On Saturday morning I dropped in on my parents. I thought I would surprise them.
They live five minutes from me in a mansion block on Baker Street, exactly behind Sherlock Holmes’s flat.
I rang the video entrance phone. Five minutes later, the screen flickered and a strangulated, very tiny voice just made it out of the speaker.
What it said, I have no idea. I pressed the bell again.
This video screen system has a depth of field of about six inches at the very most, so you have to press your face up to the screen, leaving a nose imprint before you are seen. Unfortunately, Nose Print ID technology hasn’t reached my parents block yet, and so recognition is out of the question.
“Dad…Mum! It’s Peter!” I shouted.
Another sound screeched out, this time with feedback.
“It’s Peter!…Your son!” I shouted. “I am with Lily. Your granddaughter.”
I picked her up and pressed her little face against the screen.
“It’s your granddaughter!….OPEN THE DOOR! I can’t hold her up much longer! I am going to drop her… I am about to drop your granddaughter!”
A buzzer sounded. I dropped Lily and hurled myself at the front door of the block …which is about four feet from the exact spot you have to stand on to be seen.
I wasn’t quite quick enough. The buzzer had stopped buzzing… I bounced off the door.
I LOVE MY PARENTS…so I had to go through the whole process all over again.
Ten minutes went by before we finally managed to get in.
You have to have split second timing, or you could be out there for months! In the Summer it’s OK. but.in the Winter you could freeze to death.
One of my favourite things about this block of flats, which I have been visiting since I was a child (it used to belong to my Grandparents) has always been the wonderful Victorian lift with its iron cage and gold fittings, which took me up the three floors to the flat. The ascent was as smooth as being hauled in a rickshaw through the streets of Calcutta during the Monsoon, and I have always liked the brass sign inside that says ‘DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS THROUGH THE LIFT DOORS WHILE THE LIFT IS MOVING.’
Recently, the local council discovered the lift doesn’t conform to EU lift Safety regulations, so the building’s agents are replacing them with new modern EU approved lifts.
My parents told me the new lift was going to take eight months to install.
“Eight months?” I said. “EIGHT MONTHS!?”
Just up the road, in Maida Vale, an entire new city of dozens of huge twenty-five floor skyscrapers has risen from nothing in just three months. How can it take eight months to put in one new lift?
We climbed the stairs, every couple of minutes passing very old people who hadn’t made it, and who had collapsed from lack of oxygen onto the green plastic garden chairs put out on every floor by the block’s considerate head porter.
Only slightly out of breath, I rang the bell to the flat. Some minutes later, a voice, which I recognised almost immediately as my father’s, (I have known him all my life) shouted from inside, “Who is it?”
“Dad, open the door.”
“Who is it?” ”
Peter…and Lily, Dad!” I shouted back.
Finally there is a cranking of keys, locks being turned, mortises being whirred, and chains being removed.
If my parents lived in a castle in Transylvania in 1856, this would all make perfect sense to me, but they don’t; they live in a flat in the West End of London in 2001.
The door opens about six inches, and then stops.
My father’s face, or rather half of it, appeared round the corner…the security chain was still in place.
“Oh, it’s you, Peter!…Hello, Lily.”
At last we got inside. It had only taken us about fifteen minutes from the time we had arrived.
Years ago, when I had gone to visit a friend who had taken a five year lease on a one room property in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, I had got in and out of the jail more quickly… and that had included the visit.
By this time, I needed to go to the bathroom.
But the bathroom door was locked. There was nobody in the bathroom…my mother had locked it from the outside.
“Mum!…Why have you locked the bathroom door?” I shouted.
My mother came to the door of the living room. She had a large key in her hand.
“In case of burglars.” she said, unlocking the bathroom door.
“Mum ..you live on the third floor of a block of flats…you must be seventy feet from the ground.” I said. “What burglars?”
“Cat burglars?” she said.
“Cat burglars!? The last recorded Cat Burglar was in 1952 when Raffles retired.”
“What if they climb up the drainpipe?” she said, ignoring me.
“Mum, you live on the third floor!…why would they want to break into your bathroom anyway?”
“Do you want to use the bathroom or not?” she said.
My mother is a worrier. If there was a World Worrying Championship, my mother would be the odds-on favourite.
She has taken Worrying to new and previously unexplored levels.
It runs in the family.
Her sister carries her own one hundred metre long collapsible aluminium fire ladder with her whenever she travels, in case the hotel catches fire.
She has memorised by heart the exact positions of the fire exits of all the Leading Hotels of the World.
If you ask her for City street directions, she has no idea; but give her any room number for the Palace hotel in |Madrid or, say, the Mandarin in Hong Kong, and she will tell you how to find the nearest fire exit on your floor.
When I got married, she gave us a 50 feet ladder for a wedding present; it came folded up in its own carry case. “I hope you haven’t been given one already.” she said.
On Saturday, when it was time to leave, we had to go through the whole thing all over again, only this time in reverse, because my parents had locked themselves in, and my father couldn’t find the keys.
“Mum this is crazy!” I said.
“What if someone breaks in while we are here?” she said.
“You have more chance statistically of having a fire in the flat than of being burgled while you are inside…and if it happens at night you will be trapped…you will never find the keys in the dark.”
“Peter” my mother said, as she kissed me goodbye…. “You know something…you worry too much.”
When we finally arrived downstairs, I realised I had left my mobile phone in the flat. That evening, I sent a taxi driver round to collect it; they need the exercise!
I’ve made a mental note that the next time I decide to surprise my parents, I’ll call them first, just to say I am on my way. It will save a lot of time.
Copyright Peter Rosengard 2001. All back columns including those that first appeared in The Independent 1993/1995, are now up on the site. Please see The Saturday Column Archive.