Monday, 28 September 2009

Reason No. 239

I'm standing holding a plastic cup which someone has just topped up with red wine and, unless I count the cup of coffee I drank when I woke up, I realise that this is breakfast. 

I needed it.

I've just given a talk about the desire to escape and reinvent oneself which, coming from a village (population 4,800) was something I did myself when I left Scotland (though then the population was probably only around 3,000 -1, all of whom knew my parents).  There's a comfort to be found growing up in a place like Cheers, where everybody knows your name, your mother's name and your grandmother's name, but I'm darned if I could see it when I was fifteen.  It was like the social equivalent of an electronic tag on your ankle.  It wasn't that much fun to be the 'lassie from the big hoose' or Big Jock's daughter when, if you were ten minutes late home from a dance he marched down to the hall and dragged you out in front of everyone.  Yes, we all knew our neighbours, perhaps too intimately.  Furthermore, those who didn't know you soon would.  The minute you opened your mouth your accent would pinpoint more than just class but also religion and geography, while the mention of a name would immediately link you to a lineage that stretched back two or three generations.  Invisibility was an unknown concept.

Moving to Oxford while still in my early, early teens, I loved the fact that I was just the Scottish girl.  Yes, I stood out because of my accent and my strange habit of striking up conversations with people on buses, but from that the only thing that could be deduced was that I was from Scotland and either mad or friendly.   In Oxford there was little to differentiate the two. It was assumed that I was probably Glaswegian - because that was in the days before Trainspotting alerted the country to the fact that not all people from Edinburgh spoke like Malcom Rifkind and were inherently posh.  I didn't care.  Glasgow was as good as anywhere as long as it was nowhere anybody had a cousin who might know mine.   My surname meant nothing beyond being unpronounceable and just like the heroine of my novel I could be anything, or anyone I wanted.  Obviously though my attempts to transform into Kirstin Scott Thomas didn't quite happen...

In the library in Scotland over drinks and nibbles, however, there's great comfort in being told by a woman that the only person she knew with my surname was 'Big Jock' - my father, as it turns out.  Our dads used to golf with.  And then there's Theresa - the woman who read my book and wrote to me asking if I would meet her for a coffee because she discovered that she and I came from the same village and subsequently, it washer policeman son who walked me through the gates at No 10.  Not only do we come from the same village but it turns out she lived round the corner from me and her niece is married to my great nephew.  It's a very small world.  You see, this is why I ran away when I was seventeen but the past really does catch up with you, no matter how long you stay out of its way.  And it's related.

I used to work in a library when I left school and a librarian in this one who remembers me when I was a teenager (who is now, like me, middle aged) starts running through the the names of people I once worked with:  Wee Wull, Jean and Margaret, Gay and Audrey.  I mention that I met my first boyfriend thanks to Margaret whose son and he were best friends.

'He was friendly with Brian Gilchrist?' She asks...  (everyone in Scotland has an encyclopaedic memory for names) and I agree, though I hadn't remembered anything about him, or thought of him for years until she mentioned it.  All I can remember about the boyfriend is that he was called Fred, was Italian and his father had a cafe in the next town.

'Di Resta,' She supplies, then corrects herself: 'No that was Whitburn. Serafini it would be.'

'Serafini!'  What a fabulous name.  Can that be it? 

I later asked my sister the same question - wondering what the surname was of the people who had the cafe in a local town.  She thought for a minute and then said, jubilantly:  'Wee Tally.'  Yep, it's Scottish PC Hour, and your host tonight is...

I have no idea if that was really his name but nevertheless  I'm almost doodling it on my exercise book.  All these years later and I still get a thrill thinking about him.  I wonder aloud what Fred (Serafini?) looks like now and remember how absolutely beautiful I thought him at sixteen and how I couldn't believe he would ever go out with me.

'Oh you might be surprised,'  She cautions, not entirely encouragingly.  I mention that after we broke up he started going out with the most popular and attractive girl in the village.

'Who was that?' she asks.

'Oh you know, she lived in Park View.  Catholic.  She had an older sister who died of Weils disease.'

She looks at me blankly, whether it's because she wants more explanation of the disease or the person I'm not sure.  I decide to forgo the rats and stick to the girl...

'Oh you must know her.  She was very pretty.  Had bullet hard breasts (No I didn't say that but I remember one of her ex-boyfriends telling me that - this again, is why you don't hang around in a small village - no ruddy secrets). She died too.' (Ditto - reasons for leaving No. 237)

She still doesn't know who I'm talking about and shakes her head.

'She was my age, so a year older than you.  Died of a some bowel disease...'  (No. 238) I prompt.

She shrugs.

I'm about to keep on going, trying to prompt her memory of a girl, long dead, whose name I can't even remember myself because of a boy I dated three and a half decades ago - and then I hear myself.

Oh my God.   I've been gone from this place all my adult life, yet still, I've turned into my mother.

Home, out of range

I'm in Bonny Scotland within sight of the red teeth of the Forth Road Bridge - if I climb up the hill to Tesco's, which I don't have a mind to do though it's about the only place I can get to without a car, which, inconveniently, I do not possess. 

Internet access is also iffy, and I feel like someone has cut out my tongue without the ability to communicate with the outside world.  However, by standing by the window holding my laptop up at the sun I found a BT Openzone and signed up just so I could check my email.  There's one from my daughter who needs some financial juggling before she leaves for Oxford on Friday, and erm, perplexingly my Oyster card has been topped up - though I haven't used it for four days.  I want to help the daughter out but I can't connect to my bank.  My building society card is still, a month on, in the post thanks to the dual inefficiencies of the Post Office and Santander and so I can't access any of those funds either.  My friend George (originally from the next village along) who now lives in Cambridge has been in touch to reprimand me about my personal life which he feels, as honorary elder brother, he has a right to do (in the vernacular - 'och, lassie ye shouldnie be wastin yer time....' though he speaks in real life as though he's presenting the Today program) and so I'm now sulking with him.  That leaves a big fat nobody to respond to.  And for this I paid a fiver.

Elder daughter is off to Oxford on Friday.  I will be leaving work, jumping in the car and driving her straight off there to settle her in to her new home in Cowley Road where I once lived myself.  I am going to miss her like an amputated limb though it will also be nice to have a bit more space in the sleeve I can now pin to my chest.  Henceforth it will just be me and the younger daughter.  The elder son also lives at home but since he is nocturnal we don't actually see him - it's like having mice, you only find evidence of his existence, though thankfully he doesn't poo on the floor (yet) but does leave a small trail of crumbs and dirty dishes.  Peace and tranquility will return to Walton's Mountain (not that the elder daughter disturbs this peace but she's probably even more anxious to have some space of her own than I am.  When I suggested I might go up to Oxford once a week to see her (for an hour or two) she recoiled with horror:  'Not every week, ma!' 

Worcester is off to the Opera and arriving for a very late check in at Hotel Girlfriend on Friday night, so will not be requiring room service, I expect.  And that's the coming weekend, already folded into neat little creases like an origami crane.

Meanwhile I'm in saturated fat limbo - north of the Border gorging on scones, Scotch pies, German biscuits, Lorne Sausage, Bourbon creams, morning rolls, fried tattie scones, cream cakes, treacle scones and Cinzano with (diet) Lemonade.  So far I've discovered a stockpile of chocolate biscuits in my sister's kitchen that would shock UN Weapons Inspectors.  If we sent the Scottish diet - of which I'm currently an enthusiastic consumer - to Iran and North Korea we wouldn't have to worry about the nuclear bomb - they'd be too busy eating multi-packs of crisps and jam sponges to press the button.  So far the only fruit I've seen in four days has been the lemon floating in my Cinzano and I've eaten more bread over the weekend than I have in the last month.  Readers - I am the EU butter mountain.  The jeans that were already tight when I boarded the plane now resemble the ankle to thigh elastic bandages that you have to wear after you've had liposuction (so I'm told, so I'm told) and feel like a non-surgical gastric bypass as they are so constricting they don't leave room in the stomach for food.  I now understand why my mother wore an 18 hour girdle - it meant you only had 6 left for eating, and in those you were supposed to be asleep. 

I'm also doing a lot of sleep.  My sister and her husband are both retired.  To their beds until about ten o'clock every morning.  So, I'm fat, but refreshed.  And half way through my second book. Reading it, I add, writing - not so much.

However, the reason I'm here, other than to catch up on the the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing marathons and to continue the Worcester tradition of visiting every supermarket in a 5 mile radius (so far we've done Tesco's, The Co-op, Somerfield and Aldi - and lest I get too jaded, Worcester informed me that there are still some left in his neck of the woods, the extensive, green, thick, muddy woods, that I haven't yet been too - oh joy, oh joy, oh joy!) is because I was giving a little talk at a local library.

Not that local, actually.  It's - oooooh - a good five miles away from my home village to the metropolis of West Calder which, when I was growing up, was the equivalent of going to Manhattan from Queens.  Apparently there are signs like wanted posters advertising my talk in the village library.  My cousin saw one:

'Aye Marion, I saw it stuck ootside on the door, so ah went in and said "that's my wee cousin ye've got stuck outside' - yer famous, you know - front page of the Edinburgh Evening News, 'n everything.'

I mumbled modestly and asked her if she was coming.

'Nah, well, ye see, I've already signed up for something at the Rural that day.  We're going to Dobbie's Garden Centre.' 

Fair enough.  Never let it be said I have 'a big heed'.

So I turned up at the Manhattan library, terrified that my cousin would be representative of the local populace who voted with their feet and didn't bother to turn up to hear me.  The library was charging a a quid and though fame may have its price, even I don't think I'm worth a pound.  However, there was wine being served (at 12.30 - this is Scotland!) and nibbles, so I think the booze was well worth the entrance fee.

I needn't have worried.  Despite my cousin being busy with the Rural, and all my other cousins having invented a wedding in Cyprus that they had to go to and so, en masse, excused themselves (as if they couldn't have got married another weekend)  - a good audience turned up.  Nobody actually made the 5 mile trip from my home village however, which was a shame, but have to eat somebody in my birthplace to be really famous, so I'm trying to get past the disappointment.

As soon as I settled myself in the chair, I felt right at home, as well I should have, since I (nearly) was.  There was one woman there who had known my father, another who knew my best friend Patricia when I was a child, another lovely woman called Carol who went to the same school I did, and another whose daughter and son both lived in my village - and everyone was familiar with a lot of the background of the book and even, in some cases, knew exactly where I'd set it and who the characters were based on.  I had a lovely time.  Actually, with a glass of red wine in one hand and a fistful of crisps in the other, I wonder why I live in London.  The sun even shone.

Apparently I'm in the Local History Library too - for reference.  Me and Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle who comes from a village five miles the other way. 

Damn her.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Hedging your bets

I got this in my spam this morning (mistakenly thinking it was from Williams Sonoma (kitchen gods...)

Privet, my gentleman I am a woman who values people and this life. I am kind and devoted. I like everything that makes woman beautiful! I am loving and caring. I adore animals. My friends say that I am a reliable and trustworthy person. I am going in for sport as I like to be attractive and healthy. I adore horses and dogs and always dreamt to devote my life to painting and horses. I believe you will like me! Besides I am very sociable and active. I like being a manager. I am fond of dancing, especially, belly dances. I am looking for a good caring man. Children don't matter. I want to devote all my time to family and to feeling my man home. Waiting for your letter

Well. How can one compete with this when internet dating. I too have dreamt to devote my life to painting and horses. I am fond of dancing especially belly dance, not to mention feeling my man home. I like being a manager.

Tis a pity I'm only a receptionist.

Waiting for your letter, Privet...
'Of course, I was invited...' says the ex-husband who has been summoned on several occasions, as he reminded me, sniffily, lest I forget which of us is the more important in the great scheme of things, him having huddled with power and eaten sandwiches there over 'working' lunches.

'Actually, I sold Cheri a climbing frame and a trampoline, so I've been there twice.' Worcester tells me before I have a chance to fully self-inflate when telling him how his text arrived just as I crossed the threshold.  And indeed the trampoline is still sitting in the garden there, looking somewhat the worst for wear.

Yeah, yeah - but I've been there with a police escort with a semi-automatic weapon strapped to his waist, so there...
...and is a policeman who works at No 10 and who escorted me through the black gates, up Downing Street, and inside the hallowed door.
And yes, indeed, my friend is Scottish and male.
And on Sunday I went to No 10. Yep. The No 10. I have friends in very high places.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

On the way back to London I meet a glamorous older woman on the train who tells me about her portfolio of men, something, she suggests that all of us modern divorcees need. She asks me if it's likely that I will ever move to Worcester. I say that though full of delights in the shape of Worcester man, I thought it unlikely - adding that although I am sure the place has a lot to recommend it, apart from trees, I haven't really seen that much of the city.

'There are some lovely restaurants,' she claims.

'Really?' I'm surprised. I usually turn into Nigella while I'm there and cook.

'Yes. really. How long have you been seeing this man, then? Notice the singular. I feel I'm letting the side down not having spread my assets further. Worcester, frankly, is quite far enough.

'Since May.'

'Hmm.' She smiles.

I have been to every supermarket between Great Malvern and Cheltenham, though, I don't add.

Meanwhile there's a curious beeping sound coming from behind me and an electronic voice that seems to be saying 'smelly raining flowers' like a child reading the speaking clock. 'smel-lee rain-ing flaw-ers'. I glance around but I can't see where the sound is coming from. A small Asian woman seems to be playing a computer game. It must be her. How odd, I think, and turn my attention back to Anne (my new best friend) who is offering to show me round next time I'm there if I have time between supermarket visits and country walks. The beeping sound continues. Anne waves goodbye at Honeybourne which I feel sure is full of Stepford Wives turning out gourmet meals for their lovers in strapless dresses and unsuitable underwear (ring ring, pot, this is the kettle calling - are you interested in some property in Honeybourne?)

Spee-nach. Says the voice.


Spee-nach. It repeats.

Spinach? What kind of game is she playing? I risk another over the shoulder squint and not only is she playing with a hand-held device but she's talking to herself and ticking something off from a list with her little pointer.

She mumbles. 'Spinach.'


'Spinach.' she repeats.

She taps furiously.

Mul-tee by! says the voice with a curious upswing at the end of the last syllable. The woman repeats it, just as surprised.

'Mul-tee by!' She seems delighted.

Mu-ller Light, the voice announces.

And then finally the penny, or the Sainsbury's multi-buy bargain drops. The woman is tapping her shopping list from the supermarket into some sort of translation program and using it to teach herself English. I don't know quite what the dictionary makes of Muller Lite (rice, yoghurt, crunch corners?) but at least the mystery of the disembodied voice is solved.

The mystery of the smelly raining flowers though deepens...

I think it must be self-raising flour.

Ho hum.

It is a very long train journey.

That keeps me occupied all the way to Didcot.

Seeing the woods

So, another weekend, another Worcester. Despite coming from the countryside (albeit a long, long time ago) it's true to say I'm not exactly country-friendly.

Yes, I like looking at it, it's what you do with it I'm not sure about. I mean, what's the point of it, after you've admired the trees? Peace? Tranquillity? I may be in a minority, but I get plenty of that in London. Sitting at home with my kitchen doors open to the wilderness that passes for my garden with nature but a robin and a couple of pigeons away, I don't especially feel I'm in the middle of a huge city. The weight of millions of people does not press on me as I rest my foot on a flowerpot (full unfortunately not of the parsley I planted but with fag-ends, thanks to the younger daughter's Marlborough habit) and look at the wormy apples lying in the choppy sea of ill-cut grass and the hammock under the fig tree. That's all quite bucolic enough for me, thank you. I ride the bus to work and home again and so don't have to brave the cramped anonymity of the tube, so I feel very tranquil drawing the curtains at the end of the day, lighting the candles on my mantelpiece as I swap the flowerpot for the coffee table without the need for nature, nevertheless Worcester is full of the stuff as well as the man - and so it must be addressed.

'Shall we go out for a drive into the countryside? It's a lovely day.' he says after we've finally opened the curtains. And, darn it, it's true. The sky is bluer than a Tiffany's gift box. Just when you think it's safe to put on the 60 denier tights and the bloody sun is back.

Worcester Man has a very nice summer car (we'll get on to the winter car another day...) with lovely leather upholstery the colour of clotted cream and a roof that slides back into the boot at the touch of a button like a weapon being sheathed in an episode of Star Wars. This allows me to sit in the front wearing a headscarf and red sunglasses feeling like Grace Kelly. Or it did until his youngest son began to chuckle and, with shaking shoulders and a trembly voice, whispered 'little old lady' the last time I donned the scarf. I'm now feeling a lot less glamorous and a lot more Hilda Ogden.

However, the sun, the sun, the darn sun that won't go away and let you while the afternoon away in bed. Oh no. For reasons I don't understand, weather has to be enjoyed in the countryside. You can't, apparently, just ignore it and watch the latest episode of Mad Men inside with a window open. So, gamely, I get dressed - unfortunately I haven't got the country gear with me - no wellies (though Worcester man did offer to lend me a pair of his shoes which, distressingly, were only a little too large), so it's back into the spotted frock and the ballet slippers (mine, I hasten to add), cardie (I don't care if it's 23 degrees, it was a cold gray dawn back in London when I left), a smile, a dab of lipstick (absolutely essential for all visits to the great outdoors), then clothes on, roof off and so are we, gliding out of his parking lot, turning the corner so tightly I think we're up on two wheels and phwoar... accelerate.

I drive an old Renault Scenic. Accelerate isn't in its range of movements which tend to be stop, go and reverse (very, very gingerly). And it takes corners like it's wearing leg bells and dancing round a maypole. Furthermore, roads in the city tend to be straight. Roads in the country tend not to be. I have my foot on the invisible brake for much of the journey which I can't imagine Princess Grace did when Rainier was driving her round Monaco (though given her end, perhaps this is a thought I shouldn't pursue just now as the car levitates over a bump). This is not to say the consort isn't a great driver. (Worcester man - you are a wonderful driver.) I'm just not used to going faster than 20 miles an hour.

So, vroom vroom, seconds later, there we are. In the countryside. Surrounded by it. Green everywhere in every shade from forest to leaf. Trees, hedges, big trees, little trees, shrubs, fields, thickets (I don't actually know what a thicket is, but I'm hazarding a guess) hedgerows, meadows, commons, sheep, cows and more trees, many of them obscured by my hair since the scarf has been blasted off my hair by G-force.

Eventually he stops vroooooooooooooM and after I've removed my nose from the windscreen I see we are once again at the foot of the Malvern Hills from whse peaks small ant-like people are descending.

'Shall we walk a little?' He says, vaulting the door. (Okay, not quite, but there is a sort of implied vault as I struggle out of the cracks in the upholstery which are welded to my back. I try in vain to look like the sort of woman who strides through undergrowth in tweed.

I check my teeth for lipstick and look at the little specks high up on the hillside and worry. 'We're not going up there, are we?'

'No, no, darling, don't be silly (he probably didn't say darling, but what else is artistic license for if not to make the universe the way you want it rather than the way it is) we're going horizontally for a little meander through the woods.'

'Horizontal, not vertical? You're sure?'

'Just a wander, darling (lay it on thick, why don't you Marion)...'

Much relieved I follow him biblically across the field, up the rutted path, missing only a donkey and a bundle tied on a stick. However, we do still seem to be walking upwards. My calves suddenly know what their hitherto unguessed at purpose in life is, other than separating my knees from my ankles - something that may not last long given my wobbliness.

Not only are we walking uphill, but we appear to be at an angle. I look hopefully at the small clump of trees ahead. These would be the woods, no doubt. Once there, it will flatten out. All will be fine, Marion, I reassure myself as I slog on. At the woods there is momentary shade and momentary relief until we turn the corner and the path takes another bend. Again upwards.

'Erm, I thought you said it was horizontal?' I pant, feeling every one of the 23 degrees of sun beating down on me in my black cardigan, very thick black opaque tights and dark blue spotty dress.

'Oh, it is, it is (my treasure). It will soon straighten out.'

I trudge on, picking up the pace a little because I fear that if I slow down I will melt and start slipping backwards down the path like mercury which, I may have failed to mention is rocky and uneven and still unremittingly at a 45 degrees - this time of incline. And, lest you have forgotten, may I remind you what I am wearing on my feet? Ballet slippers. The soles are like wafers.

Another corner. Another hill.

I'm now sweating and so out of breath I can't speak. This is when Worcester man springing ahead like the little goat he is decides to enquire about Fay Weldon's book launch.

'How was it?' He asks.

'Boring.' I answer. Fay. Forgive me. It wasn't boring but anything else would have required an explanation and I didn't have enough room in my lungs.

'Gosh it's hot,' I pant as I reach the end of the path and see yet another upward ribbon of hell unfurling ahead, and so stop, pretending to admire the view I cannot see for blood pounding behind my eyes.

'Take off your sweater then (sweetness).'

This would be a good time to further describe the blue spotty dress. It's strapless. Sometimes it's a skirt. This will tell you something about the ease of up and down built into its design but I didn't think I would be wearing it for a verse and two choruses of 'Oh I love to go a-wandering'. I look like I'm going to a cocktail party.

We are being now being passed by overweight Brummies in hiking boots and those multi pocketed shorts which have water bottles and compasses hanging from them and feature toggles for three in one cutlery sets, all of whom lead dogs who are very, very friendly. Meanwhile I'm wearing ballet slippers and a straples skirt/dress. Only then, half way up the freaking mountain does Worcester look down and check out my footwear to see if it's suitable.

'Are they all right for walking (Precious)?' he asks.

In answer, I don't fall over. Or hit him. That's a yes.

However, it is hot. I take off the sweater and tie it round my waist. The ribboned straps of my AP bra bought for an entirely different sort of breathless activity glint in the sunshine. Another party of people in pastel trousers that sail above their Birkenstocked ankles, holding a slobbery spaniel walk towards us. Townie, I can hear them think. Actually Townie w***** would be closer to the mark.

Eventually we reach the summit. I collapse on a little hillock and survey the patchwork of fields as swallows swoop and dive around us. Yes, I agree with Worcester, it's beautiful - well worth the coronary. Blissful, magical, I lie flat on my back in the grass and try to look as if I often yomp up hills in a strapless frock. There's a man of about 80 already sitting there, his eyes painfully red rimmed, his knuckles swollen around a horn handled walking stick with a ruddy slap of veins on each cheek.

'Yer, I don't run up like I used to when I were a lad,' he tells us as I gasp. 'I takes it nice and slow these days.' I hazard a guess that he still got up faster than I did and with a great deal less perspiration and a great deal more style.

Thankfully the walk downhill is easier and we do, eventually, reach the fabled woods.

'Isn't it wonderful,' I gush as I gambol (oh yes, I can gambol as long as it's a descending gambol and the car park is in sight) through the dappled sunlight.

'Hmm, I suppose. Actually, to tell the truth, I hate trees.' says Worcester having walked me through a mile of them.

'I hate trees, darling.' I remind him.

At last we agree on something.
Came in this morning and found a lightbulb on my desk with a post-it note stuck on it saying 'DEAD'.

I'm wondering what I am expected to do with it that the person who put it there couldn't.

Give it a state funeral?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Mail man

I took my blow dried hair and un'done' eyes to Fay Weldon's Booklaunch only to discover that I'd missed the spectacle of two well-known literary figures turning up at the Art's Club, as Private Eye would say (and no doubt shall say) so very tired and emotional that they were refused entry.  This is what happens when you have to rely on cosmetics to hide your need for private surgery (and also clears up the mystery of why my hairdresser insists I should have a fringe...) - you miss all the fun.  However the room was abuzz with gossip.

'Lots of attractive men here tonight,' said a friend after she had filled me in on the story.  I looked around the room. Being a bit taller than me, even in my three inch heels, this friend may be at a different altitude from me but unless she can see through walls I'm not sure we're at the same party. Apart from a senior colleague who commented on my Messalina dress (there's nothing like being compared to a classical promiscuous adultress to make a woman feel attractive) I don't think I spoke to one man who wasn't holding a wine bottle all evening. 'Oh but you must meet lots of chaps at work, what with all those authors and parties - someone is bound to come along and sweep you up,' says Worcester in much the same vein, touchingly imagining that Publishing is a non-stop parade of eligible men.  (Well actually I'm gilding the lily a bit here as he doesn't sound so much worried at the prospect as wistfully hopeful.) But even if it were true, my office is full of young, beautiful women who look like the back up singers on Robert Palmer's addicted to love and by the time any stray man gets to my desk, his eyes have burnt out.  All they do is hand me their coats and blindly feel for a seat.

'Who's that Scandinavian blonde?' Asked my carpenter friend who has been in the office doing some work for us recently.  'Which bloody one?'   I might have replied if I had deigned to answer at all.

Yes indeed, publishing is a great place to meet men.  Especially if you have a fondness for those who wear leather, carry a motorcycle helmet under one arm, or push a trolley.  Currently the only one who knows my name and comes in with any regularity is called Billy.  And he works for UPS.  Oh, I do like a man in uniform.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Hair pulling

Hairdressers. A great blessing. Especially when you reach the age when all women go blonde.

I'm there, going blonde at my kitchen table on which there are two take-away containers that until half an hour ago held the remains of last night's curry but, since being heated up by younger son, lie scraped out and greasy like a washed-up politician. Unlike, say, the dish he ate from, which sits beside the sink bathed only in its own filth. He meanwhile has returned to his place on the sofa, similarly bathed, to continue winning the UEFA cup with an all Palestinian team - and yep, I know that this - geographically speaking - is not possible, but leave it. I have. Along with his dishes.

The hairdresser has been here for an hour doing first eldest daughter who has begun to practice early for blondeness no doubt fearing that she has inherited the snowy genetic legacy of my grandmother who was white at the age of 32. She was booked a month ago to get daughter ready for Oxford (hair, apparently, an integral part of the PhD process) and me for my romantic weekend with Worcester man in Bruges where we had hoped not to emulate the eponymous film. In fact, I was more worried, haunted even, by the ghost of Observer columnist Kathryn Flett's melancholy travel piece written many years ago when she and her husband went off for their own romantic weekend and while there he told her he wanted a divorce. She then chronicled it exactly as it unravelled in the article. It was like reading emotional porn. I couldn't help but think that this was a very bad omen. Kathryn Flett's emotional meltdown, coupled by the fact that in the early days of our relationship my ex once told me he had to go on a business trip to Bruges and went instead on a driving holiday to Wales (I know go figure - who would lie to go to ruddy Wales?) have not endeared me to the place. I had hoped that Worcester and I winding our way in a lover's clinch, not to mention cliche, alongside lamplit canals would break the Curse of Bruges for all humanity.

Unfortunately he had to cancel a couple of weeks ago because it coincided with taking his son up to college. So Bruges is unredeemed as a place of bad bloody luck. But I'm still getting my hair done.

So I'm all blonded up with nowhere to go. Apart from Fay Weldon's book launch later in the evening at the Arts Club that, until a few hours previously, I thought was the Chelsea Arts Club (luckily I found out before I rocked up in Old Church Street.

'Shame about your weekend, hey?' The hairdresser says as she towels my hair and then does that thing where she squints at my wet hair and seems to know the colour is just the right shade of bottle.

'Yeah, it's a shame,' I agree while looking at the orange grease stains underneath the empty curry cartons.

'Are you planning something else then, hey? You should just tell him, man, you got to take me somewhere else now...' She taps her 't's out like tent poles in her crisp S'th 'Frican accent that occasionally lapses into Afrikaans when she gets really incensed which is often, especially when talking about her 'usband and 'es mother'.

I tell her another date has already been put forward. Though we're definitely not going to Bruges.

'Hm, I should bloody think so, man. 'E should spoil you. Make it up to you, hey?' She raps me on the scull with her pointy comb that the Vietcong could have used for torture. ' So, do you want a blow dry?'

I have plenty of time to do it myself, so I decline.

'Come on, aren't you going to a party? Let me blow dry your 'air. I won't charge you for it. I like it when you look nice. You look bloody great for your age, man. My mother 'as 'ad everything done and she don't look 'alf as good as you.'

I mumble modestly, but she's got the hair dryer out and neither of us can hear anything for the roar as she starts yanking my head over to one side with the force of her curly brush. As I said, torture...

She blows and curls, blows and curls and blows and curls as my head is pulled this way and the other and eventually she stands back and regards me approvingly though I still have one of her brushes wound round the hair on my crown like an axe.

'That's better. I like you to leave you looking really good. That blonde, man, it was the best thing you ever done. You got great 'air.'

I beam up at her feeling momentarily transformed into a Clairol advert.

'You know what you should do now?'

'No,' I smile, I like to think beatifically.

'Save up some money and at Christmas go away and treat yourself...'

I try to interrupt to tell her that this is exactly what I'm planning on doing - that my younger daughter and I are going off to Florence for a holiday - just the two of us - but before I get the words out she tugs the last hairbrush out of my hair and lets it fall over my brow in a big curl. Smoothing it out of the way, she strokes the side of my face and continues - all the time scrutinising me closely...

'...yeah, man, save up and go orf and have your eyes done. 'E won't cancel 'is bloody weekend away with you then, hey?'

As I said, sometime hair can be something of a torture...

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Queen's Square

Monday morning. I come downstairs to find the orchid that my ex-husband gave me for mothers' day (there are so many things wrong with that sentence that I'm not even going to begin to explain it) has shed its limp exhausted blooms across the kitchen floor as though for some forgotten bride. Kinda apt then. And if you've read this blog before I don't need to fill you in on the Easter Island montage of dirty (ie used once for water) glasses and assorted washing up. Take it as read.

In the sitting room, the younger son is asleep on the sofa recovering from his holiday in Bulgaria at a resort poignantly called 'Sunny Beach' where it rained every day.

'It was full of people horrible English lager louts,' he complained, adding that he spoke to more Bulgarian people on the bus coming back from the airport than he had in the whole time he was there - ie one.

'So what did you do all week?'

'Drank...' he said, but he would be quick to add, as you roll your eyes in synch with mine, that he's not 'English'. So there's the distinction. In every one of his Facebook photographs he is to be seen with his arms round his friends in the open mouthed 'waaaay' expression that denotes youths having 'fun' in a club. Those poor Bulgarians - forty odd years of Communism and what does the brave new world of freedom bring them? Drunks.

'Do you like my t-shirt?' He asked when he arrived back. It had a picture of a footballer on the front (what do you mean, which one - do I look like someone who can differentiate between men with shaved heads dressed identically? Come to think of it, those pictures of my son with his friends, not actually that sure which one he is... )   He then rotated. 'It has an exclamation mark on the back. It's a team shirt - when we're together they spell out "lads" but I thought it was naff and said I wasn't having a letter. That's why I got punctuation.' So there you have it. That's how you can tell them apart. At least from the back. I'm wondering what they look like in the club when they are all affectionately inebriated: sLa!d? D!aLs. ad!Ls? What wonderful ambassadors for our country...

The Builder rings the bell at 7am to collect his tools which have been living in my brand new unhinged cupboard under the stairs in which I haven't been able to store anything because he's been using it a tool room. Instead, the old contents of the cupboard plus all the coats have been piled in the sitting room, now joined by son's suitcase and laundry. It's a relief to put my coat on for the first time since May (Wales was an exception) and leave the house before I become unhinged myself. Instead I make lists all the way to work money I need to find, work I need to do, phone calls I need to make, food I need to buy, jobs I need to finish and arrive in Russell Square feeling as limp as exhausted as my dead orchid blooms.

Then a man walks up to me on Queen's Square. There's a worried woman beside him who has obviously been crying. She looks haunted and distracted as he waves a brown envelope under my eyes and asks me if I know where the address is. I confess I cannot see it without my glasses and so he reads it aloud while I fumble in my bag for my specs.

'The Royal Neurological Hospital,' he says in a northern accent, just as the words swim into view along with the admission time of 8:30 that someone has written in blue biro. I see the woman is carrying a small holdall.

I point them in the right direction, immensely grateful that I'm not going that way myself and stop counting my chores and immediately start on my blessings instead.

Friday, 4 September 2009

I'll go no more a-wailing...

'You had to make it sound worse than it was, didn't you?' asks Eva, doubtfully.

And yes, it's true.  Let me reassure you both (single reader and single friend).  Wales was not all wailing.  For comic effect I may have turned up the volume on the misery to deafening proportions but in fact we had a very funny and restful time.  Eva, who is the kindest and jolliest person I know - as well as a wonderful hostess - is patience personified, and was - as ever - a beacon of good humour who laughed obligingly and heartily at all my jokes until we were both bent double like cackling old crones.  Sitting swapping gossip in one's pyjamas (or purple silk) half the day, staying in bed till four pm - great food, great company, crap weather - what's not to like?                                                                                                                                             

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Last Wail

We go home via Devon.

Devon. Yes, I know it's not on the way from South West Wales but nevertheless we go back via Devon. It takes us 12 hours with a short stop at a Gallery on the edge of Dartmoor and another thirty minute visit to an artist who lives on the edge of a birch forest in Somerset.

'You realise that he's going to think we're a lesbian couple.' I say when I trail into the artist's studio after her. 'What's worse is that you're the one wearing the skirt and the heels and I'm the one with my hair scraped back wearing old torn jeans and trainers. I don't want to be the butch one. If I'm going to be a fake lesbian I'm at least going to be the one wearing lipstick.'

'So put on some lipstick,' she says.

'It's lost, remember?'

'Yes, along with my handbag and ta...' she adds frostily.

'Okay, okay, never I'm the butch one.'

Wails 6

After the excitement of the tea dance Eva decides we should go for a walk. 'It's not really raining, now. It's only Welsh rain,' She says and we set off up a vertical hill.

She's right. It's isn't really raining. It's like being sprayed with a mist of damp grass scented perfume.

Oh no, it doesn't really start to pelt down until we could do with a rest and we've crossed the stile and are half way across the hills. I'd love to pretend to stop and admire the view so I can catch my breath but there isn't anywhere dry to sit down and there's no view.

'There are 400 hundred different kinds of lichen on these hills,' she informs me as we wade through thigh high dripping ferns, purple heather and yellow gorse, but before I can ask her if she has personally counted each one we are bent double under the weight of the rain, ploughing through a muddy track in the middle of gray cloud bank and I'm too busy keeping my eye on the path, after wiping away swathes of water, to make jokes.

'We're going to the woods over there,' she calls pointing at a fog-drenched haze through which absolutely no trees are visible. In fact, nothing is visible. The rain is now lashing against my back and has soaked my jeans which have stuck to my legs like abused children and my hair which was flying around my face in an alarmed fashion until the weight of the water plastered it to my neck and chest.

'Is your mac waterproof?' she asks, a tad after it might have been a useful question.

'No. It's from Jigsaw. It's for fashionable rain. It's showerproof.'

'Well, this is only a shower. It will stop soon, you'll see.'

By now the water has soaked through to my shirt and is running down between my breasts like a mountain stream. It's probably about then that it starts to rail - a sort of wet mixture of rain and hail that lands with the force of a sniper's bullet and the random profusion of a machine gun, and water starts filling up my wellie boots. We're skirting the edge of a precipitous cliff and I'm only glad that I can't see my hand in front of my face as it seems too late to mention that I have a morbid fear of heights.

'Doesn't everybody,' says Worcester man, later when I relay the highlights of the weekends. Possibly, though, not everyone wants to throw up and freeze to the spot when confronted with a sheer drop.

We've now been walking in weather for thirty minutes. And then the rail gives up its half-hearted fight against the elements and turns to old fashioned plain and simple hailstones that cover us like chick feed thrown by a particularly vengeful God.

'Up there, that's the half way mark.' Eva says pointing again into the void. All I can see ahead is mud.



Mud and more mud.

And then far below us - a foot from the edge of the path - sea.

Black faced, black arsed sheep in the field beside us are regarding us balefully as if thinking to themselves, 'what in the holy name of God are you doing clambering up a ruddy cliff path in the sheeting rain and hail when you could be home in front of the wood fire? We don't have a choice, and yet people say we're stupid...' I couldn't agree more.

It continues to hail. I can't hear a thing that Eva is shouting over her shoulder as I follow her single file up the excremental track because of the noise of hailstones slamming into my plastic coat. My jeans have reached saturation point and are seeping water, I can feel yet more water sloshing around inside my wellie boots every time I take a step. I feel like I'm wearing a nappy. I'm thinking of Stalingrad and forced marches and foot rot.

And then we reach the headland and the wind starts to gust.

Any second I fear I'm going to be blown off the cliff, or I would, had not both my legs been ankle deep in rich brown, gluey mud. 'There's a great view of Cardigan Bay,' says Eva.


All I can see is rain, falling like knives.

When we eventually reach the half-way point I don't bother to stop and appreciate the scenery as you can't stand up in the wind, and the sea is wreathed in thick mist. I'm leaning at 45 degrees like the fabled haggis, one leg braced against the bank (tho' of course the haggis has one leg conveniently shorter than the other so it can run round hills, in one direction) just to try and keep my balance.

'Just follow me, you'll be fine. I know my way,' says Eva. I plod after her, squelch, squelch, squelch, squelch.

'Oh look, more sheep.' She's says enthusiastically.

I barely raise my head. I'm over sheep. Really over sheep. We walk on but there is no avoiding them - they're standing there in the path in front of me. I risk a glance, trying not to notice the sheer drop down into the turgid ocean.

'Erm, actually Eva, they're not sheep, they're horses.' I note. 'A great many unfriendly looking horses.'

'Really! Oh Yes,' she wipes water off her steamed up glasses, and crows, hugely delighted. 'They're the wild ponies. We don't usually see them in this part. '

Nope. Just like 'we don't usually get wet' and 'it never rains for long' and 'last week we had sun every day so bring your swimsuit...'

The ponies look back at us equally unimpressed, straddling the path.

'They don't seem to moving out of the way.' Eva says. Sure enough the ponies are stationary. They also have foals with them.

'I'm not sure it's a good idea to go too close. Animals can be funny if they have young and they think they are threatened.' I say - suddenly the country expert. Two months writing a farming book and I'm David bloody Attenborough. My words are snatched out of my mouth like a handbag on Oxford Street. The ponies do not move.

'Oh well, we'll just have to walk round them,' says Eva and sets off piste through a forest of prickly gorse and ferns and into a bog into which she promptly sinks with a loud sucking noise. I hesitate, but the only other way round is doing a Thelma and Louise over the cliff. For a nanosecond it seems like the better option.

I follow, keeping a wary eye on the ponies. The bog swallows my ankles. I'm seeing helicopters in my mind circling overhead, pulling me out of the waist high marsh and then Eva's phone beeps. She has a signal. Now, freaking now she has a signal! Quick, call air-sea rescue. But it's a text message from her son in Bali. Apparently it's very nice but a bit touristy. She stops in the bog to read it aloud. I sink in a little deeper.

'Don't you think we should move a bit faster?' but no. Eva is texting back.

'Watch out for stallions.' I add, again showing my superior knowledge of animal husbandry as some of the ponies begin to snort and stamp their hooves.

'How would I know which one is a stallion?' asks Eva.

'It would be the one with bollocks. If there's anything hanging down, keep away from it.' James Ruddy Herriot. Eat your heart out. We're now slithering down hill. I slip and land in the heather and gorse. It's like sticking your hand into a bag of pins.

'Just keep following me. Down the path.' She says.

There's a torrent of water. I think this is what she means by a path.

'It's not usually a river.' She adds.

I can't help it. I begin to laugh. I laugh so much I double over, safe in the knowledge that if I wet myself it wouldn't make one damn bit of difference. It might only warm me up. I'm still laughing when we arrive in the relative shelter of the woods where every time the wind blows it's like someone has just dumped a gallon of water in a bucket from overhead trees on to our backs. The rains is now in our face like needles. I'm reminded of the episode of the Wire where they talk about killing people with nail guns.

Please. Just make it quick. I think, and realise that my fear of falling into the sea has completely gone. I'd almost jump into it if I thought it would put me out of my misery.

'Look, this is sooo beautiful.' She urges me to admire a huddle of moss covered tree trunks. Everything is green. Green and spongey. And wet. Very, very, very drippy, primeval, wet. 'It's so romantic. If you were with a lover, this is where you would stop and kiss.'

'Well afraid you are out of luck there, Eva. I'm not ruddy kissing you.' More downhill paths, now with tree roots hidden in the mud. I can't quite believe it when I finally see a sign that says the car park is a mile away. And then we reach a tarmac road.

Similarly, the people in the car park sitting in the warmth of their camper van can't quite believe it when we slosh up to the car and begin stripping down to our underwear. I pour half a pint of muddy water the colour of coffee out of each Wellington boot, wring out my socks and my jumper and peel my jeans off my legs, taking some of the skin with it. I at least have a pashmina that I can wrap around myself. Eva keeps on her blouse and the two of us, a clammy blob of white, rather large thighs and big industrial bras climb into the front of her BMW and drive off home for a bath.

'We could jump in together, if you like,' I joke. 'I've got my swimsuit with me for modesty.'

'Don't make me laugh. I'll pee myself,' Eva giggles and puts her food down hard on the accellerator as we drive out of the bay. 'Look,' she says, 'I think those might be some seals.' She points out at the sea and I turn my head hopefully.

Dear God that girl is blind. How did I allow myself to follow her across a bloody cliff in a gale force hail storm?

'Mmm - yes, Eva those would be the rare blue plastic buoy seals of Pembrokeshire who swim together at regular intervals of ten yards connected by rope... Another unusual sighting to go with our encounter with the flock of giant dappled gray-maned sheep of South Wales.

Later she points out a hawk that may or may not be a red kite.

It's a fricking seagull as far as I can see.

Wails 5

The next morning it is raining. Hard. Eva and I pick plums from the tree in a marshy field in her garden in our dressing gowns and wellies, then go back to bed with our various books until lunch time. There is nothing else to do. The television has no reception and we've already stalked everyone she has been to college with and found her first boyfriend, as well as the person she started the Lithuanian Society with at Sussex University in 1973. I've lost my taste for stalking. I don't want to know anything about anybody, but nevertheless I find myself dictating another letter to the long lost boyfriend.

'Dear Alexander,' I begin

'I'm not sure whether you remember me...' I say as Eva types. I pause, wondering what to say next.

'...but you were the first man I slept with,' adds Eva, laughing. 'You'd think he would remember that, wouldn't you?

Hmm. I have no expertise on this matter. The last man I went out with didn't even know my surname.

At quarter to four, fifteen minutes after we've finally decided to get dressed, Sheila arrives in a car full of dog hair and straw - though thankfully no dog- and drives us several hundred miles through twisted country lanes of teeming rain to an Arts Centre for a tea dance.

I don't even dance.

Inside it's daunting. Farmers and their wives in Wedding Outfits are sitting around the room where in place of the promised De Souza Trio there's a CD playing Englebert Humperdink singing 'The Last Waltz' to which a few couples swirl round the floor. Tea is laid out on a long trestle table.

'That's Tony,' Sheila says of a tall, red faced man in grey polyester trousers, red shirt, and blue striped tie. 'No doubt 'e'll drag you round the floor if you like.'

I don't, but Eva looks interested by the idea. Tony is the local builder and single. It's immediately evident why.

Shelia slips out of her shoes and into her dancing pumps and is soon off - tall, regal and beautifully poised, dancing a quickstep with a small stooped man wearing his glasses on a chain around his neck who looks like he needs a zimmer frame, but who turns out to be her dance instructor. Another woman in a gold pleated skirt and gold shoes glides past in the arms of her husband looking every inch the professional, while yet another silver-haired couple do the foxtrot (at least I think that's what it was, either that or they were jumping about mid-step for no good reason).

'He's got eight kids and app-arent-ly was un'appy in his marr-iage. Not that 'is wife knew an-y-thing about't. It came as a big sur-pris-e to 'er. But now 'e's getting married to Ger'al'dine the min'ute 'is divorce comes through - 'e met 'er 'ere.' whispers Sheila in my ear between dances. 'But they're not sleeping to-gether until they actually get mar-ried,' she adds.

'Tell Marion about the commune... and the swingers who lived in the greenhouse,' Eva urges and Sheila, flushed and smiley from her various exertions fills me in on the local sexual shenanigans. Well I suppose they have to do something to make up for there being no South Bank Centre.

'Oh I got a mobile, did I tell you?' Sheila whoops and produces a tiny phone from her bag.

'Great, give me the number,' says Eva, 'and then I can text you.'

'I can't read it tho'. The let-ters are too small.' She squints at the dial and then hands the phone to Eva who taps in her number. 'Now, you ring me and I'll have a missed call from you and that way I'll know your number too,' says Eva.

Sheila presses dial. Nothing happens. 'No re-ception.' She says. 'I can only get re-ception when I'm up in the tractor on the top field. It's an awful lot of bother to go up there just for a text message.'

Eva looks at her phone. 'No, I haven't got a signal here either,' she says sadly.

I don't bother looking at mine. It's on the window ledge back at the cottage. Nobody is texting me and so the lack of signal is a convenient fiction to explain why my phone doesn't ring as I try to banish thoughts of Worcester man holed up in a hotel room with a Daily Telegraph lovely who isn't me.

Tea is served. The De Souza trio turns out to be the De Souza One - an old man with a rather warty face who doesn't look particularly Portuguese and who plays the piano. 'Per-'aps he was darker when 'e was younger,' Sheila suggests. Dancers flock to the table. It's another four quid for a cup of hot water with a tea bag swimming in it and a choice of dry cake, dry scone the size of a cornish pasty with jam (the cream has run out - and the 'ad a tech-nich-al problem with the mixer...?!?) or a dry meringue . (No spell check on this computer, so I may, inadvertently have led you to believe that there is a saucy Latin American dance being served with a hot beverage but we both know that would be extremely unlikely).

A few of the women look as though they have trouble walking, let alone dancing. One has a stiff leg that she drags around in a wide circle like the boom on a boat, another shuffles and yet another limps. However, people in glass houses and all that... I have nothing wrong with either of my legs and yet I still can't waltz to save my life, as Sheila informs a lovely young farmer with dark eyes and red cheeks when he asks her if 'any of your friends are dancing,' . She then rushes off to jive with a man in a jumper and a knitted waistcoat who will be perspiring heavily by the end of the dance. 'I 'ope you can't see my knick-ers.' she says as she prepares to twirl and spin.

We fish out our tea bags from the tepid water and Sheila, panting now, announces that she is off next week to ride across the steppes in Mongolia where she will be camping in sub-zero temperatures. 'You must come to one of our dinners and tell us all about it,' says Eva.

'No, I'd be totally out of my depth up in London with all you smart people.'

Eva and I splutter unattractively through our tea. 'Don't be silly, none of us have been on a riding holiday to Mongolia. I think coming to Wales is quite intrepid.' I say.

'No, you don't understand, our idea of a girls' night out is something here called (and she says something un-reproduceable in Welsh) which means girls of the area and it usually involves going to a pub and getting chips. It's boring. We 'ave people who come and give us talks on their tea towel collection or twenty different types of broccoli. It's like Calendar Girls it is. Our next event is a local girl coming to talk to us about her ter-min-al illness. And that was after there was some discussion about whether she would still be alive to do it'

But then one of the other women said, "oh don't worry, her sister could always come along and talk about it for her if she's dead".

Really. It's that exciting...'

The old guy at the piano shuffles back to his seat with his walking stick and the CD plays Acker Bilk's 'Stranger on the shore.'

I start singing along in my trumpet voice.

Really. It's that exciting.

Wails 4

We drive to Fishguard in the evening for a jazz festival.

By 'jazz festival' it means that one of the pubs on the main street has a three piece blues band that 'used to have a really good guitarist...'. We eat supper in a local restaurant and then stand shivering in the street at ten o'clock in yet another orderly queue to get into the pub. There's a bouncer on the door. I haven't done this since I was a teenager but it is not making me feel young. A small woman in black with a face like a pug and 'security' embroidered on her jumper holds her hand up and refuses us entrance.

Beside us throngs of local youth wearing no clothes promenade accompanied by men wearing tattoos. There are lots of mini skirts and strapless tops. Anyone would think it's summer.

'It is summer,' says Eva.

I'm wearing a frock, a cardigan, a pashmina and a big black mac.

It strikes me suddenly that I should also be wearing a handbag. Eva lent me hers and I know I had it a second ago as I just took out my credit card in the restaurant and paid for dinner. Unaccountably, however, it has vanished.

The queue shows no such tendency. Someone has to leave before we can enter. Inside it's jammed with semi-naked people and body art but it looks like we are to be denied the pleasure or rubbing piercings with the locals because I have to go back to the restaurant and see if I've left my bag there.

The waitresses look at us as if they have never seen us before in their lives despite the fact that we left less than five minutes earlier and were one of only three tables in the whole dining room. I feel like I'm in The Wicker Man, what with this and the nakedness. All we need is Brit Eckland writhing around singing and banging on the wall. I feel I could do with a good bang on the wall - I mean of the angry, frustrated sort. Obviously.

'Can I help you? Were you wantin' a table?' she asks.

'Erm, we just ate here.' I say. Her face shows no recognition whatsoever. I explain that I've lost my bag.

'Where were you sittin'?' asked the sweet-faced dark hairded girl who served us.

I point to the cleared away table.

She looks at it as though it had just sprung forth from the earth.

'Oh really? What tonight?'

'Yes, we just paid a few minutes ago.'

'Are you sure you 'ad it with you?'

'Yes I took the money and the card out of it to pay. Maybe you picked the bag up with napkins and it has been accidentally thrown in with the laundry?' I suggest. It was a very small bag.

'Oh, I'll check,' she says as the girl who took the credit card from us (and presumably the tip) walks past us as though we were ghosts.

There's no bag. Definitely no bag.

Eva decides to call the police just in case it has been handed in while I stroll down the marine walk (in the pitch black) to a point where there's a signal to call my bank.

Apparently my bank haven't heard of me either and I can't report the card missing because they can't find any trace of me having an account with them. Meanwhile Eva is talking to the local constabulary.

'Well it's my handbag, but it was my friends card,' I hear her say. 'She had a bank card (what was it Marion, Abbey National?) and some cash.' Pause for Welsh policeman's response. 'Anything else? I don't think so (Did you have anything else in it Marion?)'

'Yes,' I hiss, while getting extremely annoyed that my bank doesn't have me listed by my postcode or either of my surnames and seem to think I should have memorised my credit card number.'

'I also had a lipstick - bright red, Nars, in a black case...'

'...and a lipstick bright red, Nars, in a black case,' She parrots, 'Oh wait a minute. I think I put a tampon in the side pocket,' says Eva to the policeman.' Another pause for police response while I think that may be a bit more information than the local constabulary needed.

I want to take the phone off her and say it wasn't mine.

'So, yes, that's right - an Abbey National Card. Forty pounds in cash, a red lipstick, very red - a bit too bright if you ask me. And a tampon,' She repeats. I'm surprised she doesn't tell them the brand. 'No I don't think it was stolen. I think it must just have fallen off her arm in the street and somebody has picked it up.'

Presumably someone in garish lipstick who is menstruating...

Wails 3

In the late afternoon we update Eva's profile on Guardian Soulmates where I try to make her sound less like a West London Party Animal on crack and tone down her love for Scandinavian jazz. As she lolls on the sofa with her laptop on her knee wearing fisherman's socks and her son's track suit bottoms, this is not a difficult task. While I am dictating her qualities, she asks what Worcester man looks like and, obligingly, I switch over to The Telegraph where he was looking for love before he settled for me, and call up his picture.

'Last logged on: Yesterday' it says in bold type above his lovely smiling face.

'Oh, he looks nice,' says Eva, as I desperately try to ignore the glaringly obvious truth that Mr Worcester is still pushing his trolley around the supermarket long after I thought he had stopped shopping.

'Erm, yes.' I say embarrassed.

'Where did you say he was this weekend?'

'Camping. With his family. In Dorset.'

'Oh well, don't worry. I'm sure he's just being curious.'

Curiosity is not a good sign, I think.

'I am cheerful, good-natured and...' I dictate and Eva continues tapping away like a little woolly woodpecker, but I'm not really concentrating, I'm looking for my mobile phone so I can text Worcester man.

'I can't get a signal,' I say waving my phone around the room.

'What are you?'


'No you won't. I'm on 02 too and it never works up here. Try out in the front garden.'

I walk out in the rain and stand by the front gate holding my phone up like Liberty waving the flag. Still no darn signal.

'You could call him,' says Eva and hands me the house phone.

'It's dead.'

'Oh yes, that's right. It isn't working. I forgot. I need to get new batteries.'

'This is how horror films start.' I say, and she laughs. Cheerfully and good-naturedly.

'So you mean to say we're in the middle of fricking nowhere and we don't have a working phone between us?'

'At least we've got broadband. Send him an email'

'He's camping.'

'Never mind, you should put your own profile up, see if he's a match for you.' She laughs again. 'What shall I say I'm looking for?' She's back peering at her profile on the screen.

'I don't know. It doesn't much matter, does it? You'll get what you get and it won't be what you asked for.' I've lost my enthusiasm for internet dating all of a sudden.

Just then the lights flicker ominously and there's a crack of thunder.

'Don't worry. We've got plenty of candles,' she says.

But I am worried. A bit wet and deflated and worried.

Wails 2

Next morning we drive into Newport and walk by the sea.  The rain has finally stopped and miraculously the sun has come out.  However, banish all thoughts of rural Wales and blink a couple of times.  Everyone who, like me, is escaping the Notting Hill Carnival, is here in the land without vowels, walking around in mufti - hairy blonde knees, Birkenstocks, baggy shorts and waterproof jackets flapping like sails.  Cut glass English accents (they bring their vowels with them you see) shatter the silence as Mr and Mrs West London (with obligatory spaniel) queue outside the butcher in an orderly fashion while my sights are set on Spar next door where there's no queue and there is vodka.  We spend a week's wages on olives and a lot of different stuff with spelt on or in it from the Health Food Shop, then walk down to the harbour and along the cliffs.  Eva points out various homes in the village:  'That one there belongs to the Xs - they have a big house in Ladbroke Square, and the man who owns that place with the scaffolding is something big in the city - they're completely renovating it...'  Up on the cliffs the grass is full of wet dog and the sea is like fresh plaster.  Some brave souls are even swimming.  'We could go kayaking later,' she suggests.

And then you could kill me, I think.

Thankfully it has clouded over rather ominously by the time we finish our walk and there is no more talk of messing about in small fibreglass vessels.  Instead we have grilled peaches with prosciutto from the Ottolenghi cookbook, with leaves and edible flowers from the 'man in the village' who grows them in a polytunnel.  Eva puts on some music - Olympia's Lament and we settle by the tiny wood-burning stove the size of a matchbox that glows like a kissed mouth in the gloom of the afternoon and watch the soft Welsh rain fall like mist into the soft Welsh grass.

'It's so restful here,' says Eva as we both look wistfully out of the window.

'Voglio, voglio mourire...' sings Emma Kirkby.

Wails 1

The train dragged its feet into Swansea station seemingly as reluctant as we were to arrive since the heavens had chosen just that moment to unleash vertical rain which, by the time we were under the corrugated roof of the platform, had turned to a deafening drum roll of hail.

The August Bank Holiday Weekend.

In my suitcase I had a swimsuit.  Somehow or another I didn't think I would be using it.  Similarly the open toed sandals seemed to be an even bigger mistake as my feet slipped out of the sodden soles and I walked away from them, barefoot on the platform in the deluge.  The connecting train that was apparently leaving for two unconnected destinations at exactly the same time from the same platform Carmarthen and  Caerfyrddin, was twenty minutes delayed.  I called Eva.  She was breezily cheerful at the news, as you would be if you were tucked up warm in TK Max buying Betty Jackson dresses.  I tried not to snap.  There would have been little point.  She wouldn't have heard me over the hail and the succeeding thunder. 

Lightening flashed across the black and blue bruise of the sky as I shivered so much that the wheels on my suitcase rattled on the concrete.  And the cafe was closed.

'How much further?' I asked when I eventually arrived in Carmarthen/Caerfyrddin (when we were Anglicising all these ruddy Welsh place names you would have thought we would have come up with something that at least remotely similar and not merely a word that begins with the same letter of the alphabet) and she and her friend Sheila had stopped laughing at me in my little ghost dress, bare legs and gold sandals.  ('I see you're a Welsh virgin, then Mar-i-o-n-n-e,' Sheila had chortled adding more syllables into my name than I thought linguistically possible.  I kept my last visit when I arrived wearing satin slippers and silk trousers, to myself.)

'Oh about an hour.'

'An ho....?'

'To Sheila's farm, and then another forty minutes to my cottage...'

It was dark when we finally drew up on the gravel and let ourselves into a tiny stone house which was maybe 10 degrees colder than the car (which had a heater, you see...) and Eva showed me to my bedroom into which she had thoughtfully put a radiator in case I got chilly.  I wished I had brought flannel pyjamas instead of the purple silk nightdress and matching dressing gown.  I wished this even more two days later when it was raining so hard that we didn't bother to get dressed until two thirty in the afternoon (to go to a tea dance in a nearby village) and simply went back to bed and watched the weather from the relative warmth of the duvet for the morning.

'Shall I open the bottle of wine you brought?'  She asked as I put on several sweaters and glued myself to the wood burning stove which she was stoking like the mouth of hell.

The fact that she even had to ask made me quake with fear.

'I don't usually drink when I'm here,' she added.

If I had boots, my heart would now be in them.

This is why St Bernard's have brandy round their necks...