O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I have arrived at the local cash-machine to find no one there. And by no one, I don't just mean there's no queue, although there isn't. I mean that there is no one lingering, lurking, sitting, lying, sleeping or otherwise occupying the space between the door of the NatWest bank and the door of the Costcutter store where the machine is sited.
Anticipatory stress melts away. I can key in my pin, collect some notes, catch my receipt and walk away without any sense of haste, wariness or – more especially – guilt. I might even patronise the Costcutter in my general state of wellbeing. Because it is not usually like this. Most often there is a male individual of compact proportions, hunched up right beside the cash machine. He doesn't beg, aggressively or otherwise, but the intention is apparent, as he sometimes has a paper cup with a few coins in it. He's there all the time, morning till night, when he moves into the actual doorway of the bank. And you have to admire his constancy, while asking, as I uncharitably do, why he doesn't apply the same diligence to an actual job.
I recently plucked up the courage to ask the bank whether I was alone in finding his presence intimidating. Oh no, the receptionist said, we've had lots of complaints. So had they called anyone, like the police? Oh no, she said.
Emboldened, I went into Costcutter, and asked about the character sitting outside. Yes, said the man on the till, we lose lots of custom; people don't like coming in. We complain all the time, and sometimes the police come and move him on. Once, he said, they had taken him off and he had spent 14 days (he was quite specific) in prison. But he had come right back.
So I went up to the man himself, still sitting, absolutely still, by the machine, and asked why he was always there. Silly question really, though he purported not to understand. Perhaps he didn't. I asked where he was from, and it sounded, in a muffled way, like one of the Baltic States, but he said I wouldn't speak his language. So I asked him again, in Russian – and he snapped back that he spoke Russian as well as I did. I told him that it was quite intimidating to have him always sitting beside the cash machine. He shrugged and withdrew back into his silence.
One evening, a couple of Community Support Officers strolled by, absorbed in conversation with each other. I caught up with them and asked why they had ignored the cash-machine man. Oh we noticed, they said (though I wasn't convinced), but we don't know how long he's been there. If he's still there when we come around again, we'll move him on.
A few mornings later, there was a great kerfuffle. Eight police, or more, sprang out of a van and surrounded him – did they really need so many? That evening there was a new cash-machine squatter, lean, pallid, in a grey hood, and – I felt - a lot more menacing.
Then last Saturday afternoon, the same pitch was occupied by a Big Issue seller. He was quite charming. When I asked why he was standing by the machine, he said all the other local pitches were all taken. I said I didn't think ATMs were a suitable place for Big Issue sellers and he said to take it up with the dispatcher, which I did, leaving a message which wasn't returned.
That night, though, in the pouring rain, the Baltic cash-machine squatter moved back. The police seem to have given up; they say there are "too many of them". I feel some sympathy for everyone: for the Balt, who clearly finds the pitch congenial; for the council, overwhelmed by new arrivals just as it was getting to grips with rough-sleeping; and for residents like me just wanting to use the machine. My modest, and probably unenforceable, proposal would be to make cash machines no-go areas for squatters. Meanwhile, I salve my pathetic conscience with a donation to Crisis at Christmas.
In diplomatic life, the wife loses face
In late 1997, a new British ambassador sprang on to the social scene in Washington, where I was then posted: Christopher, shortly to be Sir Christopher, Meyer. His charming wife, Catherine, came too. Above stairs, the talk was all of the golden couple's instant inclusion on the city's "A-list". Below stairs, people were confused that the ambassador's wife they had been introduced to was not the same as the one they had known when "the Meyers" were last in Washington.
To be sure, diplomatic life is as prone as any other to produce marital casualties, if not more so. But not all new relationships can be handled so deftly. The courage of our (former) man in Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, in exposing torture, seemed to blot out in the generous public mind the fact that he had installed a cabaret dancer in his official residence. Now it has come out that our man in Yemen, Tim Torlot, is living at his official residence with an American journalist, who is expecting his baby. I know these are difficult places to work, that the "other woman" could be at serious risk in these societies, and that marital breakdown is marital breakdown. But does the Foreign Office have to be quite as indulgent as it appears to be when the face of Britain abroad trades in a long-time partner? Invariably, the wives find themselves quietly shunted home, while their husbands remain en poste, with their lifestyle intact and the new consort routinely treated as a replacement. Perhaps officialdom thinks this way is less harmful to the national interest. Perhaps officialdom should think again.
The bitter taste of ripening profits
A few weeks ago in this space I asked why supermarkets increasingly sold fruit labelled "ripen in bowl" – which it often didn't – while charging a premium for fruit that was "ready to eat". Why not just discount the unripe stuff? Why should we subsidise their storage costs?
Well, I've now discovered a delightful refinement to "ready to eat". Marks & Spencer are selling Cox apples described as "tree ripened" and I hardly need to tell you that the premium is substantial.
The description does, though, pose certain questions. Is it possible that a whole generation has grown up not associating apples with trees and regards "tree ripened" as exotic? Could these be apples that are picked early, then grafted back on when the days lengthen and the sun comes out? Can we, perhaps, expect "greenhouse ripened", "windowsill ripened" or "barn ripened". Long ago, I seem to remember Sunripe as a brandname. That's more like it.