Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cover story

My children are unimpressed by the book cover for Wife in the North. Proof copies of the cover arrived through the post and the seven-year-old said: "That looks nothing like granny." I said "It's supposed to look like "a granny", not necessarily our granny." He said: "And that doesn't look like my John Deere boiler suit either". The five-year-old took it out of his brother's hands. He pointed at the windswept, child-festooned mother "and she's far more beautiful than you are." I said: "Thanks." The thing is - it is true. When my publisher initially sent over the illustration in an e-mail, she said: "You may not like the boots." I opened up the J-pegged file and looked at it carefully. I thought: "They have knocked 15 years off my age and have ignored the double chin and the cellulite-raddled thighs and I am almost a blonde." I wrote back: "Don't worry about it - the wellies are fine."

Mother's day comes early

Back to school after half-term which surprisingly went very well. I say "surprisingly" because virtually every school holiday my husband is in London and, even though I have help, I can find it difficult. It is not that he is away all the time. I know it would be worse if he was on the oil rigs or in the army. He is only away a few months a year it is just that it is the months that count - the holidays and the days the kids are sick and the days I just hurt with missing him. Anyway, the holiday went well. The children and I stayed here and went hither and thither, but my favorite moment was late one night last week. I was lying with the seven-year-old at bedtime and he said during the recent open week at school when parents were invited in, a friend of his teased him about the fact he had not wanted me to go home. He said: "He called me a 'mama's boy'." I lay next to him in the not quite dark. I said: "Is that right? And what did you say?" He looked across at me. He said: "I told him", I could hear the patience in his voice, "everybody loves their mummy"." I said: "Quite right."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rags and Riches

When my father went across to Ireland for a week, my mother came to me. It grieves me to see her sofa sit when once her hands were busy - knit one, pearl one, cast off and round again. That or tiny stitches, one crossed with the other, building castles out of silken thread. Past-times lost to her along with central vision. We bought a large flat TV screen for the arches and a leather abbot's chair to sit upon, screen close and sideways on; "A Grandma Fishing". Her catch - the edge of soapy dramas. There are "talking books" that shout into deaf ears but the tales, however loud she plays them, encourage her to sleep and sleep some more. A hobby then? (Aside from me.)

I dropped in at a course for "proggy and hooky" rug making in a nearby village hall. As I walked in, there was warmth and scarcely a murmur. I thought: "This is how a convent would have been five hundred years ago - industrious sisters intent on art and prayers." There is all sorts of words for the craft - proggy, proddy, clootie, cleekie, stobbie, tab, rag and clippy as well as hooky. Hooky involves long strips of material brought up by hooks in a series of loops to make a flat pile at the front sometimes with detailed pictures. Alternatively, working from the back of the sacking, the rug maker can use a tapered metal or wood spoke to prod through a strip of cloth then prod the other end in a little way beyond. When the proggy rug is finished and turned over, it is a riot of woollen fronds, traditionally with a dark border. A rug to plough your fingers through, pulling slightly much as you would a lover's hair. In Northumberland these rugs are often worked on frames. Unlike quilts they were not valued and passed down the generations. Instead they were born of necessity, associated with poverty and few have survived the years. One rug maker told me: "They started off on the bed, went on the floor infront of the fire, then into the scullery, dog basket and finally the compost heap." Families sat together; father cutting old clothes and rags into strips, children poking through the strips into the hessian with half a wooden peg and mother overseeing the colours. I thought: "Right, let's see if my mother could manage this."

I fetched down an old black wool skirt; designer - naturally, black - is there any other colour? I would like to say, despite the years - a fit, but that would be a lie. I laid it on the kitchen table, sliced it and bagged the pieces. A butcher to my chic and office past. I cut a test square of hessian and ironed a hem to make a second square inside the first. I sat my mother alongside, picked up the metal spike, made a hole and threaded through the ribbon black, made another, closed my eyes to feel the hole, the spike, pulled the ribbon out the other side. "Do-able," I thought. "I'm glad though that I can see." My mother felt her way around the edge, the ribbons on the table and the spike. She made a hole, worked through the cloth and then another, worked through some more. She said: "I hope pet you won't have me down a mine next week."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mole in the hole

I am not sure I can live with the guilt of country life. Firstly, I have to vote Tory. Not only that - I have blood on my hands. I am talking dead mole. I know I could have got a sonic alarm but the moles would have made a mad dash for the field, waited for the ringing in their ears to stop and come straight back over the garden wall, pausing only for the advice "Avoid the laser beams or all hell breaks loose." I know I could have got a trap which shuts the mole in with a colour TV and his own toilet to keep him happy till the moleman came and dug it up and I could then have paid for a one way ticket to New Zealand so the mole could make a fresh start. Or I could let the moleman do his stuff and use a trap which breaks its neck. Instantaneously, he told me. The moleman held out the rigor mortised mole. It was smaller than the palm of his hand with soft grey fur, big pink paddle paws at the front and no eyes to speak of. He said: "Look at its ferocious teeth." The tiny jagged teeth were bared as he lifted its lip. He said he would take it home and use it to bait another trap he had set elsewhere with its scent. That way it would encourage the male mole living in the other garden to dash into the trap looking for a rival male. The children have a book about a young mole who rescues a baby bird, keeps it in a cage and then frees it. I am so not reading that book again.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Singing the Blues

Living in the country poses various dilemmas for a natural born city dweller like myself. Are you prepared to drink tea because you cannot buy a decent latte? Can you live without riotously arty, overpriced flowers tied in brown paper with a raffia bow? Are you prepared to "damn the environment" and drive for miles to get anywhere? One of the very worst dilemmas: Are you prepared to vote Tory? I mean - Oh my God - vote Tory? I am too young to die and I am certainly too young to vote Tory.

In London, I do not believe any of my friends voted Tory. I could be wrong but if they did, they did not admit it. Perhaps if I had lived in Notting Hill, it might have been different. Here however, I have found many of those in my circle are indeed Conservative and think it entirely normal. The first time someone talked about wanting to step up her commitment to the Conservative party, I thought she was making a joke. I laughed. I stopped laughing when I realised she was serious. I thought I could agree to differ - after all, the local MP is a Liberal Democrat so someone is not voting Tory.

What happens? One of my closest friends decides to stand as the local Conservative candidate for the new unitary authority in the elections on May 1st. He said: "I have been asked to stand." I said: "Good for you." He said: "Will you vote for me if I get selected?" I said: "Mmmmmm. Are you sure I can't offer you a cup of tea?" What do you do? He is intelligent, thoughtful and would be certain bound to do a remarkably good job as a councillor. But then again he is a Tory. Do you vote for the man or do you vote for the party? After a deal of agonising, I told him I would vote for him - indeed went so far as taking his photograph with local fishermen and parish councillors at the harbour which he intends to use in campaign literature. I love politics. I spent years reporting on it and am a lifelong Labour supporter. Moving, making a new life for everyone, knocking two houses together seem easy next to this and forget the Democrat Party's dilemma over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Move to Northumberland and see what happens.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mole and Ratty

It is the Year of the Rat. I knew that. I did not need the children coming home with Chinese lanterns, fortune cookies and an astrological chart to tell me that. Of course it is the Year of the Rat and the revolution started here. Not only are they eating up our foodstuffs and setting fire to our cars, I believe one of them may have infiltrated the underneath of my house and died there a martyr to the cause. I have a horrible smell in the kitchen. You catch it as you walk into the door from the farmyard or as you walk into the kitchen from the lounge and the smell is in an arc. If I am lucky it is a mouse which will take less time to decompose.If I am less lucky it is a dead rat. I believe he may have strapped explosives to himself, tied a bandana round his head and am daily expecting his video to appear on YouTube. The smell is disgusting, slightly cheesy, slightly off, slightly dead. We have done the things you do - pulled out the fridge, tipped over the sofa, emptied the dresser then refilled it. Still the smell. There is an outside chance it might be a dead mole. We have now called a mole-catcher in courtesy of the large number of hillocks splattering the common grass in front of the cottages. He arrived yesterday with a small, curved spade about 80 years old and a large satchel with two mole traps in it. Mole traps are steel contraptions made of half a tin can and a deal of wire rings. The mole catcher used to be in the army he told me. I suspected as much. He inspected the hillocks for fresh earth which is drier looking than old earth, looking for the most recent mole hills. He dug his heel into the ground between two of the hillocks. When the heel of his boot sank into the ground, he knew there was a tunnel below. Carefully he dug out a round of grass, "washed" his hands with soil to remove his scent, dug through the soil to the tunnel, set the trap, placed it in the tunnel and filled it over with soil. He said moles were quite clever and sometimes filled the trap with soil to set it off then dug themselves a way around it. Apparently they dig their tunnels in the hope worms will fall into them and then they can eat them next time they are passing that way. The mole-catcher came back today and as a true professional seemed disappointed that the moles had indeed triggered the traps but escaped to dig another day. I felt like telling him: "If you think moles are clever, you should meet the rats round here - they want talks with the Scottish Nationals."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More rats

My husband is away for 18 days this month - February is particularly bad that way. Needless to say because he is back and forth to London, the cars have started acting up. The engine warning light came on in one of them and the driver's seat broke in the other. Monday morning, I loaded all the children into the Volvo, shovelled in two book bags, two reversible school coats and a packed Lightning McQueen lunch box, handed my daughter a plastic horse, threw in a handbag and my own Barbour jacket and clambered into the front seat. I am short. My husband is tall. To get into the car when I have been driving it, he mutters something about "bloody munchkins" and ratchets the seat back. When he has been driving it, I climb in, sit down and have to pull on the metal handle under the seat which then careers forward. Not Monday though - the seat stayed where it was, way back on its haunches. I heaved on the handle some more. I attempted to bounce the seat up and down with determined vigour while heaving on the handle as the children watched with the usual rapt attention they display to anything on television or Mummy whenever she heads for the brink of sanity on skates. I started "pogo"ing on the seat in a frenzy, pulling the handle up so hard it hurt my back - nothing. I took a moment to consider whether I could grow my legs - difficult. I considered whether I could indeed reach the pedals if I perched on the edge of my seat and extended my legs to their maximum stretch and sustain it for the 10-mile round journey - did not think so. I unpacked and repacked three children and sundry deitris into the Saab, cursing and whimpering gently that my back hurt. I thought: "No wonder we are always the last into school." We drove very carefully along the lanes - the engine warning light is usually the signal the Saab intends to break down and needs to be taken to the garage. I ignored it. I figured if I did not notice the light, the car would keep working and amazingly it did. I am going to try that again.

Then last night driving home as the road dips down and cuts between a farmhouse on one side and barns on the other, clouds of dense black smoke drifted from between the old stone buildings of the farmyard, across the road and away into the fields. As we went by, I looked between the outbuildings to see a vehicle in flames, its passenger door gaping open. This is big news in Northumberland. We drove on by and I thought: "I don't want to watch the local TV news programme only to be told that some poor soul burnt to ash trying to get out the truck as happy go lucky neighbours headed for home, clucking: "That looked nasty"." As we turned round, there was a loud bang from where the small inferno was raging, the light from the fire drenching the old stone buildings surrounding it and colouring the night sky; we parked and I walked up to the farmhouse. I knocked on the back door. I began to feel slightly silly. I thought: "I am sure they know there is a car burning out in the farmyard." A woman answered the door. I introduced myself. I said: "I'm sure you know this but there is a car on fire in your yard." Her husband appeared. They said they did know and that another farmer who had been doing some contracting for them, had told them his pick-up truck had caught fire in the yard. They seemed very relaxed about it all. As I got back to the car, a fire-engine full of volunteer firemen drove up and started unwinding hoses and suddenly there was even more smoke everywhere and the fire was out.

I was told today the farmer who owned the truck, noticed a glow from behind the dashboard and three minutes later the Nissan Nevada pick-up was in flames. No one was hurt. I have a theory. I think it was the rats. They were probably sending a message: "More cheese or the tractor gets it."

Friday, February 01, 2008

Spa Spa Away Land

I went to a spa for a break. It cost about the same as a week’s holiday for the family but it was for two nights and all mine. It is true to say that I have not been to a proper spa in years. I do not really know why I abandoned the “I deserve it” spa philosophy that served me so well throughout my youth. Perhaps it was the fact I gave up admiring myself when naked and what with my profound middle age and the responsibilities of three children, I decided there was only so much to be done without a scalpel and I might as well save the money and put it towards my pension plan. Or spend it on Chablis. Anyway, courtesy of the fact I appeared to have wrecked both body and mind writing the book, I decided I would crawl away for a couple of nights and relax in the watery lap of luxury.

The hotel and spa complex I went to was so expensive it has its own helicopter landing pad. I thought there was a chance someone famous might be staying but there were no celebrities that I could see unless you count the woman who looked like Sharon Osbourne who carried round Sharon Osbourne’s autobiography with her at all times. I do not however think she was Sharon Osbourne because she would not need to read her own book. It took me a little while to adapt to schlepping around in waffled-cotton with smiling shuggies attending to my every need. At least a minute and a half. They give you the waffle-cotton robe when you arrive along with plastic flip-flops. I liked the robe – I hated the flip-flops probably because of my fish blood. I have not looked very closely but I believe my toes to be webbed if the acute discomfort involved in wearing flip-flops is anything to go by. The nice girl giving me the induction tour found me waffle slippers instead. I think she decided I might become a health and safety issue after I tried persuading my toes to live on one side of the flip-flop all bunched together and cling on to the edge while sliding one foot then the other forward without lifting them from the floor. Does not work. Slightly dangerous in fact. I just hope she did not hear about the fact about half an hour after she left me I walked into the men’s changing room. Right in. Luckily there was just one man blowdrying his hair in the mirror. I figured he was probably gay because I am not sure heterosexual men use blowdriers in spas. He also looked slightly annoyed at my intrusion rather than pleased.

All in all, I liked my spa break very much. Particularly the hydrotherapy pool which is a warm turquoise pool with a volcano of water in the middle. You cling on to a bar and stand in the volcano while water pummels you from every direction you can think of and some you hope other people don’t think of if they happen to see you standing there smiling. I imagine the feeling to be much the same as standing up and riding two horses, one foot resting on each saddle, butt naked while firemen hose you down as you ride past. I think I have had a dream like that. Every now and then a handful of water would reach up and hit you across the face but then again that does take your mind off your wobbly bits. My only real caveat is that spas are not for the shortsighted. If you wear glasses, swimming is difficult and you steam up in the jaccuzi – which can be a good thing depending who is in there with you. If you wear contact lenses though, you cannot fall asleep when you have your treatments - which can also be a good thing if you have a tendency to wake up with a snort which your beauty therapist pretends not to notice. On my way back to reality and the railway station, my cheery taxi driver informed me Michael Barrymore has stayed there. Personally, I would not be entirely happy sitting around a swimming pool with Michael Barrymore but maybe that is just me.