I woke up at six this morning, unable to swallow or talk without stabby-knife throat pain. Feeling immensely sorry for myself, I called in sick and then spent the rest of the day whining. I whined on Twitter, I whined on Facebook. I whined in text messages to my mother, my boyfriend, my sister and my friend. I whined when no GP would see me because I had never bothered to register with a doctor, I whined when I was forced to go to a over-crowded, under-staffed NHS drop-in centre. I whined because I had to wait for two hours, I whined because the doctor refused to give me any decent prescription medication, and I whined because it rained the whole time I tried to get home afterwards.
You get the picture. Anyway, I get on the bus and sit next to a man who is anywhere between a well-preserved 80 or a hard-living 65. He's wearing a hat and an overcoat, and when he starts talking to me, the first thing I tell him is how cool I think his hat is. I'm telling the truth. It's one of those soft trilby numbers. Old men get away with hats in a way men under sixty could never hope to achieve. Hats are a serious item of clothing, and when a man who hasn't earned the right to be serious wears one, he looks like an utter bender.
This man wears his hat in a way that implies he knows when to take it off as the situation requires: like when a lady walks into a room, or when someone is playing bagpipes. We start to talk. Like all old English people, he is amused by the idea of my Irishness. "I know a Cork girl when I hear one!" he says, but what he's really saying is "We used to own you, you know! Troublesome lot, you!" I don't take this personally.
If you've read this blog for a while, or indeed, have spent any amount of time with me as a person, you'll know that I am a great believer in arbitrary, ferocious hatred. On this blog alone, I have professed inexplicable hatred for babies, space, fashion designers, high-street retailers, Mad Men, hobbies and James Franco.
If you were to assume that old people fell underneath my umbrella of unbridled hatred, I wouldn't hold it against you. On the contrary though, I think old people are the bomb. Old people get to do whatever they want. Why? Because they've earned it. For example, my Grandad is in his nineties. He still drives, and lives by himself. His favourite thing to do is be surrounded by women, and to make somewhat insensitive comments about the weight of strangers. This is fine. Actually, it's better then fine, it's completely awesome. The advantage old people have over the rest of us is that they can get away with being totally reprehensible, and everyone loves them for it.
If you stride into a room full of your closest loved ones and tell them your sick of their bullshit, the likely result of this action is that your loved ones will ex-communicate you. This could last between two weeks and three years. If an old dude does the same thing, he's just being a character. A regular old sparkplug.
Anyway, back to the anecdote at hand. I'm sitting on the bus, talking to my new pal, Some Old Dude.
"Do you like Peckham?" he asks
For my readers who do not live in South London, know this: nobody likes Peckham. There are nice bits, sure, but it's the kind of place that Londoners italicise when they're talking about it. Example: Peckham? What are you going to Peckham for?
"It's ok." I say, polite, and neutral as Switzerland during the last ten minutes of The Sound of Music.
"I've lived here my whole life." he says proudly "Well, except for during the war years."
The war years. This is what's so great about English old people. Because Ireland never officially fought in a war (aside from The War of Independence, of course, which I think is recognised by the rest of the world as a strop on our part) all they have to talk about is some grizzly tales about being dicked around by the Brits.
Ask an Irish elderly person about their younger days, and you will almost certainly receive an anecdote that looks like this:
BUT MOST OF ALL THIS:
As an English old person about their life story, and you'll get something that looks a bit more like this:
Every old English person I talk to seems keen to tell me about the jolly time they had fighting Nazis in Snoopy's plane, and this dude is no exception. Then, suddenly.
"I spent three years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp!"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"After the war. Three years. I worked on the railroad. In Burma? You know the railroad? You heard of that?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"That was us. We helped build that."
Another long, terrible pause. At this point in the conversation, i notice that my stop is getting incredibly close, and if I want to get off, I'm going to have to stand up right now. I can't though, because that would mean asking a man who, at one point in his life, spent three years in a Japanese POW camp, to stop talking about it. In that moment, it seemed like the rudest thing I could possibly do.
"And.. how.. was.. that.. for you?"
My old friend shrugs. "Fine."
I can't believe this. I mean, obviously, I know these things happened. I know that people suffer through awful things during war, and I know that a lot of them live to tell the tale. But what I cannot get my head around is the idea that this nice old man riding the bus with me and the man who spent a chunk of his life being forced to build a railroad are the same person. And here he is, talking about it, like it ain't no thing. He is saying the words "I spent three years in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp." like people of my generation say "I died my hair red once."
To give you a visual, I look kind of like this:
And he kind of looks like this:
My stop has come and gone. I stay on the bus for ten more minutes, while we eat chocolate raisins and talk about the railroad. When I do finally get up, he kisses my hand in that exaggerated way people do when they know they won't ever see you again. I do not complain about being sick for at least another five hours.