It’s Mothers’ Day in Britain, so I’m not posting the next instalment of my China diary today. That’s very bad, I know, but I have an appointment with a box of chocolates. Back tomorrow.
I have three brothers, and there was a point when the middle one was getting irritating beyond belief. He rang all of us at various times, pretending to be a dimwitted salesman (of different products, depending on how he felt). And, to give him credit, he was very good. He took my mother in, oh, for at least 20 minutes with his impersonation of a double glazing rep. This, naturally, we all found very funny. But when he started on the rest of us, we were less than impressed.
Eldest brother in Canada, who is a doctor, rang me up to chew my ear off. ‘How am I supposed to get up all bright eyed to slash at people’s varicose veins, when I get phone calls at midnight to see if I want my drains unblocking? I thought it was one of my patients who’d become unhinged. I tell you, if I have to get a plane to come home and sort him out, things are going to get messy.’
Needless to say, middle brother just laughed. His next call, to me at 5 am, backfired slightly because I had just come home from a late shift, but he kept me talking so long that when I eventually went to bed I couldn’t sleep, and was knackered for my next shift.
However, things came to a head when my youngest brother, who had got more calls than anybody else, told the mysterious caller with the funny accent to fuck off, and then discovered it was one of my mother’s oldest friends, calling from Mauritius.
Something had to be done. And at that moment, believe it or not, I won a Rolls Royce in a competition in the UK Press Gazette. Just for the weekend, mind, but it was enough. I could now exact revenge on middle brother.
This all happened at the time when I lived in a slummy flat in London (see putting on the Ritz) and one of my flatmates was Jochen, a German lad who I’d known since school and who was just starting out in the music business, composing TV theme tunes. Anybody who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour needs to meet him. He enthusiastically hired a 1930s chauffeur’s uniform straight from Lady Chatterley’s lover, complete with breeches and gaiters, while I got my fishtail cocktail dress and pearls out. My then boyfriend (now my husband) Steve came along for the ride. He flatly refused to dress up in formal evening wear, but Jochen pointed out that, since he had a leather jacket, he could easily pass for somebody successful in the music business.
I alerted my sister in law as to what was going on, and a couple of hours later we arrived at the Yorkshire pub where my brother liked to drink on a Friday night. I’m not talking here about a place where you can discuss the merits of a bottle of Chardonnay. I’m talking a spit and sawdust four-ale bar, mostly inhabited by silent men who had (and probably still have) fairly strong, unprintable, views about Margaret Thatcher and the champagne-guzzling Tory elite.
The low level of chat and the click of dominoes trailed to absolute silence when I walked in. My brother, who was standing at the bar, froze with his pint half way to his lips.
‘Darling,’ I trilled. ‘Do give me a kiss. Aren’t you going to buy me pint? I’ve just made a shed load of money in London.’
A rather stunned looking bloke banged into the bar behind me. ‘Somebody’s just parked a fucking great Rolls Royce in’t car park.’
‘Oh that’ll be mine,’ I said. ‘I do hope the chauffeur hasn’t put it in your way.’
The door opened again and Jochen came in, respectfully removing his hat.
‘Everything all right?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, madam,’ he said in his perfect, accentless English. ‘But one of the dogs has been sick on the lambswool rug in the car.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I said generously. ‘You can clean it up in the morning.’
There were some deep mutterings at this. And my brother looked daggers at me. ‘He will not. You can fucking clean it up. Who said you could have servants? Bloody nonsense.’
He turned to Jochen and forced his face into a kindly smile. ‘Now then, lad, would you like a pint?’
Jochen looked at me. ‘Is it permitted, madam?’ (More rumblings of discontent.)
‘Maybe just a half,’ I said magnanimously. ‘And you can have a cigarette, too, if you like.’
Jochen took a tin of tobacco out of his breeches pocket, and at that moment about ten men flicked open their cigarette packets and held them out to him. ‘Here, have a fag, lad. Have a fag on me.’
And so the evening wore on, Jochen was treated with sympathy, Steve was accepted as a normal, but somewhat intriguing person, and the interplay between my brother and myself was the best entertainment ever for the other blokes in the bar.
‘I’m never going to live this down,’ said my brother, gloomily. ‘Never. Why did you have to come dressed like that?’
‘I thought you’d like to see how well I was doing,’ I trilled. ‘And Jochen’s such a treasure, isn’t he? Good staff are so hard to find.’
Jochen and Steve choked on their beer.
What are you laughing at?’ demanded my brother.
‘Tell him,’ pleaded Jochen. ‘I can’t stand it any longer. And besides, my jacket is getting itchy.’
‘What, tell me what?’
‘It’s a joke,’ I said. ‘It’s our revenge on you for your stupid bloody phone calls. Steve is not in the record business, I only have the Rolls Royce for the weekend and Jochen is not a chauffeur. He’s really a German composer.’
My brother looked at me for a long moment and then laughed. ‘A German composer? He’s as German as I am! Pull the other one. You can’t fool me!’
My mother, due to her superhuman powers, was let out of hospital at the weekend. Her health, at 94, was so good, that she was given an epidural, not general anaesthetic, when they pinned her broken hip. (She described the op as ‘like a party’).
She is now at home with a rota of carers in attendance. Being my mother this meant that, on her first morning back, she got out of bed in the morning to make herself some tea and toast (which took her hours, but she’s nothing if not bloody-minded), before hobbling back to bed so that she could graciously wait for the carer to arrive to help her get out of bed.
So she’s on the mend. But this is what fascinates me. Before she was allowed home she had to show the physios that she was capable of making a cup of tea. In fairness, I suppose getting a brew on does combine several skills. But I’m reckoning that nowhere else in the world is your tea-making ability evaluated by health professionals.
I mean, do you get points knocked off for not warming the pot, or putting the milk in last (or first, whatevs, ed) and does your inability to open a biscuit tin count against you? Do they want to see your fine motor skills evidenced by one lump, or two? And what happens, if like my mother, you can’t stand milk and ask for a lemon and a sharp knife (actually I know the answer to that; the aforementioned, and rather fazed health professional then allows my highly amused mother to play ‘lets pretend to make the tea’).
What happens in other countries? Do Italians have to rustle up an espresso? Are the French asked to uncork a bottle of wine? And do the Aussies have to pull open a tinnie?
Picture courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cup_of_tea,_Scotland via Creative Commons
On Saturday my mother fell over in the bathroom and she was not able to get up. Being 94, she has an alarm button on a necklace, that she can press for instant help. Being bloody minded, she doesn’t wear it. So she spent the next hour or so crawling the 20ft to her bedroom to get the necklace.
Bedroom reached and panic button pressed, the rest of the world swung into action. A passing paramedic came by, followed by two others in an ambulance, I was called by the council’s panic people (I’m sure they have a proper name, but it probably doesn’t mean so much), and soon she and I were off to A&E.
I wasn’t very optimistic about what was going to happen to us. We’ve all seen the national news about how hospital A&E departments in England are at breaking point at the moment. Two in the Midlands this week could not accept any more patients and one, in Stoke, according to a paramedic interviewed on TV, got to the point where it locked its doors.
At University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire there were people lining the A&E corridors on trolleys, (perfectly conscious, and not looking in a huge amount of pain, it has to be said, although we weren’t in the George Clooney part of the department) and the staff had that kind of controlled calm that you get in a place that is really, really busy. One of the doctors was gripping her hair, and pulling it up, up, up, as if it would make her think better.
I had expected that mum too would be on a trolley in a corridor, and was astonished when we were met by a nurse who knew all about her, and who had been told to take her to Room 18. (It was the nurse’s third day on the job and she had no idea where Room 18 was, but she was cheerful and bright and kind, and she found the correct little side-room in two ticks). Mum was X-rayed (broken hip); put into a hospital gown by two other nurses, one of them African (I point out his nationality because all nurses should have African accents, it is the kindest and jolliest voice in the world); given pain relief; and seen by an anaesthetist and an orthopaedic surgeon. Okay, so we had to wait around for several hours while this all happened, but it wasn’t much of stretch, especially not for mum, who once the morphine kicked in, started playing Candy Crush with the ceiling tiles. When she was taken up to the orthopaedic ward, I left for home, knowing that she was in kind and good hands.
In the last three days my mum has had her hip fixed, she’s been given a special vibrating bed to stop the build-up of any blood clots, she’s had physio-therapy, nice meals, and a handsome doctor blowing in her ear at 3 am (apparently it’s the standard way to wake someone up) to check her over. And nothing has she had to pay, except the National Insurance payments that she has contributed through her taxes, all through her working life.
The only quibble I have with all this is that she has a phone by her bed. And the company that installed had the bright idea of making all outgoing UK calls free (while charging a fortune to call in, mind). This is not a good idea, NHS people. Not with my mother. She has rung every single person she is related to.
Yesterday, when everybody else was probably unavailable due to ear exhaustion, she rang me and asked me to bring in a pencil. As she was not wearing her hearing aids, you can imagine that the conversation that followed was rather difficult. Something on the lines of,
Her: ‘I’d like a pencil. You’ll find one in a jar on my table.’
Me: ‘But I can bring you a pencil from here.’
Her: ‘Cardboard? I don’t want cardboard. What are you talking about? ’
Her: ‘Pencils, of course I want a pencil. I told you that. You’ll find one in the jar. I want to do the crossword.’
Me: ‘But I’ve got pencils here.’
Her: ‘That’s no good to me, is it, though? I need one here.’
She’s definitely on the mend. Thank you, NHS, you are a marvellous thing, and long may you continue. But, please, hide my mum’s telephone.
Picture via Creative Commons from http://www.geograph.org.uk
So that’s it. Eleven days of national blow out, all come to an end. The party’s over, the socks made from recycled toothbrushes, a present from your auntie, have been shoved under the sofa, waiting to creep out in August. The bizarre half drunk bottle of orange brandy that your father in law brought round because he thought it might come in useful, has been stashed in the farthest recesses of your larder, waiting until you need to clean the drains. One or two pine needles litter the carpet, all that’s left of the tree, and there is a tiny piece of stuffing with fluff growing round it at the back of the fridge.
Alarm clocks are going off at unmentionable hours, bills are arriving, and the voices of the solar panel telephone salespeople are once more heard in the land. Truly they are cold calling.
All is gloom and ordinary.
Can you tell that I’ve given up drink for January?
Picture via creative commons, courtesy of http://fc00.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2014/081/9/f/pony_meme___get_me_a_cup_of_tea__by_twistermon-d7b84vr.png
So you’ve spent weeks planning what to buy people, you’ve braved the crowds and trawled the internet until your eyes bleed and your credit card crumbles. And then you wake up on Christmas morning and discover that your nearest and dearest have had mass hypnosis, or frontal lobotomies (or one too many sherries), and have decided that you really needed a dressing gown that you can wear while appearing on Only Fools and Horses:
Or, possibly a pair of socks (pretend you’re a Brit on holiday!) :
Gloves that look like underpants? Yes, handerpants are just for you! (Slip them on and pretend you’re having that perfect apres ski moment with the Beckhams):
They might even have got you a farting teddy bear (he just can’t help himself…you are in for a surprise!)
And look at this nice wallet. Mmm. Tasty. (You’ll bring home the bacon in this, fnar, fnar)
But, (and be afraid here, be very afraid) all this is as nothing when I tell you that my husband, who is a practical kind of guy, was once stuck for what to give his brother as a Christmas present.
‘I know exactly the thing,’ his dad said. ‘He needs a manhole cover.’
(He got screwdrivers)
raindeer hat courtesy of http://www.baronbob.com/humping-reindeer-har.htm
I was thinking the other day about…well, I can’t remember what about, and that’s half the problem. My brain has gone mushy.
I’m doing all those things they talk about in Readers Digest. (At least, I think it was that. For all I know it could have been Miniature Donkey Talk, or OMFG: Official Meeting Facilities Guide). I go into rooms and can’t remember why I’m there.
I start sentences and get stuck at the most tantalising moment. ‘Yes, but that’s nothing,’ I will confide to a friend. ‘I remember a time when I took all my clothes off in a train and….’ Friend looks at me eagerly.
‘When I took all my…’ I repeat.
Friend nods. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Yes??? What happened next?
And then I look at her rather doubtfully because at the same time as I am talking something really mundane enters my head, like the fact that the woman at the entrance to TK Maxx is pleading with her seven year old son, ‘Look, Ryan, I’ve gotta have a roll up, right? One roll up, and then we’ll do the escalator. We will Do The Escalator. Right?’
And whatever I was talking about has vanished into the Christmas mist.
Still, my mind is as a steel trap compared with the rest of my family when it comes to remembering stuff. In the 1950s my mum and dad lived in Malaya, as it was called then, and when they wanted to come home they had to fly in a succession of Dakotas. Which was fine, until my mother left my brother, then a baby, at Milan airport. Apparently, they were all ready to taxi off when this Italian judge came running out, shouting, ‘Signora, signora…I think you have left something!’
Even then my mother just smiled at him. ‘No, really, ‘ she said comfortingly. ‘I’ve got my handbag. And my passport. What else could I possibly need?’
But it was only when I met my husband that I began to realise that forgetfulness can be specific. Steve, when he wants to put something down, generally puts it up; his favourite places are, the top of the fridge, the top of the wardrobe, or above a door. He lost a drill for three years and then discovered it on the top of the window shutters. (Don’t ask). On holiday one time in Chamonix, in the French Alps, we had a lovely picnic in a summer meadow and then drove off. Only for him to realise he’d left his Swiss Army knife on the roof. Which, when he stopped was, strangely, no longer there. Optimist that he is, we went back and searched for it. And, get this, we found it. In the middle of a bloody Alpine meadow.
We weren’t so lucky a few days later when he left his sandals on the roof of the car in the middle of Cannes and drove away. They sailed off into the blue, God knows where. We never found them. He had to go to a supermarket in bare feet to get a new pair. Which, even for the French, was a Bit Bohemian.
A few years later I drove off with the kids in the back of the car only to hear a vague crash as I neared the post office. Eldest son said conversationally to eldest daughter, ‘I knew she wouldn’t see that dinner plate on the roof.’
And then…I’m not actually sure I should be telling you this, but, we went to Ikea and husband bought a wardrobe door in the bargain basement. He thought it would Come In Useful. It was an enormous thing; far too big to get in the car. So he tied it to the roof. And, determined that it wasn’t going to fly off, he tied it on very tightly. Too tightly. Because at 60mph it reached maximum waggle (I’m sure that’s the correct physical term) and yes, you guessed correctly, it flew off on a major A road Somewhere in England. All we heard was a giant Craaaaack! And then a bang as it hit the road. Neither of us wanted to look round in case there was a mortally wounded motor cyclist lying behind us, struggling feebly under some bloodstained particle board. You can imagine our relief, therefore, when we did look and there was nothing in the road but a trail of splintered wood. Gosh, how good we felt. We picked up the pieces and found that they now fitted quite nicely in the car, and drove away, quickly.
So there you have it. What was I talking about?
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Exactly 18 years ago today, I punched my husband. I was past speaking, but I hit him hard enough so that he fell half under the bed, with a muffled ‘Ow!’ At this point the midwife, who was a cross between a sergeant major and girls’ school hockey captain, told us both to behave and that she would not tolerate fighting on her labour ward. Quite what she was going to do if we continued, I don’t know, considering I was in the last gasping stages of giving birth.
Steve, in his defence, had been told to make himself useful by dabbing my lips with some damp cotton wool on the end of a stick. Being a technically minded kind of guy he set out carefully to poke every square micron of my mouth. I’m sure I told him to stop. He’s sure I didn’t. Whatever. The pethidine was wearing off and I was in no mood for being shakily dabbed at.
Shortly after that, everything changed entirely because Rose was born. We had waited so long for a baby that, even when she arrived, I couldn’t believe it. I remember looking at her and saying wonderingly, ‘It’s a baby.’ Honest to God, if she had been a puppy I would have been less surprised.
And now, as I say, it’s 18 years on and Rose is officially grown up. We’ve watched her grow from an intensely absorbed, imaginative little girl to a beautiful, generous and kind young woman. I know you don’t really like me mentioning you on my blog, Rose, but happy birthday, and thank you for being you.
My husband had a hip replacement a while ago. And when he got home, as a patient, he was really, well, ok. Not half as bad as when he has a slight cold.
For the first couple of days, he really wasn’t brilliantly mobile. And on the first morning back from hospital, his legs swathed in compression bandages, he gave me a very funny look and said, ‘Would you do something for me, that I’ve never asked you to do before?’
‘Yes….’ I muttered, crossing my fingers and hoping it wasn’t going to be anything too disgusting.
He looked at me pleadingly. And I mean, really, really, pleadingly, and said: ‘Do you think you could help me off with my stockings?’
This is for every woman who has a husband with a slight cold:
Daughter was sewing her costume for a Hallowe’en party. Yards of green cloth festooned the kitchen, the dogs were paw deep in pins.
You have to realise here that daughter is 17 and a fashion student. So she has Ideas. And is, like, creative. It was obvious, this year, that the gothic witchy look was being sidelined, for something more, well, green.
Ages later, she stood up and put the costume on. It was kind of like a sweeping toga with a hood. But, it has to be said, she looked pretty good.
‘What do you think?’ she asked, twirling in an emerald haze.
‘Great,’ said husband. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s elven, dad,’ she said patiently. ‘I’m going as an elf in Lord of the Rings. What do you think?’
Steve looked at her thoughtfully. ‘Have you got a High Vis Jacket?’ he said.
‘Because then,’ he said. ‘You could go as Elf and Safety.’
Pictures via Creative Commons, courtesy of: