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WE aren’t going away this summer. Am I sad about this, am I not champing at the bit to explore and make new memories of the sights to be found in that exciting destination called ’abroad’?

No, I am not sad at all. There are so many good things about staying put in summer, especially in this wonderful part of the world, and the very best thing of all is that we don’t have mosquitoes. Not in our neck of the woods anyway.

Mosquitoes love me, and they hold all-night dance parties all over me whenever they track me down. So far, though, they’ve never found me in Dorset, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Many a foreign holiday has been blighted by the utter misery of being bitten. Just hearing that high-pitched droning bzzzzzzzz on the first night and splat go any hopes of a relaxing few days. And why, heaven help me, do they buzz right in my ears? I can hear you at 20 paces, you hateful spoiler of holidays, so don’t come trying to bore your sneaky way into my head.

Some of my more heroic, but always pointless, battles with mozzies have been waged in hot bedrooms on European holidays.

Nothing, but nothing, equates with the heart-sinking hopelessness I feel when my space is invaded by these blighters, especially as I know they will always get the better of me. They gorge on me as if I am their personal eat-all-you-like meat buffet.

Geoff gets bitten, too, but never as badly as me. They love me to bits. They love me even when I’m drowning head to toe in 16 types of mozzie repellent and swaddled in clothing chosen for its impenetrable qualities.

One memorable war zone was our bedroom in the hotel in Venice where we stayed on our first visit many years ago. Oof, it’s stuffy in here, we said, as we opened all the windows before going out for the evening. Later, when we turned out the light to go to sleep we discovered we were sharing the room with a brigade of mosquito SAS intent on a feeding frenzy. They dive-bombed, swooped, circled, went invisible, sank their jaws into us, drank deep, and still came back for more. By morning, when neither Geoff nor I had slept but our overhead smash technique had improved to Wimbledon standard, we were groggy with fever caused by the bites – and the walls were spattered with corpses and blood stains. Our blood.

Never again have we opened windows with such abandon. We learnt a terrible, painful, feverish lesson and couldn’t believe how foolish we had been.

But it hasn’t just been holidays when the mosquito misery has cast its shadow. During the 18 relentlessly hot, humid months of living in the Far East there was not just the ever-present fear of being bitten by any kind of predator from pinhead size to nightmarishly big, but also the threat of dengue fever wiping us out in one small snap of mosquito jaws. Charming little things, aren’t they?

I swap mozzie battle plans with my friend Cat whenever we go to Italy. She has a sophisticated armoury of herbal potions that she has long employed to defend her pale, freckled skin against the enemy. But for the past few summers she has found the perfect answer: stay in a flat so high up that the mozzies don’t have the wing power to make the journey. Fourth floor or above is the answer, Cat swears, as she relaxes with a smile that says ’Gotcha!’

 

By chance and certainly not by design (who, me?) I found myself in a second-hand bookshop this week that is closing down. Now if anyone should ever ask me where I would most like to spend a spare hour or two I would, after dismissing the idea of bed as just too old-ladyish, certainly say ‘in a second-hand bookshop’.

It is very sad that this particular one, that supports a charity, is closing as we have been closely acquainted for many years. Thanks to it, the bookshelves at Hill Towers have regularly had their load both lightened and replenished. I have even been on the rota of volunteers, so I know its inner workings, too, as well as its public face.

Now it is no more, but in a final act of selflessness before the doors finally closed I went along to see what I could do to ease its painful death throes.

So no, I didn’t really happen to find myself in there, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece. I wrote that just in case Geoff should read it. I actually went armed with a shopping bag, just in case . . . you never know. Besides, I wanted to show my support and with everything at half-price it would have been churlish not to have bought something.

I don’t quite know what happened to me in there, in that lovely, familiar, wall-to-wall paradise of words and pictures, but as if by magic I found myself with my arms stacked full of books. I gently laid them, one by one, on to the counter. As I did so, I counted them, silently, and was stunned to find I’d chosen 14 – and not one of them would I have willingly put back.

So 14 it was going to have to be. What joy! The assistant rang them up and as I carefully placed each one into my capacious bag, I couldn’t help noticing how much their diversity reflected my reading tastes.

There was the poetry, of course – always the poetry – two lovely volumes of it: British Poetry Since 1945 and The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse; classic, timelessly beautiful writing in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Penelope Lively and Irene Nemirovsky (two by her, in fact); contemporary best-selling fiction by Emma Healey; a fascinating look at Europe in the 18th century through the eyes of William Beckford on his Grand Tour; Simon Hopkinson’s cookery book and entertaining story book rolled into one volume of immense brilliance, called Roast Chicken and Other Stories; a guide to identifying trees (useful for when I’m put on the spot by a questioning grandchild); a book of Snoopy cartoons (unthinkable to leave for someone else to buy); a book of Posy Simmonds cartoons (ditto); and two books for visiting grandchildren, one on the subject of reptiles and the other a beautifully illustrated traditional tale of an old man who grew an enormous turnip, as old men are wont to do.

The turnips and reptiles will be put to one side, but all the rest, all the poetry and the novels and the non-fiction and the cartoons, will be my constant companions through the summer, teetering gently in their unruly piles, swapping pole position depending on my mood. Understandably, Geoff will grumble a little about this habit I have of bringing more books into the house, but then I’ll play my trump card. I’ll tell him there were several books in the sale that I wanted but had resisted buying.

He’ll be impressed, as long as I don’t add that they were the ones I’d donated after our most recent clear-out.

A SUMMER treat was planned for my friend Carla and me. It was her idea: meet in Bournemouth, have supper and go to the theatre. What could be nicer?

Carla lives in north Hampshire and misses the sea so she decided to make an occasion of it and stay overnight in a seafront hotel. There was no question of that for me, since Hill Towers is only an hour or so from Bournemouth and easily driveable.

Therein lies a faulty statement if ever there was one, since Bournemouth is my nemesis. Yes, the distance is easily driveable, it’s the actual getting there and back that is the problem.

The residential roads all look the same as you approach the town, threading around a succession of identical roundabouts and past look-alike parades of shops.

I never, ever, come home along the same route that (somehow) took me there.

Something about Bournemouth and its ability to suck me into a vortex of confusion and despair makes it a virtual no-go area for me. Geoff’s the same, which goes without saying, since his sense of direction and faultless instinct for getting lost are even worse than mine.

So when Carla suggested we meet for an early supper, I reckoned on leaving home soon after lunch, just to be on the safe side. I’d done two days of homework via Google maps and Google street maps to acquaint myself with the area around the theatre and its car park and I’m happy to say this stood me in very good stead. I made only one false move in the entire journey. It was a mistake anyone could have made – a sharp left straight into the forecourt of a scaffolding-clad hotel.

The evening was wonderful and Carla and I had a great time. Afterwards, I offered to drive her back to her hotel, which I knew couldn’t be far because she said she’d walked from it to the theatre.

We set off from the car park and headed along a clifftop road fringed with hotels – but which one were we looking for exactly?

“I can’t remember what it’s called,” Carla said, “but I’m sure I’ll recognise it any minute.” She didn’t. While I drove for what seemed like hours at the speed of a kerb crawler, peering into the gloaming to spot hotel names, Carla admitted she was becoming uncertain about everything. “I got terribly lost walking down to the theatre earlier,” she said, in a small voice.

The situation was not looking good. Couldn’t you try really hard to summon up the name of the hotel, I urged her. Close your eyes and press your thumbs into your temples.

“I think it had something to do with cotton,” she eventually decided.

I pulled in and turned off the engine, bored with driving up and down the same roads – or what looked like the same roads. I whipped out my smartphone, summoned up Google and soon found a reference to a Cottonwood Hotel, Bournemouth.

“Yes, that’s it!” Carla was delighted. I was delirious. I noted the postcode and stabbed it into the sat-nav, which I’d reluctantly extracted from its state of impotence in the glove pocket. It lives there because I hate it so much and it makes me shout.

We’d travelled precisely 100 tense yards when the sat-nav broke the silence: “You have reached your destination.”

Oh yes, there it is, trilled an excited Carla. I sank my head on to the steering wheel in a melodramatic release of tension.

Next summer, our treat will not be beside the seaside.

 

A BIRTHDAY tea without cake is like Wimbledon without tennis. It was therefore vital that cake should be on the menu for grandson Joe’s sixth birthday – and preferably a cake that was ready for devouring the very second he arrived home from school in his usual state of near-starvation.

My daughter, who makes every scrap of her family’s food from scratch, had embarked on the cake-making part of the tea preparations as soon as she’d cleared away the chaos of toddler Zach’s lunch.

All seemed to be in good time, then, for the return of the hungriest small boy in the world. Joe is having his official party in the woods in a fortnight’s time so this tea, on his actual birthday, was just for selected guests: his mummy, daddy, little brother and Geoff and me.

The table was laid and looked so tempting and lovely with toothsome things to eat by the time we arrived after our two-hour journey.

However, crashings and bangings from the kitchen, interspersed with a few cries of woe, indicated all was not well in the bakery department. “I’ll have to throw this one away and start again,” said my daughter, normally so tense you could use her stress levels to power the National Grid, but now at absolute pinging point.

I asked what the problem was and learnt that the oven was too small to accommodate two layers of sponge cake so she was having to bake one at a time. The first one had come out at the due time with its top burnt and its inside still liquid.

“It’s OK, you’ve got time,” I lied, in a calming voice. Unfortunately, not only does my daughter currently struggle with a temporary dolls-house sized oven but her kitchen is on the less-than-grand size, too, so cannot comfortably accommodate two cooks while they spoil the broth, or in this case the cake. I had no choice but to follow orders and get out. My task then was to try and mask the sounds of exasperation and frustration coming from the kitchen and occasionally to put my hands over Zach’s ears.

Soon the birthday boy came bursting through the door, home from school with Daddy, and in a high state of excitement.

Naturally, the first thing he asked Mummy was if she had put the candles on the cake yet. Her “No, not quite yet,” came out a little strangulated.

Feeling brave, I peeped into the kitchen and saw that one cake half was successfully baked and the other was about to be mixed.

As the two boys, and we adults, too, grew increasingly hangry (hunger-induced anger) we decided to launch into the spread of food and hope the cake would make an appearance before bedtime.

We ate well and then my poor frazzled daughter eventually appeared from the kitchen bearing a prize-winning cake sandwiched with strawberry jam and topped with a translucent layer of icing, as per Joe’s specific request. The candles were lit, Joe puffed them out, Happy Birthday was sung, and at last everyone had a slice of cake on their respective plates.

“I’m sorry, Mum. I just can’t eat any more,” said Joe, who looked forlornly at his still-complete slice. We adults divvied it up between us. His small brother licked the icing off his piece before announcing that he couldn’t eat any either. “The jam is too strawberry-y,” he declared.

That’s the trouble with birthdays and cakes – you just can’t please everyone. Except greedy grown-ups.

 

WE went away for an overnighter at the weekend. Geoff and I headed north (or ‘oop north’ as my friend Janie, who lives in Leeds, allows me to say) for 200 miles in heavy traffic and under thick cloud. It did not bode well but we improved the outlook by making two stops on the way.

The first was at the M5 Gloucester Services. We avoid motorway services unless the car is desperate for petrol, but this one is as different from the standard muzak-infused junk-food hell as you could imagine. It’s heartening to see how a totally different ethos can create a traveller’s joy just by embracing simplicity and decency and eschewing the grossly naff.

The staff smile and tell me it’s a lovely place to work. I can believe that. We ate (deliciously) beside a landscaped lake and watched a dragonfly showing off, and then we walked around and noted the many clever, thoughtful features, the absence of noise, the space and the light and, outside, the grass roof and the whole organic ‘out of the ground’ nature of the place.

Nearer our destination we stopped to feed our aesthetic needs a little more at a National Trust property, Little Moreton Hall. After stop-start driving up the M6 it was a feast for the soul, with its wonky black-and-white medieval beauty being all quintessentially English and eccentric in the midst of a limpid moat.

When we finally reached our hotel it seemed we had had a full day already although the evening was yet young. We took a long walk to check out our new surroundings, noticing what a hit the town had taken in recent years but how there were signs it was bobbing back up to prosperity again.

This fact was evident later, when the streets came alive with young people intent on having a good time. Geoff and I found ourselves among them, feeling dowdy and far too sensibly dressed, when we went out to eat.

I’d done hours of research before leaving home to identify a suitable restaurant, based on location and the quality of its online reviews. The perfect one was not far from the hotel, and while out on our walk we’d popped in and booked the last available table. I glowed with triumph. What a perfect ending this would be to our day.

It’s a bit Spanish, I explained to Geoff, and the reviews mention how you share your tapas and how lovely the atmosphere is. It doesn’t look all that Spanish to me, he remarked, casting his eye down the menu.

Well, perhaps it’s an oop north version of Spanish, I said, jollying him along. True, there was a starter you could share, but there was nothing that could be pronounced with a lisp and therefore properly Spanish.

We shrugged and made our choices and then just lapped up the novelty of this odd northern take on a Spanish eatery.

While dissecting my distinctly un-Spanish stuffed aubergine I asked Geoff why he thought there was a huge number ‘64’ pasted on the street-side window. “It’s the name of the place,” he said. “Didn’t you notice on the menu it was called The 64 Bar & Grill?”

Oh whoops. We were in the wrong restaurant! This was the one that we’d booked, but it was not where my research had planned for us to be.

Geoff and I raised our glasses to serendipity. What No 64 lacked in tapas it made up for in atmosphere, and our friendly, chatty waiter made us happy, too. His name was Fernando. He was Spanish.

 

JUST imagine going to sleep one night and not waking up for seven months. Hedgehogs and tortoises make a habit of that sort of insular behaviour and now, we learn, it is also the province of space probes.

Much to the dismay of the scientists involved, the little dishwasher-sized Philae landed on a comet last November and its batteries failed.

Now, perked up by a smidgen of solar energy it has roused itself enough to get back in touch with Earth. I wonder what it has to say for itself and how it is explaining this excessively sulky meltdown that saw it go on the blink and out of commission for so long.

A hibernating hedgehog is one thing, a space probe that’s dozed off is quite another.

Frankly, Philae can say what it likes. The scientists will fall for any excuse it makes because they must be so relieved it’s finally come back to life.

I imagine they’ll be like parents who have agreed not to ask provocative questions such as ‘And what time do you think this is?’ when the mound of duvet in their son’s bedroom metamorphoses into a vaguely sentient object. You try not to punch the air with joy and relief when it thump-thumps down the stairs at the speed of a sloth and slumps in front of the telly with a mixing bowl full of breakfast cereal and the rest of the week’s milk.

No, there’ll be no questions snapped in Philae’s direction. Knobs may be tweaked and switches thrown, remotely of course, but no-one will actually shout into Philae’s ear and curse it for giving them seven months of grief.

I have a great admiration for this object, this clump of electronic miracles. I believe it has shown the weary among us an excellent way forward for coping with life and its many unwelcome pressures.

I cannot help imagining how much more pleasurable the past seven months might have been had I remained snuggled on my passenger’s side of the bed, covers pulled up, brain in neutral.

There’d have been no winter, for a start, no messy pile-up of angst about how we are going to manage Christmas and appease all the family, no attempts at listing impossibly ambitious New Year resolutions, and, best of all, no February. No February! Such a gloomy, good-for-nothing month, whose only saving grace is that it has the decency to be shorter than the rest.

Did I say that was best of all? No, best of all would have been not enduring the build-up to the General Election, which started on 1st January with the first news bulletin of the morning on the Today programme. How I groaned, and how it never, ever relented in its bombardment of non-news made all the more clunky and intolerable by the legal requirement to be even-handed to all parties. It was like drowning slowly in the turbulent waters of the Severn Bore.

The hibernating me would have missed all that. The thought is delightful. Mind you, I can think of a couple of political leaders who, when their own power went on the blink, would have found it infinitely more delightful if the painful denouement could have been played out not in the camera’s eye but, like Philae, behind a rock on a distant comet.

 

WHENEVER I see, hear or read anything about the annual parental torment of Prom Night I thank whoever is responsible for having made me so old that my daughter had left school before such events became a fixture.

And yet years ago I did endure a sort of torment, albeit one that didn’t require me to help dream up a brilliantly original mode of transport to get my little darling to her date with destiny.

It was her leavers’ ball. Yes, of course you shall go to the ball, Cinders. Never mind that it is unlikely to be any different from what we called a dance in the dark ages, and never mind at all that you have nothing to wear. We can have enormous fun together as we seek something that meets the approval of you and, therefore, your fashion-conscious, judgmental friends, and never mind your impossibly dowdy mother and father, when we only have enough money in the bank to pay for tonight’s supper.

Cinders and I drag into the nearest large town and ‘do’ the shops, enduring hot changing rooms and heartless mirrors. Of course my daughter looks lovely in everything she tries on – it happens like that when you’re 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy hair – and of course she thinks she is simply hideous and absolutely nothing is right. “It’s a disaster, Mum,” she moans, “I look awful.”

Whatever I say has no effect or, more often, the wrong effect.

We spend the afternoon engaged in this soul-destroying activity, and by the end we have stopped speaking to each other. It happens like that when one of you is a right-on savvy teen and the other is a has-been (or a never-was), feels at least 100 and would happily settle for being Coco the Clown if it meant getting out of this shopping nightmare.

We do, at 5.29pm, with happy-at-last Cinders clutching a bag containing a plum-coloured piece of velvet that she insists is a skirt. “That cannot be a skirt,” I say, in my weary-mother voice. “That’s a pelmet. And anyway, who wears a pelmet, sorry, I mean a skirt, that short to a ball?” I splutter those last few words, which puts an end to all communication, even the raising of contemptuous eyebrows, for at least six days.

The following Saturday I paste on a smile and we devote more hours to finding a top to go with the skirt, and the Saturday after that it’s the shoes.

Miraculously, we repair our mother-daughter relationship and the velvet pelmet goes on to make a number of further appearances that have nothing to do with me, being well out of my sight at university. I believe it graduated with a low-grade degree in Politics, Philosophy and Extreme Shortness.

Now Cinders and I look back on that testing experience as a learning curve that took us both way off the scale.

Nobody warns you about the agonies of shopping with your teenage daughter. They just bang on about the other rites of passage of motherhood: the tightrope-walk you take to achieve the potty-training miracle, the letting-go of the hand on the first day at school and the shoulder you provide through the heart-sinking ups and downs of friendships. But there’s no flashing danger sign over ‘The Shopping Experience’.

It isn’t easy being a mother, but I take solace from knowing that the hell must be worse for every girl preparing for a prom night, or a ball, in the company of a mother who has aged to decrepitude and has aspirations to be Coco the Clown.

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