To Fetch A Pail Of Water

This time last week, after being unceremoniously sacked by the gardener (Yep, the gardener we’ve foolishly been paying £16 an hour to – to mainly to sit in the sun, read his newspaper and eat sandwiches for the last year and a half. Details here), I was contemplating a future where our back garden turned into an unruly forest and there was… (first world problem alert!) no-one to mow stripes in my lawn.

There was only one thing for it: become a gardener myself. Despite years of horticultural indifference, I’ve started piously pruning plants with my own bare hands, watering them obsessively, and religiously tuning into Gardeners’ Question Time. I might even get really serious and invest in my own pair of secateurs.

That’s not all. After 18 months of inaction, the builders have descended on the house like a plague of locusts and started stripping it down to the bare bones. I’m trying to not be alarmed by this. Not least because when I peered through the gates, I noticed all the Yorkshire stones had disappeared. Apparently, they’re being stored somewhere for ‘safe-keeping’.

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The good news is, they’ve left us a grand piano. But, as we can’t get it out of the room without disassembling it, it’s only a matter of time before that becomes firewood too.

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It’s probably time for a quick reminder of who’s who in the line-up of characters involved in our ill-fated house renovation.

Prickly planning officers aside, there’s sweet-smelling Jonny from the floor store (details here), who nearly took an injunction out on me after I visited him five times in one week, and affable Gary from Porcelanosa, who has spent many hours with me pouring over every tile in the showroom until a bout of angina nearly finished him off. Luckily for them, we’re a long way off tiles and floors right now – but fear not, I’ll be back!

Last week, I was introduced to our lovely foreman Zak and, after I had recovered from the shock that a teenager appeared to be in charge of building our future home, baby-faced Zak was incredibly obliging and yes, he said he would do everything in his power to retain the cornice in the ground floor rooms and yes, he would take care with the Yorkshire stone and store them somewhere safe etc etc.

‘You know I’m not supposed to just turn up like this,’ I told my new pal Zak.

‘You can come down anytime you like,’ said the baby-faced foreman, with a wink. ‘I won’t tell anyone, if you don’t!’

Anyway, back to the garden. Despite his sudden retirement, I did manage to strong-arm the old gardener into meeting me back down at the house to do a hand-over. This went quite well. It appears we have (amongst other things) a damson tree, blackcurrant bushes and another big old pile of Yorkshire stone hidden away somewhere. Ex-gardener even offered to dig up an Acer bush (below) and re-plant it. It’s the least I can do, he said. Tell me about it!

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To cut along story short, the garden has now become a slight obsession of mine. I’ve taken it upon myself to try and save as many plants as possible from the middle section, which is facing an imminent bull-doze.

Guess what the reluctant and not-so-green-fingered husband spent last Saturday doing with his borrowed spade?!

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(The husband would like to add a disclaimer that this is not his usual gardening get-up. He was about to go for a run before he was ambushed by his botanically-barmy wife and put to task.)

According to those in the gardening know-how, re-planting at this time of year isn’t ideal and the up-rooted plants need watering every day if they are to have any chance of survival.

So, every evening after work (when baby-faced Zak and co. have clocked off), I’ve been sneaking down to the house to water said plants.

There’s just one problem: I can’t actually gain access. This is because the builders have completed barricaded the site (to stop would-be Yorkshire stone thieves and nosy owners, no doubt).

But as it turns out, breaking into your own home is a lot of fun.

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On Thursday evening, I parked up as usual, looked around me to check no-one was watching, and then clambered inelegantly over the fence next door (clutching trusty watering can) and crawled, pretty much on my hands and knees, through the undergrowth to pop out eventually in the garden. Feeling like a criminal, I furtively crept towards the outside tap, only to find they had switched off the water. Drat!

I scrambled back through the rhododendrons and scaled the fence to re-emerge on the road. I scanned the park. Surely there was a source of water nearby? It was the hottest day of the year – the plants needed it!

I pitched up at the door of the The Mansion restaurant nearby, just as the chief waiter was about to lock up.

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‘Excuse me. Would you mind just filling up my watering can? There’s a plant I need to water…’ I faltered.

‘It’s going to take a lot of water for all the plants in the park,’ he said, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

‘It’s only a few plants,’ I pleaded, thinking, ‘he thinks I’m a Mad Plant Lady but I’m just going to have to roll with it’.

Watering can filled, I scuttled back to the house, leapfrogged the fence, crawled back through the undergrowth and… Slosh! … I tripped over a stray plank, sending the sacred water spilling everywhere.

I think it’s time to get a new gardener.

Lawnmower Man

It’s Tuesday morning and I am sat on the wall in the sun opposite our empty house (yep, the house that we bought but still haven’t moved in to. Details here). I’m waiting for a gas engineer to disconnect the gas supply, ready for the building work to finally begin.

I’ve been here for two hours now and naturally there’s no sign of the gas man. A few dog walkers have eyed me suspiciously. A little bunny rabbit just hopped by.

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This time last week I was in the same spot but with sunglasses on, hiding discreetly behind the wheel of my parked car. This is because I was spying on the gardener.

It’s probably time to come clean about what’s been going on here. Since November 2013, I have foolishly been paying a substantial sum of money to the gardener we inherited with the house. Parting with this cash is particularly galling, given that we don’t actually live there. We visit once a month, largely just to check the house is still standing and squatters haven’t taken it hostage.

The gardener has been maintaining the garden for 30 years so it seemed mean to sack him. I’m not sure exactly what he does for his eight hours a week. To my untrained eye, there seems to be quite a lot of weeds around. However, he mows stripes in the lawn. And I’m a sucker for a striped lawn.

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I have never actually met the gardener; I just obligingly transfer large sums of money into his bank account each month. He must think we’re his dream clients and it’s probably no coincidence that he takes three months off over winter to go abroad. I can visualise him in Barbados, surrounded by my bank notes as he chuckles into his cocktail.

Anyway, after 18 months of this madness, I’ve decided to get to the bottom of what he’s actually up to. Quite by coincidence, I drove past the house early one morning and spotted his van there.

‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘Time to find out just what £16 an hour is getting me.’

Resisting the urge to get the binoculars out of the glove compartment, I pulled over and peered through the gates. He was sat reading a newspaper!

‘Fair enough,’ I thought. ‘Everyone deserves a break.’

I decided to return at midday. Pulling up outside the house, I could see him eating sandwiches in his van. It seemed like one long lunch break for this horticultural joker!

At 2pm, I returned for a third time. He was gone! According to his invoices, he’s supposed to work an eight hour day. If he had departed by 2pm, that means he would have had to start work at 6am. This seemed unlikely, lunch break or no lunch break. I smelled a rat.

The next day, I phoned old greenfingers and left an answerphone message asking him call me.

I didn’t hear anything for a week. In the meantime, a large bill came through my letter box.

‘He’s probably back sunning himself in Barbados,’ I thought grimly.

I toyed with the idea of installing CCTV or perhaps a clocking-in system to monitor his hours. I was all prepared to stake out the house for a whole day, if necessary.

But then the gardener finally rang and left an answerphone message.

‘Hello Katy,’ he said. ‘I’m just ringing to let you know that I’m semi-retiring. I haven’t minded keeping things ticking over for you but it’s a long way for me to drive from Otley and it’s probably time for me to step down.’

What?! I’d been sacked by my own gardener. And worse still, despite the thousands of pounds I’d paid him, he made it sound like he’d been doing me a favour!

So there we have it. I now require a new gardener. It’s a coveted role: flexible working hours, extensive lunch breaks, three-months off over winter, dealing with clients who wouldn’t know a dandelion from a rhododendron (but must have the skill to mow stripes in lawn). Apply within.

(Oh and yes, the owner of the house may secretly stalk you.)

Cock Robin

I realise there’s not been much of an update on the Caffè Nero soap opera for a while.

In all honesty, it’s been pretty quiet: Porridge-Loving Pensioner is long gone, sadly. I suspect he might have been carted off to an Old People’s Home and I doubt we’ll ever see him again.

Weepy Widower Peter is still moping around and is even more forlorn than usual, after being dumped by his wholly-unsuitable love interest. Peter spends a lot of time lamenting his lost love, banging his fist on the table and saying, ‘I’ve been a damn fool.’

I don’t like to tell him that the 30-year age gap might have been a problem.

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‘Back in the day, I was Cock Robin,’ he told me. ‘I had a 50 inch chest and 18in biceps.’

Peter believes that the reason for being dumped is that his love interest already has a boyfriend, who according to Peter is a controlling psychopath.

‘He’s a bad bastard,’ Pete told me. ‘I can sniff out a rotter a mile away.

‘The problem is she’s being controlled by that man. All these women are. I know because I watched a programme on Panorama about it.’

In the background, Loopy Linda is still stomping around, tutting at small children and falling out with Peter (‘he’s a petulant child’). She has also developed a fixation with the fact I’m from Lancashire, where she spends a lot of time dealing her antiques.

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Yesterday, she came up to me and said, ‘I was in Last Drop Village yesterday and I thought of you.’

I stared blankly at her for a moment as she stood smiling at me intently, awaiting some acknowledgement of this.

‘Ah, Last Drop Village,’ I said, weakly. ‘I only know it vaguely.’

‘Well, it was a complete dump,’ she said savagely and turned on her heel.

Enter Mad Malcolm stage left, resplendent in his best suit. Malcolm has been schmoozing with a younger woman, who he sips lattes with. I think this is a bit dodgy, given that he has an ailing wife cooped up at home.

‘Malcolm thinks he’s the oracle,’ observed Peter bitterly. ‘He rocks up in his flashy overcoat. It’s all one big ego trip for him. He just wants the attention.’

I’ve developed a bit of a fixation myself… with Ginger Colin Firth, who I’ve renamed ‘Frazzled Firth’.

Frazzled Firth is usually in Nero at the weekend, attempting – and failing miserably – to control his two sticky-fingered children who seem to spend most of their Saturday morning hurling bits of cake at him.

Meanwhile, his glamour puss wife breezes around in the background, with perfectly blow dried hair and ruby red lips.

I also vaguely know Firth from the gym. He’s part of a crew of men who do a rowing session at 6am, including previous blog stars, Big Grey Man and – perversely – my old Nero nemesis… Legs!

Yesterday, Firth was sat with his head in his hands on the sofa, while his two unruly children were using him as a human punchbag.

Glamour Puss Wife was hovering somewhere in the background, perfectly made-up as ever. She dropped off a tray of coffees and muffins, and then went and sat on the other side of the room to enjoy a civilised coffee with her friend!

‘You look like you’ve got your hands full,’ I said to Frazzled Firth.

‘Tell me about it,’ said Firth, wearily.

‘Our house it too small, the kids are hard work and I’m trying to get my business off the ground.’

I looked up to see the Glamour Puss Wife shooting daggers at me.

Peter told me that Firth’s wife is a high-maintenance career woman who leaves all the child care to him. Their marriage, he claims, is being held together by a thread. Blimey!

But back to Peter. After his latest love disaster, he’s back on the prowl. Sometimes, he dines alone in his favourite Italian, looking for people to talk to.

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‘You’d think dating at my age would be easy but it’s more complicated than ever,’ he sighs.

‘The thing is I’m just looking for friendship.’

He gives a wink.

‘Well, that’s what I tell them,’ he says, adopting a suggestive tone.

‘But never say never!’

‘Hey,’ he suddenly says. ‘You won’t tell anyone about any of this, will you?’

‘Of course not!’ I say, innocently.

‘I mean, who would I tell?’

Mother… And The Londoners

Blog star mother – aka student landlady extraordinaire – hasn’t been caught on camera for some time.

But here she is… rhapsodising about meeting two new London students straight off the Megabus for an unscheduled guided tour of Preston – and recalling the time her and my father stumbled across some alternative characters at Camden Lock…

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/127398789″>Mother&#8230; and The Londoners</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user33278695″>Palmersan</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Monkey Fingers

The Nando’s obsession is over! Well, it’s not quite over: let’s just say it’s been usurped by an equally-addictive and gruesomely-unhealthy eaterie that goes by the name of Meat Liquor.

I’m not quite sure how to describe Meat Liquor. It’s part of a rising tide of restaurants all purporting to be the ‘all-American dining experience’: vying for business with the likes of Gourmet Burger King, Byron’s and Red’s True Barbecue (a hellish place where you are basically force-fed mounds of meat and have to lie down for at least an hour after to recover).

But back to Meat Liquor. The name itself conjures up images of shot glasses being filled with the slimy, fattening juices of a plumped-up Christmas turkey. In reality, it’s a stripped down burger joint that largely serves root beer and sticky chicken wings.

Once you’re in its greasy clutches, there really is no escape.

Let’s backtrack slightly. The husband and I have recently developed this weird weekend ritual. This is how is goes. We park up in Headingley at approximately 1pm on Saturday. We visit Salvo’s Salumeria for lunch, partaking in their pasta special (no one cooks a better pasta).

From there, we set off on foot into the city, occasionally – depending on the weather and levels of greed – buying an ice-cream en-route from the excellent Ecco Pizzeria.

The two-mile urban walk down Otley Road weaves its way past a number of intriguing locations. Just past the bustle of central Headingley and the famous Original Oak beer garden, there’s a strange place set back slightly from the road called Hinsley Hall. And in its grounds – just a stone’s throw from students staggering past on the Otley Run – are grazing horses. Yep, horses in Headingley! Who knew?!

We continue past a clutch of beautiful Victorian villas, which once stood grand in their heyday but have now been carved up and populated by students. It’s quite a sad old sight (spot the dejected husband!).

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But one road in particular Ashwood Villas – home to various University dons with its cobbled entrance and blooming gardens – has managed to retain some of its original charm (spot the happy husband!).

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Ambling past various vintage shops and hippy hangouts, the route cut through Woodhouse Moor (often mistakenly called Hyde Park, much to the annoyance of locals) and the public toilets that were converted into a curry house years ago (but let’s be honest, never really lost their public toilets feel).

Eventually, after a pitstop at Friends of Ham for a class of Malbec (a brilliant little city centre bar that probably deserves a blog all of its own), we pitch up at the purple-curtained entrance our old friend Meat Liquor (I’m not sure on the thinking behind the purple curtain but it does make you feel like you’re entering a lap dancing bar).

Down the stairs we go, where we are greeted by a big-bellied, bearded hipster, who the husband and I have long called Ageing Hipster.

Ageing Hipster always asks if we’ve booked a table. We never have, so he huffs and puffs a little bit and scrolls through his computer system, while over his shoulder all we can see scores of empty tables. (I think Meat Liquor must have some kind of policy of trying to make themselves more popular than they actually are – a dangerous strategy, which I fear could ultimately spell their downfall.)

Meat Liquor is a dark basement restaurant, set to a backdrop of red lights, canteen-style wooden walls, parquet flooring and poster print wallpaper, emblazoned – ironically – with mock headlines like ‘Veggies on the rampage’ and ‘Fury of meat mentalists’.

In the corner of the room, is another stab at irony: a shimmery-curtained DJ area, which wouldn’t look out of place in Phoenix Nights.

On the formica tables, are an array of back-to-basics condiments and kitchen roll, while in the background they pump out a selection of indie rock: anything from Ocean Colour Scene, Michael Jackson, Pet Shop Boys and Guns and Roses.

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The menu itself is a stripped-back selection of burgers, American-style starters and various slaws (incidentally, when DID coleslaw get shortened to slaw?) all served up on plastic trays, with not a knife and fork in sight.

But one thing Meat Liquor have fallen victim to is the horrendous new trend of unisex toilets, also trailblazed by Everyman cinema. Restaurant and bar designers please take note: women do not want to share their toilets with smelly, drunken men, who leave the toilet seat up and basically wee everywhere but in the toilet itself.

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Disorientating decor and terribly toilets aside, there’s only one reason the husband and I have continue to frequent the dimly-lit depths of Meat Liquor. And that is for their hot wings, aka Bingo Wings on the menu.

Quite simply, they’re the best hot wings in town. They come as a starter but the husband and I are so obsessed with them, we have contemplated having a set of hot wings as our starter and then another set as our main, the burger being merely an after-thought.

For weeks, we’ve been heading to Meat Liquor now, gorging on piles  of hot wings, washed down with lashings of root beer.

But then the other weekend, the waitress said: ‘If you like hot wings, why don’t you try our monkey fingers; they’re basically identical to hot wings without the bones!’

A boneless version of our favourite-ever dish? The husband and I thought this sounded ideal so we ordered a set of monkey fingers along with a set of standard hot wings – for safety measures, of course.

But when the monkey wings arrived, they weren’t like hot wings at all: they were great slimy tendrils of deep-fried gloop.

Being ‘monkey fingered’ has now become some sort of euphemism for ill-fated greed and excess.

And because they had the same sweet-sour taste as the original hot wings and we felt the need to persevere in our consumption of them, we ended the meal clutching our stomachs in disgust and swearing never to darken the door of Meat Liquor again.

But of course, we found ourselves back in the greasy lair only the very next week.

Groundhog Chalet

Help! The husband and I are trapped in a ski chalet in the middle of nowhere, forced to socialise with strangers for four nights.

It’s like a bad episode of Come Dine With Me meets Big Brother.

We did, of course, bring this all on ourselves. We should have done the sensible thing and booked into a hotel for our Easter getaway. I had managed to find a lovely hotel on the slopes; it came with an indoor swimming pool, roaring fires and a guarantee that we wouldn’t have to converse with any other guests.

However, I’d also been tempted by the last minute offer of a room in this remote chalet, which can only be accessed by James Bond-style skidoos (I’m a sucker for a gimmick). The owner said there was only four other people staying – a couple with their daughter and boyfriend. Could it really be that bad?

‘There’s two options for the mini-break,’ I told the husband. ‘We can stay in a relaxing ‘ski-in, ski-out’ hotel where we can sip a glass of Chablis by a crackling fire and read our books in peace – or we can plump for a chalet where we will probably be forced to make small talk with four other strangers every night.

‘Let’s try a chalet again,’ said the husband. ‘After all, how bad can it be? Let’s be honest,  they can’t be any worse than Carol and Martin.’

Oh yes, Carol and Martin. Our previous and only taste of chalet-cationing was with quite an eclectic mix of characters in January 2012.

They included: a pair of fun-seeking lads from Chorley, a man and wife from Birmingham with a 9-month old baby, a chain-smoking couple from Geneva, and our party-loving pals who we’d invited along (they also proved the perfect social shield when we inevitably sloped off the bed early).

And then there was Carol and her hen-pecked husband Martin. Carol was a preposterously posh, slightly-bonkers housewife, bordering on parody. She actually claimed – hilariously – to be working class yet lived in a 6-bedroom manor house in the middle of the country, skied about four times a year and sent her daughters to private school.  She wore her hair in strange, little-girl plaits and had a permanent look of disapproval about her. This might just be that she was unfortunate enough to have quite a long, banana-shaped face.

Carol was incredibly feeble and only seemed to managed a couple of hours on the slopes, before staggering back into the chalet and crying, ‘I think I need a large G and T urgently.’

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To be honest, Carol was quite fun dinner company for an evening or two but after several nights of her plummy drawl and constant references to her manor house back in Somerset, it started to get a bit wearing.

The husband and I developed a daft little obsession with Carol and Martin. After the holiday, the husband would occasionally cry ‘Carol’ to me in a silly psuedo-sexual voice and I’d breathily gush ‘Marrrtin’ back.

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So, three years on, it was with some trepidation that we finally arrived in Morzine on Thursday to be greeted by a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in a green Landrover (the skidoos unfortunately being out of action due to lack of snow). He really did look like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. See evidence below:

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‘The other guests have already arrived,’ said Young Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the Landrover bumped and bounced us into the wilderness. ‘They’ve agreed to hold back dinner until you get here. They’re really looking forward to meeting you.’

‘Great!’ I squeaked, while simultaneously looking wide-eyed at the husband, and thinking, ‘this is far more intense than I ever imagined’.

‘WE MAY HAVE MADE A TERRIBLE MISTAKE.’

We pulled up to the chalet and the hostess was waving at us a little too keenly from the front door. All thoughts of sitting in solitude in the corner and reading my book were rapidly evaporating.

‘They’re here!’ cried intense hostess over her shoulder. She held out her outstretched hand. ‘Come on in.’

The other guests were sat cosily in a circle around the fire, two empty seats awaiting us. But as they rose to greet us, I froze in abject horror.

Two familiar faces – one particularly long and banana-shaped – were smiling politely back at us, without so much as a flicker of recognition.

‘Meet your fellow guests,’ said the intense hostess in her sing-song voice.

‘This is Carol and this is Martin.’

The Old Faithful

There comes a time in your 30s when the sad realisation of, ‘I’m just not that cool anymore’ suddenly dawns on you.

That moment came for me a couple of years ago, when I was teaching an English lesson and one of my pupils mentioned they liked Nicki Minaj.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of him,’ I said, to a chorus of incredulous laughter (yeah, yeah, I know, Nicki Minaj is a woman).

Last night was another of those moments; I’d bought the husband tickets to go and see Paloma Faith at Leeds Arena for his birthday. Due to the fact I eschewed Radio 1 for Radio 4 some years ago, I’m unashamedly out of touch with popular culture.

Still, the husband once mentioned he liked Paloma Faith. And given that he’s the most difficult person ever to buy birthday presents for, I immediately pounced on this small nugget of information.

Tickets procured, I casually mentioned to the husband one evening, ‘You really like Paloma Faith, don’t you?’

‘Not particularly,’ he yawned, looking up from his copy of New Scientist.

Drat.

Anyway, off we trundled to Leeds Arena last night… basically thinking, ‘We’re off to see Paloma Faith… Aren’t we cool? How down with the kids are we? (Tip from a teacher: if you actually want to be down with the kids, never, ever utter the words, ‘Aren’t I down with the kids?’)

Now, I envisaged arriving at the gig and being greeted by a sea of young hipsters. I’d even rummaged out my old Vivienne Westwood coat from the mothballs for a bit of Paloma-esque quirk factor.

So imagine our shock to rock up to the 13,000-capacity stadium to be greeted by…. vast hoards of old people. There were people in their 40s, 50s, and scores of grey-haired pensioners. In fact, from our seat in Block 104, I couldn’t locate a single person under the age of 30.

For one insane moment, I actually thought we’d stumbled into a Barry Manilow concert by accident – before realising there was only one arena in Leeds.

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‘Why are all these old people here?’ said the husband, as he took his seat next to a particularly irascible looking 60-something-year-old, whose bespectacled wife had her foot in a plaster cast jutting out into the aisle.

‘I don’t know,’ whispered the husband. ‘But I’m sat next to The Incredible Bulk; he’s spilling into my seat.’

‘I think we’ve woefully underestimated the demograph,’ I whispered. ‘I thought Paloma was cool – we’ve been hoodwinked!’

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‘This is a nightmare for Paloma,’ said the husband. ‘How can she possibly have any street cred when you’ve got Brenda and Beryl behind us bobbing along to the beats. It’s really bad for her brand.’

The arena darkened and on bounded Paloma.

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I glanced behind me to see some of the oldies on their feet, singing along to her opening number and doing what I could only describe as an embarrassing ‘Dad dance’.

‘You may mock Dad’s Army over there,’ I said to the husband. ‘But I tell you what, they know all the words to the songs.’

Meanwhile, Brenda and Beryl behind us had been getting increasingly drunk and raucous, waving their hands around and sloshing white wine down the back of my neck.

The husband was looking increasingly annoyed and kept glancing irritably over his shoulder, as did The Incredible Bulk.

‘Do not engage with Beryl,’ I whispered in his ear. ‘She is volatile and could turn violent. I repeat, DO NOT ENGAGE!’

‘Stand up,’ yelled Beryl. ‘Everyone stand up.’

She reached out and grabbed hold of my shoulder as I shrank away in fear. Losing her balance, she toppled forward on top of the husband – who was instantly doused in more Pinot Grigio!

‘Be quiet!’ growled The Incredible Bulk, who up to now, had been watching the show impassively, without so much as a flicker of excitement. His invalid wife pursed her lips in disapproval and clutched her injured leg protectively.

‘We’ve come to here to have a nice time and listen to the music.’

‘Shut up yerself,’ snarled Beryl.

From out of nowhere, a security man arrived. I silently pointed at them and made a discreet throat-slashing motion with my hand.

Beryl and Brenda were escorted out, staggering as they exited. They were never seen again.