The colonisers

Earlier this year, the gardeners chopped out a lump of mistletoe from the top of the pin oak in our back yard.


Mistletoe the plant they sing about in Christmas carols, a plant I always imagined to be green and close in structure to holly. Though maybe the mistletoe they sing about at Christmas time is different from the one that once grew at the top of our pin oak.

I notice it most in winter when the trees are bare except for the mistletoe, which is ever green in a dull sort of way, not bright and cheerful like the leaves on trees in spring but a muddy green all year long.

I must beware of anthropomorphising the mistletoe but to me it comes alive in my imagination as a beast of prey, a creature with sinewy arms that will swallow you whole. A coloniser.

Mistletoe is a parasite, it grows on the branches of other plants, takes up residence there like a cuckoo stealing from another bird’s nest and like most parasites it’s fine as long as it stays in check.

It’s fine as long as the parasite doesn’t grow too greedy, as long as it limits its activities to one small part of the tree. Difficulties arise when birds, who are the usual carriers, inadvertently drop multiple mistletoe seeds over time onto the branches of the one tree.

Again you can see it best in winter, bare branches of an oak tree and patches all over of vegetation that suggests the presence of mistletoe.

Eventually a tree can grow top heavy with mistletoe and it will collapse.

So it is when one person gets taken over by another.

It can happen in an instant, a flash, almost as of electricity only pleasurable when the sight of something, the thin locket around a young woman’s neck, the smell of plastic on a new toy for the cats, can send shivers through me and I’m pitched back in time to my childhood. The flash of a memory, a sensation of infinite pleasure, a sensation almost ecstatic creeps over me, but like a dream it’s gone before I have a chance to savour it, before I get the chance to hold onto it and smell and taste it long enough even to make sense of it.

If only I could recover these feelings.

If only I could get hold of the sensation that accompanied these moments of joy.

If only I could go back there. But other more prosaic sensations take over.

My daughter told me the other day that some women of my generation have a habit of being rude to sales people in shops. We may not notice it but we are abrupt and rude at times to harass innocent staff who cannot help the fact that their store does not stock the item we wanted.

My daughter works in retail part time while she studies at university and she tells me that women like me, when we stalk into shops demanding such and such and then go off complaining loudly because it’s not available, can ruin a young shop person’s day.

Such encounters with women like me can leave her with a dreadful taste in her mouth, she tells me.

From my perspective, I mean no harm. From my perspective I’m merely stating it as I see it.

I go into a branch of the Telstra shop that sells plans and phones. Why not sell me one when I come in to ask for it. But the staff there in that small Telstra outlet are not equipped to handle the complexities of my business plan.

It’s not the sales guy’s fault, my daughter says. He explained that to you and you were gruff and rude and insulting. And worst of all, you don’t even see it.

It’s not the first time a daughter has told me off for my shopping manner. Which contrasts  with my sense of myself as an agreeable person who is pleasant to all she encounters, and riled only at extreme provocation.

My daughter begs to differ.

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps my sense of myself is an old sense of myself from childhood when I would not have dared to speak, when even to use the telephone was a torture, to now when I have the confidence of my age and privilege – a white, educated, middle class, albeit woman – who lives in a comfortable suburb and can afford to buy most of the things she needs/wants to buy.

Have I forgotten what it’s like to be shy, to lack in confidence?

Have I come to imagine that other people will take me at face value and recognise I mean them no harm, no insult, no stress.

Or am I in danger of colonising others like the mistletoe, spreading myself too wide, taking over too much space and killing off my hosts even as they might welcome me in?


15 thoughts on “The colonisers”

  1. Oh my goodness, Elisabeth. Your last comment sounds like you are channeling ‘Alien’.

    I am also feeling challenged by the “What did I say that was so bad?” syndrome. These days, it seems, older ladies must be seen and not heard, and NEVER criticise, correct or express a preference.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it like this, Karen, but the sense of becoming an alien is apt. It’s a strange thing to feel intimidated by your children, as I sometimes do, given I suppose as a parent I once intimidated them. Perhaps intimidate is too strong a word. Influence is better and certainly a whole lot more desirable than invasion or colonising. Thanks, Karen.

  2. Yes, you are. Service people have no power. If they want to file a report about a dissatisfied customer and a complaint, they will have to do it their own time. They are paid and treated as robots as so they will behave. I suspect if a check chick or chap receives multiple complaints about something, they will still do nothing, and I don’t blame them.

    Always vent directly to management via a phone call, a letter, or an email. Worse for them a Tweet or Facebook post.

    That is not to say if you come across a rude person serving you in a shop, give them heaps. Hmm, I have my local post office in mind.

    1. I certainly feel chastised, Andrew, as the cranky customer my daughter recognised. I’ll try harder next time. I too worked in retail when I was young, selling second hand school books at one time. I got my own back by reserving the best bargains for the pleasant customers. Not that I treated anyone badly but I certainly showed favour to those who were kind and respectful to me. I should take a leaf out of my own experience. Thanks, Andrew.

  3. Having worked in retail myself for a few years I can sympathise with your daughter. I hate people who walk around with a sense of entitlement. I recall once when I worked in the Civil Service a man came on the phone all bluster and outrage. No idea what he expected from me but I do remember very clearly why he expected it: “I fought in the war, I’m British and I’m white!” I’m sure he got what he was due in the end but I’ll also bet when he got off the phone I took his file and put it at the back of the queue. I’ve no problem with the genuinely aggrieved and I do understand the need to vent at whoever is on the other end of the phone or the other side of the counter but the whole point of being civilised—which is what that man was trying to say—is that you don’t poke someone in the eye just because it comes up your humph to do so. Often in films and on TV—invariably I’m talking about American films and TV programmes—someone will chide a waitress because their meal order is ever so slightly wrong. I’ve never done that. Yes, I know you’re supposed to get what you ordered and all the rest but who sends their coffee back because the latte art offends them?

    But then there’s the other side of the coin. I remember clearly a scene from ‘Five Easy Pieces’ where Jack Nicholson’s character asks for tomatoes instead of potatoes and the waitress replies—curtly (or at least matter-of-factly), “No substitutions.” The same problem arises when he requests a side order of toast: “I’m sorry, we don’t have any side orders of toast. I’ll give you an English muffin or a coffee roll.” “No side orders of toast?” He’s aghast. “You make sandwiches, don’t you?” One can only imagine the chip on his shoulder the next diner he went into.

    God alone knows why Telstra couldn’t give you what you wanted but one reason could be the fact that their staff is blinkered, just like the waitress. Another example from my Civil Service days: I had to redo on a training course at one point which I objected to but I went along dutifully. At one point the teacher was showing the class how to do an interest calculation using a lookup table which was fine and quick but what about if the client queried the figure: How do we calculate it the old-fashioned way? He said, “You tell them that’s what the table says.” I was shocked and tried to argue the case but, no, he wouldn’t—or didn’t know how to—do it any other way. The first year I had to do Carrie’s taxes over here I sent a letter with a full tax calculation on it and they sent back a tax return for her to fill in. Stupid people. But if they’ve not been properly trained what can you expect?

    It’s a little different in the banks these days. Since the banking crisis a few years back an obsequiousness has crept in that I actually find a bit annoying. Anything to keep my business it seems. If you have to stand in line for more than sixty seconds someone sidles up to you and apologises for the delay. What’s that all about?

    1. Not sure what’s going on at your bank, Jim, but I noticed something similar at our banks a while ago. I got the sense they were targeting old folks, folks who might well be technologically challenged and they’d take them off to one side and show them very slowly how they could use the ATM, for instance. At Telstra, here in the main stores, they get someone to stand at the door with a clip board. You get seen immediately but then you’re placed in a queue until your name comes up. It’s a polite way of dealing with an influx and then keeping people calm as they wait.
      I’m not sure I’m as rude as my daughter makes out but I can be impatient and rather than rude, I’m not obsequious and I don’t always take no for an answer. You describe so many wonderful examples here, Jim, of all the things that can wrong on either side of the retail divide.
      Life in the commercial zone is tricky indeed. Thanks, jim.

  4. I once worked at McDonald’s. A customer was upset because we had run out of a flavor of Chicken McNugget sauce. I was at the counter and he was complaining vehemently to me about it. I finally said, “Look, I just work here. I’m not in charge of keeping the nugget sauce in stock.” He replied, “Oh, I don’t blame you. You’re like Oliver North, taking the fall for Ronald Reagan.”

    This was in the 1980s.

    1. That’s hilarious, Kirk. Thanks. It’s true, sales persons can often cop it for other people’s disgruntlements. They very much become the ‘fall guys’. It happened in the 1980s and it still happens today.

  5. Elisabeth, my daughter and I haven’t been in a shop together for years. She complained about my singing along to the music in shops (I am so annoying and embarrassing) and I got sick of offering to buy her a garment and being knocked back because obviously my taste was appalling. She’s just moved out and I am thrilled to be alone and no longer annoying my daughter.

    1. Mothers and daughters, Belinda. It’s so easy for us to annoy one another. And that knock back that happens whenever you make clothing suggestions that appeal to you but hold no appeal for the youngster in question. I know that well, too. It’s tough. Before I had children I imagined myself helping them to buy and choose clothes for many years to come, but even as two year olds my daughters had minds of their own clothes wise and I I have found there is no point in buying any item of clothing they have not chosen themselves. Mind you, this applies not only to daughters. We tend to be so pernickety about the clothes we wear. Maybe that’s why for my sixtieth birthday at least six people bought me a scarf. I was scarved out and the trouble is, I don’t wear scarves, almost never. But I imagine scarves are a safe clothing choice for women. Any how, as usual I’ve gone off track, a bad habit of mine. It’s lovely to chat to you here on my blog, Belinda. Thanks.

  6. I dislike the modern day management models which place inexperienced young people in ‘managerial’ positions to do nothing more than enforce company policy. They have no negotiation skills and no older, experienced overseer to support them, so the individual needs of the customer are denied in order to maintain a simplified automation of service delivery.
    Signed Disillusioned & Cynical.

  7. Oh, and I should mention that I work in customer service – medical reception to be exact, and we certainly get our share of society’s cross section, so I can see from both sides.

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