Saturday, 30 August 2014

Whitstable Walkies


A few years ago – well, a few decades ago actually – the family had a Golden Labrador called Sandy.  I know.  Not a terribly original name.  He was a great big bundle of joy who always greeted us with a smile – anybody who didn’t know him thought he was snarling – and he always brought you a gift…a shoe…a slipper…a disgruntled cat…anything to convey welcome home.  Sandy was a family member in every way, and when we packed up the car and headed off to the seaside for a day out, naturally our dog came too.  I will never forget the look on his face when he saw the sea.  Back then dogs were allowed on beaches with no restrictions and ours, unrestrained by a leash, took off to investigate.  Like King Canute desiring to master the waves, Sandy planted his paws wide and fired off a round of deep baritone barks.  As if obeying him, the waves retreated.  Satisfied he was master of all, he wagged his tail.  Seconds later the waves changed direction and rolled onto the shingle.  Sandy gave one terrified yelp and turned and ran back to us.  He couldn’t figure out this seething expanse of water.  But after half an hour or so, he relaxed and delighted in dashing into the foam and splashing about.  It is because of that long-ago dog’s reaction to the sea that I determined, all these years later, that our own pooch should enjoy a day out on the coast.
          ‘Our dog is thirteen-years-old,’ I said to my husband with a sense of time running out, ‘and she still hasn’t seen the sea.  We said we’d take her to the coast last summer, and the summer before that, and the one before that, and we haven’t.   This summer is nearly over.  So shall we go today?’
          ‘What makes you think the dog is going to appreciate the sea?’ asked Mr V.
          ‘I just know she will,’ I smiled, remembering Sandy’s beach exploitations.
          ‘Okay.  Let’s do this,’ said Mr V heaving himself off the sofa and turning the telly off.
          Result!  Inside the boot of the car were a number of towels ready to dry off a wet pooch, also a pouch of dog food and a large canister of drinking water.  Our hound positioned herself on the back seat of the car next to our daughter, and we set off.
          ‘Where exactly are we going?’ asked Eleanor, holding on to the dog’s lead.
          ‘Whitstable,’ I replied, programming the Sat Nav.  ‘It won’t take long.’
          ‘With your mother driving, that’s debatable,’ muttered Mr V.  ‘And I’d just like to say–’ but his words were drowned out by the dog.  Barking shrilly, she stood up on her seat and, wobbling precariously, pushed her nose against the glass to anxiously peer out.  I knew exactly what she was saying.
          Are we going to the vet?  Oh dear Lord, we’re going to the vet.  I just knew it.  I said to myself as I hopped into the car, they’re taking me to the vet.  And they know I hate the vet.  It makes me so nervous.’
          As we headed onto the motorway, the car was filled with the obnoxious smell of dog fart.
          ‘Oh my God,’ Eleanor choked, one hand fluttering up to her nose, ‘someone open the windows.’
          The dog responded to Eleanor’s request and shoved a paw on the electric window button.  As we filtered into the middle lane at seventy-miles-per-hour, the car was filled with the deafening rush of wind that threatened to perforate everybody’s ear drums.  The dog stuck her head out the window, barking hysterically, ears flapping like two flags in a gale force wind.
          ‘SHUT THE WINDOW,’ Eleanor yelled over the din, as I manoeuvred the car back into the inside lane, frantically stabbing at the window controls on the driver’s door.  The dog’s window shot up, nearly garrotting her, just as the other three windows whizzed down.  The dog’s barking went into overdrive.
          Okay, so we’re not going to the vet.  It’s the wrong route.  You’re taking me to the kennel instead, aren’t you?  How dare you!  I spent two weeks in that kennel while you were in Crete, and then you chuffed off to Canada for another two weeks.  You’ve only been back five minutes and you’re putting me in the kennel again.  What sort of dog owner are you?  It’s outrageous.’
          ‘This was a big mistake, Debbie,’ yelled my husband over the racket, and for goodness sake sort out those windows!’  As all four windows finally snapped shut, pooch released another volley of putrid parps.  ‘Big mistake,’ Mr V repeated, tucking his chin into his chest and pulling his t-shirt up over his nose.
          One hour later we arrived in Whitstable with a splitting headache from all the incessant barking, and lungs that were desperate to inhale fresh sea air rather than the whiff of rotten eggs.
          ‘Well, isn’t this nice,’ I said, determined that the day would be salvaged, ‘and just look at that sea!’
          The three of us stared at a swirling mass of grey water under a matching sky.  Eleanor huddled into her hoodie.
          ‘I’m cold.’
          ‘Nonsense!’ I retorted, zipping up my jacket and boggling silently at some holiday makers cowering against windbreakers in their swimming costumes.  ‘Look!’ I said to the dog, ‘it’s the sea!’
          ‘She’s not interested,’ said Mr V.
          ‘Course she is,’ I said, grabbing hold of our beagle’s head and forcing her to look at the waves.  ‘Come on, let’s go and explore the beach.’
          But our dog had other ideas.  Her head swivelled one-hundred-and-eighty-degrees, and her eyes lit up on people eating a picnic.
          Now we’re talking,’ she barked.  ‘Food...food...food.
          ‘I’m hungry,’ said Mr V, inhaling deeply.  The sea air always whets the appetite.  Shall we get some fish and chips?’
          ‘Yum,’ said Eleanor and I together.’
          Yum,’ barked the dog, and hauled us off to the chippie.
          After a spot of bother with Mr V only having a tenner in his wallet and holding up a queue of twenty Hell’s Angels, we emerged from the chippie clutching our parcels of hot fish and chips. In due course we settled ourselves down on a wooden bench with matching trestle table, and tucked in.
          What about me?’ barked the dog.
          ‘What about the dog?’ asked Mr V.
          ‘I fed her just two minutes ago.’
          Pooch then went into the mother of all tantrums barking her disgust at us stuffing our faces with fish and chips, sucking in her cheeks and doing her best to impersonate a starving hound.  Her tactics didn’t go unnoticed.
          ‘Somebody shut that ruddy dog up,’ said a bottled blonde at a nearby table.
          ‘Oh no,’ Eleanor whimpered, ‘that woman over there is giving us filthy looks.  Do something, Mum.’
          Why is it always left to me to do something?  I gave the dog a chip.  That quietened her for, ooh, half a second.
          More outraged looks were being tossed our way.  The bottled blonde was working her way through a bottle of wine and clearly at the ‘punchy’ stage.  Her tattooed partner wore a brow-beaten expression and shrugged helplessly.  As if sensing trouble in the air, our pooch redoubled her barking efforts.
          I want another chip.  Want, want, want, gimme, gimme, gimme.’
          Bottled blonde had slung the last of her wine down her neck and was standing up.  Her gaze was upon us.  If looks could kill, we were shortly to be goners.
          ‘I’m done.’ I leapt up, bundling all the fish and chip paper together.  ‘C’mon, let’s go for a walk.’
          ‘You’d have thought that dog would have lost her voice by now,’ said Mr V hastening after me.
          ‘No chance,’ said Eleanor, tossing her own defiant look back at the bottled blonde.
          And so we walked.  We strolled past beach huts painted in bright colours, walked alongside tourists, dodged around mothers pushing buggies, smiled at children hanging on to pets’ leads (none of which barked – the dogs, not the kids), watched surfers in wet suits, teenagers in sailing boats, breathed deeply of the salty sea air, and did our best to ignore the pooch…who was still barking and not remotely interested in the sea.
          After a couple of wind-blown hours, we clambered back into the car feeling exhilarated.  Pooch flopped down on the seat with a tired groan.  Seconds later she was fast asleep.
          ‘Thank the Lord,’ said Mr V, ‘peace at last.’
          From the back seat a silent parp wafted towards us.
          Which reminds me.  How do you keep a dog from smelling?  You hold your nose…

Saturday, 23 August 2014

A Canadian Affair


Having recently had a meeting with my accountant, it was agreed that I could use a planned trip to Canada under the heading of Business.
          ‘Obviously you are looking at research for your next novel, yes?’ my advisor peered at me through his spectacles.
          ‘Obviously,’ I nodded my head vigorously, and gulped.  What if I had a brain freeze and couldn’t think of a single thing to write?  I had a schedule covering Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver which, naturally, my fictional heroine would also be visiting.  So what was driving her to do such a trip?  Um, um, well, er, she was running away of course!  From what or whom were mere details.  I decided to scribble down ideas and a rough plot while on the long flight from Heathrow to Montreal.
          ‘So,’ I said to my children as our jumbo jet waited for take-off (the kids had gate-crashed my business trip upon finding out the destination was Canada), ‘my heroine is running away from some personal problems.’  I pulled out my iPad and opened up Notes.
          ‘What specifically is she running away from?’ asked Eleanor.
          ‘I don’t know yet.’
          ‘Couldn’t she just stay at home and stick her head under the pillow like normal people?’ asked Robbie.
          ‘No.’
          ‘Why not?’
          ‘Because it would make for boring reading.’
          ‘What’s her name?’ asked Eleanor, flicking through a selection of movies on the little screen in front of her.
          ‘Good question.  Care to make a suggestion?’
          ‘Petunia,’ said Eleanor, selecting The Other Woman as her chosen flight movie.
          ‘No, that doesn’t work.’
          ‘What about Fatima?’ suggested Robbie.
          ‘I have nothing against the name Fatima, but as my heroine is a bog-standard Brit with no trace of Arabic origin, I think an alternative name would be more apt.’
          ‘Oh, okay, what about Jemima,’ said Robbie wickedly, ‘fritefly porsh, eh what?’
          ‘Oh for…– can we be serious for just one moment?’ I appealed.
          ‘Miss Piggy,’ said Eleanor warming to the task.  ‘And she could be running away from Kermit.’
          ‘Thank you, children,’ I pursed my lips as my fingers started to tap out some opening words, ‘I shall call my heroine…Bethany.’
          By the time we were half way across the Atlantic Ocean, Bethany had changed to Suzie, Samantha, Amanda, Belle and Philly, and she was running away from a man called Harry-Ted-Jack-Steve-Josh.  It would be fair to say that the only drama going on with my characters was a massive identity crisis.  Frustrated, I snapped the iPad shut and picked up my Kindle.  There were over seventy novels waiting to be read.  So far this year, I’ve managed to read just one.  Sighing with happiness, I selected JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and began to read.
          ‘Want to play chess?’ asked my son.
          ‘No, thanks,’ I murmured, deep in storyland.  My tummy tensed as I read with mounting horror about the collapse of Barry Fairbrother in a public car park.  Two neighbours, who happened to be at the scene, jumped into the ambulance with the dying man as paramedics fought–
          ‘Want to play cards?’
          ‘No, thanks,’ my eyes flicked backwards and forwards looking for the lost sentence.  Ah, there it was.  Oh, dear Lord.  Barry Fairbrother was indeed a goner.  As the news of his unexpected and sudden death rippled through Pagford, it was greeted with mixed reactions.  Krystal Weedon, teenager from the local sink estate and daughter of a heroin-addled prostitute, was devastated.  Barry Fairbrother had been her mentor, encouraging her to believe that with education and hard work she’d one day escape her roots for a better life.  But on the other side of the borough border, self-satisfied Shirley Mollinson was absolutely delighted.  Councillor Barry Fairbrother’s passing meant his seat was up for grabs.  And who better to fill the dead man’s shoes than Shirley’s son–
          ‘Want to play Scrabble?’
          ‘No, thanks.’
          And who better to fill the dead man’s shoes than Shirley’s son, Miles Mollinson.  But Miles’ wife, Samantha, wasn’t so chuffed.  She hated Pagford with a passion, and everything to do with the Council.  If her boring husband was expecting help with his campaigning leaflets, he was on his own.  Samantha was far more interested in pretending she was nineteen again and studying her daughter’s poster of rock-star Jake, who had chiselled cheekbones and rippling muscles and–
          ‘Wanna play I Spy?’
          ‘No!’
          ‘I’m bored.’
          ‘Watch a movie.’
          ‘I have.’
          ‘There are ten movie options.  Choose another one.’
          ‘The rest are rubbish.’
          I sighed and cast about for a piece of paper.  Pulling out the sick bag from the seat in front of me, I shoved it in my Kindle and snapped it shut.’
          ‘Why have you put a sick bag in your Kindle?’ my son frowned.
          ‘I need a book mark.’
          ‘Oh my God!  Ha ha!  It’s a Kindle, Mum.  Duhhhh!’ Robbie put one finger to his temples and made a swivelling motion.  ‘Why are you so ditzy?’
          Exasperated, I pulled the sick bag out and shoved it back into the seat pocket in front of me.  ‘It was simply a force of habit from reading paperbacks.  Not to mention being driven dotty by your constant interruptions.  Right, now that you have my undivided attention, what do you want to do?’
          ‘Okay, no need to get narky.  Keep your hair on.’
          ‘I’m not being narky, I just–’
          ‘Go back to reading your book.  I’m going to listen to some music.’
           And with that my son plugged himself into the music channel.  Tentatively, I picked up my Kindle.  I’d barely read the next sentence, when there was a tap on my arm.
          ‘I’m bored,’ said Eleanor.
          I was glad when we finally reached Montreal.  What a great city!  From Mont Tremblant and karting, to climbing four-hundred-and-thirty-two steps to the top of Mount Royal to gaze upon spectacular views, there was a wealth of things to do, see, taste and touch.  From Montreal we travelled to Toronto, went giddy at the top of the CN Tower, walked along the waterfront with its amazing yachts, shopped in designer outlets and drove to the mesmerising Niagara Falls.  Then on to Vancouver to bounce across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, walk among treetops, stroll around Whistler, cycle Stanley Park and see grizzly bears on Grouse Mountain.  One thing is for sure, right now my fictitious multi-named heroine is totally in love with a new country rather than her handsome hero.  He needs to distract her with some serious wooing.
          Which reminds me.  When Harry-Ted-Jack-Steve-Josh finally captures the heart of Suzie-Samantha-Amanda-Belle-Philly, she’ll say he took her breath away.  A few years down the line she’ll probably find him just plain suffocating, but fortunately romance novels always end before the following happens:

Before falling in love - She says she loves the way he takes control of situations.
After falling in love - She calls him a controlling, manipulative egomaniac.

Before falling in love – She says it’s like Saturday Night Fever.
After falling in love – She says it’s more like Saturday Night Football.

Before falling in love – ‘Don’t stop…’
After falling in love – ‘Don’t start…’

Before falling in love - The Sound of Music…
After falling in love - The Sound of Silence…

Before falling in love – He says, ‘Is that all you’re having?’
After falling in love – He says, ‘Maybe you should just have a salad, honey.’

Before falling in love - Turbo charged…
After falling in love - Jump start…

Before falling in love – He says, ‘We agree on everything!’
After falling in love – He says, ‘Doesn’t she have a mind of her own?’

Before falling in love – She says, ‘You’re my idol.’
After falling in love – She says, ‘You’re just idle…’