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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.

BEFORE the start of this new year I conducted a brief chat with myself on the subject of resolutions. It went along these lines.

‘Well, old girl, what do you think you might try and fail at this year, then?’

I didn’t like the turn the conversation was destined to take, so I snapped back: ‘Forget it, will you. I’m not going on a diet because I’ve done at least 1,000 and look where they’ve got me, and I’m not, whatever you might think of my weakness of character, going to give up alcohol for the month of January.’

The subject of resolutions and the prospect of an all-new abstemious me was therefore closed for another 12 months.

Then New Year’s Eve came and I suddenly realised that there was something I wanted to achieve, something more even than a 24-inch waist (well, a waist at least). I really very badly wanted to try and acquire a small slice of that elusive thing called serenity.

I love the idea of being serene. I even love the word serene. Imagine being called Serena! It’s a word, a name, that inspires calm, a quality so far removed from my life that even just saying it out loud has the same effect on me as a 10-minute meditation.

So how could I achieve serenity in 2015? Giving up being calamitously clumsy would be a very good start. You just cannot be serene when you’re constantly rushing around, bumping into things and panicking.

I confided in Geoff that my resolution for this year was to stop being clumsy and losing things, abandoning once and for all my one-woman crusade towards self-humiliation.

Excellent, he said, and promised that to help me he would refrain from using one of my nicknames, which I’m sorry to say is ‘Clarissa’ (full name Clarissa Lums, or Clums, short for Clumsy). Not kind, is it?

Avoiding obvious disaster-prone scenarios was one way of keeping a clean sheet as I started my campaign on 1st January, so I lifted my feet deliberately high when walking on rough ground and I didn’t once go cycling. I fact, I didn’t even look at my bike, because Walter (Raleigh) and I have a difficult relationship following my two-crashing-falls-in-two-hours debacle last April.

All keys were diligently checked in and out of my pockets and bags, with the result that I didn’t once lock myself out of house or car or have to borrow a substitute from a tight-lipped Geoff ‘until mine comes out of hiding’.

Things were going really well, in fact, and I could swear a fluffy cloud of something that might have been serenity was hovering close to my head as the month neared its end.

Saturday was the 31st. Nearly there, I thought. I’m almost through a whole month without displaying one single sign of clumsiness. At this rate, there could be a new, serene me sooner than I might have thought possible.

Call it misplaced confidence, call it bad luck, but by four o’clock that afternoon I’d collided with the kitchen door and badly bruised my shoulder, I’d lost one of my favourite earrings, lost one of my new gloves and chopped a slice into my thumb instead of an onion.

So it’s back to square one. If this is to be the year when I shake off the nickname of Clarissa then I have a mere 11 months to do it.

Even bearing in mind all the previous dismal attempts, I am beginning to think that Diet No. 1,001 might have been a safer bet.

MORE often than I like to admit there are two soundtracks when Geoff and I watch television: there’s the programme itself and there’s my voice, complaining about something.

Fortunately, we don’t watch very much otherwise this silly habit of mine might have turned into a problem that marriage guidance counsellors would find hard to solve.

“My wife witters on during telly programmes,” shouldn’t really be grounds for divorce, but who knows?

It’s high time I took my cue from Geoff’s zero response (apart from the occasional sigh) to my unkind carping. I could be picking on anything, but two examples would be Fiona Bruce‘s actressy way of reading the news or the distracting habits of presenters who flap their arms and bounce around like children.

Being the sort of grumpy armchair critic that I am is pointless. What I ought to do is either learn to live with it, to tolerate other people’s irritating ways and idiosyncrasies, or to shut up and read a book.

But where’s the fun in silence? It’s like a sport for me. On one side we have the presenter who’s trying to be a colourful character – perhaps in eccentric clothing or ‘look at me, I’m so zany’ glasses – and on the other we have someone innocuous but who has a voice that grates or who displays silly, distracting mannerisms.

Whatever the problem I perceive, it detracts from my enjoyment of the programme. I agree it’s a shame I can’t be more forgiving and even show some appreciation of, for instance, the over-loud, intrusive music that is intended as ‘background’. I ought to understand, too, that a presenter who is passionate about a subject is likely to get a little carried away and start flapping, or that when someone is really angry their language is unlikely to be moderate.

Sadly, I don’t. I can be forgiving in lots of ways, just not when it interferes with my watching pleasure.

And then, suddenly, Geoff came up with a programme that Moaning Minnie could find nothing, absolutely nothing, to find fault with. For an hour on each of the past two Friday evenings we have both been enthralled by a series on BBC Four called Sound of Song.

It isn’t exactly thrill a minute, edge of the seat stuff, being basically a history of sound recording techniques from wax cylinders to the present – yes, seriously – but there is something about it that makes it one of the most watchable programmes I have ever enjoyed.

In fact, it isn’t something that works magic, it’s actually someone: the presenter. He’s called Neil Brand and he is, quite simply, brilliant. He is 50-something, bespectacled and, I venture to suggest, a stranger to hunger pangs, but the knowledge and enthusiasm he has for his subject allow him to talk with an easy authority in the most engaging of ways.

Without affected mannerisms or anything at all to upset my sensitivities, he enables the programme as a whole, and the music he illustrates it with in particular, to be the star, even when he’s so skilfully playing the piano himself.

It’s wonderfully entertaining – it must be, I sit in total silence for a full 60 minutes – and the sadness is that it’s only a three-part series, meaning that this Friday’s is the final part.

After this the hunt is on for something, anything, that I might watch with my lips zipped. Geoff would be very grateful, too.

 

SOMETIMES I ask Geoff if he’d like to dance. To dance with me, I mean, not a solo effort in the style of Gene Kelly or Michael Jackson.

When he declines, which he always does, accompanied by a withering look, I point out that if he tried it he might like it “and anyway, no-one’s watching”. I try to keep the spoilt-girl whine out of my voice.

Geoff responds by telling me I’m daft. He really doesn’t need to remind me, but I cannot see what is wrong with a quick twirl around the kitchen, just for the sheer hell of it.

Geoff doesn’t do anything for that reason, which presumably goes some way to explaining why we are well suited. His Captain Sensible keeps Miss Giddy’s impetuous feet on the ground.

So we don’t dance, even in the privacy of the kitchen with the blinds down and the lights down low. I live with the disappointment because, stupidly I know, I harbour the hope that one day he might give in. We could whirl about and tangle our feet and shimmy past the fridge, glide past the dresser and round the table, moving to the rhythm of our beating hearts (actually, it would probably be the six o’clock news on Radio 4, but it wouldn’t matter).

Men don’t much like dancing, do they? I mean your Average Joe type of men, not men who dance naturally with elegance and passion, heads flung back like exotic, strutting birds, their partners held in a featherlight touch.

“I love a man who can dance, don’t you?” a friend asked me the other day, and I heartily agreed. Our respective husbands are both resolute non-dancers but we decided that what they lacked in their willingness to make us Ginger Rogers to their nimble-footed Fred Astaire, they more than made up for in so many other way. Yes, yes, most definitely. So very many ways. We were sure about that.

It’s true there was a long-ago occasion when Geoff took to a dance floor, but it wasn’t with me in his arms. It was that awkward shifting from foot to foot type of dance with a few wildly swinging arm accompaniments and an ‘I’m not really here’ look in the eyes that, in those days at least, cut the mustard when grooving it in a club. When the floor is heaving with these strangely hypnotic humans shifting their shapes there is a reassuring safety in numbers.

Exchange that frenetic scenario for the formality of the ballroom dance floor and the exposure is too much for him contemplate. That is why I think the kitchen is the ideal studio for us to master at least the waltz to give him confidence, but he’s having none of it.

My father, despite having two left feet and both of them flat at that, was an enthusiastic dancer, regularly impaling my mother’s shins with his shiny shoes as he whirled her about, a beaming smile across his face. I know because I would watch through the banisters when my parents had friends over, having rolled up the sitting-room carpet and scattered French chalk.

That was the era that led on to the dinner-and-dance phenomenon which in turn became eclipsed by the sort of wild jigging about to unfeasibly loud music for which a partner was optional.

I wonder if we’ve come full-circle now, with the glamour and romance of proper partnered-up ballroom dancing having become a fixture in the nation’s popular culture, thanks to Strictly. There’s no point asking Geoff what he thinks. He’s sitting this one out.

 

HEAD down, feet a blur, I’m threading my way along a busy street. Out of my way, out of my way, I’m rushing, can’t you see?

Tearing along, against the clock as always, my stress levels are at simmering point.

My destination is my mother’s flat on the opposite side of the town to where the bus has dropped me. It’s not a long walk to get to her, about 10 minutes, but this morning a road closure has caused the bus to make a tedious diversion. I think of Mum, sitting and waiting, wondering if I’m coming, looking at her watch . . .

Will Mum be fine when I reach her, or will she have had another funny turn, like the other day, when she felt faint and fell over on her way to answer the doorbell?

I can hear my footsteps thud-thudding in time with my heart and then I’m crossing a pedestrianised area that needs careful negotiation because of benches, buskers and buggies, not to mention crowds of shoppers, café furniture, A-boards, planters – all the paraphernalia of a car-free shopping street. I worm my way through, eventually reaching the top end where my route lies past a junction with traffic lights and the final 250 metres to Mum’s flat.

Suddenly, there’s a figure in front of me. Someone tall is blocking my way. How strange, I think, as I prepare to do a rapid shimmy around what I can now see is a young woman. Hang on, she’s spoken to me. What was that?

“Would you say you’re a friendly person?”

This is such an odd thing to be asked, especially when I’m head down and in full flight, that I am momentarily stunned.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Are you speaking to me?”

“Yes. I asked if you think you are a friendly person.”

At this point, as I’m wondering where to place this in my Top Ten All-Time Ludicrous Questions I’ve Been Asked By a Stranger, I notice she has something round her neck that identifies her as representing VSO. Oh, a chugger. Just my luck to have my frantic dash halted by someone who thinks they can extract money from me for charity.

“Yes, I am a very friendly person,” I reply, “but I am just not feeling all that friendly at the moment.” And with that I flash her my best bared teeth and I’m away.

Time and place, sunshine, time and place, I think, as I tamp down my feelings of guilt and sprint the final stretch of my journey.

Actually, there is no time or place that I would give my bank details to anyone in the street. It is such an inappropriate way of recruiting support for a charity that I am amazed it is still practised, let alone allowed.

A polite but firm “No thank you” while holding up my hand is my usual reaction if any chugger approaches me. This opening gambit, though, of being asked if I’m friendly, has really caught me off guard.

Any approach in the street is unwelcome. It’s all about invasion of space, the bursting of our little cocoon of privacy in which we like to think we walk along. The thought that someone has spotted our approach and singled us out as fair game for their ‘mugging’ makes us feel uncomfortable and irritated.

By the time I reach Mum I’m imagining all sorts of awful scenarios. Is she all right, I fret, as I let myself in.

“Oh, hello dear,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting you this morning.”

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