Thursday, 30 June 2011

Memories are Made of This.

“It’s about making memories”, was how I sold it to Hubby, “The eldest ones will be leaving home soon”. I read the far away look in Hubby’s eyes to imply ‘in my dreams’, but I forged on, “It will be a lovely way to celebrate the end of their exams”.
And so, last Friday, having waved a fond adieu to the Lost Boys and the dog we drove to Center Parcs, Longleat. Now, as one who is oft disappointed by the shortcomings of others and other places I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the customer service desk, to the bike hire chaps, to the waiters, pool attendants, checking in staff and housekeepers, every single one of them was not only courteous, helpful and knowledgeable but, ‘cheerful’. They must be trained by Americans because, having lived there and witnessed the culture of ‘anything is possible and we will make sure that we can help you’ attitude, my experience of that mind set is, that positivity engenders confidence and I knew the minute we unpacked in our Woodland lodge, whose kitchen was better equipped than ours, that we were going to have a wonderful time. Even the cleaner had left a cheery message on a blackboard wishing us a lovely time.
But if Hubby and I thought for one moment that we would take it easy then we were deluded. Not a moment passed without some activity or another. We rode bicycles for miles, swam and rode currents and flumes; wallowed in the hot water, outdoor pool for as long as we could get away with it before the children once again insisted we throw ourselves down the white water rapids with them. That first night and subsequent nights, Hubby and I slept like the dead.
The following morning dawned wet, soaking wet. Torrential rain was fleetingly interspersed by rainbows and a bashful sun. My son and I looked at each other and gave one another a friendly punch on the arm to signify, “It’ll be alright; I’ll be right behind you” and so, an hour later, the first of my many personal challenges was attempted as the climbing instructor fixed a harness to my thighs. Hubby and the girls came to watch, the eldest of whom wielded a camera.
“Ok then, are you ready?” By this point, my son and I had traversed slippery wet logs, walked along a high wire, climbed up poles to higher points, traversed further slippery logs, walked backwards, climbed higher still and walked another pole whilst attempting a silly dance and singing; this final challenge though was something else and we had already been briefed that, when the instructor called up ‘are you ready?’, we were in turn to shout out, commando style, “I was born ready”, kiss our biceps, make a grrr sound and then jump. Into the ether. My son had successfully completed the challenge and had been repelled safely to terra firma. It was my turn. To be honest, by the time I was asked if I was ready, it was a relief. I have never been called a scaredy-cat in my life and so throwing myself into the abyss wasn’t about to stymie my previous efforts but, boy oh boy that previous effort was a killer. Climbing the telegraph pole wasn’t so bad, but by this point I was fatigued and soaked to the skin, my hands were giving up their slippery, grip and my body was aching from head to toe, to get to the top of the pole then and have to haul myself onto no more than a tea tray which sat atop it, took Herculean effort. Looking at the pictures my daughter took, I resemble a knackered bear cub at the top of tree and not as I’d hoped, some Lara Croft type fantasy figure. As I landed safely on the ground, much to the cheer of my family and other onlookers, I felt, it must be said, for a fairly sedentary, middle-aged, middle-spread woman, justifiably proud.
There was no time to rest on my laurels though, in fact there was barely time to rest for a coffee. The next activity was booked. Hubby and son went quad biking; the girls and I, horse riding. Now, for the previous activity, all that I’d had to rely on was myself, oh and the quality of the ropes and safety harness, but apart from those essentials, I was in charge. The thing about horses is that they are bloody big beasts with minds of their own and it is not so much a question of who is in charge, but the fact that they may well just charge – off. I clung to the reins, gripped my thighs and prayed that mine wasn’t a temperamental and unpredictable equine beast, happy to fling me onto the unyielding, slippery stones beneath, rendering me a quadriplegic.
Togetherness is what family hols are all about though and, when confident enough, I looked behind me and the expressions on the girl’s faces were priceless. When we all reconvened in our warm and cosy lodge later, the boys too had had a blast. We hung our wet gear up, changed into our jammies, snuggled up on the sofa together, opened a family bag of crisps and watched a movie. A deer peered in through the French door.
Another day dawned. This one initially less strenuous. Hubby and I divvied up a day at the Aqua Sana Spa – our eldest daughter and me for the morning session, the boys in the afternoon. Bliss, bliss, bliss. Short-lived perhaps but, luxurious to the point of decadence. A breather before an afternoon of wall climbing, pedalo pushing and more white water rapids.
As we drove home the following day, the 9 year old said, “It was the best holiday, ever. When can we go again”. My son added, “Yeah, thanks guys, I’ll never, ever forget it”. Hubby caught my eye. It spoke volumes, namely, “See? I told you so”.

Midas Touch.

Over the past twenty years, in my role as consort to Hubby’s naval officer persona, I have met the great and good and occasionally notorious - it isn’t often one goes to dinner where Cynthia Payne is the guest of (dis)honour. I have shaken hands with Admirals both Rear and Vice on this side of the pond and their American counterparts, I have imbibed with Brigadiers and Generals, Lord High Sheriffs and Air Marshalls. It has been a giddy, social whirl and I have done my best to look presentable, eat what is put in front of me, be polite to stewards and staff, use the silver in chronological order, sip the port after ‘The Queen’, pass it to the left, not leave the table until ease springs, keep my shoulders covered throughout dinner etc, etc, etc. I have yet to fall down drunk. It was an accident on the dance-floor. My killer heels literally lived up to their name.
Nothing though, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the exalted company that I kept last weekend. I’d never even heard of them until last Saturday and even then, it wasn’t until I was introduced to a few guests that the full implication of what it is to be a member dawned on me. Bless my innocent, provincial ways.
It was the usual refrain before we went out with Hubby, running around like a headless chicken, insisting I get ready for an 18.30 assignation barely after we’ve cleared the table after lunch.
“You must be ready in time Alice”.
“Aren’t I always?”, I demanded, brushing the bread-crumbs into the gaping jaws of an expectant dog. Hubby remained silent.
“I don’t like your tone”, I continued airily, “Unlike several other couples who go to these mess dinners, few have to feed the five thousand before they do their hair and put on their glad rags and…”
“Yada, yada, yada. Change the record”.
“Humph”, I humphed.
“Anyway, I’m going to work for a while. I need to check things are ticketyboo for this evening”.
“But it’s a Saturday”.
“You’ll be surprised to hear that most peoples’ working week doesn’t cease to exist just because it is the weekend Alice”. I felt that murderous gall rise in me when he adopts that intolerable, imperious air but, instead of plunging the bread knife into him, I called him an ugly but, very satisfying name and walked away, my head held high.
A while later Hubby returned, buzzing.
“It’s looking good. Staff are briefed. Presentation is ready. Are you?”
He looked at my dishevelled hair and remarked, “Evidently not”.
“Listen mate, with this sort of canvas, it doesn’t take long to create a masterpiece”.
“I’ll agree with that. Jackson Pollack?”. Bloody cheek. I didn’t utter another word but, had a quick shower, applied the curling tongs, some make-up, a long frock and voila. I issued instructions to the children as to what was available for dinner and then Hubby whisked me away.
It was still very early but, after six so at least I was able to have a drink. Hubby wanted to run through his presentation one more time and check for all technological glitches. I sat back in an arm chair and let him get on with it. I sipped my wine and relaxed.
Suddenly, some guests turned up. Then another and then, another. Hubby, trying desperately to shake hands and at the same time calm some temperamental acoustics, looked a little torn. I jumped up from my chair and introduced myself. By now, I was aware that members of the Royal Yacht Squadron were our guests. It sounded grand, but then, having been associated by marriage to the Royal Navy for almost twenty years, and never once having even glimpsed one, I don’t hold much truck to the ‘royal’ bit. I mean, how often has one had to negotiate around the lap of the Queen in the stalls at a Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance or waited to be rescued by the side of the M4 because the Royal Automobile Company are otherwise engaged in recovering the Queen and her Land Rover? Never.
Similarly, on this occasion there was little actual blue blood to be seen, but by jove, it was a close run thing. Sir this and Lady that shook my hand. I tried terrifically hard to remember all their names but, as most were called Charles, or Caroline, George or Elizabeth it was relatively easy.
“Do you sail?” asked one, politely.
“No, not really”. He looked a little disappointed that we’d drawn stumps, so I helped the conversation along.
“We are members of a sailing club though”.
“Really?”, his face brightened, “Where?”.
“The Mosquito”.
“Er, Torpoint”. I wanted to add that a pint of beer was very reasonable there as was a basket of cheesy chips and by the way, Pete Goss cut his sailing teeth there too but, when a castle on the Isle of Wight is your club venue and you have to be invited to join, I thought it prudent to keep my mouth shut.
Once at dinner, I had the immense pleasure to meet a terribly charming, gentleman.
“I’ve led a sheltered life”, I said, “And underestimated our guests, who are you all?”
Conspiratorially, he leant in and told me.
“Good heavens? Really? He’s here? And she’s here too?” My mother would have been beside herself.
I couldn’t help but wonder how they had all achieved such enormous professional success. What was the secret? Wouldn’t it be fabulous to be given the formula? Especially, given as my new ‘best friend forever’ (I wish) added, waving his hand at the gathered company, “These people are wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice”. Leaving me only to dream on.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Exam season has hit. It is very trying and the divide between the girls and the boys has never been more apparent. My daughter, in the middle of her GCSEs has to be dragged away from her studies to eat and breathe. When I picked her up from her maths exam on Monday she was in floods of tears.
“What’s the matter darling?”, I asked, alarmed. This is a child who has had 99% correct answers in all her practise tests and who was, very oddly, looking forward to her exam.
“It was really, really hard”, she sniffled, “It’s knocked my confidence.”
“Sweetheart, couldn’t you do any of it?” I felt very sympathetic, remembering my own maths ‘O’ level exam which took me precisely ten minutes: Three to write my name in my best handwriting and another seven jotting a letter to the examiner apologising for my ineptitude.
“Of course I could. What do you take me for?” she answered crossly. I was driving through Plymouth at this particular juncture, not the most stress-free of situations presently, and so I felt it best to drop the subject and make soothing noises instead.
“I’ll pass” she added, “But unless I get an A* I won’t feel as though I have and my teacher will be very disappointed in me”. Blimey she doesn’t half exert pressure upon herself. Contrast to my son, who far from worrying about getting an A* will be delighted to have found that he’s made it to the hall. I have seen little evidence of burning the midnight oil unless his ‘A’ levels are not, as I thought, in English, History and Politics but are actually in Facebook, YouTube and the bass guitar. If that is so, then his results will be fruitful. The other two young men also seem to have a rather laissez-faire attitude to their studies and do not at any point seem to share my daughter’s zeal and graft. One of them in fact dragged himself from his pit and was out of the door in less than five seconds. No breakfast, no coffee, no hair brushing. I was therefore not all that surprised when he returned an hour later looking rather sheepish.
“You ok?”, I asked
“Um, the exam is this afternoon”. I threw my hands up in despair but at least he’d got it that way around and not missed it. “Let me make you a sandwich”, was all I said.
And so whilst I know, generally speaking, the whereabouts of my eldest offspring and Lost Boys, the youngest two, who, having just learnt to ride their bicycles, have become feral. Various children are ringing the doorbell asking for them to come and play and various children are to be found in my kitchen drinking gallons of squash, hot and bothered by the aforementioned play. Part of me feels that I mustn’t complain; I’d rather them be friends with the kids in the park than hanker over a virtual, make-believe friendship with Hannah bloody Montana but they do seem to be becoming rather streetwise though and the language of the older boys in the park is rather too Anglo-Saxon for the tender ears of two little girls.
The other evening was such a case in point, having languished in bed all day with an appalling migraine that saw me physically sick, I was doing my utmost to recover in time for a Commander’s Wife Official engagement – namely a Mess dinner. I’d thrown some sausages in the oven and then gone in search of them and found them, in the park, long hair flying madly, ill-matching outfits on, bruises up their legs like extras from ER, sitting in a circle trading contraband chewing-gum for God only knows what. Well ok, not exactly contraband but not available in this country either, so I suppose it must have seemed illicit to them. Mindy my American friend had sent a package containing scores of weird and wonderful flavours of chewing-gum. Mint chocolate chip ice-cream to name but one. I broke the syndicate up and dragged them indoors. Various other stragglers arrived to the table and I went upstairs to get ready.
I was not my perky self all evening. I could never be a teetotaller. It’s very dull – all that lovely wine I passed up as I really didn’t want to mortify Hubby by throwing up as he made his speech, but a migraine is a killer, its grip leaves you in a malaise for hours, so I nibbled at my dinner, loyally laughed in all the right places during Hubby’s speech and resolutely adhered to my tumbler of water. The Queen would be proud that, even green at the gills, I did manage a sip of port to toast her with and to wish her husband a happy 90th birthday.
When we withdrew to the dance-floor, it is I who generally suffers from NSDI (non specific dance injury) as I hurl myself around with gay abandon but, this evening would have resulted in a very different hurling had I even attempted a mild jiggle.
“How are your son’s ‘A’ levels going?” asked a woman whose son I know is destined for great things.
“Oh, you know”, I replied breezily.
“They’ve got history tomorrow haven’t they? Mine has been fretting and swotting about it all week. No doubt yours has too?”
“No doubt”, I answered, grimly.
Beside me, shaking a mean hoof was Hubby. I tugged at his sleeve.
“We have to go”, I shouted over The Smiths, “Our son and heir, I have been reliably informed, has an exam in a few hours. I need to make sure he’s in bed.”
At this point another dancer, who had obviously not had a migraine that day but you could bet your bottom dollar would have in the morning, was turning rather green. It was definitely time to leave, but not without thinking, “There by the grace of God go I”.


‘Let the train take the strain’ indeed. What hapless copywriter came up with that slogan? They evidently haven’t ventured on one of National Rail’s trains in recent times, that’s for sure. To be honest I had to Google British Rail to find out what our railways are called these days as no-one I spoke to had any idea.
A simple day out with the kids should have been just that. The sun was shining and, with the teenagers professing an unnatural desire to study for their exams, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of my rail card and take the younger girls for a trip to the sea-side by train. No parking, no worries. I arrived home though a few hours later and took to my bed with a cold compress to get over the strain of taking the train and not, as is advertised, the other way around.
We were in plenty of time at St German’s station and met up with Mags, her children, her parents, their foster children and a very elderly grandfather. When the train pulled into the station, ten minutes late, our mouths dropped open. It was the type of train where one would expect to see Michael Palin, in a panama and furrowed brow, leaning out of the window. It was only two carriages long and its destination was Penzance. Penzance? All that way on a train that seemed to have been derailed from Calcutta? We were herded in, squeezing and apologising as we pushed past people who had been standing from Plymouth and, given the number of passengers on board, it looked as though they would still be there as the train pulled into St Erth. It was diabolical.
Of course, the corralling of us onto the train delayed us, especially when Mag’s grandfather got stuck in the door. The train driver did offer him a taxi to our destination, but to be honest St German’s is hardly Manhattan and I think that it would be fair to say that taxis are rather thin on the ground in a Cornish village. The poor chap looked a little distressed and desperate to stay with his family who were by now, squished down the other end of the carriage with no chance of getting out. So, having been shoe-horned in, the train eventually and with a little laboured ‘chuff’, pulled out of the station. We arrived at Liskeard not much later and decamped to the branch line that would take us to Looe. Between us and the other passengers we were laden with rucksacks, buckets and spades, several children, the odd double buggy and a few, very tiny babies. The atmosphere was mutinous with the realisation that we’d missed the bloody connection to Looe and there was nothing for it other than to sit it out for 50 minutes until another train came to collect us all. We had such a short turn around time that the foster children especially were very disappointed, not only had they never been to the sea-side before, they’d never been on a train; so much for this being the highlight of their half term holiday.
I felt so sorry for them and decided there was nothing for it other than to make a complaint at the station. Evidently it was not the employees of National Rail Liskeard who were to blame, but really, you think that there would be some sort of communication between a branch line and a national network line, especially when one of the employees said to me “It’s like this every half term. We know it’s going to be, I have no idea why they don’t put on a bigger train from Plymouth”.
I was not the only one with a grievance, another woman on the platform making her point both vociferously and emphatically succeeded in persuading the customer services chap to call his supervisor; some big-wig in charge of this area of Cornwall apparently. He, unfortunately, couldn’t speak to us as he was ‘just about to go to a conference’. One has to feel sorry for the employees in these situations, Mr BigWig was able to hide behind a telephone call, yet those working for him were on the front line, having to deal daily with disgruntled customers such as me. No-one could help us and by the time I’d re-joined the party, Mags’s grandpa was puce, had a square of kitchen towel on his head and was sitting in a large flower pot, looking very glum. There was no shade, no refreshments and it goes without saying- there were no spare benches. Mad dogs and Englishmen are not the only ones who go out into the midday sun, so do stranded rail passengers.
By the time the next train arrived and had delivered us to Looe, we had time to unwind our crab lines and shove a sausage roll down. There was hysterics when, on the run back to the train, less than an hour later, the little foster boy’s ice-cream fell out of his cone. We had no time to cajole him or buy him another as the train was already in the station. We’d abandoned Grandpa there. It was all too hot and too much for him. All in all, it was an unmitigated disaster brought about by the incompetency of National Rail. It could have taken me twenty minutes to drive there and with no limitations on when we had to get connections home again. As it transpired it took three hours of journey time for less than an hour of quality sea-side time.
I would not recommend it to the most earnest of rail enthusiasts. The silver lining? Because all four trains were so crowded, the conductor couldn’t get to us and so at least the whole, nightmare journey was free.


Generally speaking I am the dutiful wife and devoted mother, available at all hours to apply balm and nourishment to the body and soul. Occasionally though, I find myself in the position where, for a brief few hours I can shake off the sometimes repressive mantel of maternity and carve out a niche for myself as someone other than wife and mother. This last weekend saw such an opportunity and, not wanting to waste a moment, I applied myself to it with bohemian zeal. Well that’s not entirely true, but in my mind’s eye that is how I saw myself as I climbed the ancient, higgledy-piggledy steps up to the house in Polperro, my pashmina wrapped around my head and billowing in the wind, as I liked to imagine myself, the French Lieutenant’s woman, and not, as I am so often reminded, an English Commander’s Wife.
I paused before I knocked at the door. If I were to walk into a room full of people evocative of the Bloomsbury set, then hadn’t I have a witty one liner to introduce myself with; something droll and intellectual that would create an immediate impression? Unfortunately, I am not that au fait with the wit and wisdom of Virginia Woolf, well apart from, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. To be honest that would have seemed rather a pretentious introduction especially if they were all men and so I thought it best to play safe, so all I said as I pushed the door ajar was, “Hi”.
Once inside I was more inclined think of Channel 4’s Big Brother than anything that Bloomsbury produced. We all rather nervously eyed each other up, gave brief biographies, cracked a few self-deprecating jokes and drank vats of tea. Luckily, as we were hosted and taken care of very well, the awkwardness was only fleeting and soon we were chatting like old friends; the jokes got bawdier and the banter bawdier still and the wine had yet to be opened. I went upstairs to my room and unpacked. The stillness and quiet was extraordinary. For any of us, it is a great privilege to depart our normal milieu for a couple of days, take stock and genuinely look in wonder at our surroundings, and as I turned from putting my make-up on a dressing table, I caught my breath by the view outside my bedroom window.
Rather than have to make the bed, pick up toys, the dirty knickers, the sweet wrappers and other detritus of childhood and teenage life, I just stood and stared, as suggested by that wise old fellow William Henry Davies in his poem ‘Leisure’. He wasn’t kidding. It really is a leisure activity to take time out in the day to stop and just think. Polperro lay beneath me, the closed-down church, the narrow arteries of little interwoven streets, the ancient rooftops and there, in the background of this natural canvas, the harbour wall and the sea beyond. I gave a slight shiver. The sun was shrouded and the sea was rough and flint grey. The sky above looked dark and moody, but this time it did not echo my frame of mind. I just saw it as, if I remember correctly from the media lesson I once taught, a pathetic fallacy – how the weather is used in a movie to suggest emotions. Pouring down for sad bits, stormy to suggest anger and violence, sunny and bright for happiness and love. Well, the pathetic fallacy above Polperro could remain that – a pitiful mistake, I was on a writer’s retreat, emancipated from my regular world and I was not going to let a few storm clouds ruin my mood.
I carried my lap-top downstairs. The earlier banter had quietened. All the other writers were huddled over their own work, lost in their own worlds, kept company by the characters within their imaginations. The only sound that could be heard was the occasional rattling of a sash window by a particularly insistent gust of wind, the gentle tap, tap, tap of the keyboard, or the scratching of head as we all, from time to time searched for the perfect word.
After a few hours of intense writing, we all took time out from our magnum opuses to either chat and learn a little more about each other, or take in a little sea air. By the time we had reconvened our brains were once again salivating with creative juices and we all returned to write until dusk.
Over dinner, wine and a walk to the pub, we got to know each other better still. All of us different, all of us with very different writing styles, but each of us sharing the same faith that after this weekend, we would be buoyed with the confidence of our conviction to submit our novels to various agents.
We left The Blue Peter Inn after only one drink; all of us by now too exhausted for witty repartee and were quite happily walking back to our house, when another of our party saw a door open.
“Let’s gate-crash!” she suggested. The more sedate of our gathering hurried away, whereas I, uplifted by my new found confidence strode into this house as though a legitimate guest. The fourteen gentlemen who sat around the dining table looked up in astonishment to see three unfamiliar women in their midst.
“Hello”, I said, smiling.
Recovering their manners they jumped up and within seconds our glasses were charged with wine as robust as they were: a veteran football team from the outskirts of London, on tour.
If I had come away for the weekend to find inspiration to write then I had not discovered it in the little coves and caves of the Cornish coast, but in a room in a holiday cottage. Fourteen fit, footballing men? Nothing more inspirational for my kind of writing.