11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 50

• Home life

Flying saucers

Alice Thomas Ellis

What', mused Alfie the other day, 'do you suppose it's like to be a chicken, just clucking and scratching all day?' I don't know, Alfie. I'd rather know where the saucers go, anyway. Last year we bought a couple of dozen of everything you can get made in plain white china — well, almost everything — and we've still got most of it, except that the stack of saucers is lower than all the other stacks. They haven't been broken because you can hear things being broken and you yell, 'What was that, you flaming twit', and one or two shards always evade the dustpan and brush and sooner or later barefooted people tread on them. It is a great mystery. You can't lose them down the sides of chairs or absentmindedly put them in your pockets, and while the gypsy children took my leather jacket I don't believe they took the saucers. And yet and yet, without imputing blame to anyone, I know that if I lived alone I wouldn't have mislaid a dozen saucers.

'It's a Whitehall tragedy.' If I could be bothered I'd go and look under the beds, only the wind is rising and I prefer to sit here speculating. Why do we have so many gales these days? I have a theory that somewhere on the planet some entrepreneur is trying to can air and it's proving intractable. I can see him, wild- eyed with excitement, his hair standing on end as he directs a bemused and sullen workforce to try a little harder. He's almost cracked it when, whoosh, the air gets away again and sweeps over the southern end of the country in a force 9, thus depriving him of the chance to make millions of pounds. After all, the popula- tion has no more God-given right to free air than it has to water, and if some benefactor could only get his hands on it he could alter its quality and distribution and we would all be better off, would we not? Two of the other elements, earth and fire, are already largely in private hands, and water is about to be, so I guess metered air is bound to be next on the list. I think of the dawn of history when we all crouched round the camp fire, called upon neither to rent the ground beneath us nor to fling pound coins into the leaping flames. When we wanted a drink or a wash we just wandered down to the stream, and yes, there we might have been eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, but I'm not saying that things were ever perfect — only that they were simpler. The other day Janet began to wish she was just a chicken. She was trying to get three GCSE notebooks for the daughter. She rang some branches of W. H. Smith. The one in Brent Cross had none, the one in Wood Green had two of them, the branch in Muswell Hill had, we were led to believe, all of them, but they couldn't be touched until the end of the week because they were being audited. Palmers Green had none, so Janet, in despair, rang Edmonton. Here she heard, first of all, 8 peculiar noise. She rang 100, whereupon the operator agreed that it was indeed a peculiar noise — halfway between 'out of order' and a fax number — and why didn't Janet ring 142 to find out what was going on. The first time 142 was engaged, the second time she was thanked for ringing 142 and told that all lines were engaged and she'd be held and dealt with as soon as possible. In despair she rang her friend Maggie, who works in Edmonton, and asked her to go to the shop. She tried phoning them and got the same noise. S° she rang the operator, who said she d report a fault on the line. Maggie then rang Smith's in Wood Green to ask for the Edmonton number and was told the branch had closed two weeks earlier. So she looked up some bookshops, found one called Off Stage in Camden Town and.... Anyway in the end all was well, but if the saucers had been lying around, by that time Janet would have hurled them all at the wall, and I wouldn't have blamed her Cluck, cluck, cluck.