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IT sounds wrong to say we went to the beach on Sunday. Having been brought up in Cornwall, I know I should really say we went ‘down beach’, but since Sunday’s outing was to a Devon beach perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if I break the old habit.

Cornish beaches, so often nestling tantalisingly at the foot of cliffs (think Poldark) almost always require mountaineering skills to get to them. Such efforts were well-rewarded for our family when I was a child: a cove of our own, rock pools, egg sandwiches, six swims, elaborate sandcastles, and sometimes the shocking joy of seeing bookish, sensible Dad, transformed by flapping swimming trunks, run into the sea, perform a handstand and run back out again to the sanctuary of a towel and his place on the rocks beside Mum. “That’s it for this year!” he’d tell my sister and me when we begged him to do it again.

Later, the trek back up perilous snaking paths lined with tufts of pink sea thrift, occasionally pausing to look back wistfully at the shimmering blue below, seemed an interminable, aching, effortful way to end a perfect day.

There was no such effort involved in Sunday’s outing ‘down beach’, where, thanks to the geographical differences between dramatic south Cornwall and gentler south Devon, there were no cliffs to negotiate, no ‘down’ at all, as we were able to park the car within a level walk, all of half a minute from the beach.

This was just as well, as mountaineering is not yet in the suite of accomplishments of my grand-daughters, toddler Poppy and her newborn sister, Clemmie (aka Drinky). In fact Clemmie stayed for the most part firmly anchored to her mummy’s front in a sling contraption, only occasionally testing her lungs in competition with the gulls.

Poppy, on the other hand, scampered and capered as only two-and-a-half year-olds can when given the freedom of a beach and access not just to her daddy on a rare day off but also to her granny who fancies herself as an ace builder of sandcastles.

In fact, Poppy and I built more roads than sandcastles, using large flat pebbles to pave a route between Camp Baby and our chosen play area some distance away. It was when excavating for tiny pebbles for her collection – milky white and humbug-striped  ones being particularly favoured – that Poppy found real pirate treasure.

“Look at this!” she exclaimed, pulling out a shiny 10-pence piece, for all the world a modern-day doubloon, albeit more silver than gold. I shared her excitement as we dug for more. Never mind that our efforts were in vain. Finding one piece of genuine treasure was quite enough to make Poppy’s day.

I blessed whoever had let it slip from their purse or pocket. They can never know how much their loss meant to a little person who likes nothing more than an adventure with a happy ending.

For us adults the day had a happy ending, too, because this lovely beach proved to have everything a family could want or need for seaside comfort. (Everything, I noticed, except the hat, scarf and gloves I could have done with to augment my three layers and wind-proof jacket.) The shop, selling every size and colour of bucket, spade and much else, is next to the café offering exceptionally good locally produced food and in front of a block of loos that deserves prizes for cleanliness.

I was terrifically uplifted by the whole outing – and I hadn’t even been the one who’d found the treasure. Or perhaps I had.

WHAT a lot of things we take for granted: the car will start, the kettle will boil, the key will unlock the front door.

They are routine, everyday components of our lives whose reliability we rarely have cause to question.

I’ll just have a quick shower, you decide, and you scarcely give the matter a second thought because, of course, you simply turn a switch or pull a lever, the water comes through at the right temperature, you wash yourself top to toe, you open the door and you step out, clean and refreshed.

Except what if the shower door doesn’t open and you can’t step out? Imagine it for a moment. There are few places where you are more alone, more totally cut off, than in the confined space of a shower cubicle. It is suddenly, horrifically, claustrophobic, isn’t it?

This very thing happened to a friend of mine this week. She lives on her own in a cottage with neighbours on only one side and, as luck would have it, they and most of the rest of the world were still fast asleep at 5.30 in the morning when this ghastly emergency occurred.

Banging, shouting and, soon, screaming, eventually alerted the neighbours. They started to search for someone who was obviously in distress, but thought the person must be further away than next door.

Meanwhile, my poor friend, who has immense strength of character and intellect, if not physicality, continued doing battle with the stuck-fast shower doors. Using her tiny body as a battering ram and her shaking, quaking hands as wrecking balls, she somehow managed to wrench one of the doors out of its runners.

Emerging after 45 minutes of torment into the glorious freedom of her bathroom, she was able to call her neighbours off the hunt, just as they were alerting the police.

All was well, then, that ended well – except that it wasn’t really. My friend will never forget that feeling of being helplessly trapped and even the innocent act of ‘just having a quick shower’ will for her never be the same again.

The incident should give us all pause for thought. Can any of us, or certainly those of us who ill-advisedly have those shower cubicles with sliding doors, ever trust the beasts again?

The answer, of course, is only to have a shower cubicle whose door opens outwards. Naturally, the one here at Hill Towers isn’t like that. We don’t have the right shape or space, so we have one like my friend’s, with sliding doors that could, if they chose, suddenly cease to slide.

The prospect of that ever happening to me is too awful to contemplate. My friend has devised a safety strategy that she has tested and is already using: she now takes a shower in her (mended) cubicle with a mobile phone in a sealed plastic box at her feet.

It’s a good idea. I’ve vowed never to take a shower unless Geoff is within shrieking-for-help distance, and if he’s out or away then I shall use the bath instead. You can never take too much for granted, I say.

I TOLD my sister that because I’d given an unwanted handbag from my modest collection to a charity shop I had my antennae flapping in the search for a replacement.

Sometimes I find it helps to share news of this nature. To a guilty mind it serves to turn a planned act into a co-conspiracy, thereby reducing to a more acceptable level what some (men) may see as self-indulgence. But you have 300 handbags, says an incredulous Geoff. How could you possibly need another? They just don’t understand, do they?

My sister trumped me totally by expressing amazement I’d only got rid of one handbag. “I’ve just given away twelve,” she said.

This sounded generous in the extreme, but it transpired there’d been a major loft clearing-out session going on at Sister Towers, with anything that hadn’t been missed in 10 years being consigned straight to charity or the dump. Hence the rehoming of the dozen handbags, several of which my sister admitted she barely recognised.

All this led up to my purchase last week of a new bag. The moment I saw it I knew that we’d be best mates, just as soon as I’d learnt my way round its inner workings and adjusted its too-long shoulder strap. For now, though, I simply wanted to get it home. I hooked it over my shoulder and, with both my hands full of other bags of shopping, set off.

On the way, I called on a friend who wanted to give me some eggs as her hyper-active hens had created a glut. We wondered if they’ve been engaged in some kind of pre-election frenzy, as if they knew something we didn’t.

Don’t worry about a box for the eggs, I assured her, thinking of the mini-mountain I have of the things under the boiler at home. Just bung half a dozen in a plastic bag and I’ll be able to carry them safely in my new … . Ooh, look, meet my new handbag … Cue a fair bit of preening by me and some generous admiration from her.

I stowed the bagged-up eggs in the handbag, hoiked it carefully back on to my shoulder, gathered up the rest of my shopping and continued my walk home.

I hadn’t gone very far when suddenly, unaccountably, the strap slipped off my shoulder and the bag fell to the ground. My new bag! My lovely new bag! How could that have happened?

And then, with a terrible blood-rush of realisation, I turned pale as I remembered the eggs. The eggs! Oh no! I couldn’t bear to think they’d ruined my new pride and joy, oozing from their plastic bag into all the yet-to-be explored pockets and niches.

Heavy-hearted, I trudged the rest of the way home, full of hate for the over-productive hens, full of loathing for the smashed eggs and their oozy mess and full of remorse for the indignity I’d inflicted on the new bag.

Later, I braced myself to confront the damage. Inside the mercifully still-sealed plastic bag were two intact eggs, four smashed shells and a slithery pond of egg white and yolk looking like some horribly failed experiment.

Scrambled eggs for supper, I told Geoff, as I settled my nervous breathing and muttered a heartfelt ’Sorry’ to the new bag.

After that baptism of abuse, it deserves a lifetime of gentle loving – unlike the dozen bags my sister kept in the dark for all those years.

 

I CAN’T say I’ve ever been attracted to a career as a postman, what with the early starts and the furious dogs. We’ll gloss over the need to wear those shorts, too, because that’s one item of uniform clothing I have no intention of revisiting since the Years of the Frozen Knees on the school hockey pitch.

However, I am in fact a quasi-postman because two of the voluntary tasks that I undertake involve making deliveries through doors.

One task is monthly, the other quarterly, so I’m not exactly pounding the streets from dawn in all weathers. Even so, just as postmen do, I still run the risk of having my fingers snapped off, not so much by dogs as by those dratted modern letterboxes.

Do people actually design letterboxes these days? Is there a course in something as arcane as that? For all I know there’s a degree in it, but, I wonder, do they merely sit and doodle on a page headed ‘21st Century Letterbox’ and come up with something like a portcullis crossed with a guillotine crossed with a Caiman alligator?

Yes, indeed they do. Take it from me, anything produced in the past 20 years to allow the ingress of posted items into residences – whether we’re talking detached house or upper-storey flat – does not for one second take into account the well-being of the person doing the shoving.

The letterboxes are one thing, one blot on an otherwise pleasant task, and the dogs are another. Any glass door I approach that has a four-legged shape hurling itself against it in a mouth-frothing frenzy has me backing away at speed. Reinforced glass it may be, but Cerberus obviously thinks he’s in with chance of breaching it and I’m out of there.

That’s the negative side of being a deliverer, but happily there are many positives. There’s the good distance walked, for a start, and the pleasure of seeing all the variety of front gardens, especially at this time of year. Sometimes there’s the opportunity to stop for a quick chat with someone bent double in the borders or tying back the climbing roses and we can indulge in a setting to rights of either the universe or our community, or both.

Mostly, though, it’s a solitary task, a job achieved by steadily plodding on and not getting distracted. That’s not easy for a butterfly-brain such as mine as my thoughts flit about, mostly speculating about what it would be like to live here, or in that house, or up that pretty lane. Some houses have porches that I covet, others have the most gorgeous stained glass in their front doors. I could linger and admire and even photograph, if I dared, but I don’t. I have to get on.

I did pause, though, just the other day when I suddenly noticed that one of the homes I was delivering to was where an old schoolfriend of my son’s had lived. I checked. Yes, the surname on the envelope was the same, so his parents must still live here, all these years on.

As I walked away, I tried to think how long it had been since I’d seen any of the family, especially the boy’s mother, Shona. When I ran out of fingers and toes I stopped, aware of the worryingly rapid passing of time.

It quite shocked me, therefore, when I was about half a mile further on and I noticed Shona walking towards me on the opposite pavement. It was, as the saying goes, seriously spooky.

 

HERE we are, eyes wide open, slap-bang in the middle of open season for making wild promises. In other words, we’re entering the final straight towards the General Election winning post.

It is just remotely possible that some of us may not describe these extravagant gestures as actual promises but fanciful whims plucked from a bottomless box of tricks. Other people, of a more savvy political bent, would prefer us to believe the manifestos offer nailed-on certainties to enhance our future lives – if only we will vote for whichever party happens to be hoodwinking us at the time.

Whether you are a believer or not, and whether your cynicism is of a height that ranks alongside mine or is at a more reasonable level of circumspection, there is no getting away from the fact we are being offered an awful lot by all the parties.

There will be austerity and the certainty of cutbacks in some areas, it’s true, but it is in general a menu of jam today, jam tomorrow, and optional clotted cream to plonk on top, provided your cross goes in the right place.

How to choose from this alluring spread, this buffet of the vanities? It’s tough, isn’t it? You either dare not think about it too much or you’ll go bonkers and so go with the same bunch you’ve always tended to go with, or you get down among the facts and figures and create your own algorithms to see which party will be best for you, your home, your livelihood and your way of life now and in the future. Sadly, either way could send you bonkers, but because we live in a democracy at least you can choose your route to a troubled conscience and disturbed sleep patterns for the next five years.

Never mind the TV fandangos and the subsequent shallow talk about someone’s less-than assured performance or another’s insincere posturing that surely betrays something deeply insecure: a proper debate would have been nice. I mean proper in the sense of a good old-fashioned political slanging match of sound and fury, not this polite standing around looking for all the world like a bunch of over-dressed delegates at a lectern convention.

Come on, get stuck in there! Let’s have some zeal and some passion and see what you’re made of in a hot-blooded exchange of verbal blows! Who knows, you may even, in the heat of the moment, speak with sincerity and not just trot out some well-rehearsed party PR-approved lines.

We don’t get that, though, because it’s not slick enough for telly purposes, which is all about the visual impact, never mind the substance. On the radio you get a bit more of the slugging-it-out scenario, but even then the anxious voice of the arbitrator, the man or woman in the middle, is constantly interrupting for fear of the plot being lost in what sounds like a rowdy classroom of bickering fourth-formers. Crashing the pips is an ever-present dread among radio presenters and producers, so you can hardly blame them.

Overall, though, the daily election campaign charade is nothing if not tame. To my jaundiced eye it’s so stage-managed and tightly ordered by behind-the scenes machinery – consisting of frantically pedalling trick cyclists, trained in PR and image presentation – that I steadfastly refuse to believe anything I’m told. I read a lot, the background to the news stories and much of what the political commentators and columnists write each day, so I’m not exactly uninformed. I just don’t like being gratuitously misinformed – and I bet you don’t, either.

 

IN the same week that we learn Hillary Clinton has declared her intention to run for US President and a German primary school teacher of 65 has announced she is expecting quadruplets, I’d like to tell you we’ve had a similar breakthrough for womankind here at Hill Towers.

I’d like to say that Geoff has released me from my shackles by cooking supper – but sadly I can’t. The thundering advance of women, the smashing of glass ceilings, the breaking down of barriers – that all marches magnificently on, I very much hope, in the outside world, but here we have a situation of Emancipation Lite.

I read recently that what poor Geoff suffers from – actually, let’s be honest, I’m the one who suffers, he is quite unscathed – is a condition called learned helplessness.

Geoff and his ilk, his equally undomesticated brethren who keep their distance from what was once, and never, ever again, referred to so damningly as ‘women’s work’, are nothing short of dinosaurs in the 21st century. Dignifying their complete and utter lack of independence and competence with a trendy term doesn’t make it any more acceptable, or excusable.

To give him his due, Geoff can peel a banana, make toast (as long as the bread has been sliced for him), heat soup, peel a boiled egg and, come suppertime if he’s home alone, follow the instructions on a ready meal, so he is never going to starve.

I inherited him with even fewer skills than these, believe it or not, so we are making progress. When we’re both in our 180s he should be able to add changing the bedlinen and scrambling an egg to that impressive list. I live in hope.

I know plenty of others who are afflicted with learned helplessness, to a greater or lesser degree. Few of them are of a younger vintage than my beloved because it does seem to be an older generation thing. There is one, though, in his twenties, who scores poorly on the scale of domestic competence, but he is in rigorous training at the hands of his newly acquired and very no-nonsense partner. She has my whole-hearted encouragement.

In contrast, here’s a picture of perfection, and it’s one I created myself because it’s our son: he shops, cooks, deals with nappies, soothes his fretful baby and toddler through the night, makes bread, landscapes gardens, mends cars and renovates houses. He does all of that with one hand while with the other hand he is busy being a doctor.

Considering he is on the path to becoming a surgeon, it is just as well that when he was eight I also taught him to sew – though I hope his stitching is a little less haphazard now than it was then.

I’m often in the company of women who tell me their husbands do all the cooking. Before I burst into tears, I wait for them, because I know it’s coming, to add that it almost always drives them nuts. Their husbands use every pan and plate, they suck the life out of the fridge and use up ingredients kept for special occasions before leaving the kitchen in an unholy mess. They also get all sanctimonious about it and expect a round of applause.

Nah, that’s not for me. I’d far rather have my bumbling, unreconstructed six feet of learned helplessness. At least I know that all domestic shortcomings – and there are plenty of those at Hill Towers – are down to me to sort and, as with the state I find myself in, I have only myself to blame.

IN the past 10 days I’ve driven more miles than in the previous two months. Four round trips of 200-plus miles each have seen me criss-cross the country, encountering everything from traffic standstills to miles of inviting open road.

Along the way, I’ve witnessed enough bad driving to give me pause for thought about ever venturing out again, and at other times some delightfully British good manners of the sort that restore one’s faith in other road users.

In between those two extremes has been the usual complement of incompetents, ditherers and morons who shouldn’t be allowed behind a wheel.

In general, though, spending so much time on the road hasn’t been too bad at all and I’m beginning to wonder if perpetual wheeled motion suits me and I should have been a long-distance lorry driver – or perhaps a bus driver that doesn’t have to endure that tedious business of stopping every now and again.

The day before my road odysseys started I picked off the doormat an official-looking letter addressed to me. I inspected the envelope to see who it could be from.

Clunk! My heart sank when I saw it was from the Police in the neighbouring county. Oh no! I’m not a criminal! Don’t be angry with me!

I forced myself to read on and discovered that I’d been clocked by a Community Speed Watch team going at more than 30mph in a speed-limited area.

Don’t you dare do this again or you really are for the high jump, the message was, in summary. You’ll be added to a list of ‘persistent speeders’ closely monitored by the police. OK, point taken and lesson learned. Obedience was dinned into me as a child and this aberration was a black mark on my very soul.

This meant that each of my recent long journeys was conducted entirely within the law – probably much to the boiling fury of anyone behind me. Tough. Not once did I go over a limit as I stayed hyper-alert for every sign.

Having had my knuckles rapped in such a timely fashion I was not going to ignore the message now. It was immensely frustrating at times and I did get a bit huffy about some of the limits which seemed to make no sense at all. If I were cynical I might suggest they are there to generate an income, but let’s not upset the law and its guardians, especially as they have my number now.

My smugness as an exemplary driver made me more aware of the bad habits of others around me. Since when, I wonder, did anyone think it was safe to drive with one arm propped casually up on the door, 50% of control surrendered?

Countless mobile phone users – some speaking into them, others casually texting – terrified me, and I was unimpressed by the driver I saw with headphones on, grooving it to his music.

One of the really scary sights was a saloon car carrying a woman passenger and a loose, retriever-sized dog, which was bouncing up and down on the driver’s lap and enthusiastically licking his face. How he didn’t veer off the road I will never know.

No amount of dedicated scrutiny by the Community Speed Watch teams or the traffic police can hope to keep us safe from fools like that, but when those of us who briefly err are taught a salutary lesson, then we can perhaps redress the balance a little so there are more goodies than baddies on our roads.

 

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