Cheesy moments


I fear I may be sliding back into the bad books – and greed, as ever, is the burned-out brake pad that is getting me there. To Wiltshire for the weekend, and the usual punishingly early start on Saturday morning, which is worth it for the early swim and the ridiculously good bargains that can be purchased at Salisbury market if one can only get there before 9am. This time is only arbitrary. For all I know, at 11.30 the place could be awash with absolute steals, but I’ll never know because my father will never ever risk it.

The fear that fires the starting gun on this early wake-up is the fear the place will run out of cheese. See, his fave is one of those stalls that sells on the cheese deemed by the supermarkets to be pushing its prime. So prime, in fact that it is less likely that the stalls will run out of cheese, but that the cheese will run out on them. Bloody hell it gets whiffy.

And that’s where we come in. Fifty per cent of the time I decline my father’s kind offer, and 50 per cent of the time I risk the politely raised eyebrows of my housemate. I wrap it in plastic, I put it in sealed Tupperware, I refrigerate it heavily. But even so the whiff escapes. And this time is worse than most because the weather has turned warmer. And yesterday afternoon proved all too painfully that it really REALLY is worse than usual.

How? Because I and this ammonia-sweating horror-bomb travelled back on the train together. Having scored a rare seat by disembarking at Salisbury and steeple-chasing up the platform to the newly attached carriages, I could finally read and thus unzipped the outside – the OUTSIDE pocket of the suitcase – to retrieve my book. With the cheese safely stashed in the heart of the baggage, I thought I’d be safe. A single waft was enough to shout that error. I snatched out the book (thereby displacing more pestilential vapours, of course), hurriedly zipped up again and deflected blame by glaring accusingly at my fellow passengers. I think I’ll be dining al fresco for the next few nights.

 Though on the plus side, the stench may dispel the foxes, who last night celebrated the continuing lack of fence panels between us and neighbours by collecting one of the neighbours’ rubbish sacks, dragging it over to our lawn and dismembering the bugger everywhere. I saw the rubbish this morning, sighed, and went to work. I’ll do it later. After the cheese course.

That’s it. I’ve had it with numbers. Or at least numbers and food. After two years I’ve modified the 5:2 to scrape a scant 6:1. I try to live by the five helpings of fruit and veg per day. But now we’re supposed to be eating seven helpings a day (five veg and two fruit). Which is a step up from five overall, and several below the 10 that someone (Australia? Fruit bats? The man from Del Monte?) opine that we should be getting through.

This is all very well, but my tummy can’t cope. By the end of last week I’d lost count, quaffing so much green and leafy and orange and red and yellow and back to green again, in the belief that they’d help me live for-roughly-ever, that I’d turned into some kind of aerobic compost digester slurry tank thing, with an abdomen like a drumskin, feet a distant memory, peculiar gurglings and considerable discomfort. But Ireland saved me. For three days over the last weekend I ate nothing but hot cross buns, toast, bagels, croissants, pasta, sandwiches and, in my last hurrah on Sunday afternoon, just bread bread bread. Result: gastric calm, flat stomach, abdominal silence. Marvellous.

But, as we have established in the past, despite working in the media I remain incredibly suggestible in matters that tweak my hypochondria. So the news that I haven’t been eating enough fruit and veg NOT FIVE DAYS AFTER I FOUND THAT YES I RUDDY WELL WAS – AND THEN SOME, pushed me to try and find out whether it’s actually possible to eat 10 helpings of fruit and veg (mostly veg) a day as the experts recommend. And ta-da! Yes it is. If they had said it’s possible to eat 10 helpings of fruit and veg (mostly veg) a day without discomfort, then ta-da! No it isn’t. Try and get through that lot, my friends, and you’ll either be sitting beside an open window in a room on your own, or on your hastily packed suitcase outside the house, with the rest of your belongings thrown out after you.

Surely we all respond differently to foodstuffs? Surely our ancestry plays a major part? Given that I am freckly, fair, hefty of calf and blue of eye, I can only conclude that I am from Celtic, mud-caked, animal-herding stock. And those genes are reclaiming the menu. Porridge, potatoes, bread, crumble with custard, a nice pork chop, a few peas, plate of shepherd’s pie and green beans, all these add up to digestive tranquility. Following the experts’ advice add up to whimpering gastromageddon. Call it growing up in the 1970s, but from now on, Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewell and a cup of tea count as health food.

After all that mid-winter grumbling you might have assumed that the walking season would be well under way by now. But no. Dunno what I’ve been doing with my time but it doesn’t seem to have involved muttering ‘Ticket, map, water, purse’ under my breath while pulling on absurdly oversized waterproofs. But that’s set to change now that I have booked all the B&Bs and railway tickets for the next big trip. I. Cannot. Wait. Injustafewweeks the adventure begins.

The appetite was whetted (and wetted, as it happens) last weekend on a trip to Ireland. For all the years and years I lived there, I never visited Glendalough – never did much walking at all, in fact. The finger is pointed away from vague laziness and towards appalling public transport provision in Ireland, which renders large chunks of the country out of reach for the carless. But last weekend I was with Emily, and Emily has a car. So off we went. The forecast was bad – we’d both been woken in the night by the sound of rain, a first, said Emily, in the three years they’ve lived in that house – but we’d said we were walking and rules is rules.

Glorious, glorious spot: mossy lichens, ancient trees, waterfall and lakes; those early monks must have looked at that valley and thought that God had led them there. It’s a pull up to the top from the lakes, by which time we were well into the lowering cloud and heavy rain. Did you know it could rain inside a cloud? It came as a surprise to us, anyway.

But there was a fly in the ointment – two, really, and quite possibly not unrelated – large groups of boisterous Euroteens, and heavy sprinkles of orange peel beside the path and across the bog. On closer attention it was orange peel, tissues, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles. Now, usually it’s Emily giving out about stuff – politics, society, education policy, the church – about which she can build quite a head of steam. But this time she was uncharacteristically mute as I went on and on about littering. And on and on and on. Until it struck me that if you don’t do something to solve a problem then you probably forfeit complaining rights.

So, because the other world-famous beauty spots I’ve visited aren’t crapped on by their purported admirers, for the first time in my life I felt obliged to pick litter on a walk. It wasn’t such a penance; since I couldn’t look around because of the heavy-rain-in-the-cloud mashup – no heart-stopping views of the Glenealo Valley for us – I thought I might as well keep my eyes on the bog and collect rubbish as I went.

By the end I’d filled a carrier bag with crud and my own heart with self-righteousness. And yet, even after this wonderful walk, I was no nearer answering the question that formed the heart of my first blast at a blameless Emily: What the fuck is wrong with people?

No, not gardening, not this time, just a silly pun. No, it’s the protocols of heartbreak that concern us here. I’d forgotten. See, we’ve had something of a romantic setback in the house. No names, no pack drill, but texts have been exchanged and that, it appears, is that. Except of course, on the receiving end, ‘that’ is only the beginning. Oh, how it all flooded back – the sense of outrage, of bewilderment and, more than anything, of nausea. As a helpless bystander all I’ve been able to do is wring my hands, mutter dark imprecations against the scoundrel and leave family-sized bars of Dairy Milk outside the tightly shut bedroom door. 

Still, as Woody Allen said, the heart is a very resilient little muscle. Whenever I’ve been minced and left for dead by Cupid’s cross-Channel ferry, I spend around 48 hours tottering about like a cartoon character released from a giant bell. After two days of sporadic weepings and not-eatings, something stirs (usually, ‘Hang on, doesn’t this make him a total dickhead?’) and I start cleaning. This is obviously some transparently psychological Augean Stables-style cleanse, but on the other hand, it’s also generally well founded. The previous two to three months have (hopefully) been spent in such a champagne-tinted bubble of heedless, loved-up gaiety that it did not admit of such mundane considerations as hoovering. In short, amorous adventure turned me, unnoticed, into a slattern. Starry-eyed, maybe, but still a slattern.

Last night (day 3) I was just wondering if anyone else manifested heartbreak housework as I turned the key in the front door – and nearly tripped over two huge stacks of old magazines in the hall. The sound of Skyped merriment floated down the stairs; the kitchen bin was purple with chocolate wrappers.

Yes, all in all, I think we’re going to be fine.

Sugar the pill


God bless medication! Life has been muffled for 10 days-ish, both metaphorically because I was aching and tired and stuffed-up and didn’t want to engage with life, and literally, thanks to Tuesday night when I decided to try a spot of nasal irrigation to clear the tubes and poured so much brine up my nose I went deaf. The opposite of the desired effect, in short. Ok not quite deaf, perhaps, but certainly with swingeing earache and a stab in the neck and piercing tinnitus every time I tried to blow my nose. Then I went to Boots, swallowed down some sinus medication and I’ve been feeling button-bright ever since. It was as I bounded south through parks and city last night, trilling away, that the contrast between feeling dreadful (last 10 days) and feeling fabulous (about three hours) really hit home.

The other thing that has been soaking up what little energy was left over from getting to work and back to bed again, is an idea of buying property. For years – really, years – I’ve been assuming that although in 1994/5/6/7/8/9, and, say, 2000-2013, I found conversations about property acquisition desperately dull, I was sure that dawn the day (let’s call it ‘last Friday’) that I myself felt an urge to shoulder a crippling debt burden, I would suddenly find topics as diverse as stamp duty and outdoor space and access rights utterly enthralling. Got that one wrong. It’s just as boring as it ever was, except now people expect you to care. In the golden-hued past I could plummet off everyone’s radar by shrugging and saying, in as snubbing a tone as possible: ‘I rent’. A bucket of cold water, that phrase is, cooling the ardour of the property bore. Unless they bridle slightly, perhaps even change colour, and say ‘Rent is dead money’, to which I’m far too polite to retort, ‘Not as dead as interest payments’.

See, I just assumed that it was one of those things that when you got old enough to do it, it would become a topic of all-conquering fascination, but sorry, kids: like sex and work and buying your own shoes, it doesn’t. My mother used to say that although one might not find other people’s children invariably compelling, ‘it’s different when they’re your own’. I always suspected, deep down, that she might be wrong about that – especially given that I was one of the children in question. Now I know: there are no guarantees. Buying property is mostly boring – and I daresay rearing offspring has its duff days as well.

Before we take another step, do not read the James Lovelock interview in the Guardian. It sort of forms the whole point of this story, but I really don’t want to crap on your day. See, I read it and felt so awful afterwards that I spoiled a rare evening in the pub and woke up at 4 the next morning, so gripped with terror about the future (mine and the planet’s – shamingly in that order) that even whimpering didn’t help. Horrible. [In brief: it’s too late to do anything to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet. Enjoy the next 20 years, because after that it will really kick off]

A few hours later I was on the train heading west to a funeral (yes, I CAN see that the prospect of this may have turned up the existential gas a notch or two) shakily sipping tea and trying to think positive thoughts. Raindrops on roses, brown paper packages tied up with string and crisp apple strudel all trundled past on the mental conveyor belt, to no avail. Phone a friend, I thought, before realising that a railway carriage at 70 per cent capacity is hardly the place to start bugling one’s despair. So I texted.

Now, I am not prone to existential wibbles, night terrors or losing the plot, as my correspondent well knows, so I indulged the blues and pressed send. Except my phat-phingered phuck-up directed it not to the friend but to a former colleague, who divides his time equally between Dublin and one-line-up in my contacts list. A charming chap, but we haven’t spoken in 10 years. No! No! Nonononono! An emergency response was scrambled, a massed attack of So-sorries, my-mistakes, how-are-you-anyways sent across the Irish Sea. And then a pause before his response, a politely puzzled throat-clearing and a lightly chilled suggestion to ‘Perhaps go out and enjoy the sunshine’. Christ, what if he thinks I’m suicidal or something?

Counterintuitively, this mortifying exchange in fact cheered me no end. Blushing to the roots of my roots and honking with horrified laughter had blasted me out of my silly emotional quagmire. Bloody drama queen. All of which I flustered in what now seems like an overcorrection that earned me another short silence and then a glacial two-worder from Dublin: Take care. 

Death. Wish. Three. The phone was back in the bag and I looked out of the window for the rest of the way.

Travel in hope


…because there really is no other way, is there? Not at the moment. Although the second tube strike has just been called off, the last one didn’t cause me much heartache because I used those funny things with the two hinges that stick out of the bottom of my arse. Plus when you travel on my kind of budget you get used to discomfort.

Still, they accumulate, all these notices of delays and cancellations, landslides and floods and washings-away. Last Friday, for example, I joined the stampede out of London through the bottleneck that is Waterloo. A landslip at Crewkerne had joined the jollifications further west and SW Trains had decided that the Exeter train should terminate at Salisbury, and passengers for the West Country would complete their journey on a rail-replacement, er, rail. Thus it was that we were decanted from our outrageously packed train at Salisbury and guided aboard another, larger, more comfortable, um, there really is no other word for it: train. Mysterious. In fact, so large and commodious was this emergency substitution that only two stations on the rest of the journey across three counties could accommodate it. Everyone wishing to disembark anywhere other than Exeters Central or St David’s would have to swing, bang and apologise their way up to the front six carriages. Eh?

Still, that was a well-oiled operation compared to Sunday, when suddenly there were no trains at all. Come 3pm on the Sabbath, half a dozen disconsolate strangers stood staring at a departures board that could only boast one train, going the wrong way, in two hours’ time. Then a bloke with a beard, baseball cap, fleece and tie barrelled along the platform and bellowed ‘I got a minibus outside. Gohna Salisbury. Get in.’ We all looked at each other, shrugged and obeyed. Apparently irked by Crewkerne’s attention grab, Gillingham had kicked its signalling to the kerb, and the Lord of Misrule had come to town. Buses and coaches were being whistled up out of sheds; trains were being shunted all over (‘Tell him he’ll have to go via Westbury’) and rail-company employees were positively trotting about, even the fat ones. ‘Everyone going to Gillingham, everyone going to Gillingham, FOLLOW ME NOW’.

Especially notable was everyone’s reactions, mostly kind and considerate, mostly good-humoured, invariably polite. Bravo Britain. Mind you, I can afford to smile wryly. I’m not travelling with children or steamer trunks or a heart condition. Nor am I watching rats swim through the drawing room of my luxury riverside property on the upper reaches of the Thames. Instead, I’m thanking the heavens that due to an immature but entrenched fear of debt I’m in rented accommodation which is owned by a lovely landlord who bought on top of a hill. 


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