This morning I had a meeting about a design job with a construction company at their head office in Canary Wharf. Despite the number of people travelling on London Underground it never ceases to amaze me who I can just randomly bump into. Tanya and I were, I’ll describe this in the loosest possible sense, colleagues ten years ago. I recognised her immediately on account of the fact that she was wearing super sized spectacles and was waving at me with both hands whilst wiggling her exceedingly long fingers.
Rewind ten years and if you happened to have been living in the county of Kent and you used to routinely listen to the radio, then you very well may already remember who I am. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a celebrity but I regularly took part in a radio talk show dispensing advice to callers about interior design dilemmas. I was desperate for work, and exposure, so did it for free. The show was like a form of psychiatry only rather than discussing callers’ personality disorders I analysed their choice of scatter cushions. On occasion I could cause quite a stir in Tunbridge Wells with my colour combos. The show used to air on Daytime Live and was slotted in between a political debate show where everybody screamed blue murder at one another, and a paranormal spiritualist medium who channelled dead people live on air. If you’ll pardon the contradiction. Once a week any lunatic was encouraged to dial in and ask probing questions like “How can I make my wood chip wallpaper resemble Italian marble?” Sometimes if it was very light on calls the producer would brazenly trawl the lines for unsuspecting callers on hold just waiting for the next show to start. So someone who was actually anticipating a chat with his dead aunt could find himself unexpectedly discussing the adaptability of cork floor tiles with me.
The show lasted an hour and was called Inside and Out. I talked about all interior design things inside, and a seventy five year old gardening veteran, called Gertrude Hoff, talked about her English country estate, orchards and herb garden. Let’s call her the Mary Berry of hanging baskets. We got exactly thirty minutes each. No ifs no buts. I can now tell you that this is where Tanya comes into the story. The sole purpose of her job was to sit in the studio wearing her giant sized spectacles and stare intently at a stop watch. I think this was because Gertrude complained that I once spoke too long about the importance of sideboard storage and I had eaten into her air time. This meant she had to cut short a piece about ruthlessly trimming her rose bushes. Unlike Mary Berry, she was not a sweet lady. This was a woman who would gladly use her finger nails to take apart a slug just for her own private and twisted pleasure.
Before I came on the scene the show used to be called Let’s Go Outside and Gertrude got to talk for the full hour. Then they brought me in because I think the producers realised there was only so much enthusiasm listeners could sustain for anything to do with pesticides. I think Gertrude was probably upset by this and she saw it as a sort of demotion and therefore had to blame somebody and that somebody just happened to be me. As inside in the title came before outside in the title, I also got to talk first. This did mean I was constantly treading on thin ice with Tanya who would watch me intently wearing her giant sized spectacles. She was particularly adept at counting down from ten to zero with her exceedingly long fingers. I never once saw her lose count.
Gertrude was German. She had a thick Hamburger accent. It sounded like she started every sentence with the letter Z. In all seriousness she used to say things like “Z grass needs mowing every week in June,” or “Z water butts are a glorious gift from God.” How we prepared for that show was opposite. As soon as one show finished I was already mentally planning what to cover on the next. By the middle of the following week I would have narrowed that down to about one hundred and thirty detailed topics. The night before the show I would lie awake in bed thinking about which topic to ditch and which to use and others I thought I should keep up my sleeve as a backup just in case no one bothered to call and I had to keep talking without sounding like I was making things up. Gertrude, on the other hand, seemed to do no preparation whatsoever. She literally turned up just as the green light was about to be switched on, with her dachshund under one arm, and a voluminous soil splattered gardening manual under the other. She would sit down. She would close her eyes. Then she would blindly open the manual and with a long crooked arthritic finger she would point randomly at a page. Then she would slowly open her eyes, look at the text and, depending on exactly where her finger nail had just landed, say something like “Z sweet peas. Today we will talk about Z sweat peas.”
I think her dachshund had a screw loose. She called it “Z dachshund.” It hated everyone, including Gertrude. It looked at you with utter disdain – if dogs know what disdain is – and this one certainly seemed to. Despite having very short legs it could still travel alarmingly fast for its length and height. It would often throw a sort of canine tantrum in the middle of the show and Gertrude would run around the studio trying to hurl her woollen coat and hat over it to try to sedate it. This could be a bit off putting, especially if it was during my allotted slot and I was trying to re-enforce the point to all of my listeners out there that Austrian blinds should be avoided as though your life depended on it. I thought it was great being on the radio. I think being on the radio was probably far better than being on the television. That way no one knew what I looked like and were therefore unable to harass me in the breakfast cereal aisle at the supermarket because I had rashly advised them to paint their kitchen pistachio. It did my career wonders. My calling card actually had “As Heard On Daytime Live” on it for a while. Then it got difficult fitting a thirty minute slot in Kent around a work commitment in Manchester. There were also only so many times I could tell callers to white out mauve and sound like I really meant it. So I gave it up.
I had a really lovely catch up with Tanya. We didn’t talk for long but apparently she left the radio station soon after I did because her eye sight started to go all wonky and she got that thing in her hands which doctors call repetitive strain disorder. I reckon that was because of staring at a stop watch all day long without blinking enough, and an inordinate amount of counting down from ten to zero on her exceedingly long fingers. But what Tanya did tell me before she disappeared up the Northern Line was that Gertrude was a complete fake. It turned out that she had no English country estate, never owned an orchard and there was no herb garden. She’d made the whole thing up. All she had ever had was that thick gardening book and a three foot long window box.
On the way to my meeting all I could think about was Gertrude and her non-existent geraniums but her abundance of chutzpah. She certainly had me fooled. It just goes to show you don’t always get what you see. For all the readers of this blog know I might not be a gay London interior designer with a hot Spanish boyfriend after all. I may simply be a colour blind sixty nine year old second hand car salesman from Des Moines with an interest in DIY. It does makes you think, doesn’t it?