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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.

 

ONE of the few benefits of suffering galloping birthday syndrome is that the business of having babies and bringing up children is down to the next generation. They are so welcome.

My sisters-in-arms and I, whose ‘Been There, Done That’ slogan T-shirts cover the physical and emotional scars of motherhood, can now sit in comfort on our privileged perches, dispensing wisdom and applying magic cream to life’s hurts when grandchildren come to us for comfort. For us, it’s a win-win situation.

Three times over I’ve known the absolute, the most unalloyed, thrill of becoming a grandmother. There can be few more life-enhancing rites of passage.

The little people, aged 5, 3 and 2, have between them brought so many new dimensions into our lives.

Could it get better than this? Yes, amazingly it could! Last Friday, three became four. I’ve four grandchildren now: two boys (my daughter’s), two girls (my son’s). The latest is a blue-eyed girl, fairer than her big sister Poppy.

Most births involve their own mini-dramas, tales of high emotion, physical endurance and even courage beyond the call. This one, already 11 days overdue, was stamped all over with the size-11 footprints of my son, who unwittingly almost stole centre stage.

He had run a fever and was suffering bouts of sickness and nausea, so his poor labouring wife had to hold out a sickbag for him while he drove her at high speed to the hospital.

It was touch and go whether they’d get there in time as they hared up the length of Cornwall (they’d been staying with her parents – no, I wasn’t sure of the wisdom of that, either) and into the home straight of rural south Devon. They made it, with less than 30 minutes to spare, and baby arrived into a curious scene where a sickbag was being waved around as one of the props.

We learnt the story when Geoff and I travelled west to congratulate the parents and meet the baby, as yet unnamed but known to us all as Drinky. The curious nickname, given to her mummy’s bump by Poppy months ago, has stuck so fast that I am sure whatever names are eventually chosen, she will always be known as Drinky.

At the start of our journey we called on our niece and her husband to meet their newborn, an enchantingly pretty girl called . . . Poppy (not to be confused with our grand-daughter Poppy, who is often called Pops nowadays). This little sweetie had been due a week after Drinky, but obligingly arrived six days beforehand.

For a good fortnight there were texts and emails flying around with messages along the lines of ‘Any news of Drinky’s arrival?’ and ‘No news of Drinky, I’m afraid,’ ‘Baby Poppy’s arrived! All well,’ and ‘Where’s Drinky then?’

Well, Drinky did finally make it and she is, of course, quite gorgeous. I think she must have taken those extra 11 days to prepare herself for the scrutiny of her public, in particular her big sister, Pops, because she looked extremely calm and composed when we saw her at two days old.

Pops led me over to see this sweet baby, lying there looking all cute and adorable in her Moses basket. “This is my little sister. She’s called Drinky,” Pops said, looking up at me, winningly. “We’re just borrowing her.”

Now that’s a misunderstanding no granny should have to deal with. I’m leaving that one to the parents.

 

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.

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