Friday, 29 May 2009


To continue my life as a cliche, tonight is quiz night. We used to go to the glossier pub on the corner that was reputedly once owned by Jade Jagger (though why that should add cachet, I'm not sure) with big screen televised football matches, and wonderful food, until the bailiffs came in a month ago and took everything, including the pot plants. Now there are around forty of us crammed into the tiny Greek pub in North Kensington's equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle with the railway line that carries nuclear waste on one side, fronted by a small industrial estate made of corrugated metal, the Westway on the other, and the traveler's camp on the last. It's very picturesque. Richard Curtis doesn't know what he's missing living at the posh end of the Borough, especially now that you can't smoke in there.

Until recently, the Greek landlord completely ignored the smoking ban and stood at the bar with his own ever-present roll-up hanging out of the corner of his mouth. For my smoker friends it was like stumbling across Shangri-la - though the everlasting life connotations may not be particularly apt. There certainly was something quite wickedly illicit about going in for a drink and seeing all these smokers huddled around tables, engulfed in a grey, carcinogenic fug, and the fact that there was, more often than not, usually a motorbike in pieces in the middle of the floor, only added to the quaintness. I can't abide cigarette smoke, so was never as keen as others on the whole bohemian, mechanics workshop thing he had going on, but I'm a total convert now that he's conceded to the law as far as ciggies are concerned, though there's obviously nothing the licensing authorities can do about the motorbikes. No longer in bits, there are a pair of them, leaning against each other like teenage lovers, shiny as beetles, smack bang in the centre of the pub. Sometimes, if there's a big turnout, we can convince him to wheel them outside and people can actually sit down, but it's by no means a certainty.

It's a very convivial evening. We do general (lack of) knowledge, eat lamb rotis (despite being Greek, the landlady is from Trinidad) and have great fun. There's Mark the builder with paint stained jeans who always has a pencil stuck in his long, coiled dreads and seems to have more useless trivia jammed into his brain than I have shoes. He is joined by my neighbour Belie who, mystifyingly, always wears a fur coat, even now, when the temperature is in the 70s, and her husband Fran, who despite hating Abba, knows every single song lyric, all the flags of the world, and can identify countries from their outline. We are joined by a whole host of other locals who share Fran's affinity for useless information - an artist, a film producer (it is Notting Hill darling, even if on the wrong side of the tracks), a woman in the process of ditching her husband whose son drums at 6am which elicits faint homocidal tendencies and a great many teachers whose average age is 12.

At the other pub there was a team of footballers who rocked up at the last minute, half way through the first round,and cockily got the mental arithmetic question in 2 seconds, and the anagram, and consequently always ruddy won. Week after week after week. I can't protest too much as my sole contribution is to sit there and pretend the answer is on the tip of my tongue when a team-mate gets the answer. I can't remember where I've put my Oyster card, let alone who starred in The Big Lebowsky which, in any case, I've slept through four times. And even when I do know the answer, I'm too shy to insist that I'm right.

Mark says, 'Be more assertive, Marion' and points his sharp little pencil at me, which, strangely, is not as encouraging as he thinks.

Our team scraped in at second a couple of times (prize - a bottle of wine which, if you've been sitting there drinking all night is not that welcome) while the footballers with their ham hock legs and dirty socks, always got the Sunday lunch for six. It was really disheartening. Especially as they came in specially from Ealing.

And then the posh pub went into receivership and we all defected to the Greek tavern. Suddenly, the evening became even more fun as, amazingly, without the footballers, we started to win the occasional game.

Okay, the prize is a bottle of champagne that is more of a punishment to drink, warm, at the end of a long boozy night, than a prize, but victory is, finally, very, very sweet (as, indeed is the fizz).

I confess I did see the crowd of footballers peering in the window of the bankrupt pub as I walked past the other night. I tried to hurry by but one of them spotted me and asked me what had happened to the place.

'Oh it's shut down,' I said innocently and walked on, failing to mention that I was on my way to another, nicer, pub two hundred yards down the road with a fully functioning quiz night. In fact, as we reminisced over our goat rotis and warm winner's plonk, that the one consolation for losing our fancy local is that those ruddy footballers won't be ever able to cash in their Sunday lunch for six.

Pulling strings

The eldest has her boyfriend, a classical guitarist whom she met in France, staying for what seems to be a month, and suddenly I'm a gooseberry. 

In the sitting room where I usually sit forlorn and alone after failing to persuade anyone to join me in there to watch a film on the big HD screen ('we all prefer the kitchen, it's less gloomy,' they say as she and her sister crowd round a laptop streaming The Hills at 20 pixels with Japanese subtitles scrolling along the bottom of the picture) has, overnight, become desirable place for a twin mount to snuggle up on the sofa in front of a DVD.  The other day I found myself asking if they minded if I sat in there.  I should have taken the firmly closed door as a hint.

'When will you be back?' she asks me as I put my coat on to go to Tom Standage's booklaunch (in the boardroom on the 14th floor of the Economist building, no less).  I must look a little perplexed at the question.  Nobody has asked me what time I'll be home since my mother died. 

'Erm, later...'  I reply.

'Yeah, but when?  Before ten, after ten?' 

Dear God, I think, what activity are they worried I'm going to catch them in.  And then I stop thinking.  My seventeen year old is barricaded in her room with her 'friend' and the Son has his girlfriend stay over all the time. It's not fair that the only people having intimate contact in my house are my children.

'I dunno, later, when it's finished...'  I just manage to stop myself shrugging my shoulders and slamming the front door by reminding myself that I'm not a teenager.

'Do you mind if we have some of your wine?' she calls to my back.

'No, help yourself, ' It's Chateau Plonk from that great Sainsbury's winebox vintage about which a newly divorced bloke I met in the pub last night said understandingly, and with feeling,  'you know it's always there,' so I can't say no - though, as the man said - the whole point of these is the reassuring knowledge that you have it, on tap, as it were.  So when I return early at nine thirty - I'm a good mother, I always stick to my curfew, there they are, the two love birds, washing-up (the Designer's Guild plates) companionably, with the kitchen table still set with a couple of my best glasses, some cut flowers from the garden, and presumably a fair whack of my emergency alcohol.

I hang around like the bride's ex-boyfriend at a Stag do while they continue washing-up, eyes not quite meeting mine.

'Did you have a good time?'  She asks, eventually, with a deep sigh.

'Yes, it was great fun, amazing view, lots of men in blue shirts, it was like...'  but then I realise that she's just being polite and the two of them are waiting patiently for me to push off.  I shuffle off up to my bedroom.  It's quarter to ten and I'm in bed.  Alone.  My daughter is downstairs playing houses with her handsome boyfriend drinking my wine, eating my food, in my sitting room...  What happened to my life?  Thankfully the phone rings.  It's my own romantic interest who has been swimming with his son, read him a story and put him to bed.  I'm half-ashamed to tell him that I'm tucked up at the same time as his kid, albeit without the story...

Next day she calls me at work to ask if I've left money for the cleaner and her bedroom door is firmly closed when I come in.  I make my way back up to my bedroom to which I seem to have been banished.  She intercepts me on the stairs.

'What are you doing tonight?'

'I'm not sure.'

'Dad mentioned he might come round.'

'Yes, he wanted to see me before he went off to The Hague (ie his girlfriend who doesn't live anywhere near the Hague but I pretend to believe the fiction of 'work' and in any case, I've got my own weekend plans which as just as little of his business and his are to me).

'It's a bit awkward, him coming round, you know, with Lotharia being here...'

'Okay, I'll tell him not to come.'

'So will you be at home?'

'I don't know, probably.  I might go to the cinema.'

In her place I would have given me twenty quid and sent me off, but I'm the mother.  I know when I'm not wanted so I go to see Star Trek, pay for myself and get back to hear a faint soundtrack coming from the sitting room with the door, once again firmly closed.

It's been a week now and I realise I still haven't actually spoken to this chap so finding the sofa unusually empty, I sit myself down, feet on table, flip open the laptop and start working.

Daughter, incredibly soliticiously brings me a cup of tea.

'Where's Lothario?'

'In the kitchen, I didn't tell him to come through.'

'Well don't leave him out there on his own.  Ask him in.'

Reluctantly she calls him, and in he slouches with a shy smile.  The two of them sitting side by side on the other couch like a Victorian couple with a chaperone - me being the chaperone.

'So, Lothario,' I begin and commence my gentle interrogation.  He lives alone with his mother.  He's half Chinese and half French.  He studied engineering.  He can mend taps (we have a leaking one...)

'And I hear you are also a classically trained guitarist?' I add.

'Yes,' he agrees enthusiastically, 'I can play the piano, the violin, the clarinet, the guitar, anything really...  It's my ambition to have a whole room full of instruments and to be able to play them all.

I laugh and tell him that we had the opposite - a whole room of instruments and nobody able to play a note - a piano, three recorders, a drum-kit, a trumpet, and three guitars...

Daughter winces - she doesn't want me to highlight our family's musical inability but Lotharia jumps in.

'You have a guitar!  Really.  You didn't tell me you had a guitar!  I'd love to see it.  It's been ages since I touched a guitar...'  He beams at daughter.  'Can you get it out for me?'  She looks dubious. 

'I think we gave them all away.'

'Oh no, there's the Spanish accoustic one in the attic and the electric one is in Son's room, and I think my brother's old beaten up 6 string is actually in your bedroom on top of the wardrobe.' 

She looks at me furiously, miming that I should shut up.

'What's wrong?' I say guilelessly, then turn to Lotharia and tell him he has my full permission to go up into the attic or indeed any room in the house and find himself a guitar.  Two seconds later he has disappeared to the accompanying sound of rummaging, returning with my brother's guitar on which, after five minutes tuning, he begins to play Bach's Air on a G String, followed by Fields of Barley by Sting.

It is bliss.

I'm really quite sorry when my friend Nel comes to collect me for our daily walk. 

'Gosh, he's a bit of a find, isn't he.  So good looking too,' she congratulates me as we leave to the strains of Cavatina.

'Mum, why did you tell him about the guitars?' daughter hisses to me at the door.  'Don't you remember me telling you that I didn't want him to know we had any?  Now he'll sit and play obsessively for hours and I'll never get any attention.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry, love, I completely forgot.'

Shame, huh?

I might not be musical but I know how to play with what I have...

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Walk of shame...

What can I say about the last week?   Perhaps I might say that it's not a good idea to turn up to a hotel carrying two large bags, one of which makes loud clinking sounds, and then forget the surname of the person you are meeting.  In my defence I could say that the clinking was merely cutlery, and the name, which I nearly got right, had only slipped my mind because I was nervous and that, anyway, I forget the name of people I've known all my life - but that may not convince you any more than it did the hotel receptionist who obviously thought I had been bought off the internet for the evening. 

Moving swiftly on...

Friday, 22 May 2009

Money's worth...

I got an email from a man whom I met a couple of months ago for a coffee, and then never heard from again.  He said he hadn't asked me again out because - and this is a direct quote 'I sounded a bit cross about my ex.'

I was shocked.  First of all to hear from him after all this time, and secondly because of the allegation that I had seemed cross.  Not ruddy cross enough, was my first thought.  I'm remarkably forgiving, considering, a point that even the ex concedes. 

It's the man's job that's really the problem.  Completely coincidentally he's a divorce lawyer and with all his previous girlfriends who, surprise surprise after the age of 40, have all been in the process of disentangling from their spouses, he's been expected to act as unofficial council.  He didn't fancy reprising the role with me.

Not that I asked him to, I hasten to add.

It's a bit of a occupational hazard, I would think, being a divorce lawyer who dates, but I sympathised.  A lot of the men I meet can't even wait until the second date before they tell me about 'their novel' and frankly, even if I had the power to publish them, there's nothing more guaranteed to make me want to go to the loo and make a run for it. If they told me they dressed in Edwardian undergarments and liked tropical fish there would be more of a likelihood that I might at least pretend interest.

But he had me on the defensive, a place I'm so used to being I should really get a mortgage instead of just renting.  I thought very long and hard about what he said.  I don't think I was really that cross about my ex.  Am I horribly bitter?  What an awful thought.  I seem to remember being asked about him, and perhaps I latched a little too eagerly on to the subject given that, at this point, the man had been talking about buying a pair of second hand shoes from Oxfam for the previous 20 years (this came on top of a long telephone call in which he itemised all the DVDs he owned but hadn't watched) and I was almost ready to stab him in the eye with a fork.  I remember floundering with that awful stomach curdling feeling (that he was also, apparently experiencing, but for different reasons) that accompanies the panic of realising you have absolutely nothing in common with the person you are with and the coffee hasn't even arrived.

'What do you think?' I asked the shrink I've been seeing since I did my pre-Clinical MA in shrinkie things and who sort of stuck, long after my desire to be a psychotherapist.  'Do I really sound that angry with the ex?  You listen to me at regular intervals - am I Mrs, or rather ex-Mrs Angry?'

She remained impassive as I sat nervously opposite her in the Scorpion's tail of her Eames Chair.  'Let me get this straight,' she said eventually  'So this man bored you the only time you met, and months later wrote and told you that he didn't ask you out again because you were cross about your ex-husband?'  .


'And initally he was the one who  sought you out?'


'Well, fuck him,' she said succinctly.  'Really, just fuck him!'

'Or not,' I responded as she tried to repress a smile.

I beamed at her in relief.

Ach, people think that therapy isn't worth the money.  Believe me, it is.  It really, really is.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Very cross body turn

I'm becoming a walking cliche. Or should I say dancing cliche. My friend Andrew and I used to go to a sweaty dance hall together every week until life got difficult and neither of us felt much like dancing. But now my daughter, newly returned from France, has dragged me back there.

And so we shuffle in to the familiar back room of a bar in Chiswick High Street where a photograph of Al Murray leers at us from the brick walls and a short man in a headscarf, tied pirate-style, is wiggling up the middle of the floor holding the hand of a tall muscled guy with a shaved head who then turns neatly underneath his arm then sweeps the man in a headscarf into a dip. Welcome to Salsa dancing.

Nothing much has changed in a year. The guy with the muscles is a naked chef who makes his living being hired out for novelty dinner parties where he cooks wearing only an apron. It must surely be against Health & Safety, but I don't suppose the people who employ him really care about hygiene. He's also a Hip Hop dancer and goes through his salsa steps trying hard not to grab his crotch. As the roof fills up I recognise lots of other faces, including my son's old physics teacher and around about a dozen white, middle class, middle aged men who dance as though they were doing really skilled DIY and can't take their eyes off their task to talk to you in case the drill slips. Sometimes I really wish the drill would slip. That conceited, white-man overbite is not something you want to spend too much time contemplating - but you have to watch their faces closely while you dance to try and figure out what they want you to do. In my case that would be to disappear.

I do a beginners class to keep my daughter company - I am pleased to see I am neither the fattest nor the oldest. There's even a woman of about 65 wearing pearls. The warm-up involves moving in a circle while grinding your hips with bent knees like you're scantily clad and starring in a rap video - but with West London housewives in twin sets. I want to die. This is something no kid ever needs to see. I imagine my own 1950s apron-clad mother standing on a dance floor shaking her shoulders and swinging her hips to Reggaeton. It should get you on the Child Protection Register. Nevertheless I do the steps, and try not to catch my daughter's eye. It's not difficult. She's looking at the floor waiting for it to swallow her up.

This music's Reggaeton, she slides up to me and hisses in my ear.

I know.

How do you know? She's mystified.

We did classes last year when Andrew and I went to Lille (and yes, reader, I admit - it was for a Salsa weekend - once upon a time we were that keen).

Mother! What? You did Reggaeton?

No, I did a class - I didn't say I could do it.

Mercifully the music ends. Then it's time for the three scariest words in the English language . If you were lucky enough not to go to a Scottish Primary school in the seventies you probably don't get the awful flashbacks that the words 'find a partner' conjour up in a woman who began to hit her modest height when she was ten and all prospective partners looked like tiny Subuteo players with their shirts tucked into their gym shorts, except that their feet didn't rock from side to side. No, instead they dragged. Especially at partner picking time. Nor were there enough boys to go round. I was tall. You can guess the rest. It's a mystery why I still like dancing. By rights, a decade of The Gay Gordons and Canadian Barn Dances being a boy, dancing with the girl nobody else picked should have traumatised me for life. Instead, there I am thirty odd years later still paired up with a man who comes up to my chest who I could snap like a twig between my thighs, but at least this time around, I don't have to lead.

That's the theory anyway.

'This is one time when you ladies don't have any free will.' says the instructor - a russet-haired girl in a crop top who has obviously never married or had small children if she thinks we don't understand that concept. 'You may not do anything unless the man lets you. You cannot move unless the man tells you to.' It sounds like Islam. ' Now men, you have to lead. You have to be masterful and let your partner know what you want from her.'

Huh. If only. Be still my beating heart. I can't tell if it's from excitement or exertion.

The men, a motley crew ranging from the very, very tall bespectacled, round shouldered shy ones who've come for a laugh instead of going to the pub to watch football (so possibly are also gay) to the octogenarian with a huge stomach spilling over his belted trousers that looks like the bulge of West Africa, laugh nervously.

Exertion, then.

Another who I will soon discover is Dutch and very nimble despite being egg shaped and about five feet tall, has wonderfully cold hands having nabbed the prize spot under the air conditioner, while yet another has obligatory chest hair, blinding white teeth, and has been dancing for three weeks so thinks he's super-hot stuff. He tells me I should take smaller steps as he whacks me in the chest with his elbow for the fifth time. I smile and tell him if he does that once more I will take a big step right between his legs.

'Men,' the instructor entreats, 'You can expect the ladies to run around you in a circle - you're not training ponies. You have to hold them closer. Salsa is all about body contact.' Half the room recoils - the half wearing deodorant. 'You need to wash, slap on some Right Guard guys, wear cologne, gargle, chew gum, brush your teeth - the whole works - and then pull the woman close. I'm minty-fresh, wearing Joy at 145 quid for 15ml, and so I hope I've passed the fragrance test. The man I'm dancing with, a sweet-faced Asian chap with a tonsure, a comb-over, and clammy hands, smiles shyly and continues to hold me a foot away as he swings me round. I might as well have bells on my harness, and be trotting round a ring at the end of a leading reign.

Eventually I work my way round to the physics teacher.

'I haven't seen you here for ages,' he says looking straight into my eyes with his own piercing blue ones as, for three blessed minutes, we are perfectly in synch and I can follow his lead, rarely losing eye contact, as he sweeps me into a serpentine hold and spins me out again. He asks after my son. I tell him he's at university now. We cross body turn into a copa.

'Stick your hips out ladies,' yells the instructor. Ah well, that's never been a problem for me. 'Hands on the waist men, not on the ribcage, not on the bum, not on the thighs, the waist, the waist!' She crosses the room and removes a plate-sized fist from a shoulder and pulls it firmly down. 'Don't you have any idea of anatomy?' She shakes her head in disbelief.

The physics teacher and I are dancing blithely on, eyes locked, his fingertips pressed on my back pulling me right up against him as we pivot twice without missing a beat. He probably did biology and chemistry A level. He definitely knows exactly where to put his hands.

Unfortunately, he also has a boyfriend called Frank.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Educating Nemo

On the bus at 8am, sitting next to a girl with

carefully inked in felt tip pen on the same spot on her arm that a sailor would have a tattoo. The mother in me wants to tell her she should be wearing a cardie in case she catches her death of cold. Then I see she has death written across her knuckles. Except with her thumb folded into a fist, it just says 'eath'. Her hair is even less of a stranger to peroxide than mine and she's chatting animatedly in loud lithping, totally incomprehensible, Spanish to an enormously fat leather-clad Goth sitting opposite. You'd think it would be 'muerte' if she's Spanish but I suppose there aren't enough digits on the hand (this is the sort of thing I worry about on the bus - I'm under stimulated).

Sandwiched sort of between us is Posh Man in dark pin stripe suit with a face like a cartoon fish, and his son, smaller version of the same but in the red blazer of nearby Pre-Prep school once attended by the ginger Prince. So Marlin, behind a copy of the FT, and Nemo(keep up with your Disney Films now) reading Raj and Kit go to the Shop sit in silence, wincing.

I get out my neat, pretty hardback of Anatomy of Wings and commence trying to read but I just can't concentrate. I've had what seems like two hours sleep and can barely focus my eyes. My phone beeps. I dredge it out from the bottom of the handbag and see it's from Louise with 'So' in the body text followed by several question marks. I'm in a world of babble, so despite the early hour I abandon the book and call her back.

'Where are you, there's a lot of background noise.'

'Sitting on the bus.'

'It sounds like you're in a fish market in Barcelona.'

'It feels like it too.'

'So?' she asks again.

I hate chatting in public, but since all sounds are being drowned out by Signorina Alien Sex Fiend, I figure it's fine to let rip as nobody can possibly hear me with the voiceover next to me. I tell her that her show was magnificent, her photographs amazing, and apologise for leaving early. Then I raved about my Italian and American book jackets - both of which arrived that morning before bragging about my daughter getting into to Oxford to do her Ph D. Louisa can't understand why another three costly years of higher education is anything to celebrate but she doesn't live at home with her adult daughter. She unfurls her banner and waves it anyway.

Alien Sex Fiend mercifully gets off the bus at Portobello Road and a blessed hush falls over the bus. I am now a lone voice on the top deck.

'Erm, I should probably go now, let you get up and on with your day (lucky cow, still lying in bed).'

'No, no, don't go. You haven't told me what you thought of him...'

'Erm, who?' I asked feigning ignorance, suddenly realising that she might not be in bed alone. I shuddered.


I consider pretending that I don't know that's she's talking about smug, bearded ecologist Smurf from last night but I can see this will not fly. I have two choices. I can tell her he's door furniture or lie and say he's wonderful and then be subjected to another month of her being upset every time he lets her down. No, really, I only have one choice.

I make it; rather succinctly.

There is a shocked silence on the other end of the phone after my short appraisal and also, I realised, with a sinking heart, on the bus. Nemo and Marlin both lowered their reading material and Nemo, temporarily distracted from his school textbook in which Raj buys sweets in four letter words of one syllable, suddenly acquires a whole new and extensive vocabulary of similarly curt and easy to pronounce nouns with one verb.

I bury my head into Anatomy of Wings as though I can do two things at once and redeem myself with an interest in literature.

Marlin shakes his newspaper as if it were my neck and resumes his perusal of stocks and shares.

Louisa is protesting more vocally. 'I like him, he's very flirtatious, so complimentary... '

'Is he there with you now?'

'No, he told me he had an early meeting in the morning and left after the exhibition. He wouldn't even come to dinner.'

'So rather than come home with you, he left to get up early for his meeting?'

'Yes, but he sent me a lovely text this morning.'

'But Louisa, how many times has he stood you up?'

'I know, but...'

Ah the old 'I know, but' logic. I know it well myself. Frankly, without it I wouldn't have had a single relationship in the last year, let alone still being 'friends' with my ex husband. So I give in, and change the subject to our mutually exciting weekend plans. She's gardening and I have a plasterer coming in. Big whoop. No wonder we rely on the 'I know buts'.

While I've been speaking there's been a steady string of automated announcements as we approach, stop and leave every bus stop. 'Number Seven, says the woman, delightedly, to Russell Square... Westbourne Grove... This bus is being held here, temporarily to improve the flow of the service... The destination of this bus has changed.' Damn it. These ruddy buses hijack me on a daily basis, deciding to detour around New Oxford Street, or stop, for no good reason at Paddington.

I cough and ask Marlin politely: 'Excuse me, but did they happen to say what the new destination was? I must have missed the announcement.'

'Quite,' he said, sniffily, unfolding himself to disembark and looking down his nose at me like a distainful giraffe as he ushered out little Nemo for a hard day's cramming at Wetherby School for Future Stockbrokers of Tomorrow. In today's economic climate, mate, I imagine his increased vocabularly would only come in useful. Really, he should be thanking me. My sons learned to curse from the Rev VW Awdry listening to Thomas the Tank Engine at bed time.

Oh, yes.

The fat controller. Say it fast, repeatedly and imagine you're five.

It took some explaining to the teacher.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Hubble Bubble

For reasons that escape any sense or logic except that she's a Scandanavia-phile, my photographer friend Louisa is having a group exhibition with some Norwegians in a disused shop in a part of London that takes longer to reach by tube than it would to fly to Oslo.  I have to go.  No question.  Living out on the misery line she thinks that anywhere within the M25 is London and since, therefore I am local, I have no excuse but to be at her opening.

Despite being displayed in an area surrounded by tower blocks and boarded up buildings, the photographs are all about nature and natural forms.  Louisa's are mostly very beautiful (this is my opinion even without the gun she has to my head) ghostly, silvery shots of the Thames Estuary, though what the Norwegians are shooting, I couldn't say with any conviction - until, unfortunately, they start explaining them, in long, slow, pained, very pained, halting, heavily accented English.

I drag my daughter through the swinging door on a hinge so tight it threatens to eat us as it clamps us shut in its gummy jaws.  I can hear a deathly almost-silence as I reach for the glass of warm white on an almunium tray, narrowly avoiding one that's been half drunk and replaced, with a lipstick mark imprinted on the rim.  Daughter doesn't drink.  Fool.  She doesn't know what she's in for.  You need alcohol to stop you screaming at the endless, earnest Q&A which I can't really begrudge the artists, since they have poured their body and soul into their work. but nevertheless, I do. Deeply, deeply begrudged. The alcohol numbs the pain but doesn't, however, stop the tears of boredom trickling out of the corner of my eyes as though I'd been cutting onions, rather than yawning so hard it hurts.

I spot Liz and Geraldine huddled as far out of earshot as possible, near where the till would have been when this was a shop that sold stuff people actually wanted instead of empty and abandoned to arty high res pictures of loofahs at point blank range.

'I thought we'd arrived late enough to avoid the speeches.'   Liz hissed wearily into my ear.

'Me too. I saw the ambassador's car driving away so I figured we'd missed the formalities. My daughter's going to kill me if this goes on much longer.  I only got her here by promising I would go Salsa dancing with her afterwards.'  Liz's eyes widened momentarily as she struggled not to look surprised/shocked/appalled at the vision developing in her head of  a mother and daughter Salsa outing.  But she's a journalist and used to looking impassive when being told strange things.  'It's a class not a club,' I added, trying to reassure her.

Not sure it worked.

We huddled together while my daughter, well brought up girl that she is, went around the room to examine the loofahs.

A short rosy faced Norwegian woman in a caftan, wearing very white socks and rugged sandals was talking about her photographs:  '...em, yes, I em, cut up the prints, em, but not with the scissors, but with the hands, and then I exposed them, em, a little the elements...'

Lots of  nodding and stroking of invisible beards, except for one man in stonewashed denim who actually did have one.

'Louisa has some bloke here,' whispered Liz.

'Yes he asked me what my measurements were, can you imagine the cheek,' said Geraldine, 'I nearly said to him, as big as your d...'

' you always work with landscape?'  A silver haired man with a remarkable resemblance to Leonard Nimmoy without the Spock ears, wearing a sixties ensemble of white jacket and black rollneck sweater asked, sticking his microphone under the nose of another photographer.  This one was dressed in several clashing shades and patterns of livid green, with the same ruddy complexion. These Norwegians spend a lot of time outside in the elements judging by their complexions, either that or they are all drunk too.

'...em, at one time I worked with... em the fire until em... the town firemen were em... thinking em... the house was burning and they came with the axes.'

I looked hopefully at the door.  No firemen.

More sage nodding.

'So who's the man she's brought - it's not the one she met at the clinic is it?  He was Norwegian.' I muttered.

'What clinic?'  Ah... Liz doesn't know that story, I realised, moving swiftly on...

'What about the old guy she's seeing - the one who's 69 but still has hair?'

'No, he hasn't arrived yet.  It's the ecologist - remember, the one who has been messing her around for mothers.  He's always standing her up with the lame excuses.  The one she cooked the pheasants for and he didn't turn up.  There he is,' she pointed to the one in the stonewashed denim jacket with the little beard and smug expression.

We all turned and examined him.

'Pratt.'  we hissed in disapproving unison, and glowered.  If it was a modern interpretation of Hamlet with the three witches wearing Salsa shoes and twirly skirt (me) floral frocks, red stillettos (Liz) and - Geraldine dressed like Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, then we would be perfectly cast.

'I wish they would stop speechifying long enough for me to slap him.' I said.

We continued glaring at him.

Even Louisa looked wearied by the speeches but seeing us pinning our laser beams of destruction on her ecologist love-interest, rallied and beamed back at us from the far reaches of the room, where she was wedged behind more ruddy (in the florid sense) Norwegians.

She waved and the ecologist turned and smiled at us.

I was reminded of a married friend telling me over the weekend that she and her husband were involved in a massive DIY project which was making him, shall we say a tad, irritable.

'So how's it going,' I asked when she came round to my house for a tea break rather earlier one morning than I usually see her.

'Well, I gave him breakfast this morning and as I said to him, "Darling, would you like another piece of toast?" and then as handed him two slices, buttered, with strawberry jam, smiling sweetly, I thought to myself - I hope they bloody choke you.'

Ah marriage - as Chris Rock says 'If you haven't contemplated murder, you ain't been in love.'

I raised my glass in a mock toast and smiled back.

That also applies to listening to your girlfriends talk about their lame lovers.  Hell hath no fury than the friend of a woman scorned.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Park Life

My daily constitutional is a several brisk circuits of the local park. One visit to the local park would acquaint you with the need for briskness. Little Wormwood Scrubs. The words fairly trip off the tongue, don't they? Central Park, Kensington Gardens and Little Wormwood Scrubs? Yep, the name says it all. It is scrubby. It backs on to the Channel Tunnel Railway Engineering Yards, complete with razor wire, and though they recently, in the spirit of beautification, landscaped the furthest reaches of the park beside the fence, you would have to have rocks in your head, on in a crack pipe, to want to step off the main path.

One never raises one's eyes when walking round the Little Scrubs. You can't, otherwise you fall into the pot holes in the track. Similarly, when crossing the grass, there's the added handicap of dog dirt and huge, cavernous pits that opened up mysteriously during the drought two years ago, and have never been filled in.

The dogs too are a hazard. There is the occasional poodle or pretty little bow-tied terrier, but the trend around these parts tends to be Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Mastiffs, with or without muzzles, but usually running free, smoking the odd roll-up. It's a walk on the wild side.

My companion Nel wasn't keen on walking tonight, but I dragged her as a prelude to inviting myself to supper after first promising not to fall into her flowerbeds again. It was deserted - always a worry, and in this case, surprising - not because of the lack of marauding dogs, clumps of local rude boys and tattooed thugs sitting with cans of special brew from which they let the let the Alsatians sip, or the chap in the electric wheelchair who zips round drinking lager, but because it was a lovely day.

There was one courting couple of about 13 smoking on a bench and one cross woman with a scruffy little terrier, jogging, but otherwise we didn't see another soul until half way through the first circuit when we ran into the inevitable drunk.

'Hello Mum,' he yelled - it's unclear to which one of us (I was hoping it was Nel - I mean, I'm old but not that ruddy old) as he then peered into my chest and said, 'You always look nice, don't you?' This from a drunk who I've never met before. It's the best compliment I've had in a while, but nevertheless the brisk walk became a trot to try and shake him off as we muttered something cheerily inoffensive and carried on our way.

'I don't get men,' Nel began as we started the second circuit after telling me about her cousin whose lover 'didn't want to waste her time' after he'd already wasted quite a lot of her time, most of it horizontal, saying there was 'no magic'.   Who did he think he was going out with?  Debbie McGee? A comment like that is always going to make you feel good about yourself after you've, literally, bared all.  And now he sends her text messages telling her what he's doing with his new girlfriend. 'I mean who does they pursue you like you're a hare on a greyhound track and then when you think you might, just might go out with them, then suddenly they have a skin condition that doesn't let them go out in daylight, or after 400 text messages they tell you they are too gloomy to inflict their company on you, or when they do call you, they hang up to call their mother, like you're second last on the duty phone call.'

I nodded.  I couldn't speak, we had picked up quite a pace and I was panting. And anyway it was Nel's turn - we do alternate days for our monologues by now and I knew that little beyond assent was required of me.

She was well into her stride, both on the despair and walking front, when half way through the second round we came across drunk man still standing where we left him, still holding his can of Red Stripe as though it were a microphone and he was going to give us a rendition of My Way.

Eyes down.

'Hello Mum,' he called again, the curls around his head sticking out like uneven bedsprings, smiling as if a blearily game show host, and seeming to have too many teeth in one side of his mouth, or several unchewed chicklets.

'Hmmo,' we said in unison, trying to make our feet move faster.

'I don't want a relationship,' he called after us, loudly.

'Good for you,' Nel said quietly.

'Nah, I don't want a commitment. I'm not into it, like. If I don't fancy a woman, then I don't fancy a woman, and that's that - end of story, man, I'm just not ready for a relationship.'

Deja bloody vu, I'm thinking.

'Righie oh,' Nel agreed.

'I mean, I've had women - I've had lots of women, but I've had enough at the moment. I don't want a relationship and that's that.'

No comment seemed necessary.

'I'm Moroccan. I love women, you know - I treasure a woman. When I'm into a woman I really take care of her, but this one - I just told her, look, I'm not into you, girl - I'm just not ready for a relationship - get over it right?'

'Right,' we say, our legs little cartoon blurs, but for an intoxicated nutter, he could sure walk fast.

'You're a nice girl, Mum. I know you're a mum. I can see you're a mum (how - he's drunk for God's sake - is it cos I's old?) I'm a dad. I got a 17 year old daughter, and I told her, I'm not into a relationship and I don't want to bloody marry her mum. Are you married, Mum?'

I'm confused with all these mums.

'Oh yes, definitely,' I agreed, hurriedly reinstating the ex, having to grudgingly allow that both Nel and I, merged into one large blurry, double visioned woman, did answer to the name Mum.

'Is he good to you. Does he love you. Does he hit you?'

'No!' I gasped, outraged. Darn it, he's got me sticking up for my imaginary husband.

'He's a wonderful man, very kind,' supplied Nel. I shot her a look. She's supposed to be on my side. She shrugged and mouthed 'humour him'.

'Nah, you should leave him, tell him to eff off, he's no good for you, Mum. You're better off on your own, love. I'm not married. Look at me. I'm not bothered.'

By now we were leaving the park and he was still trailing behind us, falling over his feet but managing somehow to keep upright, the can of Red Stripe hovering near his mouth like a wobbly puppet as though someone up above had his hand attached to a string.

'But I'm sorry, I'm just not into a relationship, not-into-it and don't bother trying to make me change my mind.'

We didn't.

'Have a nice night,' we said firmly, setting off for home and hoping desperately that he wouldn't follow us.

'I always do - I'm not married, see!' he said jubilantly.

Yep, I see. Even the ruddy drunks we meet in the park are commitment phobes.

Things not to do at a wedding.

This story does not reflect well on me.  But I share it only as evidence that the Wedding of the Year, that of our lovely Lauren - Production Controller - to her fiance Xavier, was a wonderful night.

Working in a company of  primarily young women means that an office outing is a curious affair.  Dresses appear behind the doors of those who have them, and when we key off at five thirty, the otherwise fairly sober corridors of Pedantic turn into a Sorority House as women queue for the limited facilities, frocks draped over their arms like swooning heroines.  There's a great deal of handle rattling as some of us take rather longer than others to arrange themselves into shape (okay me) and even the upstairs loo with the door that doesn't lock is pressed into service with a post it note saying:

stuck on the door.  Desks are cleared of great works of literature and make up mirrors appear.  Heels are whisked out of bags and everyone shoots up 3 inches so that when the phone dares to ring at 6.05 and we are flocked by the front door,  frocked up and lipsticked, ready to hit Happy Hour at the Zetter, we all look at it, affronted.  Don't you know we have a wedding to get to - albeit with three manuscripts wedged into Mathilda's bag and editorial notes for Why Steve was Late inside Sarah's.

The wedding was lovely.  The bride, as expected on such occasions, looked even more amazing and beautiful than she usually does with her killer peroxide blonde hair and matching dress - for all the world like she had been made out of icing sugar.  There was singing - an Icelandic folk song whose introduction and explanation seemed to take even longer than the many verses and choruses, and then someone tuned up a guitar and played all those songs that no-one under thirty should know but nevertheless, do, and can sing along with word perfect.  Some supposedly ironic Pulp Fiction, hitchhicking, swimming, drowning, type dancing took place.  At least I assume others meant it ironically.  I wish I could say the same for myself.  Sadly, when I dance my kids fall about laughing and make me promise that this isn't really how I deport myself in public.  And then I really try to ham it up with faux rap/Pussy Cat Doll movements and, astonishingly, they can't tell the difference from my ordinary dance steps.  It's deeply worrying and they have traumatised me so that I can hardly bring myself to jiggle from one foot to the other in case I'm committing some crime against common decency.  But then, this was a wedding.  Mums are supposed to dance like Mums at a Wedding - nobody really needs to know it's your default setting.

However, the problem with any occasion that requires movement if you're a woman, is what do you do with your handbag.  Men, though they're saddled with suits, have those incredibly useful inside pockets for tucking loose change and credit cards into, while women have stupid little bags that are neither use nor ornament, as my ever practical mother used to say.  She was never seen without a bag big enough for a fortnight in Blackpool.

I have another solution because, if you think about it, we already have two inside pockets whatever outfit we happen to be wearing into which you may not want to stuff your housekeys, depending on how much you have packed in there already, but are more than adequate for - say - a folded twenty pound note with perhaps a pair of glasses, slipped under the hydraulics.  I'm not the only woman to use a necessary undergarment as a storage facility.  At Seb Hunter's book launch there was a guest who used her bra like Mary Poppins' carpet bag - when her phone rang she patted each breast until she found the one where it was wedged (not set to vibrate, obviously) and pulled out all sorts of things while I was speaking to her including a small purse and a fountain pen.  I was half expecting a rabbit, a pair of doves, and one of those long chains of silk squares that magicians specialise in.

So there you have me with my emergency twenty quid safely secreted away.  Shuffling gently to I can't stand you now... (Odd choice for a wedding, but I merely hummed along, not chose the play list) and I noticed my glass was empty.  I approached the bar where an uncle (one assumes) told me with his hand patting me very familiarly (as he introduced me to his wife) that I would attract the wrong sort of man with that sort of dancing (comatose presumably).  I ordered another glass of white and got out my cash praying that it would cost a nice round fiver so I wouldn't have to contend with any change.  It didn't.  Unfortunately.

The evening progressed in high spirits.  More dancing ensued.  Girls walzed with girls due to the dearth of men.  There were numerous group pictures.  A video circulated of Sachna, aka our Publishing Manager, competing for the bouquet like it was a contact sport.  Needless to say she succeeded.   If there's a God the clip is going to be posted on You Tube.

And then finally Alan, our Production Director sang the blues, complete with mournful mouth organ. Let it not be said that Pedantic People are not multi-talented.

We sat down to finish off the canapes.  And that's when I noticed it.

I whispered to Lyns, my across the office colleague.  'I'm going to show you something that may not make any sense now, but later - when you read the blog - all will be clear.'

'What are you talking about?'  She asked, swirling her ice in highball glass with the teeny straw - drinking gin and tonic since she claimed to have had enough wine (?)

I took her hand.

'I love you too,' she muttered, looking just a little taken aback - I think she had also had a run-in with uncle earlier in the evening, 'but not like that...'

'Shhh, feel that,' I said and placed her hand on my knee.

'What is it?' she asked, reluctantly and then as her finger traced the outline of my leg the penny, or rather the fifty pence piece, dropped as she felt the heptagon that, mystifying seemed to have migrated from its supposedly secure resting place down through several layers of clothing to end up in the knee of my tights.

Don't ask me how.

As I said at the beginning -  This post does not cast me and my fiscal management system in a very good light.