D is for…

 

Don’t get in my way. Don’t fight with your brother. Don’t jump in puddles. Don’t leave anything on your plate. Don’t make a mess. Don’t play in the street. Don’t get dirty. Don’t leave your toys everywhere. Don’t answer back.

Don’t fence me in.

Don’t read under the bedclothes. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t chew bubble-gum. Don’t say naughty words. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t scratch your bottom. Don’t run in the woods. Don’t climb trees. Don’t do anything dangerous. Don’t talk to strange men. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t eat the daisies.

Don’t stay out late. Don’t argue with me. Don’t bring that boy home. Don’t grow your hair long. Don’t paint your nails. Don’t wear tight skirts. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t embarrass me.

Don’t go breaking my heart.

Don’t diet. Don’t go to coffee-bars. Don’t go to pubs. Don’t plaster your face with make-up. Don’t waste your money. Don’t lie. Don’t keep secrets from me. Don’t believe everything your friends say.

Don’t let me be misunderstood.

Don’t read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Don’t behave like that in my house. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t give me that look.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

What happened to ‘Do’?

Do have a good time. Do bring all your friends home. Do be independent. Do take a few risks. Do discuss things with me. Do read widely. Do be positive. Do remember contraception. Do enjoy life. Do make your own mind up. Do be happy.

Even – Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.

Don’t look back in anger.

Don’t think twice, it’s alright.

 

I found them later on.

Don’t stop me now.

B is for Bragging

Six of us, travellers in France, thrown together at a guesthouse. It turned out Alice and Alec lived ten miles from Brenda and Bob. The ‘A’ and the ‘B’ team; we two were alphabetical and geographical misfits.

‘My God! We’re practically neighbours! You don’t sail, do you?’ Alex bellowed.

‘Actually, yes. Have a 38 footer.’

‘Mmm, our boat is smaller. But we do have a second one, a clinker-built job.’

Bob changed tack. ‘Damned good food at the boathouse.’

‘We prefer our local gastro-pub. The one with a Michelin star.’

Brenda jumped in. ‘I dislike sailing. I renovate our lovely old house with its half-acre of land.’

‘Land? Into gardening?’ Alice’s eyes sparkled. ‘I grow all our veg now I’ve retired from Harley Street. Must use our acre.’

The ‘B’ team preferred to buy local organic produce.

Touché.

‘We’re joining our son in Provence.’ Brenda continued. ‘He needs a break – such a stressful job. He’s a partner in a large law firm.’

‘Really?’ Alice grew two inches. ‘Our son is a hedge fund manager in the City. Earns millions – but I shouldn’t mention that!’

‘Being a Harley Street doctor entitles you to boast.’

Alice had a fit of coughing. Her husband explained she had been secretary to a consultant oncologist.

In the fidgeting break in conversation, I mentioned our next stop was the ancestral home of Josephine de Beauharnais.

‘Before she married Napoleon.’ Nobody seemed interested. ‘So it’s an early night. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.’

‘Who knows? Perhaps at that Beauharnais place, eh?’ Loud, dismissive guffaws.

‘Well, it’s possible. The place is for sale and we’re putting in a bid.’

Four pairs of eyes fixed on me; smiles vanished.

We left the room and waited. Silence. Then four clamouring voices.

Sometimes you have to lie.

A is for Agatha

I’m a collector of Agathas.

I met my first, an elderly lady, when we were stranded by snow at Chicago airport. My business ticket gained me a hotel room. She tagged along and although her economy ticket (not cheap, she protested, she’d saved a year for it) won her nothing, she ended up as my companion. I took her to dinner, then breakfast and escorted her back to England. I thought I’d have to take her home as no-one met her but a steward took pity on us both.

The next was in New Zealand.  She drowned me in information at a Bed and Breakfast. ‘Call me Aggie,’ she said but as I barely uttered a word, I had no occasion to call her anything. ‘So lovely to chat. So interesting.’ My husband had quietly disappeared, insisting I was better than he with overwhelming women.

The Agatha syndrome struck again in Madeira. We were having a pre-dinner drink when a dowdy couple came into the hotel lounge. Being Brits, we’d spread out to avoid the invisible barriers we’d all erected around ourselves. I nodded towards the newcomers and she shuffled delightedly towards me. I heard about her purchases, her favourite designers and saw her new shoes. When I said I was dreadful at buying clothes, she offered to take me in hand; and, by the way, her name was Agatha. I never found time to shop with her.

The following evening we went to a concert. The loud enthusiast beside me told me it was her eighth visit to the island and she always attended this event. I could have left immediately, I learned so much about it. Afterwards, her husband said, ‘Good as ever, Jean.’

Jean? Had I misheard? She had to be called Agatha.

***

This was published in the Mar/Apr/May issue of Mslexia

Cheesy – or what?

I am addicted. Not to anything as commonplace as cocaine or Facebook. My problem is cheese. It is a life-long problem and, I have to admit, not one I want to resolve. If I think of the edible pleasures in life – chocolate, wine, fresh bread – I could give any of them up before I could abandon cheese. A fridge devoid of cheese sends me into a panic.

I’m aware, of course, of the dangers: high cholesterol, many calories. So I suffer low fat cream cheese, even like it. But there have to be treats. Proper, strong cheddar that makes your mouth tingle; creamy, unctuous blue whose taste lingers long after it has been swallowed; aged Red Leicester that fills your mouth with flavour.  I could go on like a magazine article.

Actually, that not far from the truth. I recently pitched an article to ‘Berkshire Life’ on local cheeses and had it accepted for the December issue. A special cheeseboard and Christmas go together. It was an excellent idea for a cheese addict – not only did I visit several artisan cheesemakers and learn about their processes, I met some fascinating people and tasted some delicious cheese. I came away with free samples! My husband who once claimed, many years ago, he didn’t eat cheese, came along as an enthusiastic photographer (and fellow taster – I think the tastings persuaded him into photography!)

Cheese attracts interesting and varied folk. I interviewed an ex-microbiologist (good background for cheese-making) and a Baron, a guy whose distant ancestor was a general in Napoleon’s army. For many artisan cheese makers, it’s a second career – one that seems to be as addictive as eating it is for me. They all search for the next refinement in taste whether it is a rival for stilton or an exotic truffle-flavoured creamy white cheese using cows’ or sheep’s milk. I was happy to assess their efforts.

I shall have to stop torturing myself – writing about cheese is not enough. I can feel the call of the fridge. Now what will it be? A piece of Barkham Blue? A nugget of mature cheddar? I salivate at the thought….

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On Stubbornness

…as a mule, goes the saying.  Inflexible, pig-headed, obstinate, a failing in one’s character. Not a compliment. On the other hand, there is sticking-power, resilience, never giving up.  Now those are more positive.

We are a family of stubborn people. If we believe in genetics, it’s mostly my fault.

When my daughter, Anna, was nine, she and I had huge rows about piano practice. She would play her piece once and claimed she was done for the week. I remember screaming at her, ‘If you’re this bad now, what will you be like as a teenager?’ (Actually, much better – her teenage angst came early). We called her stubborn but recognised that one day we would call it strength of character. We do.

Stubbornness leads to the desire for high standards, not to accept second best.  My husband, Tony, is now adept at intercepting burned cakes as they head for then rubbish bin and pans of lumpy custard about to be thrown across the kitchen. (He hates waste, especially where puddings are concerned.) Actually, I don’t need to do everything well. I’m happy to be a poor cyclist and accept I have no sense of direction. But where it matters, it matters.

I have to win at Scrabble. I am a terrible loser. A series of losses (and I admit, they happen) sends me into a serious decline. But I stick at it.

Recently, my ‘resilience’ was tested. Tony and I walked half of the ‘Coast to Coast’ path, from St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen. (We’ll complete it next year.)  On the second day, I had a bad fall. I toppled backwards, knocked Tony over and we both rolled off the path for a couple of metres, stopping just short of a stream. It could have been thirty metres and I would not now be telling the story, stubborn or not. I hit my left knee on some rocks but I could walk so nothing was broken. As the pain increased and the knee swelled and stiffened, I realised I was in trouble. The remainder of the day is a blur. This was Day 2 of 7. A long-planned adventure we both wanted to complete. I could not let either of us down and I knew that if I gave up, Tony wouldn’t continue.

My knee was bruised and double its usual size. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and paracetamol and plastered the knee with pain-killing gel.  Stairs were difficult but I was still moving the following morning. Armed with my medications and a hefty dose of bloody-mindedness, I carried on.

By the end of the week, my leg was purple from mid-thigh to my toes. But that only increased the sense of elation when we reached our goal. As we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, I toasted stubbornness.

One last thought on the subject: while I know the stubborn traits in my family – the children and possibly grandchildren ­– may be due to me, I am not totally responsible. Perhaps stubborn people marry equally stubborn partners. I say no more.

Thank You for the Music! (With apologies to Abba)

I sang in my junior school choir at the age of nine. There were four criteria for selection: a reasonable voice, good behaviour, the ability to learn the words and regular attendance. I managed three out of four and my poor voice hid behind a happy smile. The choir was large so I got away with it but that was the end of my musical career.

It amazes me what a good ear the world has. Almost everyone I know sings or plays an instrument. Doing neither, I feel like an outcast, someone with a missing gene. My parents could sing, not brilliantly, but a song was recognisable, they could both hold a note. My brother sang well. How did I miss out?

It was when I reached senior school that I realised the extent of my misfortune. I remember the dreadful embarrassment I suffered when we were occasionally required to sing alone. There was no pleasure in it. I would rather have given a speech in assembly, written a ten-page essay or run a mile. Anything rather than sing.

What is enjoyable entertainment to others can be a nightmare to me. The word ‘karaoke’ makes me go cold. No amount of alcohol, consumed before, during or afterwards, can improve the experience. Miming is not an option and although everyone says it doesn’t matter how well anyone sings as it’s just ‘a bit of fun’, it matters to me. I’ve heard and cringed at dreadful performances – I realise there are a few others in the world who are unmusical – and don’t want to be one of them.

To compound my problems, I married someone who has an even worse voice. He cannot tell when he is out of tune which, in a way, is fortunate for him. I can hear when I sing badly. Our poor kids were really damned before they opened their mouths. Our youngest son has inherited all our musical talent; his voice is worse than either of ours. He has married the musical daughter of an opera singer and a professional clarinettist. His mother-in-law believes that anyone can sing if they find their pitch. Well, she believed it until she met my son. She is working on him. So far, without success.

I do sing occasionally with the grandchildren. I can manage ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ when no-one else is about. George, at three, even enjoys it. However, once the grandchildren reach an age when they can tell me to shut up, they usually do.

It’s not that I want to sing brilliantly. Just adequately would do. I’d also love to play an instrument but my mother protected me from such torture. The thrill of playing Scott Joplin on the piano or blasting out a melody on the saxophone will never be mine. I suppose I would always have been out of tune.

But in spite of my failings, there is something I can provide to the world of music; something that all musicians need when they perform. They need an audience. I am consistently good at appreciating others, applauding and cheering. Where would concerts be without folk who enjoy music and are there to listen? I went to the Proms last week – no embarrassment, just pleasure. That is my ongoing contribution to the musical world.