Sunday, 27 July 2014

A Cretan Affair

Four decades ago, during an Easter school trip to the Med, I fell in love with a beautiful island called Crete.  I can still remember standing on a mountain road that was edged with wild flowers, looking down upon clusters of tiny white-washed houses grouped around a golden bay, and delighting in the bluest ocean my twelve-year-old eyes had ever seen.  I was awestruck.  It was many years later before I returned, and when I did, the magic was still there.  Like a charming lover, Crete has disarmed me again and again.
          ‘Wow!’ I exclaimed, as we piled into our hotel room.  ‘This has got to be the swankiest room we’ve ever stayed in.  And look!’ I pointed with delight to a panel on the wall.  ‘This place is so posh, our room even has a burglar alarm.’
          ‘Those are the air-conditioning controls,’ said my husband rolling his eyes.
          The bell boy wheeled in the suitcases and we started to unpack.
          ‘Oh, no,’ groaned Eleanor, ‘you forgot to pack some sponges.  I can’t possibly have a shower without a sponge.  I won’t feel clean.’
          The following evening, Mr V – who was already suffering the proverbial ants in his pants – volunteered to buy some sponges.
          ‘Who fancies taking a bus with me into the old town?’ he asked, looking from daughter to wife expectantly.  But Eleanor and I were watching a mesmerising sunset, and didn’t want to budge from our basket chairs on the terrace.  ‘How can you just sit here?’ he complained.
          ‘Quite easily,’ I assured.
          Who needed to take a bus ride for entertainment when the most spectacular drama was unfolding before us?  The vast sweeping view from the long open terrace gave sight to the open sea with a backdrop of mountains.  Every evening a huge bonfire of orange would hover over the horizon before slowly sinking into the ocean, leaving a horizontal trail from left to right of peach melba, raspberry sorbet and giant pink wisps, while the heavens above overlit the whole thing in violet and indigo blue.  Never has the word mesmerising been so apposite.  Night after night, I’d sit and watch that sunset until the skies turned black and the vista became one of twinkling lights along the rugged coastline.
          On the flight to Crete, there were two new parents with a young baby.  The mum, exhausted no doubt by endless broken nights, was struggling to deal with a fractious infant confined to her lap for a four hour flight.  Eventually her husband took a turn, walking up and down the aisle with the colicky infant over his shoulder, and all the time he crooned, ‘Shush, shush, shush.’  As he shushed, I could feel my own eyelids drooping.  And as I stood on the beach the following morning, listening to an ocean that shush-shush-shushed, I was reminded of the young father placating his baby.  I loved the changes in the sea – how one day it would be as smooth as glass, making its lazy shushing noise as gentle ripples curled through the water producing the smallest of laps around paddling ankles.  And yet twenty-four-hours later, a breeze would descend, picking up speed, whipping the waves into a crescendo of whooshing and hissing so that they rose up six feet high before bursting forth in a mass of foaming froth, sloshing huge bubbling puddles onto the sand.  I always knew when it was around 5.30 p.m. because the sun would be at a certain angle.  Its rays would turn every wave and ripple to a shimmering mass of diamonds.
          But I digress.  Mr V returned from his trip to the old town grinning like a prospector who had found gold.
          ‘Ta da!’ he said, making a noise like a fanfare of trumpets.  ‘Here are the sponges you wanted.  They’re real ones too!’
          Eleanor leant forward to peer at them.  ‘Real ones?’ she questioned.  ‘What, you mean they’re still alive?’
          As a family, we have these ‘quirky’ exchanges.  For example, on another evening my husband suggested we have a chat about politics.
          ‘Is that a good idea?’ I asked.  An unspoken rule is to never talk about politics, or religion, on the grounds that it can lead to heated arguments.
          ‘Yes,’ my husband waved a hand dismissively, ‘come on, Eleanor, tell me what you know about politics.  This is an educational conversation. After all, you’ll be old enough to vote next year.  So, tell me, who are the main political parties?’
          ‘Oh, right.  Um, well, there’s the Lib Dems.’
          ‘And, um, Labour.’
          ‘Very good.  Who else?’
          ‘The Conservatories,’ said Eleanor, warming to her task.
          ‘Ooh, and that alternative one, don’t tell me,’ Eleanor was in her stride now, ‘yes, got it, The Green Thumb.’
          ‘Isn’t that a lawn company?’ I asked.
          ‘Ah.  In that case it must be the Jolly Green Giant.  I’ve seen their poster somewhere.’
          ‘Yes, on tins of sweet corn,’ said Mr V looking horrified.  ‘Eleanor, one day you will be responsible for electing a future Government.  You need to be a lot more informed.’
          ‘Have you seen all the unusual handbags hanging on the wall in the hotel foyer?’ I asked, thinking a change of subject might be required.
          ‘Handbags?’ Mr V frowned.  ‘What handbags?’
          ‘Those rectangular things over there,’ I pointed.
          ‘They’re cow bells,’ said Mr V.  ‘Wooden cow bells, not handbags.’
          As I said, sometimes we have these conversations.
          And sometimes we don’t just say silly things, we also do silly things.  Like the time I offered to do the drinks run.  I set off from the beach, straw hat plonked firmly on head, and made my way to the bar.  It was a good trek as Mr V always liked to reserve sunbeds at the far end of the beach.
          ‘Hi,’ I greeted the barman.  ‘I’ll have a large bottle of carbonated water, three cups, one full of ice and, um, a Pepsi cola, a gin and tonic, and a Virgin Mojita please.’
          ‘Anything else?’
          I eyeballed the massive bowl of fruit on the bar top.
          ‘A banana.’
          ‘Here you are.’
          I then realised that carrying this little lot back to our sunbeds at the far end of the beach was going to be tricky due to only having one pair of hands.  Undaunted, I picked up the banana and shoved it down the side of my bikini bottoms, before scooping up the three drinks in one hand – fingers in all the liquid – and then grabbed the carbonated water with my other hand.  I was just lowering my jaw down to bar level to pick up the plastic cup of ice with my teeth, when the most heavenly male accent spoke into my ear.
          ‘You look like a woman in serious trouble.’
          I turned, and nearly fainted.  Standing before me was an Adonis, well over six feet tall, with a washboard stomach and skin the colour of peanut butter.  He was also about twenty years younger than me.  In the grip of hormonal havoc, I flushed deep red, and assured the gentleman I could manage perfectly well.  The man arched an eyebrow before glancing at my bikini bottoms.  Automatically, I sucked in my stomach.
          ‘Any woman wearing a banana as a pistol in her bikini, is a woman who needs help.’
          There was a fleeting moment where I wondered if he meant psychiatric help, but instead he removed half the drinks from my hand and asked, ‘Which way are you going?’
          ‘Oh, no, really, it’s fine,’ I gabbled, ‘I don’t want to take you out of your way, I’m right at the end of the beach.’
          The Adonis gave me a smouldering gaze which nearly had my banana standing to attention and replied, ‘I just happen to be going that way too.’
          I gulped nervously.  Quite what Mr V and our daughter would make of me sauntering up to our sunbed with Rod the Bod in tow, I wasn’t sure.  As it turned out, Eleanor was plugged into her iPod with her eyes shut and my husband was knee deep in the Daily Mail’s sports pages.
          ‘Ah, lovely,’ said Mr V holding out his hand for his gin and tonic, eyes still firmly on photographs of footballers and oblivious to the big hairy hand offering him his drink.  ‘Thanks, darling.’
          This confirms that when you’ve been married a long time, your husband truly no longer notices you.  Which reminds me. 
Marriage is an institution in which a man loses his Bachelor's Degree and the woman gets her Masters… 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Driving You Crazy

This week I have encountered quite a lot of impatient motorists.  There have been drivers who have pulled out on me.  Drivers who have cut in.  And then there was the driver who loudly objected when I gave way to a bus.  A glance in my rear view mirror revealed an apoplectic face and a hand gesture that definitely wasn’t a friendly wave.
          I haven’t fared much better in car parks.  Earlier on in the week, whilst visiting my accountant, some ‘thoughtful’ soul boxed me in.  Of all the empty spaces in the car park, apparently none were close enough to the door of the building he wished to visit.  Are people really in such a hurry that they can’t drive within the speed limit, or be considerate to other motorists?  It would seem not.
          I’m not a fast driver.  Indeed, the one and only time I ever received a speeding ticket was when mistakenly driving at 34 mph in an area I believed to be 40 mph.  However, the local Council, without any warning, had changed the speed on that stretch of the road to 30 mph.
          My husband didn’t believe me when I told him I’d been caught speeding.
          ‘You?’ he asked incredulously.  ‘No!  Where’s the proof?’
          And so I showed him.  And anybody else who doubted I’d been so daring as to break the law.
          It’s been a long time since I drove like a girl racer.  In fact I can pinpoint exactly when it happened.  It was the day after I took my driving test.  It’s the same phenomenon that happens to 99% of all newly qualified drivers.  Overnight, you turn into a lunatic.  Back then, in those heady days of singledom and being child free, I’d roar around in my ancient Morris Minor – a gift from my grandmother – thinking I was the bee’s knees, terrifying all the granddads on the road.  I was an arrogant know-it-all.
          Toot toot.  ‘Get out of the way.’
          Parp parp.  ‘Try studying the Highway Code!’
          Beep beep.  ‘Call yourself a driver?  You don’t know the meaning of the word!’
          The road was mine, and the Morris Minor was my Ferrari.  Unfortunately my car begged to differ.  Six months later it needed not just a new clutch but also a new engine.  Oh, and a re-spray where I’d driven into the garage wall not once, not twice, but three times a lady driver.  Parking had never been my strong point.  That and roundabouts.  Every accident I’ve ever had has been on a roundabout.  But I digress.  I can still remember the incredible guilt, as I looked at my beloved grandmother’s crestfallen face, telling her the car was ‘worn out’.
          ‘How strange,’ she’d said, brow puckered, ‘I can’t understand it.’
          ‘Mm,’ I’d nodded.  ‘It’s a mystery.’
          ‘I only ever drove it to Carréfours and back at twenty miles per hour, and twice a year to Kent at thirty miles per hour.  It always behaved perfectly.’
          Yes, until a twenty-year-old madwoman took over the controls.
          My reacquaintance of driving within the speed limit came the day after becoming a mother.  Another overnight phenomenon occurred.  Suddenly I was one of the slowest drivers on the planet.  Couldn’t get out of third gear for years.  I’d drive along, sweating profusely, as car after car overtook me, with my precious cargo strapped into a baby seat.  It was always a joy to pal up with another new mother and swap tales of manic drivers on the road.
          ‘I had a near miss today.’
          ‘Yes!  This madman blared his horn and overtook me on the Top Dartford Road.  He must have been doing at least 38 mph.’
          ‘How terrifying.  There should be a law against it.’
          Which reminds me.  Nothing confuses a man more than a woman driver who does everything right…

Saturday, 5 July 2014

A Bit of a Work Out

Earlier this week, a lovely girlfriend invited me to meet up for a work-out at her gym.  When I say her gym, I don’t mean a rowing machine in the spare room.  Rather, the amazing gym that Fiona’s employer gives as a perk.  I’ve been to one or two gyms in my lifetime…okay, just the one…and thought it pretty good.  A big studio for the likes of Zumba, and crashing into other members, and a smaller studio full of bicycles that didn’t go anywhere.  Oh, and another room full of weights and machines that looked like instruments of torture.  And were.  However, nothing prepared me for Reebok Sports Club in Canary Wharf.  This is the gym of all gyms – the one that takes the crown.
          I signed in and was whisked through the security turnstile.  Clutching my bikini wrapped in a bath towel, Fiona said, ‘Oh dear, I forgot to tell you that you didn’t need to bring a towel.  Look.’  She pointed to a wall, possibly as long as Hadrian’s, which was stocked floor to ceiling with fluffy white towels.  ‘Nor do you need shower gel, hair conditioner, a hair dryer, or flat irons,’ Fiona said, ‘because it’s all here.’  I stared around in disbelief.  It was like Vidal Sassoon, except a zillion times bigger, and minus a mincing hair techie.  ‘Let me show you around,’ said Fiona.  And so I was shown.  All three floors.  All 10,000 square feet.  There was even a rock climbing wall, a golf lab and a boxing ring for heaven’s sake!  Think of something you want to do, and the Reebok Club have got it.  Not to mention 210 classes a week to do it in.  I felt exhausted just looking at everything. 
          Before I go any further with this blog entry, let me just mention that Fiona has been on a successful mission to lose weight and shape up through exercise and sensible eating.  She’s dropped two dresses sizes, and is fit.  Whereas lately I only seem to think about exercise, eat whilst thinking about it, and have possibly gone up two dress sizes.  As Fiona had worked out earlier that day with a personal trainer, and whizzed a medicine ball round and round her head – and possibly the personal trainer too – she was happy to do something a little gentler.  With a sigh of relief, we slid into the pool.  While we did a sedate breaststroke in the slow lane, guys in wet suits practised diving in the fast line, and in yet another lane twenty women were bouncing around for the water aerobics class.  Still, I must have worked off, ooh, at least fifty calories.
          Afterwards, we showered, dressed and strolled across the Thames to The Gun, a pub in the Docklands.  This place is a little piece of history.  Two-hundred-and-fifty years old, way back then the surrounding area at that time had iron foundries.  Here, guns were made for the Royal Navy fleets.  Under the pub is a labyrinth of tunnels, where all sorts of weapons were brought in on the black market.  Lord Horatio Nelson acquired a nearby property, and would regularly meet his lover, Lady Emma Hamilton, at The Gun.  The two of them would use a secret circular staircase to access an upstairs room.  We were lucky enough to be shown around.  All I can say is that folk back then must have been incredibly short.  Stooping, we went through a narrow aperture (folk must have been incredibly thin too!) and stepped into Lord Nelson’s ‘naughty room’.  Except today it is called The River Room, because of its spectacular view of the Thames.
          After our guided tour, we were taken to the restaurant.  At this point I’d like to mention what we were wearing.  Fiona was attired in a smart power suit accessorised with quality handbag.  I was wearing a summer dress accessorised with a bath towel.  Inside the towel was a very soggy bikini.  I clung onto it tightly as we were led to our table at the far end of the restaurant.
          ‘Now, ladies, enjoy your meals, but I must have the table back by ten-thirty.  Jonathan Ross has reserved it.’
          Fiona and I did a bit of hyperventilating.  Wow.  Wossy would be sitting here in two hours!  How trendy was this place, eh!  I kicked my bath towel under the table.  Clearly this was an uber cool location, and bath towels were definitely not uber cool.  I tossed my hair back, picked up the menu, and tried to look uber cool.  The words blurred before my eyes.  However, I didn’t want to whip out my reading glasses.  Firstly, they looked cheap.  Which is because they are.  £4.99 from Asda – bargain.  But, secondly, they are bright red with white spots.  I did consider whether to put them on and pass myself off as eccentric, but what with the bath towel, I think there’s only so far you can push it.
          The waiter took our order and, for a while, all was well.  It was as we were leaving that all attempts at being uber cool failed.  The waiter tripped over my towel.  Gathering it up, I belatedly realised it was no longer in a tight coil.  Standing up, the towel swiftly unravelled divesting itself of the bikini which came to rest in the remains of my strawberry sorbet.  Still, I don’t think too many people noticed.  Well, only ten or so.  Which reminds me.  Why did the blonde keep doing the backstroke?  She’d just had dinner and didn’t want to swim on a full stomach…