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From phlegm to traybake, and back

Mouth-breathing. A most unattractive and uncomfortable activity. Especially with accompanying dribble.

What started as a strange and mildly irritating dry cough more than two weeks ago turned into the mother of all head-and-chest colds, the like of which I do not readily recall. Exactly where all this unpleasant mucus comes from I cannot begin to understand. I can only hope that its creation is using up the vast number of additional chocolatey calories I have consumed in my quest for comfort since the onslaught began.

I choose to blame the builders for my ailment. As mentioned here before, they were generous in their liberal spreading of virus(-and expletive)-laden breath in recent weeks and it would perhaps have been a stronger constitution than mine to resist hosting a few of their friendly little bugs. Initially though, I blamed the chap sitting next to me when singing the St John Passion as he had seemed to cough every few bars in the dress rehearsal and the onset of my own little cough (little did I know…) seemed to fit the timing of such acquisition. We’ll never know, and the blaming of others hardly helps the wheezing.

The developing ailment meant that I was not bothered about the long and featureless Easter weekend. The only remotely exciting part of Easter this year was a drive down to a small industrial estate at the end of a lane in deepest Surrey countryside to view some paving for our new patio area. The flagstones, for which we had received a very competitive quote on the telephone, were very brown (the clue was probably in the name “Autumn Brown” but the pictures on the website had looked to be just what we wanted) and we immediately and unanimously disliked them. No wonder they were cheap.

Of course, we found something much nicer and made a quick purchase at a much higher price. Ah well, I suppose we will have to look at the patio – through our wonderful new glass doors if they ever arrive – for the rest of our days, so they definitely need not to be horrid!

As I continue to hack and sniff around the house, I slowly realise that the new appliances in the emerging kitchen space are connected to the mains and can be activated. I sift through the enormous pile of booklets and paperwork in the smaller of my two sparkling ovens in search of a few simple operating instructions. It rapidly becomes apparent that the manuals are so lengthy they require an entire magazine-length format, and – unlike the usual multi-lingual pamphlets to which we have grown accustomed over the years of occasional electrical goods replacement – English is not to be found at the front, the middle or the end of the first mag I pick up which appears to be entirely in… Danish! The next is in French, then come German, Dutch and a fourth un-immediately-identifiable language before I give up and decide to do something altogether else for a while.

Of course, being a linguist by training, I could attempt two of these brochures if I were showing off, but sadly – in the privacy of my own incompetence – I realise that supper would be after midnight if I went that route. My preference is therefore to look online. There will almost certainly be a whole section of Youtube devoted to the woe-begone digitally-impaired housewife searching for an on-switch on her shiny new and completely flat-surfaced appliance. 

There is.

I watch for a few minutes and conclude that life is too short to endure any more of this cheerful so-called guidance. The urge to create a few spoof reels of my own is almost overwhelming, but is nipped in the bud by a more existential hunger. Actual hunger.

Naturally, when it comes to it, I muddle through the extremely straightforward controls in no time at all and the heating of a ready meal is achieved without a hitch. (Note/excuse: Ready meals are pretty much all there is to hand at present. Some weaning off these may be required at the end of this building process, but now is not the time.)

Once my snottiness settles to no more than a persistent chesty rattle, the days become sunnier and – on the rare breaks between effing builderly joshing and interminable (and largely ineffective) vacuuming – birdsong can be heard in the garden. I venture out for an hour’s weeding in the still-sodden flower beds, and am rewarded by the company of two fluttering robins (known in my mind as Emma and Dad – even though, of course, this is nonsense) who cannot wait for me to retreat indoors before seizing on the plentiful worms wriggling in the overturned soil.

Energised by this unaccustomed burst of Vitamin D, I decide to put the larger new oven to the test and cook up one of the few proper dishes I had been in the habit of creating before all this Grand Designs palaver took over our lives. No matter that the kitchen surfaces are temporary chipboard with oodles of sawdust and plaster residue. Don’t care that the tap has been unfixed and wobbles perilously if I forget and the hob is currently on the floor pending a worktop templating visit which I thought was happening on Friday but was an incorrect diary entry (my bad). I don’t mind at all that I will have to totter back and forth along the corridor to our temporary kitchen room to fetch all the ingredients from the temporary larder and the old fridge freezer. This will achieve much-needed “healthy” steps. 

I am nearly ready to begin, when I remember why I did not do this earlier in the week. I cannot locate the tray-bake dish. I have looked in several cardboard boxes in the spare bedroom – twice in fact, which is annoying given that they are just that tiny bit too heavy for me to move safely but I do it anyway – and thoroughly in the cupboards in our temporary kitchen, and under our bed (where other trays are located, but not this one), and in the loft-roof-spaces (where all sorts of interesting things are hoarded, but no kitchen equipment) and I begin to wonder whether the ingredients I had optimistically purchased yesterday will go to waste after all. Of course, the possibility of creating something else with these same standard ingredients in a different receptacle is entirely beyond my addled brain even though, uselessly, it occurs to me now in the comfort of my temporary office (the previously unused armchair in our bedroom).

I do a Sudoku to calm down.

One more search. I contemplate the cardboard boxes in the spare bedroom. Maybe a third look? But this is a large earthenware dish I’m looking for, and I surely cannot have missed it twice already?  Aha, perhaps it’s under the bed in this room rather than our own bed? I’m quickly on my stomach on the rug before I remember that there is an “extra” spare bed stuffed under the main spare bed, thus leaving no room for anything else at all. I bet I’ve just not looked properly under our own bed. So, up another flight and I fling myself unceremoniously into sniper-crawl position on the carpet and rummage once more under the bed – to no avail. I lie for a moment longer approaching quiet (and hungry) despair, when I glance – at mouse level – across to the wardrobe. Under which is lurking not only the elusive tray-bake receptacle but also a forgotten lasagne dish. Double hurrah – although of course by this stage I’d rather have a pasty.

Proof!  In amongst the dust is a beautifully clean oven cooking my supper. With windows still not installed, this is a brilliant space for unobserved dancing too, if only I had the breath!

Dear reader, in fact the traybake was a small triumph – actually, not so small and there are leftovers for tonight – and I delighted in watching it almost silently bubble and brown through the wonderfully clean glass door, but all the dusty searching has not helped my elderly lungs and I’m still honking, creaking and rattling like a veteran miner *.  Clichéd ending = “Ah well, onward and upward!”

*Note to self: Fact checking not always a good idea. Do not Google ‘miner lung disease’ again, at least not until coughing has ceased.  I almost certainly don’t have pneumoconiosis…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bach to building – and vice versa

The dust fairy continues to sprinkle her brick- and wood-based charms liberally around Jillings Towers, reaching parts heretofore pristine (well, that’s a lie if ever I wrote one – there’s never been a great deal of ‘pristine’ about this place – but please forgive such nervous hyperbole in a tired and dust-ridden bloggist) and gradually lowering our already unimpressive hygiene standards. Added to this expected construction grime, the builders’ ‘team cold’ has ensured that any idea at all of maintaining a hygienic household has been firmly ejected from the yet-to-be-completed fenestration, with more sniffing, sneezing, hawking and (not to put too fine a point on it) gobbing than you could shake a plague-doctor’s stick at.

I’m now confused at my own mangling of the English language and apologise for same – along with the unpleasant imagery (hopefully, or the words were pointless as well as mangled – sigh) it evokes. As I say, I’m a bit tired…

However, I will try to be more positive in my project update. Here goes:

  • We are about to take delivery of the kitchen units. Astonishingly, on precisely the date estimated at the beginning of this project.
  • The old understairs cupboard is shaping up nicely as a cloakroom after much entertaining measuring up using pretend toilets and sinks (in fact, I’ve never forgotten our previous builder demonstrating exactly where the toilet roll holder should be fixed in one of our bathrooms – there are some things that are seared on one’s memory for life, I fear). Sanitary wear also expected to arrive this week
  • The carpentry required for the understairs area means that the sweariest and sing-iest of the building trio is ensconced at the very centre of our home for hours on end – out of sight perhaps, but very much NOT out of earshot. Perhaps we are slowly becoming immune to his profanity and bursts of Elvis/Sinatra. (Hmm. Are we f***!)
  • Sorry. Moving on
  • We quite quickly choose some nice tiles for the cloakroom floor. I think some of our best design decisions over the years have been where Mr J sees something he likes and I don’t hate it/think it’s ridiculous/believe it’s a completely different colour from what he claims it to be. These tiles are a small example and I eagerly rubber-stamp the choice.
  • Naturally, the store turns out to have just the one tile remaining and, even for our smallest room, one tile will not suffice. The tile has no label on it but, if you set me a challenge like that, I do not rest until I hunt that thing down. Two days later, we travel to Sutton to Collect what I’ve Clicked and celebrate on the way home with a rather nice (and surprisingly inexpensive) lunch in Cheam, another good idea from Mr J (annoying, huh?)
  • Daughter J and cat have, sensibly, relocated themselves to somewhere altogether quieter, much-much-much closer to work and infinitely less dusty than our guest room. The cat, ungratefully in my view, has taken an immediate shine to his new home. Despite our collective fears that the move would stress him and that he would be lonely without his “grandparents” (ugh!) whilst his mistress is out putting in the long shifts to keep him in swanky litter and Dreamies, he has made himself completely at home and shows no signs of recognition let alone fondness when I turn up for an inspection of the new abode. Traitor.
  • The heating at JT, which was reconnected for a few weeks, has been switched off again temporarily to allow the newly poured concrete floor to set evenly. This floor is important, as it contains – excitement of excitements – underfloor heating, which of course means that in future I will be able to lie down on the kitchen floor whilst waiting for supper to cook itself in my new hi-tech ovens. Perhaps more likely (?) it will provide a soothing surface on which to lie when I’ve exhausted myself trying to learn how to use all this new hi-techery, and am waiting for the take-away to arrive
  • Shame there’s still no back wall on the house, but the lighter evenings are giving us greater positivity, and we slip easily back into our layers.

In amongst all the dust and mess and ‘language’ of the building work has been a small St John Passion oasis, in which I have been endeavouring to master the tenor line of this magnificent piece over the past two and a half months. The concert was last night and seems to have been carried off pretty well. Certainly no obvious disasters and I acquitted myself as well as I could have hoped.

Human nature being what it is, the key take-aways from the concert are – in no particular order

  • The tenor soloist (Evangelist – Jeremy Budd) had the most wonderful voice – completely beautiful, even from behind but especially lovely when he sang towards the choir in rehearsals
  • I took the train to and from the afternoon rehearsal and the performance itself. All worked perfectly. More miraculous than getting most of the notes right, to be honest
  • A friend came to watch/listen and it was great to catch up in the interval and on the walk to the station afterwards
  • Another choir member told me I have a lovely voice. I had never spoken to her before, nor do I remember ever sitting near her, so I have no idea how she might have formed this view – but it briefly made me happy all the same
  • I switched my phone off and turned my fitness tracker watch to ‘Cinema’ mode – but part-way through singing the first energetic number my wrist was being wildly vibrated beneath my smart black shirt-cuff. This happened several more times during the performance. In Cinema mode the watch is silent and does not light up so I was the only one to be aware. I later checked the app on my phone, and saw that the messages this vibration had been trying to impart included an offer to call the Emergency Services! This is on the basis that I did not appear to be active but my heart rate was above 120 bpm. Clearly I need to find an activity to programme into the watch which involves no steps but allows other exertion, or I risk inadvertently summoning an ambulance whenever I let rip a lusty chorus.
  • A brief exchange with the leader of my voice-group as we dismounted the stage: Me “I think that went off quite well, don’t you?”  Him “Yes, but I was really worried just before the end because you hadn’t turned to the final number.”  Oh, that’s how to burst a bubble! How had he seen from two rows behind me? It clearly hadn’t mattered, as I was completely ready – and obediently watching the conductor – when we started singing. I don’t even remember being late turning the page, or being any different from those either side of me. Did he mean another time? But I was fully prepared throughout – I even had judiciously placed paper clips for non-choral sections and had done my homework thoroughly, still feeling new and inexperienced. Why did this matter? Isn’t this his problem rather than mine……??

I’ll give you one guess as to which of the above has stayed with me the most.

How stupid. Hahahahahaha.

 

Foggy foggy brew, and other stories from the building site

Ahoy there. I’m still here.

But colder. Also a little older, but none the wiser. And ‘delighting’ in my new profession as a tea-lady. (Note: my choice of the ‘bon mot’ seems to be leaning towards the cliché rather than reality – since when have I found anything to do with the dreadful brown sludge that is apparently my nation’s favourite beverage delightful?)

I should explain. Followers of this blog will probably be aware that Jillings Towers has been due a makeover for some considerable time, and our aim to upgrade the kitchen has been something of an on-off frustrating journey ever since I left work five years ago and realised how grotty everything had become.

Well, now we are finally putting that right.

“The Build” seems to have taken all my focus and energy, and I realise I have failed to update this blog for weeks. But here are a few thoughts which I have been diligently thinking, but casually failing to write down over the first phase of these works.

Week 1

On the fourth day, to remind myself of the progress that has been made by the builders, I poke my chilly nose out of the living room. This room, formerly little used (as the ceiling has been threatening to fall down for years, and we have retained its manky sofas purely for the use of itinerant musicians wishing to rehearse somewhere off the street) which is now mostly our daytime ‘home’ because it contains all the survival elements, the most important being the microwave and our enormous fridge freezer. Even the fridge-freezer has gone quiet in awe at the sound of destruction all around – or perhaps it’s just full of dust, like everything else, and is conserving its voice in preparation for imminent pegging out. 

I have reluctantly re-learned to make tea in order to provide a seemingly endless supply to our trio of builders. As on our previous big build, we seem to have hired a salt-of-the-earth outfit: local men who have been in business together since their teenage years who, now they are in their middle years seem never happier than when wielding sledgehammers, mixing cement, haranguing their clients in unimaginatively profane joshing and drinking their tea – regularly pointing out how generously provisioned their previous clients’ biscuit tins had been. I quickly remember that Asda is cheaper than my local Sainsburys and, as a bonus, by walking that little bit further for my bargain biscuits I can ensure I can no longer hear the swearing.

Re-entering the house, I wonder if my glasses have steamed up with the exertion of those extra steps to Asda, but eventually realise that this is the new indoor environment. A haze of dust from the demolition work which has happened extraordinarily early in this lengthy project penetrates into even the darkest corners, and of course eventually settles – over ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING.

I stagger under the weight of biscuits and teabags and fumble my half-blind way to the works canteen (our living room) and through the fog of descending brick-dust I clumsily make a brew.

 

As I vacuum after the men have departed, I recall that 18 years ago, the third man of our first building trio ran his cement-flecked Henry around every day before going home. Hmm – how times have changed, and I begin to mutter gently under my breath – effity, effity, eff – etc.

Week 2

My ludicrous over-excitement at our first major, and long-coveted, kitchen appliance purchase at a stonking discount (a genuine discount, as disbelievingly verified by another independent supplier), wanes as we stumble through a double quagmire – firstly that of the enormous and bewildering choice of ovens, hobs, extractors, floor coverings, blinds, and technology-enabled items we’ve barely heard of, and secondly the actual quagmire that is our poor old garden now the builders have churned up the part nearest the house and the rest has turned into some sort of boggy lake. (Ok, the lake I will concede is due to the weather, as the UK has sadly revolved into a permanent rainy season.)

It is exciting though. At last, the plans we have been worrying away at for years are coming to fruition. We cannot complain about the speed with which it is all happening in the end.  Builders suddenly became available, and clearly wanted to start as soon as possible. So, after taking up references (you can take the couple out of the Civil Service, but you can’t take old-fashioned due diligence out of the couple!) at super-speed, we gave the green light and within two days we were living in a building site.

I spend most of my time wearing a minimum of five body-core layers (thank the good Lord for Uniqlo, Mr Marks and Mr Spencer – the holy trinity of thermals!). As a result, I think I am currently winning the “Who’s the hardest!” competition and, when our one modest electric heater is not required in our Home room, I graciously allow it to follow Mr J rather than myself. When the situation becomes severe and even an extra sixth layer fails to raise my temperature to an acceptable level, I leave the house at speed with my trusty shopping bag (sometimes filled with yet more items for the charity shop) and schlep around a bit, usually returning with treats of one sort or another and a slightly healthier glow.

This is the first time I have written my blog wearing gloves. I have been trialling my splendid (and extremely cheap in Superdry, of all places) bright orange knitted fingerless gloves on outdoor fuel-voucher issuing duty for the past two months and I’m not sure my fingertips are any warmer sitting in my bedroom today than they were outdoors at the last event. Please therefore excuse any typos which slip through. Accuracy has never been my strong point, but fat orange-clad fingers are not helping one bit.

I have also never been more keen to spend time at choir practices (even if I have to keep my coat on for the one in the church) and Pilates in the pub, although I have slightly regretted leaving on at least one too many base layers on more than one such occasion. I can empathise now with the generations of old who sewed themselves into their winter undergarments until the arrival of Spring. I don’t much fancy the goose-grease or whale oil with which they were often smeared though. I need to try and remain at least outwardly civilised! (Opinions on whether I am achieving this may differ.) Not sure the rising f*** count in my vocabulary is helping with the façade of gentility…

On Saturday, next-door’s five- and three-year-old children turn up at our front door in high-vis vests and with a clip-board and pen. They are here for inspection of the building site and the elder one (Boy) takes it all extremely seriously. Where he has learned the impressively builder-like sucking of teeth I do not know, but he has it down pat. He strides around the devastation, scribbling as he goes, and eventually pronounces that we have failed the inspection and must do better. His mother hastily shepherds him away, along with his only-ever-so-slightly muddied sister.

It may have been a mistake to send a report to this effect to the builders. Unsure if they will return on Monday now.

Week 3 

We experience a new low on the swearing front as an existing RSJ is somehow raised 6 inches, into the underfloor space of my currently inaccessible first-floor office. In fact, there is a burst of blood-curdling screams followed by the best-yet stream of effing and blinding, such that both Mr J and I emerge at speed from our respective hiding places in anticipation of calling an ambulance pronto. However, by the time we have reached the scene, the decibel level of f*cks has lowered and there is even a resumption of the random snatches of song which we are growing to expect as light relief from the invective. 

We retreat quietly to our respective heater and blankets.

Our old kitchen and breakfast room are now unrecognisable and mostly carted away in a skip. A new patio area is being built up, and bricks for a decorative garden wall have been delivered. We are cheered to see the progress and jump around a bit in excitement (actually, largely to warm up).

Week 4

We have arranged a final planning meeting with the kitchen company who will supply our units. I have had a change of heart about the style of the cupboards after one of the builders comment that the handles are those which the kitchen company always fit to ‘council hahzes’. Hmm. I had honestly already felt unsure about the handles although for a different reason, and I nervously ask the nice kitchen lady if we can change the style to a handle-less alternative range. I expect this to affect the price in an upwardly direction from our original quote, but it seems that, taken together with other small changes we are making, the new quote is a little bit lower. Aside from looking better in the mock-up pictures, I can revel in the slight easing of the stressful number-crunching on my project spreadsheet.

Yes, I’m back in the land of project-management and spreadsheet nirvana. Just like the old days, but with less commuting and fewer foreign trips (or none ever again if my budget spreadsheet is currently to be believed! Ah well…)

In an idle moment, I wonder briefly if I could institute a swear-box on-site? Would this perhaps go some way to offsetting the enormous amounts I am transferring to the builders’ bank account each week? “Don’t you f***ing believe it Missus!”

Week 5

Having reduced our two old rooms to one chilly shell, opened up the far end and raised the roof, bricked up a superfluous window and created a new doorway in a new position, the builders are starting to focus on electrics and plumbing. The most exciting bit of this is the installation of a new boiler by their mate Ian the plumber early on Saturday morning. More tea-making ensues, but this time the pay-off is more immediate and we are warmer again in the main part of the house. Hurrah!

I have gradually decreased the energy I expend on daily cleaning. Initially, and to be fair in the most dusty days, I waited no more than a couple of minutes after the team had gone before plugging in my trusty Miele and bashing around the ground floor, first floor and stairs to minimise the grinding in of particles. I now brush or vacuum the hallway most days, but have largely ceased to expect to see any shiny surfaces and have reduced the time spent on this thankless task to the bare minimum. How quickly standards fall.

The chaps now have endless questions about where we need lights, powerpoints, switches etc. And what height are those doors really supposed to be? And where is the fridge-freezer going? After detailed consultation with Mr J, I draw up a printed document and a colour-coded diagram based on an old copy of the kitchen company’s floorplan. I carefully, and in clear blue felt pen, amend the plan to reflect the final changes we have made in our order. I am quietly proud of this.

Within 5 minutes, the swearier of the builders has not only tea-stained my lovely diagram, but rubbished it by seemingly being entirely unable to notice my bold amendments and simply following the old design which has the fridge-freezer and larder switched, the sink in the wrong place, and the worktops the wrong depth etc. No amount of vociferous arguing on my part seems to help.

Builder “You need to give us the most up-to-date effing plans!”

Client (cowering) “Yes, I know, but we only have this one and I’ve made it really clear what changes there are.”

Builder “So, this is the effing fridge?”

Client (bewildered) “No, look I’ve scribbled that out and written in capitals ‘LARDER’. The fridge is here.”

Builder “So, with the fridge there, what the eff is this supposed to be?”

Client (tetchy) “That’s NOT where the fridge goes. I just showed you. And wrote it clearly on the diagram. And that bit there hasn’t changed at all – it’s the oven stack.”

Builder “So the effing fridge is next to the effing ovens, right?”

Client (having lost the plot completely – it is still not yet 9am!) “Oh FFS! No. You’re taking the p*** now right?”

And I honestly cannot tell if he is or not. I retreat to a safe (and now warm) space and await the next onslaught.

Subsequent inspection of where they have placed powerpoints etc seems to indicate that either I have made my point in the end, or the non-sweary one has quietly been absorbing the necessary information – and CAN READ AN EFFING DIAGRAM!

My apologies. It has been a long week. And I can no longer find a way to upload photographs to this blog to prove I’ve not made up all of the above. (Sticks upgrading WordPress and/or laptop onto the already creakingly long to-do list.)

I’m off to the shop to buy more tea-bags.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Powerless

It’s dark. Darker than it should be.

My alarm hasn’t woken me, but I somehow struggle to consciousness and notice that it is precisely nothing-o’clock. My bedside timepiece is black. Faceless.

The world has clearly ended. I might as well go back to sleee… 

Aha! Brain begins to engage. Power cut.

Prompted by a timeless curiosity, I stagger to the far corner of the bedroom to retrieve my phone.  Eleventy hundred WhatsApp messages from my entire street who have variously suffered, or not suffered, the same fate as Jillings Towers, and are variously offering each other hot drinks, links to the UK Power Net website, moral support and general life-saving advice. And have been doing so for fully two hours whilst I have blissfully – and in this case, completely appropriately – slept through the drama thus far.

Not so Daughter J. Beneath my peaceful haven, all merry hell is let loose. Not for many years have we witnessed such tantrumming – quite unnerving so early in the day. Any thoughts I may have of descending the stairs are quickly placed on hold as I await a gap in audible remonstrations before I whizz past and on down to where Mr J sits at the breakfast table, bereft of his porridge but proudly drinking coffee brewed using water boiled in his camping kettle on our gas hob lit by an olde-worlde match and casually reading his book to the light of every man’s best gadget, an uber-stylish head-torch.

I am, of course, glad of the kettle. Less so the head-torch which somehow taunts me from the far end of the table. My iPad is, fortuitously, fully charged and using my phone as a hotspot (oh, how tech savvy I truly am!) I am able to devour the news headlines whilst trying to avoid the occasional nodding strobe-effect across the penumbral expanse of newspapers and wood.

Later, as the lights flicker back on, there are whoops of veritable joy to be heard above, where loud singing has replaced the swearing. Daughter J’s busy day, when she absolutely cannot be seen with dirty, wet or frizzy hair (apparently it frizzes uncontrollably if not dried and straightened – news to me, who spent almost a decade of commuter morning half-hours in a train-carriage corner with wet hair, trusting in the personal invisibility of middle age) could now begin.

I venture upstairs and commiserate briefly, possibly not (with hindsight) helping enormously by agreeing that current hair-styling does indeed resemble the cat. Also, my suggestion that hair could have been dried at a kind neighbour’s house meets with a withering look such as would fell an oak.

I am about to leave the house – late myself by this stage – when the glorious return to power abruptly comes to an end. 

In no time at all, the WhatsApping neighbours – should they be able to tear themselves away from their devices – could observe a wildly cantering and mercifully dry- and straight-haired woman, escaping the screams emanating from the mid-reaches of Jillings Towers and trusting that Mr J will be safe enough hiding under the table (as long as he remembers to extinguish the flipping head-torch).

Post script. Apparently the power was restored once more in the nick of time and the world did not have to experience the affront of scuzzy locks or sweary mouths. At least, not on our account.

Post post script. This was a delightful start to an otherwise dodgy week which subsequently

  • lurched through the coldest ever outdoor fuel-voucher issuance (how can it be right that volunteers sit in hundreds of layers of thermal clothing at a too-small table in a howling icy gale, trying to prevent the paper vouchers flying away by careful shuffling beneath weighty literary tomes grabbed at the last minute as paperweights (thank goodness for that forethought), writing names on said vouchers with freezing fingers and pens that keep failing due to the cold, running down the batteries in iPads and phones to zero again due to the freezing temperature and prompting the summoning of power-packs from home, whilst the legs of the plastic bucket seats borrowed from the foodbank sink relentlessly into the sucking mud? I am not a political person, but there must be a better way than this. And if you think I am exaggerating – well, really, you could not actually make this up. Ok, apart from the ‘hundreds of layers’ bit – full-disclosure, I was only wearing nine.)
  • succumbed to persuasion from a friend to undertake a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between versions of the St John Passion – a line by line musical notation ‘spot the difference’ which, whilst somehow soothing, was strangely time-consuming and seemed to result in aches and a slight fever, particularly when painstakingly and cross-eye-makingly completing the reporting spreadsheet for submission to our conductorly oracle
  • resulted in the eventual realisation that the aches and fever were not of Bach’s making, but more prosaically a bout of Covid.

Post post post script. Im on the mend now and we hope the power cuts are ended, but there is worryingly still a hole in the road with the power company logo on it.

Christmas 2023

In the blink of an eye, the panic of this most recent Yule recedes and the relative austerity of January looms outside in the miserable wintry murk.

The last of the guests depart from a blustery Heathrow, and a previous departee lands on some windswept island in the Indian ocean – both events causing me huge travel-envy, and propelling me onto tourist websites and into my Europe by Rail (Christmas gift) book before I can even think of tackling the much-needed housework.

In fact, I wonder how long I can make this “The world/my family owe me a complete rest” vibe last? Until the weekend? Until the end of the month/year? Twelfth night? – might be pushing it a bit there! 

In fact, after wondering for a short time, and wandering for a slightly longer time in the park, I determine that I would rather relax in a clean and tidy house, and set to with the vacuum cleaner and the mop. At least an hour of domestic whirlwind-ing passes, resulting in fewer crumbs and glittery bits around the place, a much more hygienic kitchen and dining table, and a wonderful feeling of entitlement…entitlement to replace those skivvy-expended calories with a few (ok, more than a few!) of the festive cheese and mincemeat varieties.

After an enormous plateful of cheese and crackers, and my third mince pie, I am almost unable to move, but take to pondering this year’s Christmas highlights.

  • Mother Christmas and her tiny helper – after a disastrous substitute Santa last year, we were informed by our 11-year-old niece that there was no need to ask Father Christmas to call with his large sack during the daytime, as has been his wont, but that perhaps Cousin K (confusingly known as Daughter J elsewhere in my meanderings) would like to play the role of Mother Christmas with Niece H helping to hand out the pressies (which were already amassing around the tree and encroaching dangerously ever further across the floor) to the assembled family members. And so it came to pass that, as we contemplated a second go at the Mimosas (I later found that this is simply the American name for Bucks Fizz and I feel cheated), a cheesy grin and a flash of red-and-white appeared at the front room window, presaging the arrival not of wise men but of two intrepid women of the J tribe, gloriously accoutred and (hilariously) bewailing that they had come to bring us presents but had somehow forgotten to pack any or even to bring a sack at all! Although lacking in double-entendre opportunity this year (Santa’s sac having almost always reduced the supposedly adult members of the family to veritable chuckle-jelly), the appearance of a normally responsible 28-year-old businesswoman in an oversized Santa suit alongside her young cousin also in red but with reindeer hair bunches and shuffling on her knees on an old pair of gardening shoes provoked much merriment.
    Where’s yer sack Santa?
    Of course, there were the usual suggestions of locking them outside to parade up and down the street, but despite their apparent lack of presents, we wanted their help in dismantling the living room parcel mountain before the cat beat us to it. 
  • The aforementioned Santa suit has more than proved to be money well spent. It has previously been modelled by ALL Daughter J’s immediate family members at different times – a rite of passage for each, perhaps, although Mr J is showing worrying signs of attachment to it, having once again this year been co-opted to dress up and hand out presents to neighbouring children, this time at the local refugee hotel. A highlight I missed by contriving to be in a pub drinking wine and eating pizza with Pilates friends.
  • Panto!!!
    Splendidly ugly sisters
    Oh no it wasn’t! But, oh yes it was, and possibly the best one for a few years. We think it was our sixth visit to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford en extended famille and this year’s Cinderella was just the right mix of traditional story and format, Guildford panto regular features, and good quality singing and dancing. And pump-action water pistols. (We would have asked for our money back if the Twelve Days of Christmas custard-pie and water fest had been missing, but I made sure to seat myself well away from the aisle – a definite benefit of repeat attendances)
  • A veritable farmyard of pigs in blankets. Apparently Daughter J had eaten 35 pigs in blankets on her last shift before Christmas. This was a worry, as I only had 42 in the freezer, but as she pointed out, that was still sufficient for each of the other Christmas diners to have at least one.
  • Homemade Christmas pudding – another advance worry, as we had forgotten to eat the ‘test’ one so had no idea whether this might be a dismal failure. At the last minute, after over an hour of steaming, Mr J stuffed a coin into the pudding for one of us to find, only for it to pop out as soon as I cut the first slice. I needn’t have fretted; it was every bit as good as a Waitrose one and had only taken 10 hours or so to produce.
  • A perfectly decent lunch! There was to be no grilling of things that should have been roasted (a past faux pas), nor annihilation-grade boiling of sprouts,
    A surplus sprout
    nor leaving of vital elements of the meal in the microwave to be discovered on Boxing Day. Somehow everything fell into place just fine. Not the best result from a blog-posting point of view – ahem, must try harder next year.
  • The Boxing Day walk. This year, it was decided we should visit an ornate chapel in deepest Surrey and then drive to Leith Hill for a brisk walk up to the Tower where a lovely little café would reward us with cake (as if we didn’t have enough of the sweet stuff at home). The chapel was closed. The Tower café was closed. Rellies now suing under the Trades Description Act (does that still exist? apparently so, at least in part).
    A clear lack of cake here
    I see no cake!!!
    We pointed out that the ‘walk’ part of the deal had been achieved as planned – but somehow this was not enough. Until we provided cake at home, at which point all was forgiven (we think). 

Daughter J has been back at work for days now. Her brother is safely ensconced in The Maldives, also working (so he says). I’m already half-way through the washing of bed-linen and we are confident that all surplus calories will have been consumed before the final stroke of midnight on NYE.

All of the above pales into insignificance however on hearing that Mr J’s longest-standing friend, whose mother served alongside Mr J’s own mother in Suffolk’s National Childbirth Trust when their boys were tiny together, died unexpectedly two days before Christmas. The news didn’t reach us until our guests were leaving. To say this is a shock doesn’t begin to cover it. 

As a result of this dreadful information, the highlights of our Christmas do not feel guilty or hollow now, but richer and more gratefully recorded.

RIP Oliver.

 

 

 

A failure before 9am – and what to do about it

“I don’t like Mondays!” – as Bob Geldof once shrieked.

In fact, that is not true of me, but rather it is the case that I don’t like mornings, and Monday morning used to be the most brutal of the a.ms when I was still on the employee treadmill. Even at almost five years’ remove (how can that be???), I am still relieved to realise on a Sunday evening that I won’t have to gird any part of my anatomy to face the new week. 

In order to help me wake up of a morning, I have developed a habit of reading a few articles in the online newspaper, and then completing several different puzzles – simple crosswords, and various word and number tests. This is to ensure my enduring mental agility, and – full disclosure – is a bit of an excuse to sit for longer over my mug of black coffee. However, it is not a reliable way of raising my mood, should that be needed. Indeed, it is with some degree of irritation that I have to report the stark “You have failed” notice that flashed on my screen once again this morning. Do these online games people have no sensitivity? Do they not realise the enormous weight of disappointment already accrued at the realisation my 6-day successful streak has now been broken? Now made worse by a bald and damningly cruel accusation of failure. Before 9 o’clock. 

I HAVE FAILED. AND IT IS NOT YET DECENT O’CLOCK. Might as well go back to bed then.

Not just any cat…an occasional distraction from my hard work rehearsing Brahms.

Still reeling and licking my metaphorical wounds, I am foolishly tempted to essay yet again to raise a purr from Daughter J’s still-resident cat – ONCE he has purred for me, in nearly eight months, ONCE! – to be treated instead to some steadfastly regular feline heavy breathing, a look of disdain, and a lingering odour which suggests he was mostly aiming to use me as toilet paper. Ah well. Another fail.

Why do I fail? There’s a big question for a Saturday. I apologise for the following pseudo-philosophical meanderings that have emerged as a result.

Sometimes I just can’t do a thing. I try to persuade myself that failure is a great way to learn – I spent several months’ worth of Richmond Park walks dedicated to Elizabeth Day’s popular podcast ‘How to Fail’ listening to a range of celebrities and other worthies discussing how their failings had made them stronger/better/happier-in-the-long-run etc – and I still think this is an excellent theory (and podcast).  But, if I’m totally honest, I give up too easily and just beat myself up for the failure and move on. I am only just now confirming to myself that, with a bit more effort, I can achieve a little more than I have been accustomed to accepting from myself. Except, maybe, in areas of dexterity where I fear this old dog will remain totally unable to acquire new fine-motor-skill-related tricks.

There has been some recent evidence to support the notion that there is merit in trying that little bit harder. A big example this year was taking the risk to join the choir tour in Italy this summer. As documented in this very blog, it showed me that I could take myself out of my comfort zone and not make a complete pratt of myself. I somehow forced myself to try harder at learning the music. Fear of falling completely flat on my face led me to work extremely hard at learning the music beforehand. Endlessly, repeatedly, over and over until my eyes boggled and my throat was sore.

Last year, this was also proved on a smaller scale in a different, but related, way when I was quite sure I would not be able to learn all the words for a folk concert but in fact, when it came to it, I managed perfectly well. I truly thought that, never having been very good at learning stuff by rote, and struggling even in my forties to remember lines and song lyrics for Parents’ Panto (even when I’d written the stupid lines myself), I was incapable of word retention.

But, when really knuckling down and forcing myself to concentrate – because I had promised someone else that I would, or because I’d foolishly committed to something I was actually unsure I could deliver – I have found a modicum of success. We are not talking miracles here, but definitely better results than I might have expected. Maybe this word-learning encouraged me to think big with the choral stuff. I don’t know.

I have often wondered about my work ethic. At school, people would call me a swot. This upset me, because I didn’t think I was a swot. I was initially just very able for my age. I was also obedient so I would make sure I completed any set tasks by the time they were supposed to be completed and I was always well-behaved in class (which I’m sorry to say I made up for at home, but that’s a different story). So, I handed work in on time although would try not to make that too obvious to classmates who hadn’t, and didn’t mess about in class – hence, I was a swot. Perhaps that sounds a fair description at this remove – hmm – and of course we can’t rule out the possibility that I was a deeply unpleasant child in other ways, although I’m fairly sure I kept that part of me exclusively for home. Apart from when I scratched a small chunk out of the school tearaway, but then, naturally, I became much more popular as a result. Life, eh?

Anyhow, I only did the bare minimum to get by. I didn’t spend any more time than I had to on anything. In primary school, I loved learning and found everything easy. I was the oldest in my year, which helped, and easily finished the curriculum as far as I was allowed to progress, but the authorities refused to let me move up a year – and I have been blaming that for my laziness ever since! In my third year at the local Infants’ School, I heard other children read, marked papers and helped the school secretary type and Roneo the letters to parents. I still recall with shame a typo I made in one of the letters. I was seven, for goodness sake!

But, although I provided some useful help and in so doing must have acquired some extra skills for myself, I was not pushed much beyond my classmates, or stretched or challenged. So, when I got to Senior school – the local comprehensive – I was still able to pick things up quickly and breezed through the first few years,  still never expecting to work too hard. When inevitably it got harder, I didn’t like having to spend time working things out. Or researching subjects and spending ages poring over books to embellish my answers and stretch myself. Or learn facts which weren’t immediately interesting to me. Gradually, this reflected in my results and also in the choice of subjects I decided to take. I dropped History as soon as I possibly could. All that learning of dates and extra reading! (I’d rather read novels.) Also, Physics which seemed far too complicated after a year or two. Maths was great – but only up to a point, beyond which I reckoned my grey matter would never be able to compute anything at all. I laughed when they asked me to do A-level. I one-hundred-and-ten-percent knew that I had reached my limit and preferred to bumble along in the Arts.

I’m not saying that I could have got a first at university if I’d worked a bit harder, or had a more glittering career if I’d pulled my finger out, nor do I think I wanted or needed either of those things, but I probably should have put more effort in from time to time. I came to realise I was not that bright after all, and didn’t have the tools to knuckle down and make the best of what skills I actually did have. I sometimes wonder whether, with a bit more perseverance and practice perhaps I’d still be able to play the piano. Or speak Russian (or even understand a bit – how can I have forgotten so much?). Or be a published writer. I fear it is too late for the first two of those, although I am determined to learn at least one song at which I can accompany myself at the keyboard. But maybe I should make a bigger attempt at the writing. Given the ever-increasing length of time between these blog-posts, maybe this too is a lost cause, but I won’t give up just yet.

In other ways, I need to cut myself a bit more slack though. Despite not trying very hard, I often set myself stupidly high standards. A recent example: I was horrified to find myself completely wiped out, after a mere four hours sitting outside in the cold, rain and wind issuing fuel vouchers to more than thirty people, with only a short break to run (yes, run) the few hundred yards home to print some more vouchers when my generous pre-printed supply ran out (stuffing down a muesli bar to stave off hunger pains whilst the printer did its churning) and then lolloping back to sit in splendid isolation for a further hour still interviewing and issuing vouchers whilst colleagues cleared up around me. ‘I’m being ridiculous and dramatic’, I told myself as I staggered through my front door again, leaving others to finish the tidying. And then I thought for a few minutes, and decided that actually most people would surely be feeling the same. I’m in my sixties not a teenager, I’ve had almost no food and just a few sips of water, and many others would have given up or not even volunteered in the first place. (Now, of course, I’m simply showing off. Sigh! Give yourself a break, woman!) I allowed myself a larger than normal snack and an extended sit-down – but no nap. Not going to Napland yet.

Just last Sunday, there was an article in the newspaper about our collective failure of concentration and our ever-shortening attention spans, what with the internet, YouTube and … well, I read most of it… got the gist… Probably means I’m normal…

…but let’s not be complacent. I reckon I’m going to try to buck the trend and focus more, concentrate for longer and try harder to see what I can achieve.

And so, by 2025 (not rushing things, but equally being mindful of my already short personal shelf-life) I will either be the highly acclaimed writer of a dazzling new musical*, an improbable comedy TikTok star (although that would mean reinstating TikTok on my elderly phone which might kill it altogether) or your next Prime Minister.

Clearly, there’s a decision yet to be made about exact direction of travel. 

*Am in one of those ridiculous phases where a show has sparked a small obsession. A group visit to Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London was so good that I have been playing the soundtrack on repeat on Spotify ever since. The show was written by its cast and has worked its way up from the fringes to the West End. It is so clever, and at the moment what I would most like to be able to do is to write something equally amazing (then perform it, of course – hahahahahahahahaha)

 

A Tale of Two Aunties

It was the best of times, it was the best of times.

A late October weekend, I mean – a very good time indeed.

And no, I was not in Paris, nor in fact in London. As it happens, I was careering around Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and the Cotswolds in the pursuit of Aunts.

Ok, I’ve milked this rather weak misquote enough now. Especially as I propose to refer to more than two aunts anyway. Cheating, I suppose, but just too good to miss. 

My short trip was a multi-purpose adventure, including a need to get away (I know, any excuse to book a B&B – and nice this time that Mr J would be with me) but it was very much an Aunt Theme weekend. A prime objective was to visit my two aunties, and also to be an aunt, and indeed a great-aunt, myself.

What is it about aunts?

Aunt: Noun. ‘The sister of someone’s father or mother or the wife of someone’s uncle…’ (Cambridge Dictionary)

Nothing very special there, one would think. As with family more broadly, you get what you get with an aunt. The relationship could be remote or even unknown; it could be comfortingly familiar and everyday, or it could be strangely more than that. In my case, I have been very lucky.

My father and my mother had one sibling apiece – in both cases a sister. Dad’s was younger than him; Mum’s was her ‘big’ sis. Both these sisters have outlived my parents, already by some considerable years, and I try to keep in touch. Flowers on their birthdays and at Christmas, and every few months a lengthy phone call. I can witter on with my Mum’s sister Daph for hours and have been known to complete a full hour’s Richmond Park wandering plus full meal preparation whilst chatting with her on my phone. Thank goodness we no longer have to sit under the stairs with a land-line, and hurrah for unlimited minutes. 

Before we renewed our acquaintance in person with these two octogenarians, I had an auntly duty to fulfil myself: a visit to my brother’s place to meet his grandson for the first time. Shamefully, the child is already in sight of his second birthday and I had so far failed to clap eyes on him other than in the multiple Facebook and WhatsApp images that have been shared since his birth. My brother is besotted, which is rather lovely to see, and – now that I’ve got over the effrontery at making me a ‘great-aunt’ and thus desperately old – I thought I should have a vicarious share of this. 

I’m not sure I prepared properly for the encounter. A serious role model for me was a Great Aunt who lived to be 103 and was gloriously independent and strong-willed, enduringly glamorous (at least by my family’s standards), exotically well-travelled (as a children’s governess to a wealthy family, she had lived on three non-European continents) and often spectacularly rude. I would like to think that some of this might rub off on me in my new aunticular capacity (apart from the glamorous element, clearly, and anyway my sister-in-law’s sister can probably tick that box for him).

Nephew and great-nephew

But when confronted with a toddling strawberry blond with a cheeky face and a propensity to play for hours with toy cars, there was little I felt I could do to impress. Witty and scathing one-liners, even if I had been able to summon up such things at the pre-midday visit time, would have entirely passed the little chap by, so a few gentle encouragements and references to “your aged grandfather” (the latter for my own silly amusement) were the best I could do. Perfectly reasonable, after our ambitiously early start to the day, due to the ridiculous geographical position of my brother’s Herefordshire abode (“Practically in Wales! Haha.” “No it’s not, you insufferable townie.” Etc. Forever.)

Great-nephew ran out of steam after an hour or so of extended family time and was taken away so that he (and his ever-so-slightly hungover father to whom I am, of course, also an aunt, generally of a rather remote sort oI guess) could have a sleep, while the rest of us repaired to the pub for an extended natter at which most of my family members excel when given the chance. 

After treating ourselves to an overnight stay in a rather nice Bed & Breakfast establishment in the relative civilisation (in comparison to the wilds of Herefordshire) of Gloucestershire, Mr J and I were up and readying ourselves to pay visits to both of my elderly Aunties. Enjoying an unaccustomed hearty breakfast with the one other pair of overnighters, a bonus entertainment was the surprise arrival of an actual shooting party of eight gents in proper huntin’/shootin’/fishin’ garb who turned up claiming they had booked a breakfast party. This was news to the B&B staff who had expected to cater for just 4 people on this quiet Monday morning, but they clearly rallied round splendidly and no-one went away hungry. (Best porridge I’ve had in quite a while –  we stayed at The Beckford Inn if you’re interested.)

Replete and back in our room to pack up, I received a message from my brother which informed me that there had been some sort of mix-up and my Auntie Daph had gone to work rather than waiting at home for our visit. Now, at 89 you would perhaps not expect someone to be out working, but this one is still only cautiously contemplating retirement. Anyhow, I rang her work number which mysteriously I found in my phone contacts, and we worked out that neither I nor she had done anything wrong (phew!), but the young girl who provides a lift to work had forgotten she was not supposed to come, and this (and my unsurprising inability to answer my home phone, when she rang to check) flummoxed Daph into agreeing to go to work after all from which she had called my brother in case he knew what was going on. Never mind, all was well and by the time Mr J and I had taken a nostalgic drive around some of my childhood haunts, she was back at home and ready to be picked up by us and whisked to a nearby Worcestershire village hostelry for lunch. 

Auntie Daph was surprised I had her work phone number, as was I, but I told her I would have been able to find the number online anyway. “But how do you know the name of the business?” “Daph! You’ve worked there pretty much all my life, of course I know the name.” And it’s true; she’s worked for the same company since 1969. Even when the boss died a couple of years ago, his son and heir to the business couldn’t do without Daph and her younger colleague who has worked there even longer but is now only in her seventies, so is still ‘the girl’ in my mind despite there being an actual girl in training now. My mother died at the age of 80, having lived with dementia for her last 7+ years and this older sister is endlessly saddened by that, but I have to hope, with both my ageing aunts, that I have somehow acquired some of their genes for longevity rather than those of their siblings, my parents.

More nattering ensued and a happy lunchtime was spent. We returned Daph to her house where she showed us her elderly cockatiel in his cage. Aged thirty, he has apparently outlived normal life expectancy and, although he no longer talks and is not really able to fly properly, he seems to be carrying on regardless like his owner. Maybe it’s something in the water. Daph claims the first thing she says on arrival downstairs each day is “Morning Bertie! We’re both still alive then.” Magic. Bertie quite literally falls off his perch from time to time, and when the window-cleaner comes he’s so scared he occasionally tumbles completely out of his cage (left open during the daytime) and is unable to get himself back in until Daph gets home from work. Although he seems largely obsessed with his cage-mate – his own reflection in a dinky mirror – I suppose he is company of a kind.

We had to tear ourselves away, as we were due at Auntie #2 for a late tea in Oxfordshire. It was a beautiful drive through the Cotswolds. I grew up on the western edge of this area, looking up at the first of the hills and had regularly visited the nearer parts, including the tourist honeytraps of Bourton-on-the-Water and Broadway, but our journey today took us through several previously unvisited places and we thought perhaps an excursion would be in order another day. Our final destination today was a retirement complex in the centre of Bicester (not the famous Bicester Village of shopping fame – the thought of which always fills me with horror) – but the Oxfordshire town, where my aunt has a small self-contained flat with access to shared facilities such as catered meals, laundry and 24 hour emergency help – with the gigantic service charge to cover, although she makes the absolute most of the benefits. Today those benefits had extended to having the kitchen conjure up plated sandwiches and scones for our tea – my aunt having declined our invitation to a local pub for early supper in favour of her usual £5 communal lunch with her friends, Fair enough.

Although in many ways my father’s sister Pam is very different from Mum’s sister Daph, (Daph still goes out to work, cooks all her own meals and only allows herself a ‘ready’ meal from ‘Mr Marks’ once a week, goes line dancing, minds and walks other people’s dogs and has only given up driving because her son borrowed her car and knackered it somehow, whereas Pam doesn’t go out much), they both have their wits very much about them. Daph will pick us up on comments about news items and has plenty to say about the youth of today, the state of the town in which she has lived all her adult life and modern life in general. Pam, at 87 a full two years younger, is much less physically active and will tend to opt for an easier life if she can, but is not averse to pulling people’s legs (as reported here previously in fact) and enjoys regaling us with anecdotes of her own youthful misbehaviour as well as updates on her vast and ever-growing clutch of great-grandchildren – an area of my family that I tend to ignore when claiming how tiny my remaining clan has become. My bad, but I will almost certainly never meet any of them.

Aunties – me with Pam. I’m annoyed we forgot to take a pic with Daph.

Auntie Pam reminds me of my Nan (her mother, whom she now resembles quite strikingly I feel) but also of my great-auntie Dee. Dee (Edith) was not my aforementioned role-model great aunt (who was a sister of my Grandpa), but my Nan’s sister whom I recall fondly from my childhood as being witty and silly, and endlessly undermining my Nan, often with ridiculous acts – my favourite of which has to be the hiding of plates of dinner in the sideboard after they had been served to the table thus fooling Nannie into thinking she’d forgotten someone. I’m sure I saw her do this more than once. Maybe this will be something I could copy one day, although I doubt I’ll get the chance, and it’s not really a bucket-list contender.

Auntie Dee also had daft names for things and would make up stories for us. She never married and I now wonder if this was entirely because she was the younger daughter and had to stay at home to look after her parents (although it was certainly the case that she did this) or whether there were other reasons, but whatever the reason, she was great value to her nephews and nieces. My dad certainly did a good line in aunts. 

Back home and a few weeks further into wintry season, I am still buoyed up by the visit (“Oh no you aunt!” I hear you cry – oh dear, sorry) and just embarking on a chaotic month of theatre visits, concerts and other jolly social events. Deep breath!

Thinks – perhaps I could be known as the theatrical aunt?

 

 

 

 

It’s the little things

I am clearing out my bedside drawer. Oh yes, the excitement is verging on the insane for an autumn afternoon. I might need a lie-down now (under a blanket; it’s so cold!)

(Instead, she wraps a woollen shawl round her hunched shoulders and tries some keyboard exercise to keep the blood pumping – and to recall, for posterity and of course for your edification, the thrilling contents of said drawer.)

Well…

There are 25 pens. Hotel pens (Marriott particularly prevalent), conference pens, cheap emergency-purchase Bics, employee (ahem) ‘loan’ fibre-tips, a couple of smarter engraved (but not personalised) ballpoints and one solitary and sadly dried-out cartridge pen. Four of these fail to work – a further brief but nicely warming scribbling exercise is required to ascertain this – but the others can surely find better homes elsewhere in this establishment.

There is a stash of buttons, mostly corralled into two small plastic wallets which have partially self-shredded, meaning that colourful bits of wood, metal and fabric-covered plastic reach variously into the four dusty corners. So that’s where they’ve been hiding. I have looked more than once in other likely drawers in the past when the lockdown sewing group made appeals for buttons – to no avail. And they were so close!

Separate from the buttons are several lapel badges – your standard Red Cross and British Legion Poppy ones, but also a couple of Ernst & Young Africa Tax conference badges. (Oh the memories of the several visits I made to these lavish events over the years. There are many other mementoes around the house, including a small folding table I once managed to ram into my suitcase – but I’d forgotten these little yellow Africa-shaped pins. I don’t need them all though – just one will suffice.)

Carefully filed at one side of the drawer are numerous ancient store and hotel loyalty cards and a couple of extinct gift cards. Most of these are now carefully cut in half and filed in the bin.

Here are my defunct BA Gold cards (sigh). Don’t get me started.

Three watches, kept for sentimental reasons as I no longer wear a watch, are randomly distributed around the drawer. One is a long-ago present from my parents and I keep it even though I don’t much like it. Another is, I think, my mother’s which I keep for similarly sentimental reasons. The third I like and it will doubtless be fashionable again one day. (Not one of them is of monetary value, I hasten to add.)

Here’s an empty ring case which should house my engagement ring, but I have not taken it off since I once thought I’d lost it on stage when in pantomime. “Oh no I hadn’t!” (Sorry.) It was safely in my purse all along. But I don’t risk it anymore and am fairly sure that I have not removed it now for the past 18 years. There is a second ring-case which contains two battered and completely worthless rings which belonged to my Great-Aunt Stella (my hero). Hilariously I once took these to a jeweller (in Hatton Garden, because that was near to where I was working at the time) to check “just in case”. They were very polite…

Also lurking unprotected are three pairs of prescription spectacles, all of which would still be useful if my current pairs were lost or broken.  Why I need all three I am not sure. One pair is almost invisible from a distance when worn, so these are useful for dressing up when singing in the folk choir when I still need to read. Of course, if I could learn all the words…

Much of the drawer space is taken up by several tubes of hand cream and foot restorer. I admit that these are slightly stockpiled, as I purchase them only when I can get a discount. I deem them ridiculously expensive otherwise. The surplus reveals that I succumb to rather more come-ons than I had thought – sucker! – or that I am very sparing in my use of these necessary skin-savers. Guilty on both counts methinks.

Inevitably for a drawer of any sort, there are coins of all varieties, some of which still have actual currency (LOL) and I have filed these in my purse to moulder there instead, or in the relocated hidden swag bag labelled ‘foreign’. Whilst I like to see a small representative sample of loose change from my globetrotting days and enjoy unearthing these from time to time, it is mostly annoying that I have accumulated so much now-useless coinage. I will one day get round to taking it to a charity collection or something.

Usefully, there are a couple of suitcase padlocks. I used one of these this summer when I realised that my suitcase didn’t close properly any more. Sometimes keeping old stuff can come in handy.

Oh, here are some keys. House keys – not for this house. Not sure whose house really. Defer decision.

Car keys! I think these must be to my mother’s long-gone VW Polo and have only been kept because of the hilarious key fobs sporting pictures of yours truly and little brother, each school-age with our gormless mugshots captured forever in moulded plastic. Definite keep.

And now for the medication: painkillers of many types including my current prescription stuff which seems to be working better than anything else so far (yay!). Surprisingly, nothing is past its safety date. This perhaps simply reflects on the enormous quantities of ibuprofen and paracetamol consumed until very recently.

At the bottom I unearth my own birth certificate. A horrible reminder of my great age. And the names I still don’t like. Should probably not be in here but in a strong box somewhere else in the house.

At the very back I find two tiny plastic wrist-bands, become brittle with age, which I saved from my two babies. These actually make me cry as I inspect them. Each has my name and hospital number on it, plus the date and time of birth of each of the offspring. The first one says BOY and reminds me he made his appearance – finally on the third day – at mid-afternoon tea-time. The second fails to record the femininity of the child, but it was the middle of the night and the staff were probably tired (huh! THEY were tired??). Or they had changed the hospital protocols in the intervening 2 years 10 days 10 hours and 40 minutes. Who knows? 

There should be two sets of baby teeth in here somewhere too – but I don’t find them which means either that I have carefully stowed them elsewhere to make an emotional and mildly macabre appearance at some future clearing-out session, or that the tooth fairy has finally reclaimed what was rightfully hers!

Aside from the meds and the items which could still be used, much of the above has now been jettisoned or relocated. What remains has been carefully regimented which I am hoping will engender a calm and orderly feeling when I need to retrieve pills or creams. 

There are two other drawers in my bedside table. One has a selection of scarves and wraps, and has been gently winnowed over the years. The other houses a sad collection of funeral notices, eulogies and other mementoes including all the cards and letters received after my mother’s death six years ago. I can’t bring myself to sort through this lot right now. It may be where those baby teeth are lurking though.

I’ll wait for a warmer day…

Post script: I left the house after writing the above to attend a Pilates class. When I returned, the heating was on. I am not one to question or overrule, and will admit to being quietly pleased that I am now absolved from all heating-related decision-making, so hurrah and welcome to winter.

 

 

‘Tisn’t the season to be jolly!

With the arrival of October comes the excitement of a dark evening, the thrill of a chilly morning and the feverish contemplation of approaching … Yuletide!

Full disclosure, I truly don’t mind a dark evening and I have clothing (layers! – layers are the trick) to deal with those shivery mornings, but I truly can’t bring myself to contemplate the dreaded C word just yet. 

More than one Facebook friend will soon need to be ‘hidden’ as the holly and glitter descend from their attics and taunt me from my phone-screen. I reckon I have only been spared full-on fairy lights, holly swags and reindeer models thus far this year because witchy-pumpkin-ey  baubles seem to be having a moment and pre-Hallowe-en is clogging up the posts instead. Some of this is quite inventive and even, dare I admit, occasionally aesthetically pleasing, although of course the attraction is often buried pretty deep in swathes of tat. This depends on the artistic skill of the home-owner and I’m not going to diss someone’s genuine creative eye just because I cannot share their excitement for endless media-driven seasonal prettifying. But…

…whilst I hope I am broadminded and generous enough to accept other people’s preferences – I’m also selfish enough to want to keep their Noelitude at arm’s length for as long as possible.  And at least until December! Pretty please.

One friend has already sent out invitations for a low-key early December dinner, using a combination of code and a small trigger warning to get me to reply. Haha she knows me so well. I have graciously accepted on the basis that this will just be an overdue catch-up with friends at a time of year when it can get tricky to find a table. And I believe that whilst I may prefer to keep Winterval Holibobs at bay, others hate the darkening and coldifying so much that they need a few tangible festive bookings to spur them through the next few weeks. It takes all sorts.

This year, as with many before, it is also the personal build up which can be problematic. Now that my family is so small, the ridiculous present-buying saga has quietened to a manageable level. I generally refuse to buy gifts until December comes around, but by this time in the year when my offspring were small, I would have received multiple requests for ‘ideas’ from one side of the family (the very word ‘ideas’ could induce full-on headbanging gloom at the very mention, which would inevitably also include a request for full details of what on earth the requests from my children actually were, and which shops might conceivably stock them before the odds-on certainty of them selling out in mid-November) and be told by the other side of the family that they had already purchased most of the gifts regardless. Indeed, when my mother-in-law died completely unexpectedly in the middle of November a few years ago, there was already an almost full clutch of pressies neatly laid out on the bed in her spare room.

So, it is not the gifting pressure any more, and neither is it really the planning around guests and entertainment as we will be doing exactly the same as we have done in the past few years (Covid excepted) and I could probably manage this in my sleep (and most certainly in the fog of a brandy-butter and pudding-wine-induced trance – for which there may be a precedent in the not-so-distant-past).

BUT… I had really thought we would have a bright new kitchen and eating space for our familial festivities this year, and once again it is not to be. Once again, I will add our tired and ever-fading decorations to the yet-more-tired and even scruffier downstairs of Jillings Towers and power up the failing oven to cook, at enormous decibels (because the stupid fan mechanism is terminally knackered) for hours on end, a similarly enormous free-range super-duper Waitrose bird. And with daughter J and His Feline Highness N still in residence in our guest room (where they are truly very welcome to be), there is the knotty question of where to put everyone else this time as the previously ‘little girl’ American niece is rapidly approaching an age when she may not wish to squash up with her Dad of a nighttime. Fortunately, the other brother-in-law seems resigned to pitch his fishing-overnight-camping chair anywhere. Maybe we’ll have to somehow persuade him that, with the possibility of record global warming Santa-time temperatures, the garden would be his best spot this year. Seems harsh – and is maybe why he decided at the last minute not to come at all last year. Hmm.

Along with all the festive forebodings, I have been wrestling with my wanderlust and making the sensible but disappointing decision not to jet off anywhere in what remains of 2023. I have to resign myself to failure over my ‘visit at least one new country each year’ objective (or was it originally ‘at least two’? I think it was.) In my current state of melancholy, my visit to Madeira earlier this year definitely doesn’t count – it is just a further-away bit of Portugal where I have been before, and my Italian choir tour this summer may have been amazing but I even went to Italy when I was eleven (Show off!) so that’s not a new country either.

BA tempted me with a Sale and the lure of achieving one of their shiny lounge passes if I travelled far enough, but if I’m to pay for the even shinier new kitchen next year it will have to be ‘instead of’ rather than ‘as well as’.  (Until someone invites me somewhere marvellous, that is…)

I’ve even turned down my new Choir’s Spanish tour next April! Once again, it was a country I have visited before (huh!) and as a newbie I would have to share a room. Ahem, I think we know where I stand on room-sharing already. So, “No”.

However, going against all the foregoing humbuggery, last week I could be found making my own Christmas Puddings.  Years ago, when I worked four days a week and had two sprogs to wrangle, I somehow found time to do this but have failed to do so for a long while now. For some reason, I suddenly decided it was time to try this again and added the ingredients to my shopping list as I set off for my monthly mega-visit.

I set aside a whole day  in my busy lady-of-leisure schedule for this feat of domesticity and marvelled at what a superwoman I must have been to achieve this back in the day. I can only assume that the ‘spare’ time I managed to create in order to achieve this task back then, including as it does a huge amount of fiddly chopping and awkward stirring before a full eight hours of steaming, was possible because there was no Facebook, no Twitter/X, no work emails or breaking news on my phone – and there might possibly have been a trade-off for some peace and quiet. Of course, it would have served as a diversion from worrying about the availability of particular Star Wars figures or Pokémon toys – and in those days there was no silly blog to finish!

 

 

 

 

How not to make decisions, and other stories

After every significant achievement, there can be some satisfaction, some happy reflection and then the perhaps inevitable pondering over future activity? On the back of her most recent glorious success, otherwise known as the encouraging absence of humiliating failure in Italian choral activity (as documented last time), your blogging heroine is once again pondering “What next?” You may recall her very same question after completion of the South West Coast Path in April/May.

What stupendous achievement can we expect in what remains of 2023, as the months gallop towards another Yule, and yet another birthday recedes in the rear-view mirror?

Naturally, the hours spent painfully attempting to embed a tenor line into a Tena-lady’s soggy brain-cells with any lasting effect are already long forgotten. As indeed are most of those melodious tenor lines; space is needed in the grey soup for shopping lists, home admin tasks and the seemingly endless psychodrama of healthcare appointments.

Yet still an interesting confidence hovers for a while. Enthusiastic internet searches for prestigious London chamber choirs are conducted. Websites are explored and samples played on YouTube. Eventually, a greater grip on reality is achieved and emails are exchanged with a view to singing in a much larger local but still very well-regarded choir which will require an actual audition. Momentum and a brief surplus of positivity spurs her on.

I can do this! I can also now – hurrah, you say – dispense with the daft theoretical third-person ponderosity (side note – I checked to see if I had really made this word up, and I had not – but it may rather mean ‘heaviness’ or ‘heftiness’ which is possibly more appropriate given my increasing girth) and get on with more practical stuff.

I am invited to attend a rehearsal to ‘see how we get on’.

The first of this season’s rehearsals for the choir I have contacted duly arrives and I set off, by train, with a sense more of purpose than trepidation. Arriving in good time, I am greeted by several people I know who are already members, including (sigh) a fearsome couple I had conveniently forgotten would be there. During the course of the evening, most of these people are helpful and encouraging; the ‘couple’, however, hone in on me in a pincer movement at break time to remind me of weirdnesses past, seemingly competing with each other to effect a peculiar but relentless sanctification of my son for his support of their own offspring at school many years ago. Don’t get me wrong, my son is a wonderful man and was perhaps an amusingly talented teenager – but a saint he is, and was, not. Slightly unnerved, I return to my seat for the second half of the rehearsal wondering whether this might not be a good idea after all. Will I be mobbed every week? (Thinks – is this what fame is like? – hahaha! Get over yourself woman!)

My immediate tenor neighbours at this rehearsal are more appropriately friendly. The only other ‘lady’ tenor has already advised me that if I am offered an audition tonight, I should take it and get it over with. Whilst I had not expected to audition so soon, it makes a lot of sense. What would be the point of trying to decide whether to join if I don’t yet know if they will have me? So when the five newbies are asked if they would like to take the audition this evening, I am the first to volunteer and thus the first to find myself standing nervously alongside the grand piano in the middle of the rehearsal hall (a private school’s sports-hall I think), with the old-school choir director poised at the keyboard with my musical fate in his gift.

He has managed to get a story exhibiting his Oxford organ-scholar origins into the evening’s proceedings and on more than one occasion during the rehearsal has referred to the tenors and basses as ‘Gentlemen’ – which of course makes me smile and wince simultaneously (and, if I’m honest, make a mental note that this will be good blog-fodder, which as you see has indeed come to pass – a rare feat of recall on my part, given that I refrained from making an immediate note on my phone for fear of marking me out as some kind of mole with the potential to find myself chorally blackballed).

Now faced with this nervous-looking applicant who, despite first appearances is brazenly claiming a place amongst the ‘men’, he expresses surprise and also amusement at my list of choral experience (which of course simply makes me wish I had invented something completely spurious instead). Perhaps this makes me more inclined to belt out the requested scales with more braggadocio than coloratura but the rehearsal has warmed up the vocal chords and I don’t care. I am rather pleased with the result.

Hmm, pride comes before a fall, as they say. I am for some reason reminded of a driving test and recall my misplaced positivity on at least two such occasions. And, perhaps predictably, I fail at the next task – singing back the middle note in a chord of three. At least I pick one of the other two notes played, just not the correct one. I am duly and drily informed of this and all remnants of confidence leave me. Back to that driving test, I might as well reverse into a wall now because I won’t have passed anyway.

Although I easily sing back the four notes he plays next, I am now firmly in quaking-kneed teenage music oral exam territory as well as behind the L-plates on my mother’s Vauxhall Viva, and fear that even an exquisite hill-start is not going to help me. I am presented with some sheet music and asked to sing the tenor line. I think at this point there were some gentler comments that it was ok, he was going to play the accompaniment rather than just stare at me while I muddled through, but I did a short impression of a rabbit in the learner-driver headlights (sorry – I am getting tired of this mixed metaphor myself – will stop) and after completing the first line on autopilot (ok, mixing beyond metaphor now) I find myself on the wrong line entirely and grind to a halt. Assuming this is curtains and I have at last been thoroughly found out, I prepare to make my exit, but no – the ignominy is to continue a little longer. “Well, you’ve missed your cue there – but carry on.” I glance more carefully, find the correct second line, restart and the next thing I know the piano ceases and I am informed that “ok, well you found your way again there”. Weakly smiling – it’s nice of him to try and cheer me up a little I suppose – I thank him, hoping that this is the end and wondering whether I will have a long time to wait at the station for the next train.

“You’re in!”

Effusive thanks and I make my escape. Well…hurrah, I suppose. I have just missed a train so it is indeed a long wait at the almost-deserted station. A jubilant wait though.

A balmy, though autumnally, early-dark evening is later spent with my a capella singing friends attempting, reasonably successfully, to harmonise a few good choons. In fact, the evening brings me down to earth somehow, especially as my relief, surprise and relative cheeriness at my recent audition success is swiftly punctured by the comment ‘Ah, they’re desperate at the moment – they’d take anyone!’ Not much more to say on that really. And, along the lines of what someone (Marx? Not Karl!) once said – ‘I don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member.’ – I decide to drink wine rather than the grape juice I had intended to quaff and proceed to enjoy my evening anyway.

However, on the morrow I am if anything even less inclined to join, despite (or maybe even partly because of) being bombarded with all the ‘paperwork’ in my email inbox resulting from my audition success. I never was much of a morning person.

Of course, I will join. I’m just keeping them (and myself!) guessing. I’m possibly experiencing a bit of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and using it as an excuse for prevarication and grumpiness. Once again, get over yourself!!!

And so I obediently get over myself. Proving that my attention span is fortunately as short for low mood as it is for everything else these days, I am almost immediately cheered up by the chance re-discovery, during a rare five-minute cleaning burst, of a Conservative Party sticker lurking on an inside flap of my trusty Mickey Mouse shoulder bag – approaching its 22nd birthday which is a joy in itself. I ‘acquired’ this true blue memento/prop as the result of a ridiculous (and sadly unbroadcast) performance as a Tory faithful lady in The Crown back in 2021. When affixing the sticker shortly thereafter, I wryly imagined what consternation its discovery might cause amongst my left-leaning friends should it be mistaken as genuinely mine. Of course, it is so well-hidden that I have not even noticed it myself for most of the intervening period. So that worked out about as well as the many witty comments I’ve come up with after events but never actually uttered.

I am cheered even more by a trip up to North London – the still-alien-to-me hinterland that is Kentish Town despite Daughter J’s brief inhabitance thereof – to attend the launch gig of Little A’s music EP at a café performance venue. Little A, you may recall, is the daughter of a good friend and was a fellow ‘lady’ tenor (definitely not a Tena-lady) on the recent Italian tour.

I arrive early due to a combination of my distrust of public transport (always take one train earlier than the timetable would suggest) and a mistaken assumption that because there were start and finish times on my tickets I would need to be in place for the start. On arrival with twenty-five minutes to spare and after a nonchalant saunter-past to see if I could risk going in, I spot a man I recognise who appears to be queuing for a drink at the front of the venue. I tentatively approach, realising as I get closer that he is the only punter there. I am too close to back off now, and it is only 20 minutes before advertised kick-off time, so I go in and introduce myself. I know we have many mutual friends who will be along shortly, and we attended the same college years ago, so I am unusually sociable (by my own standards). He has ordered coffee which is taking forever to make. No-one else arrives, although I eventually spot Mr J motorcycling past – first in one direction, then back in the other direction. I explain to my new acquaintance that Mr J and I rarely arrive by the same mode of transport, then I increase my own order at the bar and we find seats at a table as it becomes apparent that the performers are still rehearsing upstairs.

I introduce Mr J to my new friend, and explain that this is the guy whose place I recently took on the Italy singing tour (am I mentioning Italy too often? Yes? I know. I will grow out of it.) Mr J knows that this new chum is a professional musician and was unable to go to Italy this year because he was singing in an actual Prom. So my claim is deliberately ludicrous (at least, I hope it is seen as such and not as ridiculously misplaced boasting) and we move on. As retribution for any perceived self-aggrandisement, my chair later collapses beneath me to great hilarity all round, our mutual friends having by now joined us to witness my unceremonious descent to table level. Fortunately no injuries are sustained and we proceed upstairs where my public transport pessimism is vindicated by the delayed start of the gig due largely to a 20-strong party of Little A’s friends being stuck on the underground.

Little A is eventually magnificent and her audience warmly, raucously and even rapturously squeal, whoop and applaud. Many are doubtless making a mental note for future reference that they were there at the start of her incredible career. Who knows, but it’s always good to be able to say completely genuinely to a performer’s parent, proud tears in their maternal eyes, that their offspring is truly remarkable. [Link to Little A’s EP on Spotify ] And 20 of the audience make a mental note never to trust public transport timings and take an earlier train – perhaps. They have collectively done wonders for the bar takings though. I think I had three ginger beers as well as my coffee. Others were most definitely less restrained.

Ginger beers and coffee may be restrained, but they must also be relieved, especially before a potentially lengthy public transport return to the safety of South West London. Facilities for such relief in this establishment are advertised as Unisex and to my slightly different form of relief my pre-train investigation reveals two private cubicles, one helpfully vacant. Naturally this is a part of life over which your intrepid blogger would normally draw a decency veil. However, it may be of passing (or ‘p*ssing’ – sorry) interest to report that the lighting in this cubicle ranged from none at all (careful setting of door lock to Engaged whilst propping handbag against its slight a-jarred-ness to allow a little light but prevent stranger ingress) to occasional manic strobe-effect bursts (resulting protective eye-closure rendering even greater inability to see). We are fortunate to have many inbuilt or learned life reflexes and I counted myself personally fortunate at this point also to be unimpaired by alcohol. Others were perhaps less fortunate on the alcohol front and as I avail myself of the rather better-lit washbasin facilities (for washing my hands! What were you thinking?) I conduct a bizarre conversation with my previously-unknown-to-me successor in the cubicle as to the optimum time to close the door in relation to rear-end location of loo-seat and related activities. Continuing ‘technical’ discussion through the now-almost-but-not-quite-closed door proves too much for my mounting hysteria – perhaps ginger beer has more of an effect than I realise – and I make a hasty retreat to say my goodbyes to performer and proud parents before dashing to the nearby Overground station.

Having suitably lowered the tone there, I will leave you as I continue to ponder my future.

Hmm – the immediate future involves BBC’s iPlayer and a packet of Maltesers – a cure for almost everything, I find – and I’ll return to the weightier issues tomorrow.

Italia

What was I thinking? This is utter madness!

Thus hums my tiny mind, as I compulsively throw every summery clothing item I own into a suitcase a size larger than originally intended, along with several changes of black performance outfit in a sealed bag in case of I-don’t-know-what-kind-of transit spillage disaster.

How could I have thought that learning seventeen choral pieces plus a mass setting would be a good midsummer activity? It has dominated my waking hours – and that of my housemates – for the past four weeks. Not only that, but travelling at antisocial times of day (yes, another stupidly early start – do I never learn?) in peak holiday season to a country where the temperature is unlikely to dip below 30 degrees C (I don’t like the heat), to spend a week with a bunch of talented singers most of whom I’ve never met who have being doing this for years. Although I sing regularly, I have done very little choral work in the recent past, and never to the exacting standards of the Cutty Sark Singers, who have now taken an un-auditioned punt on me in order to boost the Tenor line for their annual one-week choir tour in Italy. Indeed, all they have heard is a phone recording of me singing in a pub garden, and it is perfectly possible that my voice has been confused with my vocal partner on that occasion (yes, E, that would be you!) But, nothing ventured, nothing gained eh? 

My new black A4 folder containing the music over which I have pored so diligently, slots carefully into my old work rucksack, never to leave my side for fear of losing it in any apocalyptic airport baggage fiasco which may occur. If I lose it, I may have to use someone else’s spare copy, which would be catastrophic because, amateur that I am, I have used highlighter pen to ensure I can always follow which line I am supposed to be singing – ‘supposed’ being an important element of this statement. I am, in fact, wondering how I will hide this shameful fact from my fellow choir-members. Funny how I obsess over this, whilst worrying far less about the complicated travelling arrangements ahead of me.

I realise I am erring on the side of exaggeration; in fact, a strange calm has settled inside me and I am just going through the motions of panic to keep up appearances. (Weirdly true.)

The improbably named Zedcarz car appears exactly at stupid o’clock and I am pleased to see it is a smart Mercedes, with rather lovely interior mood lighting. Somewhat despite myself, I am already enjoying this ‘not-going-on-the-bus-it’s-too-early’ luxury and continue the theme through to the BA lounge which I have once again somehow justified to my bank balance and my failing eco-creds. As penance I walk, in splendid isolation and humming one of the trickier pieces, through the underground tunnel to the Heathrow Terminal 5 B-gates for my flight to Bologna, rather than take the crowded shuttle. Of course, this is not a penance at all but a joy. I have never yet met another person down here and my step-count ticks up nicely. (Saddo!)

I actually think there is something wrong with me. Lack of headache and such clear-headed cheerfulness as I am experiencing is ever-so-slightly unnerving. Heading for a fall perhaps?

Aside from a small bird-strike incident with the plane ahead of us, which requires a change of mind about our own imminent landing and an aggressive power up-up-and-away for an additional sky circuit of Bologna, the journey passes uneventfully and, rather than fret over what the accommodation will be like at the villa or whether I will be able to remember any of the notes I’m supposed to sing, I allow myself to read a large chunk of paperback when I’m not gawping at the Swiss Alps out of the window.

Emerging finally from the tiny Macaroni monorail (properly called the Marconi, but everyone I spoke to on tour independently chose the pasta version), the link from airport to Bologna Central Rail station, the heat hits me and I hope that the six minutes estimated to walk to my hotel will actually be shorter. It is. Five minutes later I am persuading the nice man on Reception to find me a room which is ready (it is not yet midday) and he very kindly does so. The same man allows me to stay until 1.15pm the next day too – ‘exceptionally at no extra cost’ – I decide I like Italians.

Bologna colonnades

I sit in my room and wonder whether I should practise my singing. I decide that it’s too late for that now, and set off on my usual random stomping around the sights of a new city. After all, this was partly the point of arriving a day early – that and a grace day in case of strikes.

Bologna
My favourite Bologna chemist sign

It is so hot that I fear I will not get far, but am pleased to find that Bologna is the capital of colonnades and everywhere I wish to go has a sheltered walkway with impressive pillars and cracked terracotta paving. It’s all beautiful, even the tired bits, and I manage to catch a few snaps and grab a snack for late lunch in a delicatessen with street tables – convincing myself that I am properly in the Italian vibe (current offspring speak for mood or atmosphere) because I have chosen to eat something with artichokes in it and I can remember the Italian words to ask the waiter for the check (‘check’ being, annoyingly, the ‘English’ word used for ‘conto’ in my recent Duolingo lessons instead of the correct word which is ‘bill’).

No perambulation of a new city is complete without a stop in a supermarket or corner shop. I make the splendid discovery of an Aldi, which I plunder for biscuits and bottled water – startlingly adding up to less than 1 euro which I only realise when I have already proffered my credit card! Ridiculous. I seek out other more authentic Italian food shops but still only buy crisps and chocolate, albeit at higher cost than Aldi. I’m tired, and old habits die hard.

On the morrow, after a successful investigation of the hotel breakfast arrangements and another brief stomp around, I trundle back to the train station. The train is packed and there is nowhere to put my medium-sized suitcase. Several different people assist me – kindly and wordlessly – and I end up forfeiting my booked window seat in some kind of swap for my luggage. My disappointment at lack of view dissipates rapidly as it transpires most of this leg of my journey – to Florence – is underground, so I plough on with my paperback.

I change at Florence, which is hotter than a hot place, and the second train is just as punctual, but much less busy and with better views.

I have been corresponding on What’sApp with A, the multi-talented choir group member who: makes all the villa bookings; tells us what we are singing and what we should wear; provides a Spotify list and folders if required; coordinates arrivals and departures etc (and will at some point send me a conto/bill/check for the week when she’s added everything up). She is waiting on the platform at Terontola-Cortona station and greets me in a business-like fashion as I stagger to her car with my luggage. My friends have referred to her as Big A. She is tiny. I realise that this is not just a title given because there is also another A, a child of one of my friends who has attended every one of these longstanding tours since babyhood and was inevitably known as Little A, but a typical British joke (possibly the next thing to be ‘woked’).

As we pull into the villa grounds, and I marvel at the scale and beauty, I suddenly focus on what Big A is saying. ‘You’re sharing a room with B; I assume that’s ok?’ What??? B is an old friend of mine, for sure, and we have shared a few things over the years but… Has he agreed to this? Is he aware at all? What do I say to Mr J?

I confess that my other old friend (S) on this tour did ask me, weeks ago on WA, if I would consider sharing with B. My response, I now realise, may have been misleading. I recalled a boozy evening in our early twenties where several of us all crashed out in one room after a party – and replied that ‘it’s years since I shared a room with B lol.’ It appears this has been taken as acceptance. I had wondered in advance – indeed wondered out loud to some non-singing friends who were now eagerly awaiting tales of nocturnal B and bossy Big A. Oh dear. Note to self – don’t try this throwaway humour again without sending a qualifying sensible and incontrovertible follow-up, and don’t make a joke of it if it might actually come true!

Fortunately, as I stutter apologetically, Big A is immediately understanding and admits to having been surprised at the suggestion, and she steams into action changing the handwritten notes on doors replacing me with someone else (a man) to sleep alongside B and freeing up a delightful mezzanine space for me – which I transform, over the course of the ensuing week, into what can only be described as a TIP! To be fair, the apparently capacious wardrobe taking up about a third of the space on this mezzanine level is half stacked with thick, heavy and entirely unnecessary (in August) blankets, has no hanging rail and precisely one ancient coat-hanger tucked behind the blankets, so is next to useless. The lighting is also exceedingly poor up here, so grubbing around in cupboards or suitcase is tricky – much better to leave everything on the bed or floor where there is a chance that what little light there is will reveal its whereabouts. Also, draping towels and larger clothing over the banister rail provides a little privacy from the room below.

Others arrive. There are 24 of us in total. Three are good friends of mine, a further two I recognise from my university days although they don’t remember me, another I thought I would recognise but don’t (and he definitely doesn’t know me) and Little A, the youngest daughter of my good friends S&J, I have met a few times before so I set to to try and learn everyone else’s name. 

Glorious al fresco evenings
Wine tasting

The week begins with the first of seven outstanding communal suppers, a great deal of chat and even more alcohol. These musicians can certainly drink.  At this point, I decide I will avoid alcohol completely, on the basis that the blurb on my latest headache medication advises against it, and I really don’t need to drink to enjoy myself. (This is true, but …) I hold strong this first evening as a headache gathers anyway without the help of any addictive substances – a fact which encourages me to ignore my rule on five out of six later evenings. On the last evening I am congratulated by our resident wine-merchant and sommelier J (who knows me well from our recent walking holiday) for my ability to abstain or at least drink a tiny fraction of everyone else’s consumption. I’ve always thought this made me a lightweight, but I realise that in fact it may genuinely be something that people admire these days. Who knew? (Or perhaps in fact he was just teasing me – but I’ll take it anyway.)

As for headaches, I largely banish them by taking a strong cup of coffee to bed with me each night – drinking half before going to sleep and the other half cold on waking up in the morning. This sounds ridiculous, but I am convinced it helped.

Rehearsals, of which there are three scheduled before our first performance, are initially terrifying. We never sing through an entire piece – apart from the mad and tricky one which lasts less than a minute – and it is assumed that we know all the notes. Well, I do know all the notes, but it’s taken a while. Thank goodness for preparation. It is fairly clear that two of my fellow Tenors are pretty much sight-reading – although they have sung several of the pieces before. And this is how they work. Precisely what I was worried about for myself; years of experience and training are not easily caught up.

A brief note on the Tenors. We have one ‘proper’ Tenor (who stays up longer than anyone else, probably drinks as much as or more than anyone – see more below – but has a glorious voice) and the other who is a professional Baritone singing ‘up’ (he sang in the Coronation earlier this year and, knowing I would be singing with him, I had spent much of the service scanning the choir to see if I could make him out, without actually knowing what he looked like). Little A – currently a Choral Scholar at Cambridge, singing alto there – is the third member (I am fourth I guess, although will sing Tenor 1 just to confuse you) and this means that we are 50% female, a fact pointed out quite proudly by our choir leader as being surprising and unusual. Given that Little A is no more than twenty years of age, I refrain from my usual Tena Ladies joke and simply smile.

My voice is hardly going to feature alongside these three, and in one sense this makes me feel better. I only need to avoid obvious mistakes, rather than try to be outstandingly brilliant (which of course is what I had been aiming for originally – haha). I have decided I will just quietly (or moderately loudly) blend with the rest of them.

I opt also to blend sartorially, with the men more generally, by wearing black instead of the ladies’ ‘long, single-coloured non-strappy dress – any colour’ which, despite even briefly entering a local Kingston bridesmaid shop (!!!!), has proved too complex for me to procure in any case. In the end, for Mass we wear Sunday best (on a Tuesday, which is mind-blowing and turns out a bit scrappy imho) and although I wear one of my black outfits for the first evening concert, I am persuaded to wear a light blue midi-length strappy sun-dress for the second one – thus proving that dress codes are just there for the breaking and that flattery will make me change my mind every time. (But don’t push it!)

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Whilst the villa is not overly luxurious, it has indoor space suitable for rehearsals and, most importantly, sports a restaurant standard kitchen which allows chef R (husband of Big A, and a key member of the gang, as well as singing Bass) to create some stunning dishes with the help of all of us on chopping, stirring, serving etc duty. I have never eaten a better risotto, and discover the delights of bread stew on leftovers day (this was likely a version of ‘ribollita’ – I have just looked this up but it is a Tuscan speciality, and R was trying to produce local dishes wherever possible, so that’s likely correct). My friends told me in advance that the food was good, but I did not expect such a standard. R is not a chef in real life – I think he’s a retired teacher – but he may have missed his calling.

I delight in the somehow carefree and almost other-worldly atmosphere; it is a strangely relaxing week. Yes, I have to rehearse, yes, I have to help in the kitchen and yes, there are people I barely know all around me, yet the schedule rumbles on and I fit around it with almost no mental effort, other than the musical effort which is specific and all laid out for me to follow. I am tied to the villa by the rehearsal and meal schedule and can’t go out exploring, so my usually itchy feet are becalmed (apart from their numerous insect bites). Having no independent means of transport helps on this front too, although for the concerts there is always a space in the back of someone’s car for me – usually squished up against others companionably and taking turns to sit in the middle seat, with no clue where we are but somehow confident that we will get there and glad of the air-con. Our glorious soprano soloist doubles as Navigatrix in the co-pilot seat and encourages us to guess which number road we are on at any given time, whilst – for some reason in French – she acts as rally co-driver for our cheerful Second Soprano chauffeur who seems unfazed by pretty much anything. To the carefully modulated cries of ‘Continuez, continuez!’ we five ladies hurtle to and from the venues, with barely a care. And to reiterate – the aircon definitely helps.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Cortona – where we sang on her feast day

Our first performance is a Mass in Cortona for Ferragosto (Feast of the Assumption). This is slightly seat of the pants stuff because we are only loosely briefed by the Priest beforehand. He is very jolly, but clearly on edge due to the presence of the Bishop of Arrezzo, and an ever-growing congregation, in his church for this feast day Tuesday morning. We muddle through, taking our cues in the Mass mostly correctly, and only slightly blot our copybooks by causing the congregation to break into spontaneous applause with our ‘Biebl’ (the final anthem we have chosen, with splendid soloists – see attached99EF79EF-86A5-4423-9B89-3758E4C2D039 small video), rather to the Bishop’s distaste (the applause, not the singing, we hope). He forgives us though, and even speaks a little in English at the end of his address, to anticipate our future heavenly joy ‘up in the sky with Mary’ – a phrase we will inevitably repeat to each other for the rest of the tour.

Concert venue at Montepulciano – Il Tempio Di San Biaggio
My Tenor buddies in the evening sun at Montepulciano

The second concert location in Montepulciano is sublime and the concert goes well. We are rewarded with a beautiful sunset and a conveniently located bar, before returning to the villa for yet another splendid meal.

It is a long time since I have sat around in a swimming costume, but the heat entices even this usually body-ashamed damsel to disrobe and spend time in and around the generous pool. At one point the day after our first concert, I even loll on the steps for the best part of an hour, half submerged, to debate with my fellow Tenors how it was that on the previous evening all four of us had somehow managed to miss a key Tenor entry, leaving a complete silence and our comrades in confusion, but then all four of us miraculously recommenced our singing together precisely one bar late. We decide it simply added to the tension of what was already a very slow and atmospheric piece, the audience would never know any different and our colleagues had by now, incredulously, forgiven us. I am simply relieved that I didn’t attempt to start up on my own, and we all agree (sure, they are humouring me, but once again, I’ll take it) that it proves how much of an instinctive musical team we are. Time for another couple of lengths of the pool to knock some of this nonsense out.

Not yer actual Pope

The heat is relentless. All week, we are above 30 degrees and often with little breeze. The evenings are blissful; eating, drinking and chatting al fresco, sometimes until 3 in the AM, with no need for a cardigan, is fantastic. On just one occasion the temperature gets to us.

Our second concert is in Citta della Pieve on Friday early evening. On arrival at the Duomo, we find that even the stout stone walls are insufficient to cool the interior, and our rehearsal is meltingly exhausting. My fellow first Tenor is feeling lightheaded and we seek out extra-large bottles of water for him. After a concerted aqua-glugging session and a brief sit-down on the priest’s throne before the audience arrives (“I’d make an excellent Pope!” – the non-Catholics among us tend to agree, but it is perhaps unwise to encourage him), he rallies and we’re off.

Part-way through our first set, I realise that ‘il Papa’ is straying from the beat and swaying more erratically than usual. I catastrophise – is he about to plummet off the side of our altar steps perch? I’ll then be the sole Tenor 1 or, even more likely, follow suit (I have a black-belt in copy-fainting) and join him sprawled in the side aisle. I look steadfastly at the conductor and sing a little louder to cover. His Holiness somehow rallies and we reach the interval still upright. Aqua-replenished, we complete our performance to a standing ovation, followed by much congratulation, a quick change and a dash to the nearest bar.

We’ve made it.

And despite a few (hopefully unnoticeable) slips, I too have made it to the end of my week unscathed and happy. The risk has paid off. I have not embarrassed myself. I may have been the weakest musical link, but I may not have been,* at least not by too great a margin, and I’ve had a truly wonderful time. As you see, I have been lured into hyperbole and begun to use words such as wonderful and glorious – believe me, ‘fantastic’, ‘life-affirming’, and ‘splendiferous’ etc are also lurking at my fingertips. 

On another level though, it is just a huge great big relief`!!!!

I have no idea if they will ask me again. It would be nice to think so, but it doesn’t really matter.

View at Cortona
View at Montepulciano

 

Post script: Back in the UK, it seems that Mr J has had a somewhat different holiday, sailing in sometimes ‘exciting’ waters off Cornwall, sharing a tiny cabin with an old friend and coming home unencumbered by sticks of rock, pasties, or fillets of Cornish mackerel, but nursing instead his first-ever dose of Covid.

So not only did we holiday apart, but we have just spent a further week avoiding each other at home. 

*there may not have been a weakest link at all. I am most certainly not suggesting that someone else was the weakest link.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventure up north

Preamble (note, this is not the cheeriest start, but I’ll get to the fun bit eventually)

My mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in her early seventies. She completely forgot my dad, her husband of 51 years, within a year of his death. She soon became unable to live at home even with a full-time carer and reverted to a childlike or teenage approximation of her former self: she climbed out of windows when she felt trapped; she was once picked up by the police when walking into town (4.5 miles) when the bus didn’t come, (because it was 4 in the morning and not the afternoon as she had thought); and she finally attacked her carer in Tesco’s café prompting hospitalisation (for Mum, fortunately not the carer) and the sad but sensible advice to look for a nursing home where she deteriorated gently (and mercifully fairly happily) for a further five years.

Mum had always feared dementia because her own mother and at least two of her aunties had succumbed to it. She practised puzzles and word-games, and was physically active; she often walked more than five miles a day. But her fears were well-founded and it seemed that nothing could prevent her decline, particularly after my father’s illness and death.

Do I have that gene? I don’t know, and despite my occasional worrying forgetfulness and intermittent general stupidity, I push the thought away and try to make the most of life ‘in the now’ – because after all, I could go under the proverbial bus tomorrow with or without a diagnosis.

So, I walk and I sing and I travel. I go to the theatre and meet friends for meals and of course I drivel into this blog when I can find the time between all the above and the endless daily puzzles that I make myself do.

Just now, I am pushing myself harder – learning Italian and trying to wind myself up to concert pitch for a singing holiday in Cortona in a week’s time. On the singing front I can honestly say I am working harder than I have done since the last mega-translation I took on a few years ago and I think this may have to be a one-off – they will either write me off as a bad job if I’m not good enough, or if I triumph I will baulk at such commitment a second time around. I fear that, be it Alzheimer’s or simple ageing, my poor brain is resistant to concentrated learning these days. Or maybe I really am not as musical as I thought? Hmm, I think I’m trying to prove a point one way or the other – to myself – having dodged serious challenges thus far.

It was therefore a delight to find something else that challenged me, provided some sociability and would benefit research into and support for Alzheimer’s. I signed up months ago to walk 13 miles on an Alzheimer’s Society Trek, choosing a far-flung location by the sea which I had never previously visited and persuading three of my old friends to come with me. As it was such a long distance from home, we decided to make a long weekend of it and booked a convenient-looking Airbnb (‘sigh’ – I know, evil takeover of property everywhere), plus the cheapest train tickets available. And we thought no more about it for a while.The Alzheimer’s Society pestered us good-naturedly by email from time to time and even succeeded in making me more aggressive in my self-publicising, ensuring an early hitting of my basic target which then ticked up gently.

The weather and the rail strikes conspired somewhat against us, but we are made of stern stuff. With the train refund in my bank, I drove my lovely new red car all the six hours up to Yorkshire. My London-based friend B sat in the passenger seat and operated the Sat-nav, heating/aircon and audio choices for me, while I concentrated on missing turn-offs and failing to use cruise-control.  He had brought home-made ragu and lemon drizzle cake – a precious cargo, which we steadfastly left in its protective bag whilst we snacked on motorway service-station sarnies and biscuits which, sadly, shed crumbs in the beautifully valeted car (mea culpa here, B being clearly less dexterously challenged – or messy – than I am. I’m going to have to pick some of the more enduring crumbs out of the tiny air-con holes in the leather when I get round to it).

The 199 steps down into Whitby

It seemed not to matter how many turnings I failed to take off the motorway; there was always another one in a few miles. We eventually found a gloriously sweeping A-road which led to Whitby and, with little bother, we reached a small car-park at the famous Whitby Abbey. The Sat-nav told us we had arrived at our destination and we laughed. Really? Up here? Our property’s website gave some vague arrival instructions and a link which led to somewhere 20 minutes’ walk away. We set off on foot – ragu and cake in hand – to see if we could magically locate the property in our immediate vicinity next to the abbey ruins before driving elsewhere. The magic worked – we found the place and worked out which narrow stone archways (marked Private) we needed to navigate to park the car safely in front of it.

And so began a wonderful weekend away from reality. Yes, it rained more than half the time, but our stern stuff prevailed. In the interests of brevity (not one of my strong points!) here are random highlights.

  • We may have stolen a bottle of wine from Whitby’s fine Co-op on Day 1. Too complicated to explain, but if we did, then it was not for want of trying to pay.
  • The 13-mile walk was easier than expected. The outward half took us along a disused railway (flat) to Robin Hood’s Bay and, apart from a few slippery ups and downs on the cliff path back, there was nothing as strenuous as much of the South West Coast Path with which all four of us are familiar. It rained on and off, but not too heavily. Lunch was in a village hall – everything provided. The organisation of this event was excellent.
    Triumphant!
  • My nearly 20-year-old left walking boot decided to shed part of its sole at the half-way stage. I believe this is because I had made the ridiculous decision before this event to clean my boots and treat them with an ancient waterproofing spray I found under our sink. Clearly, they had been held together with Cornish mud for so many years that the shock was terminal.
  • I hopped the rest of the way. (Ok, that’s an out and out lie, but I did have to be careful that the flapping sole didn’t catch on rocky bits. I had no wish to take a tumble again. My left knee is still not right. (Sorry))
  • We visited the Dracula Museum, which provided a few scares especially for those of us (me) who see extremely badly in the dark. Without Mr J to hold on to, my fear levels were higher than normal, but I managed not to cry or cling pathetically to my friends, and only screamed once (I think).
  • The museum, whilst mostly corny, did include a short film explaining the myths behind Dracula (Whitby stories and also the Bram Stoker history). The cottage we were staying in was situated at the top of 199 steps up which we were informed the ‘black dog with red eyes’ had galloped. We thought little of this until, at midnight, we finished watching an unexpectedly bloodthirsty film on Netflix (or some other streaming site) and all looked nervily at each other before retiring to our respective rooms, checking the windows for signs of fearsome canine antics as we went.
    Whitby’s wet abbey
  • The Magpie Café is rightly famous for its fish dishes. Pre-booking was a good idea – thanks S. Best light batter I’ve ever had. (Can’t call it ‘batsman’ any more – apols, irrelevant cricket reference.)
  • Nearby ‘brewery and pizza’ outfit were doubtful when we rang to enquire for a table, told us that they were very busy and didn’t take bookings so we would just need to turn up, and then – when we did turn up – sported a sign on the door saying they had run out of pizza. At 7pm.
  • Deciding it was too risky to sample a whole brewery without pizza, we rushed down our adjacent 199 steps to a much-praised Pie ‘n’ Mash joint … where we were informed that they had just run out of mash! Short of nipping to the Co-op (but afeared lest we were on their Most Wanted list) to buy them some more potatoes, at 7.20pm we were now unsure what to do. However, we were assured there were plenty of pies left, so we opted to have those anyway and as it happened, they found some mash lying around somewhere and gave it to us on a sharing plate, which we struggled to finish between four of us. Lord knows how much they had expected to serve! This still left us room to try their jam roly-poly though, three portions between four of us, which may not have been the best fuel for the walk back up the 199 steps, but at least a 13 miles walk made some inroads.
  • The day after the walk it rained unrelentingly and soakingly ALL DAY.
  • S wanted to swim. She has a wetsuit. I don’t have a wetsuit, but fancied going to the beach anyway. We walked for 15 minutes in the unrelenting and soaking rain to reach the beach. It was too windy for my umbrella. By the time we knocked on the lifeguard’s car window to ask if S could go in the sea, we were both in wet suits anyway.
  • S was immediately swept to the edge of the ‘safe’ area between the lifeguard’s flags. Any feelings that I had made the wrong decision to avoid the swim were immediately lost on the wind, as was her swearing.
    Bandstand nuptials – in the rain
  • S’s sea ‘dip’ achieved, she quickly wrapped herself in various voluminous garments (here, I was much more envious and indeed properly coveted her dry-bag rucksack which, honourably, I resisted the urge to purloin and sneak into my car boot later that night) and we set off back to the cottage, but as we passed the harbour bandstand, it became clear that a raggle-taggle gathering was in fact a wedding-in-waiting. We sheltered in the lee of a nearby burger shack, and I positioned my inadequate umbrella against the worst of the unrelenting and soaking rain (and wind), and watched someone’s big day unfold.
  • Whitby, with its Dracula associations, is a magnet for all things goth and Steampunk. This was a Steampunk wedding, but with a rather mixed congregation. Some guests were in full Steampunk regalia, but others were in Sunday best plus anoraks, cagoules or plastic capes and many looked as bewildered as they were windswept.
    The perfect wedding day – at least there were facilities to hand
  • A cream convertible Morris Minor arrived and disgorged not one, not two, but three gloriously attired ladies. With much heaving and flounce-coordination, the bride and her chief bridesmaid – both of a certain age and in fearsome bodice-grippers with enormous bustles – emerged and were sheltered (inadequately) under billowing brollies while the third occupant – in a less showy outfit altogether (and about half the circumference of either of her fellow passengers, possibly the adult daughter of the bride) – stepped miserably in her first puddle of the day and failed to raise any sort of a smile as they all prepared to walk the 10 paces to the bandstand steps.
  • For some reason, S and I were unable to drag ourselves away and stayed in place throughout the short service which ensued. About halfway through, the local tourist open-topped bus arrived, half full of passengers, and parked up alongside our burger shelter. We noticed the driver was in full Victorian uniform. Perhaps that’s normal round here, at least for the visitors’ sake? Once the ceremony was over, the guests seemed keen to move on and to our surprise, most of them scurried in our direction and formed a queue to climb aboard the bus. Indeed, eventually all but the bride and groom were accommodated on board (perhaps it was chartered, but there was no sign of that). This left the bride and groom, having a couple of final photographs taken beside the wedding Moggy – with the TOILETS sign unavoidably prominent behind them. As S and I took our leave, we caught the bridegroom’s anguished “How the f*** am I supposed to get my gut in there?” as the bus pulled away and his only option to get out of the rain was to squeeze his enormous dress-uniform-clad self into the tiny ceremonial car with his radiant bride.
  • After the excitement and romance of the wedding, we remembered how chilly and damp we were and (not-so) hot-footed it back up the 199 steps to our cottage, where we stripped off much of our dripping clothing in the large glazed entry hall. S was still decent in her wetsuit, but I am ashamed to say that I caught myself practically mooning at the Abbey – my comment as such to S prompting our complete dissolving into shrieks of laughter at which the chaps (who had remained in the cottage throughout, no doubt busy with their assiduous musical studies – or Sunday morning snoozing more like) became concerned that we had perhaps spent the last two hours in the pub. As if!
  • We all ventured out a further two times on this Sunday and as a result most of our clothing was still damp for our return journey on the Monday. No-one cared. We had a proper laugh and all vowed to return to Whitby again someday, and also to participate in another Alzheimer’s Trek because we had been so impressed with it. In fact, we raised over £2000 between us which was satisfying. There’s always that nagging doubt when asking people to sponsor me for something I’m clearly going to enjoy doing, but in fact, we’re not asking for money for us but for the charity and in this case, it was close to all our hearts for our own personal reasons – and no doubt our family members gave particularly generously because, of course, those reasons are the same for them too.
    On the sunnier first day. Our cottage just to the left.

Haha – So much for brevity. Using bullet points makes no difference at all. Ah well.

Purring cats and cars

I am triumphant. Daughter J’s cat is purring. Not just a passing breathiness or momentary hum, but a full five-minute rib-jangling thrumble as I cradle him tightly in my office.

In the interests of privacy, so important these days, let’s refer to this animal as Feline N, as he is the nth cat for which I have had some degree of responsibility. This time the relationship is purely temporary and thus even more tenuous in nature than in the traditionally ‘only just tolerated’ cat versus human/owner/carer/guardian/gaoler/chef/cleaner etc. standoff that exists in so many British families.

Feline N is not blessed with enormous intelligence. In fact, he may be more blessed than most of us in having almost none whatsoever, thus making his life stupendously simple.

This is a cat who has been known to burn his tongue on hair-straightening tongs (not mine! I wouldn’t know where to start, although I do know that you don’t lick them) and then come back for another lick. He looks astonished every time the doorbell rings, or the front door opens and he ‘seems’ to forget where his litter tray is or what it is for!

For more than four years he apparently fooled his doting owner into believing that he could only drink from a running tap in the presence of a condescendingly cooing and attentive human. Some of us have even secretly demonstrated to him at our own kitchen tap how he might improve his enormously ineffectual-looking technique of mid-stream water-lapping, but then we realised he’d been quaffing from a nearby porridge bowl perfectly competently when our backs were turned.

Perhaps he is cleverer than we think. He has lived in our house for more than three months now and spends most of his time in Daughter J’s room, but has worked out which are the places we least want him to go and makes a beeline for those rooms as soon as he hears the relevant door open. But now I consider more carefully, I think this is just innate cunning.  

I caught him a few days ago, focussed intently on a piece of skirting board in the kitchen, from which eventually appeared a sizeable black spider. I’m pretty sure he ate it (I’m informed that this is a favourite delicacy of his), but since then I have caught him several times a day sitting pointlessly beside the same tiny gap in the woodwork (sudden memories of Tom & Jerry cartoons now! Oh, for a startled mouse with spinning legs, that would show him), presumably imagining the spider will reappear. I may be doing him a disservice of course; there might be a whole spider family whispering away in there, just waiting to emerge as dinner.

Unlike our own previous pets, this chap is essentially built for cuddling and, even when withholding purrs, he is always willing to be scooped up and carried around, or draped on a shoulder for a while. He never stays put though, preferring his own company unless he can have actual Daughter J. She who can do no wrong. She who provides and cares (and leaves him for hours on end and sometimes days, but always comes back to him to clean up whatever bodily offering he may have left for her) and cuddles him into an immediate purring state.

So, it really is something of a coup to have made him purr, even if I now believe it was entirely accidental on his part and may never be repeated. It won’t stop me trying.

Feline N is not the only article purring around here though. I have previously mentioned the acquisition of a new car. And no, I am not referring to my own smug purring at the idea of a new set of wheels, but at the engine noise of the new beast, or rather, the strange lack of it when in electric mode.

We have acquired a four-year-old Hybrid. We have not gone the full electric because we have no-where obvious to charge such a vehicle, especially as the newly-arrived charging points on the Avenue’s lamp-posts are unhelpfully filled with pastry, or Play-Doh or some other such amusing substance.

Yes, we have given in to the London Mayoral edict that all comfortable old diesels should be banished or charged an arm-and-a-leg each time someone dares to drive them, and offloaded our 10-year-old Landrover to my brother to sell in rural Herefordshire. He assures me that nobody has heard of air-quality ‘down in the forest’ and my friendly old car will undoubtedly be run on unfriendly red diesel by its new owner. I’ll admit that this makes me feel ever so slightly less virtuous at my own conversion. Perhaps that’s what it means by Hybrid (ie of mixed virtue?)

Mr J informs me that despite our ever-increasing ages, we are not yet ready for an old-person’s car, so no little runabout for us just yet. Nor can we go upmarket and indulge in a jaunty soft-top for those Sunday trips along country lanes. (Surely this never happens any more – at least, not if you live anywhere near me.)  No, we need a car with 4-wheel drive which can be fitted with a tow-bar and a roof-rack, for boat trailer and sculling boat duty, and enormous inner capacity to take a full set of drums plus various amps, guitars and band-members. And random bits of boat paraphernalia of course. And the monthly Sainsburys shop (I thought I should have at least one requirement, other than simply a veto on unacceptable colours.)

In a surprisingly forward-looking initiative, we began looking for our replacement vehicle several months in advance of the Mayoral deadline (which has still not yet quite arrived) and after a couple of test-drives and garage visits had somehow narrowed the search to one particular model. On previous form, I would have expected this to mean that no such vehicle would come on the market for at least the next three years, but we struck lucky (or perhaps I should attribute this luck to Mr J’s unaccustomed diligence with Internet searches, it most certainly was not attributed to the diligence of local car salesmen who failed to alert us to anything useful and generally proved less knowledgeable about the cars on their forecourts than we were, and that surely must take some doing).

The downside of this do-it-yourself luck was that the car we found was located in Sidcup, a place I had heard of but never visited, it being on the wrong side of Sarf London. Once I had discovered that I could get there for free on one of the same Mayor’s old people’s trains (or rather two trains there and a bus and two trains back) I was off – and the motorcycling Mr J and I rendezvoused at the showroom to test-drive a rather attractive red car.

Successfully back from the backstreets of Sidcup and a bit of the nearby motorway, we swung into buying mode. With a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and a small threat of Mr J hopping back on his motorcycle home without a deal, we reached an agreement with the salesman. Part of the deal was to pick the car up before the end of the calendar month, even though that would mean that the tow-bar fitting (which was included in the deal) would not have been done before we took delivery. With a keen eye for a financial advantage, we accepted this even though it meant an extra trip to return the car a few weeks later, and for a short time we would need to keep TWO cars (because there was some scheduled towage coming up). The extra trip did, of course, allow Mr J to play with all the exciting buttons and switches on an extra solo journey meaning that he will have an everlasting superiority in this regard, which I will endeavour to ignore.

But, to my point (at last!), this car purrs. A rumble rather than a rev. A rolling sort of swoosh. And, rather like the cat, it is not as easy to achieve as one might at first think. These self-charging hybrids don’t pretend to go far using just the battery, but for small manoeuvres and slow local travel it should be possible to avoid the engine cutting in. So of course, always up for a challenge, I try my best to get to Sainsburys at a battery-only purr. This requires both skill and luck, for there is a short piece of 30-mile-an-hour road en route and crawling just below 20 mph would no doubt cause massive irritation to other drivers, so I need to pick a really quiet time if I am to continue so slowly. There is also a bit of a hill on the way back, and the engine always kicks in then. I’m not sure if there is an alternative route which would work better. So far, an entirely purr-tastic journey has not yet been achieved (I am putting this down to lack of luck rather than lack of skill) but I only allow myself one vehicular Sainsbury trip per month, so I’ll have to work up to it for August.

With grand-pet-loving dedication, I may be more likely to achieve purr-fection at home in the meantime.

Post script – Due to rail strikes, I have just had to switch from the train to the car for my upcoming walking weekend away, which will provide me with more than 500 miles of practice. Apparently there are all sorts of clever gizmos for keeping me in lane, out of the car in front’s exhaust pipe and within the speed limit. On my long list of things to do this week there is ‘spend an hour or two sitting in the car and trying to work out what everything means’. (I’ve already found the air-conditioned seats though – hurrah!!) I haven’t yet worked out how many hours it will take me at 20mph – or informed my unsuspecting passenger that this is part of the deal. 

 

 

 

 

Arise Dot Cotton!

It is 4.30am. Midsummer morn. Already light, although the sun is yet to rise. I silence my alarm, grab the waiting pile of clothes and head downstairs for coffee, with a remarkably spirited step for this time o’clock.

Odd.

Is the aim to reach Stonehenge before the dawn for an uplifting sing? Or an alternative pagan ritual on a more local common?

Well, no. I am bound for that alternative well-known hippy-land – Shoreditch – instead. 

Maybe the godforsaken wedge-shaped carpark for which I have a postcode, a road name, some confusing instructions and an apparently definitive ‘three words’ (What?) will yield some uplifting solstice magic? I can but dream, but if I sit still for too long I will indeed drift back to dreamland all too readily, so I abandon my jumbled ponderings in favour of getting a move on, brushing my teeth, shoving many pre-gathered bits and pieces into my trusty Mickey-Mouse shoulder bag, and leaving the house, gently closing the door behind me.

I find myself at my local railway station on a clear-blue-sky Wednesday morning waiting for the 05.50 train into London. I have a reasonably clear plan for the onward journey to Shoreditch and am determined to be phased neither by the unaccustomed hour nor the shortness of train. I fear that my old person’s freebie travel pass doesn’t work until much much much much later in the day, and to avoid the ignominy of refusal at the first hurdle, I reluctantly deploy an actual payment card. I realise that I no longer know the cost of this familiar journey, but my pride (and relief) at having successfully made it this far despite my ferociously uncooperative body-clock, overcomes any financial qualms and I veritably spring onto the carriage and bag a window seat.

I am already too hot. I am wearing jeans and winter walking shoes and beginning to regret the vest under my T-shirt. Never mind – in no time at all, I am navigating the subterranean walkways at Waterloo, down to what I have always known as the Drain (I don’t know if today’s commuters still refer to the Waterloo and City Line as the Drain but, if not, I don’t really care – I know what I mean, and it’s not a Bazalgette sewer) and thence to Bank, then onward to Liverpool Street Station where I emerge into full-on morning sun.

Shortly after, I find myself bravely striding down a graffiti-strewn alleyway, the crunch of broken glass at my feet adding to the atmosphere of bohemian adventure. Just as my nerves are beginning to fail me slightly, I catch a waft of fried bacon and, sure enough, there is my destination: neither hipster café nor druid encampment, but a huddle of assorted trailers and gazebos stuffed into the promised car-park and a slightly overheated, but also somehow chilled, Assistant Director with a clip-board to greet me. Yes, I am once again scratching my Supporting Artist (SA) itch; this time the fourth series of a successful Apple-TV series which I have never seen (although I have read all the books). I am not allowed to say what the production is or give away too many details – it says this in the contract (which at this point in the proceedings I had not seen or signed, but they are always the same on this).

I am whisked to the make-up trailer where my hair is plaited and the usual less-is-more approach is taken to my face. In the past, I have been left without make-up at all, although this time I’m not sure whether to be proud or a little bit sad when they choose to accentuate my bad points rather than disguise them. I am reprimanded mildly when I tell them the brief from my fitting last week was just to make me look “like me… only worse”. As they rapidly apply dark browns and blacks, I realise this is teaching me which bits I need to hide if I want to look presentable or at least a bit less hag-like. The finishing touch is a generous spray of oil on my hair to make it look greasy. Hallelujah.

I am ushered into a small trailer to change into my costume, part of which I am already wearing (those jeans and walking shoes), including a large roll-neck sweater and a padded jacket. It is, I think, an unwritten rule that SAs work exclusively in the season opposite to the one being depicted on camera. Thus, today’s action takes place in a chilly on-screen January, whilst we pretend not to notice the reality of 30-degree June heat. SAs are known to compete with each other over how many thermal layers they can secretly conceal beneath summery outfits when shooting summer fetes in the depths of winter (‘I’ve got three vests and two pairs of tights on and cardboard liners in my shoes’; ‘Well, I’ve got a couple of lithium-battery-powered hand warmers in my bra*.’ etc), but other than risking the ‘commando’ option, there is less one can do this way round (‘I’ve got no knickers on’; ‘Me Too!’ might of course be misinterpreted). [*Don’t try this.]

Next is breakfast, at which I successfully fail to dribble or smear anything onto my costume, whilst hearing from a fellow SA how he had attempted Graffiti Alley, but thought better of it when spotting some drug-dealing up ahead and taken a much longer route instead. Hmm. I’d obviously been lucky. Shudder.

We are then herded into a mini-bus for transportation to the ‘set’, a City of London council estate next to the Barbican. Most of my fellow SAs are not much more than a quarter of my age and only a couple are of my own ethnic origin. Even at this time of day, they are a lively bunch, and I confess to being relieved when the youngsters are taken off en masse to film a scene for which the remaining five ‘adults’ are not required. Relief increases on realising that our filming base for the day is a pub, with a modicum of cooling from an old-fashioned ceiling fan and proper facilities to boot.

Considerable time passes. We exchange a few stories, mostly about layers of clothing on winter shoots of course, before lapsing into phone-surfing or – in my case, hurrah – reading our books. The youngsters have not returned, so we have peace until the caterers arrive from their earlier car-park duties and begin to set up lunch in the middle of the pub (which is closed to the public). We are finally escorted outside and along a walkway towards the Action. A chap of similar age to me is walking towards me – a very familiar face and I automatically smile hello, which he returns as we pass by each other. Oh FFS I’ve done it again! He’s not an acquaintance, but an actor (yes you daft woman, there will be actors here!) and, weirdly, one I watched storm offstage at the National Theatre just two evenings ago (and then stride back in and make a very funny unscripted comment as it became clear the revolving stage had broken and the play could not continue with all the techies digging it up – it’s ok, I’m rebooked for July). Of course, this prompts me to tell everyone around me the story of the aborted play – to no-one’s interest whatsoever. 

It turns out the adults are not needed, but we’re held nearby just in case they want some human scene-dressing (they don’t) and thus are able to watch from afar as the ‘talent’ (the friendly actor) works with the youngsters and the scene is shot from different angles, some of which require us to crouch down behind a parapet so we cannot be seen. I love all this. It is so completely unglamorous, but fascinating. I would, naturally, love it a whole lot less if we were standing, or crouching, in the sun rather than the shade, or if it was pouring with rain, but it’s great today. 

The scene is wrapped and we return to the pub.  Lunch smells good. They’ve already taken our orders. However, before we can get our clammy mitts on the food, three of us ladies are asked to line up for a photograph. This happens regularly throughout these shoots and we dutifully oblige. This time it seems that another SA with a later call-time has failed to turn up. They called her when she failed to show and she told them she was just 10 minutes away, but still never arrived.  She was booked to play ‘lady working in launderette’. They need to replace her urgently. And, from the photo just taken, the team have decided I’m the woman for the job.

I am immediately dispatched by minibus (alone, this is surely star treatment now) back to Crowd Base in the car park, wondering nervily whether I may be replacing the latest Graffiti Alley stab victim, if only someone cared to look, and fretting only slightly that I am missing my lunch. I should not have worried. There are no subsequent reports of Shoreditch murders, and – most important – my lunch is waiting for me in its recycled cardboard box in my very own trailer! OK, I exaggerate, but I am indeed installed alone in an air-conditioned trailer, because no-one else is around and it is the only place with a chair.

My make-up is deemed already perfect (‘sigh’), and I swap into the other SA’s clothes, which are a size too big for me, but that simply renders them even less flattering, which is probably a good thing. Who wears clothes that always fit properly anyway? (Oh, do you? Oops, must just be me then.) Miraculously the strangely-hued trainers she was supposed to wear are a perfect fit, and a little less warm than my own walking shoes, so that’s a bonus.

Critically, I have a tabard. A tabard!!! Victoria Wood in Dinnerladies springs to mind. But I think those were flowery and this one is plain. The late great Dot Cotton in Eastenders? Of course. (In fact, subsequent research shows that Dot wore a sleeved apron or coverall, so my excitement and icon-channeling are largely misplaced, but once I mention to the Assistant Director that I am now Dot Cotton, he laughingly confirms I very much look the part (harsh, but I’m sure he means well) and proceeds to reference her throughout the scene.)

I instantly take to my tabard. It has capacious pockets in which to hide my inactivated phone and the Fitbit they won’t let me wear even under long sleeves because it looks too ‘nice’ (Too nice? That’s a first for me – haha). I practice shoving my hands into the pockets and slouching a bit more than usual. Oh, what fun.

Back across London in the minibus, whose driver becomes confused and drops us a good 15-minute walk away from the estate – ‘us’ being me (Dot Cotton), one of the many Assistant Directors, and an unidentified other person who exchanges not a word with me, so is perhaps a VIP of some sort (but I don’t think so, just a mardy bu**er who relies on Dot and the AD to navigate on our phones).

Lurking outside the launderette, which is a real launderette on the estate and has been closed for the day for the filming, I realise that I am to be playing background to the show’s main character. No pressure then! I am ushered inside and installed behind the counter, where my new-found chum AD suggests a few little actions ‘Dot’ can do when the camera is rolling. He shows me on a film monitor, the small part of the shot that I will occupy (probably but not necessarily out of focus, I reckon) which is fascinating and not at all nerve-wracking. ‘I’ve got this’, as someone in the biz might say.

After several rehearsals and a couple of takes, there is a short break which leaves me in the launderette alone with the main ‘talent’. SAs are not allowed to talk to the ‘talent’ unless spoken to first, and no words were exchanged, although a raised eyebrow and small shrug apiece seemed pleasantry enough. I could not help but feel a bizarre otherness though. This guy has an Oscar. An actual Academy Award. And he’s sitting here in ‘my’ not-so-beautiful launderette, with his scruffy overcoat and scarf and his skanky locks treated with the same spray-in grease as I am sporting (or perhaps a more expensive and industrial strength version as he surely/hopefully looks skankier than me) waiting to make a pretend phone-call and a rapid exit.

Once he has made this hasty exit for the umpteenth and final time, I am left completely alone with the eternally turning driers – which have been fed endlessly by yet another AD from a stash of one-pound coins hidden under the (my) counter – until even they run out of steam. I watch proprietorially through the glass as my fellow SAs walk past several times in character filming the outside scene. It is only when an elderly couple come in with a large service wash that I am brought back to earth. Sadly, before I can take their money, the actual owner arrives and points out that he is closed (and earning far more from Apple than he would get in a week from the punters – he doesn’t say this, of course, but it is surely true) and chases them grumpily away.

A quick change back into my first set of clothes, and we are taken further up the street and I find myself walking away from camera and towards the Academy-awarded scruff as he continues a phone conversation with a pretend colleague. I excel myself here, managing quite magnificently to set off on cue (mostly) and not to smirk, poke out my tongue or full-on collide with him at all. We probably do this seven or eight times. It is then a wrap – and we are bundled into the minibus back to base. We don’t see the ‘talent’ again; he has perhaps retired to the pub, or hopped in a passing limo. We change and are dispatched with as much haste as the crew can instil in us because we are already well into overtime time and every fifteen minutes costs them more.

I risk the alley and am relieved to see no evidence of drugs or dead bodies, although the broken glass remains, and there is a chap on an upturned box adding to the copious graffiti. Presumably paid by the council in this hip-neighbourhood– who knows?

Commuters are perhaps surprised to see Dot Cotton as she scuttles through Old Spitalfields Market and along Threadneedle Street to Bank, even though she thinks she is incognito having left her tabard behind. And then this old lady leaves The Old Lady behind as she descends to the Drain to meet her Waterloo, where Mrs J ascends to the concourse to board her (now free!) train home.

Thus, another day of ridiculous work comes to an end.

I wonder who I’ll be next time?

  

 

 

 

No pressure

Now that my epic walk is ended, a few grand plans are lurking in the back of my muddled mind: noble initiatives; exciting (but sustainable) travel ideas; thespian and musical dreams. Quite a list, for sure, if somewhat vague as yet.

But, in the short term, it’s back to reality and a few rather more prosaic hurdles to leap. 

A follow up from a recent routine health-check provides me with some some light relief. I know I should take these things seriously, but…

In the interests of decorum I won’t describe the first procedure I undergo – suffice to say that I am not at my most elegant, although to my credit I am triumphantly less screamy than I may have been with similar episodes in the past. However, it is always something of a challenge when I have to go into a hospital environment for any reason at all, and this is no exception. The scheduled appointment having been cancelled at short notice a couple of days earlier, a new appointment is made for me in Teddington, the scene of my recent knee investigation. No longer limping, I present myself at the self-same counter and am this time directed to the Blue Zone. I didn’t notice the colour-coding on my previous visit, and am immediately grateful that I am not destined for a Black Zone, as that would be far too sinister with its pestilential connotations. Although I notice in passing that the Urgent Treatment waiting room appears to be Green and with its proliferation of disposable masks and plastic chairs I’m not sure how green (eco) it actually is. (Writing this, I’m briefly now thrown back to Green Wing one of my all-time favourite TV shows – a hospital-based comedy from the early 2000s. I’ve had to stop myself watching an episode in the interests of ever publishing this post.)

Back in the Teddington Memorial Hospital Blue Zone with fifteen minutes in hand, I retrieve my latest paperback read from my trusty handbag and throw myself into Salman Rushdie’s 1950s India (Midnight’s Children – my long-overdue first reading of this author) to take my mind off matters corporeal.

This is no criticism of Mr Rushdie, but I am insufficiently immersed in his protagonist’s world to ignore the NHS world immediately around me. After a couple of minutes, a door opens across the corridor and my interest is piqued further. A nervous young lady on the other side of the waiting room is summoned to Room 1, leaving her male companion supportively chewing his nails.  

Back to Bombay, but no sooner do I turn a page than the nearby double doors noisily open and a youngish chap plonks himself down on the chair just in front of mine. His hand is bandaged enormously as though in a comedy sketch show and he carefully wields it above head height. Oh lord, this is just what we need. Try hard to ignore, fearing another Boots’ floor episode. Rushdie’s powers of description draw me back – phew!

However, I relax too soon. A passer-by recognises Mr Bandage-fist and comes over to enquire what he’s been up to now? I have been telling myself it’s nothing, although clearly it’s not just a more serious version of the nail-chewing going on opposite. He proceeds to cheerily explain how he has removed the tops of three fingers with one of those macho carpenter-y tools which appeal so much to Mr J on his visits to B&Q. OK, this is not ideal. I am, fortunately (?) distracted by the reappearance of the young lady from Room 1, as she scurries through the double doors looking straight ahead and with sobs welling visibly. Her cuticle-nibbling friend lopes concernedly after her, and I debate whether I feel better or worse now – when I am summoned by my full name (nearly always a bad sign)… to Room 1. Deep breath.

Although I don’t wish to go into this further, I would like to point out that, in place of fainting, or screaming, or crying, I keep up a constant patter of inanities during my procedure, until in desperation the radiographer – if that is her correct moniker – asks me if I am enjoying Midnight’s Children which shocks me so much that I cease all fretting. Good call, doctor! I suppose these people are trained to be eagle-eyed. Here’s hoping her perusal of my insides is as thorough as her general observation. And also that she isn’t expecting degree-level lit-crit right now.  (I could have made this section a great deal funnier if I could bring myself to be more graphic, but I don’t think I could look you in the eye again. You’ll have to trust me on this – and be grateful!)

Results are not immediate, so I return home and resume my routine, unconcerned until I receive a phone-call the next day from my GP surgery and I begin to quiver. However, this is something else – a follow-up from a routine health check at which I had delivered a blood-pressure reading marginally above the ideal for my age etc. This getting older malarkey is tedious sometimes I find. The fact that I’d just galloped up the hill to the surgery where others my age would have strolled or arrived by car counts for nothing of course. But it’s always best to humour them, and I am prepared to undergo some investigations if it brings peace of mind. This particular follow-up quite intrigued me – a 24-hour blood-pressure monitor. I imagined this would be some exciting electronic gizmo akin to my Fitbit, and my only concern was that I might have to abandon said Fitbit for a day and thus lose valuable data. However, I have been told that I can continue to do everything I would normally do, including my Pilates class, so curiosity conquers any worries and I accept an appointment.

I present myself at the surgery to see the nurse and am called bang on time. This will be a good day, methinks. But within seconds my heart sinks (and my blood-pressure probably rises). There on the desk is a blood-pressure cuff which looks exactly like the Boots version we have at home, alongside a monitor which is only a fraction smaller than the Boots one and housed in a shoulder bag. I have a theatre ticket for a sold-out show this afternoon. I am told that the cuff will inflate every thirty minutes throughout the day and take a reading. Hopefully it will not make that irritating ner-ner-ner sound the Boots one makes when inflating the cuff. We try it on for size and the nurse takes an initial reading. Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner… And a loud deflating exhalation hiss. All preceded by three high-pitched beeps. 

I’m afraid to say that whilst I am prepared to undergo tests in the interests of my health, I can’t see how I can sit through nearly three hours of top-class drama as part of a capacity audience whilst intermittently making these intrusive sounds. Especially when I don’t believe I have a problem with high blood-pressure. As a result, and rather unusually for such an obedient soul as me, I refuse to take the monitor. I am hugely apologetic, but the statement that I can go about my usual activities is clearly a mis-selling of the situation, and I won’t get another chance to see this particular play which closes in three days’ time. I can also not imagine how I could do my Pilates class with the monitor over my shoulder, but this is perhaps more a (justified!) lack of confidence in my personal coordination skills.

A somewhat bemused nurse accepts my bleatings and – wonder of wonders – simply tells me to come back at the same time next day. For which I am most grateful and scuttle away to ready myself for the afternoon’s matinee. As penance, I deny myself ice-cream in the interval. (Disappointingly, the play Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre was not my cup of tea and whilst I appreciated the quality of the production and acting – and particularly loved the luscious set – I found myself close to nodding off more than once. Perhaps after all I could have used a few beeps and ner-ner-ners to keep me awake.)

And so it is that I return to collect my monitor the following morning and am strapped in, with rudimentary instructions not to get the device wet and a reminder to be careful when going to bed at night to place the monitor under my pillow so as not to strangle myself with the connecting tube. I don’t know why I find this funny, but the thought that people are being issued with devices which could easily strangle them if not used sensibly just touches a funny bone.

I stride off from the surgery in a positive frame of mind. Although I am a clumsy person, I suspect I will manage not to tie the tube around my neck, and I’m nerdishly (or ner-ner-ner-dishly) looking forward to seeing my results which can be glimpsed briefly on the monitor each time a reading is taken. Before I am even at home, the beeps beep out and the cuff inflates – exciting stuff. The silly noise is not too noticeable out of doors, so I don’t get any more strange looks than I normally do as I strut around the local area. I surreptitiously check the reading. Hmm, I think that’s quite low actually. Of course, as soon as I am home, I fire up the lap-top and ask Mr Google if this reading is ok. I am informed it is at the low end of normal.

Each thirty minutes throughout my mainly sedentary morning I get the same readings. Maybe if I worry about it more, the pressure will rise?

Instead of worrying, I decide to be more active and I march off to the other side of town to do a supermarket shop. Aside from a self-conscious ner-ner-ner moment in the cereals aisle, and some discomfort as the cuff squeezes my overactive bicep whilst carrying the too-much-purchased-as-usual load home, all goes well and I am energised to mow the lawn. Of course, by this stage I have lost interest in the readings which have become tediously unremarkable, and I throw myself into lawn-mower wrangling – a pastime which seems somehow unusually complex with the addition of a tube emerging from my left sleeve and a swinging shoulder-bag. It’s bad enough having to be careful not to tie myself in knots with the mower’s electric cable, but added tubing threatens to blow my mind completely. (I know, I exaggerate, but this was a genuine concern at the time and I hope I was not observed making the tricky rearrangements at each end of what I pompously refer to as the ‘lawn’.)

Fancy lawn art

Mr J obligingly ignores my sofa-bound ner-ner-ners whilst watching TV and I suggest I should occupy a spare room for the night to avoid possible sleep disturbance for both of us. I am surprised that my Fitbit, which has been allowed to remain on my wrist throughout and seems to have weathered any potential jealousy of the larger and more showy device I have temporarily adopted, records my sleep as pretty much as good as ever, and I can only recall waking briefly a couple of times to experience the mildly painful squeezing of my upper arm. 

I find I have not strangled myself during the night either, a cheery bonus for the morning. I eagerly rush up to the GP’s practice to drop off the device. The only instruction from the nurse, apart from the strangle- or water-related warnings, was to press a small blue button once my 24 hours was up to store all the data. Despite attempting this three times, I cannot see that anything is happening and the device continues to ner-ner-ner gently to itself every half-hour. The receptionists en-masse are none the wiser and between us we conclude that my success in the other two instructions should not be wiped out by failure to store/download/not-wipe-out the data I have diligently collected and the final task should be reassigned to the nurse herself. Blood-pressure now free to rise unobserved, I scuttle away from the surgery before any definitive discovery is made, and leap excitedly onto a train to buy myself a new car*

One week later, I am summoned to the GP and offered an immediate appointment to discuss my blood pressure results (which I have already reviewed online in my medical records – how very modern). Goodness, perhaps I’ve misread them and need urgent treatment after all!

Arriving at the surgery with minutes to spare, I am instantly called in to see the doctor – a young chap I’ve never met before. This is making me nervous now, but not for long. He’s confused as to why I need to be seen at all, but gamely studies the blood-pressure results and confirms that I have borderline low blood-pressure, and that perhaps I might need to be concerned if it stays like this until I’m in my eighties when I might find I fall over a bit.

In relief, I determine that I should at least try and salvage something from this otherwise rather wasted encounter and point out to him (gently – this is the first time he’s ever had anything to do with me – I am scrupulously fair) that we still have not cracked the chronic migraine situation, nor – despite finding nothing sinister in my hospital investigations, which he has just re-confirmed for me – determined what is causing the slight abdominal symptoms I have been experiencing. Ha – I’m on form today I think. I explain that I have an extensive headache spreadsheet which I could talk anyone through at the drop of a hat. Sensing panic behind the doctor’s tired eyes – and likely a consequential raising of his own blood-pressure – I walk away with the promise of a re-referral to a migraine specialist.

So, I skip off home happy in the knowledge that my marginally high blood-pressure is in fact marginally low, the odd pain in my abdomen is neither of the scary things we thought it might be (although it could be one of many marginally less scary ones but let’s wait a bit longer and see if anyone suggests another exciting procedure to rule those out) and the medication I am still taking for my headaches is still putting me at increased risk of a stroke even though my health check gave me a very low risk. Just thinking about it threatens to raise my blood-pressure…

Best not think about it then. (No pressure!)

Time to book another holiday instead. Simples.

*New car!!! (Not new new, but newer and greener even though it’s red.) I know this sounds odd just hanging here, but I may write about this more another time so this is just a teaser. I’ve banged on enough for today already.

 

 

So what’s next? (The end of life as we knew it!)

My whole world view has changed.

Is it perhaps the new and exciting Carolean age we have entered? Is it the pleasing late evening sunshine that has begun to tease us that summer may be around the corner?

Has this defined me in the past few years?

No – it is the fact that I have finally finished my everlasting traipsing around the far-flung west-country cliff paths of England (ie. I have now completed all 630 miles of the official South West Coast Path), proving (a) that it wasn’t everlasting after all, and (b) that I seem to need another project to rumble along in the background of my day-to-day existence.

I have just written up an account of the final 54 miles of the SouthWest Coast Path (see here on my holiday blog) and suddenly it hit me – I am bereft! Nay, I exaggerate, but I am most certainly confused. One of my foundations has shifted. That silly walk has been an ever-present ‘to-do’ on my conscious and subconscious list for the most recent third of my life, always an option when thinking about holidays, an excuse for a short escape on the train (especially since I got my old person’s discount) and sometimes just another reason to beat myself up about how ridiculously slow I’ve been. It has almost been a defining part of me in the last few years at least. And now it’s not there any more.

I am proud to have completed it all, with no cheating and with considerable enjoyment in most parts.

As ever, it seems I can’t just enjoy the fact that I have completed it. I have to write up the holiday blog (tick) of course, and now wring yet more material from the experience here in this blog. I have also determined that I should write an account of the entire walk for submission to the South West Coast Path Association – whose lifetime membership I purchased many years ago (one of my more prescient decisions it seems). They publish Finishers’ stories in their newsletters so, as a writer, it would seem lazy not to contribute my own sorry, but ultimately triumphant, tale.

Everyone to whom I have imparted the momentous knowledge that I have completed the SWCP has asked me what I am going to do next. I don’t have a ready answer, although I will certainly walk more of the Great Britain Coastal Path because I love being beside the sea. I intend to buy a map which I can colour in with each section I complete.

Aside from that, I do of course have endless vague plans for train trips in Europe and the USA, and an addict’s weakness for the British Airways ‘Where We Fly’ web-page.

I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

Vivat and all that

Vivat Regina Camilla!

Well, that’s done it now. What would Granny say?

Waking with yet another headache on a drizzly day, the old man having absented himself early for exercises, she struggles to remember what’s happening. Have a quick shower and it will come back to her.

Sure enough, ablutions complete and despite the headache failing so far to recede, memory kicks in. It is the day of the Coronation. A decree is self-pronounced that medication may be administered in order to appreciate fully the pomp about to be circumstantiated.

I imagine Queen Camilla feels the same. I hope for her sake hers was a swift gin to steady the nerves rather than anything stronger. She no doubt has more than a headache to deal with on any day of the week.

Anyhoo – whilst waiting for the drugs to kick in and my hair to dry, I am summoned by our Street Party Committee to move my car along the road to occupy a prime space outside the prospective arena, and thus prevent unknowing interlopers leaving their vehicles in the party area. I obediently execute the required manoeuvre, hoping that no-one notices the uncoordinated clothing, wet hair and grumpy face as I scurry back to my house through busy bunting-elves up ladders in the drizzle preparing for tomorrow’s event. As a sop to their endeavours, I quickly dig out my own two strings of quality cotton bunting from last year’s Jubilee festivities (quite a bonus to remember where I had carefully hidden them, I feel) and tie one loosely between porch and gate-post to absorb some of the rain, and the other inside my front window which will hopefully remain dry. I briefly sigh to myself that I’ll no doubt need to be up at dawn tomorrow to move the wretched car back again, but then determine to ‘buck up’ and plonk myself down in front of the television for the duration.

I have, by this time, missed much of the fun of dignitaries’ arrivals, but I would have needed to rise far too early to see them all, and am comfortably in position for the main event. What a relief not to have been invited in person; it would have involved far too early a start for me. And the fact that I have missed much of Huw Edwards’ droning is probably a plus.

So many words will be written about this momentous event, but it IS momentous and I cannot resist penning my own thoughts on such a solemn occasion. So, I decide to take notes while I watch – oh the tyranny of the blog. Yet this is immediately proved stupid, as I am unwomaned from the very start by Parry’s “I Was Glad” and have to glare unmoving at the screen to avoid drippage, and then as I begin to recover, we get the Vivats which just make it all worse. And not a note is taken for some considerable time.

Of course, I recover my composure and, quite quickly, my irreverence. Unlike on the occasion of the late Queen’s funeral, I am unable to resist a bit of a commentary as we go along. Pleased as we are that Huw Edwards has largely buttoned his lip since the ceremony has begun, Mr J and I supply our own drivel and badinage, aided and abetted by the full Order of Service (kindly supplied by the Times in the absence of our personalised invitations of course) which I have carefully spread out in front of me, amongst the many snacks I have lined up for essential sustenance.  This is all well and good until we are briefly joined by Daughter J just as the white-clad Gospel Group perform. Apparently, it is not acceptable to point out at this juncture that Meghan should have been there after all! I hang my head in remorse. I should know better. I do know better.

Moving on.

As penance, and also as a result of poor note-taking, I will limit my further observations to the following:

  • A friend of a friend’s daughter was singing in one of the choirs and we spent many idle moments trying to determine which one he was – despite not knowing what he looks like, which choir he is in, which voice part he sings or even what approximate age he might be
  • I was surprised to enjoy enormously the newly-composed Kyrie eleison in Welsh as sung by Bryn Terfel. Another moment to stare intently at the screen.
  • It was disconcerting that Queen Camilla led the procession on entry to the service, but was then largely ignored for most of it. “I’m still here, you know! I’m Queen!” we cried on her behalf from time to time.
  • I enjoyed the regalia, particularly the golds and the purples, but I failed to understand why several of the priests had what appeared to be large golden pockets on the fronts of their frocks close to the ground.
  • How no-one sniggered at the presentation of the rings to both King and Queen on suggestive velvet-chipolata-fingered trays was beyond me (and Mr J – we’re as bad as each other and Daughter J had withdrawn to her room by this stage so we could revert to form)
  • As a fan of musical theatre, Daughter J should perhaps have waited for the Lloyd Webber composition. I like to think she would have joined in her parents’ spontaneous cheer at the inevitable key change moment.
  • A further thought on those Gospel singers – in fact far more powerful evidence of our progress towards diversity and inclusivity could be seen in the fabric of the service: a Hindu Prime Minister reading from the Holy Bible; a female Jewelled Sword of Offering; subtle involvement of many faiths throughout; female and male clergy; multi-ethnic choristers and choir members of both sexes. The Princess Royal on her horse in the rain. All carefully orchestrated, to be sure, but successfully so (in my humble opinion).
  • A commentator wondered later what the religious ceremony did for the large swathes of people in our country who have no religion. And what of those who don’t agree with having a monarchy? Good questions. I’ve no idea. Sorry.
  • Well, ok, if pressed I would say that I think there is still a place for this pageantry, many people enjoy it and tourists lap it up. A slimmed-down monarchy can perform useful roles in society. And one of the advantages of the Church of England is that you can get away with anything, even not believing in any of it (but don’t quote me on that, obviously)
  • And please can we not have another state occasion which might prompt yet another Street Party, as I confess to being a little less than enthusiastic now it seems to be an annual event. As I type, I am fretting that the jar of sweets I have carefully assembled post-Coronation for my traditional ‘Guess the Number of Sweeties’ competition may not be suitably impressive this time round (but it will have to do, because Mr J has eaten all the spares now). The actual number is a closely-guarded state secret. If only I could remember where I wrote it…
  • Penny Mordaunt is now my hero. If only I had the strength of arm, or the orbs, to deliver such a performance. Respect!

This is a hastily thrown-together blog-post in an attempt to be up-to-the-minute topical.

But I think I have managed to write the whole thing without mentioning Prince Harry.

… oh, bugger!

Stardom

I don’t do it for the glamour or the fame. 

I most certainly don’t do it for the money.

And even more certainly, I don’t do it because of a love of early mornings or lengthy hangings-around in the freezing cold (or occasionally a massively overheated pub function room).

Sometimes, when my contribution remains metaphorically, if not literally these digital days, somewhere on a cutting room floor, I wonder why I do it at all.

But this week, my on-off career as a Supporting Artist has taken centre-stage in my personal mid-life docu-drama.  

Firstly, an appearance on prime-time BBC1, as I was to be seen lurking with an ice-cream and a bunch of gaudy Hooray chums at Henley Royal Regatta whilst a less-than-usually-sweary Gordon Ramsay discussed the various successes and failures of his latest batch of wannabes who had just supposedly plied us with flavoured vodka. [Somewhere in one of my long and rambling missives last year I captured the making of this https://onecryingeye.com/glam-up-and-carry-on] You can find this on the BBC iPlayer – it’s really not worth the bother unless you enjoy that kind of programme anyway. For me, of course, it was great fun to watch because, although I am only very briefly visible myself, I can identify all of my friends who were there and remember the twaddle that we were guffawing to each other at the time.

Then weirdly, later in the week, I was attending a performance of a friend’s one-woman show – Tomorrow May Be My Last – which was playing at an Islington pub theatre. Mr J and his band Bourbon Street Revival have been gigging at this pub after the Saturday night performances and we decided it was time to watch the show. We met beforehand in the downstairs bar and it was only when we were summoned upstairs to the theatre room that I had a sense of deja-vu and realised I had been here before – as part of a ‘pretend’ audience when filming a no-budget feature film back in 2020. The name of the pub, the Old Red Lion, had rung no bells with me but it was definitely the same place – which I later confirmed by looking at my old diaries.

Of course, this prompted me to check the status of the film itself. I remembered it to be called something like The Diaries of Tai Atlas. I found it. Still in production. No surprises there – it seems to take forever to make these things. Even more bizarrely though, I noticed just this morning a casting call for Supporting Artists for a similarly titled film Life of Tai: The Diaries of Tai Atlas shooting in another of the locations I had visited in 2020, and indeed it appears to be the very same film still adding material. Sadly I’m not free on the day they are requesting.

But, narcissist that I am, my search for this particular film led me to check once again the other productions in which I have played a background part in the last few years and – to my enormous surprise – there I was on a film trailer gawping at a Martian Invader on Horsell Common and then running through the wood before being spectacularly blown up. I did a day’s work in October 2019 filming this – War of the Worlds – The Attack. It was the first time I was paid anything for such work, and the first on which I was able to eat lunch from a proper film catering facility. I was massively over-excited at the time, but ever since had assumed the production had been somehow abandoned. It has however just been released and whilst it is unlikely to grace our main cinema chains, it is clearly not a complete write-off. I will watch it in full when I get a free hour and a half – I believe it can be purchased or rented from Amazon. Needless to say, the Martian Invader was a figment of our imaginations on the day (with an eyeline object on a stick as a substitute) and I don’t recall the explosion at all – indeed I still have the jacket I was wearing and there is not single scorch mark to be seen!

Here’s the trailer if you’re interested.

Fame at last – this was a short film called Miss Fortunate and my first-ever SA job (unpaid, but rather sweet of them to list all of us)

So, now I have another few seconds of screen time to add to my famous two seconds on the same bill as Ben Whishaw (yes, my name actually in the same screenshot of the credits even though I never saw him and we weren’t in the same scenes).

I think this is going to my head now. I’m already thinking what should be on my rider for future productions. 

Not having to get up too early or drive in the dark would be the first item.

And…

…Maltesers, of course. (With no blue ones)

 

 

Parenthood


An increasing number of my friends are grandparents. Whilst some are older than me, and some I have only known since they welcomed grandchildren into their lives, I am seeing more and more of my contemporaries or younger friends embracing this new familial state. In fact, my younger brother has been a grandfather for more than a year now – a source of great amusement to me, especially when in cruel joshing mood after he’s somehow pointed out – for the millionth time – the fact that I am two years older than him, in a more advanced decade and clearly ancient. “Yeah – GRANDAD!”

I’ve never been a particularly maternal type, and surprised myself (in a good way, as it turns out) when we decided to have children, so I feel no pressure or desire to become a grandparent anytime soon. Of course, there is an innate feeling that our family ‘line’ should be continued somehow and my son appears to be the last male Jillings in our particular branch, but there’s no visceral yearning, as others seem to experience. I remember my own mother’s concern when I was in my early twenties lest I not produce an heir, and my Nan suggesting to me, aged 21, that I should produce a great-grandchild for her even if it meant having it out of wedlock! (I mean, the very thought!) I’m afraid I let my Nan down completely, and made my mother wait. 

I suppose the danger, if that is not too exaggerated a term (it is!), is that by the time any grandkids of mine appear, I will be too old, frail and/or untrustworthy to be of any help in their care. Arguably I am already untrustworthy, but I still reckon I could knuckle down and deal with the basics. Isn’t it like riding a bicycle? (Mind you, I was never much good at cycling, except when on autopilot on the way to my college boathouse on freezing mornings across Midsummer Common with my hands tucked into my armpits – ah, those are hours I won’t get back! Not sure that’s a good example. Could I change a nappy with my hands stuffed under my armpits?)

Today’s pressures on young folk are different than in my childbearing days. I guess it’s not quite so impossible outside the capital, but for my own offspring the likelihood of being able to afford a suitable home in which to raise a child seems increasingly remote. And I know that having a lovely house to put the baby in is not the be-all and end-all, and with love and all that it can still be perfectly feasible in a rented property etc – but it must make the decision a little trickier.

And, the mention of property problems leads me seamlessly to a recent example of a warning to prospective parents. Caring for one’s children, even after they are all ‘growed up’, doesn’t actually stop. It is not only puppies that are for life and not just for Christmas you know!

And so it is that Daughter J has returned to the fold for some temporary respite from the iniquities of London singles flat-dom. In layman’s terms, this means her landlord has kicked her out because her flat is being renovated (long story, not her fault in any way nor indeed actually the fault of the landlord) and she has been unable to find alternative accommodation in time to avoid potential homelessness.

Whilst we are of course always accommodating (literally now, it seems), she most definitely did not wish to come home. She has not lived with us since she left school aged 18 ten years ago, and a return to the awfulness of suburbia was not a welcome prospect. But needs must, and I am pleased to report that her out-of-practice parents have swung laboriously into action to address the situation. This has variously involved the following:

  • Mother J steeling herself to drive from home, which is of course practically out in the sticks despite being within a ‘free transport for elderly residents’ London (nay Royal!) borough, to Daughterly flat in North London to pick up Daughter, cat and assorted belongings. Apart from the ridiculous queues of traffic on the Euston Road (meaning that Daughter J telephoned in case her driver had somehow got lost or been in an accident – haha, how tables can be turned sometimes), and the irritating complete blocking of Fulham Palace Road on the return journey, leading to a diversion which – according to the ageing in-car SatNav – involved trying to cross the Thames via Hammersmith Bridge which everyone else in the universe knows has been closed for decades now (just as well Mrs J knows alternative routes from this part of town, from aeons ago when her mode of transport was generally the back of a motorcycle! – good job she paid attention back then), all went well, and unaccustomed chauffeur-ly self-confidence knew no bounds for at least three days afterwards.
  • Father J taking a break from marathon chocolate egg demolition on Easter Sunday to drive once again across the metropolis (a MUCH easier day for traffic flow, it seems… just sayin’) and facilitate multiple trips to the corporation refuse tip (or whatever they politely call it in Islington) before bringing a car-load of too-good-for-the-tip items back to store in the least decrepit of his several suburban garden sheds.
  • Mother J once again venturing to an obscure part of the capital, this time to Wapping on her more familiar choice of transport – the rail and tube network and good old Shanks’ pony – to oversee the financial side of a Big Yellow Storage situation. Note: It is splendid to own all one’s own furniture for a 3-bedroom flat at the tender age of 28, but less convenient when the flat in which it has been accumulated is no longer available to one. 
      • In order to spice up the proceedings, the Big Yellow episode was initially treated as a race – Mother J whisking herself from a civilised luncheon with friends in Richmond all the way to London Bridge Station where she emerged into bleak drizzly daylight to battle her way on foot through the teeming tourists on Tower Bridge before waltzing in a windswept fashion past queues of encouragingly stationary traffic…just in time to see Daughter J’s removal van approach from the opposite, and less congested, direction and turn into the Big Yellow car park up ahead.  Hmpph – defeat conceded, but a close-run thing and many more miles covered. She gave a cheery wave (with a hint of hysteria which may have set the tone for what followed) through the windows of Reception as she passed by and Daughter J returned a broad triumphant grin as she confirmed to the quizzical chap behind the desk that “Yes, sorry, that’s my mother!”
      • Big Yellow employ some interesting people. This one was clearly keen to alleviate his bureaucratic boredom and sensed some fun to be had with the two apparently highly-strung giggling women who had presented themselves at his desk. Oh, the bantz! Completely inappropriate flirting and joking all round as the Ts & Cs were confirmed, a sturdy padlock purchased, procedures and rules explained and finally the bill presented to Mother J for payment (another long story, but Daughter J has plenty of £££ but no functioning payment card – another reason for hysteria, no doubt). One of Mrs J’s many random pieces of plastic was inserted in the proffered machine, the pin accepted and the terminal returned to the Big Yellow man. Who looked back with concern and announced “Card denied. Insufficient funds!” Apparently the Motherly physog was a picture at this juncture, as she strove to understand how this could be. The customer print-out was presented in evidence – but the hysteria was doing its worst and the fact that this was a proper receipt for the transaction just transacted went completely unnoticed. Another credit card was plucked from the small selection of otherwise useless Oyster/Nectar/Organ Donor cards about the Motherly person as Mr B Yellow patiently asked if she would like to pay twice. The penny (or rather, several hundred £s) dropped – “Ok, this is WAR!” may have escaped those normally mild maternal lips. Pretences of amusement were suitably maintained, but this was a killer blow to the parental ego. Sigh! How many future Christmas dinner tables will this story grace?
      • Skittishness was rapidly reinstated, and two variously-aged and over-excited females were later to be seen careering up and down the Big Yellow corridors, ‘helping’ the removal guys with the lighter loads and the emptied trolleys. (Mother J drew the line at taking a ride on the trolleys, even though it was briefly mooted. It is approximately 40 years since she was last to be seen screaming down a corridor astride such a vehicle – which, it is recalled, did not end well – so it seems that she has at least learned SOME lessons in life.) 
  • Adjustments are now being made to daily life as Jillings Towers embraces its new lodgers – in particular, the feline one who doesn’t understand why there are people other than his adored mistress lurking around this new abode. There has yet to be found a comfortable arrangement to suit all parties. After an encouragingly uneventful first week, most recent days have ended with some form of cat-poo incident. If only we could read his inscrutable little mind. I imagine he thinks the same of us. (No, actually, this cat does not possess much thinking matter at all, bless him.) Most internal doors are now firmly closed and all inviting surfaces covered with protective materials – adding to the mismatched quirkiness of our interior decor. Good excuse, I suppose.
    The most travelled this indoor cat will ever be.
  • Although the demanding shift pattern of Daughter’s work means that the non-feline occupants of the Towers are mostly like the proverbial ships, there have been a few occasions when a tough day has resulted in some supportive discussions, late night issue-resolution chats and unaccustomed general shoulder-providing with varying degrees of success. 

So, have we learned any new parental lessons, apart from the ‘for life, not just for Christmas’ thing which arguably we already knew?

Hmm. Yes. Firstly, that having a ‘fast’ programme on the washing machine and a ready supply of cleaning materials is a VERY GOOD THING.  Again, arguably, we were aware of this from the nappy days. And a new one on me – after her long emotional roller-coaster of a day at work and tricky journey home, a reminder to beloved Daughter that “there’s that jelly rabbit you made yesterday in the fridge. That’ll cheer you up!” doesn’t always help. Who knew?

Perhaps I should write a book. 

 

 

 

 

 

Seize the day (but mind my knees)

I’ve just read a letter written by my father in 2008, two years before he died. He was writing to his NHS consultant to apologise for opting out of a medical trial. His reasoning was that, although he knew there was no cure for his condition (Myelodysplastic syndrome), he was still able to achieve a decent quality of life and if he joined the trial he would need to travel several times each month (and possibly more, depending on which trial straw he drew) to a hospital 50 miles away, endure injections and unknown after-effects with no guarantee of improvement or reversal of his symptoms. 

What I also know now is that my mother was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s at that time, and Dad was increasingly supporting her. He must have been weighing up the odds – was it worth the inconveniences of the trial and the resulting absences from home for the chance of a stay of execution? I can see from his copious notes and press clippings (he wasn’t an Internet guy!) that he was fascinated by the science of his illness and would have relished the involvement in a trial, at least from an intellectual perspective. But it just wasn’t convenient enough so he chose a different route – to enjoy the life remaining to him (and to help my mother manage and enjoy hers) while he still could. With the benefit of hindsight on his behalf, I think he was right. He lived two more years and postponed my mother’s deterioration for at least 18 months of that.

I am fortunately not in such a difficult position myself right now, but frequently entertain those ‘seize the day’ thoughts. Particularly after the recent sudden and rather shocking deaths of singing and rowing acquaintances, my resolve to ‘do stuff’ has rarely been stronger. Book more holidays! See more friends. Broaden my horizons and don’t just sit in a same-old same-old comfort zone, however comfortable it may be. Book more theatre visits (yes, even more!) – ok, in and out of comfort zone perhaps.

So why have I just spent the weekend sitting around?

Because of my knees. My stupid knees, which are doggedly refusing to (a) stop hurting (right knee); (b) allow me to kneel with them (left knee); or return to their former pre-Madeira shape (both knees). I was never particularly fond of my knees, nor proud of them – but they were fine and I have rarely had occasion to think about them at all in the past.

In the spirit of my positive ‘doing stuff’ drive, I have two walking holidays booked, one of which begins before the end of this very month. And whilst if my life depended on them, I’m fairly sure the knees would go those 50-plus miles up and down cliff paths tomorrow, I’m not sure that would be entirely sensible in their current state. So, also in the spirit of taking positive action, I forced myself last week to pay a visit to the walk-in small injuries clinic at Teddington Hospital, an adventure on which this hospital-phobe does not embark lightly. 

On arrival, by bus and a bit of a walk (which I can still do without a noticeable limp –  slightly annoying), my first concern is the rebranding of this facility as an Urgent Treatment Centre. I already feel a bit of a fraud and endeavour to develop a last-minute hobble. In all the palaver of donning a mask at the door and navigating the queue for Reception, I’m not 100% sure my limpy-leggedness is consistent, but no-one is paying any attention anyway. 

My second concern is the 3-hour wait warning, but I have prepared for this and brought a new paperback with me. I give the briefest of explanations to the receptionist as to why I am here, and supply a few personal details which seem to allow him to access all sorts of additional pieces of information about me (sadly not sufficient to allow the visit to appear subsequently in my GP medical history online, it seems, although perhaps it takes a few months to replicate there). I choose a seat from the few vacant ones dotted around the room and am pleased to say that despite the end-stage emphysema behind me (diagnosed by me to ensure it is nothing transmissible) and the acute ‘terrible twos’ on display to my left (unfortunately more contagious than I have previously thought), I manage to avoid ending up in a fainting fit on the floor this time and remain marvellously aloof throughout.

It is eventually my turn. I don’t need to feign a limp, as my whole body has pretty much set in its ‘patient seated’, or should that be ‘seated patient’, position. My gait is consequently some kind of wooden lollop which loosens up only marginally as we reach the consulting room.

Health professional (addressing his umpty umth sorry specimen of the day): “What can we do for you?”

Scruffy middle-aged lolloper: “Well, I fell on volcanic rock on holiday about three weeks ago and hurt both my knees, and although they were very bad, I could still walk (eventually) and thought they would get better, but they haven’t really and now I’m worried that when I’m even older than I am now, I won’t be able to walk properly at all, so I thought maybe someone should have a look at them…”

Health man, with his clipboard: “And have you seen your GP?”

Limper: “Er no. It’s so difficult to get appointments these days.”

Clip-board Man: “Did you try?” (Bit combative…)

Scruff: “No.” (Looks downcast, nay crestfallen and hopefully mightily apologetic.)

Man: “Hmm, ok, let’s take a look.” (Phew, crestfallen is clearly a more successful look than the alternative curmudgeonly old bag face I keep up my sleeve for awkward customers. Fortunate choice.)

The upshot is that one knee has a bruised meniscus and the other a sprained ligament. As such, no X-ray is given (a little disappointing perhaps but that would undoubtedly be another 3-hour wait) and I am speedily dismissed. I walk carefully back to the bus-stop trying to lollop a little less and clutching my diagnosis (notes on my phone), a couple of pages of hastily printed knee exercises thrust at me on departure and my two-thirds finished novel, and resolve to rest for the next two weeks (once I’ve walked the half mile home from the bus-stop of course.)

I’m not very good at resting. Better when it’s chucking it down with rain outside, and there has been plenty of that, but as soon as the sun comes out I am restless rather than resting. Desperate to do a bit of day-seizing.

However, like a dutiful patient I determined to sit indoors and write up a blog piece this weekend. Plagued with one of those headaches which was bad enough to annoy but not so awful as to justify medication, I soldiered through Sunday writing and revising and editing a veritable masterpiece on the carpe diem theme. Explanations and comparisons, justifications of taking care of myself to preserve for the future versus just bloody doing what I want right now. Etc etc. No doubt it was very edifying and elucidating and marvellous crafted. 

You will never know.

I’ve spent most of this sunny Monday trying to rejuvenate my broken website (actually quite easy once I’d engaged the scary IONOS lady) and retrieve the Word doc I most definitely saved before my laptop crashed – this latter proving impossible, despite discovering all sorts of hidey-Mac-holes and pathways. So the above is a much more succinct version (believe it or not – haha).

And I’m pleased to say that although the knees may still be giving me gyp, there’s nothing wrong with my theatre booking finger and I’ve seized some bargain tickets for The Lehman Trilogy tomorrow evening to challenge the old brain cells.

I promise to walk carefully and slowly across Waterloo Bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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