Archive for the ‘Columns 2002’ Category

AS you get older and bits start dropping, drooping, falling out, and generally letting you down, one of the main areas of weakness is the eyes.

Mine were fine for the first 40-odd years of my life but now they are so unreliable that I have to take reading specs with me wherever I go.

Without them I am lost if I want to study food labels, read restaurant menus or, heaven forbid, check a bus timetable.

There is also the very important matter of making the most of the odd snatched ten minutes in Waterstone’s – quite impossible without the right equipment.

So I clamp the specs to my head and read to my heart’s content. I look up, and the world goes wonky. You see I need specs for reading but not for the rest of life, and according to my friend Carol you can only get round this by taking out a mortgage and buying bifocals.

I get round it by tipping my head down and peering, granny fashion, over the top of my specs.

If I’m sitting down when I do this, I find that I stumble when I get up because it takes a while for everything to readjust.

There is another, irritatingly simple answer, I know, and that is to remove the specs when I’m not reading. Sorry, far too busy, far too involved in some riveting conversation or minding someone else’s business. Specs stay on through thick and thin until finally I get annoyed by the up-and-down granny impression and take them off.

An hour or so later I need them again. And where are they? Obviously they have grown legs (to go with their wobbly arms) and taken themselves off to another planet.

How frustrating and how time-wasting this all is. The Great Specs Hunt can sometimes last for days but so far we have always managed a happy reunion.

So far, too, I have resisted resorting to one of those very grannyish chains to suspend the specs from my neck. That would be far too sensible and someone of my advanced youth wouldn’t want anything to do with that, thank you very much.

Now then, where did I leave my specs?


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THIS past week has been one of great difficulty for me.

First of all there was the incident when a large piece of timber embedded itself in the tip of my right index finger and refused to budge.

Then there was the dreadful attack on my person by none other than that dastardly, dangerous and downright aggressive inanimate object that is the textile bank in the Waitrose car park.

As I write this, I wince at the memories these two horrid happenings have created.

The plank-in-the-finger incident occurred when I was gardening and a hole in my glove allowed a vast thorn to gain access to my unprotected forefinger.

I say vast because it surely must have been for the pain it caused. Strangely, when I attempted over a period of days to extricate the great beast with my tweezers, it turned microscopic – and elusive.

For five days I suffered a throbbing finger that was too painful to touch. Then I launched a beyond-the-pain-barrier assault with a sterilised needle and, hey presto, out popped the little varmint.

I kept it to show Geoff because I thought he would like to see what had caused me such discomfort.

I was quite surprised at how unimpressed he was.

No sooner had I resumed full fitness in the digit department than I went and slammed my left hand in the jaws of the textile recycling bank.

I hasten to say it was more a design fault in me than the machinery that caused this to happen. A certain inadequacy of stature meant I was conducting the exercise of dispatching a large bag of goodies into the bank’s bowels more by feel and guesswork than by the sure touch and confidence that someone over 5ft would employ.

So when I stretched up and gave the thing an extra jiggle to ensure all was safely deposited, somehow I left my hand in the way and . . . oh, the pain.

I really wanted to bellow and scream – and probably cry quite a lot, too – but I had to walk away as if nothing had happened, just in case there were witnesses.

I writhed and recited a long list of swear words in the car, rubbing my poor hand furiously and watching as two vast bruises swelled up on either side.

No Friend of the Earth can have suffered so much for the good of the planet, I told Geoff that evening when I showed him my swollen, throbbing, hand.

“Hmm,” he said, recoiling slightly. “At least it’s a bit more interesting than the splinter.”

Oh good, so that’s all right then. 

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WE’RE a mixed bunch at my evening class. I spent the first session eyeing the others up, assessing their suitability and stickability for the tasks that lay ahead.

I gave mental marks out of ten as Sir outlined what will be required of us.

Ten out of ten to the sensibly-dressed bloke with the steely glint in his eye who really seemed to be listening, nought out of ten to the girl who spent several minutes tinkering with her ankle bracelet.

I’m afraid it was a low mark, too, for the couple who turned up in matching His and Hers outfits. When I found I’d missed a good ten minutes of introductory instructions because I’d been trying in vain to recall the names of the couple in Ever Decreasing Circles who wore matching jumpers, their low score turned into a minus. Most inconsiderate of them.

Undertaking an evening class is a habit I can’t shake off.

 It adds a huge complication to my life, knowing that such a commitment means one day a week is geared to this hour-and-a-half of self-indulgence. I prefer to think of it as self-improvement, but I haven’t much to show for it.

The first class I ever enrolled on was to study birds and their habitats. It was either that or cake icing, so there was no contest. I was 23 and the youngest on the course by about 50 years.

Sadly, I was such a curious interloper in their closed world – a cuckoo in their cosy nest – that I never even learned anyone else’s name let alone the difference between a song thrush and a penguin.

Nevertheless, it gave me a first glimpse at the potential of evening classes.

They’re a place where friendships are forged and lessons are learned, in all senses. They’re also a fascinating window into new worlds. I certainly don’t know how else I would have found out the right tension for an ankle bracelet.

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TOMORROW I shall be on an aeroplane flying away from all of this.

I shall be taking my distinctly 1980s snow-washed distressed look to a part of the world where the sea, sunshine and gentle breezes will transform me into a tanned beach babe.

I shall return to these shores with sun-streaked hair, sand between my toes and a devil-may-care attitude.

I shall be relaxed, de-stressed and at peace with the world.

I shall be so mellow that the queues on the M25 home from Gatwick will merely amuse me.

I shall be calm and forgiving during the stop at Fleet Services where the worst food ever known in the history of mankind is served in the most hideous surroundings and where old-fashioned British values have been buried alongside table manners, courteous service and reasonable prices.

I shall smile indulgently at little shaven-headed thugs aged ten who swagger along spitting like their footballer heroes.

How wonderful, I shall muse, to be back among my brethren.

Who needs foreign travel when we’ve got all this, I shall think, as I double deadlock my home, my car, my handbag and my elderly mother.

Then I will turn my attention to who has won the election.

Will I care? Will I heck. Unless, of course, one of the parties can promise me that all the above is just a bad dream, except for the bit about me becoming a tanned beach babe.

I think we know what will happen while I’m away, don’t we? On the days when the skies are not overcast or spilling out hailstones or cats and dogs, I shall briefly expose a small area of Factor 35-coated forearm and become hideously sunburnt.

Nights will be spent battling the ensuing fever and mosquitoes will feed as hungrily on my body as if I were a Slimming World-approved free food.

I, too, will over-eat, kidding myself that Mediterranean food is healthy, especially when consumed by the lorry-load, and will consequently return to England hating myself and feeling thoroughly depressed that the beach babe failed to materialise again.

But of course that’s the great thing about holidays. There’s always the next one to look forward to.

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A TALE stranger than fiction came my way the other day.

A couple we know were at loggerheads because he had mislaid his wedding ring and she was hurt that he was doing nothing about finding it.

“It could be anywhere,” he told us. “I just noticed it wasn’t there one day, so it could have slipped off any time in the past week. How can I look for it when I don’t even know where to start?”

While a wedding ring may not be worth a great deal of money it is usually of immense sentimental significance. The lost one fell into this latter category. It had broken no banks to acquire, but it was only five years old so hadn’t really lived life to the full.

It had only once been suspended on a thread and swung over a swollen tummy to try and determine the sex of the firstborn.

It had never been thumped down on a table in the midst of a row, or, perish the thought, hurled across a room at a miscreant spouse.

No, this one was still shiny and innocent. But it was lost and was forever likely to be so.

Two weeks went by. Then the postman brought a registered packet containing ­ – yes, the ring.

With it was a letter from a man in Northern Ireland explaining that his young daughter had discovered the ring in the packaging of a parcel.

They thought they were simply taking delivery of an item bought from our friend on the ebay internet trading site and were amazed to unearth a little golden treasure as well.

It seems the swathes of newspaper and bubble wrap had made a comfortable home for the errant ring until Miss Bright Eyes spotted it.

Miss BE and her dad are unknown to our friend, but their heart-warming honesty has brought happiness to two households divided by the Irish Sea.

In one, there’s a little girl excitedly clutching a £5 note sent as a thank-you and, in the other, sweet harmony is restored between husband and wife.

Now how’s that for a warm, fuzzy feeling?

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PANIC stations turned rapidly into action stations at home last week.

Geoff’s cousin and his wife were coming to stay over the weekend. As their arrival drew nearer we looked around our humble home and wondered what on earth they would make of us.

To start with, they would be reassured that we were still the Cousin Worse-Offs of the family – one look at the shambolic front gate would confirm that.

And what horrors would await them inside? The grisly state of our lives would be there for them to be appalled by, right down to the duvet cover on their bed, which was such a bargain in the shop that I happily overlooked the fact half the pattern was missing. And the pillowcases don’t match. And the towels are all odd sizes.

So why are they coming to stay? Because we love their uplifting company and we are sure (well, fairly sure) that they’ll have such a lovely time that they won’t notice, and certainly won’t remember, all the shortcomings. And if they do, we bet they’ll still come back because blood is thicker than water, and all that.

The state of action stations in anticipation of their arrival sent Geoff out to the shed to arm himself with sundry seized-up and rusted tools to carry out various small but vital repairs, and me scuttling upstairs to try and clear a path to the spare room.

My task involved hacking my way through scattered heaps of Hill detritus – none of it, in Geoff’s eyes, worth keeping, but all of it, in my eyes, deserving of a kind and loving home, though perhaps not littered around the landing.

I reduced the heaps both in size and number. Now the cousins could at least reach their room and make it to the bathroom without using full climbing gear and crampons.

Geoff, not one of life’s natural DIY-ers, embarked on an ambitious project in the bathroom. It involved one dried-up tube of silicon in a gun contraption and one spare tube of a more promising consistency, some bits of loo paper for wiping gungey fingers, and a lot of muttered swearing.

His task was to stick some lengths of wood to the ceiling around the top of the shower, which the builders had failed to do two years ago when they installed the shower.

Incredibly, Geoff achieved what he set out to do, though, as ever, it was not without some drama. Wet feet and soggy socks did not help his humour.

While I launched an 11th-hour attack on the garden, Geoff applied his by-now enhanced repertoire of skills on the hall light fitting, hanging at half-mast for at least the past 18 months.

I’m glad I neither heard nor saw what went on, but when I came back into the house I found Geoff contentedly reading the paper with bits of broken light fitting on the table beside him.

It was all right, though. The cousins arrived in the dark but they had a torch in the car. They would.

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THE builders are coming. The date that I haven’t even dared put in my diary is upon us. By the time you read this they will be on Day Two and I will be on to the second box of teabags.

That is one of the surest things about builders – that they will drink enough tea to float a fleet of battleships, especially if someone else is making it for them and they don’t have to rely on their Thermoses.

I’ll be brewing up at regular intervals on the days when I’m not at work, and when I’m not brewing up doubtless I’ll be washing up mugs and spoons and drifting about making encouraging comments that will sound silly and patronising the moment they leave my lips.

The trouble is, I won’t be able to leave them to it.

Rather like the days when I used to help at playgroup, I find it impossible to resist poking my nose in and offering my opinions on Lego structures or doll’s house furniture arrangements, or, in this case, small-scale destruction and reconstruction.

My heart goes out to these poor, long-suffering builders. At least they won’t hang around here longer than they need.

They will undoubtedly recognise me as something of an amateur in the business of ‘having the builders in’.

For so many years Geoff and I took the DIY course of action, kidding ourselves we were saving money but testing our nerves and our marriage to ridiculous lengths.

After miserable hours mixing cement, applying tiles in wobbly lines, fighting with floppy wallpaper and picking bristles out of painstakingly glossed window-frames, we would collapse and gasp “Never again.” Until the next time. If there is one thing that DIY-ers is good at it’s being optimistic before the job starts.

Our bubble burst after the time we tried to build a porch and had to call in the experts to get us out of the mess – and out of the house. We rarely mention the episode now, but it was one of the DIY world’s Darkest Hours.

Hence the capitulation, the handing over of a project lock, stock and barrel to the professionals – and the purchase of two gross of PG Tips pyramid teabags.

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