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Archive for the ‘Columns 2003’ Category

VARIOUS ailments tend to afflict me at this time of year, none of them requiring medical attention, I’m happy to say.

Perhaps the most notable is that post-Christmas marsupial feeling – the one where it seems there is something heavy in a pouch attached to my stomach. Polite people might call it ‘avoirdupois’. I would call it the result of unbridled gluttony. From now on, it’s war until me and it are parted.

I am also troubled by ‘label-picker’s thumb’. That’s the horrid, raggedy thumbnails that result from scratching off price labels from 1001 presents before wrapping them.

Then there’s ‘present wrapper’s back’ – the ache that comes from bending over and wrapping the aforementioned 1001 presents on a surface that’s far too low. It’s the same every year, and I never learn.

And what about this dreadful bout of kitchenitis? The symptoms are a morbid fear of entering the kitchen lest I get locked in with only a beaten-up old turkey to talk to. The treatment for this is simple: remain seated on sofa and cope bravely on diet of chocolates and alcohol.

But time is running out and I must seek alternative remedies for these ailments, for The Party looms and I am going to have to be at the peak of fitness to prepare for that. This big date on the Hill calendar seemed a long way off when the idea first took hold, but now it is nearly upon us I am quite unable to understand what strange fit of lunacy prompted me to pursue it.

Yes, in just a few days’ time we’ll be opening the door to a veritable torrent of friends eager to experience our unique style of hospitality. If past form is anything to go by, and as Geoff so unnecessarily made public in this magazine a fortnight ago, I will be shattered with exhaustion, bright red in the face from praying over a hot oven, and flustered beyond redemption.

I am the sort of person who should, but doesn’t, take heed of those magazine articles that smugly offer ‘Ten Top Tips on How to be a Perfect Hostess’, suggesting impossible things like ‘relax in the bath an hour before your guests arrive to ensure you are calm and look your best’. Believe me, an hour before my guests arrive I won’t be getting into a bath. Getting into a stew, more likely.

And who, I wonder, doesn’t end up in a right old state when they’ve got people coming? We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. It’s like a theatrical performance in a way – but in this two-hander there is no front of house manager and no stage crew to prepare the set and strike it afterwards. There’s just me and Geoff doing an impression of being purposeful while try our hardest to make the house look respectable, the food look presentable and ourselves look hospitable.

The first two of these requirements are down to hard work and application and should be just about within our grasp, with luck. The last one, where ‘looking hospitable’ probably translates as ‘appearing calm and welcoming, while appropriately dressed’

is going to be tricky. It is difficult to pass muster as a party hostess when you’re afflicted by marsupial tendencies, you have crumbled thumbnails, a screaming back and an advanced case of kitchenitis. But I’ll give it a good try!

Happy New Year!

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HOW strange it is when you see someone you know but they are out of their normal surroundings. The unfamiliarity can cause them to look slightly different, as if they are wearing someone else’s clothes.

This very thing happened to me last week when Geoff and I were sitting minding our own business in a restaurant in downtown Granada. When you’re abroad you do not expect to see familiar faces, least of all at the very next table. There he was, clear as day, old so-and-so, you know, who used to work with Geoff years ago. As I am over 50, the man’s name eluded me – as do 90 per cent of all proper nouns nowadays, along with about 75 per cent of common nouns.

The side profile of Mr Anonymous-But-So-Familiar was clearly visible to me across the walkway, bustling with waiters and passing customers, but Geoff’s view of him was obscured. So I described him in detail, pinned down an approximate date when we had probably last seen him (circa 1987) and came up with the first names of both his children. He was with a woman whom I presumed to be his wife (because they weren’t speaking much), but who didn’t look much like the wife I had met him with before. However, women’s features have a habit of heading south as the years go by, transforming and confusing on their way, so I was quite prepared to accept that this was the bona fide Mrs Anonymous.

Dredging my memory for his name became an obsession as we ate our meal. I eventually hit upon Macdonald and felt pleased with myself as Geoff agreed it was a distinct possibility, based upon the description, but he would have to see him for himself.

Just as I was completing a potted biography of both Macdonald offspring, my scintillating conversation touching on their schools and the pets I had known them to own, the man stood up and headed off to the gents.

Now’s your chance, I hissed at Geoff. Cop a look at him on his way back. I had still only seen the guy from the side and the back. A good full-frontal eyeful was all that was needed to confirm it was old Macdonald and ensure a Rioja-fuelled reunion could get under way.

Guess what? It wasn’t him. You could have knocked me down with a herd of elephants. The man whose side and back had been the dead spit of Geoff’s former work colleague turned out to be a German with a crooked nose and a limp.

It’s extraordinary how baffled we can be by the passing of years and tricks of memory. Still, we enjoyed the bottle of Rioja without the Macdonalds – wherever they may be.

The incident, or non-incident, reminded me of a friend who was in Woolworth’s many years ago when she saw a man she recognised. Being a friendly soul, she smiled and said hello. He looked at her strangely and did not reply. Bridget was puzzled. How could someone so familiar fail to recognise her?

The answer hit her as she rounded the next aisle. There, on the wall, hung a large photograph of the Woolworth’s store manager. She’d seen it a hundred times. That was why the face was so familiar. Oh dear. Pink-faced Bridget scuttled out and avoided Woolies for the next few years.

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IT’S been a week of hatches and matches, which must be rare for someone of my vintage more used to the sadness of dispatches these days. First of all, young friends of ours announced the arrival of their firstborn, a healthy little chap called Oliver with a predilection for curry, I should imagine, if he’s anything like his parents.

Before he gets to the stage of choosing between a Madras or a vindaloo, though, he has to endure an interminable diet of mashed swede and similar pap suitable for little people’s gums and tums. Poor Oliver. As soon as he understands, I shall tell him that a good curry is always worth waiting for. Hang in there, I shall say, and a chicken dansak with Bombay potato, pilau rice and a couple of poppadoms, will be a fine reward for putting away all that pureed gloop and not secreting too much of it in your pelican bib when Mum’s not looking.

On the matches front, there have been three of major significance. The first is my friend Denise’s daughter who became engaged last Friday, to the great delight of her parents and to the utter relief of her boyfriend, who gamely played out the whole romantic proposal scene on a windswept headland and even took a camera along to record the happy moment.

They are to be married in the summer of 2005, giving Denise, in her own words, ‘plenty of time to get thin and choose a hat’.

These are presumably two of the great preoccupations of a bride’s mother. They would certainly be mine. Denise confides that she has another worry, too: how to be supportive and helpful without seeming to interfere. Is it possible, she wonders, to take an evening class in walking on eggshells? Good question.

I’ll be enrolling with her any day now, just as soon as Jonny Wilkinson proposes to my daughter. They haven’t met yet, but I would be deliriously happy to arrange whatever was necessary so as to steal a march on the several million other parents around the country (and the world, I don’t doubt) who have him heading their leader board of most suitable suitors.

Which brings me to the second match: England versus South Africa in the Rugby World Cup. Exciting, skilful, tense – and a fantastic result, whatever the professional pundits may say. I lived through every bone-crunching minute of it and was thrilled to see that the wonderful and heroic Jonny W played, as ever, such a crucial role. Sadly, I don’t think my daughter was watching, but she’ll have enough of that to do in the years to come . . . 

And the third match was, of course, Plymouth Argyle’s stunning defeat of Port Vale in the Nationwide Second Division last Saturday. Five magnificent goals to one puny goal – and away, too. Pass the oxygen, we’re so high up the table it’s difficult to breathe. That’s 15 goals in three matches that my boys have scored. I’m enjoying it while it lasts, because we Argyle fans, we happy band of Pilgrims, have learnt over the wilderness years (that is, the whole life of the club) to have very low expectations. Life’s best that way, sometimes.

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ONLY two weeks ago I was holding forth here about how grateful I was for being sound in wind and limb and how I should jolly well make the most of this physical fitness when others less fortunate could never do so. It was a bit of a sermon really, with plenty of built-in scope for nodding off near the end, just as every sermon ever had during all my childhood Sundays.

Someone, somewhere, must have disliked my tub-thumping moral message, for my soundness of wind and limb lasted but a few more days before I was struck down with a real stinker of a cold. I don’t like to bear grudges or level blame, but a certain person whose name begins with H, is five letters long, has an ‘L’ in the middle and an ‘N’ at the end, knows she is responsible for my still-enduring misery. I forgive her, of course, even though she is now recovered and bouncing around happily in the sun on holiday in southern Spain.

This is, truly, the mother of all colds. And what is one of the great strengths we mothers have? We like to share. So I shared my cold with Geoff. He is not a happy man. In fact he is so fed up that if he could raise his voice above a hoarse whisper he would probably tell me just how angry he is.

For ten days now I have been struggling to keep going by day, what with all the hours that have to be spent coughing, wheezing and mopping up, and suffering the most dreadful nights of more coughing and a sore throat so painful it is like swallowing pins. Geoff is on Day 3, so I sympathise with him as he faces well over a week more of this horrible lurgy.

We sniffle and snort, cough and moan, wince and grumble in perfect marital unison. Our hopes are pinned on the fact that, having succumbed this early in the season, we might be let off free for the rest of the winter months.

With both of us so incapacitated it has meant that very little has been achieved over the past few days. The slightest effort leaves us gasping, coughing and wheezing, with a tight, painful chest. Consequently, the piles of windfall apples in the garden have reached Everest-like proportions and we are drawing lots to see which of us is going to put the dustbin out.

I have detected a slight improvement in myself in the past 24 hours, so I might magnanimously volunteer for this task. In the meantime, though, I’ll get in some practice by trying to walk to the front door without collapsing in a coughing fit.

It is so hard to imagine ever being well again, certainly well enough to do anything requiring much physical effort.

And that brings me back to the moral bit in last fortnight’s sermon, because now that I am experiencing what it is like to be incapacitated and unsound in wind and limb I can see for myself how lucky are those who are fit and sound. How very wonderful it must be to be able to swallow without everything hurting and to move about without wheezing and spluttering.

One day soon, I’ll be back to being me again – and I just can’t wait.

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FIVE good friends came for lunch the other day. Now five is quite a lot. One or two I can cope with, but five amounts to an unruly mob with unpredictable appetites and a tendency to break acceptable decibel levels.

This occasion was no exception. Any passer-by might have thought I’d started up a playgroup in my home, such was the noise bursting through four solid walls.

Six women let loose for the day, with nothing more to do than talk, laugh, eat and drink a little and, that rarity in all our lives, not feel guilty about doing any of those things, are inclined to get a little shrill. That is an understatement, but I would hate to ruin reputations.

 We six tend to meet two or three times a year in each other’s houses, with one mug providing the food while the others relax and enjoy being catered for. As my turn loomed I vowed not to make a big deal of it, mindful of everyone assuring me that ‘just a sandwich will do’ and of the last time when I’d lost a week’s sleep through nervous tension.

I decided that just a sandwich wouldn’t do, but I would keep it simple all the same. Amazingly, I did, just baking a pie (the fail-safe one I do for almost every occasion) and preparing various cold dishes to go with it. I baked some peaches for pudding, and voila – it was all done.

Except that of course it wasn’t. I had the house to clean, the table to prepare and drinks to get in. What do half-a-dozen women favour as their lunchtime tipple? Your guess is as good as mine. What was meant to be a quick sprint to the supermarket to cater for everyone’s varied thirsts, turned into a half-hour aimless drift up and down booze alley in a daze of confusion and indecision. In the end, I topped up the trolley with the sort of selection of wine, spirits, fruit juices and mineral water that would cater for pretty well everyone’s tastes – not to mention the liquid requirements of most of southern England for a week.

I wish I’d got it on sale or return, because I am now left with most of it untouched and unopened. It’s a funny thing, but six gassing women don’t need much to lubricate their tonsils. In four hours, we got through precisely one bottle of wine, one carton of cranberry juice and half a bottle of mineral water. What a soppy lot. Imagine if we were men – I’d probably still be collecting up the empties.

We didn’t do a lot more damage at the table. I thought I’d made enough food to go round, with a little to spare in case anyone was particularly hungry. The ‘little to spare’ turned out to be sufficient to feed at least two of the more greedy battalions of the British Army.

I decided not to donate it to the army but to give Geoff the pleasure of 1001 ways with leftover food for the next month-and-a-half. He doesn’t mind – he says it’s the price he will happily pay for being spared lunching with my monstrous regiment of women.

If I didn’t know better, I might say he was jealous.

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WHENEVER I falter in my lame attempts to take exercise – for instance when I find an excuse not to go for a walk on a less-than lovely day, or imagine that I have a cold coming on so shouldn’t go swimming – I give myself a right old talking to.

I remind my feeble self that there are thousands of people out there who would love to be able to walk in our countryside, whether or not it is bucketing down with rain, or who would give anything to be able to swim in their local pool even if they didn’t feel one hundred per cent. The humbling fact is that many, too many, people are physically unable to take the sort of ordinary exercise that I take for granted.

After my self-inflicted ear-bashing and feeling suitably contrite, I slink out and achieve that day’s allotted task, mindful of my privileged status of being relatively sound in wind and limb.

I have a close friend who has just been given really bad news about her health. She is trying to come to terms with so many negatives that I find it hard to know how she faces each day. Now, when I falter and am tempted to seek the comfort of the bedclothes, I think of her and how much she would love to be able to spring out of bed at 6.45am to join the early-bird swimmers with me.

A similar sort of reminder to count my blessings came my way this week when Geoff and I returned from a few days away. It was such a wonderful break, such a restorative punctuation mark in our routine, that I grumbled like mad when we got back.

I continued my grumbles to a work colleague who gamely heard me out, inquired politely where I’d been and what I’d seen, and then told me she had been to Corfu for the weekend.

Corfu? For the weekend? Yes, she assured me she had, and that her sister had funded the trip as a treat to help mend her broken heart. (Hunky fiancé is now hateful ex-fiancé, you see.)

I enthused and said how awful she must be finding it to be back at work after such an exciting trip. Not a bit of it, she said, adding: ‘And I wouldn’t dream of complaining when there are loads of people who will never have the chance to do what I did.’

Whoops. Quite right, I mumbled, feeling extremely chastened.

The moral of this week’s tale, children, is to be grateful for all our mercies, be they great or small, and to make the most of all our opportunities. And if that means crawling out of bed in the half-dark to dunk an unwilling body into a swimming pool for the sake of its well-being, or doing a laughable, not-for-public-scrutiny version of  power-walking through the worst of the British weather, then so be it. I, for one, will not be complaining from now on. Well, not loudly enough for me to hear, anyway. 

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LAST month I wrote in this column about my pathetic attempts, aided and abetted by my daughter, to transform my pinky-pale limbs into something more appropriate for a sun-kissed goddess of summertime.

I failed, of course. A half-price bottle of fake suntan just didn’t cut the mustard. Those tell-tale orange streaks told dreadful tales of unequal struggles in the bathroom, and the smell of the stuff was enough to induce permanent nausea. So after a few days I eradicated all traces and resigned myself to remaining pale and uninteresting, but natural at least.

Until last week. Enter the enterprising Julie Dickens, who runs Verwood Beauty Clinic behind the town’s Post Office in Manor Road. She had read about my sad experience and made me a generous offer that was sure to put a golden glow into my cheeks. Would I like a St Tropez tanning treatment, she asked?

Would I? You bet I would. That’s the one the celebrities have. Well, what’s good for them might be good for me, too.

The date set, all that stood between me and that shimmering vision of my (extremely far-fetched) imagination, was a fortnight of preparation. Posh Spice, eat your heart out. You’re not the only one who can do high maintenance. I exfoliated, I scrubbed, I shaved, I exfoliated some more, I scraped off barnacles, I pumiced, I exfoliated for a final time what little there now remained of my outer skin layer and I finally presented myself, glowing and strictly au naturelle, in Julie’s welcoming salon.

She talked me through the procedure and then got started. I told her that Geoff had wondered if I might be spray-painted or dipped in a tank and she said that was not as far-fetched as it sounded. Apparently some serious fake suntanners do just that, or even have the gunk sort of air-blasted on to their bodies.

I’ll stick with Julie’s way, thanks, even if I did feel a bit like a large, wobbly, turkey as I turned over and over on the couch for the ‘basting’ of my body.

It all took an hour, which whizzed by as Julie was such lovely company. I took a good look at myself in the mirror when she left me to finish dressing, and was amazed to see how well I appeared. I had that after-a-spell-on-the-beach glow, the same sort of natural, gentle, bronzing I remember from the sun-drenched sail I made with my father along the south-west coast years ago. All this, and no salt-caked discomfort – just an hour of self-indulgent pampering.

I shall have this glowing, healthy look for a week, then it’s back to the old pink me. As a pick-me-up and confidence-booster there can be few treatments to equal a tanning treatment like this one. At this time of the year it is like creating your very own micro-climate, a sort of personal Indian summer to carry around wherever you go.

I shall be sorry when it’s faded away, but, like all good memories of summer, it will be something fun to look back on.

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