Thursday, 8 November 2012

Dorset Life Column
 November  2012

Last year,  my friend Angie suggested that we organise a Village Bonfire Night.
I agreed, and threw myself into the arrangements with alacrity, spurred on by Lily, who was quite demented with excitement at the prospect.
Jasper was delegated the task of creating the bonfire, a job which was initially met with considerable resistance, due to a very busy work load.
“I haven’t got time, you’ll have to ask someone else.” He said firmly.
Lily’s powers of persuasion are legendary.  One look at her cherubic, crestfallen little face, and he was off to the farm with a tractor and trailer, returning a couple of hours later with a towering load of wood, scrap and rubbish, which he deposited in the Orchard.
Jenny had provided some excellent fire works, Angie had made a batch of sausage rolls, and Mother in Law had delivered a huge vat of her delicious, secret recipe Mulled Wine.
I was busy coating apples in toffee sauce and listening to Lily chatting excitedly as she proudly displayed the bonfire night paintings that she had bought home from nursery.
“Look Mummy! Guy Fawkes!” she announced, jabbing at a stick man atop a pile of red and orange splodges.
I cursed under my breath. I had forgotten all about the Guy!
I phoned some farming friends in the hope that they might be able to donate a scare crow, but my efforts were in vain.
Like Christmas without a tree, or Easter without eggs, Bonfire night simply wasn’t authentic without a Guy straddling the raging inferno.
I drove to town to pick up some last minute shopping, and was still contemplating my predicament when I bumped into a friend outside her dress shop on the high street.
We chatted for a while, and I was explaining my dilemma when she piped up
“I’ve got an idea, you can have one of my Mannequins!”
I looked, agog, at the immaculate Mannequins in the shop window, smartly dressed in the Winter Collection.
“I can’t put one of those on a Bonfire!” I blurted.
“Not those ones silly. I’ve got some old ones in the store room. Come and have a look.”
I emerged five minutes later staggering slightly beneath the cumbersome weight of a 6”4 female mannequin.
Bald as a coot and stark naked, one of her preternaturally long legs was stuck out at right angles, as though she was doing the goose step.
A group of boys loitering outside One Stop sniggered  as I stumbled past them.
I feigned a lofty indifference. Their laughter redoubled when the protruding leg knocked over the metal sign outside the Barber’s shop with a deafening crash.  Everyone in the vicinity swung around to stare.  Burning with mortification I bent down to pick it up.  A trio of old ladies emerged from the Oxfam Shop and glared at me, their mouths puckered in disapproval.
Gritting my teeth, I continued the Walk Of Shame back to the car which, I reflected gloomily, couldn’t have been parked in a more conspicuous place, right in the middle of the market square in full and glorious view of the world and his wife.
An articulated lorry was blocking the road outside the bank. The traffic was at a stand still.
The car was full to the brim with sacks of horse feed.  The Lady Guy would have to travel Al Fresco, I thought grimly, as I bundled her onto the roof.  People in cars were craning their necks to get a better look as I lashed her to the roof with baler twine.
Several men appeared in the door way of the pub to offer encouragement.
“Need any help love?” shouted one of them.
“No thanks, it’s all under control.” I replied in as dignified a voice as I could muster.
It started to rain.  I was trying to force the rogue leg to lie flat but struggled to gain purchase on it because it had become slippery.
I yanked it crossly, acutely aware of people gathering in the pub windows to stare.
There was a moment of resistance, before the leg yielded with a sickening crack as it snapped off at the hip careered down the wind screen, off the car bonnet and into the road with a loud clunk.
The men outside the pub were doubled over in paroxysms of mirth.  A bus had to brake sharply to avoid running over the leg.  As I s scurried out to retrieve it I registered the look of shock on the Driver’s face.  It was a very realistic looking leg, I reflected.
“Good Afternoon Mrs Miller!” called an erudite voice.
“Ah, Good Afternoon Vicar.” I replied smoothly.
 Not a flicker of surprise crossed his face that I was standing in the pouring rain clutching a false leg whilst a naked mannequin lay spread eagled on my car roof.
“How are you?” he asked kindly.
“Oh, marvellous thanks. Just been doing a bit of shopping.” I blurted.

“So I see.” He said, casting a furtive glance  at the perfectly moulded breasts.
“Will we see you at church on Sunday?” he enquired gently.
“Absolutely. See you then.” I squeaked, diving into the car and starting the engine. I drove away to deafening applause, courtesy of the men outside the pub.
The mannequin was propped precariously against the AGA, sporting a long blonde wig from the dressing up box, when Jasper came home.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“It’s the Guy.”
“But it’s a woman.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Looks like Heather Mills.” He tittered, helping himself to a sausage roll.
Two hours later, everyone was gathered in the Orchard, warming their hands around steaming mugs of mulled wine.
Jasper threw a match onto the bonfire.  The flames sprang up fiercely, just as the clouds parted, bathing the paddock in phosphorous moon light, silhouetting the one legged mannequin in all her naked glory.
Several children screamed.
“Good Gawd! It’s Joan Of Arc!” said Major Farquhar, peering through his Pince-Nez.
Goaty Bill arrived with a flagon of his potent home brewed cider.  No one knows what proof it is but it smells like paint stripper.  His fondness for herbal cigarettes is well known, and it was evident from the  terrified  glances he was casting at the mannequin, that he had smoked himself into a state of clinical paranoia, as was his custom.
There was great excitement when a small rocket fell over prior to launching, and subsequently shot up Mrs Lodsworth’s tweed skirt with a loud bang. She was very shaken, and understandably so, given that she is well into her 70’s.  Fortunately, apart from a badly burnt petticoat, she survived the incident unscathed.
The children had a marvellous time, their faces alight with excitement, eyes shining and cheeks rosy from the bonfire.
I looked out across the Orchard, where the looming shadow of Bulbarrow Hill lay in the moonlight, like a slumbering beast.
I breathed in the magic elixir of crisp winter air, wood smoke and mulled wine, and reflected on the words of Charles The Second… Dorset – there never was a finer County.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Cocks and Clowns

I was five years old when I saw a Clown for the first time.
It was smoking a cigarette  in the dingy corridor outside the ladies loos in McDonalds.  Black ringed eyes blazed from sunken sockets.  An afro of red hair framed the Alabaster face. 
I was rooted to the spot; earthed by an electrifying thrill of terror.  Through the skeins of smoke, the rictus grin widened.  I dropped my ice cream, screamed, and ran for my life.
The Clown set off after me.  I could hear its canoe like shoes slapping against the floor as it chased me down the endless passageway of eerily flickering lights.
Over the deafening rush of blood in my eyes, I could hear it shouting at me. It’s voice  was nasal, wheedling and unequivocally Welsh.
I had almost reached the the door when I tripped over the hem of my party frock and went sprawling to the floor.  Slightly winded, I struggled to my feet and turned around.  It was standing over me.  The fluorescent light bounced off its bulbous nose as it extended an unearthly yellow hand.
“What’s your name little girl?” it crooned. A red and white striped sleeve rode up to reveal bare white flesh. I closed my eyes, opened my mouth and lunged, biting as hard as I could.  It emitted a yodelling screech, staggered backwards and slid to the floor clutching it’s arm.
“Fuck!” it whimpered, as blood ran between its fluorescent fingers and soaked into the lurid yellow trousers.
I spat a small pulp of flesh onto the floor as the door opened and a matronly looking cashier bustled in, humming to herself.
“Oh my God Gwenny! What happened?” she screeched, clutching her face in horror.
I shot under her arm, fought my way through the crowded eating area and and threw myself into the arms of my friends Mother, sobbing hysterically.
In the ensuing chaos, Ronald/Gwenny was carted off for a tetanus shot, I vomited copiously into an open hand bag, and the manager, an officious little Welsh Man with a wonky eye, demanded that the whole party leave the premises immediately.  The two adults in charge of our group were faced with the unenviable  task of rounding up 20 hyperactive five year olds and the accompanying detritus of coats, toy and satchels as the manager looked on scowling and tapping his foot.  Outraged at having to leave before pudding, the children dug their heels in and  screamed blue murder .  Little Billy, whose behavioural problems were well documented, switched into feral mode and  head butted the manager in the crotch.
Suffice to say, I was never invited to another McDonalds party.
My Mother delivered a bunch of flowers the next day.  Gwen, sporting 3 stitches in her right arm, grudgingly acknowledged the folly of grabbing a child who was, in her own words, “scared to death”.
“I was on a fag break. I was only trying to reassure your little girl. Perhaps I’m not cut out to being Ronald McDonald.” She sighed.
Once the initial trauma had subsided and I could actually talk again, my Mother made laudable attempts to assure me that Ronald McDonald was not a monster.   I listened grimly as she explained that he was merely a  Company Mascot – a harmless buffoon, a marketing ploy to engender feelings of camaraderie and fun amongst its young  clientele.
“There’s not just one Ronald McDonald you know, there are LOADS of them. They’re EVERYWHERE!” hissed my  my older sister, when Mother had left the room.
I gawped in horror.
“There’s one under your bed right now. It’s going to get you when you go to sleep. It’s got fangs that drip blood and it’s going to chop you up into little pieces.”
At this point I sustained a massive panic attack and my Sister was sent to bed in disgrace.
Mother’s reassurances fell on deaf ears.  A terror was spawned that day, the roots of which are so trenchant, that my palms sweat at the sight of a Circus Poster.

Jasper suffers from Alektorophobia, a morbid fear of chicken or poultry, a prohibitive  condition  for any  country dweller, (pheasants are rife!) particularly one  whose wife is an avid collector of  rare breed Bantams.
  As with many sufferers, the primal source of his phobia stems from a traumatic experience in childhood.  (He was six)  The seeds of fear were sown long before  however,  by virtue of his Mother’s  pathological  aversion to anything with wings or feathers.
He can vividly recall her  terror if a jackdaw dropped down the chimney  into the hearth.  She would rush out of the house shaking with fright,  and refuse to enter it until the bird had been released outside.
On shooting days, his Father was forbidden to bring the bag  onto the premises until every last feather had been plucked and disposed of.
Feather dusters were anathema.  Her new Daily Lady  inadvertently bought one into the house one day and started dusting the kitchen where Jill was making cakes for the Hound Puppy Show.
She had just taken  a giant slab of fruit cake out of the AGA.  She turned around to put it on the wire rack, and was confronted by   a voluminous bundle of multi coloured feathers twitching menacingly amongst the crockery on the dresser.  She succumbed to a crippling  panic attack and dropped the cake on the floor.
Jasper’s earliest memory is of sitting at the table in his high during a large family Lunch gathering.  A pair of starlings flew into the Dining Room just as his Mother came in  carrying  an enormous tray  of cut crystal glasses.  The birds swooped and dived wildly as the assembled guests  waved their napkins at them in an attempt to drive them  out of the window.  Uncle Albert,  red faced from a surfeit of wine, leapt up and swatted wildly at the terrified birds with his Trilby.  He caught one of them full on, sending it hurtling into the wildly heaving bosom of Jasper’s Mother.  With a primal scream of terror  she flung the tray into the air and bolted.  She was out of the front door and  down the garden path  before it  hit the floor.
Jasper’s  early  years were liberally  punctuated with alarming bird related  incidents, each one compounding his grim conviction  that birds were the work of the devil and should be avoided at all costs. It is little wonder that by the time he was six, he  displayed a deep distrust of anything with feathers.  
He was almost seven when   he was involved in a terrible incident which proved to be the catalyst in transforming a wary dislike into a full blown phobia.
  So profound was his trauma,  that the acute  horror of that day  remains intact, undimmed by the passing of time. The  visceral minutiae of fear  is so deeply entrenched, that decades later, the memory still haunts him.

It was a beautiful Summer day.  Jasper and his sister, who were four and six respectively, were playing at a friends  house down the lane.
They had spent a happy  morning building a raft and playing in the stream,  until Kate (the friends Mother) called them for lunch.
They raced each other up to the garden where picnic blankets had been laid out alongside plates of sandwiches, crisps and cakes.  The children were ravenous and started to eat.
Jasper was on his fourth sandwich, when he noticed that Thomas was staring over his shoulder with an expression of horror.  Turning  around, he almost choked. Standing by the Potting Shed, almost concealed in the long grass, was the biggest Cockerel he had ever seen.  It was taller than the compost bin with a thuggish neck and a deep muscular chest.
It swaggered out of the long grass and fixed a malevolent eye on the children.
Lucy began to whimper.
“Shhh, nobody move a muscle.” Hissed Thomas.
“He must have escaped.  Daddy keeps him locked in a pen.”
“Why?” asked Jasper faintly.
“Because he’s so dangerous. He hates people.”
There was a brief silence  while the children digested this  information.
“What are those sharp things on his ankles?” whispered Tori.
“They’re his spurs. Daddy said they’re like razors and they can cut you to ribbons.   When he attacks he lifts his legs up and slashes at you like this.” He said, demonstrating.
The cockerel  was heading their way.  It  high stepped towards them on thick scaly legs.  Jasper fought a wave of nausea.  He rubbed his clammy palms on the shorts, shivering  as he  noticed how  it’s spurs curved like sickles and the reptilian black eyes glinted evilly beneath the blood red comb.
The two girls scrambled to their feet and towards the house sobbing with terror.
Thomas grabbed Jasper’s elbow and hissed
“Get up very  slowly, no sudden movements, and then walk backwards. Whatever you do, don’t turn your back on him.”
Jasper gulped and stood up. His legs were shaking.
The cockerel never took his  eyes off them.
Suddenly, without warning, it ran at them, head lowered, wings outstretched.
Both boys screamed, turned and raced towards the house.  Jasper was a little tubby as a child and couldn’t run as fast as his friend. Thomas reached the garden fence and threw himself over head first, before turning around and shouting to Jasper.
“Hurry up! Run faster, he’s catching you up!”
Jasper huffed and puffed, his heart banging against his ribcage as he struggled to run through the long grass. He had almost reached the fence when he tripped over a tussock and went sprawling to the floor.
He was lifting himself up when a heavy weight slammed into his back, sending him flying onto his face.
The cockerel was upon him!
Thomas screamed and wet himself.
Jasper squealed, trying desperately to shake the bird off.  Its sharp  toe nails scrabbled agonizingly  at his bare flesh as he stabbed viciously at   the nape of his neck with its pointed beak.
Several hens came  running over to spectate.
Jasper, sobbing and exhausted,  was convinced that  end had come. I am going to be killed by a cockerel he thought, as the crazed bird beat its powerful wings around his head and scratched and stabbed and pecked.
Suddenly there was a shout, and  Rupert,  Thomas’ Father came charging into the paddock brandishing a Rifle.
“Don’t shoot my Brother!” screeched Tori, running after him and kicking him in the shins.
“Stand clear!” he bellowed, taking aim.
“For God’s sake be careful!” yelled Kate, who was standing wrapped in a towel in an upstairs window having been summoned from her bath by the carnage outside.
“BANG!”  Doris, Kate’s Prize Buff Brahma  who had sidled up for a better look, keeled over  in a cloud of feathers and twitched violently.
“Fucking hell!” screamed Kate, dropping her towel.
“Shit!” muttered Rupert. “Sights out.”
The discombobulating sight of his favourite hen flapping and writhing in her death throes proved a fortuitous distraction  for the psychotic bird. Evidently aroused by her untimely demise, he  jumped off Jasper’s back, rushed over to  Doris’s twitching body  and began thrusting with wanton abandon.
Rupert rushed forward, seized Jasper and carried him to safety.
Jasper was taken to hospital where his wounds were dressed and he was treated for shock.
The Cockerel, who had made a dash for liberty, was eventually cornered in the greenhouse, and decapitated with an axe.
Jasper was, understandably, deeply disturbed by the attack. The incident left him with an enduring terror of birds.  He vowed never to go near another chicken for as long as he lived.
And then he met me…….

To be Continued.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The undisputed highlight of  the Miller Family Social Calendar, is undoubtedly the Portman Hunt Point To Point at Badbury Rings on Easter Saturday.
It is the nonpareil of social functions, rural camaraderie at its very best, attracting hordes of people from both town and country. One is always guaranteed to catch up with friends from far and wide, many of whom make an annual pilgrimage from London to join in the fun.
The beer tent is the hub of social activity.  Numerous would -be race goers  have  succumbed to the siren call of its  rustic make shift bar,  merry atmosphere, and the smell of warm spiced cider.  Extrication from   its cosy, canvassed interior has proved impossible for many, including Jasper and I. Apart from a brief foray into training  Pointers  ourselves (and therefore necessitating equestrian interaction), there have been many occasions pre-Lily’s arrival  when we haven’t clapped eyes on a horse or jockey all day, eschewing the rounds of parade ring, bookie and race-watching for  a hoolie  in the beer tent with a crowd of friends.
Parenthood brings responsibility however.  On the dawn of the 2012 Point to Point, I was bustling around the kitchen making  things  for  a  picnic. How civilized and grown up I felt as I prepared  Smoked salmon sandwiches, roasted pepper tart, carrot cake and shortbread, before  carefully packing them  into my  smart new hamper.
Jasper  came in to breakfast as I was loading up the car. He looked mildly panicked when he caught sight of the picnic.
Evidently, the cognitive dissonance induced by the concept of sobriety at the Point to Point is still firmly entrenched.
“Don’t worry dear,  we don’t have to sit on a blanket by the car. You can still go to the beer tent to see your friends. I am going to put the hamper in the pram and people can help themselves.”
“Thank god for that.  I’m not quite ready to join the Red Corduroy Brigade.” He said in a relieved voice.
An hour later we were at Badbury Rings,  queueing on the road through the avenue of trees.  It had been raining hard all morning, and we were feeling gloomy at the prospect of  being cold and wet all day. Suddenly  the sun burst through the pewter clouds, bathing the rings in golden light, dazzling off the windscreens of the cars parked on the hill.
At Lily’s insistence, we had bought Frog The Dog  with us, a decision we quickly regretted shortly after our arrival, whereupon she made a dash for liberty through the open window, launched through the open door of the Volvo parked next to us,  and started thrusting energetically at the elderly  Bichon Frise which had been enjoying a sedentary snooze on the back seat. 
 The old  tweed clad gentleman  reading a race card on a camping chair at the front of the car didn’t turn a hair.  It became evident that his hearing aid was switched off, or broken, because he remained oblivious to  the blood curdling  yelps and howls from just behind him. He gazed serenely at  the parade ring  through a pair of binoculars, as  Jasper dived in to his car to retrieve Frog.   After a brief struggle, culminating in a vicious nip to the arm,  he  emerged looking shaken. The rheumy old  Bichon Frise sat slumped  on the back seat, pop eyed and gasping for breath  as Frog was dragged away grinning delightedly. 
“Good start to the day.” Jasper said grimly. Frog strained eagerly at the leash as we set off across the car park towards the entrance. 
Lily squealed with glee at the sight of the towering pink bouncy castle on the sky line.  Her squeals redoubled at the sight of  our  friends  Tom and Libby, both of  whom  she  idolizes.
Seconds   later   Libby had unstrapped  a babbling Lily and whisked her off for a turn on the bouncy castle. Jasper, James and I wandered up to the beer tent which was already brimming with people.
More friends arrived, including  our  neighbours  Amber and Jamie.  Jasper  and  Jamie greeted each other with school boy enthusiasm and shot off to the bar.  I was left with the pram and Frog, who by now was quite demented with excitement and circling around me trussing my legs together with her lead.  I had just managed to disentangle myself, when Libby appeared through a throng of people.
With a sickening   jolt, I realised that Lily wasn’t with her.
I felt light headed with terror, as I croaked “Where is she?”
“Slight  problem.  She’s climbed to the top of the highest slide on the bouncy castle and she’s too scared come down. There are a lot of older children on it and she looks a bit freaked out.”
“Oh God!” I gasped, thrusting Frogs lead and the pram at Jasper and Jamie,  before  pummelling  my way through the surge of people  to her rescue.
I pushed my way through the  crowd at the foot of the bouncy castle.  Lily was at the highest turret, clinging onto a phallic pink pillar, wearing an expression of abject terror.  She wobbled and swayed at the top of the almost vertical  drop, as strapping teenage boys charged past her screaming like hooligans.
On catching sight of me, her little face dissolved into tears, her anguished  wails  were  drowned out by the collective din of the other children.
I had kicked off my wellies and was just about to charge up to rescue her, when a pugnacious little  man wearing a grease stained t shirt stood in my way and pointed at a sign.
“Under  14’s only.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous! Those boys are at least 18! ” I hissed in outrage as a Mike Tindall lookalike dived head first down the chute, scattering toddlers like nine pins.
“Strike!” boomed his mate from the top of the slide, and careered after him.
Lily was hysterical. Growling with fury, I ducked under the mans arm and charged up the inflatable steps as fast as I could.  This proved harder than it looked.  It is impossible to get anywhere at speed when the slippery pink plastic underfoot bobs, sags  and undulates with every step.  By the time I reached the top I was sweating profusely. I gathered Lily into my arms, sat down and manoeuvred myself to the top of the slide, whereupon I became aware of Jasper and our group  of friends gathered at the bottom, howling with mirth.  I tried to look nonchalant  as I shuffled forward on my bottom and prepared to descend.
 I was unprepared for the little boy who  used  the collar of my wax jacket to steady himself.  Yanked roughly forwards, Lily and I parted company and plunged backwards and sideways, bouncing and somersaulting like contestants in a Cheese Rolling Competition.  Something in my neck clicked loudly as  I shot off the safety pad and landed face down in the grass.
Feigning a lofty indifference to the  howls of mirth from my darling  husband and comrades, I spat out the mud,  picked up a cackling Lily (“Please Mummy, can we go again?”) and set off towards the beer tent with my nose in the air.
I found a bilious looking  Frog tied to a tent peg alongside the pram  and picnic hamper, whose contents had been disgorged all over the floor outside the beer tent.  A few  pastry morsels  of my red pepper tart lay alongside some crumbs of carrot cake and a half finger of shortbread.  Her nose and muzzle was smeared with icing sugar, her eyes glazed gluttinously.  The  grossly distended stomach growled ominously.   Lily giggled.
I have all but given up smoking, only keeping a packet about my person for an emergency.  I lit one with a trembling hand and was puffing away mutinously when Mother In  Law hove into view.
“HELLO DEAR!” she boomed.
“Oh no! You’re SMOKING again dear!  Frightfully common  to do it in public dear!” she bellowed as she swept past me rolling her eyes.
Everyone turned to stare.
Just then  Jasper and Jamie appeared around the corner clutching pint glasses and swaying gently.
“Hi darling!” he said, giving me a beery kiss. “I’m starving. Let’s get the picnic out.”

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Shire Hell

Three days of blue skies and sunshine has precipitated an unprecedently early emergence of the BBQ and garden furniture. They are stored in a stable during winter. We carried them round to the house on Sunday, and set them up in the back garden before mixing a jug of Pimms and waiting for friends to arrive.

The garden table, once so smart has long since lost its lustre, thanks to my erroneous belief that a coat of brown exterior wood paint would preserve its good looks. In fact, it had the opposite effect, and resulted in a shabby, permanently peeling surface which was now covered with archipelagos of sparrow poo after 6 months under the rafters in a stable.

“What we need is one of those plastic table cloths that they cut to size in the hard ware shop.” Said Jasper.

“Ooh yes! I’ve seen some really nice ones in there, very similar to the Cath Kidston prints.” I agreed enthusiastically.

“I’ll measure the table and go in to town first thing in the morning to buy one. And I’ll get some nice burgers and steaks from the Butchers, and some salad things. We can have a BBQ tomorrow night.”

The next day dawned as beautiful as the one before. A ground frost shimmered on the lawn under a cloudless blue sky. In the distance, Bulbarrow Hill lay wreathed in mist. It was going to be a hot day, I thought excitedly, as I dug out my summery top and a floaty linen skirt.

I was humming merrily when Jasper came in for breakfast. Lily was eating her egg and soldiers and clapped her hands excitedly.

“Daddy! Me and Mummy going shopping in town!”

“Are you quite mad? It’s Market Day. It will be hell in there.”

“It’ll be fine. I’ll park in the centre and then we can walk to all the shops.”

All the shops?”

“Yes, Butchers, Post Office, Co-op, Fabric Warehouse, Harts Hardware Store, and Agnes and Vera to buy a present for Freddie.” I replied, grappling about in the pantry in search of the eponymous housekeeping jar.

“There was £40 in here two days ago. ” I said crossly.

“I used it to pay off the tab at The Antelope.”

“That money was supposed to pay for the two Gloucester Old Spots I ordered. They’re being delivered this afternoon.”

Jasper shrugged.

“You’ll have to go the bank and take some money out.”

“YAY!! Bank! I love the bank!” squealed Lily, jumping up and down.

“Do you darling?” I asked in surprise. She had never mentioned a fondness for banks before.

“Have you never taken Lily into the bank?” Jasper asked, raising his eyebrows.

“No. Why?”

“Oh, no reason. She’s so well behaved in there. Sits at the kiddies table and plays with the toys. They love her in there.”

“Everyone loves Lily.” I said, ruffling her golden curls fondly.

“Right, come on, let’s go shopping Lily!”

“OOHH! Shopping!” she trilled, racing out of the back door and scrambling into her car seat.

Lily won the customary brief but vociferous disagreement about whether the dogs should accompany us on our excursion –

“I want dogs to come!”

“No darling, they make such a mess of the car.”


“Now don’t bully me darling, because I won’t tolerate it. I will NOT give in I tell you!”

“Geddin the car dogs!” (Lily)

“GET OUT of the car dogs!” (Me)

Therein follows a few moments of chaos during which the three thoroughly confused animals scramble simultaneously into the back seat before being hoisted out the door on the other side.

Lily’s rage at their eviction manifests in a carefully honed, piercingly high shriek which makes my ears throb, at which point, I yank open the car door and scream at the cowering dogs to get into the bloody car.

A few minutes later we were bowling merrily along the lanes towards town, enjoying the warm air through the open windows. Bandit and Frog stuck their heads out of the window, and Lily whooped delightedly as the wind whipped their ears back and filled their jowls.

I parked in the little car park behind the hairdressers, and unstrapped Lily from her seat. The market square was teeming with people, and it took a while to make our way through the throngs of people and reach the bank. We took our place in the long queue. The old dears with their pension books gazed at Lily with fond expressions.

“She’s as pretty as a picture! ” said one old lady with a wicker basket.

“Beautiful eyes hasn’t she?” exclaimed another.

Lily twirled around, holding out her gingham frock and smiled coyly up at them from beneath her long eyelashes, prompting a chorus of Oohing and Aahing. I beamed proudly, basking in the reflected glory of being Mother to such a pretty child. We had reached the front of the queue, and I was exchanging pleasantries with Vera, the hirstute, obese cashier who has worked in there for as long as I can remember, when Lily asked to be picked up. I put her on the counter where she pressed her nose against the glass and gazed at Vera with an open mouth. Vera recoiled noticeably, and grimaced.

I assumed she didn’t like children and thought nothing more of it.


“Look Mummy!”

“What is it darling?” I muttered absent -mindedly.

“Look at that lady!” she insisted, tapping on the glass.

“That lady is called Vera.” I said, pushing the slip across the counter.

“Vera.” She repeated dreamily.

“Vera’s fat isn’t she Mummy?” she asked matter of factly. Her voice rang out, echoing around the high ceiling, bouncing gleefully off the plate glass window behind which Vera crouched in her chair like a gremlin, nostrils flared, scowling.

There was a collective intake of breath. You could have heard a pin drop.

The thrill of horror at the base of my spine spread upwards to my neck and face, blooming into a hot flush of shame. I felt light headed. If I ignored her, she wouldn’t say it again.

Lily’s breath was misting the bullet proof glass as she stared in at Vera with a fascinated expression.

“Don’t stare Lily, please, it’s rude.” I whispered.

Lily carried on staring.

There was a pause.


“Vera’s fat and she’s got a little beard, hasn’t she Mummy?”

My throat constricted. The sense of mortification was all consuming. Had someone handed me a gun, I would have shot myself on the spot.

“It’s not a beard, darling. Please Lily. Would you like an ice cream now? Or some cake?”

“It IS a beard. Look Mummy. LOOK!” she insisted shrilly.

I peered at Vera from beneath lowered brows. She was staring straight in front of her, lips pursed, flabby cheeks clenched. She looked incandescent with rage, pudgy fists clenched, no doubt envisaging throttling her tiny persecutor.

“Hi Vera. Hi there!! “ called Lily, waving at her through the glass.

Vera sat unblinking, like a giant bullfrog.

“Hallo Vera!” she yelled, banging on the glass.

Aloe Vera, I thought to myself, and was suddenly gripped by a terrible hysteria.

“Thankyou Vera.” I managed to mumble, before throwing Lily over my soldier and hurrying past the queue of people, all of whom kept their eyes to the floor, and out onto the street.

So immense was my shame that I had to scuttle into the newsagents to buy cigarettes, one of which I was puffing furiously upon outside the camera shop, when Jasper’s Mother came round the corner laden down with vegetables from the market.

“Hello Lily, hello Jess. Oh, Mummy’s smoking again, naughty Mummy told Granny she had given up. Mummy has been telling fibs! Oh what a shame Jess, and on the street too!” she bellowed in a disappointed voice. People were looking at us. She looked stern. I half thought she was going to tell me to go to my room and think about what I had done.

“I Had a bit of a stressful time in the bank. That’s why I am smoking.” I explained.

Jill gaped in dismay.

“What sort of stress? I hope they’re not sending the BAILIFFS in again?” she screamed.

Every single stall holder and customer in the densely packed vicinity wheeled around to stare.

Oh God, I thought, she’s going potty.

“What??! What do you mean are they sending the bailiffs in again? We’ve never had the bailiffs in.”

“What’s a bailiff?” asked Lily.

Over Jill’s shoulder I caught the eye of our neighbour Maud Farquhar, the Brigadier’s wife, and arguably the most ferocious gossip in Dorset. She looked away immediately and scrutinised a pineapple with the intensely concentrated expression of one who is trying not to look as though they are eavesdropping.

“Are you sure dear? They can come in and take EVERYTHING you know. Just march in and take the lot. They’ll even take the chair you’re sitting in!” she boomed.

“There are no Bailiff’s. This has nothing to do with Bailiff’s or finances. Please, it doesn’t matter.”

Maud Farquhar had scurried off down the street. I watched her narrowly avoid a lamp post as she fumbled with her mobile phone, no doubt calling to share the news with our fellow parishoners. By the time I got home, everyone in Dorset will think the Millers have gone bankrupt, I thought balefully as we walked back to the car.

Ten minutes later we were in Harts, the best shop in Sturminster where you can find everything you could possibly want under one roof. I had made a vow to be good, and only to purchase the Wellingtons which Jasper had sent me in for. I picked up a pair and was on my way to the checkout when a shiny display featuring duck egg blue Le Creuset caught my eye. Lily was quite happy playing with a box of tumble dryer balls, so I wandered over. Just a look wouldn’t hurt, I thought to myself. I stood there leering over the Casserole dishes, admiring the sleek cast iron contours, the way the light bounced off the lid. I was just thinking how beautiful it would look atop the AGA, filled with Venison and wine and herbs, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I jumped guiltily and turned round. It was a male member of staff, looking very serious. I glanced around for Lily, and with a wild jolt of panic realised she had disappeared.

“Oh My God, Lily, is she alright? Have you seen her?” I gasped, heart pounding.

“Yes Madam, she is fine. “

“Well, where is she?”

“She is currently in the Oven and Baking Tray Aisle.” He said gravely before turning on his heel.

I followed his ramrod straight back past the rails of clothes, through the DIY and lighting department, through home ceramics, past walls of Kilner Jars, whereupon he stopped suddenly and gestured.

I followed the direction of his finger.

There, crouching down on the floor, flanked on one side by Cake tins, and on the other by Emma Bridgewater Fine China, was Lily.

“Darling, what are you doing?” I asked, making my way through the group of people who were standing watching her.

She stood up and clapped her hands, before turning around and pointing at the floor.

“Look Mummy! I done a poo!” she shouted.

Oh please God, no.

An unfeasibly large crap lay steaming gently on the polished marble floor

Everyone turned around to look at Mummy.

For the second time that day I blushed to my roots.

“I am so so sorry, have you any thing I can clean it up with?” I said to the poe faced sales assistant.

“My colleague is bringing some cleaning utensils now.”

“Lily wipe her botty!” she trilled cheerily.

I turned around in time to see her totter over to the car section and grab a Chamois Leather, with which she proceeded to wipe her poo smeared buttocks.

The Sales Assistant looked as though he was about to spontaneously combust.

“I’m sorry, I’ll pay for it. Just put it on our bill” I croaked.

“Lily, come here darling, please.” I pleaded.

“No!” she cackled, before grabbing a rolling pin and setting off at high speed toward the paint section. I gave chase, but she was too quick for me. The aisles were full of shoppers, most of whom had stopped shopping and were watching the situation unfold with expressions ranging between hilarity, sympathy and disgust. She gave me the slip again in the cleaning product aisle, but I doubled back on myself and managed to trap her in the Baking Section.

A school age boy, presumably on work experience was gingerly approaching the crime scene, carrying a garden trowel and a plastic bag, presumably with which to dispose of the rogue turd. He gaped in dismay at the sight of it, but made his way down the aisle with admirable stoicism.

“Please, let me do it. You shouldn’t have to deal with it.” I said.

He looked at me and said bravely “Bosses orders.” before taking a deep breath and bending down.

“Don’t you touch that!” Lily piped up in a warning voice.

He stopped, bent over, and looked at her.

“It’s my poo! Leave it alone!” she said mutinously.

“That’s enough Lily, you can’t poo on the floor and leave it there. The nice man has to pick it up.”

“Why?” she demanded.

“Because it’s smelly and people might tread in it.”

The boy stepped forward.

“DON’T TOUCH MY POO!” she bellowed, puce with rage.

I reached out, grabbed her under my arm and ran out of the shop with her, kicking and screaming blue murder.

I slunk over to the Garden Centre and hosed her bottom and legs, until she was clean enough to go back in the car seat.

Feeling thoroughly shaken now, I lit a cigarette with a trembling hand and leant against the car to smoke it.

I’d had three puffs when Jasper’s Mother drove in to the space alongside me and wound down the window.

“Smoking AGAIN Jess! Really dear. I wish you would stop!” she tutted as she got out of the car and wandered into the shop.

Wearily, I started the car and drove across to the fabric shop. I parked in the shade, made sure the dogs water bowl was topped up, before unstrapping Lily and, holding her firmly by the hand, started to look at the choice of table cloths. Lily’s eyes were on stalks, as she gazed in awe at the hundreds of tubes of brightly coloured buttons, thousands of balls of wool, fabrics as bright as birds of paradise teetered to the ceiling and dozens of reels of pretty ribbons lined the walls.

“You mustn’t touch anything.” I whispered to her.

“No Mummy, I won’t.”

I chose a table cloth and we waited at the counter to be served. We moved to one side to make way for a fabric delivery, three very long rolls which were propped up against the counter a few feet from us.

“Would you mind helping me fold it?” the sales assistant asked me.

“No, not at all. Stay right there Lily.”

“Okay Mummy.”

We had almost finished folding it when there was the most almighty crash. The fabric rolls had knocked over the huge circular button stand, sending it flying across the warehouse, disgorging its contents, and almost cannoning into an old man in a wheelchair. Hundreds of tubes of buttons skittered off across the floor, into the gloomy recesses beneath the fabric stands, never to be seen again. Many of the lids came off at the point of impact. The floor was awash with an ocean of buttons and beads. People stood with their hands over their mouths. A young baby was sobbing inconsolably with fright.

Lily stood with her finger in her mouth, the picture of guilt.

“Sorry Mummy.”

“Did you push those rolls?” I asked her.

She nodded.

The doors to the upstairs offices were opening and people were looking out of their interior windows onto the scene of devastation.

The Factory Owner appeared at the top of the stairs. I took one look at his enraged face, grabbed Lily, and bolted.

I was hastily strapping her into her car seat when she pointed out of the window.

“Look Mummy! It’s Bandit!” she shouted.

“No it’s not, Bandit is in the car.”

I quickly checked. Bandit was not in the car.

Bandit was sitting grinning, at the feet of three disapproving looking sixty something women.

They had secured him with a silk head scarf. He lounged against their legs, squinting up into the sun light, his lipstick pink willy protruded and lolling against his stomach.

“Hello, that’s my dog. He must have jumped out of the car window!” I said apologetically.

The despotic trio glared at me.

“Your dog is it? What’s he doing wandering around a car park then?” demanded one, her face twitching with disapproval, like milk coming to the boil.

“He’s never done it before, he must have tried to follow me.”

“You shouldn’t keep dogs in cars all day in this weather. It’s not fair. They can die!”snapped another.

“It wasn’t all day. And they have a big bowl of cold water. Look.” I said, pointing into the boot.

“The vet and Police are on their way. We phoned them.” Said the third, crossing her arms smugly.

“What on earth for?” I asked in bewilderment.

“He hasn’t done any harm to anyone? I was only in the shop for 5 minutes.”

Just then, Mr Saunders from Saunders Carpets came out of his shop looking very grim indeed.

“That your dog?” he demanded.

I nodded weakly.

“Well he’s just been in my show room and cocked his leg all over my best Axminster carpet! £70 a square metre it is, and he walks in bold as brass and sprayed it.”

I looked at Bandit. He hung his head.

His three captors looked at me with gloating expressions.

“Thankyou for looking after him, it was really kind, but we have to go home now.”

“You can’t go home, don’t you want to stay and talk to PC Routledge?” demanded one.

“Erm, no, I don’t.”

Their outraged chuntering was so loud that it almost drowned out the noise of Lily’s hysterical giggles as Bandit jumped into the front seat still wearing the Head Scarf. He looked like Hilda Ogden.

I fought the urge to giggle as I handed it back and said my polite goodbyes.

Jasper was waiting for me when I got back.

He took one look at my face and started laughing.

“You could have warned me. I should imagine I am persona non grata in Sturminster now. And Bandit is definitely Canis Non Grata.” I said sulkily.

“Did you get my wellies?”

“No, I had to do a runner. There wasn’t time to stop and grab them. Sorry.”

“Let’s start the BBQ and then you can tell me all about it.”

I cheered slightly at the thought of the delicious sirloin steaks I had bought from the butchers.

I felt around in my shopping bag. No steaks.

The three Amigos wouldn’t look me in the eye. Further inspection yielded the damning evidence that I needed. The torn open Butchers Bag lay crumpled beneath Trevor’s paw.

There was an irritable banging against the back window. Lily was telling us she wanted to get out.

Jasper reached in to unbuckle her.

“Why the hell is she carrying this?” he asked, holding aloft a beechwood rolling pin.

Oh God…..

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Dilemma (Part One)

Until I reached the age of 18, my Mother and Father would not allow me to stay at home on my own when they went away, even for a night.

“The child can stay with Granny.” I would hear them say, as I skulked in the hall, almost crying with rage at the prospect of missing out on two weeks of mediterranean sunshine and a fabulous tan.

“You can’t take two weeks off school with you’re A-levels coming up.” They would tell me, as I scowled mutinously at their bulging suitcases.

My vociferous protests were in vain. I was despatched to Granny’s house, with orders to behave myself or face the dire consequences on their return.

Yet despite my indignance at what I perceived to be an unjust and unfounded lack of trust, my outraged chuntering and subsequent stony silence was just a foil.

I absolutely adored my Granny.

She lived five minutes away from my School, in a quiet street in The West End of Colwyn Bay. She scorned public transport , eschewing buses in favour of walking (God gave us legs, not wheels!) A green fingered Conjurer , she produced an endless supply of delicious things from the garden and green house, including the most fabulously juicy and flavoursome tomatoes I have tasted before or since.

Although it was considered the height of uncool to to choose to hang out with one’s Granny, I sloped off to 12 Kings Road at every opportunity.

After Hockey Practise, when everyone else congregated at the back of the cricket pavilion for a few illicit cigarettes, I would scamper off in the direction of Granny’s house, kicking up the mounds of reddy brown leaves, my breath hanging on the wintry air. As I turned into the drive of 12 Kings Road, my heart would lift at the sight of the smoke curling from the chimney, and Granny, having invariably spotted me from her armchair by the window, would greet me at the front door and pull me into her warm, Je Reviens scented embrace. Having kicked off my muddy boots, she would usher me into the living room, where I would sit down by the roaring fire and warm my mottled legs, while made a pot of tea and assembled a tray of food which I would devour with the crazed enthusiasm of the permanently hungry teenager.

She would sit in her chair, as I stuffed myself with Scotch Eggs, Buttered Crumpets, Tunnocks Tea Cakes, Iced Rings, all washed down with gallons of sweet tea in a warm, dimly lit room, heavy with the smell of leather bound books, and coal, and furniture polish.

When I couldn’t eat any more, and had slackened the waistband of my hockey skirt, Granny would put down The Times Crossword, and we would talk. We whiled away whole afternoons chatting in front of the fire, lulled into a soporific haze by the warmth and the hypnotic tick of the Grand Father clock.

Time would slow down, the world would narrow and deepen as the sky darkened outside, and the street lights flickered on, until the clock chimed and I would reluctantly tear myself away and run back to school along the empty streets in time for last lesson.

Staying the night at Granny’s was an adventure in itself. Granny’s beds didn’t have duvets. They had sheets and blankets and big heavy eiderdowns. The mattress on my bed was a pre-War, feather stuffed relic. I counted down the hours until I could clamber up (it was quite high), slide underneath the layers of soft wool and crisp linen, and sink with a blissful sigh into its warm and cosy depths. It was almost impossible to get out of in the morning.

If it was a weekend, I’d lie awake, and listen to the sounds of the house coming to life. The bangs and thumps of the hot water pipes, coal being shovelled into the bucket outside the back door, the rattle of china as Granny assembled her morning tea in the kitchen.

If I lay in bed after 9.30 am, Granny would instruct Old Bob, the Gardener to mow the lawn beneath my window until I opened the curtains. If it was raining, she would hoover outside my bedroom door until I emerged yawning and wandered off to brush my teeth.

My Aunt Margaret (or Mim, as we called her), would often come to stay. She was one of the most profoundly kind and gentle people I have ever met , and I adored her. Endlessly patient, she read me stories for hours on end when I was younger, encouraged my love of reading by buying me a book every week, and never tired of my relentless quest to make cakes, biscuits and buns.

Mim smoked B&H, in the Study where Granny couldn’t see. When Mim retreated to The Study and shut the door behind her, Granny wouldn’t go in and neither would I. It was an Unspoken Rule.

This all changed when I was sixteen. Inevitably perhaps, I succumbed to peer pressure and started smoking Marlboro Reds. Tentative little puffs at first, that made my throat constrict and my eyes water. I grimly persevered until I could smoke a whole cigarette without retching. I didn’t inhale for the first six months. By the time I went back after the Summer Holidays as a fully fledged Lower Sixth Former, I’d cracked it.

Staying at Granny’s one night, I was walking down the hall to the kitchen, when the Study door opened slightly and Aunt Mim peered out.

She put her finger to her lips and beckoned me in to the smoke filled den.

I didn’t need asking twice. She perched against the desk, and watched with an expression of fond amusement as I nonchalantly extracted my battered packet of 10 from my Blazer pocket and attempted to light one with a match from a damp box. Then another. On the fifth failed attempt she took pity and offered me her lighter. We stood in silence, puffing away like a pair of witches, united in delicious naughtiness.

The following night I was once again permitted entry to The Study, only this time, there was a bottle of Gordon’s Gin on the desk. My eyes lit up. Drinking at home was confined to special occasions; a Bucks Fizz on Christmas morning and the odd glass of wine with Sunday dinner. Auntie Mim poured me the pub equivalent of a triple and topped it up with ice and tonic. Lounging in a leather wing back chair by the fire, with a cigarette in one hand and a Gin in the other, was utter hedonism. Suddenly, the sheer drudgery of the school day became more bearable. The excruciating agony of double Maths was alleviated by the spirit bolstering prospect of an impending tryst. I became inured to the humiliating horror of litter picking in the Quad, in front of a jeering group of Upper Sixth Form boys, smug in the knowledge that I would soon be ensconced in the study, listening to the ticking of the grand father clock and the clink of ice against glass….

One stormy day, we were puffing away in companionable silence, when we heard a noise outside the door.

“It’s Mother!” hissed Auntie Mim, leaping up and shoving me into the corner behind the door. I flattened myself against the wall. The door opened.

“Have you seen Jessica?” asked Granny.

“She’s gone for a walk.” Auntie Mim replied airily.

A rumble of thunder overhead was followed by a deafening crack of lightening. The rain was drumming against the windows.

“ A walk? In this weather?” asked Granny in an incredulous voice.

Mim nodded.

“Extraordinary girl. She gets it from her Father.” She muttered, as she closed the door.

During the Summer of 1995, I had attracted the attention of two Upper Sixth formers from the Boys School a few miles away. It was all very exciting and I lived for Saturday nights in the Pub in town. If I saved my tuck money all week, I could afford to buy 10 Marlboro and three bottles of Budweiser.

One Weekend, three friends came to stay during their exeat. We spent the day shopping for clothes, and having spent a good two hours in front of the mirror perfecting our outfits, hair and make-up, we linked arms and tottered off into town in a haze of Strawberry Concorde.

Arriving at the pub, my friends gleefully pointed out that both of my admirers were already there, sitting at different tables. I didn’t have to buy a single drink that night. I’d simply drift by each of them alternately, clutching an empty bottle, and they would leap gallantly to their feet and replenish it.

I thought it was marvellous. They were both very good looking and great company. The problem was, I just couldn’t decide between them.

During the course of the evening, they asked if they could take me out for drinks next week. Immensely flattered, and slightly tipsy, I accepted both invitations with gay abandon, and arranged to meet them at the Pub near Granny’s house at 7pm the following Saturday. The idiocy of arranging to meet both boys at the same time in the same pub on the the same day, didn’t occur to me until I woke up the next morning. With the optimism of youth, I assured myself that everything would be alright on the night. I would cancel one of them during the week. It was just a matter of deciding which one.

By Thursday, I still hadn’t made up my mind. The relentless merry-go-round of gatings, lessons, prep, essays, hockey matches, house drama competitions left little time for deliberation. A hectic schedule combined with my pathological inability to make a choice, precluded any decision making.

Saturday arrived. As night fell, and I lay soaking in a deep steaming tub of Granny’s Rose Scented bath salts, I suddenly realised the brevity of my predicament. I considered staying at home, but quickly dismissed the idea. No one stayed at home on a Saturday night, I thought gloomily, as I shaved my legs. Yet the potential ramifications of turning up and meeting both boys were too terrible to thinking about.

I dried myself off and hurried down the passageway to my bedroom. My nerves were jangling, so I hung out of the bedroom window and lit a cigarette. I smoked it too quickly and swayed slightly from the head rush. Feeling slightly nauseous, I lay down on the bed for a few minutes trying to compose myself, and find a solution to my predicament.

In a moment of vain hope, I leapt up, seized my School blazer, and emptied out the pockets, willing the miraculous discovery of a forgotten five pound note, with which to pay a taxi fare to the next town, thus avoiding both suitors altogether. A sticky five pence piece, a cigarette end and a Chewit fell onto the eiderdown.

Swearing under my breath, I sat down at the dressing table and begun the deliciously elaborate ritual of hair and make up that preceeded a night on the town.

An hour later, I was all dressed up, with a potentially very dangerous place to go.

After prolonged agonising over a choice of outfits, I had decided upon a fitted black cashmere jumper, paired with a scarlet suede mini , thick black tights, and knee high black leather boots. I had blow dried my hair until it fell around my shoulders in a silky golden mane. I had kept the make up to a minimum; a touch of rosy blusher on the cheekbones, one coat of mascara, and a slick of clear lip gloss. I admired the effect in the full length mirror. The demureness of the top half contrasted gloriously with the salaciously short skirt and raunchy boots.

I descended the stairs in a cloud of Coco Chanel, feeling like a femme fatale.

Auntie Mim peered out from the Study. I slipped inside and leant against the desk as I took the proferred G&T and lit a cigarette, feeling the epitome of decadence and glamour.

Mim examined me beadily through a cloud of smoke. “You’re sprouting.” she said fondly.

I spluttered on my gin and felt myself turn crimson.

“Little bosoms developing. How sweet. Do you wear a bra?”

“Uh, yes.” I replied, curling my toes. Utterly aghast, I drained my glass and hurried to the door,

“ Now I’ve embarrassed you. I’m sorry my little chickabiddy. Have a lovely time, and be home by ten o clock.”

The hall light bulb had blown. As I groped my way blindly down the hall way to the front door in the dark, I grimly reflected that she wasn’t sorry at all.

I could still hear her tittering as I stepped out into the frosty night…..