Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Black Hole.

The music had to be faced. The key had to turn in the lock, I had to venture forth, walk into the sitting room and look up. For the first time ever, I welcomed a traffic jam on the M5, anything to delay coming home and dealing with reality, so, as another hold up lengthened the journey by another hour, I put the car into neutral, opened a bag of fat free Jelly Babies, relaxed and turned the wireless up.
Finally, having dropped my eldest daughter’s friend off, I couldn’t avoid going home any longer and with feet of lead I dragged myself up my front steps and into my house. Hubby had arrived earlier and cut me off in the dining room with forced bonhomie.
“Alice love! You’re home!” he said, crushing me against his chest in a very enthusiastic bear hug, “Now it’s not as bad as you imagine it to be, honestly. We’ll soon have it spick and span!” Was the thought of his wife losing her marbles over a fallen ceiling oddly transforming Hubby into some sort of mental health nurse? Was this why he was adopting this bizarre and very practical no-nonsense hospital jargon? Was he going to ask me to ‘pop onto the sofa’ next?
“Let me be the judge of that”, I said dully and extricating myself from his embrace I walked past him. The whole family seemed to hold its breath in unison as I quietly entered the sitting room and finally, allowed myself to look up. Horse hair, ancient strips of timber, rusty nails and jagged bits of plaster resolutely stared back. A weird little sound was expelled from my lips and my six year old guided me to the sofa where I sat down, speechless.
“I’ll make her a cup of tea”, said my son, scarpering.
“I’ll help you”, said his oldest sister.
“It’s ok mummy”, added my six year old, stroking my arm, “We can fix it”. Unfortunately, the words ‘can we fix it’, no matter in what order, is a phrase associated, as any parent or grandparent will attest, to that loveable, animated odd-job man the under fives adore. So, before you could say “Yes we can”, the Red-Head had embarked upon a frenzied medley of Bob the Builder Tunes, until my nerves, unable to tolerate any more, finally shattered and I started to sob. The Red-Head was immediately removed from the scene, protesting vehemently, then Hubby, having appeased her with a DVD, returned and sat next to me. He took my hand.
“Don’t worry about it love”, he said soothingly, “We’ll get it sorted. The insurance company are coming tomorrow and then it’ll be just a question of formalities”. I sobbed even louder.
“That’s what I thought before”, I hiccoughed, “When our bedroom ceiling fell down. But they wouldn’t give us a penny”.
“Well you shouldn’t make a habit of losing your ceilings!” I looked up to find Mags, as brown as a nut, holding a box of wine and three wine glasses, “Thought you might be in need of something medicinal” she said, inserting her finger into the cardboard with aplomb, before expertly extracting the little tap. Cool white wine flowed into my glass and down my throat like an elixir.
“Thanks”, I sniffed, “That’s lovely”. My son and daughter entered at that moment carrying a tray of mugs.
“Guess you won’t be wanting these then?” asked my son, miffed his efforts had gone unrewarded.
Mags shrugged her shoulders, “Doctors order I’m afraid love”, then she rummaged into her large, crumpled, leather bag and removed a packet of custard creams, “Help yourself. Dunk them into the tea”. Custard Creams, my son’s biscuit du choix. He beamed, instantly mollified, “Cheers Mags, that’s a magic bag!”
After two and a half glasses and little, other than a few chubby Jelly Babies all day, the wine soon had its effect, “You see”, I slurred, using my glass to indicate, “That, that thing up there in my ceiling is like a metaphorical Black Hole where the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape its pull after having fallen past its event horizon.” There was a silence until Hubby chipped in.
“She gets like this when she’s had a few, it’s a phenomenon, it’s as though she’s being channeled by Stephen Hawking”.
“I can think of dishier men I’d liked to be channeled by”, quipped Mags.
The following morning as I rummaged around for some horse sized ibuprofen the door bell rang. A dour man, holding a clipboard to his chest, introduced himself as the insurance surveyor. I let him in and called for Hubby to “deal with it”. As I gulped my pill down, my son, half asleep, appeared in the kitchen.
“How long does it take to wash and dry a pair of jeans?” he asked.
“About two hours. Why? Off to see Divine Love?”
“I haven’t seen her for a week mum” he blushed, “So? Can I shove my jeans in then?”
“You’ve talked and texted her incessantly though. Go on then, if you gather all the rest of the laundry I’ll wash them, I’m not putting a cycle on for one item”. Leaving him to hunt and gather dirty washing I picked up the post. Most of it was birthday cards for my eldest daughter, now officially a teenager but I absent mindedly opened a mobile phone bill. My son’s, whose monthly contract of £15 is paid by us. Only it wasn’t £15 it was £93. I gripped the kitchen counter. At that moment the surveyor, a camera around his neck like a tourist, declared, “Of course I see you don’t have AD added to your policy”.
“AD?” Hubby asked.
“Accidental damage”, he replied smiling, with not a little hint of schadenfreude.
“We don’t?” stammered Hubby.“You do not”. I was way past the event horizon. The Black Hole was pulling me ever deeper in.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Wet. Wet. Wet.

Mags is in Sardinia and I just happen to have a long range weather forecast for Sardinia on my Google homepage and, day after day the symbol of a big, round smiley sun seems to mock me and my wellies.
The Band family, it is therefore all too apparently obvious, is not in some far flung Mediterranean island bathing in a temperate turquoise sea. Nor are we lunching on locally caught seafood, a carafe of chilled wine on our table, olives glistening in the oil in which they created, the tomatoes made sweeter and riper by the incessant sunshine. Alas not. Instead we find ourselves once more in Pembrokeshire, abusing the hospitality of friends once again prepared to put us up for free. We have also acquired two extra children to appease our own moody teenagers, friends with whom they can 'hang out'. As we packed the cars last Saturday in the pouring rain though, an unshakeable feeling of foreboding enveloped me.
“So, you're happy with where you're going Alice?” asked Hubby.
“Yup, we've been there often enough”, I answered, aware that with the best will in the world, I could not disguise the sarcastic tone in my voice.
“Oh come on now Alice, don't be a princess. We're going on holiday aren't we? And Wales is better than nothing. Put a brave face on it. Ok love?” The rain water was dripping off the hood of my kagoule and down my nose. I brushed the drips off furiously.
“Fine”, I said, scowling, “Let's get a move on”. We had to travel in convoy because, bus like as it may be to some, a Renault Espace does not accommodate six kids, two adults, several suitcases, two guitars and an amplifier. Hubby as usual did not draw the short straw as all four teenagers clamoured to travel with him and his i-tunes to abandon me to the luggage, the youngest two and Disney tunes. We were just past the Lee Mill turn off on the A38 when the Red-Head asked the first of seemingly infinitesimal, “Are we there yet?”. I groaned.
“Does your groan mean that we are probably not?” asked the six year old.
“Got it in one honey”, I replied, “Just a few more hours to go”.
“How long is a few more hours?”, she asked.
“Well, let's see”, I said, distracted by the fact that my windscreen wipers were going like the clappers and I was trying to overtake a rather large caravan, “Um, count to sixty, sixty times and that'll be one hour”. Children of that age of course, rather dementedly take everything literally and no sooner had I made the suggestion than she started counting, “One, two, three, four...”. Her sister joined her, although at three years of age has yet to master any number past seventeen, which put her sister off, which started the whole counting thing from the beginning. I started to bite the steering wheel.
By the time we reached Bridgewater, we were stationary on the M5, the girls were in tears because it was “So boring” and I was almost in tears because I couldn't stand another minute. Half an hour later having finally crawled up towards Sedgemoor services the Red-Head declared, “I have a poor tummy. I feel sick”. Please God, not now. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other hurriedly emptying a Barbie filled plastic carrier bag, I threw it in the general direction of the back seat. Seconds later I craned my neck around to see how she was, only to find the carrier bag wrapped suicidally over her head.
“Holy shizer”, I yelled, reaching into the back to swipe the bag off, the car swerving onto the hard shoulder to the accompanied chorus of furious, beeping horns. Shaking, I pulled into the services to down a large, restorative, coffee. An hour later found me in an almighty queue at the tolls on the Severn Bridge. Unperturbed as I'd got the correct sum of money, I pulled over to the one where you can just chuck your money into a waiting receptacle. It was only when I applied my handbrake up and about one hundred cars were backed up behind me that I realised that it was only coins that were accepted. My five pound note was not.
“Holy shizer”, I once again muttered, before and much to the impatient annoyance of the other car-drivers, I jumped out of mine and cocked a leg over a couple of barriers where, in torrential rain I pleaded with the toll-booth man for some loose change.
We finally arrived in West Wales seven hours after we set out, only to find Hubby ensconced in an arm chair, watching the Olympics, a cold beer in hand.
I'd like to say that things picked up from there but my previous feelings of foreboding were not without foundation and a litany of disasters followed. For instance, the following morning Hubby went to play basketball with our host and came back with a broken ankle rendering him devoid of family outings. Thus, being the only able bodied driver, I had to squish children into my car like illegal immigrants only to get them to some tourist attraction to find the entrance fee for six kids a prohibitively expensive affair. Consequently we have visited more castles than the conquering Normans and far from sun kissed tomatoes and olives, have lunched on rissoles and corned beef pasties. The Red-Head's brand new Start-Rite sandals have literally bitten the dust, given that she threw them out of the car window as it travelled at speed and then, one very wet morning midweek, when my misery knew no bounds, Dad rang.“I've been in to feed the cats”, he paused, “And I found your sitting room ceiling, well, not on the ceiling any more”. Much like Chicken-Licken, my sky is quite literally falling in.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Oh Johnny...

“Alice? Alice? Wherefore are thou Alice?” trilled the unmistakable voice of Mags from the top of my stairs.
“Down here”, I yelled back, “Stripping beds”. My students, having finally gone, had left me with the onerous task of cleaning up after them.
Mags flew down into the basement, two steps at a time. “Have you seen this?” she asked, brandishing yet another newspaper in my face.
“Don’t tell me. Yet another London dweller has criticized south east Cornwall. What’s the problem this time? No spa facilities? Japanese restaurants?”
“No”, said Mags shaking her head vehemently, “Nothing like that. Look at this”. I unfolded The Evening Herald where the exquisite beauty that is Johnny Depp looked back dreamily into my eyes.
“Holy crappola Mags! He’s coming here!” I couldn’t believe it. Johnny Depp making a movie in Plymouth!
“I know, I know and they’re looking for extras”, gabbled Mags, opening the pages in a fluster to show me, “It says here they are looking for anyone over the age of sixteen, with long, natural coloured hair”.
“Wow! Shame our kids aren’t old enough”, I said, reading.
“For God’s sake Alice. You don’t get it do you?”, demanded Mags.
“No I don’t, what do you mean?”, I said, looking up from the paper into her resolute face, her head cocked to one side, like an expectant spaniel, “You have to be joking? No, no way.” I brushed past her carrying armfuls of dirty linen.
“Aw c’mon Alice! This could be a real laugh. We could be spotted! Imagine, oh God just imagine, we could just meet Johnny bloody Depp.” Her enthusiasm was so infectious that I couldn’t crush her and before you could middle-aged women’s crumpet, I’d agreed to be picked up the next day and join a queue of other hopefuls; some who genuinely wanted to be movie stars and some, who like us, wanted a long held, filthy, fantasy, fulfilled.
Given the lack of facilities for that number of people, I, like the production company had underestimated the number of people who’d turn up, because, not since a Next sale have I queued so long for anything. I’d worn heels as well, not because I need to look any taller but because “a nice heel works wonders for good looking ankle”, said Mags, “Especially when worn with a little black dress”.
Within an hour of standing I was beginning to rue the day I’d ever agreed to such torture especially as neither of us had thought to bring a folding chair, a Thermos, a few sarnies, a couple of boiled eggs and, as it transpired a golfing umbrella. Being British however, a wartime spirit was soon generated, the long queue lending itself to the atmosphere and Mags and I gave thanks that we didn’t have to do this for our daily bread.
The culmination of hours of shuffling, very slowly, ensured more intimacy with those other hopefuls than we’d secured with very old friends. In front of me was a mother of five and her loaded double buggy who had come along with her eldest daughter and her double buggy. Her son was a few hours ahead of us in the queue and very occasionally brought his mother and sister a coffee. Behind me was a young woman, who having received an excellent degree in hospitality, now couldn’t even get a job waitressing and was desperately hoping that this would be her big break. Alas it was not to be as all were eliminated when we met up with the casting director, who was leaning on a wall just outside the Pavilions. A smiling assassin, she either nodded or shook her head depending on what she saw.
“Do you think they’ve come to the wrong audition?” whispered Mags as two platinum blonde girls, whose hair extensions were as false as their nails and boobs and whose t-shirts barely covered the aforementioned breasts, found, much to their dismay, that their image was ineligible for a Victorian, period movie.
“We’ve been in films before”, they protested as they teetered away on their high heels, their shorts, well, indecently short. “I’ll bet. Maybe they think Alice in Wonderland is a porn movie” giggled Mags. All around us stood thwarted teenagers, sobbing and raging that it wasn’t fair.
“Bloody hell Mags”, I said, “It’s like being in the X-Factor. Any minute now and they’ll be calling Simon Cowell a ...” Before I got the words out we were suddenly face to face with the casting director who looked us up and down, scrutinising our every feature. I held my belly in. Her nod was barely perceptible.
Mags and I looked at each other with utter disbelief. A nod? Was that a nod?
“Please join the other queue to have your photographs taken”, said the casting lady as though she’d read my thoughts. Hugging each other, we squealed where the teenagers had wailed.
Two hours later and we were actually within the confines of the New Continental Hotel. It was hot and suddenly I was aware that I’d not eaten a thing since breakfast the previous day. My head was thumping and my left arm had gone numb.
“Dear God Mags, either I’ve had a stroke or I’m about to have a fit. I feel very jittery.” She found me a chair and someone else gave me one of their crisps and a swig of coke. Barely restored, it was time to be measured. The poor woman with the tape measure looked as awful as I felt.
“Busy?”, I asked smiling.
“We only expected 250 people. This is unbelievable”.
“And this is Plymouth. Believe”. Our mug-shots were taken, complete with number and I felt more felon than movie star, or indeed arrested movie star.
Finally, almost twelve hours after we arrived, we left with the parting shot of a sobering, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’ ringing in our ears. But you never know, they may call, they may well just call.

Monday, 4 August 2008


Just when you let your guard down, scrub the barbecue and invite friends over, the bloody rain starts again with a vengeance. The children are going stir crazy, well the little ones are at least; the older ones are otherwise engaged. My twelve year old with a handful of new books and my son with his Divine Love. One cannot walk into a room without finding them attached to each other like limpets. Hubby and I are beginning to sound like consumptive Victorians given that we cough fervently every time we walk around a corner. It makes no odds. They do not seem in the slightest bit perturbed that their tongues are playing tennis and their hands are permanently glued together. The six year old is most intrigued by the relationship.
“Mu-um why are the under the duvet?”
“One moment angel”, I said, before hurtling up the stairs two and a time. Coughing loudly, which may have had more to do with climbing the stairs than a poor attempt at discretion, I flung open his bedroom door. Sure enough there they were, cuddled up together under his quilt. Mercifully they were watching a chick-flick and fully dressed, even her shoes were sticking out. Phew.
“You alright mum?” asked my son quizzically, “Only you look a bit puffed.”
“Oh I’m fine love”, I replied, holding on to the door frame for support and fanning myself, “Just give me a minute”.
My son paused his movie and they both waited, until I finally managed to say,
“We need some more burger buns. Be a pair of loves and run down the shop for me please”. Sighing dramatically my son emerged from under the covers without somehow letting go of Divine Love. They followed me downstairs where I gave them a couple of quid, handed them a floral umbrella and ushered them out.
Hubby came in from the garden, his face like thunder, water dripping off his nose.
“Why exactly are we having this barbecue Alice? Most normal people would just have pasta in weather like this.”
“Oh, don’t be a spoil sport love”, I said, “With so many people to feed pasta would be impossible. Besides, I’d already bought all the meat and had no idea the weather was going to turn like this”.
“But there are eighteen of us Alice. Some canteens aren’t lucky enough to have that many punters. Besides does Johnny Foreigner like our sausages? Tesco Value aren’t what they’re used to in the South of France you know”.
“Well actually”, I said, bending down to retrieve some couscous from the farinaceous section of my dry store cupboard (you can tell Hubby is on leave) and lowering my voice, “I splashed out and bought some posh ones in Tideford”. He still heard me.
“Hells-Bells Alice. We have eighteen mouths to feed and you’ve gone and bought some poncy snorkers? No doubt with some pretentious exotic flavours. What’s wrong with a simple banger? Must they be ‘delicately flavoured with a hint of wild porcini and fragrant thyme’?”, he used that very irritating signal with his fingers to indicate inverted commas.
I sighed and carried on regardless as Hubby sulked behind me. Just as I poured boiling water onto my bowl of couscous and chucked in a few pine kernels, my son, Divine Love and Mags, her kids and husband walked through the front door.
“Have you seen this horse manure?” Mags bellowed, waving a Sunday newspaper in my face. “I kept it from the weekend for you; I can’t believe what she’s written”. I hadn’t had five minutes to read any newspaper last weekend and this was not an ideal moment either as dad, my brother, his wife and my niece walked in and my students emerged from the basement simultaneously.
“Alright maid?”, said my brother, “What’s to eat? I’m starving” and before I could say a selection of barbecued meats, couscous, salad and homemade salsa, he continued, “Don’t tell me you’ve got that middle class Moroccan muck?” My brother is not what you’d call a metrosexual, “What’s wrong with a plate of good old fashioned tatties?”
“Concur”, I heard Hubby mumble. Ushering them into my sitting room, I told them to help themselves to a beer or wine whilst I counted out the requisite number of plates and silverware.
“Listen to this”, continued Mags, following me into the kitchen where she went on to read a journalist’s rather disparaging description of one of our favourite hangouts : Cawsand and Kingsand.
“She’s obviously never been there, silly cow. How can she say that there are no shops? There are several! Including, for her information, a very busy little post office. She says it has long since closed down. And what about the pubs and cafes? Hell Alice, what would we do in winter without a cappuccino at Moran’s and a curry at the Cross Keys? And apparently the narrow streets on a Friday night smell of wafting Diptyque candles to get rid of the damp smell in the cottages”.
“Sadly she has a point about the number of wealthy second homes owners though. I saw a lobster being delivered to one recently. You don’t get much of that around here Mags. A couple of Dabs and a bit of sole would be splashing out in Torpoint”. Mags scowled,
“Pollocks!”, she said, “Besides there’s all sorts going on. Yoga, twinning, Gig racing. There’s a real sense of community in Cawsand. Bloody Londoners” and with that she histrionically scrunched the paper into a ball and chucked it in the bin, “That’s what I think of that!”
“Grub’s up!” called Hubby, carrying a tray of meats. A stampede entered my dining room.
The French boy looked very distrustingly at his sausage as he pulled a shrivelled red thing from between his teeth, “Mon dieu! What eeze theese?”
“A sun dried tomato”, I replied breezily, before whispering to Hubby, “Don’t say a word. Not one word”.