Monday, 31 October 2011

Coming home

18:15

I am standing in front of the Thai Airways check-in area. Wearing my Asia To Go yellow string nylon baseball cap. Honestly. My worst fears coming to fruition. What is Mike thinking of? He’s meant to be an upmarket tour operator. Ah. There’s the first of my ladies. She’s wearing a blue and white checked shirt, beige slacks and a jaunty neckerchief. Along with her Asia To Go cap.

‘Hello, I’m Eliza,’ I smile, holding out my hand and hoping she can’t see through the make-up to my red, tear-worn eyes, which are now prickling and smarting from overuse.

‘Miss Chick,’ she says, briefly making contact with her limp, clammy little hand.

‘Should I call you…?’

‘Miss Chick,’ she repeats firmly.

I am saved by three more arrivals, a jolly, booming one and a pair of wizened little ones. As I’m greeting them, I notice Miss Chick is squeezing anti-bacterial gel on her palms. Yellow baseball hats keep bobbing up through the crowds until I count in all nine of my flock. Eight women of a certain age (an age that starts at least a decade above mine) and one man, who seems quite genial if paunchy and reeking slightly of BO. We're meeting the other three members of our party at the hotel tomorrow evening - two more women flying direct from America to Saigon and a British bloke who's doing some charity work in Vietnam.  

I lead my group round the maze that leads to the check-in counter and stand by as Miss Chick checks in, followed by the wizened pair, twittering and fluttering like little sparrows, holding up their ziplocked travel toiletries to double-check they’ll be allowed through security with them. The booming woman, who turns out to be the Dowager Countess, reaches the counter and slaps down a much-thumbed and visa’d passport. She turns and winks at me. I smile, but my chest band is tightening. How can I do this to Dusty?


Right. They’re all checked in. Just me now. Oh Dusty. My heart has never felt so heavy. This is it. I heave my suitcase on to the scales. 24kg. Bit over. And it’s not going to leave much room for outfits from Hoi An. But what can you do when you have to pack for smart hotels and mountain walks and beaches and typhoons and freezing fog and monsoon rains and sweltering sun and air conditioning?

‘Passport?’ the woman is saying.

I riffle through my money belt. I glance over at the group. They are all looking at me. I do some more urgent riffling, then make a show of checking every pocket of my jacket, my handbag and my trolley dolly hand luggage.

‘I can’t find it,’ I say. ‘It’s gone.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t issue a boarding pass without seeing your passport,’ says the check-in woman.

‘I think I’ve left it at home,’ I say in a stricken voice. ‘I’m going to miss the flight if I go back. But I’m going to have to. Can I change my ticket and travel on tomorrow’s flight?’

She points me in the direction of Customer Services. I lug my case back off the scales and wheel over to the group. The wizened pair are clucking nervously.

‘Problem?’ asks Steve, the genial paunchy chap, asserting himself as spokesman for the group.

‘I definitely had my passport when I left this morning,’ I assure them. ‘I’m just going to go through all my things somewhere quieter. Give me your mobile number, Steve. I’ll call or text you as soon as I find it, or …’ I tail off. ‘Anyway, you all go through to security. Steve, could you take charge until I catch up with you?’

‘Right you are,’ he says in his down-to-earth northern accent. I sense he is relishing his new position of authority.

‘Make sure you all stay together,’ I call as my brood of yellow ducklings waddles off uncertainly, quacking to each other.

Right. Customer Services. I weave through the crowds, running over a few toes. Gabble my story and, incredibly, they issue a new ticket. More weaving to Excess Baggage. Dump my oversized case. Google: National Express. Is there a bus to Candlebury at this hour? Oh my God! Last bus, 8.30. I might just make it. I race through the terminal with trolley dolly in tow and hurl myself at the bus with minutes to spare.

As we pull out of the terminal, I go through my money belt once more. Yes, there's my passport. Heart still pumping, I call Dan.

‘I’m coming home!’

Torn


On the way back from school, as soon as I get a mobile signal, I stop the car and call Dan.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ I sniff.

‘Look, Lize, we’ve been through this. I’m just finishing a few things and then I’ll be over. I’ll be at yours by 10.30. Are you all packed? And has Dusty got her overnight bag?’

‘Yes, we’re all ready. But I’m worried about Dusty. I don’t think she’s going to go on much longer. She couldn’t get upstairs last night and she didn’t even lift her head this morning to eat her little ball of food with the pills.’

‘But she is still eating?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And she can get up?’

‘Yes, she did go into the garden before I took Lily to school. But she’s generally very lethargic. And the swelling is getting worse.’

‘Well look, Lize, I’ve said I’ll deal with it and it’s fine, I will, OK? I’m sure they can do an individual cremation. She doesn’t have to be thrown in with the masses.’

‘Oh, well that would be better…’ I say, hopeful for a second, and then filled with guilt and misgiving again. ‘But I can’t not be with her at the end,' I say in a melodramatic whine. 'She’d have stayed faithfully by my side if I were on the way out.’

Dan lets out a Saints-preserve-us-woman! sort of laugh. ‘Oh Lord! Here we go!’ he says. ‘Look, Eliza, I’m on my way. She’ll be fine. You never know, she might hang on until you get back.’

‘OK,’ I say weakly, starting up the engine.


We are at the Heathrow bus stop in Candlebury. Dan is busying himself putting my oversized luggage in the hold of the bus. Dusty is lying in state in Digger’s basket in the boot of the Land Rover. I stroke her ears and kiss her head. ‘Bye bye, my baby. You’ll be OK. I’ll see you soon. Good girl. Bye Dusty Do.’ She looks at me with her red-rimmed eyes. Resigned to her fate of going to stay with Uncle Dan where she’ll get boffed by Digger. Little does she know what greater resignation lies in store. What a betrayal.

‘All set,’ says Dan. He gives me a manful hug and I climb aboard the bus, sniffing and wiping my eyes and nose with the back of my hand.

The heating is overpowering and the windows are streaked with rain. I try to read Jon Swain’s River of Time, but I can’t focus. I sit with my eyes closed, sodden tissue in my hand, dabbing at my leaking eyes and nose. It’s such a handicap being sentimental, lurching between the past and imagined future, instead of being strong and proud like Lily, getting on with the here and now.

Old age, disease, decay. What is the point of it? Except perhaps, as the old, diseased and decaying become less themselves, to help those around them detach. Dusty isn’t herself. Not just the lethargy. She has been behaving rather like Lily (though presumably for different reasons), tolerating my advances rather than courting them. Normally if I sit beside Dusty on the floor she clambers on me, or butts me with her head like a goat kid, or rolls on her back to be tummy-rubbed. Am I just clinging on to the Dusty that was? But you don’t just discard things because they’re past their prime. 


At the airport. Right, plenty of time for a coffee before hoovering up the old ladies. I look at the departures board. Thai Airways to Bangkok isn’t even listed yet, so I can’t get rid of this ridiculously oversized suitcase. Well, the flight isn’t till 9.30. I’m never normally this early, but then normally I’d be coming from Chelsea. The later bus from Candlebury would have been cutting it too fine.

Manoeuvre my suitcase through Smith’s to pick up a Telegraph (the Guardian seems so irrelevant when you live in the country) and then into Starbucks. Mmmm! Crème Brulee Macchiato! Things are looking up. I park my suitcase, sit down and take a slurp. Urgh. Too sweet. Another sip. Actually not too bad once you’re past the caramel topping.

Text from Dan. My heart rate doubles. ‘Dusty ensconsed in her favoured place under the table. Breathing steadily. Hope you make it OK!’ There’s a jpeg attachment. I brace myself for a sweet picture of Dusty under the table. Oh. It’s a scene of four semi-submerged aeroplanes at a flooded airport. Argh! Thailand!



Google: floods in Bangkok. ‘Advancing floodwater in Bangkok saw commercial flights at Don Mueang Airport shut down…’  That’s the domestic one. What about the international airport, though? Surely Mike would have called if it was underwater? Hmmm… Seems to be open. Yes. ‘Flights are operating normally.’


Dusty…


Dusty… my baby.


There’s a tight band around my chest. I feel like a Thai plane, half-submerged, in suspension, waiting for something to happen, something to shift. Call Dan.

‘How is she?’

‘She’s OK.’ He sounds grave. Not his usual joshing self. ‘Hasn’t moved from under the table. That swelling round her neck. It looks worse when she’s lying down, flat out, doesn’t it? She doesn’t exactly have a jawline any more.’

‘No, I know,’ I agree. ‘Has she been out at all? I found she perked up a bit around this time when she thought she might get some supper.’

‘No, she really hasn’t moved.’ Dan pauses. ‘Lize… I think I should call the vet in the morning.’

I can’t speak. I can’t bear it.

The end is nigh

06:50

Today is the day, I fear. Except it's Halloween, and I don't want her to be carried away by evil spirits. Tomorrow is All Saints' Day, a far more auspicious time to depart this world. Or the next day is All Souls' Day, when we remember our dead. I suppose if she went today, it could be a bit of a three-day event, like Jesus had?

Footsteps on the stairs. Lily's, not Dusty's.

'Lily?'

'Nnnng.'

'Come in here, darling. Come and get in with me for a minute.' Lily is going to board while I'm in Vietnam.  I've been trying to prepare her for Dusty's imminent demise, but she doesn't seem interested. Or maybe she doesn't want to talk about it. But I need to know that she is aware, and won't suddenly say afterwards that I didn't tell her, and she didn't say goodbye.

Reluctantly, Lily gets into my bed and lies with her back to me.

'Darling, I don't think Dusty has very long to go... It may be today, or tomorrow, probably this week... so maybe spend a little time with her this morning.'

Silence.

'Mu-um,' she says a minute or two later, 'it's really annoying we don't do Halloween at the Manor.'

'Yes,' I sigh. 'But you're not missing anything here - they don't do it in Mistlebourne either. It's not like London.'

I try again. 'I understand if you don't want to talk about it, darling, but I just want to make sure you do realise that Dusty's probably going to go this week... you may want to say goodbye to her.'

Silence. A strangled sob escapes. I'm not doing it for the sympathy vote, although Lily probably thinks I am. I don't know which is worse, the fact of Dusty's passing or the aloneness in one's sadness. I feel Lily stiffen. She then turns towards me and puts her arm around me for a few moments before getting out of bed and going downstairs. I peek over the stair rail and see her stroking Dusty before going into the bathroom.

Things that go bump in the night

00:43

A thump from the bottom of the spiral stairs. I throw back the duvet and rush to the scene. Dusty is looking up at me with her affronted expression, her front legs splayed on the second step and her bottom on the floor. I go down, step carefully over her and lift her back to the shag-pile rug.

'Stay here, my baby girl,' I soothe, stroking her ears until she lets her head flop down.

What can I put across the bottom of the stairs to deter her from trying to come up? Neither the upended footstool nor the flattened cardboard box barriers have worked in the past. Ah. My towelling dressing gown. I drape it across, like a curtain, and tie it either side to the stair rail and the centre pole.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Dusty dilemma

10:05

Call Dan.

'Dusty has barely lifted her head this morning. I don't think she can carry on like this for much longer. But I've committed to this tour. I don't know what to do.'

'As I've told you before,' says Dan in the manner of a resigned parent talking to a wayward child, 'if you're going to shirk your responsibility by going away and leaving your dog, then you have to give me the power to do what I see fit while she's in my care.'

'So are you saying you're happy to have her in this state, and to organise euthanasing or euthanizing her or whatever it's called if I do go away?' I ask.

'I don't think "happy" quite captures it, but yes, don't worry about it. But don't complain if you come back and find she's not here.'

Waaa!

10:15

Call Sandy, the horse vet who lives in the village, to ask about procedures. She'll be passing by at lunchtime, she says cheerily, and she'll pop in on her way by.

12:42

'It definitely looks like a tumour,' says Sandy, the minute she sees Dusty. She runs her hand down Dusty's bony spine and over her jutting hips. 'She's wasting away,' she says, 'and all this oedema must be caused by something pressing on her blood vessels. It is unusual, though. I've never seen anything quite like this. You could ask your vet to do a post mortem. It'd be interesting to know.'

'But will they have to open her up?'

'How else are they going to do it?' she laughs.

I grimace. 'That's horrible. I couldn't do that to her.'

'I think you have to take the view,' she says, 'of when they're dead, they're dead. If she were a horse, she'd be skinned and chopped up and sent off to France to be eaten.'

'That's horrible!' I can't believe these country people. 'What actually happens,' I venture, 'when you have a dog euthanased or -ized or whatever it is? Could they do it at home?'

'You can ask if your vet will do a home visit, but normally you'd take her in as they'll need a nurse. They have to find a vein. Then they give her the injection and put her in the freezer until the van comes round to collect the dead animals for the weekly incineration.'

'Put her in the freezer?' I am horrified. I'm not having Dusty shoved in a deep freeze and then shovelled into the incinerator with a tangle of dead bodies. It's like the Holocaust. It's dehumanising. I feel tears welling up. She's been such a good, beloved dog all her life. Then in death, she's just lumped on the funeral pyre. Is that all she's worth?

'Can't she be buried in the garden?' I sniff. The problem is, there's only a little vegetable patch and a handkerchief of lawn in my garden. And it's not actually my garden. I couldn't really bury my dog in their veggie patch. It wouldn't go down very well when they're digging up their potatoes.

'You can do that,' says Sandy, 'as long as you can find somewhere to bury her, away from the water supply. It's a lot of digging - you need to go six feet deep. Or maybe that's just for horses.' 

She waves jauntily as she heads off. I feel floored. I go back to Dusty and stroke her soft ears. She still hasn't moved. She's breathing heavily, but her eyes are wide open. I don't know what to do.

13:13

Call Dan.

'Sandy says if we take Dusty in to the vet's to be euthanased or -ized they'll put her in a freezer until they've got enough dogs to chuck in the incinerator,' I bleat. 'But they might be able to do a home visit. Maybe you could find a nice spot in your garden...?'

'You can't expect someone else to have her put down and then tell them how to do it,' he says coolly.

'So you're telling me you won't be digging a six-foot hole in your garden?'

'You're telling me I'm not!' he says. 'I'm not convinced I'd do it for Digger, even.'

'Ironically,' I say drily. I tell him about Sandy suggesting I have a post mortem. 'But I don't want her slit open,' I say. 'And apparently you have to pay, unless they want to do it anyway, in the interests of medical science. I'd have thought they could just scan her or something.'

'You could take her with you to the airport,' suggests Dan, 'and put her on the conveyor belt and whoosh her through the scan. That would do it. But Terminal 4 isn't exactly a home visit.' He changes tack. 'Anyway, at least it won't be like Bonzy. I took him to the vet for an abscess and came back with an empty collar and lead!'

'Don't,' I wail. And then, curious: 'Did you cry?'

'Of course,' he says. 'You can't not, can you?'

Right. Pack. Lily for school. Me for Vietnam. Dusty for ... for two weeks' holiday with Uncle Dan.

Morning panic

06:48

The clocks may have gone back, but nobody reprogrammed my bladder. While I'm downstairs, I give Dusty her first breakfast ball. She barely lifts her head. Her neck and jaw are swollen and heavy with oedema. I am gripped with panic. Dusty was going to stay with Dan while I was in Vietnam, but I think we are near The End. I can't leave her. But I can't have her euthanased or euthanized or whatever it is at my convenience, as some hardened country folk seem to think is reasonable. Equally I can't let Mike and his old ladies down. Waaa!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

So farewell then, Sir Jimmy Savile

'Ow's about that, then?'
you'd say, waggling your cigar.
God's fixed it for you

Friday, 28 October 2011

Breakfast with Claude

'I've lost my words,' announces Cousin Claude over breakfast. Lily, Dusty and I are visiting during half-term, as an imminent-departure-to-Vietnam-panic-displacement activity. Plus, Claude went to Vietnam last year and is going to bring me up to speed on significant changes over the past decade.

'I thought they'd gone for ever,' she continues, 'but Tina said to me, “Claudette, it happened to me. Go to Asia. You'll find your words.” And I did, Lize, I did. While I was walking under a palm tree in Nha Trang. It was like the mist lifted and I could think. Admittedly i wasn't actually talking to anyone at the time. But somehow I felt I'd cleared the backlog of all this...  this....' She gives an exasperated squeal. 'You see, I've lost my words … this... this... random communication that's ... squirted, not squirted.... you see, lost my word again .... It's very much like when you dry in the theatre and you're standing on stage with adrenaline jumping up your jacksy and all you have to say is “keep” and you suddenly say “retain”.

'No, all this random stuff bombarded at you, coming at you. It bogs you up. It jams up your system. I rebooted myself in Asia, that's what I did!'

I take a moment to reflect on the possibility that I might also reboot myself in Asia. Find my words! But I'm thinking, Asia: mayhem, noise, frenzy, colour, life, motorbikes bombarding you, coming at you. Not the sort of place a scattered, system-overloaded woman would find her words, surely?

'That's somebody else's mayhem and hubbub though, Lize, and the great thing is you can go into yourself and touch base with who you are and what you believe. You don't have to be part of the communication flooding into you at all angles. It's a relief when you get it back and you realise it's not Early-Onset … you know, Early-Onset....'

'Maybe it's congenital,' I say. 'It's happening to everyone I know. Sally, Cass...'

'But they're not in our family,' points out Claude. 'No, I think it's Britain. It's living in the West. There's just too much going on. Or maybe it's just old age.'

Lily shuffles in. She has Early Onset Teenageriness and has given up her words.

'Now Lily,' says Claude, holding up a black hoodie with day-glo stripes. 'What do you think of this, because it's a bit young for me. I bought this and thought, this will make me feel young, but no, it's too young for me, and again, too small for me. So I thought, no, this has the look of Lil about it.'

Lily puts it on, does up the zip, pulls the hood over her head and grins in a slightly self-conscious way. The sleeves are about eight inches too long and it comes down over her bottom.

'There, perfect! And not too big,' says Claude.

'She loves anything that's an... an....,' I start. 'Oh God, I'm doing it now. Anything that isn't too girly. Ambivalent. Androgynous!'

'Now look,' Claude is saying from the scullery. 'I've got Crunchy Nuts, I've got Bran Flakes, I've got these little packs, what do you call them... like a big pack in a little pack and there's lots of them and they're all different, and actually nobody ever eats them generally. Or,' she emerges with a purple bag in one hand, 'do you want this stuff? It completely sorts out your nails. It's flax, sunflower, pumpkin and goji berries. It's incredibly expensive but you just put a little sprinkle and it's completely fabulous if you've got crap nails or little whitey things.'

'Is it seeds?' I enquire.

'No it's chopped up and completely gets in your teeth,' she says, nearly tripping over Dusty as she returns to the table. 'Oh Dusty, darling. Wherever I go, you are determined to lie down under my feet. I do hope you're not going to pop your paws while you're here.'

She spoons some seed-berry mix into my bowl for me to try.

'Muerurgh,' I mumble. ' Bit sawdusty. Oooeugh. And sour.'

'Yes,' it is, she agrees. 'It's lucky I like it, because I'm terribly fussy. Now, Lize, we'd better get on to Asia because we've got a lot to do today if we're going to go for a walk and have lunch and make pompoms and see Tintin.'

She opens up her laptop with her Asia photos. 'Now the trouble is, because of my thing, I won't be able to remember anything about Vietnam because I can't remember anything even though I was there last year. But what I would say is, I was so aware of all these people thinking they're experiencing the country because rose petals are put in their bath and there's a nice bit of batik folded up on the pillow, but they get in an air-conditioned bus and do the Cu Chi Tunnels and then at lunchtime they're back in their bus to go to an air-conditioned hotel and then they're back in the bus to go to the Reunited ... the Re... you know, the United Reform...'


'Reunification Palace?'


'Exactly, so they're never really experiencing what it's like to be there and part of the experience is, it's terribly hot.'

I'm nodding and mmm-ing in agreement. 'I'd love to take them off the beaten track, but there's a set tour and I imagine all the hotels and restaurants will be pre-arranged. I'm just there to hold their hands really. They're all going to be old ladies. I'm meant to be the Expert on Culture and History and everything, but I think Mike realises it's not really my bag. He called and said he's told them I'm a Food and Fashion Expert and they're quite keen to have some things run up, but I don't know if my guy in Hoi An is still there and he's not answering his emails.'

'It doesn't really matter,' dismisses Claude. 'They're all the same, like Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street. They've all got different facades but they're all using the same kitchen. I used Mickey Moon in Hoi An - he would do the fittings and then it would disappear off to the factory and the next day, he'd fit you in it. They all use the same factory.'

I write down Mickey Moon, Hoi An, in my notebook. 'What about Saigon?' I ask. 'It is still called Saigon, isn't it?'

'Absolutely. Although we called it Hochers.' She looks at me over her specs and gives a Three Little Maids From School titter.

'So what's it like now?' I ask. 'It was one big building site when I was there, and millions of motorbikes so that you couldn't cross the road.'

'It's still much the same. Twisted cables everywhere, not really a building site. But I was only there for a day, so I just had my hair done. Your ladies might enjoy that. It's cheap as chips and they do your colour and your nails at the same time. Of course, while you're sitting there, men would come in and go up the stairs and you'd hear a 'Guh! Uh!' from upstairs, and you'd go ho-hum, back to my nails.'

'Yuk!' I grimace. I glance at Lily, who is in her own dream world, swirling her soggy Crunchy Nut flakes around in a milky whirlpool.

Claude looks at me with her Three Little Maids smile. 'Well, Lize, you'd just think, this is their life, they've got to eat. And then, I'd go off to the best hotel in town for a drink. You know the one, what's it's name? The Graham Greene hotel.'

'Cuh-something,' I say. 'Or is it the Excelsior? Cuh... Oh, never mind. What about Nha Trang? I never liked it when we used to go – the fact that the beach is right on the main thoroughfare - but we're staying there two days, it seems.'

'Oh I loved Nha Trang,' rhapsodises Claude. 'The fact that it's like the Riviera with the boulevard in front of this heavenly long sandy beach. I'd pay less than tuppence to go to this beach club where we'd sit by the pool on a sunlounger and, look!' She turns her laptop to face me. 'That's my lunch. Sushi and a watermelon juice. Heaven!'

'Who are they?' I ask, pointing to a picture of Claude towering over a group of Vietnamese dressed in blue.

'Ah,' says Claude, with a little sigh. 'That is my hairdressing team. It took six people to colour my hair.' Her tone suddenly changes to one of alarm. 'Oh darling! Is it Friday? I'd completely forgotten! I've got to run round to The Cut Above. Mark said he'd trim my fringe.' She snaps the laptop shut and runs off. 

Hmmm. Perhaps I should take Claude along as Hairdressing and Luxury Lifestyle on Less Than Tuppence Expert.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Uphill struggle

Treadmill fitness test,
nine-minute uphill struggle -
Energy wipe-out

We're housesitting at Sophia's in London for a couple of days while we attend to personal maintenance. After this morning's fitness test, during which my heartbeat was pushed to its cardio-fitness-promoting maximum of 173-odd beats, I can barely stand. I am fatigued to the core.

Amount of Scrabble or Monopoly or Chess or Racing Demon played this half-term: none. Number of pompoms or cornflake-packet castles made: none. Number of jigsaws unboxed: none. Number of snowflakes cut out of paper: none.

Number of attempts to encourage Lily to conjugate (or is it decline?) etre and avoir while sitting on steps of St Paul's taking in peaceful anti-capitalist vibe: four. Number of times I repeat the six main reasons why settlements arose in certain areas: a gazillion. Number of times Lily is able to give one reason why settlements arose in certain areas: none. Number of times I lose my temper: I'm not answering that.

We walk over the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern to see Tenita or Tenica or Tacita Dean or whatever she's called's film installation. Underwhelmed. We want the bubble to come to life and pop; the ostrich egg to fall on someone's head. We head to the fifth floor where I fall asleep in a film about Gerhard Richter while Lily triumphs on a screen quiz game. Wander back along the Southbank. I lose Lily somewhere around Gabriel's Wharf, where she becomes transfixed by the creation of a sand artist on the beach below. No longer can I scoop her up under one arm or induce her to budge when she doesn't want to. I give up and sit on a bench, watching the setting sun light up St Paul's dome and the boats on the north bank of the Thames.

Later: Eh? What happened? Oh. I must have fallen asleep.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Eva 1

In a hitherto unheard-of turn of events, due to not trying to cram in one more thing thanks to depressive lethargy induced by Vase Incident, I set off early to pick up Lily for half-term. Drop in on Sally on the way. She and Arthur are sitting at the kitchen table, playing with a small purple plastic robotic action figure.

‘Hi,’ says Arthur. ‘You’re just in time to greet Eva 1. He was very expensive. I ordered him through the internet.’

Eva?’ I query.

‘It’s short for Evangelion 1,’ says Arthur. Apparently Eva has outstanding articulation and is unrivalled among small plastic robotic action figures at contorting himself into any position.



‘Can he do John Travolta doing Night Fever?’ I challenge.

‘Yes, he was doing that just before you arrived,’ says Arthur.

Really? How come?’

‘It’s just about the most obvious dance move,’ says Arthur dismissively.

‘What about the funky chicken?’ I ask.

Arthur ignores me. He is twisting Eva into a pelvis-thrusting martial arts manoeuvre.

‘He’s got a very big… cricket box,’ I say.

Sally laughs. ‘What I like is that he’s all sleek and futuristic but he’s got these Top Man shoes.’

She passes Eva to me for inspection. He is indeed wearing 70s slip-ons with tan soles and wooden heels.

‘He was riding a horse just now,’ says Arthur, fetching the horse. With careful concentration, he extends and contracts limbs, bending them just so, and angling one hand in the air and draping the reins over it. ‘Who is it?’ he asks.

‘A cowboy,’ I say.

‘Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider,’ he qualifies.

‘He needs a worthy adversary,’ says Sally, fetching a shoebox full of plastic toys. She plonks Buzz Lightyear on the table, followed by Woody (my heart gives a little lurch – Woody, risen from the inferno!), but Arthur is unimpressed. ‘Godzilla?’ asks Sally, winding him up and sending him waddling towards Eva. ‘Postman Pat? Baby Godzilla?’

‘OK,’ I say, ‘who’s this?’ I take Eva off the horse and spread his arms wide and make his legs run. He’s meant to look overjoyed but his head is small and bows forwards, giving him an air of menace rather than elation.

‘King Kong,’ says Luke.

‘Igor,’ says Sally.

‘No,’ I say. ‘He’s meant to be that guy in that famous photo who’s just returned from the Vietnam war and is running to greet his daughter.’

‘Well I think it’s a bit much to expect him to be able to recreate every Western that was ever made and the entire pantheon of 20th century war heroes,’ says Sally.

As I drive on to pick up Lily, I muse on my failings as a mother. If Lily ordered a purple plastic action figure off the internet I’d tell her off for wasting her (or more likely my) money. Then I wouldn’t throw myself into playing games with it. We don’t play any games or do any art or crafts. We don’t play Scrabble or Monopoly or Chess or Racing Demon. We don’t make pompoms. We don’t build castles out of cornflakes packets. We don’t have a jigsaw on the go on a fold-up card table. We don’t make paper cut-out snowflakes.

Oh God. It’s coming back to me. We did potato prints once when Lily was three. Silver and gold stars on black paper Christmas cards. That was the plan. But each time her little hand came down to stamp the star on the card, it veered off target. We ended up with all these two-armed stars. I screwed half the cards up in a fury. Argh. I am a Terrible Mother. The only thing I’m good for is outings. And home cooking. Occasionally.

Right, this half-term, Lily and I are going to Do Art and Crafts and Play Games.

In winter's grip

Winter's talons grip
sweet earth that autumn forsook
Seasons gone awry

Shattered dream

Guilt has been weighing heavily on my shoulders. Time to bite the bullet. I call Adam at the Willows Art Gallery.

‘Hi Adam,’ I start breezily, ‘I was just dropping Lily at school, and I bumped into the woman who’s buying the vase.’ I gear my voice down to one of funereal sobriety. ‘I’m afraid there’s rather bad news. She’s mortified, but she's got this new puppy and it ran amok and came running in from the garden and careered into the table and knocked the vase over. She says it fell on the flagstone floor … I’m afraid it’s shattered…’

There is a stony silence from the other end of the phone.

‘Adam? Are you still there?’

‘Yes,’ he says drily.

‘Of course, she says she’ll pay for it, but she was wondering if you could do it at cost…?’

He sort of humphs, and says wearily, ‘It’ll come under our insurance. Can you bring in the pieces, and I’ll put in a claim.’

My heart leaps and plummets in the space of a second. Insurance! Yay! Pieces. Argh! ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘You need the pieces, do you?’

‘Yes. If you can get them, then we can put in the claim. They won’t cough up without seeing the damaged item.’

‘Ah. Um. Gosh, OK, I’ll ask her to bring them in .... Oh gosh, I wonder when her rubbish gets collected. Um. Just thinking laterally here… our rubbish in Mistlebourne is collected on Wednesdays, I wonder what day hers is. Just out of interest, what day is your rubbish collection?’

‘Today.’

Argh! Today!

‘Oh, gosh, I wonder if hers is the same?’

‘It would depend on where she lives, wouldn’t it?’ says Adam. I detect an air of impatience about him.

‘Yes, well that’s it, I think she lives very near the gallery. Yes - she said she was just passing by on her way home on Wednesday.’

‘What is this woman’s name?’ demands Adam. ‘Maybe she’s already on our mailing list.’

‘No, no,’ I say. ‘No, she said what a wonderful discovery it was, she had no idea you existed before.’

‘Well, you’d better get on to her, hadn’t you.’

‘Yes, I will straight away. And… um, just out of interest… has your rubbish been collected yet?’

‘Yes,’ he says curtly. ‘They come at seven.’

‘Oh, right, oh that’s good, isn’t it, that they come bright and early.’ Why does everyone have to be up with the lark in the country? Why can’t they come late like they do in London? Or not come at all, like in Athens?

OK, Thomson Local. Candlebury. ‘Rubbish.’ No, nothing. What do they call rubbish in council circles? Not garbage or trash, that’s American. Waste? What is that word? Oh, I know. Refuse. I’m madly flicking the pages back and forth. Refuse Disposal Contractors. No, that doesn’t sound right. I’ll look under the council. More frantic flicking. Hmmm. Candlebury Cleaners, Candlebury Counselling Services, Candlebury Couriers. Argh! Where’s the bloody council listed? Ah. Candlebury District Council. Quick, dial.

It’s a real person! A woman with a broad local accent. I explain everything.

‘Oh dear,’ she says. ‘I don’t know we’re going to have much luck, to be fair. When was your collection?’

‘This morning!’

‘Hold on, let me ask, but I don’t think you’re going to have much luck.’

I wait, breath bated, while she asks.

‘No,’ she says, ‘you’re out of luck, I’m afraid. It all goes to landfill. It all goes on a big heap in a big pit.’

Images from Toy Story 3 spring to mind. I'm entering the Big Heap in the Big Pit, Woody and I are scrabbling desperately for shards of broken vase as we slither, inexorably, towards the inferno.

‘Can I go along and sort through it?’ I ask.

‘Oh no, it’s not for the public. And to be fair, even if you were allowed in, which you’re not, you’d be unlikely to find anything. There’ll be trucks dumping their rubbish there all morning.’

If I were heroic like Woody, I’d go anyway, but I’m not. My life for a broken vase? No. So that’s that. Bite the bullet once more.

‘Hi, Adam…’

‘Ah, Eliza. Right, I’ve been on to the insurance people and they just need a photo of the broken vase. Can you sort that out?’

‘Um, well the thing is, she’d already put it in the rubbish, and it was collected this morning, and I’ve been on to the council, but they say I’m out of luck, to be fair, and they won’t let me into the Big Pit to sort through the Big Heap before it all slides into the incinerator... But I was thinking, couldn’t we say it’s been stolen?’

‘That, madam, would involve lying to my insurance company, which I don’t think is a very good policy, do you?’

‘No, you’re right.’

There’s a brief silence and then Adam says, ‘Right, look, I’ll sort this out somehow. We’ll draw a line under it. But as I’m sure you’ll understand, we’ll have to forget about the job.’

After all the trouble I’ve taken chasing his rubbish round the country! Well, someone else can sweep his flies.   

Thursday, 20 October 2011

So farewell then, Muammar Gaddafi

Don't shoot me, you cried
But did you heed others' pleas?
Lives - all down the drain

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

And another thing...

So much for the Moneybags! It's the last time I give any credence to those round robin emails. Empty promises! My running total is now minus £1,067.47.

The rest of the day goes without mishap, if you don't count losing an apparently vital email plus several digital photos of the next show. Well honestly, I told him I'd never worked on a Mac before. Anyway he says he'll let me know about the job, when we hear back from my friend from the Manor. I don't point out that she's not my friend and I don't know anyone with dining rooms done out in ecru and biscuit.

Empty promises.

Professionalism in the workplace

Right, I've composed myself, picked up the major bits of the vase, ascertained they do not all fit together in seamless jigsaw, called a London china restorer, ascertained it will cost in excess of the face value of the vase to restore it, swept up the splinters and chucked the whole lot in the wheelie bin outside.

Well honestly! Surely they should have bolted it down in some manner. Or told me that the windows were locked.

So, do I a) do a runner? Or b) offer to work for free until I've paid off the £895. Or they might do it at cost. They must charge at least 50% commission, so I should get away with paying half, which is £447.50. At £8.50 an hour (for that, Adam says, is the salary for this highly skilled job), working three days a week times 6 hours = 18 hours a week,  it will take me approximately 2.925 weeks. So by the end of my third week, I'll be in profit! Minus petrol money. So, roughly breaking even.

Will do honourable thing. Will own up. Will offer services free for three weeks. Very mature attitude. You see, simply by getting up and out of the house in the morning, and dressing up in my new TK Maxx asymmetrical cardigan and New Look jeans, polishing my boots (although it looks as though I might have used black polish on my brown boots, but never mind) and applying some make up (oh God! Did I wipe off the smudged mascara? Was waiting for eyelashes to dry so didn't further smudge it. Hang on. Nip to loo. No. I did not wipe off the smudged mascara. Am now doing so. Oh God! What was I thinking of with the concealer?), you face the world in a calm, professional manner.

Oh God! There's Adam's car! Quick, put the dustpan and brush away.

'How's it going, Eliza?' he says, breezing into the gallery. 'Are you finding your way around?'

'Fine, in fact, brilliantly! I've sold a vase! Raw Essence!'

'Well done you!' His face lights up. I've noticed there are no red dots or blank walls or empty plinths, apart from that which recently held Raw Essence, so this is probably his first sale of the exhibition. 'I shouldn't say this until I've seen the other woman,' he continues, 'but I'm impressed. And I'm not easily impressed. I'm going to offer you the job!'

He comes over and shakes my hand. Then, looking at the empty plinth, he adds, 'How did you manage it?'

'Well you see I was trying to open the window...'

He looks at the windows and then back at me, confused. 'What?'

'Oh sorry, how did I manage, er...?'

'To sell the vase.'

'Ohh...! Well this woman said she wanted a centrepiece for her table and her dining room sounded incredibly grand, all done out in biscuit and ecru, and she was studying all the vases and I just said, Raw Essence is the one. If I had the money, I'd buy it like a shot. I said I wouldn't hold back, because the artist is absolutely going places. This will cost you double in a year's time.'

'You've certainly got the patter, madam!' says Adam. 'Did she pay by cheque or credit card?'

'Ah. Well actually, she's... um... taken it on appro - if that's OK. We used to do it in London all the time. You know, people have to see it in situ.'

His eager smile fades. 'So she hasn't actually bought it then?' And then, in an urgent tone, 'You did get her details?'

'Oh yes, don't worry about that. It turns out her daughter's at the Manor - which is where my daughter's at school - so she's not going to do a runner!'

He seems mollified, if a little po-faced considering his earlier bonhomie. Now, how am I going to get him agree to give the buyer a 50% discount for cash? Well, I have a few days' grace while she sees whether it fits in her dining room, or whether the raw stoneware clashes with the ecru tableware.

Gallery horror

Very exciting! My new boss (well, we seem to be getting on very well so far) Adam has gone to meet a prospective artist and so I'm in charge of the gallery! Apart from answering the telephone in an intelligent and helpful manner, I have been given a brief list of important tasks.

1. Hoover up flies from gallery floor.

Hmmm. Where's the Hoover? Oh. Trapped behind some priceless canvases in the cupboard. Oh, but here's a dustpan and brush. That's easier.

OK, floor swept. Oh, but the window ledges! Awash with dead flies. Right, let's sweep that lot in... oh bugger. As quickly as I sweep them into the dustpan, they get a new lease of life and fly back to the window. Get in there! Grrr. Right, let's open the window and swoosh them out. The top handle is absolutely stuck. Keep tugging... Argh!

Oh. My. Lord.

How much was that vase? Ah, here's the label on the plinth.

'Raw Essence', £895.

ARGH!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Moneybags

Insurance cheque has arrived! £1,870! I know! Lucky I'm insured.

Along with my Saga car insurance bill. £341.98. Which, combined with the oil bill takes me almost up to my overdraft limit. Oh God! Wonder how much the art gallery pays?

Spend an hour or so investigating cheaper energy tariffs and switch to Ovo, saving myself the grand total of £83 per annum.

How can it have come to this? From unlimited credit card usage to scrabbling around on moneysupermarket.com? But must not be negative. Must be positive. Positivity breeds positivity. Think abundantly. I am in the money! £1,870 has fallen into my lap!

It's the Moneybags! That's what it is!

This is what I received yesterday from a friend in Hong Kong:

Chinese numerology and Feng Shui for 2011

This year we are going to experience four unusual dates: 1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, 11/11/11, and that's not all; Take the last two digits of the year you were born and the age you will be this year and the result will add up to 111 for everyone!!!! This is the year of MONEY. Also, this year, October will have 5 Sundays, 5 Mondays & 5 Saturdays. This happens only once every 823 years. These particular years are known as Moneybag years. The proverb goes that if you send this to eight good friends, money will appear in the next four days, as is explained in the Chinese feng shui. Those who don't continue the chain, won't receive. It's a mystery, but it's worth a try. Good luck to you. This only happens once in 800 years.

I sent it out, just in case, last night, and look what happens. An instant return of £1,870 plus £83 minus the £60 insurance excess minus £341.98 minus £298.99 minus the £1,870 that I paid out in the first place. Making a grand total of -£619.97. Hmmm.

Thrill of the week!

Oh my God! If this were a film, I would now be singing, ‘oh yeah, oh yeah,’ and doing a John Travoltaish, Night Feverish diagonal wavy thing with my arms like Lily does when I tell her she can board for an extra night.

Cue drum roll.

And… trumpet fanfare.

Mike from Asia To Go calls and says his tour leader in Vietnam has fallen down a manhole and wrenched her whole leg and all the ligaments and she’s laid up for at least a couple of weeks and they’ve got a tour leaving on Monday week which is luckily the one straight after half-term and can I lead it because if not they’re slightly up the creek? Particularly since they have one of his most important clients on the tour, the Dowager Countess of Montmarch. And, wait for it, it pays £150 a day! Which, given that it’s about a … hmmm, 24-hour day?, means… bloody hell! A pathetic £6.25 an hour. Though, to be fair, I must be off duty when I’m asleep, mustn’t I? So let’s say a 16-hour day. Hmmm. £9.37 an hour. And some of those hours will be spent watching films on the plane and eating. And it’s all expenses paid, and it’s a two-week trip, so I’ll get £2,100! Yes! Two months’ rent. A third of a term’s school fees. Well, it’s a start. Gainful employment. And I might get tips!

No longer am I defeated! I am a Triumphant Jobseeker!

Art gallery job triumph!

12:15

Open up emails. There's one from The First Post, a marvellous daily email from The Week, with ten top things you should know in the news. Am marvellously well informed these days.

'Glad Shat prisoners swap underwear.' Ooh, that sounds interesting. Nip upstairs to get headache-inducing glasses.

Oh. 'Gilad Shalit prisoner swap underway.' Not so interesting after all.

Ooh! The Willows Art Gallery! Yes! It's the one I applied to for the admin assistant job. They wonder if I can come in at short notice tomorrow for the day, by way of an audition. Call them immediately. Yes, yes, I can come in! No, no problem at all! They're seeing another couple of candidates this week, they say, but I'm in a shortlist of three, and they're very impressed by my prior experience working in a top London art gallery. Yes!

Oh God. When did I say I worked there? Oh well. I'll busk it. Just remember I have a Passion for Art.

Age and time

07:00

Argh! The alarm is buzzing in my ear. How? Why? Lily's at school and I don't need to get up for at least another hour. Dammit. It's particularly irritating given that rats or squirrels or more like a herd of sheep were running up and down over my head at two in the morning. I stuck my head out of the window and couldn't see anything on the roof. There's no loft (given that my bedroom is the loft), so I can't get at the bit between the ceiling and the thatch, assuming that there is a bit between the ceiling and the thatch. All I know is they're in there somewhere, whatever they are.

I toss and turn in the dawn gloom, feeling a growing sense of panic and fear about ageing. And dying. Alone. My eyes are screwed up and there's a aching knot in the centre of my forehead. Those new glasses are useless! Even after swapping the varifocals for two separate pairs. The old ones didn't give me headaches. Hmmm. I'll have to take them back again. Which means we'll have to go to London at half-term.

I am in battle with myself. Half of me keeps nearly springing out of bed to Nordic walk up the downs. The other half keeps pulling up the duvet.

07:45

The phone! What? At this ungodly hour? Scramble downstairs.

'Eliza. It's Kate,' says a voice.

Kate. Kate. Can't be Kate the school nurse or she'd say it's Kate from the Manor. Kate. Kate from London? Kate from the village? Nothing's coming to me.

'Oh, hi,' I say casually. Kate. Kate the lay preacher from the next village? Aunt Kate married to Uncle Maurice? But she's dead, isn't she?

'Where shall we start?' says Kate.

Oh God! Kate from the second-hand boutique, wanting to go through the clothes I've left with her? Except she's called something else like Kim or Zoe. Kate from Tesco Insurance? But wouldn't she say, 'Is that Mrs Gray? It's Kate from Tesco Insurance'?

'OK,' says Kate. 'The rats.'

Ah! Kate my landlady with the newborn baby which accounts for this ungodly hour. Of course! I left a litany of minor complaints on her answerphone yesterday.

'Well, I don't know if they are rats,' I say.' They sound more like a herd of sheep.'

'Really,' says Kate in all earnestness. 'I'll get on to the council.'

We move on to the aga which is on the blink and the overgrown trees and the sticky door and the letter about the electoral register.

'Oh God!' I interject. 'I'd better go. Dusty's trying to come downstairs. She's got all four feet on the top step and doesn't know what to do next.'

'How old is she?' asks Kate.

'Twelve.'

'Twelve? It's a good age for a retriever. We had our terrier put down last week. He was only 11.'

Oh God.

Right. Get dressed for Nordic walk. I'm just putting on my neon green trainers when the phone goes again. Cass. 

'I can't come to yoga,' she says. (Oh God! Yoga!) 'My electrician has let me down,' she continues. 'He seems to have gone away. For ever. So I've got an emergency electrician and basically the whole fuseboard has got to be moved so I can't not be here. Plus there's some plumbers coming to sort out the cylinder for the solar panels so I've got to talk them through my airing cupboard.'

08:50

How did that happen? How did a whole hour go by? I'll just do the monthly Hoover - that'll get the cardio bit of my Exercise Challenge over with, and then I'll be all set for the toning part with yoga!

09:45

Memo to self: Purple-sprouting broccoli best avoided the night before yoga.

We are lying on our backs, the soothing tones of our teacher lilting across the room. 'Raise your right leg up ... at right angles to your body.' Well, I get half way up when I know that this is Far Enough. Mustering every iota of pelvic floor and anal sphincter and tummy muscle that I have, I lower my leg slowly to the floor. I think it's only fair on the group to sit the rest of this one out.

The archer. Oh God. The skier, or whatever it's called in yogic terms. How do all the ancient denizens manage these crazy poses? And why don't I have any thigh muscles? Maybe it's a congenital defect?

The tree. 'Stand on your left leg, with your toes spread like the roots of a tree.... This is your foundation, firm and steady.... Raise your arms like the branches of a tree.... with the elbows at right angles and your hands pointing towards the ceiling.... Now place your right foot wherever's comfortable on your left leg...'  Ha ha. The room is full of steady oak trees. I am a weeping willow, swaying in a Force 8 gale, occasionally losing branches and toppling over.

Well, you have to start somewhere, I think, as I roll up my beach mat. It looks so bad, though, doing all the exercises at half-cock. Especially when everyone else is twice your age. Well, at least a decade older, most of them. Some of them, anyway.

I spot Annie on the way out, not a hair out of place in her sleek grey bob, yoga mat rolled neatly under her arm.

'How's the job-hunting going?' she asks.

I tell her about the age-filtering.

'Age and time,' she declares. 'They're just man-made inventions. They don't exist. In other societies people get up with the light and go to bed when it's dark. Age means nothing. It's just a label we put onto people. "Oh you're four years old, you should be reading now." We all do it! I've done it myself! "Oh, you're 55, you're too old for this." All man-made.'

Exactly, I think, as I drive back home. Age discrimination laws should be like race discrimination laws. You shouldn't be allowed to ask someone's age, just as you can't ask their colour! It should be irrelevant! What's relevant is whether they're fit for the job!

Hmmm. That's the problem.


Monday, 17 October 2011

Simple, country fare

Peanuts, feta, chard,
purple sprouting broccoli:
barrel-scraped supper

Battered defences

Argh! How could I forget to tell Vincent about my new Passion for Kayaking? I could have killed two birds with one stone, stopping him in his tracks with all that waffle about a) losing my Passion and b) not exercising.

Text him now:  Have taken up kayaking. It's my new Passion! Requires supreme Energy! Nothing to worry about.

He texts back: Jolly good. How do you manage that every day? You'll need something for the lower body too.

Grrrr.

Phone rings. Cass for a gossip. Just as I'm settling in for a good old complain about Vincent and tar smears in the bath, she says, 'I'd better go. I've got a house full of builders and a bunch of Romanians in the bushes. I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at 9.25.'

'What's happening at 9.25?' I enquire.

'Yoga. At 9.30 in fact. In your village hall? Remember? We said we'd give it a try this week.'

Ha! I'll show Vincentface. 

Jobseeker Bulletin

Disappointed Jobseeker Bulletin. No, that isn't it. Dismal Jobseeker Bulletin? No... Dismayed Jobseeker Bulletin? I forget exactly the terminology, but anyway, on the job front:

1. Trainee Estate Agent. No response.

2. Baby photographer for hospital. Form response turning me down because I live too far away.

3. School cover supervisor. No response.

4. Art gallery assistant. No response.

Cass says that Ned's in the same boat at the moment, looking for a job, and apparently all these online application forms automatically filter you out on things like a) no work experience, b) no recent work experience and c) age. Puh. Surely that's against some law or other? Google 'age discrimination'. Yes! Here we are. The law gives you the right not to suffer a disadvantage at work because of your age.

The following groups of people have protection under the law.

In employment:
  • Employees
  • Self-employed people
  • Office holders (for example‚ company directors‚ clergy)
  • Contract and agency workers
  • Job applicants
  • Former employees
  • Members of occupational pension funds
 In education:
  • People applying for further, higher or adult education‚ or training
  • Students in further, higher or adult education‚ or training
  • Former students in further, higher or adult education‚ or training
 In other areas:
  • People using career guidance services
  • People applying for a professional qualification
  • Members of trade unions or professional associations.
Ye-es... And? What about people applying for jobs? Not bloody covered. Well that's pathetic. No wonder you get these jobs-for-lifers. They're covered and they'll stick in their wretched dead-wood jobs until retirement forces them out. But if you take time out from the workforce voluntarily (or because your husband expects you to run his social life and mask the fact that he's gay), then tough. You're Too Bloody Old.

Hang on. Just reading the In Employment bit more carefully (which obviously I skimmed over initially because it says 'in' employment, which we jobseekers aren't). 'Job Applicants.' Yes! Job Applicants! It says Job Applicants are covered! So they can't filter you out! Hmmm. But they are filtering me out. But how does one prove it? And is it worth fighting anyway, for a measly £8 an hour? I could ring the Citizens Advice Bureau, I suppose. Or Age Concern. But, really, it's all too demeaning.

Defeated. That's it. I remember now. I remain, yours humbly, a Defeated Jobseeker.