Saturday, 26 July 2008

Hurry with a flurry

It was one of those rare afternoons at work when everything had gone to pot.

After endless arrangements and contingency plans because we'd lose the computer network for a couple of hours during an upgrade, it all went wrong.

It was all down to the cabling guys. They hadn't turned up on the day everyone had planned but we were assured that our bigger, better system would be up and running by close of play on Friday.

I guessed it might not be. But party-poopery is not supposed to be in my nature. Of course it was nowhere near finished. And being a Friday meant that at precisely 2.35pm - with three hours and twenty-five minutes worth of work left for the rest of us (plus an extra half hour for the couple on late) these guys were loading ladders back on to the vans and buggering off for the weekend.

So it was an anti-climactic afternoon. We had achieved not much for maximum disruption and it was hot, with only a slight whiff of humid air circulating through wide-open windows.

The conversation turned to muck flurries. I didn't like to say anything but they sounded far too much like the slurry flurry that the local farmer slings all over the fields near me. It leaves a lingering stench for two days or more.

My colleagues assured me that muck flurries are absolutely the thing to eat when one gets bothered and hot, which we all were in a strictly anti-climactic sort of way.

There are chocolate ones, strawberry ones and cornetto-style mint-choc chip ones. Several of the girls were openly drooling at the muck-memories.

Muck flurries were available at Muck Donalds, I was told. Never having been in a McDonalds (let's at least get the spelling right) and not having a clue, I got some directions and went on a small journey of discovery.

I expected the place to be empty at 4pm on a warm Friday. But there were families indulging in chips and burgers and all manner of fried things accompanied by quantities of very small, narrow, dry-looking chips. Where I come from (Wales) the chips are invariably much more substantial and smell gorgeously of copious quantities of vinegar-soaked salt.

There was a United Nations atmosphere behind the counter where the temperature felt as though it was nudging 35 degrees or more. The guy who served me was very pleasant with a strong Far Eastern accent, possibly Korean, so I ended up indicating what I wanted by pointing to the large bright images on display, pointing and nodding with many reciprocating smiles.

He took a while to squirt out and decorate ten assorted flurries giving me plenty of time to take in the ambience. I was gratified to see that one can get an entire day's meals in McDonalds right through from your morning porridge and orange juice, to a light salad lunch before tucking into the seriously deep-fried delicacies on offer for later.

It's also a place where kids need much discipline which is handed out at ear-splitting volume by harassed-sounding mothers who have vocabularies of profane and obscene language far superior to mine - and mine is quite good, even though I say so myself.

Having taken delivery of several trays of ice-cold flurries, the next task was to get back to the office pronto. You've got to hurry with a flurry - especially in the kind of temperatures when they are most needed.

“Hey. They serve porridge in MacDonalds! I thought you'd all like jam with them,” I announced when I got back.

Everyone had been to McDonalds before. Everyone was very familiar with the set-up. I'd been there for the first time ever and was the only one to notice the porridge. How weird is that?

Anyway, there was a mass groan. They know I'm keen on soluble fibre and honestly thought I'd got them porridge.

But how sweet was the surprise when I revealed the flurries, and how touching the delight as they all turned into little kids again taking the plastic tops from their flurry cartons and extracting their weird squared off plastic flurry spoons complete with the hanger attachment.

Mine was strawberry. I was initially suspicious, still having the slurry flurry image in mind, but it tasted just like real strawberry - the kind you get in that excellent French jam. And the Italian-style ice-cream was still cold in the middle yet yielding and creamy around the edges. Yum.

All very surprising as I'd always refused to take my sons to McDonalds or darken its doors for reasons I've actually forgotten now but were probably vaguely to do with corporate world domination and not having proper china plates.

I'd lost my McDonalds virginity and, I reflected, slurping the quite delicious ice-cream, it had actually been worth it.

The other girls were in raptures.

“Better than an orgasm,” gasped one.

Hers must have been one of the chocolate flurries. No contest.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Cycling With Vegetables

It's not to be recommended. Honestly. Take my word for it.

And I'm not talking about going for a Sunday run with the local cycling club. Today I mostly cycled with potatoes. Big Mistake.

I could have gone for the small bag of Charlotte spuds but I can never resist a King Edward and they only do them in 3lb bags so, dreaming of buttery, fluffy mash and golden roasties, I grabbed a bag.

I knew I should have considered more carefully when they plummeted to the bottom of the rucksack with a definitive thud.

The carrots didn't help either. Or the value pack of baby parsnips. Or the double pack of broccoli.

Then there was the work stuff it was essential to take home. (Note to self: Must take the 2006 and 2007 diaries out of the Filofax.)

We are told repeatedly that vegetables are good for us. But it was 26 degrees and I felt close to death on the draggy hill to home which is always the killer after a long ride.

The object lesson is don't cycle with vegetables.

There is nothing to be gained except exhaustion and fitness. Exhaustion isn't pleasant apart from the excuse to lie flat out on the bed like the Leonardo da Vinci's Vetruvian Woman and fall deeply asleep. (Yes I know it was Vetruvian Man but obviously I don't look remotely similar).

Fitness is over-rated.

The really unreasonable thing about fitness if that it hangs around for a bit just so long as you exert yourself almost every day. It'll let you have the odd day off for good behaviour as long as you promise to go straight back to some kind of exercise the following day.

But if fitness even gets the teeniest whiff that you have better things to do than get pink and every-so-slightly-glowing while exerting yourself, it does a runner, leaving you feeling like a person who's gained four stones overnight and has just recovered from 'flu.

So if you want to gain fleeting fitness by all means lug King Edwards about. Anyone who knows anything about Gloucester RFC will remember that was the preferred training method of England player (tight -head prop/hooker/ ?? can't remember) Phil Blakeway. He used to work out by carrying not only veg but fruit too, being a fruit and veg wholesaler.

For those of sensible dispositions who are not interested in scratching the back of fitness, here is my cut-out and keep guide to cycling with vegetables.

Say YES to cycling with Curly Kale, Salad Bags (but beware of the whole lettuces although Baby Gem lettuces don't weigh much), Cress, Parsley and sundry herbs but watch the weight of the root ginger, asparagus, teeny tomatoes, spring onions, those hopeless little beans from Africa which cost about £4 to feed two people, shredded cabbage (mostly air, anyway) ready-grated carrot (also mostly air, so fine but for maximum value for money remember to breath it in when you open the bag).

Say NO to cycling with potatoes, carrots, celeriac, kohl rabi, turnips, parsnips, onions (unless strung around the shoulders because that is a cycling tradition in France, I'm told), cauliflowers, cabbages, kings, and really massive tomatoes.

I wasn't going to mention melons because, strictly speaking they are fruit but everyone - men included - is advised to avoid cycling with melons. They can be unruly and you might overbalance. You know it makes sense. Your health is at stake.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Beau Brummel Rides Again

As far as mens' fashions go, the 21st century has proved to be tedious in the extreme.

What have we got? A well-cut suit if you're lucky, comfortable trousers, jackets, sweat shirts, polo shirts, cuff and collar shirts and sportswear and then you've got jeans which will do for almost every occasion....

oh, and T shirts.

Dull, dull-plus and bargain bucket supa-dull-with fries.

None of it sets the world alight. There are no extravagant wigs - except in the higher echelons of the legal profession - no pantaloons, no fetching Mr Darcy baggy shirts, no fabulously shiny knee boots.

Riding in Richmond Park recently, one couldn't help but notice the packs of dedicated, svelte, long-legged racing cyclists in training. It was a spectacle which called into question how anyone in their right mind could revile the wonders of Lycra but it also highlighted how tastes and fashions have changed.

Two hundred years ago when London and Bath were fashion capitals and the male form was celebrated and enhanced with more zeal than it is today, fellows like these would have been much feted and admired.

With enough cash and time on their hands, they could have been the Beau Brummells of their day.

Most of them , with a few exceptions, possess precisely the correct turn of ankle, calf and thigh which would have caused Regency ladies to swoon by the carriageload.

As the penny farthing didn't turn up for another sixty years to aid the requisite leg development, Regency gentlemen either had to put up with the leg and body shape determined by their genes or resort to artifice at considerable expense.

Where the upper body was concerned, gentlemen often wore whalebone corded lace-up corsets such as the Glasgow Stiffener for boxing, hunting and fencing. These corsets were not unlike weight-lifters' belts and designed to create the impression of strong, straight backs and deep chests.

If nature had failed to provide sufficient musculature in the leg department, the slim-calved gent would wear appropriately padded stockings.

For the desperate, a cheaper option was to buy a pair of false calves and strap them to their legs beneath the stockings. This was riskier , carrying with it the possibility of slippage and eye-catchingly swollen ankles.

Pantaloons were deliberately cut on the bias to emphasise the leg and thighs and had an outside seam to avoid chafing. They were tucked fetchingly into the boot at the calf or ankle.

The downside of all this splendour was the lashings of cash, time and downright cheating that it took to achieve.

Beau Brummell, the man credited with introducing the concept of the suit worn with necktie, sometimes took five hours to get ready to go out. If it started raining, he'd have to start all over again and change into a completely different set of clothes.

Not feasible these days and probably just as well.

After all, it just wouldn't seem right for a fellow to spend far longer on his appearance and grooming than his lady.

The sensible option in 2008 is to invest in modest racing bicycle and the right kind of lycra and join the beautiful people doing circuits of Richmond Park

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Scary Tools

When the nurse asked me to give her a hand to take some shelves and a cupboard down, I didn't foresee any problems.

The nurses' room at work was due for redecoration. I'm not DIY fiend but a screwdriver isn't beyond me. I even run to Allen keys.

But when she produced a huge box and took out a contraption that needed two hands to hold it, I suddenly had my doubts.

“That's a hammer drill,” I told her.

She's very good at dressings and loves nothing better than a nice deep wound but is undoubtedly woeful in the workshop.

“Yes, it is a hammer drill as well, I think.”

She sounded vague.

“It's a screwdriver too. It does lots of thing, apparently.”

It looked like a nuclear weapon masquerading as a screwdriver. It was heavy, you had to use both hands to lift it and the only part which looked remotely screwy was the phillips crosshead thingy at the front.

It didn't even have a power cable. Uranium-fuelled, almost certainly.

“It's battery-operated.”

Exactly the kind of thing Saddam Hussein used to tell the weapons inspectors.

There were several sets of dials bearing numbers and any amount of coloured tabs and switches which might or might not be “on” buttons. I wasn't touching it. It might go off in my hand.

She knew how to switch it on. It uttered a struggling throaty gurgle and undid three screws out of 16. We only removed one shelf and failed completely on the others and the cupboard. We left a note to the decorators “Please remove. Sorry, not very good at unscrewing. Thanks. The Nurse.”

I may be on the mailing list of our local specialist powertools shop - only because of buying a Dremel to file down my dog's nails - but power tools scare me witless. Walking into the shop made me feel like I was inhaling pure testosterone and everyone stared as though my skirt was tucked into my knickers by accident but it definitely was not (you always have to surreptitiously check though, don't you?)

Asking me to wield a hammer drill is like asking me to stand still while a moth crawls up my bare arm - only possible about five minutes after hell freezes over.

They are scary in every respect, the ear-piercing, teeth-tingling screaming noise, the weight, the potential for causing unwitting damage. They are undoubtedly a force for evil.

I wasn't scared of them when I was young. My father was the most capable and organised of handymen. The garage and shed were breath-takingly orderly. He even had little bureaux of different sized screws and nuts with the draws all labelled. Anything with a blade was oiled and sharp ready for use. He knew where everything was and he knew how to use it.

The little red hand drill felt nice and just purred when you turned the handle. The fretsaw was noisier but great fun for making my own crazy jigsaws.

It was later that the trauma set in. When DT man had to make his first forays into DIY, completely untrained and abandoned to his fate by his, in my view, frankly negligent, dad. They were the sort of forays where the instinct among bystanders was to take cover - not in the next room but preferably in a house two doors away.

Not that I was ever allowed to take cover because I was always required to hold something, measure something, mark something or clear the debris.

So I had to witness terrible things; the earsplitting noise and terrifying sight of a drill skittering clear across the surface of a newly painted wall at full belt; being covered with plaster and bits of ceiling when a foot exploded through the landing ceiling above me (the result of a small stumble on a joist in the attic) and a wall of recently hung wallpaper with so many trapped air bubbles that it looked like it had been pasted with giant-sized tapioca.

Then there was the way a humble plane - a benign, quiet well-behaved kind of tool with its sharp blade well hidden - wreaked havoc with a bedroom door which was a bit “sticky” over new carpet. In this case the door was transformed into a Western saloon-style door, having been planed with enthusiasm at BOTH ends ending up with ample ventilation and light at both the top and bottom of the door.

Left to my own devices, at least I'm methodical. I'm really careful when assembling flatpack furniture not to place spigot D into female member F3 and count out all my screws, flanges and cordwanglers with deft precision.

Polyfilling is easy, although Dad really wouldn't approve of my polyfilling method because I've had to use my finger since I mislaid his ancient putty knife. It's like cake icing only more boring and you must remember not to lick your fingers.

You are rarely required to pipe rosettes around the dado rail or write Happy Birthday in squirty letters on the ceiling, although it might be fun to have a go one day. The flattening bit is the same anyway.

You can even use royal icing if you are out of polyfiller, as I once did but you do run the risk of ants coming and eating your wall.

Increasingly, women are becoming more independent where DIY is concerned. A friend of mine and her daughter were delighted to have achieved a toilet seat fixing for the first time ever this week.

The new seat was comfortable, stable, straight - all the things it's reasonable to expect of a toilet seat.

The daughter's boyfriend visited and needed to use the bathroom.

“Who fitted that toilet seat for you?” he enquired afterwards.

“Us!” they chorused proudly.

“It's hopeless," he said.

"It needs to be fitted further forward. The lid won't stay up.”

Men eh? So quick to criticise. So hopeless at multi-tasking.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Cereal junk

Deprivation is a subjective thing.

One deprived child might think he's hard-done-by because mummy and daddy won't get him the latest Will Smith film for his back-seat in-car DVD player.

Another might feel deprived because he's been forbidden Kinder eggs.

One might argue that deprivation can only be a good thing when applied to Kinder eggs and similar junk-sweeties.

But I always felt that the quotient of anticipation and joy that the buying of the much-wanted Kinder eggs (containing, most importantly a tiny plastic toy which could rarely be constructed properly) could whip up made it them worthwhile for a very rare treat.

I was talking to a pal today about the first commercial free gift I ever got - an orange plastic Big Ears out of a pack of Ricicles. It was a big deal when I was very young. Second only in status to my Noddy clock, which was a birthday present.

I had to eat a whole box of Ricicles (not in one sitting although I was a tad piggy) to get the next gift, a little blue plastic model of Noddy. Sadly, though, after Big Ears, Noddy wasn't as good somehow. Big Ears had attitude and a fair amount of gnomish testosterone. He had a beard and a tall pointy hat and stood with legs akimbo. Noddy was merely amiable and his hat was floppy with a bell on it.

My pal wasn't impressed. He was a tad sniffy, actually. He was never allowed such rubbish.

“We were make to feel guilty if we ever asked for crap like that.”

The fact that I was thrilled with a small plastic Big Ears might indicate that I was the deprived one. We had few toys when I was small in Wales. We had to go and play with coal and fashion pieces of wood with blunt knives or pick bilberries and attempt to catch lambs.

But actually I was very happy with all that and I feel my pal , although I wouldn't dream of telling him so, was actually the deprived one.

He never experiencing the thrill and wonder of lifting a small new model of Tony the Tiger from a box of Frosties or wracked his brains to think what marvellous mystery free gift could be lurking within the new box of Shreddies.

Taking a commercial break from the cereals for a moment, some of my first freebies were the PG tips collector cards. Every time mumsie opened a new packet of tea there would be another card for my treasured collection of British Butterflies or Birds of the World cards.

It sounds dorky now but I learned a lot from those cards and swapped with other sad twits at school until, joy of joys, the entire albums got completed - then I discovered the Gerald Durrell books and suddenly I was a confirmed amateur naturalist.

By the time my sons were old enough to collect free stuff, the “must have” were Top Trumps which were a lot less educational but did introduce us to the possibilities of supercars and in particular the Renault 5 Alpine Turbo.

I doubt today's youngsters would be impressed by such free gifts. Many of them have phones, stereo systems, TVs and DVD players in their bedrooms by the age of eight can no longer be impressed with bits of plastic.

Attitude to freebie junk toys might be a good indicator of class though.

My parents didn't care. They just saw it as harmless stuff which would give transient pleasure and be chucked out in due course.

My pal's mater and pater, in contrast were concerned that their children might be somehow tarnished by contact with common dross. They were probably right. There kids turned out to be far cleverer and more successful but didn't have as much cheap fun at home.

He turned out quite-posh anyway - uses the royal “we” and everything.

Actually we could all be using the royal “Wii” if only Nintendo would consider bringing it out.

It would come complete with ermine robe, orb, sceptre and throne. Not as physical as the Wii Fit but ultimately satisfying to sit in state as crowned head of your own domain. I know a deprived quite-posh person who'd be first in line for the prototype.

Monday, 7 July 2008


Orange blossoms nod

beneath the first fat raindrops

from lilac thunderclouds.

Through wide-open windows,

languid trails of sweetness creep

and settle around her,

sprawled beneath a twisted sheet

a tangle of fair hair, a long pale thigh

opalescent in the gathering gloom.

A kind of paralysis, suspended

in the softness of sensations spent

Sweat on the pillow

birdsong seeping in,

the jarring squabbles of magpies

hasten the slow, thick return to being.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Happy Birthday Space Invaders!

Happy 30th birthday Space Invaders. I Ioved that game, but not with as much ardour as others of my acquaintance.

It was born in Japan in l978 and was immediately so popular that the Japanese had to mint extra 100-yen coins because so many were out of circulation in Space Invader game cash-boxes.

That's the trouble with games. When you start playing everyone's equally hopeless for a short while and then people start getting good. And those who are not so good have to wait such a long time for their turn that they grow beards and get shorter and eventually shrivel and wither away. Either that, or they go and find a cup of tea somewhere and something more interesting to do.

It was a problem with Trivial Pursuit. Some bright spark would hit a successful streak and everyone else would drift away from the board to the kitchen to raid the cupboard for further snacks and open another bottle of wine. The bright spark never noticed. He was too busy collecting cheeses.

And so it was with Space Invaders. Brilliant. I got very hooked - although nothing to compare with Tetris - but less and less interested as I had to wait increasingly long times for my turn as a consequence of DT man getting quite good, good, above average and then bloody invincible.

I blame the BBC. DT man was doing a spot of work for them at the time and they installed a Space Invaders machine in the bar. It was a sensation – so much so that once the local new bulletins was ever so slightly delayed because one of the presenters couldn't be torn away from the console as he was achieving a record score.

Another myth circulating at the time was that one member of staff actually clocked it. I don't know precisely how many levels that entailed but it enshrined him as the definitive Space Invaders superstar thereafter and it was the beginning of the Great Decline In Interest.

Holidays took a different turn if there was a Space Invaders machine in the vicinity. On one holiday in Cornwall there was one installed in a kind of large shed along with a couple of other games. Whatever time of day or night you walked by, the familiar bass “dum-dum-dum-dum” could be heard as Space Invaders continued their inexorable march down the screen to wipe out hapless players who foolishly had destroyed the very buildings which were meant to be their cover.

It was supposed to be for kids but there was often a forlorn little line of six to ten-year-olds queueing up along the path outside the shed as dads – who tended to be quite good and therefore one turn might take half an hour - ended up possessing it for most of the day while mums and the other kids were on the beach.

There's a new version of Space Invaders out at the moment, apparently, for something called PSP whatever that is and DS whatever that is.

I'm almost tempted to find out except that I know that if DT man ever hears that familiar “dum-dum-dum-dum” a maniacal gleam will appear in the eye and he'll be drawn to it once more like a moth to a flame. Civilisation as we know it will end.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Le tour - St Malo (Seafood and Eat It Stage)

.....not to be confused with the Tour de France St Malo Monday 7th July (Stage Three)

Le tour (note small 't') was a week early for obvious reasons.

We really didn't want to do the whole public thing. I'm quite shy really and the thought of the big massed start with multi-coloured bunting fluttering over the roads, the barriers, the definitive route and all the attention was quite off-putting.

Who, in her right mind on a pleasant toodle through St Malo wants that crazy Devil character sprinting alongside her brandishing a trident and yelling inarticulacies?

Those spectators who dash into the road to squirt water over riders in the midday heat - they're a bloody nuisance, not to mention Phil Liggett - there every year droning on in his slightly nasal, know-it-all-twang.

How tedious, if you've just stopped off at a nice seafood restaurant and the waiter's brought a bottle of chilled muscadet and you're cracking your first langoustine if Phil or Gary Imlach were to thrust a microphone under your nose and ask searching questions about your commitment to the Tour, why you appear to have gone off route and when you were last drug tested.

So we decided to avoid any unwelcome attention and walked the bikes off the 'Bretagne' ferry from Portsmouth a week before the circus was due to arrive.

The Brittany Ferries folk deem it unsafe for you to ride your bike off the ferry. The ramps are big enough and sturdy enough for juggernauts but not suitable to ride a bike over, apparently. There must be a good reason. Perhaps they have had experience of lemming-like cyclists who get half-way to dry land when they are compelled to take a sudden left and plunge into the sea.

It was good discovering a camaraderie among cyclists. Two guys were heading south with 65 miles ahead of them that day and had packed so economically they'd forgotten the map. A couple in their thirties were aiming for Avranches via Monte St Michel. We had about...well... fifteen to twenty miles, max. But ours was a pleasant relaxing kind of thing not some kind of endurance test; an opportunity to meander off course, wander along a beach or two, swim maybe, explore any interesting-looking places along the way.

A dead-easy mosey along thoughtfully-provided cycleways through St Malo continued east towards Cancale then turned north along a deserted lane to the coast and a couple of lovely deserted beaches before the Pointe de Grouin to watch cormorants fishing and listen to oystercatchers.

The views were good from our outside table at a restaurant close to the Pointe. During a couple of hours, the distant and mysterious blue cone of Mont St Michel way across the bay faded in and out of view in the deep blue haze over the Cote d'Emeraud.

You know how it is when you're not expecting anything special and suddenly everything conspires to produce a special moment?

So it was when, in search of the first destination, we freewheeled down a short, steep hill on the outskirts of Cancale, took a left and found ourselves by the sea at Port Mer, a perfect, pocket-sized French seaside village.

There was one hotel and a couple of bars on the front across a narrow road from the sea wall and then a clean, soft sandy beach, gently shelving beneath the clear waters of a sheltered bay where yachts and fishing boats bobbed at anchor.

I loved the hotel sign. I loved the hotel room even more with a tiny balcony complete with a table and a couple of chairs overlooking the bay. It was hot. We grabbed towels and books and joined the few families dotted about the beach. That first swim in Channel water which was impossibly clear, was just fabulous.

Sunday in Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany, was a revelation. It was across a couple of headlands from Port Mer. Vast degustation platters of shellfish and seaweed were being served in dozens of restaurants strung out all along the seafront but the real afficionados weren't in restaurants at all. They were perched akimbo on the sea wall next to the oyster market where they'd bought lunch and were busy levering oysters open and slurping them as people have done for centuries.

Much, much later, there was the small matter of picking up the bags from Port Mer, discovering how steeper the hill had got in a couple of hours and returning to St Malo via the coast road, busier as it was a sunny Sunday and the French had come out to play.

Cycling was a breeze in France. The drivers were polite and gave cyclists a wide berth so it felt very safe. There were no real hills to worry about and where there's a bit of undulation at least you have the satisfaction of the swooping downhill, which, if enthusiastic enough, gets you at least a third of the way up the other side.

There were plenty of other cyclists too. One couple could not possibly have been less than seventy years old but there they were, pottering along on sit-up-and-beg bikes on Sunday nodding amiably as we passed.

The next stop was La Grande Plage, St Malo where an electic selection of French seaside architecture lines the promenade - a sought-after location for the summer residence - overlooking the wide beach and sea with the old fortifications of St Malo to the west a ten minute stroll away. A curious forest of thick tree trunks had been planted on the beach to protect the sea wall. Not a bad idea. They'd probably last hundreds of years.

We rode along roads which will be closed for Monday's Tour stage.

But in spite of our own tour of St Malo, I have to confess I'm still in denial about the whole cycle tour thing. I've never wanted to be a classic touring cyclist and still don't.

I'm a terrible apology of a cyclist; a real lightweight. I don't want to carry more than a rucksack and a pack on a rack. I loathe panniers and I feel sorry for those couples you occasionally see in faded waterproofs where the guy is grinding away the tarmac out front and the woman is a quarter of a mile back looking worn and miserable.

I really don't want to just bike from place to place in a determined fashion where achieving miles is more important than carefree exploration and exhilarating downhills generously peppered with stops to enquire, to observe and to loaf about a bit.

A French loaf is appealing on so many levels. Crumbs, you should try it.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Sleeping with Strangers

There are those who aren't the slightest bit perturbed by the prospect of sleeping with a stranger. I'm reliably informed that some women actively seek out opportunities to do so.

I've never fancied the idea. I'm not the type. I require at least an introduction along the lines of a “How do you do?” or a “Do you come here often?” or a Majesterial “And what do you do?”

A small tincture doesn't go amiss either. It's only polite after all, to break the ice and put someone at their ease if you're going to spend the night with them.

But by the time I reached my sleeping quarters on Friday night, it was too late for introductions. I knew where I should go, because I'd checked it out earlier. But at 11.30pm the room was very dark indeed and I only managed to locate the place by taking a bearing from a now almost indiscernible painting on the wall of a French cottage.

That was my recliner, the empty seat by the aisle. But there was a man in the next recliner. He was a big bulky bloke built like a Toulouse prop-forward. Instead of sitting back and reclining in a disciplined way as in a chair, he had twisted on to his side, facing and uncomfortably close to, my seat, semi-curled like an enormous, unruly foetus.

He overflowed his recliner in all directions and was very soundly asleep. He looked like a professional traveller. He was wearing one of those Joan Collins eye masks which gave him the air of a burly cross-dresser. No doubt he had earplugs in too but if he did, they were hidden by a bushy thatch of dark hair. A blanket provided by Brittany Ferries was slipping off his legs.

I didn't immediately take to him. He looked like a man who was fond of food or beer or probably both so there was a strong probability of noctural eruptions. He might need to go to the bathroom at least twice, which would involve disturbing me.

The worse thing was that his great thick left arm was sticking out stiffly over my recliner; an over-hanging bough with a huge pale hand on the end with fingers pointing downwards stiffly like an inflated rubber glove.

Even if stopped breathing, sucked everything in to make myself as thin as possible and limboed silently into my recliner, I figures that like the Sword of Damocles, The Hand would be hovering approximately above the region of my breasts.

I''d never be able to close my eyes for fear of The Hand descending suddenly or lowering itself very very slowly, at the speed of the London Eye and making contact during the night. Whether it was by accident or design was immaterial; the prospect was too real.

The whole room was full of people breathing heavily. As my eyes got used to the darkness, I located DT man and disturbed him. He was unwilling to move, having consumed soporific quantities of very reasonably priced merlot. DT man's sleeping companion was a small slightly-built shaven-headed chap who was snoozing silently in a very disciplined way entirely enclosed within his recliner.

“A big man's got his hand over my seat” I hissed.

“Oh just nudge him,” DT man mumbled somewhat incoherently.

“He'll shift and go over his own side.”

Quite frankly, it wasn't the chivalrous response I was looking for. I was firmly of the opinion that squeezing in next to the Toulouse prop-forward was DT man's job, rather like putting bins out or using a power drill.

Gradually it became clear to him that the urgent whispering was only going to continue and sleep would be impossible unless we swapped places.

So he went over to sleep with the prop forward and I settled in nicely next to shaven-headed chap, who I decided was probably a Tibetan monk in civvies, unlikely to make any inappropriate lunges in his dreams about begging bowls and prayers.

I must have got a solid couple of hours before I was woken suddenly by the sound of a terrible prolonged groan/sigh which shook the room.

“Fuck,” I thought. “Someone's pegged it.”

Packing for three days on a bike in Brittany, I hadn't included the resuscitation mask which I usually carry. I shot bolt upright in my seat and scanned the darkness for signs of distress. No-one else had moved. DT man and Toulouse man were slumbering undisturbed. If someone was dead, it was going to be quite tricky to determine who. Should I creep between rows, silently poking people to check they were alive? Not a popular move. Maybe I'd dreamed that noise. Someone with sleep apnoea? Everyone else was still. I calmed down.

I must have drifted off again and I slept pretty well, except for the stiff neck and the not knowing what to do with my feet and legs, which seemed not to fit anywhere, as though I'd drunk, like Alice from the “Drink Me” bottle for especially long legs. Sometimes I crunched them up and sometimes I stretched out under the seat in front. It was not ideal.

I was sleeping very soundly indeed when the Really Useful Woman about three rows back woke me up by announcing to her poor long-suffering partner/husband/kid/friend “It's five past six. Did you sleep ok?”

Well I had until then. My shaven sleeping companion was still serenely breathing lightly in exactly the same posture he'd adopted seven hours before.

I looked over to see what the Hulk With The Hand looked like in the early daylight but he had already gone, no doubt in search of refreshment. A man of his stature would be needing an early breakfast before disembarking.