A-hunting we will go…

Now we’re all able to get out and about more, and vintage fairs, markets and car boot sales have opened up again, it’s time to set your alarm clocks for silly hour, get out there and experience the addictive thrill of treasure-hunting…  

Some of the markets and car boot fairs are so huge, you will need to get your bearings before you begin. For starters, and I know it’s obvious, but do remember where you parked your car (I speak from experience)! Look out for landmarks close to any stalls you need to return to later on, to collect your spoils. (Stallholders are always happy to hold on to items for their customers.) If there are two or more of you, it will make sense to split up, as there is more chance of finding what you want before someone else gets to it. Mobile phones are, of course, an essential – great for sending pics on the spot, to alert each other of possible finds.  

Be prepared. Always carry a blanket or two in the car, to wrap things in that may need protecting, spare bags of varying sizes and strengths, as the dealers don’t always have them (the IKEA blue ones are brilliant, I have found; a useful size and so strong) and also a good length of rope for tying the boot down in case you end up buying a larger piece of furniture.  Don’t think that this won’t happen (see my next point)! It would be a crying shame to pass up on something you have fallen in love with, just because you haven’t the means to get it home safely. It’s not always possible for dealers to deliver, and paying a company to do this for you could negate any deals you have already struck with the seller.

So, if you are driving, it makes sense to empty the boot and back seat before you leave home, just in case. This came in handy for us when we once travelled all the way back from Sussex to Surrey (out on a day trip) in heavy, torrential rain with an old French rustic pine kitchen table sticking out of our (roped-down) boot. It was too good a bargain to leave behind!  It survived the journey intact, we dried it off and gave it a light polish, and it’s now in use as a desk in our spare bedroom.

However, never say never! Before we had a car, we would bring things home on the train or bus, including bookcases, trunks, chairs, small tables and cupboards, trollies and shelves. It didn’t put us off, although we got some very odd looks and comments. Armed with plenty of sturdy bags, something to tie things together with and a set of luggage wheels, you won’t have to leave anything behind, within reason, ever again. 

Think outside the box.  We bought a vintage American chrome unit of four office drawers, great for storage and a bit of a talking point as it is so unexpected where we have placed it – in our open-plan kitchen with a plant in a large pot on the top.   Old packing crates and their ilk make great shelves or bedside tables, painted or unpainted.  In our spare bedroom, we have an old painted continental dough bin as a side table and very useful storage. A vintage French baker’s trolley is our towels and linens unit in the bathroom and another, this time an American one from a shoe factory, is out on our landing, holding all our shoes.  A coat stand, American again and from a school, is also on our landing and holds our joint hat collection. Yet another trolley is downstairs and used as a magazine rack and bookcase. An old American porch rocker graces our living room, alongside a large factory spool from the Midlands, used as a side table.  We have vintage metal and pine factory and post office shelves and pigeonholes holding books, cds and dvds, a low wooden American industrial factory trolley with cast-iron wheels and trimmings is our coffee table and a vintage pine folding New York hotel linen trolley on castors is our TV stand.  Why not?  There are no rules.

The one that got away.  Only say you will “think about it” if you don’t mind the risk of missing out on something.  If you have fallen in love, buy, buy, buy!  Don’t think about where it’s going to go – just go for it, and worry about that once you’ve got it home.  You will never regret it; only if you leave it behind.  And if you are prepared to walk away from something, then you don’t love it enough and can move on to the next thing. 

There’s an old saying in the trade: “The time to buy an antique is when you see it.” There is every likelihood that it won’t still be there the next time you go.  If you like it enough, there will be others who do, too.  I have missed buying some gorgeous things in that way in the past, and now don’t even think twice – within reason, of course!  You have to walk away if you really can’t afford it, and the dealer isn’t playing ball with the price. If you keep seeing the same piece every time you go back, you can keep trying, though they still may not want to come down in price for you – this has happened to me as well.  But whatever you may think of their selling tactics, never, ever be rude to them!  See my next point.

Buying etiquette. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so don’t be afraid to make a reasonable offer for something that catches your eye.  But don’t get carried away and get up the dealers’ noses by thinking you are on one of “those” television programmes. They will soon send you packing. Dealers have to make a living like everyone else, but are usually happy to haggle a little, depending on what they paid for the piece and how long they have had it.  You can generally strike better deals if you are paying in cash, too, so make sure you have plenty on you before you start off.  

Years ago, at a big local fair, I bought a pair of pretty pine chairs at a hefty discount, as the couple running the stand needed the space in their van going home, because they had been buying from other stands, and it meant that one of them was going to have to take the train home otherwise.  So, my discount effectively cancelled out the price of the train ticket, not to mention all the aggravation for them. This was towards the end of the day, as well, and you can often get better discounts if you leave it until quite late – but then, of course, you run the risk of missing out on the best buys, which will all have been snapped up first thing.  

Be polite at all times.  Engage with people, show a friendly interest (I always like to know a bit about the piece I’m buying; especially where it’s come from, if possible) and they will remember you favourably when it comes to making a purchase on another occasion.  Most dealers are happy to look out for specific items for you, as well. Go with a rough price bracket in mind and take measurements for much larger items. Years ago, I bought a pretty little drop-arm Victorian sofa without first checking to see if it could get through my front door.  It couldn’t, so in the middle of winter, in the pouring rain, cold and dark, we had to take our front door off its hinges. That was fun.

Once you have the collecting bug, it makes going out and about so much more fun.  Items can turn up anywhere: charity shops, car boot sales and smaller local markets and fairs are often good sources.  Of course, there’s online, too, but I much prefer getting out and seeing pieces, and people, in the flesh. (Though for the dealers, during the pandemic, social media sites such as Instagram proved a real life-saver for their businesses.) When you have amassed so much of whatever it is you enjoy collecting, you may find yourself starting to hone and refine your collection; even ending up selling some of it back to the dealers. That’s when you know it’s serious!

Talking of which, you might want to think about stalling out yourself, to offload any surplus. We have done this several times and it’s great fun, although the very early starts can be a bit of a killer. Be organised with your stock, sort out the pricing upfront (with a bit of “wiggle room”, as they say), take along plenty of bags and plenty of change, something to eat and drink and some means of protection from the weather – be it rain or sun. If it becomes a regular event, investing in a sturdy, good-quality awning might be a good idea, but bear in mind it will probably need two of you to put it up!

Take time to look carefully around stalls and stands at fairs and shops, within reason. Not everything is immediately visible; ie, at the front or on top of the stand, and these other areas can often be a rich source of treasures.  I have found a lovely old terracotta pot for the garden in this way (tucked under a table) and an advertising print worth at least three times what I paid for it, stacked amongst a lot of other, not so interesting or valuable prints, casually propped up against a stand at a market. I have also heard of someone who found a Bernard Leach (famous St Ives potter) platter at a stand at a large London antiques fair, under a table, in a box with other random pieces of pottery. Clearly, the stallholder didn’t know what they had, and the very happy buyer wasn’t about to enlighten them.  And that’s another thing.  Not everyone is an expert on what they are selling and even the experts don’t know it all.

It’s not always about the value, though.  Unless you are into buying and selling yourself, you should only ever buy what you love and will enjoy living with and looking at every day. In our house, few things match, but it all goes together, was bought with love and is linked to a happy memory of fun times and meeting interesting people, and that’s all that matters.

LETTING GO

I have written about books and “stuff” and collecting objects before, but have since had to share, with my partner (the “OH”), sister and other family members, the grim and heartbreaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land over 40 years ago, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until today: completion day.

Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. I sort-of helped with clearing my grandparents’ houses, way back in the early ‘80s, which was also very sad and emotional for me, but have to admit that it was mostly my parents and their siblings who had the grim clearance task that time. And perhaps it wasn’t so grim for them, since, in each case, they didn’t appear to hold any great sentimental attachment to either property. (Also, our grandparents’ generation didn’t accumulate so much unnecessary STUFF, as I have written about before.)

I, however, despite not ever having lived in the house, felt our family’s history seeping from every wall and felt incredibly protective towards it. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it, and I would often cry for most of the journey home. Good job my OH is the understanding sort! My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots, as they put it, and, most likely (I’m guessing), wanting to start a family. The place needs another family there and it needs some upliftment, too. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all. Though it felt very strange and difficult, for me, this past week, to see post starting to arrive in the new owners’ names…

I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone; never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the bigger items of furniture the final week we were there, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clearouts during lockdown.

I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations.  Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas; the kind we used to have (in our previous home) when our grandparents came to stay, or other family members, and when friends and neighbours dropped by.  It was never going to happen; only in her mind. The family are far-flung and scattered and there are long-standing feuds and rifts to add to the mix. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener down there, who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis: her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I expect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.

We tried putting the bigger and better items at the top of the drive and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip. My sister’s friend very helpfully put ads on a local “free” site and we managed to get rid of a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke last year and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip. Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants to go. As it happened, we had ten, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said. 

Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass a year ago and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but obviously couldn’t.

Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!), sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests), cookery and wine-making, which my dad tried for a while before giving up – and he wasn’t even a drinker of it, but always said he found it an interesting subject to read about. There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and, perhaps rather chillingly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies…

There was the 1950s oak sideboard that my parents bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room of her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago.  I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I couldn’t, I simply COULD NOT let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to lovingly dust and polish its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)

However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been, for someone like me?!)

There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family. 

There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?

The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!

Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?!) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my OH, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related “trivia” is in there. (He was a staunch Labour supporter and a union member, naturally. I mean proper, old-school Labour, who didn’t approve of owning one’s own home – something he came to regret in later life, when he apologised to my mother and her sister from his hospital bed, saying how sorry he was that he had nothing to leave them. He would  be so distressed and disappointed with his Party, these days!) The family enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him!

Don’t get me started on the photos! Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of the photos have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl the boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are in our house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. Scream!

There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling. 

We had caravans in the ‘70s (not more than one at a time, obviously) and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.

There were sets of pristine, unused bedding and towels. And the tea-towels! I said to my OH: “Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!” When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare duvets and pillows and, guess what? There are about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. They’re going to have to go. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.

I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things in there and then never looking at them again. A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand, now; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is now my new Very Good Thing.

This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 11 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork. It’s been great fun trying to untangle and make sense of it all – not.

We have little enough space in our own home and we are, in fact, starting the process of decluttering, ourselves, so the last thing we need is to be saddled with any more stuff. But, as I write, our dining table is almost completely covered with papers, diaries, photos, the aforementioned huge family bible, and many more things I couldn’t bear to throw out before at least going through them first. I begged the rest of my family to take more things from the house but they, like us, have very limited space – and have plenty of stuff of their own.

The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. My OH is just as bad: when it came to clearing his own parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and went and bought them all back the next!

I have even been known to buy other people’s personal family scrapbooks and diaries. I can’t stand to see them lying forlornly on a tabletop at a vintage fair. (They’re quite interesting, actually. Funny, too. I blogged about them a while back, if you can be bothered to find it.) Maybe that’s where mine will end up, one day. I hope not. 

We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local pub for some months, since they were able to reopen. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down, back at the house, with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to the OH: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember. Yet it was the most important meal of the week, at one time, and I fondly recall my mother and my grandmother’s gargantuan and extremely delicious Sunday lunches, not to mention the amount of effort that went into the shopping, cooking and preparation of them. And the washing-up and clearing-up, after. Every week, rain or shine, summer or winter (caravan holidays and weekends away excepted, of course), year in, year out. (On reflection, this might be why we seemed to go away so often.) 

Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, where they were looking bare and unloved. As Mum will now never see these things, I have been taking lots and lots of photos to show her. This spring, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. (Naturally, the honeysuckle is flourishing absolutely everywhere, this year, just to torment me!) And so the cycle continues…

Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially difficult for me. I’m going to miss them all hugely. We have never experienced such friendliness where we live, as we did when enjoying one of the many beautiful walks right on our doorstep down there. Everyone, of every age, said hello. We will be back, though: to see Mum, to visit Dad’s grave and other things we want to do, and have been invited for tea in a couple of places when we venture down there again. It’s not the same as having a base there, though, of course. 

A shout-out to my long-suffering OH, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he’s done for me, this past year and a half. All the driving, the fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he has given me in so many ways during what has been one of the worst times of my entire life (and there have been some real corkers) is over and above and beyond the call of duty. He is a rare gem indeed. I might even now be able to come off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I’ve been taking to get me through all this – though I’ve a feeling he prefers me to be slightly dopey at times! I was crying every day, and barely sleeping, before, and I was feeling truly desperate. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad bought so many years ago has been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me. I think he would have liked that.

So, here we are. It’s over. Now that the house has gone, and everything in it has ended up in a skip, a bin, a charity shop, a van, a neighbour’s garden or a family member’s own house, I need to turn a fresh eye to the contents of mine, take a deep breath, gird my loins and get stuck in to sorting out all my own stuff. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it!

They had to come and fetch me home!

Dodging the wind and rain on Sunday, we sat inside a (very busy and lively) pub for our roast lunch. It felt good to be indoors, especially as the rain was lashing against the windows throughout. They were fully booked, I was told, and turning people away. I wasn’t surprised. We all want to return to some semblance of normal, don’t we? We even managed to cram in a pudding, just to be sociable. 

We spotted two lovely old classic cars in the car park afterwards and, while I love to see these, I can never get over just how tiny they are inside. I mean, where does all the shopping go?! Never mind any luggage for trips away and holidays. There’s no such thing as travelling light for us. We have to cover all eventualities.  Generous boot capacity was a key factor in buying our current car. That, and a comfy back seat for the resident back-seat driver: ie, me. The first time we tried out our fancy new dash-cam, then played it back later on at home, I asked the OH what that awful sound was – like an irritated insect on speed. Turns out it was me, oops. Many’s the time he’s pointed the television controls at me, jabbing the “mute” button with increasing desperation, to no avail…

Talking of luggage, my idea of hell would be backpacking, hefting a cumbersome rucksack around, followed by camping in a tent you have to put up yourself, just to compound the misery (hollow laugh). The sort you have to limbo in and out of, with no en-suite facilities. When I went on a camping trip with the Guides, just before joining “big school” I called my parents from a phone box after a mere two days of misery, discomfort and disgusting food and they had to come and fetch me home. They tried to make me feel ashamed, but all I felt was overwhelming relief. I like my home comforts, thank you very much. There’s a lot to be said for a solid roof over your head (one you can actually stand up in), a comfy bed, hot shower and an indoor loo. Not to mention no earwigs in your clothes and shoes, and not having to share a tent with a load of smelly, snoring older girls. I was one of the youngest there, and tiny back then, and they kept patting me on the head and saying how sweet I was! Little did they know…

I digress. After our Sunday lunch, we managed a quick look around an open garden in a nearby village, though very few flowers were in bloom, which was a pity. I loved their restful colour scheme (though most weren’t in bloom, I recognised their foliage, so I knew what was coming): blues, purples and white. And lots of varied foliage. More or less like ours, come to think of it. Ish. They also had lots of pots grouped everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. Anyone who’s ever been to my garden knows all about my pots obsession. I’m selling some of them, but that still leaves me with around 60.

It was surprisingly busy in there, despite the awful weather and the rather steep entrance fee of a fiver each. I was expecting a much bigger garden, but it was lovely, though all a bit too high-maintenance for us. I bet they have help. Funnily enough, I overheard someone in the pub talking about someone else and their obsession with their garden: “She’d be out there 24/7 if she could.” Perhaps they were talking about the owner of this particular garden, and who could blame her? 

Only the British, on a day like today, could sit out in said garden, exposed to the elements, and “enjoy” (I use the word very loosely) tea and cake! We resisted. On our way back to the car, we passed a family having a jolly picnic under a sheltered stand in a playground. The village hall had a promising sign outside, saying tea and cakes, but they were packing up just as we got there, at peak British tea-time, ie, three o’clock. Some people just don’t have the stamina.

CRACKING THE COCONUT AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS

Now that the shops are all open again – well, those that still can open, of course; our local high street is looking even emptier and more forlorn than it did before this time last year – I can divide the staff into two groups: those who are very happy to be back working and those who were OK about being at home, as they were still getting paid, and are therefore a bit more half-hearted about it.  The first group are all very young and the second group are more my age: ie, grumpy and knackered and wearing too many decades under our ever-expanding belts. 

In one shop, the young sales assistant confided they had all been working there during lockdown and she was sick of her colleagues and of the piped music playing on an endless loop (I’m not surprised; it was a bit crap). It was nice to talk to “real people” as she put it. The store was rewarding customers with free gifts with every purchase.  I received a scented candle and some stickers with my towels. A nice thought. It reminded me of when stores were handing out free flowers this time last year.

The staff in Boots looked a little busier than when I was last in there. Back then, I had knocked something off one of the shelves and bent to pick it up, whereupon the bored-looking male assistant perked up enormously and cried: “No, don’t do that! It will give me something to do.” 

“At least you have great music in here,” I said encouragingly. Hey Jude was playing at the time. “The classics are the best. This is my era,” I added, and proceeded to sing it on my way out of the shop, to prove I know all the words (“Laaa,lalalalalaLA…” Told you).  One good thing about wearing masks in these circumstances: people can’t tell when you get the words wrong.

I couldn’t wait to get into Waterstones, to start spending my Christmas book token pressie from the OH. (Yes, I know you can buy from them online, but it’s just not the same, is it? For one thing, they haven’t yet invented scratch ‘n’ sniff for the full virtual bookshop experience.)

Our cafe-owner friend is selling up. He was struggling before the first lockdown and this past year has clinched it for him. I’ll miss him and his wonderful food, but can understand his reasons, of course. Besides, he is now 70, although he looks about 50. Must be all that olive oil and pesto.

Meanwhile, the rest of the town was busy, with three sets of buskers providing entertainment, all vying for our attention and the dreaded bussed-in beggars were back. There were huge queues for the loos and coffee shops, in particular. Oh, and the barbers. The OH is trying – in vain – to get a haircut at the moment. 

“Matey” (as we like to call him) down the road from us is also selling up. He runs a small salvage yard and we’ve bought some great things from him over the years. We’re very sorry to see him leave, too, but he is also way past retirement age and lockdown has finally forced his hand.

I spotted a cheese called “Pitchfork” in a deli last week and joked that I should have had it on me while shopping in the nearby Waitrose. Not much social distancing going on in there.

In the same Waitrose, which is known for its famous clientele, as it’s in a particularly posh part of Surrey, within ball-kicking distance of the Chelsea training ground (we once stood behind Jamie Redknapp at the checkout), I pondered on the thought that many famous people must be relieved to wear a mask while out and about, as it surely cuts down on the recognition factor. 

Our checkout lady commented on the smell of the cheese bread we were buying and told us of the recipe her mother had made for the family the night before, which had included plenty of cheese. She added that she couldn’t cook, and I said neither could I, nor could I do anything at all practical, but that we were all good at something. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m good at winning arguments!”

On another occasion, an older checkout lady told us of the time when she was stuck at home isolating and awaiting a food delivery. Fancying a banana, she had put in her order. Unfortunately for her, the store was clean out of bananas that day and helpfully sent her a coconut instead. “Fancy sending a bloomin’ coconut to an elderly lady with no teeth of her own!” she exclaimed. “I had to go out into the garden to crack it open!”

Trying to dump our old printer the other day, we were surprised to see a very long queue outside the tip, and a sign at the entrance which informed us we had at least a 40-minute wait. We knocked that one on the head. It can wait. But I wondered what everyone else was doing there. Spring clean, perhaps? The start of the garden season proper and maybe clearing out the shed? Or getting rid of the bodies of their families and near-neighbours who had been driving them crazy during lockdown?

Some businesses have thrived this past very peculiar year. Aside from the obvious ones, the makers of gym equipment, hair dye and…maps… have seen a welcome boost to their coffers. Also rubbish bins. Our local parks and green spaces are benefitting from brand-new and much larger bins, due to more people out walking (hence the maps, presumably) and depositing their rubbish into already overflowing, much smaller bins.  

I heard of an antiques dealer complaining there were no storage containers to be found anywhere – apparently, everyone is using them for moving house. Since lockdown has proved that most people can work from home, more or less anywhere, it’s a seller’s market as everyone scrambles to get away from it all – well, nearly all. They’re still going to need their precious internet connection, of course. (I used to work with someone who insisted she and her husband would retire to the centre of London and be within walking distance of everything; not move out into the sticks, as so many do. Last I heard, they were in Dulwich, so they’re definitely getting closer.)

A roadside van we often drive past is currently offering both ice-creams and hot chocolate. Hedging their bets, given our unpredictable weather. During lockdown, they were selling face masks, sanitiser and plants. Very astute. Also astute are a friend’s husband and son, who have set up a pawn shop.  This was classed a necessity during lockdown, because lots of people had no money coming in. It’s been a big hit with house clearance people, as well.

They’re still not accepting cash at the garden centres we like to visit, though, and when I enquired about this in one of them, the young assistant said, “It’s usually the older people who ask that.” Then, on seeing our crestfallen faces (or half of them, anyway, thanks to our masks), swiftly and diplomatically added, “Much older than you,” which mollified us slightly – but only just.

In another garden centre we visit regularly, their one original bookcase containing second-hand books for sale (great idea!) has now been expanded to five; all crammed full. Books AND plants under the one roof! My cup runneth over… 

I had my long-overdue and much-needed haircut, this week.  I’m no longer frightening small children and inciting adults to make the sign of the cross when they see me. Two men from the council came into the salon while I was there, brandishing huge clipboards and checking everyone was adhering to the rules. (The hairdressers have to wear both masks and visors, as well as other protective garb.) I suppose they could close the place down if they thought it necessary, or at least issue a huge fine.  I’ve not seen or heard of this happening before and it was slightly unnerving to witness. 

Afterwards, as I was walking past two men sitting outside a café, I heard one of them say: “I’m sure I saw a model just now.” Sadly, shiny, bouncy new haircut notwithstanding, I knew he wasn’t referring to me. 

I’m always picking up stray snippets of conversations and, in a supermarket the other day, I was passing a family just as the mother was saying: “We’ve got some changes to make in the family, too, haven’t we?” I’d love to have known the context, but I did note her children looked none-too-thrilled at the prospect of those changes. My mind is still boggling.

And again, in the same supermarket, in the next-door cubicle in the toilets: “Someone’s tired. You need an early night, tonight.”
“No, Mummy,” came the tiny, emphatic response. “I’m not tired. I’m just bored.”

Stay safe!

I’m thinking about my personal safety a lot at the moment, for obvious reasons, and it’s triggered some unwelcome memories, but I wanted to write them down in case they’re of some help. 

When I ran a bar night for the social club I used to belong to, I lived a mere five-minute walk around the corner from the pub, but always (if it wasn’t offered first) asked someone to drop me off by car, or walk me there (if they were a male friend). They were usually happy to do so but there were occasions when I had to walk home alone and I held my keys in my hand while running all the way. (On one occasion, I was followed by two men and a woman, but got home in one piece and kept all my lights off until I was sure they had gone, so they wouldn’t know which flat I was in.) 

I know of women who were robbed in the street and who were raped on their doorsteps (both by knifepoint), so I guess I’ve been lucky so far. Interestingly, one female friend, who should have known better, thought nothing of walking miles home very late at night (too skint for taxis) and thought I was being silly and fussy when I asked kind friends, male and female, to see me safely to my door! She’s been lucky, too.

Another friend drives her car to a larger and much busier railway station than her closest one, if she is planning a late night in town, and always parks in a well-lit and overlooked part of the car park.

Someone once told me this handy tip: If you’re in a tube or train carriage on your own and a man tries to talk to you or, as has happened to friends of mine, exposes himself to you, obviously leave the carriage and move to another one at the next stop, so long as it’s safe to do so, but, in the meantime, start muttering to yourself and talking gibberish. It should put them off. 

If in a cab or taxi late at night, and you feel unsafe or uneasy, talk about yourself, your home, your job, your partner (even if you don’t have one. Make one up). It lets the driver see you are a person who has a life. This happened to the writer and campaigner Erin Pizzey years ago, when she realised the cab driver wasn’t taking her home, as requested, but going on a completely different route, and she could sense his tension and anger towards her. Halfway through her talking calmly about herself, she sensed the atmosphere change and the driver switched routes and took her straight home. (I doubt she gave him a tip.) I have felt uneasy a couple of times in this situation but I survived. I find asking them questions about themselves helps, as well but, then again, I’m naturally nosey and always want to know all about people’s lives.

I read a letter in a magazine years ago from a woman thanking them for (probably) saving her life. In a previous issue, they had advised a woman under attack to try saying she was pregnant. This particular reader had done just that, and her attacker simply said: “Go, then,” and she fled. (If you are clearly way beyond your child-bearing years, as I now am, you will have to come up with something else. Just be prepared.)

A friend has pointed out that we should always be able to run in our shoes or boots – so think twice before you don those heels, or take something sensible to change into later on.

When out and about, be aware of your surroundings and don’t walk around with ear-plugs in while on your phone, or listening to music. I’m always surprised by how many people I see doing this. It’s not a great idea!

A colleague of mine used to tick me off for often not carrying enough money on me.  Back then, she reckoned I should always keep a tenner for emergency cabs. I would up this to nearer twenty, these days; it all depends, obviously, but you get the gist. 

Those are just a few tips for staying safe outside your home.  But what about inside it? There have been times in my life when I’ve felt uneasy in my own home and no way was I leading anybody on!

On the first occasion, a long relationship had just ended, and the partner of a woman who lived upstairs in my block knocked on my door one evening, “to see how I was”.  I barely knew him, but I naively thought, ‘How kind,’ and stupidly invited him in. Thank God my next-door neighbour had previously arranged to come round and, as soon as she did, he scarpered. I prefer not to think about what kind of consolation tactics he might have had on his mind…  

On the second occasion, and in another block of flats, a neighbour wanted to see what I had done with my new flat. (I had had the entire place overhauled: fixed up, redecorated, new kitchen and bathroom, curtains and flooring. The works. It had needed it.)  He said he was thinking about doing his own place up, prior to selling it. Again, I barely knew him, but he came in anyway. He may well have not had anything untoward on his mind, but my instincts are usually right about people, and I started to feel a little nervous with him there. Thankfully, my boyfriend rang me unexpectedly, and I was able to let him know who was in my flat with me. My neighbour left soon after…

By far, though, the oddest one was in my present home, a few years ago. A plumber, recommended by a friend, came to fix our loo and, when done, turned to me and said: “There you go. You’ll be able to have violent sex on here now.” It was totally unexpected and totally uncalled-for. 

I’m always polite with people, I don’t flirt (never known how to, without feeling false and silly, to be honest), don’t dress in a “come-on” way (quite the reverse) and don’t regard myself as the “sexy” type, so where that comment came from, I have no idea. It was such an odd thing to say to a total stranger!

I can’t now remember how I responded, but I do remember feeling scared to be alone in my house with him after that and I couldn’t wait for him to leave. 

When I told the friend who had recommended him, I’m afraid he smirked and shrugged, though I’m sure if it had happened to his wife or daughter, he’d have done a bit more than that…

Stay safe!

A DIFFERENT WAY OF LIFE

Someone posted on Facebook this morning about the “good old days” which set me to thinking about my own personal good old days, BC (Before Coronavirus). It has now been a whole year since the start of the pandemic and the first lockdown. I look back at my diary from 2019 and see how crammed it was with lunch dates, events, trips out and appointments. Then I look at 2020, after March, and see blank page upon blank page. I’m keeping both diaries as an important reminder. 

Also on Facebook this morning was the sad announcement of the demise of a local folk club I used to belong to. It had been running for a number of years but will be financially unviable come the day when we can all get back to enjoying events such as these. There will be new rules and things are not ever going to be quite the same again, vaccine or no vaccine. Even the RHS is hedging its bets (excuse the weak pun) and putting the Chelsea Flower Show back to September this year. Glastonbury Festival isn’t happening, either. No doubt, other organisers will take their cue from these two major events in the social calendar. 

While some people are in a tearing hurry to get back to so-called “normal” lives again (and just look what happened when they tried it last year!) others, including several friends of mine, are much more cautious. They have become used to a different way of life, now, and it suits them. One has come to enjoy being at home more and relies on their weekly food deliveries rather than going out to the shops.  (This was someone who, like me, needed to get out of the house every day, or go mad.) Another says she has a renewed appreciation of her life, family and work and has re-evaluated her friendships, gently letting some of them go… thankfully, I don’t appear to be one of them!

For me, aside from seeing my friends, I am missing seeing live bands most of all and am afraid that, like the folk club organisers, the promoters might feel it’s not worth the hassle of starting the gigs up again if there are going to be so many new restrictions in place. I really hope my fears are unfounded.

I know that, for many, lockdown has been a nightmare and disaster. It has not been a total picnic for me, either, but I’m not going to dwell on the negatives today, just the positives.

I have had the constant company of my partner (otherwise known as the OH), without which I would most surely have gone right round the bend by now. He may not agree, of course, and I know he misses certain aspects of his job, but appreciates he is lucky he has been able to work from home all this time. He certainly doesn’t miss the horribly early starts, unreliable, crowded commute and very long days. 

We have been able to explore our local area more thoroughly, discovering walks and interesting places we weren’t aware of before.

I don’t drive, so it’s been really handy to have him here to take us on short local trips to shops, or wherever, without having to contend with unreliable public transport.

I have become involved in an online magazine, having regular weekly editing meetings on Zoom, and also contributing short writing pieces. This has had a profound effect on my self-esteem, which took a massive battering when I lost my much-loved job over three years ago. I feel needed, valued, useful and productive once more.

I have also been able to write more on here, and was gratified to receive an email from someone yesterday, who asked if I was OK, since they hadn’t seen any blogs from me for a while. I was touched, and assured them I would think of something soon. And here it is. I dedicate it to that person, and hope you have enjoyed reading it. I’ll be back…

Happy Easter!

Well, we’re nearly there. Lurching away from this extraordinary car-crash of a year and stumbling giddily, cautiously, into the next. Towards the end of last year, I bought a page-a-day diary, not having kept one for some years. I don’t know what made me think it might be worth starting one up again, after so long. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, this year, but no, I’ve gone out and bought another one for next year, so I’m apologising in advance. Please don’t blame me!

Blame those who are crowding out our nearby large park and the river towpath, instead.  Cases of the virus have been rising steadily in our area, yet reports of large groups of non-socially-distancing people in these places are rife on our local social media, which has put the OH and I off from venturing there. Our nearby woods are heaving, as well, with many cars parked up alongside the main road, as the car parks themselves are overflowing. Instead, we have managed to find a couple of new walks this week – though we have had to use our car to get to them; they are local, but not walkable, doorstep-local. 

How was your Christmas?  Ours started off with a mild panic.  We couldn’t get hold of a small turkey for just the two of us. They had all gone – and I tried quite a few places. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would be ordering smaller birds because they wouldn’t be entertaining the usual hordes, this year. I even went online and was horrified to see some turkeys going for 70, 80 and even, in one instance, 140! Eye-watering. I ended up with a 17-pound (in cash, not weight) chicken from our local butcher, instead, and very nice it was, too. When ordering it, he asked me how many of us there were. “Just two, but we’d like a slightly bigger one, as we like to do things with it afterwards.” “Madam,” came the crisp response, “I don’t wish to know what you like to do with our chickens!” “I meant soup and sandwiches,” I added hastily.

It’s usually just the two of us, here, and we’re pretty happy with that. Friends are doing their own thing and family are scattered to the four winds; though in one memorable year, we had three sets of visitors (not all at once) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Another year, on Boxing Day, we were let down at the last minute by our guests, due to illness, and invited friends round to help us tackle the mountain of food we had bought in readiness. They were delighted to oblige. Last year, we volunteered at a local church and really enjoyed that, too.  We were looking forward to repeating the experience this year but, obviously, it didn’t happen. Ditto the carol service, in another local church, we managed to attend last year.

For quite a while, it has been our tradition to see a pantomime every Christmas Eve (“Oh, yes it has!”), which kicks off the festive break very nicely for us (“Oh, yes it does!” Sorry). Again, not this year. 

Garden centres must have missed Santa’s annual visit, as well. I never could work out how he managed to get round so many all at once… Talking of such places, I’m so pleased they have been allowed to remain open, this time around.  Linking to all things gardening and outdoors, I’m also pleased that mental health has become such an important and much-discussed topic. It was long overdue.

Some people made the decision not to do Christmas, this year and others went all-out for it, starting their decorating and doing the tree very early, in defiance. It was lovely to see the shops, pubs and cafes all open and busy again – only to have them closing their doors (aside from click and collect and takeaways) once more, and just before Christmas, too – the busiest time of year for many.  In my nearest shopping centre, the Apple store had the longest queue outside. Not surprisingly – where would we all have been, this year, without technology? I feel sorry for workers everywhere, though. Everyone I had spoken to previously said how happy they were to be working again. 

Several friends were heartily relieved they couldn’t go visiting, or have people visit them, over the festive period – though I have never really understood the massive feelings of unwilling, begrudging obligation that so many people appear to have over these things. It’s not very flattering to the other party, for one thing! Someone I know only spends time with their ex because there is no one else and they hate being on their own.  How does the ex feel about that, I wonder? Must make for a thrilling day for both of them.  

The OH once feigned sickness to get out of attending a family do, and reckoned it was the best Christmas he’d ever had – just him, the cat, a bit of festive food and plenty of uninterrupted telly. He claimed the family member served turkey slices so thin you could actually see through them, and their house was permanently chilly. We know of several people this applies to today and, in one house, we sit there with our coats on for the duration of our (few and far between) visits.  This particular friend has their heating on for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, in the winter, and that’s it, regardless of outside temperatures and visitors. They spend most of their time upstairs, reading in bed to keep warm. It’s a miserable existence and I don’t see the point of it. They are very comfortably off and, as my dad used to say: “You can’t take it with you.” The OH once said to their face: “What are you saving it FOR?! You’ll be the richest person in the graveyard.” They had no answer to that.

Many people, like me, suffer from FOMO – fear of missing out – especially at this time of year. At least we can all take some small comfort from knowing that everyone is in the same boat, this year. Others are most definitely not having a better time of it than we are – if, indeed, they ever were!  

While out shopping this week, I noted long queues building up outside the supermarkets again and there were no eggs, flour, or toilet rolls to be had in one particular branch. Shades of deja-vu. Alongside the reduced-price Christmas leftovers, which include tins and boxes of festive sweets and chocolates, Easter eggs have started rolling back on to the shelves. It’s ridiculous.  After the excesses of Christmas, who wants to be thinking of even more chocolate?! However, you’ve got to admire their optimism.  Perhaps they are just trying to reassure us that, by the time Easter comes around, things will be a lot better than they are right now. On that cheerful note, I’d like to wish you all a very happy, safe and healthy Easter! 

“It’s a needle, not a harpoon!”

A few weekends ago, we enjoyed our last pub Sunday lunch prior to the second lockdown. I wished them all good luck as we left and the woman behind the bar said she felt quite emotional. I should think she did. So did I. Their roasts are among the best we’ve tried. Seriously, though, I remember her saying how happy she was to be back working, when they were finally allowed to reopen properly a few months ago. I heard that from so many people after the first lockdown ended: how pleased they had been to get back to a proper working routine. 

I feel so sorry for all the shops, cafes and businesses who had just got going again and were starting to gear themselves up for Christmas – the busiest time of year for many – when this happened. Yet there are still people out there who are flouting the rules. The shop assistant in my local bakers told me she’d seen many examples of rule-breaking and we’ve seen groups of schoolchildren and students milling about together in the street – most definitely not social distancing!

There was, however, some sort of social distancing going on when we recently drove past an elderly couple who were chatting in the street. Standing about twelve feet away from each other, she was on the pavement and he was in the road. Perhaps it was intentional – it would potentially be a quicker end for him than catching the virus… 

At least most cafes and restaurants can still offer takeaways and the garden centres are remaining open this time around. A friend recently questioned the “essential” aspect of this, so I pointed out that many people found comfort, solace and routine in caring for their gardens and allotments, not to mention the ability (and desirability) to grow their own food. It’s been proved, time and again, that gardening and connecting with nature is good for our mental (and physical) health. Though I have to add that this is my least favourite time of year for visiting garden centres, brimful of Christmas tat and trees as they inevitably are; shoving aside most of their regular stock to make room for it all. Roll on Spring, I say!

Someone told us of a family of five who visited a local café (before it had to close). None of them were wearing masks.  When challenged by the café owner, the man said they were exempt. “What, all of you?” she enquired. “I will need to see proof of that, please.” He said, “That’s against the law.” She said, “Rubbish!” and sent the whole lot packing. What a great example to set his children!

In the absence of a hearty pub roast, we decided to make our own, last weekend. Armed with a list, we went round the store: gravy, stuffing, assorted veg, Yorkshire puddings… We were packing everything away at the till when we realised we’d forgotten the most important part: the chicken. Thankfully, there were no queues at the tills when I had to rejoin them moments later.

My bank was empty for the third week running. I do hope this doesn’t mean they will be closing down.  Three branches have already closed, in our area.  No wonder the staff always look so fed up in there. 

We spotted a rather plaintive notice outside a place selling sheds and garden rooms: “Wanted – customers. No experience necessary.” 

A trip to the surgery for my annual blood test took days to organise: their phones being permanently engaged and their appointments all booked up weeks in advance. Once allowed in, I had my temperature taken at the door, used their hand sanitiser (twice; on entering and leaving) and had to leave by a different door. The nurse told me they now have to allocate ten minutes per appointment, instead of the usual five, to allow for cleaning and wiping everything down, etc. Not much time for chit-chat, but she did mention the man who came in last week and pushed his chair away from her, right up to the door.  She told him: “It’s a needle, not a harpoon!”

I popped into my local town yesterday. I needed a few things anyway but I was also curious to see how different it looked compared to my last visit, just before this second lockdown. No buskers or beggars.  I miss the former but definitely not the latter – wonder where they all disappear to, during lockdown?  

It was busy, with queues at all the bus stops, though obviously more shops are closed than open and the cafes are back to serving takeaways only again. Perhaps, like me, people just wanted to see what was going on (or not). Several places are doing click and collect at the door, but I was surprised to see that Hotel Chocolat was properly open. Much as I like the stuff, I wouldn’t class it as an “essential” – would you?!  

Trading in the market place appeared brisk, with more stalls operating than during the last lockdown, and Smiths is open this time around – hooray! The assistant said last time they weren’t considered to be a newsagent, but this time they are. Work that one out, if you can. The last time I was in there, a woman was talking to a friend on her phone: “I’m so sick of all this,” she was saying. “I just don’t care any more.  I don’t even care if I get the damn virus!” I gave her a very wide berth (with my very wide girth), after that…

The owner of my favourite cafe said business was quiet but he was bored doing nothing at home and needed to get out. 

I treated myself to a taxi home. (The last time I was in town and took a taxi, the driver said, “Hello again…” and gave the name of my road!  I must have made quite an impression on him, ha ha, and we went on to have a nice chat about gardening during lockdown.) Yesterday’s driver told me I was only his second customer of the day and how quiet everywhere was. Like myself and the OH, he’s not keen on Christmas (or New Year) and hates all the fuss and expense and the big build-up: “All that, for just one day!” 

Some of my friends are not celebrating Christmas at all, this year, let alone New Year’s Eve. Last year, to get us out of ourselves and to do something useful and worthwhile, the OH and I volunteered to help out at a local church’s lunch for people on their own.  We enjoyed it hugely and were hoping to do it again this year but, obviously, that has now been cancelled. I wonder what those people who attended last year are going to do, instead?

Bemused, we watched a man walking backwards along a pavement, the other day. Maybe it was just his way of expressing his frustration and longing, as so many of us are, to travel back to the very beginning of this year and start all over again…

Magic and rubber (and rather too much plastic)

Can you whistle?  I ask because, the other day, the OH was watching a documentary on factory workers in the 1940s, as you do, and it struck him how everyone there was whistling a jaunty tune. He realised you don’t hear people whistling so much, now – though I do it rather a lot, as I’m rubbish at remembering song lyrics, and often start singing some of the lyrics and end up whistling the rest.  So much easier.

I was taught to whistle by my cousin Kenny, when I was very young, and was quite proud that I could finally do so. However, many years later, a much older woman told me it was considered very common for a woman to whistle! I like to hear it, though – it’s a cheerful, uplifting sound and, in fact, our decorator does it a lot. It’s great to hear him as he moves around our house, whistling away while cursing us for having too much stuff to shift before he can even open a tin of paint.  We’ve taken pity on him, though, and said that at least he doesn’t have to do the bookcases – all 13 of them…

When I first joined my old magazine job, there was an older member of staff, always very smartly dressed, who could often be spotted striding along the corridors, handbag swinging from one arm, whistling a jaunty (but unrecognisable) tune as she marched – and she was dead posh, so there!

We’ve been making the most of eating out, these past few months, and at the same time supporting local businesses (that’s our excuse, anyway).  Each pub we’ve tried for our Sunday roast has been different, interpreting the new rules in their own sweet way. One sported a sign on the door, exhorting people to use their wrists and elbows to open it “to minimise contact”. Another stated that children were welcome, so long as they were “sedate(d)”. Last weekend’s wins the “oddest place so far” award, (gloved) hands down, though. We felt sorry for the poor anxious owner and her staff. Held outside the pretty, very old, thatched pub in a makeshift (heated) awning, with a specially-erected toilet cubicle in place in the car park (do they get financial help for all this extra hassle? I wonder), our menu was very limited, with just one choice for the roast meat.  Luckily, we both like turkey.  

There were plastic bins placed next to every distanced table, which didn’t exactly help the atmosphere in there. These were for our used plates and drinks containers, which were also plastic. The salt and pepper and sauces were in sachets and the only solid items were the cutlery. The few staff were wearing gloves as well as masks. It killed any ambience they may have been trying to create (hard to tell, really) and gave the impression they would far rather nobody was there at all, to save them all the bother. They were doing their best in very trying circumstances, of course, but we wanted to tell them they were taking things a little too far, in our opinion. Needless to say, we didn’t linger.

Meanwhile, with strict lockdowns now taking place in some areas of the country, every age group is slagging off the rest on social media. The old ‘uns are blaming the young ‘uns and vice versa. Truthfully, they/we are all to blame. I’ve witnessed groups of younger people hanging out together with absolutely no sign of social distancing whatsoever and this has been going on since the first lockdown, back in March.  The older ones cite the well-worn argument that more people have died from the flu. It’s hard to know where to start, with that one.

I was supposed to be meeting a friend for coffee and a catch-up in our local shopping centre, this week, but, due to the new rule of only meeting outside when hailing from different households, and the fact that it was pouring down all day, we have knocked that one on the head for now. I can’t see how a lot of these places are going to cope, over the winter. Many don’t have the outside facilities, for starters, and who wants to sit outside in the winter, anyway? Not me! Though a friend (who lives alone) has just paid out for a patio heater and pop-up gazebo, so that she can invite friends (no more than six, altogether, of course) around for meals outside in her garden. It has side access, so they don’t have to go through her house first. But then, what if they need the loo? Does the gazebo come with a handy bucket? Oh, it’s all so complicated!

A friend of ours, whose mother is 93 and hails from Tipperary (I want to hear you all whistling “that” song now) was describing her recently.  She’s as tough as old boots, has survived many operations and swears like a trouper (“feck” this and that, mostly). “She’s made of magic and rubber,” he said fondly, “or possibly Teflon and granite.”

It reminds me of the time when the OH’s elderly father was in hospital after a minor fall at home, and the nurse, on hearing he originally hailed from Glasgow, said to the OH: “They built them tough in those days.”

We’ve visited two branches of Waitrose, recently (we know how to live) and the queues have started up again. A sobering reminder of how it was earlier in the year. Outside one of them, a man breezed up to the main door and tried to go straight in.  When the security guard on the door politely pointed out the queue he had to join, he looked astonished and bewildered. Join the club, mate. I guess we’re going to have to get used to it all over again…

“I NEED A REAL WOMAN!”

It occurred to me, in my hairdressing salon the other day, as my lovely stylist came at me with the (plastic) comb and (plastic) hairdryer, wearing her (plastic) face shield and putting a (plastic) overall on me (clean overalls for all customers are stored in plastic sleeves, which are then thrown out after just one use; most likely into a plastic bin), that plastic has switched from being the number one enemy to being our friend and saviour. Where would we have been, during lockdown, without plastic hand sanitiser dispensers, gloves, masks, visors, screens and so much more besides? And what about those large lumps of plastic we’ve all been depending on for ordering our home deliveries, keeping up our connections, not to mention our sanity, with friends, family, work, evening classes, etc?  Computers and their accompaniments, mobile phones, radios, headphones, televisions… Oh yes, and all those gas-guzzling, environment-polluting vans and lorries, delivering (more plastic-wrapped) necessities to homes, shops and businesses countrywide… Just saying!

I had turned up slightly early for my appointment, which threw everyone into a bit of a tizz. They’re only allowed one client per stylist in at a time.  I did offer to walk around the block and come back later, but they allowed me to stay. I sat and stared into space for ten minutes, not having the usual pile of magazines to glance through. All removed. 

I’d already been ticked off at Waterloo station, for missing the (not very clearly signposted) “correct” entrance to the loos, and about to dive in via the exit. After that, I fancied a recce in Foyles, but the stern-looking member of staff standing guard at the door put me off. Perhaps they don’t want any customers touching their nice, shiny new books.

This reminds me of the time when, as a pony-mad youngster, dressed in my jodhpurs and riding boots, having come straight from a riding lesson, I was idly looking through a book in our local WH Smiths, when an officious assistant beetled up to me and told me to keep my grubby little hands away from the books. I was mortified and scuttled off immediately – even though my little hands were clean, not grubby. You didn’t answer back to the grown-ups in those far-off days. 

Shopping holds no fears for me now, as a so-called grown-up myself, though I did question the wisdom of some of my local shops, putting up Halloween displays in their windows. I mean, I passed a shop selling Halloween toys and knick-knacks and so-called scary outfits, but I think they’re going to be a bit wasted on us all this year. I’d say our collective scarometer is sky-high already, wouldn’t you? And, tell me, exactly how is trick or treat going to work this year?  Are we to stand on our doorsteps, wearing scary masks of a different kind, and lob any sweets out into the darkness and general direction of the children’s voices? I know I will miss seeing them all dressed up in their costumes, anyway.

As for Bonfire night: in my area, anyone who dares to let any fireworks off is slated and berated on social media and, with so few people allowed to mingle, any get-togethers are likely to be a bit of a damp squib (sorry).

The OH has a theory that some shop assistants might be quite glad of a tough-looking (plastic) screen between them and their customers. He commented on this the other evening, as we passed a group of distinctly dodgy-looking people who were hanging around our local garage. He may well have a point.

Every town has its local eccentric speakers, for want of a better word. We have our fair share of those who like to stand by the church wall (it always seems to be there; not sure why, unless it’s because they know they have a captive audience sitting waiting for buses at the nearby stops). Although, what did they all do during lockdown, with no (or very little) captive audience?  I note, too, that the bussed-in beggars are back…

Usually, the speakers’ rhetoric has a religious slant, but not the one I passed, with ever-quickening steps, the other day: ”If I don’t get married soon, I’ll go insane,” he yelled. I tried not to catch his eye as I galloped past. ”I need a real woman,” he bellowed, as I scurried to a safe distance. I didn’t catch exactly what he meant by that, though I had a pretty good idea. I wanted to shout back: “You don’t have to be married for that!” But then he might have taken it as a bit of a come-on, I had both hands full at the time – with heavy shopping – and it could have turned ugly. John Lewis was nearby and I could have waited in there until the coast was clear but, given you still have to queue to get in, and there is only one way in and one out, and they’re terribly strict about it, it could all have got horribly complicated. In the end, I chickened out of waiting for a bus and got a taxi home instead.

On another day, turning up to the opticians for my annual eye check, I had to wait for them to open the locked door and sit on a socially-distanced chair once inside, having used the hand sanitiser first, of course. There was a slight fracas when I spotted the notice on the door that said their toilets weren’t currently available for customers. My appointment is very thorough, it lasts for over an hour, and me being me and always slightly nervous about these things, I usually need the loo at least twice during that time. I’m afraid I got out of my pram. It doesn’t happen very often (not often enough, actually), but it usually gets results. I said I absolutely had to use it, or cancel my appointment.  Failing that, could they direct me to the nearest public loo – in which case, I would then be late for my appointment? To shut me up, because they could see I meant it, they allowed me to use their loo, so I made sure I used it twice, just to show them.  

Nearby, a woman was standing with her young daughter, who was in school uniform. (I should add she was also wearing glasses.) The mother was saying: “When you get married, you don’t want to be walking up the aisle wearing glasses, do you?”  The very sensible and together daughter insisted she didn’t want to try contact lenses and I really, really wanted to butt in and tell her there was nothing wrong with wearing glasses on your wedding day – many do – and how dare her mother try to give her a complex at such an early age? Never mind (and don’t get me started) on the very weighty assumption that she will get married one day. Perhaps she won’t! (I hope she won’t, now, just to spite her.) As one who isn’t married and has never wanted to be, I found her mother’s attitude extremely outdated and very annoying. It was probably just as well my appointment was called at that point, otherwise I’d have had to get out of my pram again and it all gets rather tiring.

I hated having to wear glasses at 13 and couldn’t wait to start earning my own money, at 19, so I could afford contact lenses. It was the first thing I did with my newly-minted salary. That awful, antiquated saying used to haunt me: “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” So, on evenings out with friends, I would stumble about, falling up kerbs and down steps (and once, right in front of a boy I fancied, skidding over on a dance floor; though I blame my long pinafore for that, not the fact I couldn’t see where the hell I was going, in the dimness of the City Hall disco), rather than wear the damn things. I always felt ugly in them. I still do. It’s all down to inner confidence, though – I can think of at least two glasses-wearing friends who have never had any problems on the man-attracting front. I may not have wanted to marry any of them, but it was important I was still attractive to them!

We’re trying to get out and about as much as we can, at the moment, making up for so much time lost, this year, so pub lunches and trips to garden centres and the like are a must. Last weekend, at a garden centre, we had to sit outside, under a canopy – unheated – and the weather was awful – cold and wet. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes, ha ha ha,” we trilled merrily, as, shivering, we hugged our bowls of rapidly-cooling soup.

In another garden centre café this weekend (indoors, this time), the assistant pushed a (plastic) trolley laden with our food order towards our table, announcing brightly: “There you are!” before beetling off again. 

In that same café, another assistant told us the place had been flooded that morning.  As I was about to commiserate (we’d had some heavy rain earlier), he added: “From the moment we opened, it’s been hectic. Every table full, and people waiting.” I wondered if it was because everyone is trying to make the most of things before any further clampdowns from the government. I fear that, if any new restrictions are too severe, many businesses won’t be able to come back. One of only two pubs in a nearby large village has permanently closed and we spotted a notice outside another at the weekend, announcing its forthcoming quiz night, adding: The first round of drinks is on us! 

Meanwhile, on the motorway, the old sign is back: 

STAY ALERT

CONTROL THE VIRUS

SAVE LIVES.