; he shut the conversation down and went back to looking at his phone and ignoring me.
It just didn’t make sense. He’d said he was happy to see me, but his actions said the opposite. It’s not fun hanging out with someone who blatantly doesn’t want you there, and I wanted to leave; but I was 70 miles from home, I’d had a few drinks and couldn’t drive, and public transport wasn’t an option.
I was stuck at his. There was nothing that could be done but brave it out until the morning.
He had the one bed, so we both had to spend the night sharing it, keeping as much distance from each other as possible; not talking, not touching. I didn’t sleep a wink.
The next morning, he woke and said he had to get onto a conference call with work immediately. I said I’d leave, but he told me to stay, saying that the call wouldn’t take long. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I stayed.
Two hours later, he was still on his call, and I was feeling thoroughly stupid. Several times, I stuck my head around the door to say I’d be going, but he insisted I stay, that he’d be off the call soon.
Eventually, my anger and discomfort finally overtook my desire to be polite. Enough. He didn’t want me there, whether he was prepared to admit it or not. And—more importantly, although it’d taken me long enough to get there—I really didn’t want to be there. Time to go.
Time to go. As I headed for the door, he muted his call to tell me: “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone over to mine. I’m not good with having other people in my personal space.”
I drove home, angry and upset. I presumed I’d never hear from him again, but he phoned me three days later. Maybe he thought he hadn’t insulted me enough yet; he told me he’d called to explain that he didn’t want to “take the relationship any further, because you’re obviously much keener on me than I am on you.” And in the next breath, he asked, “Do you want to be friends, though?”
I laughed—a sharp, hollow, laugh—and said no, thank you.
Before the date, he warned me that he got very nervous on first dates and often talked a lot. Fine, I sometimes talk a lot too.
But he really wasn’t kidding; I sat and listened to him talk about himself for the best part of three hours.
Eventually, he paused for breath, looked at me and said:
Date: “I suppose I’d better ask you something about yourself, hadn’t I?”
Me: “That’d be nice.”
Date: “So, tell me about your ex-husband.”
Date: “Your ex-husband. How did you meet each other, how long were you together and when did it all go wrong?”
Me: “I don’t really want to talk about my marriage, thanks. Isn’t there anything else you want to know about me?”
Turns out there wasn’t, as he went straight back to talking about himself again. At the end of the evening, he apologised again, put it down to nerves, and promised to do less talking and more listening if I’d meet him for a second date. I agreed.
So, the second date arrived and, again, the gentleman started talking about himself without asking me a single question. I tried to get the odd word in, but he was a tsunami of conversation. After two hours:
Date: “I said I was going to ask you something about yourself tonight, didn’t I?”
Me: “Yes, you did.”
Date: “So, tell me about your ex-husband.”
Date: “Yes. How did you meet each other, how long were you together and when did it all go wrong?”
Me: “You know what? I’ve got an early start in the morning, let’s call it a night.”
I can’t ever sleep on public transport. Ever. No matter how tired I am.
There is a good reason for this.
I’d been up all night in Brighton; it was my best mate’s hen night and we were celebrating hard. We didn’t bother getting hotel rooms; we were too young and too broke. The plan was simply to stay up all night until the trains started running early the next morning.
So, we bounced round the town, in and out of clubs, giddy with excitement and whatever the hell we were drinking until, exhausted, we fell onto the first London train of the day.
This was sometime in the 90s, and the train was the old-fashioned stock with small compartments. Each little carriage had benches that were the perfect size for sleepy revellers to crash on. There was barely anyone else on the train, so we grabbed a separate carriage each, stretched out and passed out.
Suddenly I was awake. Very awake. Something was wrong.
There was a man stood over me.
No, more than that. He was leaning in, right over me. Much closer than he had any right to be. There was a man, who was hovering over me while I was sleeping, and I was suddenly aware of how vulnerable I was.
Me: “What are you doing?”
There was an awkward pause.
We looked at each other.
I had the distinct impression he was trying to think of something convincing to say.
Him: “…I was thinking that you might want a foot rub?”
Me: “No. I really don’t.”
He left the carriage pretty sharpish.
That was a good 20 years ago. I’ve not slept a wink on public transport since.
I’ve learned to be suspicious when there’s an empty seat on a packed train. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way.
It was a Monday morning, and I am not a morning person. Befuddled from sleep, and desperate for a bit more rest, I was chuffed when I boarded the Victoria Line and spotted a spare seat.
I slipped into it triumphantly.
My joy was short-lived, however, when I noticed the smell. So strong—rancid, meaty, curdling the air around it—that I thought I might puke. I looked around for the source of it, then realised, with some horror, that it came from my neighbour.
And then, he rested his head on my shoulder.
This was not good. I’m quite socially awkward at the best of times and I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know. So, I had a stranger’s head on my shoulder, so close I could smell his hair. I was feeling a little faint. Surely, there had to be a good reason for him to be doing this? Ah, he had his hand in his pocket. He was having trouble reaching into his pocket, so he’d stretched himself out and that’s why his head was on my shoulder. Perhaps.
But he was spending quite a long time reaching into his pocket. And his head was still on my shoulder. And his hand was moving pretty rhythmically in his pocket. And… oh… oh god…
Yes, he was cuddled up to me while he had a wank on a crowded train.
So, what did I do? Did I shout at him? Did I leap up and move carriages? Did I hit him with my bag?
No. No, I did not. I did none of those things.
Instead, I sat where I was and pretended that this thing wasn’t happening. Because I am very good at pretending that unpleasant things aren’t happening.
I popped into my mate’s workplace, and he introduced me to his colleague Rob. I recognised Rob instantly, but apparently he didn’t remember me:
Rob: “Hey there, nice to meet you.”
Me: “Ah, Rob. You don’t recognise me, do you?”
Rob: (somewhat nervously) “Err, sorry, could you remind me?”
Me: “Sure! Two years ago, we had a blind date. We went to see Blur together. I don’t think you were very impressed with me because, three songs into the gig, you told me that didn’t feel well and had to go home. I never heard from you again. Remember me now?”
Rob: “Oh god.”
Me: “It’s been lovely catching up with you again!”
Many years ago, I had a rather intense friendship with a male friend. There was never, ever anything sexual in it (he was gay, and I’m definitely not male) but it was such an intense friendship that it bordered on the weird.
One night, round at his, he asked me if I wanted to check out a chatroom (it was 1998, entertainment options were limited in Hartlepool).
I’ll try pretty much anything once*, so cheerfully agreed.
He created a new profile for me, said he’d found someone for me to chat to, and gave me the keyboard.
Turns out, it was a cybersex chatroom.
He sat behind me as I typed. At first, it was all giggly good fun, but then I started feeling rather guilty. The chap I was talking to was under the mistaken impression that he was talking to a horny bloke—thanks to the profile my friend had created for me—and it seemed quite unfair to keep leading the poor guy on. Plus, I felt rather awkward answering questions about my fictional penis. So I turned around to tell my mate I’d had enough…
…only to realise that he was happily… err… ahhh… how shall I put it?… entertaining himself.
He had his eyes closed in ecstasy, so I slipped out of the room as quietly as I could. Then I slipped out of the flat—and Hartlepool—as fast as I could.
Neither of us either mentioned it again.
*Having said that, I’ve never eaten KFC. Not for snob reasons, I’m just not that keen on chicken.