OUT of the blue at the weekend I was contacted on Twitter by someone who said she’d read about me online when she was doing some research and had she and I been at school together.

I’ve a good memory for names but couldn’t apply it on this occasion since the writer was using a sort of odd abbreviation as her user name, so there were no clues for me there other than the fact that, buried within it, were three consecutive letters: P-E-N.

An old schoolfriend called Pen, or Penelope, perhaps? No, surely not dear, wonderful, Penny?

We exchanged a couple more messages, establishing extra yards of common ground, and the thing that finally nailed it for me, and assured me it really was long-lost Penny, was when I asked if her family pet had been a Dachshund called Herman. It had indeed.

So there we were on Sunday night, touching each other’s lives across the ether, in contact for the first time since that awful day at the end of a summer term when, aged nine, we were tearfully prised apart.

We’d enjoyed an inseparable friendship for two years. Penny’s life was suburban and sensible, mine extremely rural and a bit mad, but we clicked from the day we met at school, doing eight-year-old little girl things and then nine-year-old little girl things.

We were giggling Kelpies together in the Brownies, we ran wild near my house at weekends and built camps, and in our more sensible moments we wrote stories, mostly about ponies, that we let each other read.

I imagine we were something of a trial to our teacher because, although good girls deep down, Penny and I shared a streak of naughtiness that often got us into trouble. The worst time, and therefore the one we both remembered in our Twitter exchange, was when we put a piece of holly on our teacher’s chair in the hope she would sit on it and shoot up to the ceiling.

We’d failed to anticipate that the teacher, being somewhat brighter than we were, might notice a shiny green holly leaf where she was about to place her ample behind (or BTM, as we daringly referred to it). Sure enough, she saw it as soon as she walked into the classroom and it was Penny and me who were for the high jump.

There were other escapades but most of all there was the joy of having a soulmate, someone who shared my thoughts and was always up for a laugh and an adventure.

There was just one thing that stopped Penny from being completely perfect: her hairclip stayed in place and mine didn’t. Life can be very unfair, and it’s enormous issues like this that help small girls learn about growing-up and coping with an unequal distribution of sartorial good fortune.

After two years of being best pals ever, Penny left our school. She moved away because her father, a bank manager, was transferred to another branch in somewhere foreign and about 1,000 miles away called Worcestershire. We wrote a few letters, pledging we’d never lose touch, and then the contact fizzled out.

Now we know of each other’s existence again, are we going to get properly in touch and dig into each other’s pasts, using more than 140 characters at a time?

We’re not. There’s just too much to recapture, too many turns in our respective roads to go down and find each other.

We’ve become different people from our nine-year-old selves, although I bet Penny still has neat hair.


IN all the houses I have ever lived in as an adult – and there have been a lot, 20-odd at least – I have needed to employ the services of people to make good and mend.

Their work has covered the whole gamut of tradesmen’s skills, from plumbing and electrics to complicated building works.

Almost all of these professional intrusions into my life have left me with a regard for the talents of others but, unsurprisingly, a fervent wish that they will never need to call again.

Apart from the obvious financial reasons, I say this because – and here I generalise – they do seem to have a number of antisocial habits, especially in the clean and tidy department, that I bet they would never display in their own homes. Time-keeping, too, can be a little weakness.

There’s all that dust, too, all those cups of tea, the flapping sheets of polythene, the tools and bits of machinery laid out across the floor, the doors left open, the mysterious clonking sounds, the bashing and cursing, and the way the garden is annexed.

Years ago, a man came and cleaned the carpets in a house we’d just bought that had been occupied by more dogs than humans. Desperate measures were needed, and he was the starting point. He did an excellent job, except that he emptied the filthy, rubbish-filled water from his machine into the downstairs loo, clogging up the ancient drainage system of the cottage. We got to know the local drains expert very well as a result.

Having a hardwood floor laid in our present house seemed a good plan, until we found what the fitter had left as his trademark: blobs of black adhesive on white skirting boards, bits of broken wood beading and – a lasting legacy this – traces of some sort of chemical in the cloakroom washbasin that destroyed its surface.

Boiler problems have plagued our lives at intervals, and a recent one threatened to turn into a mini-flood while the plumber was actually in the house. Perhaps it was absent-mindedness, I don’t know, but he merely reached for the nearest thing with mopping-up tendencies, which. I discovered after he’d gone, had been a stack of my freshly laundered towels. Thanks, chum.

It’s quite an intimate relationship that we forge with these people. They learn a great deal about our lives just by sharing our domestic space for hours at a time. I try to be circumspect in what personal details I reveal, but sometimes the old tongue gets blabbing and before I know it we’re looking at each other’s photos on our phones.

When the children were very small and we lived in a cottage in Suffolk, we decided to have a dormer window put in at the back. Simple, yes? You cut a hole, you put in a window.

Mr Parks, a wonderful old craftsman with the right tools for cutting through thatch, quickly became a friend. To say he was slow would be to redefine the meaning of the word, but we eventually reached the stage where the window was ready to be fitted.

Then our man fell ill with bronchitis and ended up being hospitalised, followed by a long period of recovery.

All this time we lived with a hole in the thatch covered by crackling blue plastic, but our reward for patience came when we held a party to celebrate the completion of the world’s most labour-intensive dormer window. Guest of honour was dear old Mr Parks, by now almost one of the family. They don’t make ’em like Parksy any more.


ONE of my mother’s favourite pastimes is observing life from the windows of her second-floor flat. She only goes out if my sister or I take her (“I’m under house arrest,” she smiles, like the good sport she is) so looking at the world from the safety of her home is a less challenging option at 93 than joining the fray.

On my Mum-care days I join her in watching life’s rich pageant flow past. We cannot be seen, which is excellent, but we have an unimpeded view of everything from show-off gymnastic ducks on the river to soggy pedestrians struggling with umbrellas.

All human life – and much animal life, too – is revealed. You don’t need a telly for daytime entertainment when you have a window with a view on the world.

Mum particularly likes to see small children. She empathises with the ones who lag behind their hurrying parents, trying to thrum their fingers along the railings or craning over the bridge for a glimpse of the diving ducks. We both feel sorry for them when they get chivvied or, worse, rammed into a buggy to accelerate progress.

We weave stories about some of the passers-by. “They’ll be off to her mother’s for lunch,” Mum will say, indicating a youngish man and woman on the opposite pavement. “You can see her husband is reluctant. I expect they go every Sunday and he hates it.”

Ten out of ten to Mum for inventiveness, and I go along with it, speculating about what they’ll be given for lunch and whether or not they’ll have to stay for tea, with perhaps a riverside walk in between.

I haven’t the heart to spoil it for Mum by telling her it isn’t Sunday and that it is more likely, by their body language, that the man and the woman are work colleagues heading for a business appointment. Her take on it is far more entertaining.

Sometimes we see a crocodile of schoolchildren, always a cause for delight. “I expect they’re on a nature ramble,” Mum says, and I agree, though knowing that we’re both way off the mark. It prompts a little memory-nugget in Mum.

She tells me, for the 32nd time, bless her, about the day she was walking to school and fell in step with Maurice Tomlinson (the name changes with each telling) who was struggling to carry a very large tortoise, so she helped him.

She is adamant it happened and who am I to doubt her. And yet . . .

More memories of her early days pour forth, prompted by the sights we see from the window. What a rich and valuable resource it is. Even the seagulls, which line up so smartly on a nearby rooftop like sailors in tropical whites, remind Mum of the day she walked to the seaside town four miles from her home village, her small hand safely in her big sister’s every step of the way.

On Monday this week there was the sudden excitement of a large lorry backing into the area below Mum’s window. A handful of men swarmed as sheets of MDF and sacks of plaster were unloaded into the hall of a house opposite. We were riveted. One man was doing all the work while the other four stood and watched, not knowing, ha ha, that we were watching too.

We admired the lorry, with its on-board crane and folding-down sides, and I know, given half a chance, Mum would have loved a ride in it. Me too, but I have to remind myself that my caring duties include setting a good example. What a shame.

FUNNY things, weather forecasts. There we were, full of concern (foreboding, actually) about the prospect of our week’s holiday in Sicily being spoilt by what appeared to be six-and-a-half solid days of rain, cloud and chilly temperatures, when almost overnight the whole picture changed.

This meant, unbelievably, that from the day we arrived, Geoff and I have been enjoying the minor miracle of unbroken sunshine and the bluest of blue skies.

It is even warm enough for swimmers and sunbathers to have ventured out: obviously they are Northern Europeans, not locals. Italians are wary about declaring summer until at least July, so until then they go about cocooned in their uniform of duvet coats, scarves and boots, determinedly not breaking with tradition.

We do approve of many of their traditions, mind you, and here on the south-east edge of beautiful Sicily these include being gentle and helpful to bewildered visitors from Dorset with a habit of holding maps upside-down.

The Sicilians’ culinary tradition needs no praise from me: it is a given that it is of the freshest, highest order and, as I write this on day three, its very wonderfulness is causing me to consider moving here permanently because I badly need it in my life. A good enough reason, I feel, although the family might find it strange that I’ve abandoned them in favour of an endless supply of blood oranges, fennel and ricotta.

Traditions that don’t enthuse me all that much, and which I will obviously have to sort out very quickly if I do take up residence on this beautiful island, revolve around the tiny problem Sicilians have about rubbish.

They don’t seem to know where to put it, so blithely deposit household items, bulging bin bags, bits of old cars, broken toys, unwanted grannies, you name it, on any convenient pavement, beach, kerb or roadside.

Did I say a tiny problem? Very sadly, it’s a problem of considerable proportions, made all the more unpleasant and anti-social when you discover that every single dog – and a lot of people have at least one straining at the end of a long leash – sees fit to leave its own waste wherever it wishes, too.

Getting about on foot is a delicate operation, but Geoff and I have walked at least 400 miles a day (I don’t exaggerate all that much) and seen great numbers of amazing things, among them people, places, plates of food, vast expanses of blue sky to make the heart sing, archaeological sites of world renown, ice-creams of such flavour and colour to make the knees tremble, golden sunshine to send the spirits soaring, and market stalls piled high with such fresh, bountiful goodness as to make all others seem like dull imitations.

This is the stuff of happy holidays, but ours is all the happier for the weather’s sudden about-turn the day we arrived. It means that we don’t have to adopt a brave face when people say, with pity in their eyes, “You should have been here last week.”

For once, we’ve got it right, even though we know it’s more by good luck than judgment.

AROUND this time last year, Geoff and I turned our backs on the rain and the floods and took our jaded, soaked-sponge selves off to Sicily for a week. The intention was to wring ourselves out, steam gently under an early-spring sun, and see some of the magnificent sights on the western side of the island.

All three of our hopes were fulfilled, although the longed-for sun was a little more shy and fleeting than we might have hoped. It had been blazing in a most unseasonable way for weeks up to our arrival – and then it went into an occasional moody sulk and failed to show. Just our luck.

This year, this coming week in fact, we are off to the other side of Sicily, which we last visited in 2002. On that occasion it was early summer and, while we explored ancient ruins, amphitheatres, astonishing mosaics and the slopes of an angry Etna, we boiled and melted into a fetching shade of lobster pink.

It’s generally warmer on the eastern side of Sicily so we’ve been harbouring hopes we might experience what the holiday companies call a ‘winter sunshine break’. The signs have been good.

Geoff checks the weather there each day with an app on his tablet and we swoon at the thought of walking around in temperatures of 19 degrees. Since my head still works in Fahrenheit I have to translate that, and it comes to something in the mid–60s, which is most acceptable for the beginning of March.

Not exactly weather for swimming in the sea, should we wish to treat Sicily to that, but certainly comfortable for walking about. It would have done very nicely last year, too, when we were so badly in need of drying out (strictly in a non-alcoholic way).

Several weeks of Geoff’s daily reports on the cloud cover – the presence or absence of same – the hours of sunshine, and the morning, noon and night temperatures of the town we’ll be staying in beside the Ionian Sea, have given us both hours of pre-holiday delight and eager anticipation. Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration, but we have certainly been looking forward with some confidence to balmy days.

Until now. The weather over there has suddenly changed. There is rain every day, temperatures have plummeted and there are storms and strong winds.

What is it about us? Does word get out that we’re on our way? Do we have some strange influence over weather patterns?

I can hear the orders being issued. “Hey, sun, take your hat off and make yourself scarce for a while, will you? And you, clouds, forget about looking cute and puffy, just turn black and angry and fill the sky until I say you can stop, OK? Rain? Come here and make a nuisance of yourself. Wind? Stick around and make as much noise as you like, if you don’t mind. Chill factor? Oh, you are still around. Good. OK, pretend it’s December and go for it, big time.”

So that’s the prospect. That’s the scene that’s being set for our holiday week. Rest assured we will be packing the thermals and the brollies. We’re not daft. Well, not completely.


HOWEVER hard I try to be a smooth operator and ignore the nagging suspicion that I could be Calamity Jane reincarnate, it is indisputable that my life is like a series of out-takes.

The simplest tasks turn into dramas spread over several episodes. Take last weekend, after I’d returned from a day with Mum on her 93rd birthday.

We’d had a lovely time, which I recorded for posterity with various pictures to share with absent friends and family.

Come the evening, with Mum safely settled, I returned home and set about sorting the photos and writing emails and, in some cases, letters to accompany them.

One of these was to my cousin, who had sent her favourite and only surviving aunt a beautiful arrangement of flowers. I thought she should see the pleasure her kind gift had brought, illustrated by a broad smile across Mum’s face as she held the flowers.

Next I wrote an email to my son, daughter-in-law and toddler Poppy. I sent them a resume of the day, gushing expressions of enduring adoration and huge numbers of hugs for Pops (as is my soppy wont), as well as a photo of grandma (aka great-grandma) in her birthday plumage looking at their card. I signed off with approximately a quarter-of-a-mile of kisses for Pops and her parents and expressions of yearning to be with them and a fervent wish that the miles between us were not so great. Standard fare and nothing too over-the-top or embarrassing. Not much, anyway.

How surprised I was to receive a response a little later from my son which included the question: “Who are Phil and Jackie and why did you include them in your email to us?”

My heart sank and the blood drained from my face. Now what had I managed to do? What ludicrous, fumble-fisted ether-borne nightmare had I landed myself in?

I checked my ‘Sent’ folder. Sure enough, I had indeed sent the email to three addresses: son, daughter-in-law and a couple of our acquaintance called Phil and Jackie who live in Kent but it might be Essex.

As if that were not bad enough, I then forced myself to wade through the email again, wincing and cringing at its soppiness. There was nothing for it but to write an email to Phil and Jackie, a couple we don’t know well and last saw three years ago, explaining why they had received this curious missive and its photo attachment of a mystery 93-year-old smiling at them.

They were kind enough to write back. They said that at first they thought they’d received the ramblings of ‘someone who must be taking something’ until they tumbled to the fact it was me.

It was lovely to hear from me, they gamely said, and would I pass on their regards to my mother as they now felt acquainted in a minor way, what with hearing about her day and seeing her photo. They avoided any mention of the outpouring of granny-gushing mush I’d indulged in to little Poppy.

Renewing contact in this weird way with Phil and Jackie has had a silver lining. It turns out they’re coming our way later this year, so we hope to meet up with them again.

Out of calamity comes serendipity: that’s my view on this episode. Geoff sees it slightly differently. I have a strong suspicion he has put in a call for the men in white coats to be on stand-by, and I wouldn’t blame him.


LET’S talk romance. It is that time again, after all: the time when shops windows turn pink and red with an embarrassment of hearts and ribbons and cloying exhortations to ‘Spoil the one you love this Valentine’s Day’. ‘Hey,’ I want to shout back, ‘what’s wrong with every day?’

Whichever way you turn there are similar messages – ‘Buy your loved one a pair of secateurs’ (and spend the evening in A&E); ‘Indulge your sweetheart with a box of heart-shaped doughnuts (and show how much you care about obesity).

The ubiquitous colour theme is only one of a million variations of the stick-in-the-throat commercialism that turns us into happy, smiling, loved-up victims of the most insane exploitation.

But it’s great, isn’t it? Where would we be without the silliness and superficiality of observing Valentine’s Day?

For Geoff and me, every day is, as you would expect, filled with romance. Our Valentine’s celebrations last a whole year at a time, which means that we don’t have to set aside a day in chilly February for being especially gooey over each other – it’s business as usual. This lets us both off the hook over the choosing and buying of a card, which is tormenting enough when it’s merely a birthday, and if by chance a bunch of flowers should appear then I know to keep absolutely schtum and claim that they couldn’t possibly have come from a secret admirer and I bought them for myself (which of course I did).

One of my problems with Valentine’s Day is that my eye is taken off the ball, romance-wise, by the fact it is also my mother’s birthday. Getting her sorted with card, present and a visit tends to stretch my limited powers of organisation and scheduling to the very limit. Trying to squeeze anything else into that equation, like whisking my beloved away on a spa break (I am joking, I promise. He’d loathe it – and probably me – if I did that to him) is too big an ask. I could do it if I tried really hard, but it wouldn’t be appreciated, so I’m better off saving anything romantic and spontaneous for a rainy day.

Instead of the card and gift combo, then, we will make our usual soppy declaration that we know we’re each other’s Valentines and discuss the idea of going out for a meal. That will last no more than 10 seconds, at which point we remember that the world and his wife, partner, girlfriend, lover and possibly mother, too, will have booked all the tables and we’d never get in even if we could decide where we fancied going.

We’ll do something special next week, we agree, and promptly forget.

What I shan’t forget, though, is to count my blessings. A very nice woman I know lost her husband this week. He died suddenly aged 53 and they’d been married three months. Yes, just three months. It was first time around for both of them and theirs truly was a marriage founded on a most intense love, making them perfect partners absolutely brimming with happiness.

For them, let’s give thanks for love this Valentine’s weekend – and never take it for granted.


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