The SSF (Sea-Sick Friend) and I were well overdue an excursion which we rectified this week by taking a trip into London by train, for old time’s sake. Long suffering readers will recall that SSF and I met years ago during our commuting days whilst stuck one evening on a stationary train going nowhere out of Waterloo Station. We struck up a conversation bemoaning the appalling service and haven’t stopped chatting since.

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The Walkie Talkie Building, centre.

This week’s outing would not be involving water other than looking down on the Thames from a great height, which SSF assured me, was fine, although I think vertigo was mentioned. We were making for the Sky Garden – an innovative use of the top floor of one of the city’s less than attractive new buildings, known locally as the “Walkie Talkie.” This unwieldy looking skyscraper hit the London headlines in the summer of 2013 when the sun’s reflection beamed intensely off its mainly glass structure into the street below and melted part of a car as well as setting a shop doormat alight.

Undeterred, as our weather was positively chilly – even for early April, we decanted ourselves from the tube at Monument Station and hoofed the short distance to 20 Fenchurch Street. The lobby security was akin to any airport rigmarole – everything and everybody screened – this was dealt with deftly and provided a natural filter for the two available lifts. Whizzing ear-poppingly to the 36th floor in cramped conditions isn’t my most favourite thing in the world but it was over with so speedily there was hardly time to wonder about a staircase option.

The lift opens to reveal another lobby – tiled in black slate and containing state-of-the-art unisex toilet facilities. Now, if there’s one fear greater than getting stuck between floors in a lift, it’s becoming imprisoned in a public lavatory. Which, for what seemed like hours but was actually less than a minute, happened to me when the lock mechanism failed to release. After moments of sweaty trauma I was able to join SSF and step into the glass domed conservatory that is the Sky Garden.

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The audible gasps are justified: this space definitely has the wow factor. The views over our capital city are amazing. The first area reached is the Cafe-Bar  which is completely free to access although booking a time slot is necessary.

 

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The mezzanine contains the Darwin Brasserie (For which SSF had booked a table) and above that, at the very top of the dome, is the Fenchurch Restaurant. Tumbling down the two sloped sides next to the staircases are cascades of tropical greenery. The air temperature is surprisingly cool but this is catered for with colourful throws and blankets provided in the seating areas.

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Here is a great view looking east towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge with the towers of the Canary Wharf business district in the far distance. (Best place for it…).

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And here, looking west. The Post Office Tower, once one of the capital’s tallest structures can just be seen, top right while the London Eye to the left (or south of the river) and near to Waterloo Station is one of the city’s newest landmarks.

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Looking directly south, The Shard towers over everything else. HMS Belfast can just be seen in the foreground. (Or should that be fore-river?) The outside viewing platform was sadly closed during our visit due to inclement weather. Surely a reason for another trip?

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And finally, looking northwards – the “Cheese Grater” on the left and the “Gherkin” on the right. London certainly has its fair share of odd looking buildings – and judging by the amount of cranes dotted about everywhere, we are destined for many more.

So…the verdict: well worth a visit. We had a very enjoyable lunch in the Brasserie with a prime table by the window overlooking the Thames. After lunch we had a sneak peek up at the restaurant and decided that the Brasserie looked much the best option. The tables in the restaurant are too far back to take advantage of the views so we wondered what the point of eating there would be. Although there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming and going, there was no feeling anywhere that the place was overcrowded and I suspect that for health and safety reasons only a certain number are allowed in at any one time.

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Leadenhall Market

We left the building to stretch our legs around the city, taking in Leadenhall Market, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields before returning to the Underground at Bank via the Royal Exchange. This is SSF’s old stamping ground but for me, fairly unchartered territory – so a good day was had by all. With any luck there will not be such a long gap between this and our next outing –  just deciding where to go is tricky – so much to see, so little time!

 

 

I’m not a great one for self promotion (it’s a terribly British affliction), but I can, nevertheless, unashamedly do it on behalf of others, especially if those others are family. Long standing readers of this blog may recall my arty niece’s Christmas card range. Well, said creative niece, Hattie, and her not much less creative Mama have recently joined forces to produce a range of crafts and illustrations worthy of any bijou home interiors boutique.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my sister on a fabric buying foray. We went to her local town where there is a wonderful arts and crafts shop, stuffed full of everything you could ever need if you are wont to a bit of crafting. Or knitting. Or quilting. Sis has been an avid quilter for many years now – I have some intricate cushion covers to prove it – and now she’s branching out into making all sorts of things – spectacle cases, iPad covers, cosmetic purses to name just a few. We spent a fascinating half hour or so choosing pretty printed cottons and wadding, buying lengths of cloth called fat quarters (a quilting technical term, apparently. You learn something every day, don’t you?). Armed with a weighty bagful, Sis set to and began producing her merchandise, sitting in her kitchen with her trusty sewing machine and copious cups of coffee.

Yesterday she and Hattie took their first leap into the Craft Fair market to test the water. I popped along to lend support and see what they have been up to.

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Here is their stall at start of business. They were in a chilly hall at Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey.

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These baby padders are adorable…shame I don’t know any babies that could benefit.

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Hattie’s nursery illustrations

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Hattie has sold her own exclusive designs online for a while now. She produces cards for all occasions, nursery illustrations and sells items such as mugs, spectacle cases and cushion covers printed with her own inimitable style. She is currently working on a fabric range as well as accepting commissions for book illustrations. You can view her merchandise here or check out her website here. She’s a busy bunny!

Their collaboration has spawned “House of Hyder” which has its own  online shop over at Etsy where you can see samples of the whole range. Check out the logo and business cards – designed in house, of course.

 

Half term last week and a chance to catch up with a few things such as visiting an exhibition I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Performing Sculpture at Tate Modern is a look at the work of the American Alexander Calder (1898-1976), widely recognised as the creator of the ‘mobile’ as we know it today. I had an added reason to be curious – Calder is the great grand Uncle of fellow blogger, Robin Cochran.

Now, although the route along the Thames path from Waterloo to Tate Modern is one of my favourite walks, I have to admit to Tate Modern being my least preferred London art gallery. Not because of the work it displays but because it’s always far too busy (alright, I know that’s a good thing) and the coffee shops are a disgrace. The escalators are confusing because they traverse two floors at a time so ending up where you actually want to go is a bit of a lottery. However, the bookshop is fantastic and there is always something interesting going on once you work out the geography. And to be fair, the whole place is having a makeover at the moment which will, by June of this year, include more space and more art: so that’s a good thing too.

Performing Sculpture is on the third floor and once inside the individual gallery, the crowds have dispersed so viewing is a little more comfortable and conducive. We are immediately introduced to Calder’s wire sculptures and the first impression is one of fun. Apparently in 1926 he began constructing his own miniature circus performers using wire, cork and buttons.

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Simple little dog created from wire, wood and a clothes peg. Fun and effective

He would stage live shows for a small audience of esteemed friends which included Jean Cocteau, Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian. I managed to snap a couple of examples before politely being told to refrain from photography which surprised me as usually at Tate Mod they don’t mind.

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Wire sculpture of tennis player, Helen Wills.

 

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Tumblers or acrobats. I liked how this wire sculpture cast shadows on the white wall.

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Fish tank. This was my favourite. Looks so simple but a great idea for the art room, maybe?

 

It was Mondrian who inspired Calder to experiment with moving shapes after Calder saw some coloured cardboard rectangles attached to the wall in Mondrian’s studio. The artist was using them as compositional aids but Calder thought it would be interesting to make them move (Mondrian didn’t share his enthusiasm!) so he began experimenting with shapes and wire, balance and suspension. His metal sculptures are wired together with the precision of an engineer, creating equilibrium and movement. Some parts of one sculpture will move independently from its main body which provides fascination for the viewer. The mobiles float ethereally in the white painted gallery under their own steam, the power of air flow caused by human movement around the exhibits. Each piece is so delicate now that any enforced movement – by blowing on them for instance, is forbidden.

To get an idea of the type of mobiles on display, and because I’m nothing if not law-abiding (I put my camera away before getting to the mobiles gallery), here is a video I discovered on good old You Tube from a Christie’s catalogue a few years ago. Enjoy!

And finally, as I had to refrain from taking pictures, this last one is taken from the mini guide that the Tate provides with your ticket. (Half price, by the way, with the National Art Pass. Marvellous).

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Black Widow

Called Black Widow it is the last exhibit in the show and hangs forlornly, its pieces moving at odds with each other. I thought this was a rather gloomy end to an otherwise weirdly interesting exhibition that could fire up the creativity for anyone let loose with some wire, flat metal plates and some spray paint. I can see much mileage in these ideas in a school art room because the construction of them would involve a bit of physics – and that would provide a perfect opportunity for cross-curricular activities as well as proving to our short-sighted Department of Education that the recent down-grading of Design and Technology subjects for GCSE is just downright wrong. Rant over. (For now).

 

 

 

I come from a family of collectors. When we were children my mother went through phases of collecting different things – piggy banks, china cottages, pill boxes. At the moment I have my suspicions that her assortment of teddy bears is getting larger – she can’t pass a forlorn little furry face without rescuing it from a shop shelf and bringing it home to join the others for a bit of tender loving care. Dad amassed tools. He had a workshop built onto the back of the kitchen which he filled with screwdrivers, chisels, tins of nails and tacks, hammers, saws for any eventuality, bits of wood (my sister and I were always accompanying him to the wood yard), planes, drills, attachments, cans of oil, string and goodness knows what else. Glue. He had a lot of glue.

Dad's workshop looked a little like this

Dad’s workshop looked a little like this model from Brooklands Museum in Surrey

So, as a child, I began collecting things. Shells from days at the beach; bus tickets, theatre tickets and programmes; pencils (I was always buying pencils with pocket money); Enid Blyton books; note pads and drawing paper. I hoarded them all. Imagine my excitement, at around the age of nine or ten, when someone sent me a chain letter with promises of postcards from every corner of the world. All I had to do was send a postcard from my village to the unknown person at the top of the attached list and forward the letter to six friends. Which I dutifully did and then waited with delicious anticipation for my exponential pile of postcards to arrive, once my name had moved to the top of the list. I waited and watched the doormat under the front door every day for the post to arrive. For weeks. After an eternity, three cards dropped through the letter box. Two were from England, one from Wales. And that was it. Forever. No four corners of the earth for me. It was probably this one event that triggered my long-term cynical outlook on life.

My sister and I moved onto other things. We began collecting badges: the cloth ones that could be sewn onto an anorak – rather like those earned in the Brownies or Guides but since neither of us lasted very long in that particular institution we decided to create our own sleeves of honour. These were very popular decades ago, there being no such thing as designer logo back then. We’d buy them on our holidays – woven badges depicting a county, or a particular town or historical place. This was a craze that only lasted as long as the anorak fitted. My sister went on to accumulating  wrapped sugar lumps which she stored in an old cigar box. I think that’s when I gave up and became a minimalist. My brother, in the meantime, was collecting football cards.

I did, however, accumulate a variety of pigs at one point. I made the mistake of admitting I liked them, found them misunderstood and quite cute which was like opening the floodgates for every Christmas and birthday thereafter. They ended up stuffed in a box and then farmed out to charity shops.

So I don’t think I’m really a collector of things. A collector has to be dogged; determined and should enjoy displaying (and dusting) whatever it is that’s being sought. When Son was learning the clarinet at around the age of eleven, we had to visit the home of the piano accompanist who would take him through his music exam rehearsal. Her home was full of frogs. Everywhere. Wooden, knitted, metal, fabric, macramé. On cushions, tea towels, on teacups and saucers. There were pictures on the walls of frogs and she had stone ornaments of them in various poses in her garden. This was extreme collecting. To be honest, it was creepy. She even looked a little amphibian herself. I was glad when the half hour session was over.

Is storing one’s own stories collecting, do you think? If it is, then I am still a collector of sorts. Trawling through my computer files this week, I came across this 300 flash, written some time ago in response to “Theft” – a creative writing prompt.

Mavis opened the battered leather case and stroked the faded purple velvet into which the six silver apostle spoons were nestled. They were perfect; just in need of a shine. Holding her polishing cloth in one hand, she took one of the spoons in the other and twirled it around on the cloth until the little figure shone with a soft glow as she rubbed the tarnish away. She would check the hallmark later in the little reference book Mr Hennessy had given her, after she had expressed an interest one morning, whilst wiping his mantelpiece.

Of course when Mr Hennessy died suddenly, a couple of years ago, it had come as a shock. Mavis had worked for the Hennessy’s for years but she was even more shocked when, continuing her employment, she discovered that Mrs Hennessy had no taste, preferring to display garish china dogs rather than the beautiful pieces of silver Mr Hennessy had collected over the years. She found his collection one morning, stuffed into the back of the sideboard, unloved and forgotten. She took the pieces out, polished them and arranged them on a table but the following week they were back in their cupboard and she was left to dust the loathsome Staffordshire spaniels.

The eighteenth century cow creamer came home first – it looked lovely under Mavis’ lamp in her front room. Next came the owls cruet set and the Mappin and Webb porringer; a tiny snuff box with an enamel lid (in which Mavis kept her sweeteners); an ivory handled paper knife, a pair of Victorian berry spoons and the Paul Storr coffee pot, in use every day since.  What Mavis was doing with Mr Hennessy’s collection couldn’t be classed as stealing, she told herself: it was appreciating.

What do you collect?

I bet you’ve never really considered this, have you? I hadn’t either until the other day when I noticed that Son and I were stirring simultaneously in opposite directions. Most of you will perform this daily ritual stirring clockwise but for just around ten per cent of the population, the opposite will be true.

It will come as no surprise to friends and family that I fall into said ten per cent. I was born with a minority affliction. I am not disabled – I am left-handed and being so renders simple everyday tasks tricky.

Using a tin opener is a challenge; I have trouble with serrated bread knives (a beautiful loaf will end up with a 45 degree overhang); I can’t use a corkscrew and even getting into the house via the front door using a simple Yale key can be problematic. Everything has been manufactured by the majority for the majority but for us Lefties, the world is just the wrong way round.

Buying something as boringly necessary as an iron means I have to choose carefully and from a meagre selection – of those where the electrical cord emerges from the top of the appliance rather than the (wrong) side.

When I was a child my grandmother despaired because she couldn’t teach me to knit properly – I would train the wool ‘the other way’ around the needle.

Of course, there are left-handed alternatives for a lot of things. I wouldn’t be without my left-handed scissors for instance or my left-handed cheque book (not used quite so much these days but so simple – the perforations are on the ‘other side’ of the book) but most left-handed items tend to be flash-in-the-pan five minute gimmicks and of no use at all. The craziest thing I saw advertised last Christmas was SLOPED LINED writing paper. The lines were printed on a downhill slant to prevent ‘left-handers from smudging [their] writing.’ Give me strength! Firstly, whoever writes with a smudgeable pen these days – quill pens went out even before I was at school – and why oh why are we not teaching our left-handed pupils to do the simple thing and SLANT THE PAPER?!!

I’m astonished and irritated that so many left-handed students struggle with their handwriting. Most of them hold their pens awkwardly and/or “hook” their hands over the top of their writing in order to see what they’ve just written. Left-handed children should be guided, early on, to turn their paper so that in effect, they are virtually writing top to bottom, almost vertically. (I’ve always done this – I think I figured it out for myself because I don’t remember anyone suggesting it and my writing is at best stylish and at worst legible). Turning the paper negates bad pen holding habits and helps improve writing. No need for that uncomfortable hooking. I find it incredible that teachers don’t seem to be aware of the subtle and simple changes that could be suggested to make a left-hander’s life easier. I’m astounded that, once a seating plan has been devised, some pairs of students are knocking elbows. Never sit a left-hander on the right side of a desk facing forward: swap them round and instantly both pupils gain much more space. Obvious, you may think but there’s been many a time that I’ve had to quietly suggest a reshuffle.

Left-handers are adaptable by nature – we have to be. We are creative because we have had to be. We come at the world from a different angle. From learning to tie shoe laces to driving a car, our lives have been fraught with difficulties that right-handed people can’t even imagine. We have to put up with the negative connotations that the word ‘left’ dredges up – ‘left out’ and ‘left over;’ the French ‘gauche’ and the Latin ‘sinistra’ whereas the opposite of wrong is good old goody two-shoes Right.

I have to admit to a couple of advantages. I can surprise an opponent playing tennis if I hit the ball well because a left-hand spin sends the ball off in an unexpected direction. I feel at home driving in mainland Europe because for me, anti-clockwise around a round-a-bout holds no fear – in fact, it feels more comfortable.

Left handers are probably more ambidextrous as we have to adapt to using right-handed things. For instance, I was once offered a set of left-handed golf clubs (not that I play the real game – the most I’ve ever done is the crazy variety on holiday) but I did try them out and they felt just wrong. Interestingly, we know a right-handed person who plays with left-handed clubs. What’s going on there, I wonder?

I checked out a list of famous left-handers. Einstein, Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, Bart Simpson, Paul McCartney, David Bowie…the list was quite surprising. I seem to be in esteemed company so why should I worry. Truth is, I don’t. Just don’t ask me to slice your bread, knit you a jumper or open the wine and I’ll be fine.

 

Hello 2016! Over half way through January and already I‘m writing the sixteen part of the date with consummate confidence – no slipping back into last year for me. Yet what have I done so far? Nothing but feel lackadaisical, that’s what. Everything is an effort. Maybe it’s the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having that assists my sluggishness – particularly in the writing department. However, thankfully I don’t think I’m alone. Several blog posts I have read lately seem to be complaining of similar afflictions. So I’ll heave myself out of my malaise and share my recently read titles and my new book pile, purchased delightedly with Christmas money gifted specifically for that purpose.

I started the Christmas break (it seems so long ago now), by reading the book club choice – “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?by Jeanette Winterson. This sorry autobiographical tale details her early life with a monster of an adoptive mother and how, against all odds and between bouts of being locked in the coal cellar she collected a forbidden library of books, taught herself literature and wound up at Oxford University before embarking on a career as a writer and journalist while seeking her biological mother. The title refers to a comment the adoptive mother made to Jeanette when she discovered her having a relationship with a woman.

This was an interesting read if only for the fact that she and I are of similar age and my own childhood was in complete contrast to hers. While I was riding my Raleigh bike with its Sturmey-Archer gears carefree through the leafy lanes of Surrey she had run away from home ‘up north’ and was living in the back of an abandoned mini car, wondering from where her next meal was coming. I won’t reveal the outcome of her search in case anyone chooses to take this on. To sum up – it’s a quick read but not an easy one.

Next up was “A Spool Of Blue Thread” by Ann Tyler, recommended by Lisa. I had only read Ann Tyler once before and hadn’t particularly enjoyed her so this was started with some apprehension. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this family saga spanning three generations. We start and end with Denny, the black sheep of the family and Tyler’s writing is pacy, winding us through various time frames and familial relationships using mainly dialogue. Her characterisations and her descriptions of place create a vivid visual picture. It’s a very clever story and well deserving of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

After seeing the film “The Lady in the Van” I just had to read Alan Bennett’s book to find out if the film was completely true. Both the film and the book are enchantingly British, very funny and well worth a watch or a read – preferably both. I’m not saying any more than that lest I spoil it for you!

Having enjoyed the above title so much I decided to revisit and indulge in Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.” This is a compilation of the series of monologues he wrote to be performed both at the theatre and on BBC television. They hark back to the early eighties but lose none of their wit and poignancy over thirty years later. I‘ve read these more times than I probably care to remember but each time I find a new gem of an observation or turn of phrase that has me laughing out loud. The book I have lists the name of the actor who originally performed each one and the cast list reads like a night at the BAFTA’s. I find these monologues highly inspiring and am hoping that by reading them again now will send a jolt of creativity across my stagnant bows.

So…that’s what I have been reading and this is what my new book pile looks like:

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Having looked at Pauline’s new year list recently, I’ve pre-ordered two titles from hers – “The Forgetting Time” by Sharon Guskin and “The Reader on the 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent. Neither title is available in the UK till later in the year so I’ll have a lovely surprise when either turns up on the doormat.

So many books…so little time. I keep the ones I might conceivably read again – the others I pass on, not minding if they are lost to me forever. Rather that than lend a precious title to a friend who returns it in appalling condition. This happened once, which inspired this 300 flash fiction. I haven’t lent anything to her since…

LENDING

As she adjusted the vertical blinds at the far end to stop sunlight streaming through the window and discolouring the books Margaret noticed with distaste that Ms Elizabeth Rivers was in again.  Only last week she had said to young David (work placement, not permanent staff); she had said to him, she said, that she would rather never lend Ms Rivers a book again.

While she tidied her pristine work area and wiped her computer screen with a vanilla scented wet-wipe, Margaret kept a disdainful eye on Ms Rivers rummaging through the shelves, opening a book, reading a page, turning it over, reading the back cover synopsis, ramming it back on the shelf, repeating the process with another title. The state her last selection had come back in had been a disgrace – corners bent over, unidentifiable smears on covers and, worse still, remnants of what looked like blueberry muffin squashed between the pages of “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.”

David arrived from the kitchenette with yet another mug of coffee which he placed with exaggerated care onto a cork mat next to his keyboard. He looked at Margaret somewhat defiantly she thought, and nodded in the direction of Ms Rivers, who by now had chosen two titles and was looking for her third. Margaret turned her attention to Mr Dawkins, another regular who had an insatiable interest in Military History, and who treated the books he borrowed as if they were precious relics. Swiping his card with a flourish, Margaret heard David dealing with Ms Rivers who was remonstrating loudly.

“I’m sorry, Ms Rivers” she heard David say, “Your card appears to have been withdrawn.”

Margaret, head down, busied herself by straightening a pile of leaflets.

oooooooOOO~OOOooooooo

 

Spreading the Light

I’m feeling festive. Term ended in a rush of noisy classroom games, chocolate prizes and hyper children. My modest little tree is outside the back door in its little red pot waiting to come in and be decorated with a string of lights and bits and bobs collected over the years.  Many of the houses locally are bedecked with lights, competing with each other as to who can be first to shut down the national grid.

This apparent competitiveness was the inspiration for a piece of creative writing I did while at my writing group. We were given a one word title  and allowed up to 2000 words instead of the 300 flash we were usually tasked with.

So to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and at the suggestion of one of my lovely critical readers, here’s a little fiction for you.  See you on the other side …

RIVALS

“Look at this, Mo!” Len exclaimed.  He was surfing the internet for new additions to his Christmas lights display.  Len’s lights had become something of a talking point in The Close over the years.

“Looks like you’ve got a bit of competition,” said Maureen, watching from the front room window as their new neighbour opposite strung fairy lights across two conifers.

“Over my dead body,” said Len, as he clicked two angels and a Star of Bethlehem into his basket.

***

Maureen was exhausted. She had spent the day taking her mother Christmas shopping, helping her buy presents for everybody and buying something for herself for her mother to wrap up. She was looking forward to putting her feet up with a cup of tea. The house was in darkness as she parked the car.

     “Silly sod,” she thought, “He’s fused the lights again.”

Letting herself in, she automatically tried the light switch.  It worked.  Where the hell was Len, she wondered, annoyed now. Her hallway was strewn with Star of Bethlehem packaging, Len’s toolbox on the bottom stair.

As she began to feel alarmed, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, hi-ya,” said the woman, standing there “I’m Cheryl Parks – just moved in over the road. My Steve has taken your hubby to A and E – he fell off his ladder.”

Maureen looked at Cheryl, slowly taking in the information.  She peered past her in the gloom and saw Len’s ladder leaning against the side of the house.

     “Oh God,” she said, “What’s he done?”

“Think he’s broken his leg,” said Cheryl, “Steve offered to help – he’s an electrician, see. Steve Parks -S Parks – SPARKS – couldn’t be anything else, could he?” and she laughed raucously, as if she’d just thought of the joke, which of course she hadn’t. Maureen had seen the name on the side of his van.

“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said Cheryl, stepping inside Maureen’s hallway, pushing the door to and making a performance of wiping her open-toed sandals on the mat, revealing bright red nails and an ankle bracelet. Maureen began feeling shaky, whether from shock or tiredness she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful to her new neighbour for assuming control.

“What about your children?” she said, aware there were several smaller versions of Steve and Cheryl across the road.

“Oh don’t you worry about them,” grinned Cheryl, “our Stacey’ll get their tea on; she’s very capable.”

Maureen had witnessed Stacey being very capable with a young man in a Ford Escort outside the house a few evenings back but she didn’t say anything.  Instead she gathered together a few things Len might need and followed Cheryl to her car.

They found Len sitting on a trolley having had an x ray and waiting for a bed.  He looked dishevelled, his hair awry, trouser leg cut up to the knee, a temporary bandage covering up his swollen ankle. He and Steve were in deep discussion.

“Hey Shezz,” Steve looked up briefly at them as Maureen dumped the bag containing Len’s things on to the trolley.

“Thank you so much,” Maureen said to Steve, while looking at Len, who winced and smiled at her sheepishly.

“No worries, love,” replied Steve with a wink.  “Good job I was there!” He stood up and shook her hand.

“Looks like I’ll be out of action over Christmas,” said Len, “it’s broken in two places.” He pointed unnecessarily to his lower leg.

Cheryl suggested that she and Steve go and find cups of tea for them all.  Maureen sat up on the trolley next to Len and patted his good leg. He looked as if he’d been through it a bit. Maureen hoped that Cheryl wouldn’t be long with the tea, she was gasping.

     “Does it hurt much?” she asked, suddenly feeling sorry for him.

Len turned to Maureen, his face happier than it should have been for someone who had recently double fractured a major bone.

“A bit,” he said, “but don’t worry, love, Steve’s going to do our lights for us. We’re getting a banner to string across the road between our houses, Mo, just like up the high street!”

     Len’s wretched lights were the least of Maureen’s priorities right now but she could see that talking about them would distract him from the pain. She wondered doubtfully what the rest of The Close would think.  She knew that some of them felt Len was already going a bit far with his luminous flashing nativity scene on the front lawn.

     “Where will you get a banner from, then?”  She said, suspicious that Len had been doing some clandestine on-line purchasing.

“Had one left over,” Steve arrived back, making Maureen jump. He handed her tea in a cardboard cup. “Did a job down in Kent. Small village. Ran out of fixing spots.” He winked again.  Steve did a lot of winking, Maureen thought. That, and talking in abbreviated sentences.

They all stayed with Len until a bed was found and he was settled. He’d be plastered tomorrow, when the swelling went down.  Cheryl made the observation that she usually swelled up after she’d been plastered which made Steve laugh uproariously and call her a daft cow.

They laughed a lot, Steve and Cheryl.

***

     “I love Christmas,” sighed Len, contentedly, from the back seat as Maureen drove him home from hospital two days later, via the town centre so he could see the decorations and the town tree festooned with fairy lights.  Steve had been busy while Len had been laid up with his swollen leg.  As Maureen swung the car into The Close, Len saw the banner, strung professionally across the road, uniting them with their new neighbours.

“Looks like a decent job,” he said, generously, craning his neck to see his angels and Bethlehem star adorning their roof. “Good bloke, that Steve,” he added, struggling with his seat belt in his haste to get out and have a better look.

 Maureen held the door open for him thinking that her husband was beginning to sound like Steve and half expected him to wink at her, but he didn’t.

     “Steve’s waiting till tonight to switch on,” she said, “he thought you’d like that.”

“Great stuff,” replied Len, hobbling to the front door on his crutches.  Maureen followed him in and went to finish off her mince pies for the festive gathering later that evening.

     Maureen’s mince pies were as much a tradition in The Close as Len’s lights, so she felt a little disgruntled as she and Len joined the gathering crowd to see Cheryl with a crate of Cava, dispensing to all and sundry in plastic cups. Cheryl, wearing flashing antlers on a plastic hair band, greeted them expansively, plonking red lips onto Len’s cheek and handing them both some bubbly.

     “There you go, Lennie!” she said, adding, “Look, the boys have found you a deck chair!”

     “Lennie?” thought Maureen, aghast, at the same time feeling grateful for Cheryl’s kindness. While Len lowered himself into the chair, she offered Jack and Darren, Cheryl’s twins, one of her pies. They turned their noses up, shook their heads in unison and ran off, grinning.

     “We ready, then?” Steve arrived on the scene in a Santa hat. “Shall I nip in to yours and switch on, Mo?”

 Without waiting for an answer, he jumped over their low wall and let himself in to their house as Paige, Cheryl’s youngest, sat herself on Len’s lap and handed him a remote control. Maureen could see that Len was loving this so she tried to muster up some Christmas spirit by handing round her pies. Just then a cheer went up: Len’s nativity scene was ablaze, the new star of Bethlehem twinkling against the night sky. It did look lovely, everyone agreed.

     “Now for ours,” Steve was back, winking again, “go on Len, press the remote!”

With Paige clapping, Jack and Darren counting down excitedly, Len pressed and Steve’s side of The Close lit up, the Merry Christmas banner sparkling above them. As the crowd watched, an enormous white inflatable took shape on Steve and Cheryl’s front lawn accompanied by an ear shattering version of ‘Frosty the Snowman.’

     “I can turn the music off it if gets too annoying,” Steve said, anxious for a moment, seeing Maureen’s face, but everyone clapped and cheered, filled with seasonal bonhomie and a second cup of Cava.  Cheryl encouraged everyone to conga back to her conservatory for more alcohol and sausage rolls.  Maureen pulled urgently on Len’s sleeve, thinking he’d had enough excitement for one night but he was having a wonderful time and despite not being able to dance with the others, hobbled behind Mrs Norris from number fifteen towards Steve’s back garden.  With a sigh, Maureen picked up the deckchair and followed.

***

     Christmas passed by in a flurry of neighbourly exchange, culminating on New Year’s Day in a ten pin bowling challenge on the Parks’ family Wii and their new forty-two inch plasma screen which Len accessed from the comfort of Steve’s multi positional armchair. Even Maureen’s mother had been invited and she sat happily chatting to Mrs Norris while Cheryl provided more party food from a never ending supply.

     “Such a shame Christmas is nearly all over,” Len said, taking a vol au vent from the plate Cheryl offered him.

“We’re off to the in-law’s villa in Spain next week,” grinned Cheryl, “to do it all over again!”

“Lucky you,” Len replied, dropping mayonnaise down the jumper Maureen’s mother had given him.

     “We’ll need to get the decorations down before twelfth night,” Maureen said, aware that with Len incapacitated, she was in danger of having an unseasonal nativity scene in her garden and bad luck for the coming year.

     “We’re back mid Jan,” said Steve, shovelling a handful of peanuts into his mouth, “No rush, is there?”

     “Here you go, Mo,” Darren said, handing her the Wii controller before Maureen had a chance to protest, “Your turn!”

Maureen was surprised to find computerised bowling quite easy and felt strangely satisfied that her name appeared on top of the leader board when Len finally called it a day and decided they should head for home.

***

     The electricity bill arrived a week later.  Maureen picked it off the mat with the junk mail and went to have her breakfast. Len was still upstairs, awkwardly showering, his plaster cast encased in a plastic sleeve. Maureen flicked through the sale catalogues that had just arrived and then opened the bill.  She couldn’t believe her eyes; there must be a mistake. She went to her home file and pulled out the last few bills. She was right; this one was more than double any of the others. At that moment, Len limped in to the kitchen.

     “Look at this!” Maureen greeted him, “your blooming lights are going to have to go!”

Len looked at the bill, a puzzled look on his face.  He shook his head.

     “This can’t be right,” he said, “all my bulbs are low energy.”

Nevertheless, he rummaged in the drawer for the torch and hobbled out to the garage.

“I’ll just check the meter, Mo.”

Maureen followed him, feeling angry. Len opened the meter cupboard and continued to look puzzled.

      “I’ll just try something,” he said, and went to the master fuse box.  He turned all its switches off, cutting all power to their house. Returning to the meter, Maureen could see in the torch light the dials still whirring merrily around at a speed much faster than any of the cogs cranking around in her husband’s brain.

“Well?” she said, arms folded, waiting for Len’s appraisal of the situation.

Slowly, he turned to her, his lights now well and truly on and with a look of complete disbelief, hissed uncharacteristically between clenched teeth: “The thieving bastard!”

LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW BLOGGING YEAR!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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