Thursday, November 11, 2010

Horse-radish and Hovels (part 1)

My friend Lavender and my brother Jeremy have planned a fireworks party. Lavender lives up the lane from Jeremy in the rambling and somewhat decaying family home of her brother-in-law Ptolemy. Jeremy has a tumble-down cottage in the grounds and I am over there when the delivery van, containing the fireworks, arrives. 'Yeah', says Jeremy, 'this year we want a really big fireworks display, something that will wake the neighbours up, something really bloody impressive! He licks a Rizla paper and rolls another cigarette, 'I've ordered over £300 of fireworks' he says and starts to laugh loudly - 'that should go off like buggery!'

Jeremy is in his mid-fifties, has an amiable manner, is pretty easy to get on with though he is a little eccentric. He lives alone. Grub, his clingy black and white cat, is banned from coming indoors as she had taken up peeing in the bathroom and until she can learn to aim directly into the lavatory bowl like everyone else she now resides in a little lean-to opposite the front door. Grub's sole mission in life is to mount increasingly frantic SAS style campaigns to get back in. Her love for Jeremy is vigorous and physical and she trys to sneak back over the threshold, flirtatiously snaking stealthily through the legs of unsuspecting visitors like a feline Mata Hari, or throwing herself into short and quickly defeated shoulder-led runs at the now nailed-up cat-flap in the back door. Most of her victories occur during the summer when she leaps through the odd open window and with a look of pleasurably surprised shock she will land on Jeremy’s chest and knead him desperately like a deranged succubus or head-butt him passionately with her small bullet-shaped skull and penetrating sloe-eyed stare. But Jeremy is cold-hearted in this regard and Grub is soon banished outdoors again.

I am rather surprised by Jeremy's insistence on her exclusion, its not as if the cottage is a temple to a pristine and elegant lifestyle.

Jeremy's cottage is at the bottom of a steep mud-slicked precipice-edged track with pot-holes the size of caverns which will admit only those drivers with the strongest of stomachs or most relaxed of attachments to survival. Jeremy roars with laughter at those of us more at home on tarmac or feeble enough to admit to our fear of the dangers. Lavender is as immune to these as he is and I have watched with open-mouthed wonderment as she reverses one of her many old bangers, at speed and in the pouring rain, the whole of the way up the track while the vehicle skitters from side to side and slides dangerously close to the land drop - Osbert, her little dog, paws on the dashboard and fearlessness framing his face, looks back at me with scorn.

The cottage has a roof which leaks in several places, infestations usually only seen under strict scientific experimentation and is in dire need of a tender loving injection of hard cash. And though rotting ceilings, plaster-cracked walls and a sitting room with an almost permanent drag of blown-in from-the-outside leaves could be seen in some circles as a haven of bucolic simplicity the chain-saw which sits in the middle of the room, next to the sofa, perhaps isn't. But Jeremy appears blind to it all, 'God you are so up-tight!' he jeers when I try to point out, helpfully, that a chainsaw isn't the most friendly or appealing of household ornamentation.

When the sun is out, the sleepy Arcadian landscape is warm and dreamy but the harsh onset of winter soon causes it to become a bleak Dickensian environment. The dwelling, more hovel than home, damp and unwelcoming to a degree usually only seen in the poverty stricken favelas of South America becomes more peasant than pleasant.

There is a serious leak in the skylight just above the doorway into the kitchen and after the rainfall comes the dampness. Unless they are wiped down regularly the table, chairs and wooden counter tops will often wear the dull blue-green bloom of an endemic creeping mildew. Spiders reside in comfort everywhere, setting up vast systems of webs which twang irritably when accidentally confronted. Also present are an army of crusty and resilient woodlice who march without reason up wall and across floor like some brainless legion of small armoured idiots.

The bathroom, which is on the ground floor and just off the kitchen hosts varying amounts of fungi which blossom out from under the bath during particular atmospheric conditions and have to be regularly culled. It all adds to the swell of the ever-increasing occupancy levels of this unorthodox habitat that Jeremy calls home.

I think Jeremy is rather proud of it. 'Bacteria!' he sometimes says with a flourish, 'Its the only way forward in this over sanitized world!'

I haven’t even mentioned the mice who periodically get a handful of poisonous blue pellets thrown at them but whom, so far, have declined to move out. Even Grub seems unperturbed by their presence.

And after years of reclusive living Jeremy has suddenly taken to entertaining on a wholly frivolous scale. Hence the fireworks party.

He has many friends who happily pop around for supper to discuss important local and international events and who choose to focus on his intelligence, warmth and relaxed attitude to life rather than the chaos and rainfall of his surroundings. Jeremy isn't that keen on washing dishes either and often the kitchen counters are densely cluttered with over-flowing ashtrays while food cartons spilling out their contents vie for space with many half drunk mugs of coffee and countless glasses filled with the dregs of last nights - often last weeks - Ginger Beer or red wine. These tetchily rub shoulders with pans of congealed spaghetti while great teetering towers of used plates, soup bowls and other assorted crockery balance atop one another with all the skill and deftness of Eastern bloc circus acrobats. In between all this, speckled and food-veneered, lie handfuls of cutlery in fallen stacks like a wearily scattered but still playable stainless steel version of pick-up-sticks.

Sometimes ones foot will jar against a small white pudding-bowl placed there by Lavender when she is visiting, for Osbert to sup out of when thirsty. I always manage to kick it sending a sloppy wave of dog-slimed water spilling onto my shoe and on over to join the residual pool which is often already under foot.

Lavender herself is so totally at home and undisturbed by Jeremy's lifestyle that I often feel the outsider in a really quite normal homestead. Then I remember a conversation between Lav and Jeremy. A discussion about the lack of bowls for pudding at supper one evening,' I'll have the dogs water bowl' said Lav with cheery alacrity, 'Quick rinse under the tap if you think it needs it!' 'Won't do any harm at all!' retorted Jeremy when he saw revulsion straying through my eyes. Yes, I know. Bacteria.

Lavender was just leaving as I arrived that morning, having been prodding Jeremy to dig up some of his secret batch of wild horse-radish roots which she was going to turn into a delicious sauce to go with beef at the party.

Jeremy was getting increasingly wide-eyed and expansive about the arrival of the fireworks and a hoped for twenty minute display of hardcore incendiary action. 'Oh yeah' he said, 'my friend Tom up the lane is going to set it all up then let them all off and is even more excited than I am! - and we might even try and cram the twenty minute display into a ten minute one for real impact!' He threw his head back and laughed someone who shouldn't be in involved with fireworks. I am filled with ever-increasing horror.

But Jeremy is in no mood for my protestations or any soppy sisterly advice and he strides out purposefully with a wild smile in place to help with the delivery.

When he returns he is carrying 3 large boxes which he places one on top of the other on the table in the kitchen. Right next to the wood-burning stove. I point out the danger of this but it has no effect on Jeremy in fact this sort of reaction only brings out the Revlon-red rag to his bullish behaviour. He doesn't even bother to glance up at me before tearing open one of the boxes. The entrails of his nearly finished but still ember-full roll-up hang precariously from his lower lip. 'Here' he says proffering the open box towards me, 'take a look at the size of these rockets!'. I am clammy with fear and I cannot take his relaxed attitude a moment longer, I find an excuse to leave and rush to get myself into the car and away before the whole place : brother, fireworks, damp-hovel and cat are all blasted into smithereens.

As I drive away I am filled with dread. I would rather walk barefoot over cracked milk-bottles than endure an evening of explosives set off by a couple of over-grown schoolboys with all the blundering enthusiasm and restraint of a Land Rover full of gun toting Somali warlords.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Tuesday morning first thing and it doesn't feel like a good day. November has brought with it the dull ache of a wintry despondency. The chill in the air has clawed its frozen fingers into my skull and blown an icy mistral across my mind. I feel a dense slumping of my energies, as if I am fighting against a swarm of craven and foggy negativity. I have to pummel my way out of the gloom with powerful fistfuls of punchy attitude. But somehow I've lost the will. My boyfriend has flown back to the U.S. after a flying visit and his leaving has now pulled me out of sync.

Drama queen. Just get on with it.

I go out to the shops to pay some bills and pick up a few items for my son's supper. I walk down to the high street of the small country town where I live. The wind is blowing up great gusts of bright orange leaves. The theatricals of the season appeal to my sensitive mood and I move in and out of the shops with the lonely listlessness of the recently bereaved. It appears that I believe myself to be in a place out of the reach of all others. I take on a parental voice internally and tell myself to 'snap out of it' and to 'pull myself together'. As I walk into a charity shop I wonder vaguely if they will have something suitable as a writing table which I have recently thought about investing in. And then I see it.

Stationed by the door and partially blocking the entrance is an elephantine chunk of furniture. It is a desk as solid as a carthorse and I am instantly drawn to its hefty ugliness. A plain, studious looking behemoth, one that you can push your knees under and which has school-teacher'ish rows of drawers on either side. I pull open a few of these and discover that they have a splattered inky wash which has turned the insides the pleasing colour of writers-blue. It is a light nondescript wood, roughly varnished with an Eastern European feel to it. Basic, without adornment and made for no-nonsense practical work, it is a communist of the furniture world. And though it is more Chairman Mao than Carla Bruni, with perhaps a touch of General Tito around the sturdy iron fittings, there is still a certain sexiness to its stance. This is apparent in its straight forward willingness to perform a standard task rather than a pampered and prosodic attitude to its being used for what it was made for. I love it all the more for its lack of understated elegance. It has all four of its low-heeled feet slammed solidly on the ground.

I start to imagine it in the little space just off my kitchen where I now plan to write, I don't trust my instincts though, and at £85 it seems a little over-priced and already beyond my own self-imposed budget. I decide I need my friend Lavender to see it first. Lavender has exquisite taste and will know instantly if it is right for me or my house.

But while I wait I become twitchy and territorial. I strut around the desk in a proprietorial manner. It is already mine and I try to infuse this feeling into the table itself in an effort to deflect any other possible buyers. I ask the woman behind the counter for a tape measure and I ostentatiously start to measure it up. I fling my body over the top as I hurl the tape around its circumference and during the seemingly long wait I endlessly circle it hoping to ward off other captors . Every passing person becomes a threat. I smile as sweetly as I can and try to take on a relaxed and authoritative air but inside I am fraught and angsty.

At last Lavender arrives. She takes one look. She doesn't like it. In fact she can see few, if any, redeeming features. Least of all the price. That’s when my heart really begins to sink.

We leave the shop in silence. I had asked for her opinion but I didn't get the reaction that I wanted and it hurts. The pain involved is by no means on the correct level for a rashly viewed grubby-looking table with inky drawers that someone else has given to a charity shop. But I am feeling disturbingly upset nonetheless.

We troop sullenly back to my house and have lunch. I feel low and dejected. Lavender is distracted by endless calls to her mobile. Lav has a very grand background. Her family have always had 'staff' and appear to have employed half of the local community at some time or other and one of them, a woman in her late 70's who used to be their housekeeper, needs cheering up. Everyone loves Lavender who is a well-bred beacon of tenderness in other peoples lowest moments. I still feel pointedly abject over her treatment of my table but agree to go with her to visit the distraught 'Lily'.

We go in my car and take Lav's dog Osbert with us. Osbert is a small and sharply intelligent cross-breed who smiles regularly to show his need to be included in all things human. He grins at me, as if trying to lift my mood, and shows me a full set of gleaming little doggy teeth. On the drive over Lavender pulls out a box of fudge. Osbert is ushered onto the back seat while Lav and I plough enjoyably through the top layer. This is the most delicious mouthwatering fudge I have ever tasted. It is tooth-meltingly sweet and deeply satisfying. I start to feel a genial warmth and remember that I actually have nothing wrong in my life, in fact my life is really rather good.

Once we arrive at Lily's we go into caring mode and listen as this hard-working and frail woman unfolds her sad tale. She has recently left her husband after 60 years of marriage and has now rented a tiny flat and furnished it exactly the way she wants it. She is thrilled with being on her own, running her own life and has obviously escaped from a cold and unloving marriage. A divorce from her 80 year old husband now looms in front of her and she is beginning to feel daunted and a little lost. It is a wretched situation and she talks and talks, more than a little fragile and desperately trying to hang on to what she has achieved at this stage in life. But she is also now fearful for what the future may hold. She is resolute in her having made the right decision over leaving her husband but she still feels uneasy confusion. One wonders if she has left it all a little too late.

We do our best to support and bolster her spirits, to admire her newly purchased carpet - first time in her life she has chosen something purely for herself, her pleasure is tangible - and sympathize with her feelings of bewilderment and panic.

As we leave her flat I am immensely grateful that the only wrinkle in my day has been the issue of the table and in the face of Lily's torment I can dismiss it as the trivia it truly is.

When we get out to the car again my first thought is of the fudge and the coming pleasure. Lavender rubs her hands together in glee and we both know what we are thinking about.

We open the car door to be greeted by a quiet looking Osbert. He lifts his head toward us. He doesn't smile. All around are strewn the shredded and empty waxy wrappings from the fudge box.