Monday, June 26, 2006

Tea and a Relaxing Drive with Carmel

In our work canteen they swapped over some months ago from a large, smouldering tea urn, which produced a brown, lava-like substance to what seemed at the time to be an elegant substitute -- individual stainless steel teapots and a nice, new hot water boiler. It was self-service all the way and if Mary wanted tea like cabbage-water and Willie wanted tea like tar, then so be it. Everyone was now responsible for their own.

Theory is fine, but practice proved different to expectations. No-one seems capable of finding the optimum filling level in the miniature teapots and several forests worth of napkins have been sacrificed moping up spillages. It's like trying to pour tea through six spouts at once. No matter which way you tilt the cup or half-fill the pot, this golden fountain spews forth onto the saucer, the tabletop, your work colleagues, the floor. It's just one more nerve-brittling part of a stressful day and we seem to have come to accept it as we have irate customers and irrational orders from on high. Why shouldn't every tray be wet and dripping when first picked up from the pile? Hasn't it always been that way?

It was therefore with a certain amount of astonishment that I found that things didn't work that way in our sub-office in Clondalkin, where the smaller staffing levels mean a full-time canteen staff is not warranted. The calm of the Clondalkin office canteen is perhaps due to the fact that they use teabags the old-fashioned way, straight into the cup and out again using a real spoon.

I found this out on a training visit there in 2005 when several staff were updating their computer skills. Carmel Smith, one of the teabreak mafia I like to join in with at head office, was there and though I didn't suspect it at the time, was going to play a great part in getting my memory cells working later in the day. I don't mean in the "Do you remember when?" kind of way. Rather it was more "My life is passing in front of my eyes."

Carmel has recently learned the art of driving a mechanically-propelled vehicle, in her case a small, pale blue Fiant Panda. It still had learner plates on it when I climbed into the cockpit as navigator on the way back to HQ after the training session ended.

"You'll have to show me where to drive," was Carmel's first remark. Now, while I understood that the one-way system in Clondalkin Village is a little intricate, the fact that I don't know how to drive seemed to have been overlooked by Carmel. The blind were going to lead the blind in one of the busiest traffic snarlups in South Dublin County.

I started to worry when I saw Carmel mouthing a prayer to St. Christopher before checking the mirror. If we needed intercession with the divine already, it didn't bode well. I double-checked my seatbelt.

We took off at a sedate pace and were soon wending our way through the hurried crowds. Carmel was surprisingly calm, although she interspersed her concentration on things automotive by telling me she actually wasn't very calm. In fact, she said, she was very nervous. She was glad I was along. An extra pair of eyes to watch out for danger.

I remember rosary beads. There were several incomplete sets in the kitchen drawer back in the day. By coincidence, one even had quite a nice St Christopher medal on its broken chain.

Carmel's small blue Fiant Panda is about the size and temperament of a large bee and Carmel drove it that way, buzzing about the traffic, peering into wing mirrors and watching all around her. I was reminded of one of those World War I movies, maybe The Blue Max, where the hero with the stiff upper lip, leather flying helmet and goggles scours the sky for enemies.

We trundled back and forth between traffic lights and I advised on lane changes and signalling. I peered out the passenger window, watching for biplanes sweeping down out of the sun. We checked our position on the compass a few times, but the mission was going smoothly. At last, sweeping over the Belgard Road, we went hard over to the right and landed with a slight bump back at HQ. The engine was switched off and silence reigned. I unclenched. All in all it was a creditable performance. Carmel's training days were nearly over.

We heard that Carmel was taking the driving test a few weeks later. Funnily enough, there was a full complement in the safety of the staff canteen for the hour that she was absent, reversing around corners and doing three-point turns. A somewhat stunned Carmel returned with a pass and we all breathed sighs of relief.

The wee blue car is still on the go, despite a scrape or two. It had a luggage box added last week which whistles.

"It's like a fecking ceili band!" someone complained. Carmel, of course, just laughed.

More power to you Carmel!

Especially at the traffic lights.

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