We’ve been sorting out old photographs, which is a dangerous thing. You can either hold up a shot of yourself circa 1999 and think “Hmm, not as bad as it might have been,” or “Please, no, hide it, cut it up, destroy this damning evidence of awfulness.”

You can, of course, guess which has been my reaction to every single photo of me. Perhaps the worst aspect, as I hold up a mirror to my past in this depressing portrait gallery of ‘Sally through the years’ is the hair. What was I thinking of? How did I ever dare have the courage to go out of the house with that on my head? Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

As my dear mama once said in one of her inimitable utterances that never fails to plunge my self-confidence into the deepest depths: “Did you really pay someone to make you look like that, dear?” Note the ‘dear’ as an attempt to soften the crushing blow.

Actually, truth be known, I haven’t ever paid anyone very much to ‘make me look like this’. So there’s my answer: perhaps I should. Perhaps this revelation as demonstrated by the gallery of horrors could be the start of a whole new habit. I could hook up with a creative hairdresser who would know just the cut and the style to suit my shape of face.

Nah, that’s what other people do. I’d rather stick with what I know and don’t love and be done with all that fussing and preening.

That’s the hair, then. A lost cause. Also evident in the photo gallery is the range of clothing I have favoured over the past 20 years. Worryingly, much of it is familiar because I am still wearing it on a daily basis. Geoff too, recognises old shirts, jumpers and jackets that make regular appearances in places as far-flung as Prague and Palermo, Berlin and Dorset. Absolute slaves to fashion, both of us.

I see that I’ve said ‘We’ve been sorting out old photographs’, when in fact it’s Geoff who’s been doing the sorting. He is the one with a sense of order, who likes things rationalised, documented, filed, tidied away. That’s why he’s had the drawerful of photos in his sights this past fortnight, and he’s making a wonderful job of creating proper albums documenting our and our family’s lives over the past 20 or so years.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet ventured into the really embarrassing years, when floral shirts and flares rendered him unrecognisable (fortunately) and me just plain ludicrous (predictably). Even so, the effect has been pretty unnerving. For me, not for him – obviously.

Geoff has maintained his youthful good looks (I tell him that as it makes for a much quieter life) while others around him show signs of decline with the passing years. For instance, there’s Mike, at a party in the garden in 2002, looking all fit and handsome. Nowadays, he’s stooped, struggling with a new hip and on a horribly restricted diet.

Time can be unkind, scouring us with wrinkles and veins and rendering us strangers to our former selves. It can also be exhilarating when we see how far we’ve come, how we’ve evolved and become who we are today.

Never mind the peachy bloom on a younger face in 1997; let’s hear it for the lives well lived and the fun we’ve had getting to where we are now.


It is just before three o’clock in the morning and Geoff and I are in the kitchen, staring at a small plastic box on the wall. We are being assailed by a noise like a thousand screaming banshees which bursts through our eardrums and shudders through our bodies.

A red light is flashing on the box. This is an alarm – an alarm on maximum strength and volume. “I think it’s the monosodium glutamate alarm,” I’d shouted to Geoff as we hurried downstairs, still half-asleep until opening the kitchen door and being blasted to our core.

“I think you mean carbon monoxide,” he replied, his words wasted as we struggled to stay upright under the onslaught. This was a decibel level to awaken the dead.

Geoff stands on a chair to reach the pulsating box. It is necessary to silence it before we can gather our thoughts, so recently suspended in sleep, now incapable of any coherence.

There is no ‘Off’ button. The very walls seem to be jumping now. After much jabbing and prodding, Geoff manages to rip the box off the wall. Even that doesn’t stop it. I think about plunging it into water, anything to drown that appalling din.

Geoff carries the box into the next room. The noise stops. My instinct is to weep with relief. Geoff’s instinct is rather more practical. “You haven’t left anything alight on the hob, have you?”

I look across at the gas hob, confident that my careful habits won’t have allowed anything as silly and irresponsible as that to happen. I can just make out a tiny blue flame. It is barely alight: I’d cooked rice all of eight hours earlier for supper and had obviously failed to notice I had left the burner slightly on. Even a pre-bed check, which we always do, had not revealed my carelessness.

I turn off the offending burner and admit my guilt to Geoff. In a way, it’s a relief that it is something as obvious as that and not some mysterious gas leak that will require the foundations of the house to be excavated.

Not unreasonably, Geoff says he hopes I will have learnt from this to be even more careful in future. Of course I have, I assure him, and pledge to myself to treble-check the hob every night.

I feel as appalled by my fall from grace as when I was 11 and Miss Parker censured me for running in the school corridor. Once  a sinner always a sinner, obviously.

The carbon monoxide detector, which we’d had fitted only a couple of years ago on the recommendation of our boiler service man, is back in its place on the wall. I’m going to evangelise about these detectors to anyone I know who doesn’t already have one, especially if they have an appliance that burns fossil fuels.

I shall tell them our dramatic tale and, each time, will probably elaborate the truth a little more. I’m sure that before long I shall be adding the detail of how I knotted together a few bedsheets and abseiled to safety with Geoff slung around my shoulders.

Perhaps it would be more likely the other way round, with me slung around his shoulders. I’ll settle on the more credible version once I’ve thought up some more entertaining elements to add to the story.

But that will all have to wait. First, I need to go and check that the gas is off.

When Geoff and I were in Falmouth in the spring I had an overwhelming desire to go on the water – not in the sense of walking on it (it doesn’t work, believe me), but in a boat, preferably under sail.

I kept this little dream to myself all through the summer, imagining the joy of being afloat on a sunny day, a gentle breeze filling the sails. I’d be sitting in the cockpit, grinning beatifically and a refrain of ‘This is the life’ running on a loop through my thoughts.

All of this came within my grasp last week when friends asked if I’d like to join them for a sail in the Solent. Of course I would, I replied with indecent haste, but I declined on behalf of Geoff. He and water don’t mix. It’s a step or six too far outside his comfort zone: like camping, picnics, outdoor entertainment of any sort, and anything more effortful than a gentle walk on the flat. Funny how we get on so well, considering I’m like a tethered terrier if I’m not going at something full tilt.

On the day of my treat I set off early for our rendezvous east of the Hamble. I was ridiculously excited, a fact which restricted my breathing almost as much as the 14 layers of ‘just in case’ clothing I’d chosen to wear after a dress rehearsal that had started at dawn.

The wind was so light we had to rely on the motor to get us across to the Isle of Wight and past all the 20 million other boats and the zig-zag shipping lanes with their vast container ships and busy tugs. Restful it was not, but there was always the return trip to look forward to.

We had lunch and a walk in Cowes and then boarded the boat to head home, hoping that the light breeze and the tide would enable us to sail and cut the motor.

I had taken the precaution over lunch of mentioning to skipper Ed that I would be extremely grateful if he wouldn’t allow the boat to do what I called ‘tipping’, but what I believe is officially termed ‘listing’.

Ed gave me a bit of a look followed by a brief lesson in physics and aerodynamics with a bonus chapter on how a sailing boat is constructed, and this helped me relax. A little.

That was until we actually set the jib and sailed. Within no more than a minute, a sudden squall got up, whipping the waves into frenzied white horses and sending us scudding at the most acute angle back the way we’d come so serenely hours earlier.

My back was almost touching the water. Every muscle in my body was strained and locked into a position that held me fast in my cockpit seat. I don’t think I breathed for a full 20 minutes and my eyes were stuck fast to the insides of my brain.

Estimates of that squall varied between Force 6 and Force 8, but it was the combination of wind and tide that made it so devastating. One yacht lost its mast and rigging. The crackling radio gave the co-ordinates of the flotsam as a warning to shipping. This was gritty, grim and terribly serious.

Us next, I suppose, and I began to regret the layers of clothing, which would without doubt drag me underwater in spite of the life vest.

And then suddenly it was over. Land ahoy! We were back, safe and sound and feeling as though we’d conquered the Atlantic – at a hell of an angle.

I am an enthusiastic watcher of ‘24 Hours in A&E’ on the telly, even if I do have to blot out some of the more troubling, gory bits with a judiciously placed hand over my eyes.

My interest is partly because as reality programmes go this is genuinely real, not manufactured pap masquerading as real. It’s gritty and down-to earth and you get to meet heroes. But mainly I like to watch it because my son the doctor works in an A&E department and it’s good for me to see the sort of things he has to face in his 24 hours.

He was a whisker away from actually appearing on the programme once, but the family of the patient involved withdrew their consent for filming at the last minute. I don’t blame them at all.

I’d like it placed on record that under no circumstances would I ever agree to have a camera anywhere near me when the only things protecting my modesty might be a corner of a flimsy hospital blanket and a pool of blood.

Other people’s problems, though, make for compelling viewing and the best bit comes at the end when the viewers are shown the various denouements. Only very occasionally are they sad. More usually we are treated to visions of remarkable recovery, such as a jolly roofer shinning up a ladder when just before the ad break he was lying in pieces, a right old muddle of tubes, tears and bleeps.

I like a happy ending. There was one close to home this past boiling hot Bank Holiday when I suddenly found myself involved in a small drama. It was the sort you see illustrated in the media – an elderly woman collapsed on the ground with a large caption over the picture asking ‘Would you know what to do?’

I sort of knew what to do, but didn’t really trust myself to do the full sleeves-rolled-up leave-it-to-me thing. Instead, I contributed pointless mumblings in support of a young woman who’d also been passing by and whose excellent, intuitive response made me think she must be either a doctor or a nurse.

Whoever she was, I concluded she must have acquired her Girl Guide first aid badge a lot more recently than I had, because my mind was blank as I feverishly searched its decaying files for the full routine on what to do for someone who has overheated, dehydrated and passed out.

All was satisfactorily resolved, largely without my input, for which I suspect the victim will be eternally grateful. She was last seen enjoying a restorative cup of tea, a post-recovery strategy that hadn’t even occurred to me. I’ve tucked that away for future reference. Rocket science, eh?

Much later, when recapping on the day and rueing my missed chance to be a quiet, unsung hero, I recalled I’d been on a day-long first aid course about six years ago. I’d found it all really interesting and joined in the practical elements with enthusiasm, even doing rhythmic chest-compression on a forever lifeless model. It looks so easy but isn’t, as I discovered.

Getting into my car afterwards to drive home, certificate proudly stowed in my bag, I realised with an awful clunk that I felt no better able to administer first aid now than I had been when I arrived that morning.

I think it’s a matter of confidence. And confidence comes with practice, which, hopefully for all involved, will remain off my agenda.

I read that northerners (I expect we aren’t allowed to call them that, but never mind) were encouraged to devote Monday this week to a ‘Day of Moaning’.

What an absolutely brilliant idea. I wonder if it will catch on down south. We’ve all been in training for years, so I can’t see any reason to hold back if people oop north (is that more politically correct, I wonder?) have been given the freedom to let rip.

Oh, hang on. I’ve just examined the detail. It isn’t a general moan, so there’s no scope for it being officially OK to rant for 24 hours about the mother-in-law or the weather or the lousy bowl of soup in that café the other day. This is a specific moan: it’s a one-topic venting of fury about the dreadful transport services in their region.

People in the north of the country, which, if somewhat wordy, may be a more permissible, politically correct description of who I’m talking about, deserve a break. According to a thinktank called IPPR North, there is a £59 billion imbalance in the government funding of trains and buses in the rest of the country compared with London and the south-east.

The way to get this imbalance redressed is, says the thinktank, to bang on about it big-time in a Day of Moaning. They urged the fed-up-to-the-back-teeth transport users to bombard radio and TV phone-ins and send angry letters to MPs with their tales of woe and demand action.

Fair enough. It would seem that they have a point, judging by some of the shameful examples I’ve read about.

High prices, disgustingly dirty trains, crowded carriages so there’s never a hope of a seat even on long journeys – the tormented users have plenty of cause to complain.

The thinktank may have hit upon a winner of an idea. Anyone who has ever brought up a child knows that incessant moaning, whining, harping on about wanting something usually results in action of some sort. All right, we seethe, all resistance spent, you can have a 16th packet of Cheesy Wotsits/new skateboard/raspberry pink hair – just stop going on about it, will you?

My small grandsons haven’t exactly been moaning or complaining, but they have spent all summer holidays so far coming up with different ways of begging their parents for a guinea pig. It’s the relentlessness of their campaign that is impressive, and the ingenious way in which they can suddenly catapult the topic into an otherwise totally unrelated conversation. I reckon the IPPR thinktank would be impressed – indeed the boys might even have been the catalyst for this Moaning Monday campaign.

I suspect their tactics will ultimately pay off and two guinea pigs will come into their lives to be loved and adored, having the very life squeezed out of them with over-enthusiastic hugs.

It remains to be seen if the northerners’ campaign will meet with an equally positive response from the government. I think we all know the answer already, but by ‘eck it’s worth a try.

Just by stirring up the debate and learning of other transport users’ experiences, Moaning Monday brought to the fore an issue that really shouldn’t be dismissed with an airy wave of a southern-softy hand. I know we don’t exactly have it easy down here with disappearing bus services and trains that frequently fall short of acceptable and often seem to run on a whim, but those northern tales are shaming to a First World country.

There, I feel better for that little moan. And you?

Every time Geoff and I walk past the travel agent’s window we glance at the offers and sigh. Cuba? Bali? Fuerteventura? The daydreams start and we take off into our familiar world of “What if?”

Why, we’re almost unpacking our cases in that amazing poolside hotel …

Reality slaps us in the face. The travel agent’s holidays look nice, sometimes very nice, but they’re not for us.

We do our own planning and research, blundering and floundering around on the internet, confusing each other with pointless observations. We take hours over something that would no doubt be achieved by a travel agent in the time it would take to unroll and lay down a beach towel.

We played a particular blinder this week when choosing flight dates and an apartment to stay in for a break we’re planning in southern Italy late next month.

Not too difficult, you’d have thought, except that the airline prices fluctuated so much over the period of a fortnight that we found it hard to pin down the best (i.e. the cheapest) dates. We eventually managed that, only to find we hadn’t factored in any of the extras, such as luggage and permission to breathe.

Seats finally booked, we turned our attention to finding a place to stay. Should we try Airbnb, our usual resource, or one of the Italian holiday home websites. Tell you what, let’s try them all!

And that’s how hours slithered away from our lives, day turned to night, and we remained oblivious to meteors whizzing around the skies. Nothing could interrupt our search for the holy grail – a modest one-bed apartment with wifi, some outside space and within walking distance of the coast. Not much to ask, we felt, as we drew up long lists, and short lists, noting how some owners helped by posting useful photos while others merely confused with images of neighbouring towns, a beach 25km distant and a randomly placed plate of pasta or a bowl of peaches.

Soon, sitting side by side at our computers, Geoff and I were drowning in detail. If I never saw another flat with purple bed linen, orange curtains and 48 dinky vases of artificial flowers, it would be too soon.

The more we looked, the more critical we became. Almost all had faults and flaws that caused them to be crossed off our lists. Two flats in the same building even turned out to share the same sitting-room, a fact Geoff discovered just as his finger was poised over the Book Now button for the one with the disturbing lime-green furnishings.

Now there were just two contenders left on the short list. They both looked ideal, but how to choose?

We slept on it. Next day, thrashing into Hour 24 of the search and by now completely understanding why sensible people use travel agents, I spotted a chandelier in Apartment A that was so naff it made me shudder.

Oh no, I said to Geoff. Look at that hideous thing, will you? I couldn’t spend a week under the same roof as that. And the doors! Oh, no, look at those ghastly doors! Suddenly Apartment A was revealing its faults to me. First world problems, I know, and I am ashamed to admit to having such shallow thoughts.

At this point, Apartment B, a little bit quirky, it’s garden slightly rambling and unkempt, reached out to me in an Italian embrace. No contest.

I contacted our host-to-be, Isabella, who is now my new best friend. We’re booked and we can start getting excited. Perfetto!

There are certain laws by which we live our lives, often governed by statute but also by something that is probably best described as chance.

We are well acquainted with the law of averages, Parkinson’s Law, Murphy’s law, the law of diminishing returns, the law that says school holiday homework shouldn’t be started until the evening before term starts, and other laws that, in the same sort of way, add a little light and shade to life.

Let me introduce you to a new one: not so new that you won’t have come up against it sometimes, but one which you may not have thought applied to so many people. Especially to me. This is the law that makes things disappear, just like that, and then reappear in the place where you have frantically looked for them six times before.

This dastardly Law of Illusion is in full operation in my life on a daily basis, especially when I am preparing to leave the house. This is when I engage in what Geoff refers to as ‘bag faffing’. It’s merely a rearrangement of the contents of one bag into another that I deem more suited to the purpose for which I am exiting Hill Towers. I mean, who needs a rucksack when a small bag will suffice?

So I rearrange and am ready to leave. Except I’m not. Sadly, that was only Stage One of the bag faff.

Keys? Phone? Money? Geoff recites a checklist. I invariably fail on all three, having been distracted by triumphantly remembering to slip my scribbled shopping list of two items into the bag. I trudge off and round up the keys, the phone and the money.

Now, trust me, I’m ready to leave. Keys? Geoff makes a final check. Oh yes, I say, confidently. Look, I’ve just this minute put them in here. I fumble (OK, I faff). No keys come to hand. They should. They’re on a socking great keyring with jingly bits. I hear nothing and I feel nothing.

The faffing intensifies as quietly as possible and reaches a new level of desperation. They must be in your purse if you say you’ve only just put them in there, Geoff says, entirely reasonably but with what is undoubtedly a note of mounting irritation.

The bag is small. Keys cannot go unnoticed. I plunge my fingers into every corner, run them along each pocket. Nothing. No keys. But if not here, where I so recently put them, where can they be?

There’s nothing for it. I tip the contents of the bag on to the bottom stair in the hall. The first thing that falls out is the keys.

I plead with Geoff to understand that the whole pantomime has been caused by the Law of Illusion. I illustrate this further by telling him how so often a train ticket, put carefully in an accessible pocket so that I can easily flourish it when requested, becomes instantly invisible, nowhere to be found.

The heart-thumping panic that accompanies the fevered faffing as the ticket checker approaches is nothing to the relief that washes over me when the ticket materialises exactly where I have already looked – and faffed with frantic fingers – six times.

It’s quite cruel the way things can go invisible. I spotted my daughter unpacking her bag only this morning. What’s gone AWOL? I asked. My phone charger, she said, but I don’t understand because I could swear it was in here just now.

And indeed it was – but it only revealed itself after a two-generation faff of epic proportions.