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IF IT’S TUESDAY, IT MUST BE THE OPTICIANS

spexWhen you move to an entirely new area (which I have now done about 25 times, and I’d really like to stop, if it’s okay with everyone) one of the most tiresome, and indeed irksome, things you have to do – aside from packing your entire life into cardboard boxes and watching a willing but not entirely competent removal man drop them – is establishing new connections with health professionals like doctors, dentists and opticians.

It was when I realized I’d started squinting at the world like a (very large) mole that I decided the time had finally come to make an appointment for a long-overdue eye test.

I knew where the opticians were in Adverse Camber – it was hard not to know, really, since they advertised their presence in what I assumed to be a small suite of rooms attached to Heggartys – the local chemists – by means of a HUGE sign on the wall outside announcing, ‘BEECH EYECARE: A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES’ in letters about a foot tall.

One Saturday when I was passing, I bowled into the chemists and located the door to the opticians’ emporium between a stand selling budget range make up and a display of spectacle chains and psychedelic swim hats. There was a giant sign on the door saying ‘BEECH EYECARE – PLEASE KNOCK ON THE DOOR AND TAKE A SEAT.’ Robert Beech, BSc MCOptom, plainly thought it was safest to assume that all of his customers were both intellectually challenged AND as blind as bats.

I knocked on the door and attempted to walk in and sit down. The door was locked. A young voice from behind me said. ‘They’re closed today. Sign on the wall says so.’

I turned. The boy at the checkout – who looked to be about 10, but was presumably at least 14 unless the chemist was into child labour, was watching me with an irritatingly charming smile on his face. ‘What sign?’ I snapped.

‘Above the door.’

I looked. There was, indeed, a tiny sign above the door giving the opening hours. It was about 4 inches by 8 inches and you needed a magnifying glass and a pair of steps to read it. When I did finally manage to decipher it, it said – in effect – ‘You’ll be lucky to catch us here at any time, but you might like to try this teeny-tiny window of opportunity on Tuesday.’

So, thanking the obnoxious munchkin through gritted teeth, I went home and, some time later, looked up the opticians’ telephone number in the book. I tried it. There was no answer. I tried it again on Monday and a woman’s voice said brightly, ‘Heggartys’.

It took a moment for it to register that I’d got through to the chemists, not the opticians.

‘Um … can I speak to the Optician, please?’

‘He’s closed today – but he’ll be in tomorrow.’

‘Right. Thank you.’

Tuesday dawned. I rang again, expecting to reach the optician directly, but got the same bright voice telling me I was still talking to the chemists. THIS time however, I did manage to get myself put through to Robert Beech BSc MCOptom, and an appointment for an eye test – for the following Tuesday.

I carefully wrote it in my diary and double-checked with him as I did so. A little later in the day, I also wrote it on two separate wall calendars. Having gone to so much trouble to get the appointment, I was determined not to miss it.

The day dawned. I got up early, had a shower and spent a long time carefully cleaning and flossing my teeth before I remembered I was going to the opticians, not the dentist.

I had it all mapped out: I would take the car, see the optician, then go through to the local garden centre to buy some potting compost, 8ft canes and vegetable seeds before heading home in time to take delivery of my groceries. (I shop locally for eggs and some vegetables, but treacherously use an online grocers for everything else. If we could just keep that between ourselves, I’d be grateful – okay?)

I set off good and early, found a parking space directly outside Heggartys (whose missing apostrophe always irritates me like a badly fitting bra strap) and sauntered inside in plenty of time for my 9.55 appointment. I read the sign on the door again: ‘PLEASE KNOCK ON THE DOOR AND TAKE A SEAT’.

I knocked on the door, and went in … to a darkened room, where an eye examination was taking place. The two occupants looked up at me, startled.

‘Ah.’ I backed out in confusion. ‘Take a seat OUTSIDE the door … Sorry …. Sorry ….’

Back in the chemists, I sat down in one of the two chairs I’d completely failed to notice before and mentally cursed people who couldn’t write coherent signs, even in six inch letters. As I sat, gazing blankly at the BOGOF deodorants and shampoos on the stand directly opposite me, a woman came in, marched up to the door, knocked on it briskly, then wandered off to look in the ‘Clearance’ bucket.

The door to the consulting room opened, the previous customer left, giving me a really peculiar look, and Mr Beech beckoned me inside.

‘Right’, he said cheerfully, as I placed my posterior in the chair. ‘Has anything changed since I last saw you?’ He was examining a record card.

I blinked. ‘You’ve never seen me before.’

He frowned. ‘Aren’t you Myra Evans?’

‘No. But that may be who’s just arrived outside …’

We looked at each other in bemusement for a moment before he thought to ask who I was. I told him. He consulted his diary. ‘I have you down for 11.55am.’

‘Oh. I have it down as 9.55am for some reason. Not to worry – I’m only just up the road, I’ll come back in a couple of hours ….’

For the second time that day I retreated in confusion and fled. It was only when I was at the garden centre loading an 80 litre bag of peat free goodness into the back of my car that I remembered I’d arranged my grocery delivery for the hour between midday and 1.00pm – because I’d thought my appointment with the optician was at 9.55am.

It was too late to change the grocery delivery because it would already be on the road, so as soon as I got home and had peeled two demented dogs off me (why – contrary to years of experience – do they always assume I’ve left them for ever?) I picked up the ‘phone to change the time of my eye test. As the number was ringing, I looked at the calendar. It plainly said ‘9.55: Optician’. I glanced down at my diary, which I’d just opened at the current week. It plainly said ‘11.55: Optician’.

Oh.

Heggartys answered.

‘Can I speak to Mr Beech please?’

‘Just a moment …’

‘Beech Eyecare.’

‘Mr Beech, I’m the person who gatecrashed a consultation and arrived at the wrong time …’

‘Oh hello. What can I do for you?’

‘I can’t get back to you for 11.55. I need to remake my appointment.’

‘No trouble. How would next Tuesday suit? 10. 35?’

‘Ten thirty-five next Tuesday? Fine. Thank  you – and I’m very sorry to be such an idiot.’

‘It’s not a problem …’

I now have the appointment written on the blackboard in the kitchen.

IN SIX INCH HIGH CAPITAL LETTERS.

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AT TINKERBELL’S TEAROOM

tea cupAll I wanted was to tuck myself into a quiet corner of Tinkerbell’s (purveyor of fine teas, coffees and homemade cakes to the gentry), order a cappuccino and a  custard doughnut and enjoy my book in peace. Professor Pilger was in Greece checking out the private lives of Mediterranean gastropods, I had (temporarily at least) caught up with Maggie’s backlog, and it was too wet and cold to do anything in the garden – so I decided that I d earned a little treat in the local tearoom.

The Universe, however, had other plans.

Jazz Ruskin was sitting at the table in the window with a slightly wild-haired older woman. I’d noticed her as I was coming in, and I greeted them with a smile and a nod, while making a determined beeline for the corner table at the back. Jazz was having none of it though. She leapt to her feet and – with an expression that radiated desperation – grabbed my arm.

‘How lovely to see you! DO come and join us!’

Before I had a chance to think of a way of politely declining, she had hustled me over to her table.

‘This is my Aunt Felicity. She’s staying at the Vicarage for a few days. Aunty Fliss, this the new owner of Tigh-na-Mara – the thatched cottage at the top of the village.’

I held out my hand and pinned on my best ‘I’m harmless’ smile.

‘How do you do?’

Aunty Fliss ignored my hand and gazed at me steadily for a moment before proclaiming loudly:

‘Bloody nuisance, thatched roofs. Harbour vermin. I’d get rid of it if I were you.’

It was the tone and volume you might adopt when addressing the congregation of one of the larger cathedrals if the PA system had crashed. I think the tea cups may actually have rattled on their saucers.

The other occupants of the tearoom naturally behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I sat down opposite her and glanced at Jazz, who was looking like a woman in the grip of all of her worst nightmares at once.

‘It keeps the rain out.’ I said mildly. ‘Are you staying in Adverse Camber for long?’

‘I hope not. Bloody awful place.’

‘Aunty, could you keep your voice down a bit?’ whispered Jazz, leaning in towards her. ‘The whole tearoom can hear you.’

I mentally added ‘Not to mention most of the village and a substantial percentage of the occupants of the graveyard’, but kept my own counsel and instead fell to examining the extraordinary sight before me as she declared, even more loudly,

‘I should care? Poxy place … What sort of name is Tinkerbell’s  anyway?’

She was a gaunt, perma-tanned woman in her seventies, who had the smooth, leathery sort of complexion that generally bespeaks many years spent outside in all weathers – a hypothesis borne out by her tweedy and well-worn clothes. Her hair was a greying ginger frizz, her nose slightly Roman, and faded blue eyes were surmounted by a high and smooth forehead. It was, taken in total, not the face of a stupid woman. A tiresomely self-opinionated one, perhaps – but not stupid.

Jazz was quietly explaining that the tearoom was called Tinkerbell’s  because it was actually run by a woman called Tinkerbell.

That revelation actually caused Aunty Fliss to pause for a moment.

‘Tinkerbell McConachie, as a matter of fact,’  I offered helpfully. ‘As her middle name is Wendy, I suspect a Peter Pan connection.’

As a teenager, Tink McConachie had, entirely understandably, hated her first name. For many years she’d styled herself ‘T. Wendy McConachie’, but human nature being what it is, people took that mysterious ‘T’ as a challenge  and went out of their way to find out what it stood for. In the end, she bowed to the inevitable. And when – six months ago and fresh out of catering college – she opened her catering business in Adverse Camber, the name was handed to her on, as it were, a tea plate.

Aunty Fliss digested this piece of information. ‘Good Lord. What WAS her mother thinking …’.

The woman herself – Tink – materialized at our table, notebook in hand. Young, pretty and personable with naturally rosy cheeks and curly brunette hair tied back in a short ponytail, she’s the sort of person you could thoroughly enjoy loathing if she wasn’t, inconveniently, also one of the nicest people on the planet.

‘I’ll have my usual please Tink,’ I said without even looking at the menu card or the ‘Specials’ board, and. Jazz ordered tea and scones for two.  Aunty Fliss glowered at her as Tink vanished into the kitchen.

‘You might have had the courtesy to ask.’

‘But that’s what you always have Aunty.’

‘How do you know I wanted it this time?’

‘Okaaaay. So what DO you want?’

‘That’s not the point …’

I thought this might be the right moment to try and change the subject.

‘So, Felicity — where do you live?’

‘Slough.’ Her eyes swivelled towards me, as if daring me to mention friendly bombs.

‘Aunty’s taking a few days R & R while Uncle George is … in hospital,’ explained Jazz, slightly nervously. I had the feeling she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t work out what, so I unthinkingly trotted out the usual platitude.

‘Oh, I’m sorry – nothing serious, I hope?’

There followed one of those moments which some ascribe to an angel passing overhead.  Everyone in the tearoom fell silent, at the precise moment that Fliss replied;

‘He started talking to the wheelie bin.’

‘Ah.’

It really is hard to know what to say in those circumstances, especially when you’re aware that you have an audience sitting all around you with cream slices paused in mid-air.

‘That’s … most unfortunate.’ I think someone behind me may have sniggered.

‘Oh, he’s been like it for years, daft old bugger … but we get on well enough most of the time..’ Suddenly, there was a real warmth in her voice and beside me, I felt Jazz relaxing. ‘Deaf as a post too, but with me in the same house, that’s probably self-defence..’ She smiled, and it was like the sun breaking through storm clouds. ‘We manage. He remembers the old days perfectly, so the pair of us live quite happily in the past. If the worst comes to the worst, we’ll just give the wheelie bin a name, clean it up and bring it indoors.’

‘Willie the Wheelie,’ I suggested as the hum of conversation resumed around us. ‘Or Boris. Boris the Bin …’

A few days later, an envelope landed on my doormat, addressed in handwriting I didn’t recognize. It was from Aunty Fliss.

Lovely to meet you.

George is home.
We’ve called the bin Big Bertha..  F.

~~~:~~~

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PHIL THE PILL

actreeIt started with a party: a party to which I was not invited. Not that I would have wanted to be, judging by the racket emanating from Pool Cottage, just up the hill from me. I’m a person who considers Brahms a bit rowdy, and he wasn’t a man famous for his pounding bass line.

The occupants of the cottage were plainly having a Christmas knees up and had invited all of their friends, along with their friends’ friends. Or, possibly, word had simply got out that there was free food and drink to be had and every party parasite within a ten mile radius had turned up. Either which way, one side of the (fairly narrow) road into Adverse Camber, down as far as The Drovers, was completely lined with cars, and one of them was in the pull-in immediately outside my house.

I first noticed it in the half light when I went out in order to perfect the distribution of the fairy lights on the Christmas tree I was putting in the window.

It was a big, grey job and not so much parked as simply abandoned where it had stopped, about a foot out from the verge and at odd angle so that its back end stuck out into the road. I was leaning over the fence peering at in the twilight when Norman and Jazz Ruskin wandered past, plainly heading for the party.They paused to admire the tree in the window. I waited for one of them to say ‘You can come and do ours when you’ve finished’, because someone always does.

‘There’s a blank bit down at the bottom right,’ said Jazz, narrowing her eyes critically. ‘And there are too many up at the top. It looks all lopsided. Coming to the party?’

‘No-one invited me,’ I replied with as much dignity as I could muster, faintly irritated that the Vicar and his wife had received an invitation and I hadn’t. I mean, I didn’t want to go, but it would have been nice to have been given the chance to say ‘No’.

‘It’s not an invitation thing,’ said Norman, his arm around Jazz’s shoulders. ‘Everyone in the village is welcome. Come along when you’ve finished ….The food’s always excellent.’

‘Oh. Errm. No… it’s not really my thing – crowds and loud music.’ I was pretty certain the windows of my cottage were actually vibrating in time to the pulsating din.  ‘But you two have fun.’

‘We will,’ grinned Jazz. ‘ We always do.’

They wandered off up the hill, leaving me to do my grumpy old git act in the rapidly gathering gloom.

To my pleasant surprise, the music stopped fairly early on … either that, or someone decided to turn it down so as not to disgruntle the local party-poopers and thus invite a brick through the window. I was vaguely aware of the sound of car doors slamming and engines starting up somewhere around midnight – but I can’t say they really disturbed me and when I woke briefly in the wee small hours of the morning all was graveyard quiet, as usual.

I was, therefore, slightly surprised to look out of my front window in the morning and see the grey car still parked there.

I ambled out in my dressing gown and slippers, clutching a mug of coffee, to take a better look at it in daylight. It was one of those big, ostentatious jobs that take up two parking spaces in the multi-storey, with huge wheels, running boards and lots of chrome. I looked up and down the road. Here and there, a few cars were still parked along the verge, and it was obvious that, drink having been taken, the owners of the cars had prudently decided to either call a taxi, walk, or cadge a lift home with the sober and come back for their cars when their blood alcohol levels permitted.

As the day progressed, and I periodically wandered outside with a bauble in my hand to admire my handiwork on the tree, I noticed that all the other cars in the road gradually disappeared, but the one in my pull-in just sat there – solid, grey, and in the way.

The next day, it was still there … which the postman irritably pointed out as he handed over a bundle of Christmas cards. ‘Could you ask your friend to move it? It’s in the way, and my van’s blocking the road because I can’t pull in properly.’

He drove off in a flurry of  indignation before I could suggest that he might like to tell THAT to Pool Cottage.

Next was the parcel courier, who also intimated that my friend should find somewhere else to park their car, ‘If you can call that parking …’.

Then I narrowly avoided backing into it myself as I got my own car out of the garage to go and buy some more fairy lights and baubles, and perhaps just a touch more tinsel.

Around lunchtime, I was actually out at the car, peering in the windows and tugging ineffectually at the door handles, when Adam sauntered past, en route for his usual lunchtime bevy at The Drovers.

‘Do you have any idea who owns this tasteless pile of junk?’ I asked bad-temperedly, kicking its huge tyres in exasperation. ‘It’s been here since the party up at Pool Cottage.’

He tilted his head to one side to look at the number plate – and for the first time. I noticed that it was a personalized one: PH 14.

‘Phil Heggarty.’

‘Phil the Pill? I might have bloody known.’

Phil Heggarty is the owner of a big, flashy chemists in Upper Camber, along with several other ‘nice little earners’. He lives in a mock Gothic pile on the Back Road and considers himself a cut above the common herd on account of being an ‘enterpernoor’. The fact that his ego is considerably bigger than his IQ has never, annoyingly, been any kind of impediment to his upward trajectory.

‘Right. When that prat comes back to collect his wheels, Words will be Said.’

‘I wouldn’t bother. He’ll just give you a mouthful.’

‘I’ve got a bigger vocabulary than he has …. and a bigger mouth. Dumping his pile of … Oooh … Look.’ The dustbin lorry was bearing down on us. ‘The binmen cometh. If I ask them nicely, do you think they’ll accidentally stove in the side of his bourgemobile for me?’

I did ask, after handing over a tenner in a Christmas card, and although they were sorely tempted, having no love for Phil the Pill themselves, they decided that really, they should at least attempt to squeeze past without disturbing his paintwork. I stood and watched and hoped, but they missed him. Rats.

The next time I went out, trailing tinsel after me, a slight and spotty youth was climbing into the car. Heggarty had, of course, sent one of his hapless minions to collect his ride. He smiled at me cheerfully.

‘The tree’s looking smashing.’

‘Oh. Um. Thank you.’

‘Merry Christmas!’

‘And to you.’

I stood there, as deflated as an old whoopee cushion, and watched him drive off – and I was still standing there, tinsel drooping at my side and my carefully rehearsed diatribe withering unproclaimed inside me, when Jazz came past, being dragged up the road by her elderly neighbour’s two cocker spaniels. She hauled them to an abrupt halt by the gate, and looked at me and my tinsel in disbelief.

‘Are you STILL decorating that bloody tree?’

~~~o~~~

ADVERSE CAMBER WILL BE BACK IN THE NEW YEAR.

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GRAVITY RULES, OK?

ropeI have something I haven’t had in decades. The last time I had one, I was about nine, and in ankle socks. What’s more, I remember how I got it. We used to live in a house on a remote, hilly road and as a child, one of my chief entertainments  was skipping along it – yes skipping, with a rope – as fast I could. I was an absolutely demon skipper: I won all the skipping races at school, not because I was in peak physical condition for a 9 year old but because I’d mastered the art of running flat out while turning a rope. It wasn’t so much skipping as sprinting without getting tangled up, and it was one of the few things that I did really, REALLY well. My talent with a skipping rope became legendary, but – as always happens with  legends  – I came a cropper when I started to believe my own PR. Convinced of my own invincibility, I tried to skip at full speed down the hill outside the house. Inevitably, gravity took a hand and my body ended up travelling faster than my legs with the result that the mighty athlete limped home bawling her eyes out and with blood pouring down her leg. The Matriarch was predictably unsympathetic when I told her how I’d done it. Her sole comment on the matter as she was cleaning me up, was – if I remember correctly – ‘Well that was a silly thing to do, wasn’t it, dear?’

How are the mighty fallen, eh?

Which is all a long winded way of saying that I have a scabby, bruised knee.

This time, however, I was doing nothing more exotic than walking – and sedately, at that. What’s more I was wearing a pair of extremely sensible walking boots and using a trekking pole, which only goes to prove that Life is just Unfair.

Immediately across the road from the cottage, there’s a lovely path through the woods down to the river, which the hounds and I often take.  The Boy Dog cavorts around delightedly, seeking out all the exciting smells, running backwards and forwards, barking at nothing and having a thoroughly wonderful time. In fact,  I could take a camping stool and a book and not move an inch while he exhausted himself – and I might be tempted, if I didn’t want the Old Lady Dog to get a bit of exercise occasionally. As it is, I let the Boy Dog run around while I drag the Old Lady Dog behind me on the far end of a retractable lead. She’s one of those rare dogs who just hates walking, plainly considering it a monumental waste of good sleeping time. She plods along morosely behind me, thinking murderous thoughts, while I wheedle and cajole and assure her in tones of forced jollity that it’s all wonderful and great fun and doing her the world of good.

I’m only grateful that the lack of an opposable thumb means she can’t handle a boning knife.

To alleviate the tedium of dragging an unwilling dog along at an ultra-slow mooch, I often take a camera with me to take arty photos of the light through the trees, or out of focus shots of the Boy Dog hurtling around at breakneck speed … and on this particular, very frosty, morning, I had my more expensive one slung around my neck, the better to take pictures of ice crystals and frozen puddles.

We were through the woods and within sight of the river when disaster struck. A pheasant, which had been lurking in the undergrowth beside the path, suddenly shot  in front of us and headed off across the river meadow. Boy Dog immediately took off in lunatic pursuit, falling over his own feet in his hysteria, while Old Lady Dog, transforming miraculously from ‘dying duck in a thunderstorm’ to mean, lean, killing machine – albeit one with a lousy sense of direction – inexplicably executed a perfect 180 degree turn by shooting forwards yapping dementedly, then changing her mind and galloping around me to end up facing completely the wrong way. This manoeuvre, carried out at considerable speed and while I was bellowing at the Boy Dog, had the effect of wrapping the cord of the retractable lead around my ankles, with inevitable consequences. I believe the correct order of contact with the frozen ground was right knee, right hand, camera, left knee, left hand, rest of body …

As is the way with human beings, my first thought was not about the sickening pain in my right knee, or even the whereabouts of my game-pursuing dog … it was, ‘Did anyone see me falling flat on my face?’

I sat up and looked around. There wasn’t another soul as far as the eye could see. Phew.

My next thought was, ‘My camera! Is my camera broken?’

I examined the lens. It was intact. I turned the camera on. It worked. Another phew.

It was only then  when I’d established that both my amour propre  and my camera were undamaged,  that I thought, ‘Ow! Bloody OW!!’ –  and became aware of the searing, nauseating pain in my right knee. I didn’t even dare try to flex my leg, the pain was so bad, and the thought occurred to me that I might easily have fractured my kneecap – which is when my first observation came home to roost: there wasn’t another soul as far as the eye could see.

Ah.

The Boy Dog returned from his adventure across the meadow breathless and shiny eyed, but devoid of any indications that he’d actually caught the pheasant – probably because the latter had eventually remembered that it could fly.

In a 1950s Hollywood film, the heroic dog would go off in search of help for his stricken mistress and – doing that excited barking-and-skittering-back-and-forth thing – lead the rescuers to my aid. In real life, he decided he was tired, and lay down and went to sleep with his chin on my conveniently positioned left leg. The Old Lady, on the other hand, was sitting on the path glaring at me with her best ‘What fresh hell is this?’ expression on her face.

After a while, the pain and nausea subsided a little and I risked gently bending my right knee. Nothing crunched, and the pain didn’t get any worse. I wiggled my toes. They worked. I got a bit more daring with the leg and waved it around a bit. Nothing alarming happened. So, very gingerly, I dislodged the snoozing dog and got to my feet. I tested the injured leg as one would test thin ice, and it held. I bounced on it a couple of times and nothing popped loose.

It took me an hour to hobble home, and when I finally rolled up my trouser leg to inspect the damage, my knee looked as if it belonged to a nine year old. All I needed to complete the effect was the ankle socks.

Still, at least I learned a couple of things:

(1)   Always take a mobile ‘phone and/or a whistle with you when you go dog-walking – even if you’re never out of sight of a village, and …

(2)   Be you nine or ninety … Gravity Rules, OK?

~~~o~~~

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IN SEARCH OF RESPECTABILITY

kitten-heelsIt’s Christmas Lunch season in the Camber Valley and the members of the local chapter of the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild have never been known to pass up the chance to don their bling and party like it’s 1956. So every year they hold their December meeting at the Abbots Ley Country House Hotel, with its sweeping lawns, strutting peacocks and tenuous connection with a Z-List Romantic Poet no-one’s ever heard of. It also, oddly enough, has a car park more suited to hiking boots than Jimmy Choos, and rumour has it that when there’s a big ‘do’ on, the local oiks camp out in the shrubbery with a couple of bottles of strong cider and place bets on which of the female revellers is most likely topple over with a startled shriek before gaining the safety of the tarmac drive.

On the day of this year’s lunch, I opened the door of my wardrobe and peered into the dark interior in the hope of finding something that wasn’t a tracksuit bottom, torn sweatshirt or stained fisherman’s smock – my normal choice of clothing for everything except job interviews and funerals. Quite where I hoped such an outfit was going to materialize from, I have no idea … but I peered anyway, before sighing heavily and getting out the inevitable secondhand weddings/funerals/job interviews combo of aubergine jacket, black camisole, and black trousers. Then I considered the venue, and the company I was keeping, and decided that a skirt was probably going to be de rigueur – which created a whole new set of problems. For instance, I wasn’t remotely sure I had a skirt I could get into nor, indeed, a pair of tights that wasn’t in shreds, thanks to the demented attentions of two overly-enthusiastic Jack Russells.

I tried on three skirts before I finally found one that (a) I could walk in normally without holding my breath and (b) didn’t look too weird with the jacket. Next task: find a pair of tights without holes, or – indeed – find a pair of tights of any description. When you live in variations on the theme of the rugby sock, fripperies like tights get stuffed to the back of the drawers, eventually to be shouldered out completely and end up at the bottom of the chest, crushed and unloved.

I rummaged fruitlessly in several drawers for a minute or two before finding a pair of tights in amongst the knickers and hankies. True, they were dangerously close to the dreaded ‘American Tan’, but they weren’t holed or laddered and as far as I was concerned, that was good enough.

Triumphantly, I hauled all the finery on and considered the end result in the hall mirror. I looked almost presentable. My hair needed combing, but there was nothing new in that: my hair always looks as if I spend my life running my fingers through it distractedly – mostly because I do. It was nothing some industrial strength hairspray wouldn’t cure.

All I needed now, I told myself, were my faithful boots … but then, with a sinking heart, I realized that I couldn’t wear honking great boots with a skirt. On a seventeen year old it looks edgy. Half a century later, it just looks eccentric.

I needed shoes. The sort ordinary women with normal lives wear. Not trekking sandals or flip-flops or sensible brown brogues, but neat things with heels. I had some somewhere. I had at least two pairs of plain court shoes that used to fit me and presumably still did, because your feet don’t get fat, do they? Not really?

Acutely aware of the passage of time and the fact that I’d been told in no uncertain terms, to be sure I was at the hotel no later than midday, I scrabbled around in the bottom of several cupboards, hurling aside sandals and boots in an increasingly desperate search for a pair of ordinary shoes.  Imelda Marcos, I told myself, never had this problem.

Finally, dishevelled and pink-faced, I emerged with two – count them – TWO  pairs of plain black court shoes: one with cuban heels and one with what I believe are called kitten heels. I tried the first pair on. Almost immediately tears sprang to my eyes, and without taking a single step, I knew I couldn’t even walk in them, let alone make it across the Abbots Ley car park with my dignity and ankles intact.

I tried the second pair on and for a few wonderful moments, I thought I might have cracked it. They looked good and felt reasonably comfortable …  until  I tried to cross the room in them. By the time I reached the door, I was clutching the furniture and hobbling like an arthritic ninety year old.

I dived back into the cupboard and started rummaging through bags and boxes in search of something – anything – I could put on my feet that wouldn’t look like kipper boxes without topses. I’d almost given up hope and decided to wear trousers and boots and to hell with trying to look respectable, when I found a pair of old black pumps shoved in a sports bag. I tried them on. They fitted. I tried walking in them and made it to the door without crippling myself. I looked down at them: they were scuffed and filthy.

Shoe polish. I needed shoe polish. Where was the shoe polish? I started hunting  through the house. It wasn’t in the cupboard under the stairs. It wasn’t in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. It wasn’t in the utility. It wasn’t in the garage … Well, I say it wasn’t in the garage, but that’s probably exactly where it IS, except I still haven’t got around to unpacking it yet … which actually demonstrates just how shamefully infrequently I clean a pair of shoes.

I decided eventually that furniture polish would have to do – after all, no-one was going to be looking at my feet, were they? Women don’t look at other women’s feet, do they? Not when there’s food and drink to be had, surely?

The polish didn’t cover up the scuffing of course, but it did at least remove some of the dirt and impart a vague suggestion of shine, and as I looked in the mirror, I finally allowed myself a small sigh of relief.The reflection was of someone who would not only get across the car park in one piece but also be allowed through the front door.

And then I remembered those things called handbags … which you need if you aren’t wearing tracksuit bottoms and smocks that are plentifully supplied with pockets.

I checked my watch. I was running out of time.

Handbag. I had to have a handbag somewhere – other than the one which was on the back seat of the car when the Boy Dog had that volcanic intestinal accident after he helped himself to a packet of figs  …

~~~:~~~

I arrived at the hotel in a flurry of gravel, nearly came a cropper on my way across the car park and dead-heated with the announcement that ‘Luncheon is served’.

Maggie – who is usually the last to arrive for everything –  looked at me vaguely disbelievingly as we filtered into the tastefully-decorated dining room with a view out over the River Camber.

‘You cut that a bit fine, didn’t you?’ she hissed from the corner of her mouth. ‘Whatever have you done to your hair?  And why on EARTH do you keep sniffing your handbag?’

~~~:~~~

 

 

0

THE BIRDS …

titAdverse Camber has just enjoyed – if that’s quite the right verb – a spell of sub-zero weather. The Met Office wittered on about a polar vortex, a plunging something-or-other and a wobbly gulf stream, or possibly jet stream, and spoke blithely of a ‘cold snap’. What that meant in real terms was that for several mornings in succession, the inhabitants of the Camber Valley woke to a beautiful, frozen world, complete with lethal roads, broken central heating boilers and a stark divide between those who found it all enchanting and photogenic (who were, in the main, people who didn’t have to leave the house) and those who found it a monumental pain in the backside because they had a living to earn and ‘the ****ing gritting lorries haven’t reached the ****ing back roads yet and what do we pay our ****ing taxes for?’.

I’m basically in the former group, in that if I DO have to be anywhere, it’s generally in the village and within cautious slithering distance.

I have a different problem.

I have birds.

Anyone who knows me, even slightly, knows that I’m very fond of my garden birds. So fond, in fact, that what I spend on bird seed every year would be enough to feed an entire developing nation for at least a couple of hours. My argument is that I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I eat deeply boring food and I pay £10 for a haircut only when I start walking into things – so all the money I save by being what I like to call ‘frugal’ (and you may call it what you wish) is spent on suet blocks, sunflower kernels and those dinky half-coconut shells filled with fatty, seedy gloop. Other women go misty-eyed over shoes and handbags. I salivate over niger seed feeders.

Once upon a time, ‘feeding the birds’ was a matter of scattering a few breadcrumbs on the patio and – if you were feeling really pioneering – buying a small box of ‘Swoop’ wild bird seed to give your feathery chums a little treat. You start out with the intention of keeping it all low key … a little bird table, with a half coconut, some peanuts and a two-port seed feeder. Then you see goldfinches in your neighbour’s garden, and you think ‘I’m having some of those’. So you buy thistle seed, which needs a special thistle-seed feeder. Next, you realize you’re getting through a lot of seed, so it makes sense to buy it in bigger quantities … and those suet block feeders look good … and – oh look – six birds at a time can feed on that seed hopper … And before you know it, puce-faced delivery men are staggering to your door with 25 kilo sacks of sunflower seeds and whole cases of fat balls and demanding to know how many golden eagles you’re feeding in your back garden.

Needless to say, the local bird population knows where the food is and you soon realize that you’re on their daily feeding route. They turn up at the same time every day to clean you out completely – stripping the suet feeders and emptying the seed hoppers while fighting noisily over the sunflower seeds. Blackbirds shriek false alarm calls from the fence in an attempt to frighten other birds away,  rapier-beaked nuthatches cold-bloodedly try to skewer all-comers on the peanuts and coal tits employ hit-and-run tactics, zooming in from the shrubbery  to grab a suet pellet before fleeing to safety again. All human life is out there – in bird form. They get a free lunch and you get a floor show. It seems an equitable arrangement.

But then you notice something. They not only know where the food is, they ALSO know how it gets there. They know where it comes from.  They know which door you come out of and where you stand to watch them feeding. If they had little avian mobile ‘phones, they’d have your number …

Whenever you go out in the garden, the robins scream at you from three feet away while the starlings line up on the eaves of the cottage, tapping their claws impatiently. Your life is no longer your own. Everywhere you go outside, dozens of pairs of accusing, beady eyes are following your every move.

Then the hammering on the window starts. You tell yourself they’re pecking at insects, but when you look, they’re just tapping the glass … and the feeders are empty …

On the first of the frozen mornings, I woke to a positive volley of tapping on the windows, and when I looked outside, the world had turned white. Those feeders that weren’t empty were frozen solid and the bird bath was a block of ice – and all around the garden, birds sat on the fences, the shed, the greenhouse, the washing line … just waiting.

‘Oh, poor things ….’

In slippers and dressing gown I went out with hot water and bird food. I thawed the bath, I freed up the frozen seed and I filled the feeders – and all before getting my own or the dogs’ breakfast.  For a couple of hours thereafter, peace descended.  Then the tapping started again. I looked out into the garden. The feeders were empty and ice was forming on the water again.

Twice more this pantomime played out before darkness fell … and the following three days followed exactly the same pattern. I spent my days dancing (careful) attendance on the birds.

This morning, I woke to silence. No tapping. On looking outside, I saw a grey and wet world, devoid of frost and ice.

Now, I KNOW you’re going to say that I’m paranoid and imagining things: that the birds are only pecking at insects and simply hanging around where they know there’s a regular supply of food. Perhaps you’re right … but just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.

So, would you do me a favour? If I don’t appear here next week – send bird food?

0

ALFRED

fezEveryone around here knows Alfred.

Alfred is Stan Burgess’s shadow. Wherever Stan appears, Alfred is there too –  shy and quiet, with slightly more hair than teeth (but there isn’t much in it), and doing very little  except holding things like ladders, paint pots and bits of wood. Stan doesn’t really need him, but is seldom seen without him. They go together like Astaire and Rogers or, more appropriately, given their respective builds, Laurel and Hardy.

His conversational repertoire consists entirely of ‘Aye’, ‘No’, ‘Please’, ‘How do’ and ’Thank you’, along with a few generalities about the weather such as ‘Nice day’ and ‘Cold, in’t it?’ Scintillating company he isn’t – but he’s a gentle and unconquerably sweet natured soul, liked by everyone in the village, who is fed tea and cake wherever he goes and generally treated like a favourite labrador.

They were up at Bramblings this week, working on a broken sash window in the library before the winter sets in.  Sash windows are wonderful, magical things which appear to defy the laws of physics, but only as long as the sash cords are intact. The cord in that particular window had failed suddenly the week before  just as I was drawing my head in after having shouted to  Jimmy – Professor Pilger’s gardener – to tell him that there was a cup of tea waiting for him in the kitchen.

When the cord in a sash window gives up the ghost, the window itself turns into a sort of blunt guillotine – and this one just missed my head by a hair’s breadth. I swear I felt the passing draught on my cheek as the window hurtled downwards at speed, cracking one of the panes of glass and splintering the wood at the bottom of the lower sash. When I rang Stan, he happened to be in the immediate area and called in – with Alfred in tow – on his way to another job.

He looked at the window ‘That’s a mess,’ he said.

There are no flies on Stan.

The Professor waited patiently for the verdict.

‘It’ll need a new sash.’ Stan held out his hand to Alfred, who handed him a tape measure. He sized up the frame. ’It’s an unusual size,’ he announced, handing the measure back to Alfred. ‘I’ll have to get one made.’

‘How long?’ asked the Professor.

A less deferential person than Stan (me, for instance) would probably have said ‘About two foot six …’ but Stan is nothing if not deferential, and he stuck to the strictly factual. ‘Depends how busy the joiner is, Professor … probably a week.’

Eight days later, Stan and Alfred were back with a made-to-measure, and already painted, lower sash for the window,  and I was watching fascinated as they took the old window out, removed the cords and weights, cleaned out the channels in the frame and oiled the pulleys. Then Stan began the – to my eyes at least – arcane job of re-corded the sashes and reattaching the weights.

‘Blimey, that’s clever. What sort of demented genius invented sash windows?’

Stan looked at me over his half moons as if it was the daftest question he’d ever heard.

‘Well someone must have invented them,’ I said, defensively. ‘They didn’t just happen, did they? Somebody must have worked out all that counterweight stuff …’

‘I suppose so.’ He turned his attention back to the window with the air of one who doesn’t worry too much about how things are discovered.

I worry about it all the time.  Who found out that you could turn cocoa beans into chocolate santas, for instance? Or that tomato ketchup takes the green out of blonde hair after you’ve been in a swimming pool? And who was the first poor sap to discover that deadly nightshade was – you know – deadly?

Deciding that I’d be more gainfully occupied attending to my paid employment than engaging in witty banter with Stan, I scooped up my notes and started to retreat from the library. Then I noticed that something had caught Alfred’s attention outside the other window. I came up behind him and looked over his shoulder out into the garden. There was a white pheasant there, sitting on a low wall and preening its tail feathers.

‘Oh how lovely,’ I said. ‘I’d heard there was one around but I’ve never seen it before. Isn’t it beautiful?’

‘Aye,’ he said quietly.

‘I don’t expect it will last long, poor thing. It’s an easy target for the shoot.’

‘Oh no,’ said Alfred. ‘They won’t kill it. It’s bad luck to kill a white pheasant. Everyone knows that.’ He smiled at me. ‘I see it all the time in my garden.’

‘Do you?’ I tried not to sound as startled as I felt. ‘Where do you live, Alfred?’

‘Wittenshaw Beeches.’

‘That lovely cottage on the edge of the woods?’

‘Aye. That’s it. It’s good there. Quiet, like.’

Over at the other window, Stan had stopped work and was staring, slack-jawed.

‘It must be … it’s well back from the road, and it isn’t a particularly busy road. Do you live alone?’

‘Oh no, I’ve got me dad. Me mam died when I was little. I don’t remember her really. But me and dad manage fine.’ He hadn’t taken his eyes off the pheasant. ‘I paint a bit. I’ve painted the pheasant.’

For a split second, I had images of magnolia gloss, but then I realize what he was saying.

‘Water colour?’

‘Aye. I’m not very good, mind. But I like doing it.’

‘So do I. And I’m not very good at it either.’ We shared a conspiratorial smile … and then Stan’s bemused voice said, ‘I could do with a hand here, lad.’

With an awkward little nod of his head towards me, Alfred shuffled off dutifully to hold something, and when I looked out of the window again, the pheasant had vanished.

It was about half an hour later, when the window was finished and Alfred was taking the tools out to the van that Stan sought me out to say that the job was done and he’d drop off his bill in the next few days. Then he said.

‘Welcome to the club.’

‘What club’s that then?’

‘The people Alfred talks to.’

‘Is it a very exclusive club?’

‘You, me and Adam.’

‘The man who doesn’t exist. That IS exclusive. I’m honoured.’

‘You are.’

And I believe he really meant it.

~~~:~~~

(Picture credit: From a photo by GailHampshire on Flickr.)