Sunday, 4 December 2016

Let’s All Go to Amsterdam!

Now that the kids are pretty much grown-up and independent, it is nice to be a bit selfish and please ourselves.  Which is exactly what we did a couple of weekends ago when Mr V turned fifty-one.
          ‘What have you bought for my birthday?’ asked my husband rubbing his hands together with anticipation.
          ‘Ah, that would be telling,’ I said.
          ‘Give me a clue then.  Can I eat it?’
          ‘Can I drink it?’
          ‘Can I wear it?’
          ‘I give up.’
          ‘Book a couple of days off work either side of the weekend.  We’re going somewhere.’
          My husband’s smile wobbled.  He’s not really one to embrace the great outdoors unless it involves a golf course.
          ‘Don’t you think the weather is a bit, well, chilly to go off wherever?’
          ‘It’s not the North Pole,’ I grinned.  ‘But you will need to wrap up warm. Oh, and make sure you have comfortable shoes for walking in.’
          ‘Right,’ said my husband trying to look enthusiastic.  ‘We’re going to the North of England, aren’t we?’
          ‘Maybe,’ I nodded.
          As the weekend drew closer, Mr V was convinced we would be trekking around the Yorkshire Dales and roughing it overnight in hostels.  So he was pleasantly surprised when I accidentally blurted that we mustn’t forget to buy some Euros for Amsterdam.  Why am I the world’s worst at keeping a secret?
          ‘Brilliant,’ he beamed.  ‘I won’t need trackies and trainers now.’
          ‘Yes you will,’ I assured, ‘warmth and comfort is all when sight-seeing.’
          The taxi arrived to take us to Southend airport.  I didn’t even know there was an airport in Southend until recently when at my son’s place, a sky-high apartment in Leigh-on-Sea.  I was staring out of his top floor window admiring the lofty views when an EasyJet plane whizzed past the window so close I could almost see the pilot.
          ‘Flippin’ heck,’ I squeaked, ducking down behind the window sill.
          ‘The airport is just over there,’ my son pointed.  Inching up, my eyes followed the flight path of the plane’s orange tail as it dipped over some trees and dropped onto a runway.
          Southend airport is small.  It has one WH Smith with limited stock, a virtually empty duty free shop because it’s awaiting refurbishment and one restaurant-come-bar, the latter named after Freddie Laker who launched cheap flights back in the seventies. We sat at a fake marble-topped table eating our full English breakfast whilst waiting for our flight to be called.
          Schipol airport, on the other hand, is enormous.  A mini city of ceramic tiles, steel and glass, it is littered with inviting bright modern shops. We walked through the airport under soaring rafters decked with festive lights dangling like giant crystal droplets.  To one side, a twenty-foot-high fir tree plastered in tasteful matching lights glittered away.  We made our way to the taxi rank where a driver whisked us off to the welcoming Bilderberg Garden Hotel.
          The following morning we headed to the Van Gogh museum. At this point I would like to give a top tip.  Pre-book your tickets on-line!  We stood in driving rain and wind for ninety minutes.  I was as warm as toast in my fleece-lined trackies, ski jacket and hat.  Mr V, possibly being a stubborn Italian male, had opted for style over warmth.  So whilst the wind tugged at the hems of his Boss jeans, blew into the gaps of his flimsy Armani jacket and his toes went numb inside his Italian leather shoes, I told him he at least looked cool.  Which was true.  He was so cool his ears had turned an unfetching shade of mauve.
          Inside the Van Gogh museum it was blissfully warm.  Huge glass windows looked out onto rattling trams, hardy cyclists and cold pedestrians, necks huddled into collars, gaily coloured umbrellas held aloft and frequently blowing inside-out.
          First stop was to warm up at the museum’s coffee shop.  We sat at one of the long trestle-tables drinking hot cappuccino.  In the background the coffee machine repeatedly hissed like a dentist’s suction machine as it doled out cups of foam and froth.
          What can I say about Vincent’s art?  “Stunning” doesn’t really sum it up.  There is a very over-used word that my kids use for almost anything – from describing a bar of chocolate to what sort of day they’ve had.  Awesome.  Well these pieces were awesome in the true sense of the word.  Gazing upon such mood changing images that filled canvas after canvas after canvas conveyed the troubled artist’s frame of mind at the time of painting.  He continued to paint while in a mental asylum and even when injured after shooting himself in the chest.  It took him two days to die from his wounds.  It doesn’t bear thinking about.  What an intriguing human being.  And what a premature loss. But what a wonderful collection he left behind.  I had two favourites: The Pink Orchard and The Pink Peach Tree.
          Many hours later, we ventured outside.  Finding our way to the nearest viaduct we spent a peaceful couple of hours gently cruising through Amsterdam’s centuries old canals.  We glided past hundreds of long and narrow houseboats, gazing upwards at the beautiful architecture of ancient patrician houses gabled with richly decorated cornices against a backdrop of towers and churches, all the while absorbing the quaintness of the many bridges strung like beaded necklaces with hundreds of padlocked bicycles.
          Amsterdam is also known for its permissive atmosphere and alternative lifestyle.  That evening we took the tram to Dam and walked past shops selling anything from fashion to huge cheeses and drugs.  Dipping down a side-street we came out into an open area where yet another canal divided a rat-run of narrow streets.  These were lined with elegant houses, most of which sported soft red lights or other pretty coloured beams.  All flagged up the same wares.  Prostitutes.  These streets were heaving with tourists scurrying like ants, eyes darting from left to right to gawp at the ladies of the night.  We fell in with the crowd.
          Obviously you hear about this, and you read about this. But nothing quite prepared me for actually seeing this.  Imagine quaint shops with dimpled glass windows like Giuseppe’s charming workshop in the Disney film Pinocchio, but instead of wooden puppets displayed to passing customers, those cutesy windows showcase semi-naked women.  It’s both surreal and bizarre.  All the girls were young and beautiful.  They stood, like mannequins, modelling skimpy underwear showing off their surgically enhanced assets.  All wore bored expressions and all were chatting on their mobile phones, possibly to each other, whilst waiting for a customer to knock on their door. And then I felt overwhelmed with sadness that such gorgeous ladies were availing themselves.  I was old enough to be a mother to all of them and was surprised at how the maternal instinct reared up.  I wanted to punch the lights out of one creep who knocked on a door.  Instead I gave him a filthy look and continued with the flow of the crowd.
          Despite being outside the air was thick with the smell of cigarettes and weed.  Clouds of smoke billowed up to the tops of the old-fashioned street lamps, which added a touch of spookiness.  The haze cloaked every narrow street and all the way along the embankment, and the pong stuck to your hair and clothes.
          We were desperate to grab a hot drink somewhere, but the coffee shops in Dam are not to be recommended unless you aren’t fazed about passive-smoking cannabis and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with others, many of whom appeared to be stoned. I guess we’re too old to be up for any of that!  For us it was back to the hotel for a nightcap and a hot bath to thaw out.
          On the second day we simply wandered and did what we always do best.  Got lost.  Several times over.  I’m not sure how many tram rides we took but it was quite a few and encompassed visiting the Rijksmuseum, the flower market, Rembrandt Square, Vondel Park (where we’d hoped to cycle its forty-seven hectares but had to abandon due to visiting Storm Angus blowing people off their bikes) and finally arrived at Anne Frank’s house.
          Despite the weather, die-hard tourists were lining the streets with a two-hour queue.  However, time was no longer on our side.  A security guard kindly let us go through a barrier so we could take a picture of the famous house that once hid a young Jewish girl and her family for two long years when Amsterdam was invaded by the Germans.  Privately I was relieved not to go inside. Friends had told us they’d found the experience quite harrowing. Their advice had been firm. ‘If you go in, have a stiff drink when you come out.’
          The following morning Storm Angus had passed over Amsterdam leaving a trail of crumpled bicycles with misshapen wheels, uprooted trees and many roofs with gaping holes.  I was relieved the high winds had gone and the thirty-five minute flight back to Southend was reasonably calm.  As the plane sailed past my son’s block of flats, I gave a cheery wave just in case Rob was standing at his kitchen window washing up.  Which reminds me.
          A blonde rang up an airline.
          ‘How long are your flights from Southend to Amsterdam?’ she asked.
          ‘Just a minute,’ said a voice at the other end of the phone.
          ‘Thanks,’ said the blonde. And hung up…

Sunday, 13 November 2016

When Life Deals You Lemons…Blow a Raspberry

What a flippin’ week.  Well the biggest news, of course, was that America has a new President.  As someone wittily said, Orange is the new Black.  I’m not a knowledgeable person about politics, and I don’t pretend to be either.  I have only a vague idea why Country A hates Country B and why Country C is upping their collection of nuclear weapons at Country D.  I choose to mostly live in a bubble because it’s absolutely true that ignorance is bliss.  However, I like to think I know a bit about polite manners and good morals, and I haven’t seen “President” Trump display either. From idiotic remarks about racism to astonishing sexist remarks, he instantly struck me as a brash egotistical man.
          I was rooting for Hilary who presented as a well-spoken, educated woman with several shreds of common sense until, uh-oh, somebody somewhere made sure political dirt hit the presidential campaign fan with a small matter of thousands of dodgy emails under investigation and the suggestion she’d helped fund IS.  Even though she was eventually cleared, one cannot help but remember the saying: No smoke without fire.  And let’s also remember that the House of Clinton hasn’t been without its scandals and lies over the years.

          ‘If you’d been American, who would you have voted for?’ I asked my son, who loves politics and is well informed.

          ‘Neither,’ he declared.  ‘Both candidates were awful.’
          As the week progressed I felt increasingly out of sorts and put it down to the inevitable mudslinging on social media, the usual, “If you voted for him/her then unfriend me now.”  You know what’s truly wrong with this world?  I’ll tell you!  It’s as obvious as the nose on your face.  People don’t love each other enough.  THAT’S what’s wrong.
          If we all truly loved each other there wouldn’t be a need for armies.  Or nuclear weapons.  Or building walls.  Or spatting over which bit of soil belongs to which country. Or whether you can recite the Qur’an, Zaboor, Bible or the Torah and not get executed for reading the “wrong” holy book. EVERYBODY NEEDS TO START LOVING.  And I’m pretty damn sure that message is in all the holy books.
          Which reminds me.  A boy is selling fish on a corner. To get his customers’ attention, he is yelling, ‘Dam fish for sale! Get your dam fish here!’ A pastor hears this and asks, ‘Why are you calling them “damn” fish?’ The boy responds, ‘They are dam fish because I caught them at the local dam.’ So the pastor smiles and buys a couple of fish and takes them home to his wife.  He asks his wife to cook the dam fish. Surprised, the wife says, ‘I didn’t know it was acceptable for a preacher to speak that way.’  He explains to her why they are dam fish. Later at the dinner table, he asks his teenage son to pass the dam fish. The teen responds, ‘That’s the spirit, Dad! Now pass the sodding potatoes!’        

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Carry On Going to the Dentist

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of dentists.  My regular dentist always says my visits age him by ten years.  I’ve assured him that visiting him ages me by ten years too.
          ‘So,’ said my son, ‘now that I’ve qualified, are you going to become my patient?’
          ‘Ah…well…,’ I said evasively, ‘the thing is–’
          ‘Um, yes, er, the thing is you’re newly qualified, whereas my dentist has been drilling teeth for decades.’
          ‘What point are you making?’
          Oh dear.  There was no other way to say it.  ‘I’ll be brutally honest.  I don’t feel confident seeing you.’
          My son rolled his eyes.  ‘Before I graduated I was treating patients at the hospital for two years.  I am probably more up-to-date in techniques and knowledge than your regular dentist.  I’ve helped patients from age four to seventy-four.  I’ve done surgical extractions, fillings, bridges, root canals, crowns, braces and dentures.’
          ‘Y-yes, but my dentist has an excellent bedside manner.’
          ‘I think you mean chairside manner.’
          ‘That as well.  And he always makes sure the dental nurse holds my hand.’
          My dental nurse will hold your hand.  Now stop being silly and make an appointment.  Just think, if you see me you’ll save loads of money.’
          Well “money” is a magic word, isn’t it?  My last dental bill for a root canal set me back fifteen-hundred quid.  You could go on holiday for that, couldn’t you?  So keeping that thought firmly in mind, I made an appointment to see my son.  He was as good as his word and gave me a dental nurse to hang on to while I was X-rayed, prodded, scaled and polished and had impressions taken for a mouth guard.  Apparently I need a filling so another appointment was made upon leaving.  I have to say, he does indeed have an excellent chairside manner.  He also assured me that I’m not his most nervous patient.
          ‘Really?’ I beamed with delight.
          ‘Really,’ he assured, and promptly told me about…we’ll call her Miss Smith for reasons of confidentiality.  Miss Smith was due a wisdom tooth extraction.  She was so nervous she’d brought her mother along to support her.  Unfortunately the mother was also terrified of dentists and was likely to pass out if she saw blood.  At the last minute the mother opted to stay in the waiting room and anxiously pace the floor while a dental nurse led Miss Smith to the treatment room upstairs.
          Half way through the procedure, the patient started to have a panic attack.
          ‘You’re doing tremendously well,’ my son soothed, ‘not long to go.’
          ‘I can’t cope,’ Miss Smith managed to convey, mouth open, suction thingy under tongue.
          ‘Yes you can, almost there, doing fabulously.’
          Whereupon Miss Smith began to hyperventilate.  Seconds later she rocketed out of the chair banging her head on the overhead light and sending the suction instrument catapulting into a tray of instruments which crashed to the floor.  Screaming with terror she shot out of the treatment room and collapsed at the top of the stairs.  My son managed to grab her and, as she came round, told her to lift her legs up against the wall to get the blood flowing back to her head.  However, the commotion had not gone unnoticed in the waiting room below.  Miss Smith’s mother came charging up the stairs emitting blood-curdling screams and yelling, ‘Mummy is coming, darling.  Don’t panic!’  When she saw her daughter on the floor, legs akimbo, with my son masked and crouched over her she nearly fainted herself.  Grabbing the banister for support, she rounded on my son.
          ‘What in God’s name are you doing to my daughter?’
          ‘This isn’t what it looks like,’ my son assured, fleetingly wondering why he’d ever wanted to be a dentist.
          Five minutes later, both women were in the treatment room.  Miss Smith was back in the chair, two dental nurses were made available to hold both Miss Smith’s and Mrs Smith’s hands, the former who continued to hyperventilate and the latter who insisted on staring at the wall so she wouldn’t feel squeamish and all the while shrieking, ‘It’s okay, darling, don’t worry about a thing, Mummy is here.’  At least I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never behaved like that.
          Which reminds me.  A woman and her husband interrupted their holiday to go to the dentist. ‘I want a tooth pulled,’ said the woman, ‘and I don't want Novacaine because I’m in a big hurry.  Just extract the tooth as quickly as possible, and we’ll be on our way.’ The dentist was quite impressed. ‘You’re a courageous woman,’ he said. ‘Which tooth is it?’ The woman turned to her husband and said, ‘Show him your tooth, dear.’

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Carry on Doctor!

I’m a bit of an ‘alternative’ girl.  Wherever possible, pharmacy tablets and medicines are given a wide berth.  I’m a firm believer in vitamins, herbs, exercise and fresh air.  If a cold comes along, rather than reach for Lemsip, I prefer to have Vitamin C, zinc and Manuka honey.  My son, trained in medicine, doesn’t quite understand my aversion to conventional treatment.  However, one brand of medication I do take is a drug called Tasigna.  And something I learnt last week is to never underestimate the power of ‘alternative’ medicine.
            A little over three years ago, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia.  To top it all off, I broke out in shingles due to stress.  Ever since then I’ve taken Tasigna to put CML into remission.  I hope to eventually stop taking the drug, so use complimentary medicine in an effort to assist this result and keep neuropathy at bay.  It’s not a quick fix.  It takes time.  Medicines should never be mixed, as I found out in a menopausal moment when I absent-mindedly washed down Tasigna with a mix of tap water and colloidal silver.  Within twenty seconds I knew something was terribly wrong.
            ‘All right?’ said Mr V, wandering into the kitchen.
            Empty glass in hand, I turned round to face him.  ‘I’m hot.’             ‘You’re always complaining of being hot.’
            ‘No, as in burning up.’
            ‘Actually, you do look rather red.  Are you having one of your flushes?’
            Imagine standing too close to an open furnace.  Heat was now searing painfully through my body.  Every hair follicle on my head felt like a zillion burning needles sizzling into my scalp.  My bare arms looked sunburnt. I rushed off to the hall mirror.  It reflected back a frightened woman with a face the colour of tomato ketchup.  Even worse, my tongue and throat were now heating up too.  I tore back to the kitchen, opened the cupboard where a basic first aid is kept, and swallowed down two Piriton.  Then, feeling horribly faint, I lay down on the cool kitchen floor tiles.
            ‘I think I’d better get you to A&E,’ said my husband.  ‘C’mon.  Let’s go.’
            Thank God for our wonderful NHS.  Where would we be without it?  Sitting in the car, my body began to involuntarily shake.  By the time we walked into the hospital the painful heat had dispersed but instead I was vibrating like a pneumatic drill, teeth chattering together as if we’d arrived in the North Pole without coats.
            A sweet nurse gave me the once over.
            ‘Looks like the Piriton is doing its job.  This will subside,’ she assured, ‘but you’re not leaving until it has.  Go and take a seat in the waiting area where we can keep an eye on you.’
            There then followed what seemed like the longest two hours of my life.  As I collapsed on a row of metal screwed-together seats, I apologised to everyone for making their bodies vibrate.  To be fair, most of them were locked in their own misery.  It was the least of their worries to be sitting on a juddering seat.  There was the young pregnant girl worried she was miscarrying, the middle-aged man with ankles swollen like an elephant’s, a young man who’d stood on a nail whilst doing DIY, and a pensioner gasping for breath.  And then there were those who I wondered what on earth were doing there.
            At the risk of sounding fattist (is there such a word?) I was transfixed by a mother and daughter.  Both were enormous to the point of morbid obesity.  The daughter had a bad stomach ache.  Fair enough.  But throughout the time there the pair of them worked their way through several packets of sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and a litre bottle of cola each.  You don’t need to be a doctor to work out why she had a stomach ache.  And this is where our NHS becomes burdened.  But I’ll stop there, as I don’t want to get political.
            I want to say a big thank you to all the staff at Darent Valley Hospital.  You are tremendous.  And so is Britain’s NHS which we are so fortunate to have.  Which reminds me.
            Part of the admission procedure in the hospital where consultant Mr Brown worked, was to ask new patients if they suffered any allergies.  If so the consultant had it printed on a special allergy band which was then placed around a patient’s wrist as reference for all other hospital employees.  One day Mr Brown asked an elderly lady if she had any allergies.
            ‘Why, yes,’ the old girl replied.  ‘I’m allergic to nuts.’
            Later that day, Mr Brown was visited by the old lady’s son, who was most irate.  ‘Who the heck is responsible for labelling my mother nuts?’


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Having a Cr*p Time

I love country life.  I love my dog.  But what I absolutely don’t like is my dog getting up close and personal to country life.  Molly Muddles tucks into sheep pooh like you and I would attack fish and chips.  It’s the same with horse dung – bleurgh.  And if she discovers a patch of field where Mr Fox has left his calling card, she’ll dive on it with all the enthusiasm of you or me leaping into a foaming bubble bath.  Which is invariably where Molly Muddles ends up.  I spend a fortune on probiotic powders, tick shampoo and worming tablets.  For the dog I hasten to add.
          ‘Ewww,’ says Mr V, pulling a face like Les Dawson telling a mother-in-law joke.  ‘Just remember where that dog’s mouth has been the next time she slobbers all over you.’  He has a point.  In fact I asked the vet about it.  Apparently dogs have different bacteria in their mouths and most of it can’t jump from dogs to humans – or vice versa – and make either dog or human sick. For example, most upper respiratory infections that affect humans are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and most viruses are species-specific. If you are sick, the unconditional love you get from your dog can boost your immunity and help you fight infection. Studies have shown that simply petting a dog can lower your level of stress hormones and reduce blood pressure.  Although I’m pretty sure the opposite happened earlier this week.
          My darling pooch, despite being relatively small, manages to produce some sizeable whoopsies.  I rummaged in my pocket, extracted a waste bag, and set about cleaning up...only to discover the bag had a hole in it.  Whilst the sensation of encountering something warm and squidgy was oddly pleasant, the realisation of knowing what it was certainly wasn’t.  I’d barely cleaned up when Molly Muddles pounced upon a pile of conkers.  Grabbing hold of her muzzle, I prised open her jaws and, reaching in, pulled everything from her mouth…to discover Mr Fox had left his calling card upon the conkers so once again my fingers were covered.  Even worse, when I straightened up, flustered and frustrated, I stepped back into a neatly deposited black mound full of cherry stones.  Yes, Mr Fox again.  At this point I’d like to disagree with my vet’s advice or the studies of university graduates and emphatically state both my stress hormones and blood pressure went through the roof.  So if you were driving your car through my village earlier this week and spotted a dog walker holding up her hands and one Wellington boot whilst aptly shrieking, ‘Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t,’ I can confirm that it was me.
          Which reminds me.  In a city park stood two statues, one female and the other male. These two statues faced each other for many years. One day an angel appeared before the statues and said, ‘The two of you have brought enjoyment to many people so I’m giving you the gift of life. You have thirty minutes to do your heart’s desire.’ And the statues came to life.  They smiled, ran off to nearby woods and hid behind a couple of bushes. The angel grinned as the two statues giggled naughtily.  After fifteen minutes, they emerged from the bushes looking satisfied.  The angel looked at his watch and said, ‘You still have fifteen minutes. Would you like to continue?’  The male statue looked at the female and asked, ‘Do you want to do it again?’  The female statue smiled coyly.  ‘Sure. But this time you hold the pigeon down and I’ll poop on its head…’

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Let’s all go to Zante!

It seems like a lifetime ago, but in fact it’s barely a month since Mr V and I flew off for our summer holiday.  It was just the two of us.  No children.  Or, to be succinct, no adult children.  The kids were left to look after both the house and each other.  The thought of them being alone together for a fortnight caused a frisson of anxiety. They either get on like a house on fire or World War Three breaks out.
          ‘Don’t forget to lock up.’
          ‘Yes, Mum.’
          ‘Don’t forget to turn off the hob and the oven.’
          ‘Yes, Mum.’
          ‘Don’t leave the fridge door open.’
          ‘Okay, Mum.’
          ‘Don’t lock yourselves out.’
          ‘No, Mum.’
          ‘Don’t argue.’
said don’t argue.’
          ‘If there are any arguments it will be your daughter who starts them,’ said Rob.  Note the “your daughter” and not “my sister”.
          ‘That’s not fair,’ Eleanor huffed, arms folding across her chest.
          ‘It’s always you who starts a row,’ said Rob.
          ‘I do not!’
          ‘Yes, you do.’
dare you say that! You’re the one that starts everything.’
          ‘ENOUGH!’ I roared.  Dear Lord.  We hadn’t even left the place and they were starting.  I then gave my neighbour a spare key to the house (I didn’t quite trust the kids not to get locked out) and warned that if the house appeared to be imploding it was due to a hormonal teenager and…well…a hormonal twenty-three year old.  Do children ever stop being hormonal?  Maybe when they reach fifty-something.  And then they are simply too knackered to be hormonal.  Like their parents.
          ‘Be good,’ I warned.  Otherwise there will be no Duty Free.’
          Ah yes, in the old days it was the threat of no sweets.  These days the bribes are far bigger carrots.  Usually carats in my daughter’s case.
          At half past four – in the morning – a mild looking sixty-something picked us up in his taxi, grey hair neatly cut and combed.  Leaning back against the seat, I sighed happily.  A nice relaxing drive to the airport, a spot of brekky, a linger in Duty Free, onto the plane and….whooooooosh!  The journey to Gatwick Airport is forty minutes.  The taxi driver started up his innocuous looking taxi, rammed the gear into first and took off like the proverbial bat out of hell.  It took a good ten seconds for my tonsils to catch up with the rest of me as we hurtled down winding country lanes to the motorway.  Despite the taxi driver being a newish pensioner, he was clearly hell-bent on reliving his boy racer days before he reached his next big birthday.  Or the rest of us for that matter.  Would I live to see fifty-five?
          ‘Going anywhere nice?’ asked the driver.
          ‘Yes,’ I yelped.
          ‘Where’s that then?’
          ‘Zante,’ my husband squeaked.  Either he was also petrified or else the seat belt was too tight.
          When my daughter had learnt Zante was our holiday destination she’d convulsed with laughter.  ‘Bah ha ha ha ha!  I don’t believe it.  Did you not know it’s a seriously hot party place?’
          ‘Of course I knew!’ I’d lied, privately thanking both God in heaven and my lucky stars Mr V hadn’t been around to hear the conversation.  ‘However, if it could be our little secret I’d be much obliged.’
          The truth was, I’d simply typed into Google
best beaches in Europe and narrowed it down from there.  As someone who loves to walk, a long golden beach with soft sand is key.  So when I spotted Kalamaki, a scenic three kilometer stretch with protected nesting areas for turtles, I wasn’t too interested in much else.  As it happened, our hotel was fine.  It was well away from the party bit.  We walked the beach from one end to the other every single day.  The party area was crammed with sun loungers and parasols all occupied by young men and women, all giving each other the eye.  The girls showed off taut tummies as the boys smoothed sun cream over well-defined abs.  Mr V always changed his posture on this stretch.  Suddenly he’d appear two inches taller as he straightened up, adopting a ‘Superman’ pose.  Shoulders back.  Head up.  Soft tummy pulled in tight as he held his breath for the next two hundred yards.  You could almost see his blue cape flapping in the warm breeze. His lips were certainly blue by the time we’d skirted the dewy youth section.  I’d hear him rapidly exhaling then gulping in lungfuls of sea air.  The other end of the beach couldn’t have been more different.  Sun loungers petered out to nothing and, for a bit, there was just a lonely meandering shoreline of lapping water and scrub vegetation.
           One day we decided to edge past the far end of Kalamaki beach, circumnavigate a huge area of rocks, and pick up the next beach.  Paddling out into shallow waters, we waded for a few minutes until we were back on sand.  Here it was also remote.  Far ahead a few much older people were making the most of the total quiet.  As we gradually approached, my husband hesitated.
          ‘Um, Debbie–’
          ‘Stop dawdling, and keep up!’ I called over my shoulder.  I was well in my stride again, elbows in, arms moving in time to legs as I powered towards the handful of people who’d turned as one to stare at us.
          ‘Ah, Debbie, I think–’
          ‘What’s wrong with everybody?’ I muttered.  ‘Why are they looking at us like we have two heads?’
          A lady regarded me coolly.  I nodded and smiled at her.  She didn’t smile back.  She was sitting on a pink towel, her equally pink legs tucked up, arms looped over her knees.  Nothing seemed untoward, even though her legs were slightly parted and…I blinked…no…surely the sun was getting to me.  At that moment a grey-haired man stood up and gave us a full frontal.  My eyes flicked from the lady’s parted legs to the top of the man’s legs, as everybody else in my peripheral vision came into focus.  My mouth formed a perfect O.  I was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and bikini.  Never in my life have I felt so overdressed.
          So Mr V and I instantly pretended we’d lost our bearings.  We stood there, hands on hips, noisily declaring how we’d managed to wander off track, me blowing my cheeks out and my husband scratching his head as we loudly pondered which direction might lead back to our hotel.  In hindsight, this charade was a bit daft.  We had two options: retrace our steps or head out to sea. And then we fled.  Which reminds me.
          A pensioner checked into a hotel, four floors high.  After unpacking, she tottered up to the roof terrace and settled down to some peaceful sunbathing.  After a couple of days, as nobody else seemed to be using the roof area, she decided to completely strip off and sunbathe nude.  She’d barely (excuse the pun) settled down when the sound of urgent footsteps could be heard coming up the steps to the roof.  Quickly, she grabbed her towel and put it around her.  A uniformed member of staff appeared.  He was very flustered.
          ‘Madam, I’m very sorry but you cannot sunbathe in the nude up here.’
          ‘Why ever not?’ the little old lady asked.  ‘No one can see.’
          ‘Madam,’ he said again, ‘you happen to be lying on the skylight of the dining room…’

Sunday, 5 June 2016

That Could Be Dangerous

My dear old mum has always been a cautious lady.  She’s someone who sees danger everywhere.
          When my mother was a child she was full of gung-ho, hanging off trees, skating on frozen-over ponds, taking on her little brothers’ bullies and giving any thug a pasting in the school playground. Most of us can recognise something of ourselves in that last sentence, when we too were once small.  The warrior child.  Fearless.  Immortal.  But somewhere along the way, realisation dawns that we are mortal beings. We have one body and need to look after it. Carefully. Certainly my own mother changed from warrior to worrier.
          As a young adult with children of her own, you didn’t find her doing any of the above.  Her reasoning: “What if I broke a leg?”  And as for skating on that frozen-over pond…madness!  “What if the ice broke?  I could get trapped under the ice, freeze to death, or drown. And who would look after my offspring?”
          Worry, unchecked, can turn into fear.  Sometimes irrational fear.  This can unwittingly transfer to children.  Is it wise to let our precious child hang off a tree, skate on a frozen pond, or have confrontation with the school bully?  What if our precious child was injured?
          At the age of ten I asked my parents if I could learn to horse ride. My mother nearly had a nervous breakdown.  She much preferred the gentler idea of her daughter attending ballet classes.  Instead it was my father who encouraged me with horse riding.  I grew up juggling bloc ballet shoes and jodhpurs.  While my mother dreamed of me being the next Margot Fonteyn, I fantasised about being the next Caroline Bradley.  I can still remember dancing on stage and my mother being all smiles.  I can also remember her every scream as my horse flew over huge fences in a serious affiliated jumping competition.  Talk about off putting.  And no, I didn’t qualify!
          Now that I’m a mother myself, it’s amazing to see how much fear, or encouragement, shapes us.  My daughter wanted to learn horse riding.  I immediately said no.  Why?  “It’s far too dangerous.”  I can still remember clapping a hand over my mouth after saying that.  I’d turned into my mother!  I haven’t ridden a horse since pregnant with my daughter, mainly because I didn’t want my kids demanding a turn in the saddle.  What if they fell? What if they broke something? Look what happened to Superman! Instead, illogically, I turned my attention to skiing.
          ‘That’s a dangerous hobby,’ my mother pointed out.
          I ignored her.  And then my children wanted to learn how to ski.  Once again I parroted my mother.
          ‘You’re just like grandma,’ they cried.
          ‘No I’m not!’ I retorted, deeply offended.
          ‘So let’s go skiing!’
          And we did.  I was a gibbering idiot throughout the entire week.  More so with my daughter because she’s absolutely brilliant and would like to spend all day tackling challenging blacks.  Off-piste.
          Meanwhile my mother, who is now eighty-three, is so anxious about “danger” she hardly leaves the house.  My father would dearly love to go on holiday, but my mother makes up every excuse to avoid going anywhere.
          ‘The Med is beautiful,’ my father sighed.
          ‘Not any more,’ my mother’s eyes narrowed. ‘The sea is full of bodies from drowned refugees.’
          ‘We’ll stay in a hotel with a pool. You don’t have to go in the sea.’
          ‘I don’t like flying. Planes crash.’
          ‘What about a cruise?’ my father suggested.
          ‘The sea is choppy. I get sea sick.’
          ‘No worries,’ my father replied.  ‘We could do a river cruise instead.’
          ‘The ship could sink.’
          ‘Okay. Then what about having a long weekend somewhere sunny? We could drive to France.’
          ‘No way.’ My mother looked horrified. ‘You drive like a lunatic.’
          My father dares to drive at forty miles-per-hour. Sometimes forty-one.
          My children, who had been rolling their eyes at each other whilst listening to their grandmother, piped up.
          ‘Grandma, seriously you need to relax and get out more.’
          ‘I can’t,’ my mother huffed. ‘I’m disabled. I can’t walk far.’
          ‘Then get a mobility scooter. You’ll be able to go anywhere and everywhere!’
          ‘A mobility scooter!’ my mother’s eyes widened in horror.  ‘Do you have any idea how dangerous they are?’
          My son and daughter looked at each other in surprise. Were they missing something here? Eleanor looked back at her grandmother.
          ‘Grandma, I’m talking about a mobility scooter. Not a motorbike.’
          ‘Yes, I know. And do you know how fast those things go?’
          ‘I believe the speed has been capped now,’ said Robbie with a straight face.  ‘Eight miles-per-hour.’
          ‘Exactly.’ My mother crowed triumphantly. ‘I’ve seen people on them in the supermarket, whizzing around like lunatics and causing chaos.  CHAOS!’ she shrieked.
          ‘Really?’ Eleanor’s eyes widened in disbelief.
          Robbie put his hands to his mouth, impersonating speaking through a tannoy.  ‘Staff announcement. Assistance please. There’s been a pile up in aisle three.’
          ‘You may poke fun,’ my mother waggled a finger, ‘but there’s danger around every corner.’
          Even in supermarkets, so it would seem.  Never again will I lurk too long by the baked beans.
          My children insist that I’m going to be as bad as my mother by the time I’m eighty-three.  I sincerely hope not. Sometimes we have to face our fears in order to overcome them.  So excuse me while I sign the entire family up for a pony trekking holiday in Wales followed by a taster session at Brands Hatch.  Which reminds me.
What lies at the bottom of the ocean and shakes a lot?  A nervous wreck…

Sunday, 15 May 2016

An Open Letter To Persimmon Homes

Dear Persimmon Homes

At your insistence, we moved into our Forever Home just days before Christmas. Your marketing person said, ‘If you don’t achieve this date, the deal is off.’ At your behest, we had to use your conveyancing solicitor. When that solicitor had to endlessly chase you, we should have realised you were a company that didn’t move swiftly or deal with matters methodically.
          We visited the property for a home demo. However, because conveyancing was dragging (down to you) and we weren’t the legal owners, we were told we didn’t have the right to flag up snagging issues.  When we were requested to sign the Home Demo form indicating our satisfaction, the marketing person assured the house would be thoroughly examined, all snagging would be identified
and addressed.  Signing was simply a formality. So we signed.
          Completion loomed, but thanks to your tardy legal department we hadn’t exchanged contracts.  Our solicitor received a reply from you telling us to go ahead and book our removal contractor. The day of completion arrived, our removal men turned up…and we still hadn’t exchanged contracts. We had one member of your staff still insisting, ‘If you don’t achieve completion today, the deal’s off,’ while someone else refused to accept a perfectly acceptable post-completion Undertaking. You were arguing amongst yourselves! Have you any idea how stressful it was packing up an old house, arriving at the new house but refused entry because of your own internal prevarications, especially at Christmas time? Eventually, just before the banks shut their doors for the day, somebody somewhere recognised the madness of the situation. We exchanged and completed simultaneously. Never mind that our removal men were still unpacking at bedtime!
          We were
dismayed to observe no snagging issues had been addressed. It has taken over five months for your contractors to slowly work through a two-page list of snags, some of which remain. This includes a damaged kitchen cupboard.  Your response:
          “We cannot look to cover any items damaged unless stated on your Home Demo form.”
          As we pointed out, we were not allowed to list snags on this form because we hadn’t exchanged contracts AND your staff assured they would thoroughly inspect/resolve issues on our behalf. Your response:
          “I’m sorry we cannot help with this issue but state we cannot look to replace this door and must follow company policy.”
          What company policy is that then? Is it the Talk Rubbish policy or Mass of Contradictions policy? Can you please now explain why staff gave a verbal undertaking that snagging would be listed and rectified on our behalf? Also, do you think it reasonable we paid top dollar for an “exclusive” property and that damage should be rectified at our expense?
          Another outstanding snag: Pop-up plugs that don’t hold water.  You couldn’t make it up, eh?  There was my husband trying to have a morning shave with a sink draining faster than…well, a sink without a plug.
          Yet another outstanding snag: Peeling bi-fold doors.  If we’d lived here for five years, I could understand weathering taking its toll.  But not after five months. I was promised somebody would address this weeks ago. A wall of silence remains.
          And yet another outstanding snag: An electric isolator switch set at eight feet high.  Your contracted electricians at the time of building the house were SC Farley of Maidstone. Persimmons sent Mr Matt Deeble to look at the switch. Mr Deeble agreed it was unacceptable and would be remedied. The fact that he then arranged an electrician to attend when I wasn’t home, was indeed unfortunate. Memo to Persimmons: Try COMMUNICATING with home owners first. It achieves great things! Since then the electrical contractor has done a U-turn. Their written response:
          “We are not attending. The reason for the isolator switches being high is to stop people turning them off as they are meant to as I am sure you are aware 24/7.”
          Quite apart from the fact that this is atrocious English and doesn’t make sense, I’m assuming Jane Farley of SC Farley was trying to say fan switches are meant to run 24/7.  However, Jane, I don’t
want a bathroom fan running 24/7.  I want silence when I go to sleep at night.  Oh, and no they don’t stop whirring after ten minutes, like you said they would.  But apart from anything else, why place the other switches at an acceptable height but this one at eight feet? I’m baffled.  Now what else did SC Farley say?  Ah, yes:
          “They should only be turned off by a qualified operative for works to be done.”
          But, Jane, I don’t want any works done! I just want to turn the fan off!! Do you not understand how ridiculous you sound? Should I, perhaps, get a ‘qualified operative’ in to turn my light switches on and off as well? Or do you suggest I leave my lights on 24/7 too and go to bed wearing a black-out eye mask?
          The icing on the cake is that every now and again I receive a random text message from Persimmons. It says:
          “We hope you are very happy with the recent work carried out.”
          What recent work? I’m still waiting! But to reply, the answer is no. No, I’m not remotely happy with you or your contractors.  Which reminds me.
          A surgeon friend said his favourite clients are those who work in the building industry.  Apparently they don’t mind bodged body parts or the job taking longer than scheduled…


- stre

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Fit For Nothing

My daughter recently called time on living in digs.  Washing-up was a challenge due to the sink always piled with others’ mouldy dishes, nobody was interested in a bin rota, stuff went missing, food got eaten, de da de da.  When the mice moved in, Eleanor moved out. So she’s home.
          ‘At least I can get back to pole fitness,’ she declared.  Prodding my soft tummy she said, ‘Why don’t you give it a go?’
          ‘Because I have zero upper body strength.’  After a freak accident with my Dyson vacuum cleaner which landed me in hospital for two operations, upper body strength is compromised, as evidenced by flapping bingo wings.  ‘Anyway,’ I added, ‘I’m fit enough.  I have Molly Muddles to walk.’
          ‘Dog walking doesn’t firm bingo wings. What about doing a yoga class?’
          My ears pricked up.  ‘I can do yoga.  Sign me up!’
          ‘Excellent!’ Eleanor beamed.  ‘I’ll do it with you.’
          I suddenly felt a wave of enthusiasm.  ‘What else do they do?’
          ‘Well, there’s a bouncer-cise class which dove-tails with my pole fitness lesson.  We could travel together.’
          Suddenly Eleanor looked a bit sad.  ‘I was hoping to do bouncer-cise as well.  It would have been fun to do that with you, Mum.’  She looked up at me under her eyelashes.  I was so touched.  My baby!  Happy to hang out with her Mum!  Okay, there was a ploy going on, but thanks to the heart strings tugging it didn’t register.  I pondered for a moment.  ‘Is there, perhaps, a second day of bouncer-cise?’
          Eleanor looked surprised, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to her (she’s a great actress, sometimes I forget she’s a trained performer!).  ‘Yes, there’s another class on Saturday morning.  Do you fancy doing that together?’
          ‘Definitely.  Let’s book it!’
          ‘But, um, wait a minute.  That means you’ll be doing
three fitness classes in one week.  Are you sure you’re up for it?  That’s…ah…quite a lot for someone who thinks a work-out is going for a long dog walk.’
          ‘Don’t be ridiculous.  Of
course I’m up for it.  What’s so difficult about doing a few stretches and bouncing on a trampoline?’
          So the following Tuesday evening, we began yoga.
          ‘Hang on,’ I touched Eleanor’s elbow.  ‘What are those orange things everyone’s getting into?’
          ‘Hammocks,’ Eleanor replied.  ‘Yoga takes place in a hammock.  It’s an anti-gravity class.’
          ‘Oh,’ I frowned, and then shrugged. I presumed the teacher was thoughtful, and that stretching in a hammock was more comfortable than stretching on a hard floor.
          The lesson began.  It was a doddle for…ooh…five minutes.  Then we began
extending ...and far more than anticipated.  As my intestines twanged, the word “hernia” floated through my consciousness.  The instructor told us how to grasp the silk, haul ourselves up, slide backwards, flipping over and hanging upside down.  Extending backwards, my spine creaked ominously and refused to oblige.  I was just about to give up, when the instructor marched over.  Folding me up like an ironing board, I was suddenly dangling feet first from the hammock.  As the blood rushed to my head, I spotted a poster on the studio wall.        If You’re Afraid of Falling You Will Never Fly.
        Yes, I was very afraid of falling.  As my fingers clawed at the fabric, the strain on my upper arms became unbearable.  Within seconds my bingo wings were wobbling like unset jelly.  Moments later the whole hammock was vibrating.  From my upside-down world, my eyeballs flitted left to right.  Everybody else was calm, unaffected by the sound of blood roaring in their ears or feeble arm strength.  Unable to stand it for a moment longer, I disentangled my legs from the hammock and landed in a heap on the floor while everybody else spent the next ten minutes looking like bats doing ballet.  My face flamed with humiliation.  This feeling intensified when, after class, the instructor came over for a word.
          ‘For somebody of your age, you did very well.  It’s not easy starting this sort of thing at your time in life.’
          I know she meant well, but her words intensified my misery.  I had a sudden memory of an eighty-year-old on a Britain’s Got Talent audition doing crazy dancing and being flung around all over the place by her dance partner.  If an eighty-year-old could contort, I’d be damned if a fifty-something couldn’t too.  I left the studio feeling upset but determined to do better next time.  As for the class being “gentle”, my body begged to differ.  Forty-eight hours later I could hardly walk, which was a nuisance because that was the day of the next fitness class.  Bouncer-cise.
          As I hobbled into the studio and selected a trampoline, music began to blare.  I told myself this class would be easier than anti-gravity yoga.  The anticipation at the start of class was a bit like the Grand National.  One minute everybody was packed together on their trampolines, springs creaking as arms and legs jostled for aerobic space, the next we were off!  It was clear that everybody else had done this class before.  Bums out, tums in, squatting into each jump, I hadn’t a clue how to master the stance. I continually bounced high into the air, choreography completely out of sync and musically out of time. As everybody settled into dance-like routines lifting legs and punching the air, I was yo-yoing up and down desperately trying not to spring off and crash into my fitness neighbours.  I won’t lie.  I went home and cried.  My daughter caught me snivelling.
          ‘What’s up, Mum?’
          ‘What’s up?’ I shrieked, reaching for a man-size Kleenex to trumpet into.  ‘I’ll tell you what’s up!’  The dog, a sucker for toilet paper and tissues, promptly snatched the Kleenex off me and shredded it to pieces.  ‘Argh,’ I yelled, ‘I can’t even blow my chuffing nose!’
          ‘Here.’ Eleanor calmly handed me another tissue.  ‘Why are you crying?’
          ‘Do you know,’ I hissed, overcome with sudden fury, ‘In my lifetime I’ve done ballet for fifteen years, Ceroc for two, and dabbled with Salsa.  But for some reason I CAN’T BOUNCE IN TIME TO MUSIC ON A TRAMPOLINE.’ Nothing like feeling sorry for yourself, eh?
          ‘Hmm. All that dancing was rather a long time ago, Mum.’
          ‘And don’t I chuffing well know it!’ I fumed.  ‘I feel like a has-been.  A failure.  An idiot.  I can’t believe my body won’t do what I want it to do.’
          ‘It takes practice.  That’s all.  It will get better.  You’ll see.’
          At that moment, somehow our roles had reversed.  My daughter, the mother. I, the child.  But Eleanor was right.  A month later, it’s a bit better.  No, I still can’t do everything everybody else is doing in the anti-gravity yoga class, but I will eventually.  Why?  Because my upper body strength is improving.  I know this for a fact because my bingo wings have disappeared, and I’ve mastered the stance on the trampoline so can now bounce in time to the music.  I’ve even had the ego-boosting experience of keeping going whilst a sweat-drenched twenty-year-old, after just ten minutes, sulkily declared she couldn’t do another second.
          So for anybody starting out in the pursuit of ‘fitness’, my humble advice is: Do not to give up.  Keep at it, and maybe I’ll even see you there!  Which reminds me.
          Person at gym:     Can you teach me to do the splits?
          Gym instructor:    How flexible are you?
          Person at gym:     I can’t make Thursdays...