Sunday, December 04, 2011

Piggy Banks and Pension Schemes

On Wednesday afternoon, crammed into the function room of the used-to-be-called Caledonian Hotel in Church Street, a few hundred union members taking a day of strike action, listened to more than a few stirring speeches.

Earlier in the day I had dropped off my husband to join his picket line and we had arranged to meet outside the Calley Hotel at lunchtime. There was a mass rally, speeches and a march through the town centre.

I arrived at the appointed hour and the crowd outside the hotel was just a few dozen. The word “mass” was an inappropriate term. What I had failed to realise was that it was all happening at the back of the hotel, in the car park. There was a “mass” back there. Apparently the Fire Brigade was handing out soup and sandwiches and the outside door to the function room was open.

Three hotel receptionists of club bouncer physique told people the meeting in the function room was full, so I believed them and waited patiently outside for Joe to come and find me, unaware that he was scanning the crowd in the car park looking for me. At this point a mobile phone would have been useful. Joe’s was at home. Mine was in the handbag with a dead battery.

Cold and slightly miffed that I was not allowed inside I used the excuse of needing the toilet to get past the bouncers and slipped down the stairs to the function room. It was full, but there was standing room. I listened to the tail end of the speeches while looking for Joe. He had retired to the bar at this point – I should have guessed!

I have never been on strike before. The last time teachers went on strike I was out of the country teaching in a small private school in Cyprus. I am not sure that had I been in the country I would have been on strike. In those days I was a political dummy. I was a union member but not really convinced my subs were money well spent.

So there I was, leaning against the wall, scanning the crowds for a glimpse of Joe, listening to speeches, some stirring, some not so stirring.

Then, out of the blue, a picture came to mind, a memory of something that I saw months, if not years, ago. I was standing in the queue at the local Co-op. I don’t know what time of day or what I was buying. I dare say there was chocolate involved. The man in front of me was buying a bottle of alcohol. If it was whisky, it wasn’t an expensive label. It might have been a bottle of wine. To pay for the bottle, the man tipped out a bag containing lots of very small coins, one penny, two pence and the occasional five pence coin. It was a fair pile and it took a while for the checkout assistant to count them all. Once the transaction was done, he left with the bottle tucked in his pocket.

I am not the most patient of people in checkout queues, and I might have had a look on my face that indicated as much.

The assistant looked at me and said, “I know him…he lives nearby. Those coins…he has raided his sister’s piggy bank to get them. It’s really sad...” I wasn’t sure who to be sorry for – the man who could not get through the day without alcohol or the sister with an empty piggy bank or even the checkout assistant who became almost an accessory to the crime.

So there I was, on Wednesday, leaning against the wall in the hotel function room, scanning the crowds for a glimpse of Joe, listening to speeches…and I remembered the man and the bottle of wine and the money taken from someone else’s piggy bank.

There was something of an echo. It feels like it’s my piggy bank that is being raided by the big brother. It’s not a huge pile of money – not gold plated like they say.

They do know, don’t they, where the real money is? In the pockets of the fat cat bankers!

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