Winter clean


Any year that doesn’t start with winter vomiting bug is all right by me. In fact, Christmas may have been a sparkling wonderland of roasting meats and children’s laughter in other houses, but not in mine. Instead of days of enervating enforced inactivity, mine was spent helping my father get his flat repainted at the behest of the landlord, aka smoothing ruffled feathers of two elderly gents. ‘But why does he want it painted in the middle of winter?’ went my father’s not unreasonable wail; ‘I’ve got someone in and he can only do it during university holidays,’ came the cogently argued response. This exchange, which has been repeated with only small variations since October, elicited sympathetic clucks to whoever was addressing me as I lugged wardrobes, hauled bookcases, hoovered ropes of cobwebs and scrubbed down walls.

The lanky painter, a delightfully otherworldly teen, turned up two days late and made up the time by doing a terrible job. But he spiked our guns with smiling biddability, listening to opera and displaying not the slightest inkling of his incompetence. Bless. He only did about 1.5 days’ work but the landlord is delighted that some of the flat has been done; my father because he hopes that will be enough to leave him in peace, and the undergrad, pfft, he pocketed a few quid and got away with murder.

Once that excitement was over, I put on the same dusty jeans and jumper and went to work on the little house. My father heroically returned the favour, carrying a stepladder up the street; tactfully dialling down my more extravagant ideas and replacing the bathroom light switch. Two days earlier I’d smashed the whole fitting by teetering on tiptoe on the edge of the bath and letting it slip from outstretched fingers onto the tiled floor – but replacing that is a whole other day’s wrong size of screwdriver.


Puppy love


‘Oh Christ, where’s the little fucker gone now?’ That howl is the sound of my usually non-sweary father taking a puppy for its second – and probably last – ever walk. It was good to hear my father revisit his National Service days.

We’d started aglow with virtue and good cheer, helping out a local lady who’d recently been felled by a stroke. Her daughter, in a bizarre logic-fail, decided that what her largely immobile and convalescent mother needed while living alone was an un-house-trained puppy. Not a very big puppy, certainly, but one that, like all puppies, needs to be walked. This is where my dog-loving father entered the frame, about a week ago, offering to take the boisterous scrap and trot it round a field, on a lead. The hound, a shih-tzu, is only four months old and had clearly never been taken for a saunter before. It took him a while to get the hang of it, but some kind of doggie instinct seemed to wake up and he had a lovely time. Last weekend, buoyed by that earlier success and bulked out with another human and the much loved Rosie who’s about 12 years the houndlet’s senior, my father felt the pack was big enough to take Bailey out properly.

Bailey was not singing from the same sheet, quickly earning the descriptor that my father sent rolling around the valley, along with some other fruity terms that made me want to snort and text my brother. The dog couldn’t understand kissing gates – fair enough, they’re tricky if don’t understand reaching your goal by any but the most direct route. But he also wouldn’t go through a five-bar gate that was opened wide and, judging by the mud and pats, regularly let herds of Friesians go lumbering through. That was when it got really shouty.

The sight of that tiny dog, standing in the middle of the gateway, refusing to follow us and running away every time either of us went near him, became less pitiful and more annoying with every minute that passed. The sun sank lower in the sky. Rosie wandered off and found a half-rotted rabbit’s leg to chew unnoticed. I wondered how bad I would really feel telling the owner her dog had run away (answer: not in the slightest).

We finally caught him and, when Rosie had finished exploiting our inattention by rolling in badger shit, we tied the two dogs together by one lead, giving them about a yard of slack between them, and let them trot along happily, Rosie showing Bailey how to get through gates and Bailey being gentlemanly about the unholy stink pulsing off his new friend’s fur. Both in disgrace, they travelled the mile and a half home in the boot. Bailey was given a warm bath and had the mud washed off with posh shampoo by his owner; Rosie got Fairy Liquid and the water butt.

The community spirit is welling within my breast these days. It’s always been there, of course, but lately, and in two locations, It’s become what oil prospectors might call a gusher. The people around my little houseen and an old friend from primary school who has returned to the village and moved in a few doors down are taking up much of my attention in Wiltshire, and then in London, where people are more circumspect, I have been meeting neighbours the traditional way: under cover of the misdirected parcel.

That’s how I met Colin from across the road, a relationship that has been reinforced by my landlord, whom I suspect of having a slight boy crush on Colin, particularly after the panicky phone call – ‘Colin! Thank God! Have you got a small angle-grinder?’ – that resulted in such damage to the kitchen floor. Anyway, the first gossamer threads of acquaintance were spun after Colin took in a parcel of mine a few months back. I returned the next morning with a gift of plums (themselves part of a gift from Cyril four doors down) and that, along with DIY SOS, was enough to seal the deal.

Last night I passed the favour on by dealing with four ENORMOUS packages that had been delivered to us on account of next door being out. The lightest was 19kg, and addressed to a ‘Harry’ so I went round and left a note. No sign of anyone, but as Tomasz Schafernaker finished telling the nation to wrap up warm, there were telltale thumpings through the wall. Round I beetled once more. The door was answered by a larky young sprig in tracky bottoms and a vest cut in such a way that an evening at the gym was in the front of my mind. I explained that this ‘Harry’ was welcome to collect the parcels but as the heaviest was 27kg, I couldn’t help. Not a problem – suddenly an even more strapping gym bunny filled the doorway and blocked the light. ‘Oh, my,’ I may have squeaked. And then, dammit, yet another vested vision materialized, this one from the kitchen. Now, I’m not really a fan of the ripped gym-boy, and I have long outgrown the 20-something, but heavens to Betsy and lawks a mercy, sometimes you just get caught by surprise.

Off I scuttled, down their path and up mine, having ordered the-lads-too-young-to-remember-Communism to put on shoes because they’d catch their deaths (oh, well done me). And round they came, like a load of marines, in their straining singlets, to pick up the heavy packages and present me with a bottle of wine. It was dark enough to hide my rosy glow but not dark enough to hide the simper. Still, at least I didn’t giggle. Oh God, I didn’t giggle, did I?

Modern manners


Now, my question today is, is it ever ok to call ‘Please, please, for the love of God stop singing’ along a row of changing cubicles to the songbird three doors down? He was obviously a happy chap after his swim, and why wouldn’t he be? I often feel like having a bit of a trill after a dip, but therein lies the difference: I don’t. I hum under my breath. I might be swept away by the swelling strains of an orchestra, or soaring high over the descants of the organ in St Paul’s, but crucially, the thunder is inaudible to everyone who doesn’t live in my head. Anyway, naturally I didn’t say anything at the pool, or at least, not at a volume any higher than the one I’d set for my heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of Danny Boy that was currently unspooling UNKNOWN TO EVERYONE AROUND ME.

It must also be pointed out that the quality of my performance suffers with every extra notch of volume, as anyone who has stood near me in church will attest, so it’s not just selflessness, it’s mortification that keeps me silent. Not so nobly forbearing after all, then.

Another conundrum tangled my wires last weekend. It was as I was helping my father carry some large trunks (packing, not swimming) down two narrow flights of stairs furnished with an awkward bend at each end. The trunks weren’t crushingly heavy, on the flat at least, but the question of whether to obey my 78-year-old father’s instruction to ‘Let go; I’ve got it’ when he’s three stairs below you and the trunk is made of steel and threatening to toboggan unchecked down to street level threw up some urgent-feeling quibbles.

Floorless logic


Boooo, here comes winter. Boooo. The weekend of recuperation in Hereford was wonderful, though I must remember in future that I am useless the first day back – there was a lot of wanting to read the paper and drink tea and stare into space. This was thrown into sharp relief by the host’s hyper-busy cousin, who was endlessly up ladders, replacing lights, pruning roses and walking dogs, and by the two children who were swimming, running half-marathons, going to parties, playing badminton and entertaining friends.

Since then I have been walking a few times, sometimes in Ireland (Wicklow and Kilkenny) and last weekend in Henley. Again I overestimated what we could achieve in the hours of daylight and so we cut slightly short our wondrous walk through sunny Buckinghamshire beechwoods and floppety-rabbit-nibbled valleys. The route was up for modification anyway, as just before lunch we found ourselves directed towards the guns of a pheasant shoot, who had at the very moment of our approach wounded but not killed a hen pheasant, which bounced and flapped and bled for a long time before finally expiring. This was not calculated to mollify my 30-years-a-vegetarian friend, who responded with loud conversational potshots at the shooting party – ‘You going to be able to eat all those, are you?’ – while spent buckshot pattered down around us. ‘Let’s run over there shouting “Votes for women!”’ was her vintage suggestion, but allowed herself to be steered away up the hill, out of range and into the woods.

This, oddly enough, was restful compared to the state of the homestead. On my return from Ireland a few days earlier, I reported a flashing light on the boiler and nothing but icy cold water from the taps. The landlord and I shared one of those Airport 77-style phone chats – ‘Can you see a silver pipe with a black tap on it? Ok, turn the tap 90 degrees. What’s the pressure gauge saying?’ – but to no avail. There was a leak somewhere in the house.

Our noble landlord arrived that evening, having only just finished up a three-week maintenance programme on the house, God love him, which was meant to leave him free of landlording nonsense in time to start his new job. No such luck. I was having friends over for dinner and what had threatened to be a slightly stressful evening quickly turned hilarious with the news that the leak was probably under the kitchen floor and had to be tracked down immediately. Ten minutes later I was slicing potatoes on the hall table while Colin from across the road was on his knees by the cooker gripping an angle-grinder as it screamed through slate. The friends arrived, graciously consumed a half-teaspoon of kitchen floor with their Spanish omelette, and we sat in the front room drinking wine and chatting. A sudden silence from next door was finally broken by the landlord’s voice. ‘Shit. It’s not under the floor; it’s in the wall.’ Which called for another handsome bumper of red and heartfelt thanksgiving for my brilliant, selfless, lovely-chap landlord.

You can scour all the etiquette books you like and I daresay you won’t find it recommends offering a weekend guest stone-cold water in which to wash, a hellishly early start on Saturday and a skitter through gunfire, but actually, in the context of Colin and his screaming angle-grinder, it was a picnic.

Damp patch


The last morning dawns milky and filled with birdsong as I prepare for the final push through Hereford and west. Incidentally, think twice before you try to cross the Wye. It is mysteriously difficult – practically no bridges! Why? Do they fear invasion? Engineering? The automobile? Except there are even footbridges, so you have to tough it out, on a narrow, fast road, without walkways, locked in combat with motorists, a hefty percentage of whom seem bizarrely affronted to see someone on foot, even though I’m in high-vis gear and show a craven willingness to squeeze into hawthorn hedges face first to let them pass.

Yesterday was tough, though. Steep hills and the sun came out, making it hot work. The compensation was sensational views (I try not to think what beauties have been shrouded in fog or veiled in rain earlier this week. Also, my calculations were correct – it is apple season, and how. Ledbury to Hereford is packed with orchards and lunch yesterday was picked up en route and shoved into pockets – it seemed sensible to get clear of the place before scronching into the ill-gotten gains.

Last couple of days have also had me getting lost – quite badly in some cases. Since last winter’s flooding, Tewkesbury is having major ditching work done. Footpaths have gone and landscape reconfigured. Still, plodding up to a stranger ‘Where are we?’ is quite the icebreaker. I’ve met a mechanic, some ladies on horses, a postman and, deep in some woods, in a hut, sitting at a circular whetstone and fiddling with a chainsaw, a one-eyed sixty-something who told me he’d got his gold Duke of Edinburgh award and came top of his class for mapreading. And that encounter, in a nutshell, is why I love walking. You simply have no idea what’s going to happen next – you could be rescuing a dog from a main road, scrambling over a hedge, tiptoeing across someone’s garden and praying there’s no one home, eating an apple while sitting on a stile and gazing out over a red, gold and green valley. Or having a laugh with a one eyed man in a wood.



As one approaches Tewkesbury, plashing through the pastures, it’s hard not to wonder whether these were the fields on the news last winter, under thousands of gallons of rain. There was more of the stuff this morning, though a good night’s sleep had picked me up from what was a pretty low point last night. This was not helped by the doom crier of a b&b owner, who advised me last night, once she’d established that I was soaked through by announcing that the forecast was terrible for the whole week. She grabbed her phone and said ‘Yeah, every day [scroll] rain…[scroll] rain…[scroll] rain…’. Later announced there were loads of steep hills between Stow and Tewkes, and this morning, as I was forking down egg and a fried slice, fixed me with a gimlet eye and asked what I’d do if I couldn’t go a single step further. Christ! Lie down in a field and wait for death, obvs. Ffs!
Anyway, this morning’s drenching gave way to cloud /fog so thick I got lost within 15 mins of leaving the road. A farmer on a quad bike loomed out of the murk like Mr Rochester, set me right and gave me a boiled sweet. The fog cleared, the rain stopped, I in my turn rescued a breathtakingly thick Labrador as it lolloped about in the middle of a fast, busy, wet road. Then scrumped some apples from an orchard, admired a pear tree so glowingly the owner gave me three of its fruit and found a damson tree in the hedgerow and stuffed myself. Tomorrow I’m in Ledbury, and although a fan of Nature’s bounty, I’m going out for steak and kidney pie and a pint of something local.