Getting Shady With The Ladies

It’s Saturday morning and the perfect chance to catch up with Peter, my weepy 70-year-old coffee shop pal who’s looking for love.

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Peter’s love life is now so complicated that even I’m struggling to keep up. Despite claiming to be a one-woman man (he was devoted to beloved Brenda for 50 years), he seems to have at least five women now on the go. That’s a lot of irons in the fire.

Here’s our Graham with a quick reminder: there’s ‘Gates’ – a woman who lives near by (who opens her gates as a signal that he’s allowed in for a bottle of Lidl Prosecco), there’s a nurse he’s got his eye on in Nero (she has nice legs, old Pete doesn’t miss a trick), a council woman he tried to ask out but rebuffed him (he won’t ask again!); another widower with an interest in ballroom dancing (‘work in progress’).

But the woman who has really stolen his heart is a local business woman, who is so affectionate she practically ‘mauls’ him. Problem is, this business woman already has a partner. Peter’s head tells him to ‘get out now’, but his heart’s telling him otherwise.

I’m worried this won’t end well for emotionally-fragile Pete.

To further complicate matters, it turns out Peter has a love rival: Shady Kevin. Shady Kevin is another fixture on the Nero scene: a perma-tanned, grizzle-haired property developer with an eye for the ladies. He might be generously described as a silver fox but I think he looks shifty – and Peter agrees.

‘I may be in the kindergarten when it comes to women but when it comes to men I’m all there,’ said Peter. ‘There’s a saying we had in the car business: ‘no-one can lift my leg’.

‘I don’t trust Shady Kevin one bit. He sits in the corner watching my every move.’

‘If he was a horse, I wouldn’t ride him and if he was a dog, I’d have him muzzled!’

Malcolm, on the other hand, seems to be getting a bit bothersome in his old age. A hand-written letter arrived from him at my workplace, thanking me for the olive oil I bought him in Mallorca back in August. I’m a little alarmed by this, as I don’t recall telling him where I worked.

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Luckily, the heat’s off because Peter tells me that Malcolm’s developed a small fixation with a woman called Bridget (stern-looking school m’am with bobbed hair; takes no prisoners). However, Bridget has a crush on ‘Colin Firth’ (a married father-of-two with Hollywood looks, who makes her heart ‘beat furiously’). Introduce Shady Kevin into this mix, who apparently fancies Bridget…  and poor Malcolm doesn’t stand a chance.

And if this wasn’t enough characters to add to this ever-evolving soap opera, let me introduce you to one more: Leery Len.

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Leery Len is part of the late afternoon Nero crew (a whole new group of oddities, separate to the morning pensioner parade we’ve come to love and know). Leery Len is one of those highly-irritating people, who talks in a really loud voice so that every conversation is like one big stage show for those unfortunate enough to be around him.

This boombastic bozo meets with his friend religiously at 5pm every evening and spends a lot of time complaining bitterly about his perpetually-complicated love life, namely ‘idiotic’ women who don’t return his calls.

He also makes loud, border-line misogynist comments about women in his vicinity such as, ‘My oh my, she’s stunning and look at her legs!’

Occasionally, he bellows silly statements across to me such as, ‘I don’t know how you cope with that machine (my laptop) – I once signed up to email and got hundreds of the blasted things!’ and, ‘Do you think I should join Facebook? What’s the difference between Facebook and Twitter?’

Have you ever tried to explain the difference between Facebook and Twitter to a technologically-challenged buffoon? It’s harder than you think.

One final new Nero character who deserves a mention is Note Woman. Note Woman apparently delivers hand-written notes to people sat drinking their coffee. The notes are all steeped in paranoia, saying things like, ‘Do not trust the man you are talking to.’

I haven’t actually met Note Woman yet; she might even be an urban myth.

But I’m already looking forward to the day a crazed-looking pensioner sidles over and drops a note in my lap saying: ‘Do not trust that shifty man in the corner with the grey hair and suspicious tan….

‘Get him MUZZLED.’

Herbaceous And Voracious

Ever heard of Giant Hogweed? It’s a voracious plant that grows on river banks and one touch could turn you blind.

In the 80s – when Giant Hogweed was at its most prevalent – my father started this bizarre competition with our relatives Jack and Jill in Scotland, over who could spot the biggest Giant Hogweed. They started posting pictures (in the old-fashioned Royal Mail sense) of the vicious weed – to see who could out-do each other. Some weeds were up to 15 feet tall!

This obsession meant that my father would march the family up and down the banks of the River Ribble in Preston looking for the tallest batch of Hogweed he could find. He would then plonk my sister and I next to it as height markers and snap away.

I wish I could find photographic proof of this but, after scouring old photo albums, I fear all the pictures ended up in the hands of our Scottish relatives. So you’ll have to make do with me dressed as a giant carrot instead.

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My mother always warned us never to get too close to the Hogweed as contact with skin could lead to a terrible rash.

As a result, I became utterly terrified of Giant Hogweed, convinced that a bit of it might touch my skin and turn me into an extra from Gremlins.

(This fear was only usurped by my mother telling me that pretty much all dogs in France might have rabies which, during our car tour of France one year, left me absolutely terrified that I might be savaged by a foaming-mouthed mutt.)

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I was recently sat wondering whether there was any truth to the perils of this perennial (my mother is prone to bouts of extreme exaggeration).

But a quick Wiki search revealed: ‘Giant Hogweed can cause severe skin inflammations when the skin is exposed to sunlight or to ultraviolet rays. Initially, the skin colours red and starts itching. Then, blisters form as it burns within 48 hours. They form black or purplish scars that can last several years. Hospitalisation may be necessary.

‘Presence of minute amounts of sap in the eyes can lead to temporary or even permanent blindness.’

Jeez. Mother was not wrong.

I’d completely forgotten about my ingrained fear of Hogweed until quite by chance, I came across its evil cousin: Japanese Knotweed.

When we were in the process of buying our apartment, our solicitor Jackie – nicknamed The Rottweiler for her aggressive approach to conveyancing – uncovered the existence of Japanese Knotweed lurking in the valley below. Untreated, this rampant weed, which actually EATS through concrete and STRANGLES brickwork, could bring the whole apartment block tumbling down like a stack of cards.

For weeks, emails were to-ing and fro-ing on how to treat this problem. I think a specialist was drafted in – and we were eventually give the green light to go ahead with the purchase.

And in that strange way when you’re just thinking about a subject and it crops up some time soon after, The Times ran an article all about indestructible Japanese Knotweed. Tag line: It eats asphalt for breakfast.

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‘In summer it grows 10 centimetres a day,’ wrote the journalist. ‘If you watch it closely enough, you can almost see it growing.’

He continued: ‘In 2012, mortgage lenders stopped mortgages if Japanese Knotweed was spotted on a property.’

I actually have no idea what happened to the deadly Japanese Knotweed at the bottom of the valley. Apparently, if chopped down, it simply grows back twice as quick; it’s the Hydra of the weed world!

The irony is, that for all their grumbles and complaints, our twitchy neighbours Susan and Dick never so much as uttered the words ‘Japanese Knotweed’. They’ve now moved out but I wished I had emailed them before they left with my concerns that The Knotweed Is Back: one final moan bone for them to gnaw on.

But if skin-singing Hogweed and concrete-chomping Knotweed were bad enough, there’s a new contender to the throne of Most Invasive Weed: Himalayan Balsam. If left unfettered, this beast will wipe out all other species across river banks.

Himalayan Balsam only hit my radar when I received an email from Friends of the Park last month. I thought I’d better join Friends of the Park (details here) given that out house is on the border of the park and I might need to garner sympathy for our much-maligned house extension.

The email contained an invitation to ‘A Big Balsam Bash’!

For those of you not aware, a new invasive species strategy has been devised for Leeds to tackle the main culprits: Himalayan balsam, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed,’ it said (cripes – the deadly trio, no less!).

As part of this strategy we hope to eradicate Himalayan Balsam from the tributaries of the River Aire.

Join in if you can – all you need is a pair of gloves, in case you grab a nettle by mistake!

I wonder how many takers there were for the Big Balsam Bash? No matter how you dress it up, the concept of throwing a party to spend the day clearing weeds from a river doesn’t exactly have the guests flooding in (no pun intended).

I might forward the invite to my father. I’m sure he’ll be interested.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

The over-60s social scene at Caffè Nero continues to provide hours of entertainment and guess who’s in the thick of it…

Former regular Porridge-Loving Pensioner, once part of the fixtures and fittings, is now long gone, last seen shuffling off towards the local boozer.

Following ‘flowersgate‘ (in which he threw a bunch of flowers at Legs for refusing to take him to the hospital), there was another awkward showdown over some suits and shirts Malcolm had brought in for him (apparently Malcolm wanted some money for them but PLP kept making excuses). He hasn’t been sighted since.

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And Legs (scantily-clad nemesis vying for the attentions of Peter, Malcolm et al.) is STILL wearing shorts despite an average autumn temperature of 8 degrees.
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But coffee-shop staple Linda, formerly lampooned as a miserly retiree, is now my NBF!

Peter told me that Linda is a very shrewd antique dealer, who doesn’t take any prisoners. From what I’ve seen, I’d be inclined to agree. She used to regard me with suspicion as I chewed the fat with Peter and Malcolm.

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Then one day, I ended up in a three-way conversation with Linda and Peter and she seemed to grudgingly accept me.

Later, Peter told me that po-faced Linda is a naturally suspicious person but he said that now I’d cracked the ice, I’d be accepted.

‘Her bark is worse than he bite,’ he said.

He wasn’t wrong. The next day, Linda came charging over to me in a harried fashion, muttering something about her new iPad not working. I’m not sure what she wanted me to do so I smiled sympathetically as she patted me arm before charging off.

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The following week a most extraordinary offer from the former miserly: she quite randomly offered me a pair of shoes!

Apparently, she had bought some beautiful brogues many years ago that she couldn’t wear due to a problem with her foot and wondered if I’d like them.

I had to break the news to her that I have freakishly large feet (details here) so I wouldn’t be able to shoehorn my trotters into them. On news of this, she simply patted me on the arm again and charged off.

After his intense interest in our trip to Mallorca this summer, Malcolm went a bit quiet for a while. Peter told me that someone had insinuated to poor Malcolm that he was a bit of a pest. He had naturally upset him and he’d been sipping his cappuccino in solitude.

That all changed this week when Malcolm shuffled over in his fedora and asked if he could sit with me. We had a bit of a chat about his days in the Air Force in Egypt.

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Malcolm has a wife who is virtually house-bound. His trip to Caffè Nero is his only trip out of the house all day.

‘If I didn’t have this, I might go potty,’ he said.

‘There was a woman with grey hair who I used to see every day heading to the Co-Op,’ he mused.

‘She told me that she only reasons she went shopping every day was that it was the only human contact she would have.

‘It’s not much fun getting old,’ he added, gazing contemplatively out of the window.

Fellow oldie Peter continues to regale me with tales of grief from deceased wife Brenda (there was a bit more sobbing the other day) while juggling the complexities of dating. The old devil has a potential three women on the go!

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According to Peter, the dating rules aren’t much different for the over-60s than they are for teenagers. There’s a lot of text games going on.

One woman, I’ve nicknamed ‘Gates’,  is game-playing to the extreme. Peter has to drive past her house in the evening and if the gates are open, he’s allowed in. If the gates are shut, it’s a Marks and Spencer’s meal for one back at home.

Peter keeps assuring me that he doesn’t want a replacement for Brenda, just some company. ‘Il companionata‘, as they say.

‘Linda says when it comes to dating, I’m not even in the junior school; I’m still in kindergarten,’ he said, wistfully.

But it seems Gates locked Peter out too many times because he’s now interested in someone else altogether – who he met right here in Caffè Nero.

‘My heart’s now elsewhere,’ said Peter, who only appears to converse in metaphors. ‘I never imagined anything after Brenda but lightning has struck and it’s like a bolt.

‘It’s a very complicated situation,’ he went on. ‘You’d think it would get easier in my twilight years but there’s a lot of emotional baggage.’

‘Don’t get in too deep,’ I said sagely.

‘It’s too late,’ lamented Peter. ‘My nostrils are only just out of the water.’

Speech Therapy

I seem to have been struck by a fear of speaking in public. I don’t think I’ve ever been comfortable speaking to more than three people at once but now the thought of addressing large groups brings me out in a cold sweat. The condition even has a name: glossophobia. I think I might be a glossophobic.

Last year, I had my first taste of speaking in front of an audience when I boldly offered to run a training day at school.

And even then, it was only to a classroom full of teachers that I already knew. Still, I was wracked with nerves – spending ages tinkering with my slide show, rehearsing what I was going to say, and feeling irrationally anxious in the lead up to the day itself.

Here’s what happens when I have to speak in front of people: I get really flustered. I gabble, I stutter… I lose my train of thought. I forget key points. I don’t know what to do with my hands (What do you do with your hands?!).

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Unfortunately, I was forced into speaking to a hall full of people this week. A small promotion at work means I now have to occasionally address parents en masse.

As the headmaster introduced me, my heart was already beating alarmingly fast. Strange gurgling sounds kept emanating from my throat. I feared that I may actually stand up and be struck with the inability to utter a single word.

I envisaged a horrifying scenario where I just stood gaping like a goldfish, my mouth opening and closing wordlessly. A hushed silence would descend on the room as parents stared agog at the car crash unravelling in front of them. Eventually, some men in white coats would appear and gently lead me away. I probably wouldn’t be seen for some time.

But of course, that didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, in fact. I set off speaking at a tremendous pace, welcoming parents and spouting information at speed.

Despite my haste, I even managed a little off the cuff joke. A few people laughed. Breath… Pause…  Breath… ‘I can do this!’ I thought.

And then it went wrong.

As I turned to introduce my team, glossophobia overcame me.

‘This is our very experienced teacher Mrs G—-‘ I hastened, gesturing a little wildly to Mrs G.

‘And this is…’

I turned to our even more experienced teacher Mrs S and my mind went blank. How does one improve on ‘very experienced’? I was a wordsmith, who was lost for words.

‘And this is…. our… our… old h-h-HAT, Mrs S—–‘ I stuttered, in my moment of panic.

OLD HAT?!

Poor Mrs S looked at me in barely-concealed horror. The assembled throng of parents looked aghast. I let out a nervous titter.

‘I mean… our experienced OLD HAND,’ I stammered lamely. ‘Yes, old hand!’

But it was too late. The damage was done. The word ‘old’ hung heavy in the air.

Mortified, I could feel my cheeks flaming as – ever the professional – poor Mrs S attempted to laugh it off.

Later that night, I lay in bed going over and over the phrase in my head. Old hat, old hat. I don’t think I’ve used the phrase ‘old hat’ in my whole life. Where the hell had it come from?!

In an attempt to make myself feel better, I even googled ‘old hat’. But the definition only made matters worse.

‘Banal… Out of fashion… outmoded ideas… tired and worn out… passe… antique… unstylish…’ The synonyms tumbled off the page accusingly.

Mrs S is someone I have a huge amount of respect for. And I had publicly insulted her in the worst possible way.

‘I’m never speaking in public again,’ I wailed to the husband.

‘You’re gaffe prone,’ said the husband, helpfully. ‘You’re basically the new Prince Philip. You can’t be trusted to be let loose in a public arena.’

The next day I trotted meekly into work, determined to keep my head down and my lips firmly closed.

In the school assembly that morning, I asked Mrs S if she would like to read her class’s poems or would she like me too.

‘Oh, I think you’d better read them,’ she said, with what I hoped was a wry smile. ‘I can barely see without my glasses.

‘I’m just so OLD HAT!’

Legs Eleven

I was once the doyenne of my local Caffè Nero, attracting the attention of a plethora of wrinkly retirees. Not any more. Now I have a new competitor in town who goes by the name of LEGS.

I’d never even heard of Legs this time last month. But there she is, batting her eyelashes at the oldies, driving Porridge-Loving Pensioner to hospital, and holding court with the morning regulars (Peter, Malcolm and co,) – while they all listen to her every word in rapt admiration.

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The woman can do no wrong.

According to a Peter (wet-eyed widow who gave Legs her namesake due to the fact that her well-toned pins are always on display), Legs is an amazing person: she’s studying for a doctorate in Sport Science or something, she’s a ‘strong and independent’ W-O-M-A-N (cue Beyonce soundtrack), she went travelling the world on her own; she’s probably about to make a breakthrough in finding a cure for cancer.

Apparently, her penchant for skimpy shorts and scanty vest tops merely masks her true wonderfulness. Even miserly retiree Linda is spellbound.

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‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ says Peter.

Our resident do-gooder isn’t called a Legs for nothing. She really does wear shorts every single day, rain or shine. I tell a lie: I might have spotted a pair of stripy leggings the other day. Still, it leaves me often pondering, what does she wear in winter?!

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Peter came over the other day and said he realises that he’s been neglecting me now that Legs is in town. I didn’t disagree.

Peter attempted to introduce me to Legs in the coffee queue but she merely narrowed her eyes and smiled unconvincingly, in that slightly competitive way that only girls can fully understand.

Luckily for me, I have an ace card up my sleeve: I’m going to Mallorca in a week or so and Malcolm is still hellbent on imparting every last drop of knowledge he has on his favourite holiday destination.

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Not content with passing on all of his literature, he has now taken to recommending restaurants, the type of wine we should buy, and the places we should visit. He even had a recommendation on the local brandy.

Malcolm pottered in the other morning and made a beeline straight for me (bypassing Legs. Ha!).

I was sat in the window (which had angered Adrian The Academic who likes to sit in that particular window seat while he’s studying quantum mechanics and reading up on complex geometry – more on him another time).

‘I’ve barely been able to sleep for worry that you might not know how to get from Palma to Orient,’ said Malcolm.

I nodded in what I hoped was a suitably ‘I’ve-been-concerned-too’ manner, while looking up from one of Malcolm’s Mallorca books. I carry one around in my bag and then scramble to get it out and bury my head in it when I see him approaching.

‘There’s two routes, you see,’ he went on. ‘And I’m worried you might take the wrong one.’

An hour later, and following some very laborious directions, I reassured Malcolm that yes, I now knew the correct way to Orient and yes, I would stop at that quaint little village en route, and yes, I would try some tapas at that little taverna he loves so much.

I’m half expecting Malcolm to come in with an actual hour-by-hour itinerary for our holiday next week.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner, meanwhile, has been all but BANNED from Caffè Nero. That’s not strictly true; the manageress told him that unless he stop pestering people to give him a lift to the hospital and then getting irate when they refuse, he won’t be allowed back. PLP took umbrage at this and has now GONE ROGUE.

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He occasionally shuffles around grinning toothlessly at people but has taken to frequenting other eateries in the area. I saw him quite contentedly tucking into a large bowl of fries in the bar next door, bits of grease splattering his stained suit. The porridge days are over.

I went into Caffè Nero avec husband this weekend and who should be standing in the queue happily conversing with Peter but my nemesis Legs.

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‘That’s her!’ I said to the husband.

‘Who?!’ said gormless husband.

‘Leggssss!’ I hissed.

The husband studied her for some time, legs and all.

‘She’s actually a very attractive woman,’ he said.

Broken Flowers

Who needs Coronation Street when you can enjoy a real-life soap opera at Caffè Nero?

Last week, I popped in for my usual latte to find Nero’s perma-fixture Porridge-Loving Pensioner remonstrating angrily with a scantily-clad woman, before throwing a bunch of flowers at her and stomping off.

Let me backtrack slightly.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner first appeared on the Nero scene about a year ago, pitching up at 7.30am, scoffing mounds of porridge all day and gazing mournfully out of the window, before departing at closing time by taxi.

He oscillates between being a curmudgeonly octogenarian, who guards his seat in the corner like a rattle snake, to acting out a scene from Wether’s Originals, handing out sweets to the kids and generously splashing out on coffees and milkshakes to all and sundry.

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More recently though, he’s regressed to being a bit of an awkward old bugger. Fellow Nero stalwart and Mallorca-mad retiree Malcolm recently brought him a suit and told him he needed to ‘smarten himself up’. I’m not sure he liked it.

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And when I chatted to another retiree-at-large, Peter, he told me he’s been giving Porridge-Loving Pensioner a wide berth.

“I’ve got enough dependents as it is,’ said Peter, who was recently widowed from his sweetheart Brenda but still takes care of his mother. ‘Take it from me once you open the door, it just opens wider.’

‘Legs always talks to him,’ he went on.

“Who’s ‘Legs’?’ I asked.

‘You don’t know Legs?’ exclaimed Peter. ‘She’s always in here. Beautiful girl, got a degree in sport or something. ALWAYS wears shorts.’

‘Of course, Malcolm always makes a beeline for her!’

‘I bet!’ I said.

I’d never come across Legs before but when I walked in and saw Porridge-Loving Pensioner in a heated debate with a girl in very short shorts, I just knew it had to be Legs.

I’ve had to remove her face for reasons of anonymity (but you can see how she gets her namesake).

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It transpired that Legs had got Too Involved with Porridge-Loving Pensioner – to the point of actually driving him to his hospital appointment the day before. Porridge-Loving Pensioner then wanted her to drive him more places.

When she said she couldn’t, Porridge-Loving Pensioner got very angry indeed.

Peter was right: when you open the door, it does get wider.

The argument ended with Legs giving the flowers back to Porridge-Loving Pensioner and marching out.

When Malcolm and Peter arrived for their morning coffee, I quickly filled them in. Porridge-Loving Pensioner was stomping around furiously in the background.

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‘I can’t believe Legs actually drove him to the hospital,’ I said.

‘She’s a very pretty girl but I wished she’d get dressed when she came in,’ muttered Peter.

‘If you’ve got it flaunt it by all means, but there is a stopping point.’

Suddenly, Porridge-Loving Pensioner appeared, brandishing the wilting flowers.

‘These are for you,’ he said, looming over me and grabbing my cheek. ‘I wondered if you’d take me to the hospital.’

I looked at the hand-me-down flowers and then took a look at his letter. The appointment was for September 1.

That was quite a while off. But my experience of old people is they gradually become obsessed by hospital appointments. Their lives revolve around them.

‘I can’t take you because I’m at work that day,’ I said, quite truthfully. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘The best thing to do,’ I added firmly. ‘Is to call the hospital and ask them to send a car for you. They often do a chaperone service.’

Porridge-Loving Pensioner threw the flowers down and shuffled off.

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Malcolm and Peter looked aghast.

‘You handled that very well,’ said Peter.

It was only after the furore had settled down that we noticed Porridge-Loving Pensioner was finally wearing Malcolm’s suit! Malcolm confessed he’d been giving him a selection of shirts too.

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‘What he really wants is company,’ I said.

‘We all do,’ said Peter. ‘We all want someone to talk to. The Italians have a name for it.’

‘Enjoy life while you can,’ added Malcolm. ‘One day, all you’ll have is memories.’

‘It’s true,’ said Peter sadly. ‘But when you’ve lost someone, the wound is so great that even memories can’t fill it.’

The Emperor’s New Suit

Crazy scenes at my local Caffè Nero last week… It all began as I was enjoying a mid-morning coffee in the sun, in the midst of ‘unofficial pensioners’ club’.

Unofficial pensioners’ club is basically an organic gathering of local retirees. It mainly consists of previous blog stars: Malcolm (Majorca-obsessed, snappily-dressed ex-businessman, who keeps making a bee-line for me); Peter (friendly former body-building weepy-widow, still grieving the loss of his beloved Brenda); Richard aka Porridge-Loving Pensioner (decrepit war veteran, sits wistfully in window, newly-discovered penchant for Jackie Collins novels); Linda, aka one of The Miserleys (a sharp-tongued, child-hating antique dealer, who I have very little dealings with).

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… and then me – the honorary member!

Enter Malcolm, stage right. Malcolm pottered past me carrying a suit bag – and headed in the direction of Porridge-Loving Pensioner. It emerged that he had – bizarrely – bought Porridge-Loving Pensioner a new suit!

Suit dispatched, Malcolm came to join me in the sunshine.

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‘How are the Mallorca plans coming along?’ he said, taking a sip of his black coffee.

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘I’ve been reading your books and feel like I’ve got a really handle on the island.’ (lie!)

Suddenly, Porridge-Loving Pensioner hobbled over and loomed in.

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‘Can I get you a coffee, my friend?’ he rasped.

‘No coffee,’ said Malcolm. ‘But what I do want to see is you wearing that suit I’ve bought you…

‘You’ll never get a woman looking like that!’

‘The only woman I want is this one,’ said Porridge-Loving Pensioner, leaning and grabbing my cheek, as I tried not to recoil.

To be fair, Porridge-Loving Pensioner does seem to have a standard outfit of tatty leather jacket and grubby shirt. But he’s 87! One day we’ll all be old with bits of food and dribble crusted on our clothes.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner muttered something about possibly wearing the suit to a hospital appointment next week, before hobbling back to his perch in the window.

‘I can’t believe you’ve got him a suit!’ I exclaimed to Malcolm.

‘He’s such a scruff-bag,’ said Malcolm, who I think has delusions of being the man from Del Monte. ‘I thought it might help to smarten himself up.’

‘Well that’s very, er, kind,’ I said.

The next day, I entered Caffè Nero – eager to see whether Porridge-Loving Pensioner would be sitting resplendent in his new suit.

But he was crumpled in the corner sans suit.

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It might have been my imagination but he seemed even more dishevelled than normal. I gave him a wave.

Just as I was settling down with my latte, Peter arrived.

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‘Yesterday,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘You looked stunning,’

The old devil!

‘Malcolm’s bought Richard a suit!’ I said.

‘I know,’ said Peter. ‘I don’t know why he gets so involved.

‘Once you open the door, it just opens wider.’

‘Very true,’ I said.

‘I’ve got enough dependents,’ Peter continued.

‘I was saying to Malcolm yesterday how beautiful you are.’

‘Malcolm said, ‘Pete, she’d not just beautiful on the outside, she’s beautiful on the inside too’.’

Peter gave me a wink.

‘Don’t tell the husband,’ he whispered.

And with that, he ambled off with his coffee.

Odds and Sods

Our nosy neighbours Dick and Susan are moving out! Months of curtain twitching, bitter complaining and persistent emailing is coming to an end. And secretly, I’m a little sad.

Apparently, the sight of fellow residents entering the communal bin area and then either a: not closing the bin lids properly and/or b: not closing the gate properly (hello half-job husband!) has tipped Susan over the edge.

Dick has invested in a special pair of heavy-duty gloves to tackle the problem, which I’ve rebranded ‘Dick’s mitts’. Down-in-the-dumps Dickie seems to spend his days rummaging around in the bin compound – mitts donned – while Susan looks on from her perch in the window, barking the occasional instruction.

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Sanctimonious Sue sent an email telling me how glad she is to be leaving.

‘Someone had a party Sat night, with noise in the hall and distant party noises; I think it must have been 17,’ she wrote.

I complained in a very moderate way to one of the friends arriving about parking all over the front of the building and got sharp words in return.’

She added: ‘You may not be surprised to hear that all these comings and goings have reminded us – not that we really needed it – how glad we will be to leave here.’

Down the road at Caffe Nero, my interaction with retiree-at-large Malcolm has reached new heights.

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Malcolm seems to be under the misguided belief that I am some sort of literary don. He keeps coming over and throwing names of Dylan Thomas’s poems at me like some kind of bizarre quiz. It’s making me very nervous and I generally have to keep smiling and nodding along each time he mumbles, ‘What do you think of Under Milk Wood?’

Malcolm kept mentioning that he wanted to get rid of his beloved collection of classic novels and did I know anyone who would like them? It took my a while to cotton on but eventually, the husband said, ‘I think Malcolm wants you to have his books.’

The next time I saw him, I told Malcolm that I would love to take ownership of them.

For the next two weeks, Malcolm drove around with the books weighing heavy in the boot of his car, waiting to see me.

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The books now have a new home on our bookshelf; they’re actually really nice little leather-bound tomes. I like them.

But it hasn’t ended there. I mentioned to Malcolm that I was thinking about visiting Majorca and the next day, he appeared with another box – this time stuffed with literature about his favourite Spanish island.

I’m fearful that Malcolm is gradually emptying his house of his worldly possessions and foisting them onto me – the ultimate clutter-phobe.

He also keeps harping on about his favourite hotel in Deia. He’s mentioned it so many times that I actually think we might now have to stay there when we visit Majorca this summer – just to keep him happy.

Over in the corner of Caffe Nero, Porridge-Loving Pensioner has taken to reading a selection of bonkbusters!

Lately, he’s been completely engrossed in Jackie Collins’ Vendetta, which rather ambitiously bills itself as a nonstop, action-packed tale of sex, betrayal, drugs, intrigue, and murder.

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Porridge-Loving Pensioner has a new routine: he arrives by taxi at 7.30am, clutching his Co-Op carrier bag crammed with supplies. By 7.40am, he’s already on his first pot of porridge. At midday, he shuffles off to the pub next door before returning for one last pot of porridge and departing by taxi, circa 4pm.

One sunny day the other week, Porridge-Loving Pensioner went a bit crazy. He hobbled over to me and whispered that a strawberry milkshake was coming my way. I just nodded and smiled back at him, thinking, ‘he’s finally gone doolally.’

Then, 10 minutes later, a woman appeared in the doorway with a tray full of strawberry milkshakes and Porridge-Loving Pensioner started handing them out to all the Caffe Nero customers – me included!

He was the Milky Bar Kid gone rogue.

To this day, I have no idea where the milkshakes or the woman even came from. And I’m a little unsure on the policy of slurping non-Nero shakes on their premises.

It’s been a couple of weeks now Porridge-Loving Pensioner’s Milkshake Moment of Madness. He’s now retreated back into his corner to tuck into Jackie Collins’ latest bestseller.

The other day, I ordered my coffee and sat down with my laptop across from him.

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There was a sudden scuffle from behind and an avalanche of Cadbury’s Eclairs landed in the table in front of me.

I turned to see Porridge-Loving Pensioner’s wizened face leaning in.

‘Friends for life,’ he said.

A Royal Affair

After all my silly forebodings and hat-based hoo-ha, Royal Ascot turned out to be bloomin’ brilliant.

Not least because the following day in Windsor, I found myself standing less than a metre away from the Queen, who gave me a wave, and then I nearly got run over by Prince Philip and his horses!

But first, Royal Ascot. The sun shone brightly, the champagne flowed freely, and fears of the Daily Mail’s ‘Chavscot‘ label appeared to be unfounded. It was feathers and finery as far as the eye could see from our Silks Lawn enclosure (and I even managed a last-minute hat upgrade).

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Of course, the day wouldn’t have been complete without at least one character in residence. Sarky Mark had been put in charge to ensure the day ran smoothly and boy, did he take his role seriously. From barking orders, ushering us into taxis and rationing the champagne, he was Head of Field Ops gone crazy.

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As drinks were handed out, Sarky Mark came round to explain the toileting procedure. The company had purchased eight special toilet passes (at £100 each!). If you wanted to use the toilet, you had to take a token from the pot on the bar but one must ensure the token went BACK IN THE POT.

Every now and then, he would do a circle of the enclosure, rattling the plastic pot and demanding any toilets tokens to be handed in. One poor guy even got accused of going to the toilet too many times!

At 1.30pm, I began to feel very hungry. I trotted over to Sarky Mark and tentatively asked as to whether any food was coming out. It was. But Sarky Mark was guarding his sandwiches and cakes like a Rottweiler.

He consulted his time sheet. ‘You’ll have to wait until 2pm,’ he said, officiously.

‘We’re doing sandwiches then and the cakes can be eaten at 3pm.’

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‘I’ve got very low blood sugar,’ I said, quite truthfully. ‘I can’t wait any longer.’

‘Blood sugar?!” sneered Sarky Mark, scornfully.

He reluctantly handed me a pack of his rationed sandwiches, which I meekly took.

Sarky Mark also doubled up as security. As he was surveying his domain from the sandwich table, he spotted a couple of rogue race-goers entering his private enclosure. Like a guard dog, he was ON IT, instantly escorting the trespassers off the premises.

The problem was that when Sarky Mark left his sandwich post, all hell broke loose. Within two minutes, all his sandwiches had gone and people started on the cake too!

I pottered over to see how Mark was dealing with this cake ambush. He seemed very flustered.

‘You’re back,’ he snarled. ‘You’re like a grazing goat! What could you possibly want now?’

A GRAZING GOAT?! This was corporate hospitality at its finest.

I didn’t dare tell him that I’d lost one of his toilet passes.

The next day, the husband and I rose early. We were going to see Her Majesty The Queen! The owner of the company who had invited us to Ascot had told us that at 10.50am every Sunday morning, the Queen drives herself from Windsor Castle to church in her old green Jaguar.

Apparently, despite the streets of Windsor being chocabloc with tourists, hardly anyone knows this fact, apart from the locals.

When we pitched up at the gate at the top of the Long Walk, there was only a smattering of people milling around. Surely it wasn’t possible that the Queen herself would nonchalantly come driving down here?

Then at 10.47, a single policeman, appeared. He opened the gate. It was happening!

Suddenly a solitary green Jaguar appeared and started down the hill, two pairs of eyes and a little yellow hat peering over the steering wheel. She was coming at speed towards us…

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The husband and I waved furiously; she grinned, took her hand of the wheel for a moment and waved back. We were literally so close, the car almost brushed past us.

Trying to wave at the monarch and take pictures in tandem is tricky. But here’s the shots we managed:

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And here’s her regal wave (just for us!)…

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As we pottered back down the back streets, we were so busy chortling about our cool encounter, that the husband and I didn’t notice the horse and cart coming up behind us. We jumped out of the way to avoid being mowed down by four sets of hooves.

I glanced at the man driving it. He was very old. ‘He’s old to be doing tourist trips,’ I mused.

I was busy admiring the matching horses, when the husband hissed, ‘Wait a minute… it’s Prince Philip.’

It WAS Prince Philip! I hastily snapped a couple of pics. It was a dual royal spot.

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An hour later, we ambled back to the Long Walk to watch for the Queen returning from church.

At 12 noon, we saw the green jag in the distance. There she was weaving in and out of pedestrians on The Long Walk, who were completely oblivious that Her Majesty was at the wheel.

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As she drove back up, I waved furiously. I may have even done a little curtsey. She waved back at me again!

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I’m no Royalist but it was one of the best mornings ever.

Mad Hatter

Maybe I’ve seen too many Daily Mail pictures of fleshy women in skin-tight dresses, staggering around bawdily, bowls of fruit perched precariously atop their bleached bonces. Or perhaps, it’s the thought of hoards of hoo-ra Henrys quaffing champagne and braying brashly.

I don’t know what it is about the races but I’ve never had an interest in going whatsoever.

So when the husband arrived home from work and announced: ‘We’ve been invited to Royal Ascot!’, instead of saying ‘Wow. That’s great! How lucky am I?’ – like any normal, grateful being – my response went along the line of: ‘Oh no! Now, I’m going to have to get dressed up and drive to the other end of the country to make small talk to drunken people I don’t know, while some horses canter past in the distance.’

I’d much rather spend my Saturday quietly reading The Guardian, sipping an extra-hot-one-shot latte, and mulling over the merits of Mallorca with me old mucker Malcolm (more on him next week!)

In the maelstrom of the end-of-term madness, I pushed the impending Ascot trip to the back of my mind.

But approximately two days before, I woke in a cold sweat with only one thought on my mind: I needed a hat. It was the ultimate first world problem.

I needed a hat but worse still, I didn’t have time to get a hat. I was up to my eyeballs in writing reports and controlling over-enthusiastic children.

Still, from my limited knowledge of Ascot, I knew that attending sans hat was simply not an option.

I hastily jumped on the Royal Ascot website. ‘Skirts must be of modest length, preferably to the knee. Hats must have a base of at least 4cm,’ it said.

Like a true mad hatter, I hared out of work that night and headed straight to town. I had about one hour to procure a hat, otherwise we had a major problem on our hands.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to panic buy a hat but let me tell you now, it’s a hideous experience. First of all, hardly ANYWHERE actually sells the blasted things. You can’t just nip into your local Marks and Sparks and grab one-off the shelf. All the usual haunts in town led to dead ends. The only thing I could find was this garish fuchsia thing in Topshop, which was the size of Jupiter.

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I tried it on. It was HUGE. You could barely see my eyes.

‘Great,’ I thought. ‘No one will try to talk to me because they would just be addressing a giant expanse of pink. I could even tape a copy of the Guardian magazine to the inside of the brim and just sit and read that all day, thus reducing the need to converse with anyone. Perfect!’

I texted my friend Anna the picture. ‘Does this look like a ludicrous sun hat or an acceptably outlandish hat for the races?’

‘Ludicrous sun hat,’ she texted back. ‘Have you not read that Daily Mail’s coverage? It’s too floppy!’

Floppy?!

Floppiness aside, in my panic hat buy, I’d forgotten one critical problem: the size of my head. It’s preposterously small. Some mean people even call me ‘pea head’. This was a new problem for me; quite the opposite of the having feet the size of a man.

For one insane moment, I actually toyed with the idea of MAKING a hat. Surely it was just a case of scrunching some papier mache together and gluing a few feathers on the sides? Perhaps I could even top it off with a bunch of plastic grapes?

But before I could begin my millinery mash-up, I suddenly remembered trusty old Debenhams.

I’d been fighting the need to enter Debenhams because I imagined it quite simply sells the dullest, mumsy-est hats imaginable. Up until that point, I’d still been hoping to stumble across a Philip Treacy-inspired piece, preferably at Primark prices.

Now it was a case of beggars can’t be choosers.

Entering Debenhams, I tried on a taupe number. It made me look like some sort of weird air cadet.

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I donned a pink flowery cloche, which made me look like a deranged Hyacinth Bucket.

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An announcement came over the tannoy. ‘The store will be closing in five minutes.’

I began to feel very, very panicky.

As I exited to street level, another text came through from Anna.

It was a picture of a Saturn-shaped black hat with two peculiar stripy sticks protruding from it.

I texted back. ‘I’ll take it.’