Wednesday, 26 August 2009

in deedie do dee

Dear Schoolfriend, if your Googling has brought you to read this, you know I love you to bits, but nae maer deed or deeing stories, please.

in deedie

I tell you this, not merely to make you feel the frustrating, heart crushing boredom of a trip to the motherland where death is the only other visitor, but because though my mother has gone on to make news herself in the afterlife, there seems to be no escape from the Hibernian doom-tolling bell.

A friend from schooldays who used to be married to my next-door neighbour and is now a Biochemist in Cambridge loves to assail me with dire warnings about bird flu casualties, Ebola, West Nile Fever, the unpreparedness of Britain for a terrorist attact, world food shortages (we're all going to starve) and Mutating Swine Flu Viruses. Sometimes with lurid pictures. He's a fun chap, as you can tell and our quarterly dinners are always joyous affairs. But the other day he broke new ground and sent me an email about Cancer Statistics which I reproduce without his permission:

In the past month I have been told about 3 colleagues or their spouses who have one form of cancer or another. The odds of getting it are 1 in 3 in the end. Everything eventually gets grim. Bummer.

Well what a little ray of sunshine.

Feeling cheery now, are you?

I was about to go off to Worcester man for the weekend, so trying to keep my mood light and buoyant, I didn't reply.

Later that night, I was just nodding off, my head full of the deliciousness awaiting me the next day after Worcester man swept into the station and bore me away in his convertible, when my phone chirruped with a text message.

Ah, Dominic, I thought, fondly.

But nope. Guess again. It was from, yes - you've guessed it - schoolfriend again. This was surprising. Schoolfriend hasn't texted me for maybe six months, since his last visit to London. I sat up, felt around for my specs, put on the light (yes it would have been easier to have done it the other way round) and read the message:

You are not easy to contact. Had to Google you. Got phone call from Scotland. Kirsty's man in hospital - see my emails.

No escape, you see. No ruddy escape.

Monday, 24 August 2009

In deed

Picture a cavernous room decorated in varying shades of 'broon', lit with fringed table lamps while outside rain rattles down the glass like bead curtains. A small chipmunk of a woman in an iron perm and a green check nylon overall is sitting in an arm chair. This is my mother, thirty years ago, when I'm home in Scotland on a visit.

She reaches for her packet of Embassy Regal and lights one. She clicks her lighter shut, nipping a piece of burning tobacco off the end of her cigarette. It drops on to her overall, singeing the nylon. She pinches it between her horny asbestos fingers and rubs the ash into the material.

'Marion, do you mind Senga Watson?' she asks through a haze of smoke.

I look at what I can see of her, blankly.

'No,' I answer, squinting as she blows smoke into my eyes. I shuffle further along the carpet, out of her range but still hugging the warmth of the fire - the room, designed and built by my father who graduated from the Aircraft Hanger Rectangular School of Architecture, is Arctic.

'Sure you do - you must remember her. She lived up Park View near your auntie Irene.'

'No, mum, I don't.'

'Och you do so. Her sister was in your class at school.'

I think back to the freezing, even larger, rectangular aircraft hanger of a classroom in which I spent most of my childhood. It had enormous windows, all running with condensation set high in the once whitewashed brickwork, cunningly designed to prevent us from looking outside. Not that there was anything to see - only flat, barren countryside dotted with clumps of stunted trees which keeled to and fro from the force of the wind like a gang of drunkards coming home from the pub.

Inside we listened to the draughty window panes whistle and watched little drips of water trickle down the wall into little pools here and there before seeping through the splintery floorboards to the classroom underneath. Then we fidgeted and sucked our pencils, and prepared for the exam that would decide our future: Those who passed went to the newly built secondary school in town, while those who failed remained in the village to spend what was left of their school days doing woodwork and cookery - useful skills for a life on the dole.

'Do you mind of her?' my mother persists.

I don't.

'There wasn't any Watson in my class, mum.'

'Naw, naw - her sister wasnae a Watson, she was a lassie Coulter - her mother married again - a chap from Shotts.'

I vaguely remember a washed-out blonde girl whose hair had curled extravagantly in two bunches on either side of her pasty face.

'Who, Jessie Coulter?' I ask. She sat with the Lindas at the back of class while I sat at the front next to a couple of slow, specky boys, all of us nursing the hot water pipe that ran along the wall. I used to kick off my leaky shoes and, scorning chilblains, warm my damp toes on the pipes, tingeing the classroom with the steamy smell of soggy, none too clean laundry. Jessie had plump little legs with the white socks that never wrinkled - while I wore elastic bands to keep mine up and still they slouched around my bony ankles in a sulky, grey puddle.

'Aye - that's right - Jessie - she had lovely hair that wee girl,' my mother says approvingly, then glares at me over the burning tip of her cigarette - three glinting eyes all drawing an unfavourable comparison between the memory of Jessie's shining locks and my own bunch of tangleweed. This was, remember, the Seventies.

'Well then, I do know Jessie Coulter but I can't remember her sister. How old was she?' I ask.

'She was ages with our Nellie.'

'Mum, I don't know any of Nellie's friends - she's about ten years older than me.'

My mother tut-tuts impatiently and leans over to the fire to brush the ash off her cupped hand. She asks me for the ashtray.

I pass her a brass elephant's foot bearing the name of a proprietary cough syrup, a relic from the days when my mother worked in the local chemist's, and one of a pair that stands astride the carriage clock on the mantelpiece.

'You do so know her - you're just not thinking. She used to work in the Co-op Shoe shop, then she left to get married. To a Catholic,' she adds wryly.

This doesn't make it any clearer, but I try to seem interested. 'What about her anyway?'

'Oh, it was a terrible scandal at the time,' she continues 'her mother took i hard when the lassie got pregnant. I remember I met Agnes McGlinchey up the street and she told me...

I try to interrupt. 'But what about this Senga..?'

'Well, I'm telling you - she married a Catholic, says my mother, indignantly. 'They had a big, fancy wedding - in the chapel of course - Senga wearing white even though she must have been about five months gone - six bridesmaids - a photographer from Edinburgh. In my day we'd never have had the nerve to wear white, though mind you, she was a lovely bride... I gave her a nice wee shower cloth.' she added winsomely, pleased with her own past generosity.

'What the hell's a shower cloth?' I ask.

'Och you know - it's a kind of tablecloth thing - with embroidery - you spread it over your scones and sandwiches to keep them fresh. I got it in Glasgow, at Goldbergs.'

I can't imagine that in 1976, any pregnant, teenage bride, starting off her married life in her mother's spare room, would be giving her husband high tea when he came in from the factory every night and covering it with a 'shower cloth' - but I didn't point this out.

'I still don't know her,' I say.

'Och Marion you're that vague - try and think - she used to pal about with the lassie McNeil, surely you mind her, she used to live round in the Dardanelles, near your granny. She had funny teeth.'

'Emily MacNeill didn't have funny teeth!'

'Don't be stupid. No her - I meant Senga had the funny teeth.'

I shook my head helplessly. 'Sorry mum, I’ve been away since I was sixteen,' I remind her. 'I can't remember - I never knew half of these people.'

'Och you would know this girl if you saw her. She was tall.'


'Curly hair.'


'Dark, curly hair'.

'No, I still don't know her.'

'She wore a yellow anorak'

'Mum, how would I know her by the colour of her anorak?'

'She was in the Rural.'

'Mum, I've never been to anything at the Rural. You don't even belong to the Rural. I really have no idea who you're talking about.' I say firmly, totally fed up with the whole conversation.

'Och you do so.' she rasps angrily then, in victory, her eyes light up. 'I know - she used to take you at the Brownies!'

'The Brownies! God mum, I only went for a couple of months.'

'She used to take you at the Brownies and she went on that camping trip with you. Mind that time you went to Loch Lomond and you came back covered in midgie bites?'

That I couldn't forget, but as for the people I'd gone with... I try to think and remember a fair-haired girl who had shocked us all by having a spectacular fit in the middle of campfire songs.

'Was she an epileptic?' I asked.

'Who?' said my mother.

'Senga Watson,' I am beginning to get really annoyed now. 'Isn't that who you're talking about?'

'Naw, naw, she was Salvation Army - that's why they were that upset when she married the Catholic. Did I no just tell you!'

I sigh loudly. But that did ring a bell. There was another girl with lank, dishwater-brown hair and freckles who had run around blowing her whistle and generally trying to organise us when all we wanted to do was muck about.

'Did she have freckles?' I ask, sure that it must be the same person.

'Aye.' said my mother nodding contentedly, 'Freckles and funny teeth.'

'..and she used to play tambourine with the Salvation Army band?'

'That's right - that's her!' my mother was jubilant. Huston, we have contact.

'Oh so that's Senga!' I say, relieved to have put a face to the name, although her teeth had looked pretty normal to me.

'So, what about her then?.

'Deed!' said my mother with relish.


‘Aye, deed. Dopped deed. Only 32 and had a massive heart attack at the Cricket club dance. Nancy Adamson told me when I was up getting the papers.' She purses her lips and grinds out her cigarette in the ashtray with an air of ghoulish satisfaction. 'Her husband's taking it awfae bad...'

'Well, he would, I suppose.' I murmur.

'Two lovely kids an' all', says my mother mournfully.

Recently divorced at the unseemly age of 21, I know where this is leading - another lecture on marriage and children.

'...and if you don't hurry up and settle down, it'll be too late for you.' Her words cut like a knife through butter.

'Well it's too bloody late for her too as well if she's dead, isn't it?'

'Oh that reminds me,' she peers at me though her half-closed eyes, 'Speaking of Nancy Adamson, do you mind of her daughter?'

and repeat...

I just heard a Peter Kay sketch in which he repeats this almost word for word but with a Northern Accent. I guess it's one of those universal truths. Mothers love reminding you of people you have no memory of just so they can tell you they've snuffed it.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Left Luggage

Okay... Not a real Muslim.

If a band of marauding Islamic fundamentalists break into the Pedantic offices and start filtering out the infidels from the faithful, I'd not pass the test, in fact, I'd probably be first against the wall. But it was the done thing to convert when I got married and since, after a prolonged war of attrition, I'd managed to convince the ex - son of eminent small-pond, big-fish Palestinian academic whose maternal uncle was four times Prime Minister of Lebanon and has a traffic-choked boulevard named after him - to marry a left-school-at-16, divorced, working-class, Scot whose mother worked in a Chemist and whose paternal and maternal uncles were coal miners - I was all about conforming.

Suddenly I found myself whisked away from the library where we met in Oxford to a complicated world of women who lived in homes the size of corner blocks in Knightsbridge, with lip-liner and big hair with a fondness for Versace and multi-hued gem-encrusted jewellery whose kohl-rimmed, brown limpid eyes would glaze over like Crispy Creme donuts as they asked me with weary monotony: 'how are ze children?' Given that it took me a year to produce the first baby, that meant there was a whole twelve month period when they didn't say anything much to me at all. I wanted to get cards made up that said: 'The children are fine.' It would have saved us all the bother of politeness. Other cousins were sophisticated and world-weary and lived in Chelsea with Rothkos and Picassos hanging on the wall (it was one of these at a dinner where I mentioned something that happened on my honeymoon from which I'd just that day returned, who asked me at a crowded table 'if that was with my first husband...' just in case there was anyone there who didn't know I wasn't a virgin bride.) When Lebanese women bitch, they're a loss to the armed forces. And they all smoked, and smoked and smoked, filling up ashtrays with waxy red filter-tips that matched their manicures and often their rubies.

I was as alien to them as they were to me. I felt like I had arrived from a distant planet. I wondered if it was because I wasn't posh enough, or rich enough, or clever enough, but my husband put it far more succinctly. I wasn't Arab enough. 'It wouldn't matter if you were Princess Di or had a double first from Cambridge. You're just not Arab.'

Thankfully, they weren't all like the 'pussycats' as I came to call them, and his mother, a tiny, irreverent, unorthodox, powerhouse of a woman quickly became my staunchest ally. 'These women - mish ma'oul (impossible),' she'd say and roll her eyes, then giggle.

Twenty five years on, my mother in law is a flat plaque in a distant cemetry and my father-in-law hasn't spoken to me in over a year. The pussycats are old tabbies now, and no longer ask after the children. I hear second hand from the cousins who were my friends with forwarded text messages. And yet I ride on the bus down Edgeware Road and can read all the signs on all the restaurants. I can swear profusely and, less usefully, can still manage the headline on a newspaper, though most of my Arabic vocabulary has vanished from lack of use. My ex and I used to speak a mangled pidgin franglarabish to each other, mostly so that the kids wouldn't understand what was going on. Gradually they learned, though but now there's no-one to speak it with. I can cook everything from ma'loubi - the Palestinian national dish to molokia - mallow with vinegar, onions and chicken (an acquired taste!) which we eat on plates from the Palestinian pottery in Nablus. My house is decorated with David Roberts prints of places that no longer exist for either of us. There's a carpet on the floor that came from the turetted palace in Beirut where my mother-in-law grew up which is the same as those given by King Hussein of Jordan to the Dome of the Rock. My kids wear hands of Fatima on chains round their necks and all have Arabic names of dead relatives who aren't mine. There's a charred Indian box that was saved from his parents' flat in Beirut after it was hit by an Israeli incendiary bomb, and numerous photographs of speckled Sepia old men in Fezes outside the family library in Jerusalem line the walls of my ex-husband's study where his grandfather's books flake yellow dandruff on to the floor. There's even a signed photograph of old Towelhead dedicated to Ahmad and family because he didn't know how to write Marion in English and was too embarrassed to ask, and a tiny pin cushion that Mrs A sent out when her daughter was born with the obligatory sugar almonds.

What isn't there is the husband who brought all this orientalist memorabilia; or the fax machine which was the only thing he took when he left. My house is a shrine to a life that isn't really mine.

Yesterday, however, I had the front door repainted.

It's bright, Pepso Bismol, Calamine Lotion, Pink.

Now that's definitely mine.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

...everyone except Edwin, anyway.  But he pays attention.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Convert Relations

We're in a launch meeting. It's the most democratic of all Pedantic meetings in that everyone attends, from the people in the accounts department to, well, me. Unfortunately, though I enjoy the meeting, I yawn a lot. This is not necessarily a good sign when the premise of the meeting is to get people in the company excited about the newest books on our list. It's not that I'm not excited. I'm just tired. And 15 or so of us sitting in a small, hot, enclosed room, takes me back to my schooldays when we sat in hermetically sealed class in a country with a fear of draughts akin only to that felt by rabid dogs for water, while Janice Glencourse at the front sounded out every syllable holding a ruler under the line, and I had already raced ahead and finished the book.

Thirty odd years later, it's a pile of AIs (Advance Information) hot off the photocopier (with me pressing the button) instead of Mansfield Park, but I still can't resist the urge to read ahead.

An AI is usually pretty self-explanatory - it should be since its purpose is to whet the retailer's appetite - but, to further enthuse us the editor in question talks about the book, elaborating on the sheet, usually with a few ums, to sell it to us. I'm sold. I've already got it on my list of things I want to read the minute the proofs arrive, and have flicked on down the pile and so, invariably, yes - I do yawn. Sometimes, with tears... I yawn and draw pictures of the Ubereditor's profile (I try to sit behind him so he can't see my eyes closing) and assume, with totally misplaced conviction, that I've 'got it' since, five minutes after the meeting, I've already forgotten every single title - plus who is editing it.

C- Marion could do better but tends to daydream in class...

I obviously need to pay more attention or take Ritalin.

Then last week.

The Butterfly Mosque. Ubereditor begins to tell us about this book which we're publishing next year. It's a most unusual account of a young American woman who converts to Islam, but it's different from other such tales because it was a choice she arrived at totally independently. 'Most women who convert to Islam do so because they fall in love or marry a Muslim...' he says with authority.

I tentatively put up my hand.

I should add here that one need not raise one's hand in order to be given permission to speak at a Pedantic meeting, but remember I've regressed several decades and mistakenly think I'm back at school.

I don't talk much at meetings. Frankly, when not yawning, I'm intimidated. Everyone else speaks a language in which I'm not even marginally fluent. My Italian's better than my publishing and that doesn't extend much beyond sex and menus - and neither of these would be much good in a launch meeting. When we're talking about the audience for the book, as in 'it would suit readers of...' despite being almost as widely read as the rest of the Pedants, my tongue twists like Janice Glencourse struggling to say 'Fanny' which, believe me, in Scottish working-class comprehensive, was a particular and cruel punishment.

My hand, waving in the torpid, bacon laden air (we're above a cafe) goes unnoticed.

'Erm...' I cough.

Several sets of eyes on the other side of the room turn towards me, and the Ubereditor is forced to turn his head, momentarily.

'Just like me...' I announce.

'Like you? What's like you?'

'I'm a Muslim.'

There's some generalised, faintly disbelieving, laughter.

'No really, I converted when I got married...'

Hah. You see, I don't say much, but when I do, I still have the power to surprise.

Monday, 17 August 2009

New Paint

A nearly blissful weekend in London with nearly August appropriate weather has put a gloss on my otherwise lacklustre life.

A Friday night camp-fire supper in the garden of Nel's house, a stroll down Portobello Road next morning where bargains jumped into my hands and practically paid for themselves, eggs benedict in Uncle's caff, Sin Nombre at the Gate in the afternoon with my ex husband, and corset, satin frock and lipstick at Liz's birthday party at Veeraswamy's in the evening. (I'd gone to try on the so-called Bombshell dress as reputedly owned by Nigella and therefore ideal for the fuller-figured woman but sadly, on me, it looked a tad too full and more of a Bomb Shelter, so it was back to the foundation garments. But they do stop you eating too much as you can't breathe, let alone eat wheat.

Sunday morning at 7am my friend was waiting for me and my brutally painful hangover at the front gate and off we went to Nine Elms where I bought an unboxed CD player that I fear may have fallen off the back of a lorry before landing in my arms, then on to Brick Lane for bagels and coffee and a Paracetamol top-up, followed by a walk through Columbia Road flower market.

'I haven't done this for twenty five years,' I told my friend as, miraculously, the sun reappeared from behind a cloud at the same time as a legal parking place. ' Last time I was pregnant. I came with Sue Hairy Legs...'


'Sue hairy legs - she was doing the same BA in Arabic as I was and, unlike Sue Chapstick, she had incredibly hairy legs. Like fur. And don't even get me started on her armpi...'

'...and Sue Chapstick?'

'addicted to it... Always, always putting it on.'

It's a testament to the girl's hirsuteness that a quarter of a century later it's the one thing I remember about her. And Sue Chapstick, who I still see now and again - continues to have the addiction. You'd think after all that time her lips would finally be soft.

I was totally charmed by the whole frenzy of people and colours and stall holders shouting out 'Curly wurlies - special today - two for a tenner. Cost you £25 quid at Homebase...) but my friend didn't 'as it happens' really get the vibe. I couldn't understand it. I was carrying brown paper sheaves of orange lilies, two pots of orchids a huge bunch of tangerine roses, half a dozen bagels from Brick Lane and a bag of pineapples as we strolled back to the car, just totally delighted with the day. Sometimes, London still gives me that on-holiday feel and I can't imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else. I felt like I was in the film of my own life. 'All I need is Richard Curtis and Wet Wet Wet on the sound track,' I said.

'Richard who?' I don't think my friend does Rom Coms either, somehow.

By the time I arrived home to cook for the dinner party I was going to that evening (somehow I seem to have landed myself the role of meals on heels when I am invited out to supper), I was so relaxed that I was horizontal - in the hammock under the fig tree for much of the slow, sleepy afternoon - waiting for the bread to rise.

And best of all, there was nobody home.

I called youngest: 'Where are you?'

'I stayed at Ella's last night. (She did? Horrible negligent mother, I came in so late and so, erm, tired, that I hadn't noticed) and I'll just hang out here today and chill. Back tomorrow. Maybe.'

Cue loud triumphant music, or at least a 12 year old Primal Scream CD with volume blasted out on the Arthur Daley music system. Flowers everywhere. Kitchen full of the smell of baking bread. My eldest, who arrived home from work after giving me six hours of total solitude, persuaded me to go to the park to pick blackberries. We returned with purple stained fingers. Nigella, with or without your Bombshell dress, eat your heart out.

At 7.30 I walked round to my neighbour's house carrying a tray with a bread ring stuffed with eggs, mozzarella, spinach and tomoatoes, roasted potatoes with chili and garlic, and caramelized pineapples with lime. My friend was sitting, limp and ill at her kitchen table, her face ashen, wearing a brave smile and a dress that looked a little bigger on her than it did the last time I saw her. She's on the second round of chemotherapy and had suddenly, just that evening, hit a horrible slump.

My momentary fantasy; someone else's nightmare. And of course, even in my weekend, I'm only giving you the gloss. The undercoat is, in places, very much darker.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Apply yourself...

August should be abolished. While others sun themselves in Italy, Ireland and, erm Bosnia (no, I couldn't quite work out either of the last two myself) I merely slog my way through the list of tasks left to me by Mr T as he sports elsewhere on the beach. I know I had my holiday already but it wore off weeks ago. I need another to lift my spirits and nothing is forthcoming. Here in the office, my work load has been further enhanced by the deluge of job applications for the new skivvy, I mean receptionist. We're looking for a recent graduate. If you are one of them and you have bothered to look us up and read this blog to find out what it's like to work at Pedantic before applying, then you're showing an initiative not shared by most of the unsuccessful applicants for the last two jobs here - some of whom hadn't even bothered to mug up on our list of publications. However, what really concerns me about a great many of you who have applied for this post is that, despite having 2:1s from reasonable and even, in some cases, illustrious, universities - and often a subsequent MA (in publishing) too, many of you don't seem to know how to lay out a simple letter. The spacing is gap-toothed, irregular, without return address or date, the salutation missing and the signature either absent or medically illegible. Some of you who have studied English and Creative Writing have glaring grammatical errors and then go on to tell me all about your skills in proof-reading and editing. Have you remembered that this is a job working as both a receptionist and personal assistant to two of our directors?

Children. A word of advice from someone who taught herself to type on a sheet of A4 paper laid out like a QWERTY keyboard (in the days before Mavis Beacon) and who left school at 16 :

You may indeed have a first in German, Astrophysics, Marine Biology or a distinction in your Oxbridge MA on the prevalence of mental illness amongst Victorian novelists; you are, almost certainly, massively over-qualified; have a love of literature and a degree in Feminist Comedy Scriptwriting, but here, before being an 'avid reader' or having 'an urge to work in publishing to extend your literary career' you will first need to be able to type a letter. It's as well to make sure that the one that accompanies your CV does not look like it was knocked out by a chimp.

Heed it or not, as you will. But I'm the person who is opening your application.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


I came home from work to find the shower fixed, a new set of shelves installed in my youngest daughter's bedroom, the pink fridge moved, finally - after two years - into the space made by a dismantled cupboard, a door rehung the right way round, and a man standing in the kitchen with a smile on his face holding a huge wrench.

'Cue porn music,' says Mathilda.

Does it get any better than having the hinges of your kitchen cabinets screwed to the wall after three doorless years? I don't really think so.

The Girlfriend Experience

The Young Vic and a young audience, giggling every time the fat woman in the thong bends over to answer the phone and exposes her white dippled backside.

Eva and I don't find that quite as funny as the thin blondes in their teeny dresses clutching the arms of their thin, floppy haired, catalogue boyfriends. Give it twenty years dearies and you will be cringing, not laughing, imagining yourselves in a mirror.

All the women on the stage are 'death-by boobs' large - one morbidly obese with breasts pushed up like newel caps at the bottom of a staircase in a keyhole negligee from the Maria Rinaldi for Anne Summers range - all of which perhaps is supposed to add to the comic element of the play, but I can't bring myself to laugh at someone just because she has cellulite and looks like a chisel in red knickers. I'm too busy wondering where the huge actress with the bum that is not merely musical but symphonic, got the fishnets big enough to fit her. Those babies are big enough to trawl the North Sea.

Eva digs me in the ribs and laughs but like all good comedy, it's really a tragedy. Even the largest call-girl, just shy of fifty, is still longing for love. Aren't we all? Even those of us not on the game are in the club. We're all hoping the Prince is going to come. As long as it's not an Alsatian. Though round where I live, even those of us who aren't plus-sized, plus fifty year old women have settled for the dog.

Eva, as yet dogless (though she had to be talked off the leash from that one a few months ago) had spent the weekend with her friend in North London.

'Poor thing, she's so tired all the time. She's training to be a dental nurse."

I turned to look at her. 'What do you mean? Isn't she a lawyer?'

'Yes, but her husband's a dentist and he doesn't have anyone to help him when his receptionist goes on holiday, so he's making her train as a dental nurse and work in the practice so he doesn't have to pay anyone else. Imagine, a lawyer, training as a dental nurse to save money.' We both laughed so much that I thought she was going to fall off the bench.

'"She's not very good," he told me. He says she's too slow.' We fell about laughing again.

But she's not so jolly on the journey home.

'Everyone says the play's very funny, but I just found it sad,' she says in the car, where our conversation would probably rival the dialogue by the time I've finished filling in Eva's blanks.

'I've never heard that before - the "girlfriend experience"... kissing, cuddling and sex.'' She falls silent for a while. 'I thought hookers didn't kiss their clients. It's not so different from dating I suppose. They're just getting the girlfriend experience but they don't have to pay for it, is all. I do it for free.'

'But at least you don't have to train as a ruddy dental nurse.'

'I know, ' she laughs again at the memory. 'Still, I'm not sure I want to ever get married again. Not only is my friend's husband using her law degree to hoover up all his patients' spit, but the two of them bickered all through lunch about stupid little things - "you did this, you said that, you forgot to get mangoes, you didn't tell me to buy them..." It really put me off. Though, we did all go to see a lovely sculpture park together afterwards.'

Dear God. I thought you only had to go to those things if you were single.

What's the number for the Battersea Dogs' Home?

Friday, 7 August 2009

My Single Friends

To celebrate Liz's birthday, another recently divorced friend is giving a dinner party at which, novelty of novelties, four of the five men there will be single.

I am instructed to attend.

I cannot but do my duty.

To protect the innocent names will be omitted but, lo, indeed there are single men, or at the very least, singleish. One fails to turn up because he has flu, whether Swine, Whine, or merely Man, I'm not sure but he was/is married to the pretty scientist we went to Guilty Pleasures with last year and claims have been made for his attractiveness. Now, we'll never know. Another is the rakish, silver fox type, I met before at one of Eva's openings as well as at Justin Marozzi's book launch - but he seems still to be seeing the statuesque ash blonde princess, so again - not as free as previously advertised and just about to drive off to Scotland in his Bentley so he can transport his guns. Yet another - tall, dark, handsome and curly headed is domiciled in France (with a man) and bats for the other team (but you had that at handsome, didn't you?), and of the remaining two, one is seeing the hostess and the other - HOLY GRAIL - does indeed seem to be unattached.

I'm almost afraid to say this in the public domain lest bands of women beat a path to our hostess's home in Shepherd's Bush and swarm around the door. Should I add that one of our merry band of men is childless and mad about babies, I would be trampled in the rush.

Having more than enough sauce in Worcester, I'm not looking (except in idle, and perfectly, natural curiosity) so I was firmly placed on the other side of the one eligible man and sandwiched between two of the taken. Candles were lit, Pims was drunk, champagne was opened, foie gras passed around on tiny pieces of girl-friendly bread, and sea bass on a bed of potatoes was served with saffron until, eventually, as you would expect from a room full of the almost unattached - one of whom the hostess met on Guardian Soulmates - the subject of the conversation turned to internet dating. We've nearly all done it - with varying degrees of success. Single man - a recent uptaker - has only been on two dates: one with a mystical Irish woman who believed in alien abduction and whose photograph he hadn't seen before meeting her (you can see he's new at this) and the second with a beautiful gamine Frenchwoman who had 'anger' issues. He doesn't think he'll be doing it again.

'You can tell immediately if you like someone,' he claims, but the hostess's friend and I both disagree. You know immediately if you like the look of someone and think they're attractive but if that initial spark isn't there that doesn't mean that there isn't a moment later, after you've spoken a while, that they do something or say something and you just think - wow.

He isn't convinced.

'Are you married?' he asks (bless him, he obviously hasn't been briefed as thoroughly as we have).

'Yes.' 'No.' Was.' 'I am.' 'Well, no.' 'No, I'm not.' 'Or, I'm married, but I'm not living with my husband. We're separated. Apart. Estranged. Well, not that estranged. Likely to stay that way. But get on so much better now than me did.'

'Though it was traumatic at the beginning,' volunteers Liz.

'Indeed. Very.'

He looks bemused as well he might.

'What went wrong then?' He bellows over the table.

'He left me.' I call back.

'He left you?' He cried, in a way that I like to think was incredulous but was probably just a spot of indigestion while he worked out what kind of a shrew I had to be to have driven away my former man.


I wait for the why question but after a moment's hesitation he decides to save me the further humiliation of mentioning the words 'other woman' and asks how long ago he has been gone. There's no real easy answer to that question either. A year, a year and a half, three years, it depends when you're measuring from.

'What about you?'

'My wife left me,' he says. 'It does get easier,' he assures me.

'It's already easier...'  I protest

'Yes, my wife left me too,' says the hostess's friend. 'It does get easier, eventually, though it's still hard.'

I think the hostess may have joined with her own pennyworth of gloom, but I can't be sure - we are all having rather large gulps of wine and looking vaguely haunted. Ah - the small talk at a single person's dinner party. Abandoned Spouses anonymous. My name is Marion and my husband left me... We could have our own group on Facebook. It could be a new way to meet people. My Humiliated Friend... She has lots of very nice coats.

'Do you have any plans for the weekend?' asks the hostess's nice singleish Guardian Soulmate's man.  He's a designer turned illustrator.  I studied graphic design, printmaking and illustration at Camberwell but he hasn't discovered this.  Though I know all about his family, his parents, his nieces, his ambitions, his house sale, his personal circumstances and his career, the first question he has asked me is what I'm doing at the weekend.  Men.  How come they make such good criminal investigators?

'Yes, actually, I'm going to the country to see my lover.' I reply. In a very loud voice. Just so that everyone gets it.

Single man chooses this moment to go out to the garden for a fag after complaining none too gallantly that he can't get past my chair. I go home on the 220 from Shepherd's Bush and try not to fall asleep on the bus and end up in Harridan.

I mean Harlesden.

Road Tip

'Liz wants us to have a day out. She's doing an article for the Standard. Can you come on Sunday?' Asks Yvonna, while I'm watching Bunk vomit into a gutter at the Irish Wake (so The Wire's not all ripped bodies and shotguns).

'No, can't do Sunday. I'm doing Worcester Man.'

'Aw.' She doesn't even bother trying to persuade me as she knows it is futile. Worcester man has been in Croatia for a week and I haven't seen him since our Connaught weekend. Much as I love both Yvonna and Liz and the chance to further exploit my life in the pages of the Evening Standard, there is no contest. I say I could juggle around my work and go in the middle of the week and we settle on Wednesday for the day out.

'What's the story?' I ask.

'Remember when we went to Henry Moore?'

How could I forget? Worcester Man, who was a follower of this blog back then, felt so sorry for me after reading about me picking my way through a field of sheep droppings that he invited me out to lunch (I had much the same success with my ex husband twenty seven years ago when he asked me what I did at the weekends and I answered 'knitting'. Then I was lying. Unfortunately, about Henry Moore, I was telling mostly the truth.

'Well, we had so much fun..'

(We did? Yes, yes, okay, we did. Kinda.)

'...that Liz suggested it to her editor as an idea for a piece. Arty days out for people in London on a Staycation. She's going to hire us an open topped car.'

'So a sort of Thelma and Louise do Bexhill-on-Sea instead of Brad Pit..?'

I can't see it being big in the Box Office, can you - though a man in a pizza parlour in Boston did once ask my daughter if her 'mom was Susan Sarandon' when my hair was short and red (and presumably I looked eleven years older than I am)? Prospects of vigilante adventures don't improve when Liz tells me we'll have a photographer traveling with us, and says that I might 'wear an interesting coat.' I'm painting a picture, am I not... Three women of a certain age in 'interesting coats' and big jewellery, off to do a spot of culture. On My Single Friend - the dating site - Yvonna apparently put this on Liz's profile: 'She has lots of lovely coats.' You can just see the men beating the doors down.

We have already surmised that this is going to be a female only venture after deciding when we went to the Henry Moore house that if we had happened to run into three blokes wandering round a sculpture park, they would be tossers. Especially if, after guided tours and garden centres, they decided, as we did, that the ideal way to top off the day would be to go off and see an art film.

So there we are. A little foretaste of the future when all the men are dead and a day at the seaside means visiting a Modernist pavilion and not stripping off in the sand-dunes. In fact, when a day at the seaside means no ruddy sand at all but pebbles like bad cellulite as far as the eye can see.

I meet them in Hammersmith. Liz has been too busy to get the promised sports car so we're setting off in Yvonna's Volvo Estate (okay, it might be a BMW, but you're catching the vibe...) Liz and I should both be sponsored by LK Bennett as we're working the Mother of the Bride look in our frocks - me in the pink polka dots(it's my official photography frock) and her in blue roses (the shop assistant actually asked her 'when's the wedding?') and Yvonna has brought two dresses so she can change if she gets flushed... The photographer - a young, blonde, glamorous Southern gal from Atlanta arrives with a slow, sexy drawl, a camera bag and a six month pregnant bump.

Thelma and Louise plus two and a half in a hatchback. Yep, this is the stuff that road trips are made of. Far from Bourbon and a Beretta, the car is full of print-outs from AA route finder and bottles of Evian. Bexhill-on-Sea, on the other hand, is full of pensioners with a scattering of disaffected youth with purple hair on skateboards.

Worcester man texts: I'm sure you have brought the average age down by 50%

Nevertheless, amazingly, the sun is shining off the silver and bald heads lined along the undulating curve of the De La Warr Pavilion. The sky is desktop blue. The sea is flatter than a teenager's stomach. Yachts bob up and down like fat women's breasts in a jacuzzi. It's all quite beautiful and rela....

'Look at me. Smile. Now talk amongst yourselves. Look interested. Raise your glasses. Smile again. Hold that pose.' Says Rachel, click, click, clicking her camera.


Or it would be if we didn't have to hold our stomachs in while the geriatric population of the south coast tutt at us disapprovingly for blocking their view of the sea, wondering why three large ladies who are obviously not models for anything other than Matron Monthly, are looking delighted and slightly deranged as they clutch glasses of rose, while having their photograph taken, endlessly, by the young pretty, pregnant one.

We are not the most popular people on the balcony, or the beach, or indeed in Bexhill.

'Can I have my picture done?' asks a small, fat boy of about twelve puffing on a cigarette, as an old man with a belly that hangs almost to his knees remarks that we seemed to be stalking him as everywhere he goes the three of us are posing for photographs. As I look around me I keep thinking of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and the lyrics from that song by The Crash Test Dummies:

Someday I'll have a disappearing hairline
Someday I'll wear pyjamas in the daytime

but substitute 'iron perm with Dame Edna Average curls' for the disappearing hairline. Someday, I'll wear polyester because it drips dry, and pants that come up to my armpits. Someday my stomach will follow a beat behind the rest of me (as my backside already does according the chap who told me recently that I had a 'musical' bum which he insists was a compliment). Someday I'll not order the steak because I won't be able to chew it. Someday, I'll be a National Trust Nazi and show people round a local heritage site and scowl at other old women who ask questions. Someday I'll always wear interesting coats and bleach my moustache.


Thankfully, our next visit to Charleston, where Vanessa Bell et al gave 'interesting' the sort of meaning I hope it will still have when I'm in my seventies, was a foretaste of the sort of old age I would quite like to have. Yvonna and I had both been there before but she does the guided tour again because she has 'forgotten' (flushed and forgetful). I remember it all only too well. I went during my Jocasta Innes phase and still have the painted floorboards, furniture and one door in the kitchen as proof. Instead, Liz and I sit outside with the photographer and eat cake in the garden surrounded by hollyhocks and drowsy bees, reading the Guardian and engaging in scurrilous gossip. Behind us an old man in a Panama hat listens intently and makes old man harrumphing noises, or snores. Though he seems to be awake at the time.

'Isn't it lovely,' gushes Yvonna with a dreamy smile on her face. 'Why don't we all buy a house in the country and have an arty commune where we spend our days block printing and painting. We could all cook together and be surrounded by nature.'

Liz, who feels about the country the way I feel about Birkenstocks, looks horrified, and frankly, what with the three hour traffic jam on the motorway on the way back (thankfully we were too late for the visit to Anne of Cleves' House in Lewes - something fun for another day, huh?) nothing short of an open marriage is going to get me to settle down in the bosum of the countryside or a commune of arty women.

Though Worcester is not without its charms.

Not that I've actually seen any of them. Most of its attractions, so far, are to be found indoors.


I've had whine flu.

It starts with a sort of sore throat that makes you reach for the boxed set of The Wire and put it on standby beside your bed with a bulk purchase of Paracetamol, Lemsip and Lemon Barley Water. I've had my emergency kit since the first symptoms a week ago which, thanks to the power of suggestion, coincided with my desk neighbour Fran falling by the wayside, and my friend Nel taking to her bed (where she still languishes).

Last Friday, I left the office early, feeling bruised and slightly nauseated by a particularly nasty article about Pedantic Press in BookGrudge, which tipped the sore throat and aching limbs from Amber to Red, get-out-the-thermometer and cancel-all-weekend-plans alert. After a slight detour to see Scarlett Johansen arrive to a store-wide Awwwww in Selfridges (my daughters insisted but, I confess, it wasn't a hard sell - she's absolutely gorgeous and sweet) I was home where the kitchen , predictably, was decorated with its usual slovenly collection of unwashed crockery (none of it mine) where I went straight to bed and closed the door. Jimmy McNulty, here I come...

For those of you who have not yet discovered the gritty, mother-f***ing sheer, unadulterated joy of The Wire, I assure you, it might almost be worth getting Swine Flu to watch the whole series - and when it comes to Whine Flu, there's no down side. First of all it saves your nearest and dearest from having to listen to you moan about your sore throat, and your aching muscles, and your bad day at work, and your headache, and the fuzzy feeling when you think and the odd way your shoulders cramp when you're adjusting the pillows, and secondly - if you're female - you get to indulge in three whole series of Dominic West before he gives up the booze, goes tame, and only starts appearing every now and again when, who cares, you can enjoy 'Cutty' who conveniently gets out of prison, decides he isn't cut out to be a soldier no more, and opens a boxing school.

Insomnia got me through the Barksdale Empire and Whine Flu has carried me from the Series three Finale, almost to the end of Series Four when Jimmy gets domesticated (please - with Beedie? Bring back the drunk, banging on the door at 3am Jimmy for the love of God!) and Cedric with his ridiculously buff body finally and repeatedly takes his shirt off. That's an event that's well worth waiting for.

I know, I know, it's supposed to be the best television program ever made, and despite (or perhaps because) there being no women in it, men love it, and sure - it's addictive and compelling with the greatest ensemble cast, as well having the most fantastic f*** scene where nobody takes their clothes off in the history of television. I love all the characters and feel a pang when they end up in the vacant lots, and can't even bring myself to imagine something happening to Omar despite the fact that he's murdered more people with his shotgun than I've had lipsticks, but - really, truly, honestly, the main reason I love it is because it's unashamedly homoerotic.

Which, now I come to think of it, may be why all the blokes at last night's dinner party insisted they couldn't get on with it.