My name is Lucy Benedict* and I am a People Watcher.
I don’t know when or how it started; it’s just something I’ve always done. Nothing makes me happier than sitting in a public place, notebook on table, pen in hand, and observing the people around me. Looking at what they do, how they do it, what they’re saying, the subtle little things that tell me what they’re really thinking and feeling. Not in a weirdy stalkerish way, but just because I like it. Same thing on the school run – seeing the same people day in, day out, the little quirks they have, whether or not they’re with friends or alone.
And one thing I can tell you is that people love routine. They love the soothing nature of things being as they should be, everyone doing what they’re supposed to do, events neatly slotting into place as expected. When we moved house two years ago, I couldn’t believe the number of other parents – most of whom I’d never even spoken to – who approached me to say ‘Ooh! I thought you must have moved schools! We don’t see you on the way to school in the mornings anymore!’ They had sensed a great disturbance in the force.
We all have routines, sometimes even rituals. My dad’s coming to stay with us next week, so I’ll be witnessing his personal Holy Trinity – coffee, fag, crossword. First the coffee (spoonful of Alta Rica, enough water to just cover the spoon, a suspicion of full fat milk), the cigarette (Samson tobacco, Job rolling papers, Sharrow filter tip) finally The Times cryptic crossword (downloaded, printed, filled in with blue biro). I tease him about it, and he grins and points out that routine is not a bad thing, the house is a tip, I’m a rubbish cleaner, and I ought to have a rota to sort things out. Touché.
Despite being generally disorganised, chaotic and messy, I do have routines of my own. The difference is that these have been foisted on me by The Blondies. The most obvious one is the goodbye to The Boy at school. Hug, say we love each other, hug, kiss, release, he turns around & makes the heart gesture with his hands, I do the same. He goes in, heart gesture again through the window, hangs up his stuff, heads to his classroom, turns round again for the final heart gesture. Every day it’s the same. Yesterday, Another Mum kept talking to me throughout it, and I was outraged. It just didn’t feel the same at all! I felt weird about it all day.
But there are other ones too, like the way I have to tickle The Girl, or listening to the same song in the car when we drive down a certain road, or always getting chips from the market when I take them out for the day. Greeting a certain house when we go past it, always having the same dinner on the first night of a guest’s visit, me screeching ‘Stop shouting and come here and talk to me’… oh no, that’s not routine, that’s pretty much a constant.
The worst one though is The Walk Home. Walking to school is fine, because we’re in a rush, we know we have to get there for a set time, there are no distractions, just chat. Coming home however, seems to take an absolute age. And it’s All My Fault. Unwittingly, unknowingly, I have set up too bloody many things that must be observed. From who stands where on the pavement, who gets to press the buttons at each of the pedestrian crossings, what I have to say when they’re going on the stepping stones, the same bloody jokes I have to make every single time… Woe betide me if I fail any of them. The final one is when we get onto the last stretch of pavement before our house, and I make a big show of releasing their hands and cackling ‘Now fly! Fly!’ like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. If I forget this crucial line, they stand motionless next to me, faces blank. So I sigh, take their hands again and perform for them, at which point they pelt off towards the gates.
Why do I do these things? Why? And now I’ve given myself an earworm of ‘Slave to the rhythm’, except that I keep singing ‘slave to the routine’…
There has been a new addition to the routine, however, and it’s nothing to do with me. It’s a car. A car with personalised number plates ending in ‘WOO’, belonging to a woman who has a daughter at a local school. I see this car every afternoon when I’m on my way to school just before three o’clock, and again on our way home, the driver immersed in her book. Nothing unusual about that, might as well do something whilst you wait. Except that the school doesn’t finish until four. So this woman spends at least an hour of her day, five days a week, sitting in her car, reading. But that’s not the routine part, no. She always parks in exactly the same spot. I mean it, exactly the same spot. To the millimetre. Never closer to the school gates, never further away. Just neatly kerbside, carefully aligned with a sign, in exactly the same spot.
Something about this strikes me as quietly hilarious, except that it’s not really funny, but I think it is, so every time I see WOO I am brimful of giggles which last most of the way down the road. I amused myself by imagining what she would do if she arrived At Her Spot and found another car had parked there. I all too easily imagined her having a complete HULK SMASH on some hapless vehicle that had dared to invade her property. I was chatting to The Blondies about it and we got quite inventive about the ways in which she would make her fury known. The Girl took WOO completely to her heart, and whenever we walked past on our way home, she would do showbiz shooting fingers at WOO and sing ‘I love WOO, yes I do’ to the tune of Special Brew by Bad Manners, the woman inside completely oblivious.
So you can imagine my apprehension yesterday when I was on my way to school and… the prophesy had come to pass. Some poor soul HAD parked there. But where was WOO? I looked from left to right, then left again. No sign of WOO on the road. Plenty of parking spaces, including both in front and behind the Imposter Car. No WOO. But… wait a minute… why is that car parked in the middle of the driveway? Bloody hell, I’m going to have to step into the road to get around it… OH MY GOD IT’S WOO. This shit just got serious. I felt like the world had turned upside down, then watched as WOO revved out of the driveway and shot up the road away from the school, as if pursued by the very devil himself. And then as I got to the end of the road, WOO came past again, as though heading towards the designated parking spot…
When I informed The Blondies of the situation, they remained calm, but I could see the fear in their eyes. Were they going to witness bloodshed on the leafy streets of Norwich? What was WOO capable of?
We soon found out.
The road gets absolutely blocked at times, because of parents parking all over the place to collect their precious darlings at home time. Again, it amuses me, seeing inconsiderate people becoming completely enraged by other inconsiderate people. There are loads of other places for them to park, but NO. I WILL PARK ON THE YELLOW ZIGZAGS AND CAUSE OTHER CARS TO HAVE TO REVERSE 200 METRES. Things were especially snarly yesterday because of a couple of minibuses, but also because there was a car, seemingly broken down in the middle of the road, making it very difficult for the black Range Rovers to squeeze past. It was just sitting in the middle of the road, parked cars on either side of it, at least twenty cars lined up behind, waiting for it to move or be moved so that the road stopped being a car park. Being frightfully nice and polite, no one was yet tooting their horn, or getting out of their car to ask what was going on, but it could only be a matter of time before someone asked the driver (shoulders tensed, eyes fixed dead ahead, white knuckled grip of steering wheel).
You’ve guessed, haven’t you?
It was WOO. Left indicator on, waiting for the Imposter Car to leave. As we approached, the driver of Imposter Car returned to their vehicle with child, got in, and drove off, blissfully unaware of the tailback on the road.
And WOO, happy at last, nudged forward, neatly kerbside, carefully aligned with a sign, in exactly the same spot. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.
*My name is not Lucy Benedict