Saturday, 30 July 2011


Saturday, 23rd July 2011

It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that I finally got into the passenger seat of a car packed to the gunnels on Saturday afternoon. The last job was done, the last thing thought of - and for anything else it was too late. I was officially on my way to holiday.

The journey down to Portsmouth was mercifully unremarkable - free of the dramas of flat tyres and broken down cars or horrific traffic jams all conspiring to make us miss the ferry. No, we managed to get to Portsmouth with half an hour in hand in which to enjoy a quick drink at a sun-kissed bar and write two important birthday cards (to my parents) and get them in the post. Finding a letter box around the absurd set of dual carriageways and one-way systems which beset the area around the ports proved more testing - another scraped alloy wheel as I pointed to a red pillar down a side road and N attempted some sort of emergency stop in two lanes of traffic. Much squabbling later we finally found our way back to it, having abandoned that first attempt; it was sited outside the Naval Acadamy which was looking decidedly shut and deserted up the dead-end street, rather like the post box. It also said on the little plaque that the next collection was, somewhat inexplicably, Tuesday. Still, I threw caution to the wind and chucked them in anyway before we missed the ferry.

Safely on board, we then found we couldn't open the boot any more. This was going to make unpacking the car at the other end somewhat tedious, but we left that as a problem for another day and went, under slight pressure from the crew to leave the car deck, to find our cabins. Needless to say, we always book too late to get any with a window but since we go straight to eat when we get on board, and in St Malo it's always raining, this does not strike us as a loss.

So, overnight bags deposited, we headed off to the 'posh' restaurant, always citing the first time we used this ferry crossing four years ago when we had the blow-out on the motorway and caught the boat by the skin of our teeth, falling on the maitre d' of the restaurant with a certain lingering desperation in our eyes. He responded and found us a table and it was one of the best meals we've ever had - purely because of the relief of being there, eating good food and drinking good wine, after the stress we had undergone to reach that point. This being the fourth year running, of course it doesn't now hold the same thrill, but nevertheless it marks the start of the holidays and it is always good to go out on deck and watch Portsmouth recede under a pink-hued sky. Such fleeting freedom from domesticity is always a moment to relish.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Tyring Times

Monday 18th July

So here I am again at Selecta Tyre in Buxton, seemingly my second home. Tyres are a bit of a theme in my life at the moment. I was here just a few weeks back getting my snow tyres removed (safe to say that even here in the High Peak the risk of snow had passed by June!); I was meant to go back and get the bolts checked after 50 miles (didn't) and am now here instead with N's car which always bowls us a googly just days before we are due to travel long journeys in it, fully laden with luggage, children et al. We've had blow-outs on the fast lane of the motorway down to catch the ferry; we've had collisions with motor-cross bikers on our lane as we've set out for holidays; and on Saturday we managed to hit the blasted pot hole that's been on the main lane out of the village for nearly a year (a foot wide and four inches deep, right on a corner) and knackered the tyre. (Mercifully the wheel didn't get cracked which was what happened just a few months back, if you remember, and would have meant another emergency trip to the welders.) The tracking, of course, has also been thrown and has had to be sorted. The same pothole has also thrown the tracking on my car, so I need to come and have that sorted at some point, but in the meantime I am also purchasing a further new tyre for my car too because, the other Friday, I managed to burst one reversing out of my own drive. How so? you may rightly ask...

Well, with the usual extraordinary bad timing which rules my life with a rod of iron, I had four tree surgeons and four builders who had been swarming around house and garden all day causing mess and chaos and who all decided to leave at 4.30 on the dot. So just as I was meant to be getting in the car to collect four girls (four seems a bit of a theme here too) from the bus stop, I was suddenly and pressingly required to discuss the works, write cheques and God knows what (not helped by the fact that one of the tree surgeons is an ex-babysitter of charm and good looks and a well-honed body who I was catching up with - he was a favourite with the girls, no surprise, and is also a fantastic yachtsman who is winning left, right and centre and has been up for young Derbyhire Sports Personality of the Year - but I digress). Two of the girls I was meant to be collecting were not even mine - extra responsibility, therefore, to make sure no-one got crushed crossing the busy and rather dangerous main road (the bus stop is rather perplexingly sited on a sweeping, fast corner which is a little odd in this world of Health and Safety madness: I think it would make more sense to allow me to take a not-even-wet umbrella into a shop and have the bus stop sited somewhere considerably less dangerous than confiscate my umbrella - an incident which happened in Zara in Manchester on Saturday - and have a bus stop pouring out young children on one of the most dangerous parts of a main road. But who am I to say, eh?).
Sorry, digressing again. Back to the story. I therefore left in a bit of a rush and N had left my car in a ridiculous position, wedged up against the side of the house in the corner of the courtyard, and I had to perform about 20 manoevres (and I'm a good driver) to get it out. However, because I was now all stressed and in a hurry and concentrating hard on the left-hand side of the narrow exit from the courtyard (which you have to reverse out of) where the rough dry-stone wall cunningly splays out at it's base (and has claimed many a victim), I completely failed to pay attention to the other side where there is a stone plinth which people used to use to stand on to mount their horses; and because the wheel was at an angle which it isn't normally because of the ridiculous position which N left my car in (so it's all his fault of course!), I managed to completely burst my front tyre. So, four girls, probably already splattered on the tarmac at the bus stop, now had their Responsible Parent with a burst tyre in her own drive. Stunning. Now, this is where the absurd luxury of a third car (sorry - it was going cheap from N's work, if that helps to justify it), comes into its own. I at least had another vehicle, wheels intact (albeit with bald tyres, it now transpires - another trip to Selecta beckons before it will pass its upcoming MOT), in which to go and scrape bodies off the tarmac.

Thus I arrive hassled and apologetic (as ususal) and pathetically grateful that they are all intact and playing happily on the swings and climbing frames at the pub opposite the bus stop (and at least not in it ordering pints). Now, one of the great things about living in this village is that I have a lovely garage mechanic at the bottom of my lane. Given that my car is now 10 years old, and that N's has always got something wrong with it, this is very handy indeed. So I bobbed in there on my way back home and waved my female-in-distress flag and got a promise out of him to come and change the burst tyre for me (so that I could conceal the evidence from N) when he had finished what he was doing. And needless to say, the poor man pitches up and blocks me in the drive again just as I was rushing out to get L to her ballet lesson (late again). So just as he'd opened up the van and got all his tools out (so to speak) I had to ask him to move. (There were people who didn't buy our house before we did because of the drive situation and I am beginning to understand why!).

Now, I didn't drive my car all weekend, but N did. And he put it back in the same ridiculous position in the courtyard. So on Monday morning I go to take the girls to the school bus stop (late) and have to perform same silly manoevres with same silly levels of mounting stress and frustration and am concentrating so hard on the left hand side of the drive (sound familiar?) that I failed to pay attention to the right and CRUNCH! Yep, that will be the wing mirror then. Smashed to smithereens. I could have wept. I simply couldn't believe that, after eight years of rushing in and out of this driveway, I had inflicted major damage to my poor old car twice on the trot.

I kind of thought that that would be the end of the bad luck, bearing in mind that I already have my work cut out for me getting the family away for five weeks to France and all the sorting, packing, organising, laundry, ironing, admin, fridge clearing and garden panicking that that task entails - let alone the hair appointments, the optician appointments, the entertaining children in the holidays activities which also accompany it. But no. Last Friday (a rare sunny day) I passed through our back hallway only to notice a puddle of water on the floor. I looked up. Huge crack in ceiling, plus drip. Oh. Can't leave that for five weeks. At which point the doorbell goes. Woman to read the Water Meter. How serendipitous is that? So I take her down to the cellar where the meter resides, only to find water dripping there too - from the main stop cock which the plumber had 'operated' (Water Board Woman's word, not mine) just the day before when he was fixing a broken tap in the girls' bathroom. So I now have leak in hall and cellar (which may or may not be being caused by leaking loo). Good. Call to plumbers again, burst into tears (rather unexpectedly and embarrassingly - think I'm rather stressed) and get someone booked in to come and check it all out on Tuesday. So, just as I have rid myself of 16 weeks of builders, I now am about to have my house ripped apart by plumbers while I am trying to pack and sort and organise for going away. And, of course, just as the children are on holiday, the weather has turned unspeakable and is doing nothing but piss with rain (that wind-swept slanting kind which you should really only get in winter) with the clouds touching the fields, so I can't even kick them outside.

On the same day that I discovered the leak in the hall, I also found myself peering into the washing machine wondering why I couldn't open the door. I turned the whole thing off and waited the requisite few minutes for the door lock to release, only to be met with a flood of water and a very wet kingize duvet cover. My faithful Bosch had suddenly decided it no longer wanted to spin and drain. So I remove sodden linen and wearily ring up appliance engineer who, mercifully, had left his details on a helpful little sticker on the top of the machine from when he came to fix the dryer. The dear man said he could come on Sunday morning to fix it and that is indeed what he did (cause of malfunction = numerous shreds of something hard and unknown, highly likely to have been lurking in youngest's school blazer pockets). But you just don't need it do you? Why do these things befall you just when you are at your most squeezed?

So that was five things, could there be any more? I hope to God that I have been punished enough. And to the villager who saw me UTTERLY lose it in the lane after the pothole incident on Saturday (you know who you are), I can only apologise. If it had been caught on camera it would have seemed like a scene out of Fawlty Towers where Basil rants and raves and has steam coming out of his ears and froth from his mouth with his blood vessels bursting out of his head and neck and goes into irrelevant Nazi goose walk. Well, that was me. On full display, the talk of the town no doubt. It is completely humiliating, yet it has happened so often of late that the girls seem unaffected. It is just Mummy being normal. God help me. My husband does not think it normal at all and we are having big problems trying to communicate. He is stressed and over-tired; I am stressed and overtired. It is not a good recipe and sometimes the pot simply boils over, as it did then. And I was bursting for a wee and had to stomp off into a field with NO-ONE in it when I settled down, but hey, before I knew it a black dog had appeared from nowhere with its owner and was running over to me and barking while I had my bottom open to the four winds. Quite unbelievable.

Safe to say that all dignity has now been lost.

Meanwhile, everyone says to me, reassuringly, 'you'll be on holiday soon'. I know I will, but N won't. He has two major transactions going on (why do the b****d clients always have to choose August to do this?) and will be spending most of his time travelling backwards and forwards on a plane rather than having much-needed and certainly deserved down time with his wife and children. And the knock-on effect is that we don't relax either because we are sad and irritated and inconvenienced by all his comings and goings and troubled that he is not getting the holiday that he desperately needs. Added to which, he pushed through a project (much discussed and agonized over) which I was broadly against, to have a pool put in in France. Everyone waved hands waftily (including the pool people) saying it would all be done in a few weeks, sans problemes. I envisaged problems and problems there have been. Electricity cables running in just the wrong place (unmarked on the site map), water table being much higher than expected (by all except me) which meant the hole was flooding, so the depth of the pool has had to be reconsidered and gallons of underground water pumpted out. Oh, and the bit which, for me, was most predictable and most understandable - the neighbours. They hate us. One lot have been to complain to the Mayor on a daily basis (despite having a pool herself which presumable must have been constructed at some point rather than fallen from the sky) and our immediate neighbours with whom we have until now enjoyed an easy relationship with who are pissed off and are being obstructive. And someone's nicked the wood from the tree that was cut down and which we were going to re-use in the landscaping. The pool people and the electrician have had their own Basil Fawlty moment in the garden, screaming bad language at eachother, just to further upset the neighbours. Because of the problems encountered, it will not be finished before our arrival and instead I will have another building site to live with.

There is no peace for the wicked. Or, looking at it another way, I always said that too many possessions were a burden. For years and years I have been trying to advocate a simpler life, in a well-chosen place close to sea and mountains and good state education; a place where you do not have to spend a fortune on holidays just to get away from the endless English rain, or the madness of the rat race; a place where Nature is on your doorstep offering you all that you could need, in a political system and society which works. This is of course Utopia. But, there are still better and worse lifestyle choices and I have to say that Italy came very close (if you ignore the politics!) and we are still toying with a year living in Bordeaux, with the girls in French school, just to see if it is any better...

I think though, my energy reserves are a little low for more major upheaval. Perhaps it should go on the back burner for now.

Footnote 1:-
N and I were sitting eating supper late and exhausted tonight when he came out with the bombshell that the awkward neighbours in France have indeed managed to get the building of our pool halted. So we now have a huge unsecured hole in the ground and no garden. They will begin work again on 1st September, three days after we leave. It is possible we will not be there next summer which means we may not get to put a toe in the wretched thingl until 2013. More disappointing and frustrating than any of that is what I was hoping for my mother who is coming out for a week with my father and brother. Since her stroke she is not very steady on her pins and she is worried about walking across the large stretches of sand at the beach. She also still gets very tired. So I was looking forward to being able to offer her the chance for some real rest and relaxation, some quiet time by the pool, and the chance to do some gentle water exercises to try and help her regain some strength. Now she will probably just fall into the hole. I think I may join her.

Footnote 2:-
Since writing this, the shocking massacre in Norway has happened and put all my irritating troubles into perspective. Wherever you look, there is always far worse happening to other people. I am alive, I am loved, I love and I am very lucky.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


A week or two back, while I was revising for my final gardening exam, I took a break out in the garden. This is what I noted down before turning my mind back to Weeds, Pests & Diseasess:-

Monday 4th July 2011

The garden never ceases to enthrall and frustrate. Just a week ago, I went to the top of our plot to look at the reducurrants, spurred on by the copious berries resplendent on a friend's bushes in Staffordshire. I have just one rather pathetic offering, but it was full as it will ever be with berries just the week before. I curtsied to my pruning efforts in February. Yet returning to view the harvest, with reducurrant jelly in mind, I was dismayed to see the whole lot stripped. Not a berry left. Pigeons, the buggers. I made a note of it for my pests & diseases paper. P for Pigeon, P for Pest.

Picking myself up from my disappointment, I was pleased to see that the raspberries were flourishing. I picked and ate and enjoyed, and even found some in the hedge alongside the main lawn. How on earth did they get there? Pigeons I presume. I suppose they have their uses.

As I strolled back towards the house the delphiniums were filling the herbaceous border with an inky blue of startling intensity, while purple Nepeta released her minty, musky scent underfoot. Roses of red, yellow, pink and white - all shades and shapes and tones; aphids gathering, rocket rocketing, cabbages struggling, bees buzzing; wasps munching anything wooden for their nests God knows where; a dead bird, a decapitated rabbit; chicken shit and Alchemilla mollis everywhere. Tomatoes in the greenhouse; sweetpeas in pots; nettles and cleavers creeping through the borders, hungry for light and moisture. The birds sing, the midges fly, the grass grows.

Nature, in all her myriad forms, casting light on an otherwise dull day.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Demanding Times

Sunday, 10th July 2011
Today is the first day in many weeks where Time (always my enemy) has deigned to loosen her sturdy chains around me just a tiny bit. As I write, two small girls (one not mine) are downstairs watching Amercian rubbish on telly, blisfully happy in pyjamas and dressing gown with a small bowl of biscuits at their side, while a clearly exhausted husband still snores in his bed. The cup of tea I have just made and brought up stirred him briefly, but he has returned happily enough to the Land of Nod. He was up at 5.45am (having got to bed at 1am) to take E on her Year 7 trip to France, the highlight of the school year (more anticipated for the reunion with the boys, their former classmates, rather than for the cultural experience, it has to be said). Last night he made bravado talk of not returning to bed after the early morning drop off but cracking on to deal with the mountain of issues piled up on his desk. I for one was pleased that, when it came to it, he took the decision to catch up on some much needed rest instead, and went back to bed. Meanwhile, middle girl G, our living dynamo, is away on her Year 6 Leavers Acitivity Weekend, climbing ropes and abseiling, crawling over obstacle courses, canoeing and hiking. Oh for the energy of the youth: I have woken with an aching back and as much energy as a deflated balloon. Just enough, it seems, to move fingers over a keyboard, at last.

The garden through the window is dappled in gentle sunlight, reflecting on the Happy Birthday banner which hangs forlornly from the summer house, the sellotape losing it's battle with the wasp-chewed wood. Three balloons, equally deflated, hang in a now desultory fashion from the Public Footpath post opposite our house. I must remove them forthwith as there is nothing more depressing than deflated balloons or a vase of dead flowers. Beyond this, there is not too much evidence of the party which took place here for little L yesterday afternoon. Nine friends came to celebrate the imminent arrival of her 9th birthday (12th July), an event far less daunting than in recent years when G and E have also shared the party (G because her birthday is on 11th August when we and everyone else is away, and E because you can't have a garden party in January, which is when her birthday falls) and we have had upwards of 30 children screaming around the place. It was a strange feeling not to feel completely stressed as you attempt to meet and greet, organise party games, get food out on time, provide endless drinks, mop tears, find plasters, light the candles on the cake and sing happy birthday before parents come to take children away, and make sure everyone leaves with the right towel and swimsuit (the party relies heavily on good weather and the water slide) and party bag. No, this year was calm and controlled. We did all the usual races in two teams - running, sack, egg and spoon, skipping - as well as pass-the-parcel, painting plain china mugs to take away, apple bobbing and a treasure hunt. There was swing ball and netball and badminton and a good time was had by all. Certainly as far as L was concerned who, as we waved the last people away, two hours after the party officially ended, she burst into uncontrollable sobs at the idea that her party was over. She had been planning it and looking forward to it for weeks. It is part of the summer ritual. I picked up her skinny little frame, wiped the tears from her hazel eyes and hugged her tight, trying not to think that in a year she probably won't seem like this little girl anymore as Time marches her inexorably out of this blissful stage of childhood into a new era of self-consciousnes and dissolving innocence. Catch it while you can.

It has been a hard few weeks and the passage of Time has left its mark in many ways. The day after I last wrote here it was indeed my own birthday. The day was passed at college (we managed some Prosecco out of plastic cups under a tree at lunchtime) but come the evening we went out for a lovely meal with friends at a favourite hotel in the Peak District, The Cavendish at Baslow. A few years ago we went there for the first time on my birthday and now it has become a bit of a tradition. The drive over is 30 minutes through beautiful countryside and on a warm evening you can sit outside and contemplate a bucolic vista of trees and hills while sipping a glass of champagne. The food is excellent - more refined and skilled than the ubiquitous yet competent pub food so prevalent these days. We are often the only ones in the restaurant, arriving later than most other guests, but we make our own party with animated chat and raucous laughter with the great friends we have made since our move up here eight years ago. It is always a special and memorable night.

Shortly before we left for the restaurant, I had taken a call from my parents. We were in a rush to leave so the conversation was short and a little chaotic but somewhere in there I thought something was perhaps not quite right. I couldn't put my finger on it beyond the fact that my mother didn't seem to be hearing what I was saying however many times I repeated it. It was if she was in her own little world, kind of going through the motions. It was two days later, on the Saturday afternoon that my father phoned, just minutes before we had guests arriving for the weekend. It was the call I had long dreaded, the one where you are told that something is wrong with one of your parents. He was clearly choked and in shock as he told me that my mother had had a stroke. She had not been feeling 'right' for about a week (we had been with them on return from half term holidays, just a week before, and it seemed that all was well then; but she had deteriorated slowly through the week and her behaviour, as witnessed at an event she attended with my mother-in-law the day after my birthday, was a little bizarre. Time suddenly had no meaning to her, she was walking incredibly slowly, she seemed distracted and disconnected to the world going on around her. This is so not my mother, always sharp as a pin and fretting and worrying over the next job or commitment, firmly rooted in the minutiae of her daily environment. By Friday even my father had noticed that 'Mary was not herself' and, spurred on by the observations of my mother-in-law and their trusted cleaner, he took her to hospital. She had had a small stroke of the kind that depletes the brain of oxygen over a period of days rather than one that wipes you out in one fell swoop. Damage has clearly been done - she has lost much strength in her legs (I had to help her out of the bath) and she cannot write like she used to. She has lost interest in reading (she was an avid bedtime reader) and she feels exhausted much of the time. The drive and motivation are gone for the time being. It seems she has had another small stroke at a previous date on the other side of her brain - a fact which, looking back, makes sense of some small changes I had noted in her (oh, the frustration of living so far away). Her cholesterol is through the roof (stress induced) and is now being controlled. She, the woman who told everyone else how to look after themselves but would never apply (or heed) the same advice to herself, has had a wake-up call. It could have been far, far worse and I am at least glad that now she is being looked after too. I had always muttered that, despite being the youngest of the remaining parents, due to her inability to relax and sleep and her endless worrying about things, that she may well be the next one to go. Literally worrying herself to death. It has been a hard lesson for her to accept.

So I went down and spent a weekend with them, my brother having been down the weekend before, and helped and supported as much as I could. Leaving again to head back north was one of the hardest things I have had to do. My father, at 83, has been doing a marvellous job of looking after her but I could see the strain and worry was getting to him. How I wish I could be closer to spend precious time with them and help relieve some of the burden.

The next two days were filled with a desperate cramming for an exam I had on the Wednesday, my concentration and energy fuelled solely by adrenaline. The day following the exam I was fit for nothing. I tried to do some desultory jobs around the house, a domestic wasteland abandoned in the heat of other pressing matters. I have been living with builders since the beginning of April, a situation I am deeply weary of. The whole place is a filthy mess, almost no room untouched by plaster dust, filth and unfinished jobs. Our possessions are piled up in every bit of free space so the whole place looks like a dump. I live with bad language and Radio 1 at volumes that make my head spin. I have to plan my movements around the movements of the builders, unreliable at the best of times. Their van continually blocks my drive and I am forced to leave my car in the lane while my study (a teetering pile of unlooked-at paper) remains a hideous monument to my lack of time to get on top of things. I tried to treat myelf to a bit of Wimbledon - the highlight of my summer - but again, circumstances conspired continually against me. But you know what, dear Reader? I will stop there for now, before this post becomes wearisomely long, and I will pick up the threads another day.
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