La Dolce Vita

It’s Friday night and the husband arrives home from work.

‘Are we going to the Thai?’ he says.

The local Thai has become a Friday night fixture. We go so often now that the woman who runs it has begun to giggle inanely when we set foot in the door. She foists free mango sorbet upon us, and throws in the occasional basket of complimentary prawn crackers. We’ve taken to bowing to her with our hands clasped as we leave.

‘We could go for a civilised meal at the Thai,’ I said.

‘Or… we could roam down to our local grubby Pizza Hut, snap up a £5 pizza each on their ‘Special 5′ deal, and eat it on a park bench.’

‘Pizza on a park bench!’ says hubby.

We’ve developed a new hobby of eating pizzas on park benches, walls – and even one of those yellow grit bins at the end of the road. It’s a lot of fun. Go and try it. There’s something reassuringly back to basics about shivering on street corners, chomping your way through a pizza that you’ve managed to procure for a mere fiver.

If it takes off, it could even be developed as some form of middle-class therapy: kind of reconnecting with your youth. And I suppose you could go the whole hog and wash it down with a bottle of Diamond White while you’re at it.

After a couple of drinks at the bar up the road (the giant dog was in situ again. It was Friday night after all; he’s almost a regular now), we wandered down to Pizza Hut to collect our pepperoni feasts.

We were greeted by a portly man of dubious hygiene, who grunted and then disappeared into the back to forage for our pizzas. He looked like Mr Twit.

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Our local Pizza Hut is basically a shed attached to the end of a row of shops, largely staffed by scruffy-looking students. It looks absolutely filthy and is probably over-run with rodents gnawing on left-over pizza crusts in the backyard. But when the pizzas only cost £5, you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.

We wandered up the road, sat on a yellow grit bin and started working our way through the two medium-sized feasts.

‘I think I’m going to have half here and then half back at home,’ I said.

‘It’s an interesting strategy,’ said the husband. ‘My only fear is that it will be too cold by the time you get home.’

‘Not if you close the lid in between each slice and contain the warmth,’ I said.

As we greedily chomped away, two police officers came strolling towards us.

‘Evening, officer,’ said the husband, in a terribly British voice.

‘Evening, officer,’ I chirped.

The policeman and policewoman didn’t return our greeting, choosing to stare at us curiously instead.

I don’t know what is about encountering a couple of bobbies on the beat that turns one into an extra from Midsomer Murders. When I see a police officer, I immediately transform into a blustering buffoon, convinced that I’ve got something to hide.

As the police officers eyed us suspiciously, I had to fight the urge to say, ‘There’s nothing to see here officers: just me and my double pepperoni pizza. We don’t want any trouble!’

The police officers moved on and we ambled home.

‘Did you know that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found with 70 bags of heroin in his apartment? 70 bags! ‘ mused the husband.

‘It’s very sad,’ I said.

‘I think he might have been my favourite actor in the last 20 years,’ added the husband.

‘Really?!’ I said. ‘In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you so much as utter the words Phillip Seymour Hoffman, let alone proclaim he’s your favourite-ever actor!’

‘If was found dead in an apartment, I’d probably be surrounded by 50 empty boxes of double pepperoni pizza,’ said the husband, sadly.

Back at the ranch, the husband chewed thoughtfully.

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‘Do you think that Pizza Hut tell people about the ‘Special 5′ deal or do you think they allow people to just stumble in and blindly order a medium-sized pizza for £9.95, knowing that they could get it for £5?’ pondered the husband.

‘I’ve no idea,’ I said. ‘But next Friday, let’s give it a go. We’ll go in pretending we don’t know about the deal and see what happens. And if hairy man keeps us in the dark about the deal, we’ll reveal all.’

‘Next Friday is Valentine’s Day,’ said the husband.

‘Even better!’ I said.

Shooting The Breeze With OAPS

I already have a very unhealthy relationship with Caffè Nero, spending around £1000 a year there purely to fund my coffee addiction.

But now I’ve managed to encourage a whole band of eccentrics who seem determined to befriend me, despite my generally aloof demeanour.

First, there’s the old man who sits in the corner all day eating porridge. He’s become a regular fixture in the last six months and now he’s there so often he’s practically part of the furniture.

When Caffè Nero opens at 7.30am, here’s already in position by the window, spoon in hand. Goldilock’s Three Bears have nothing on this old dude; he eats a least five pots of porridge a day, often staring forlornly out of the window.

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When I first set eyes on him, I thought he looked a bit lonely, so I threw him a beaming smile as I clattered out with my take-out coffee on my way to work.

And you know what he did… he scowled back at me cantankerously.

Undeterred, I continued to smile every morning, always receiving a frown back. This little game went on for about a month.

And then finally – a breakthrough! The scowl turned to a grimace… which finally became a smile. In recent weeks, I’ve even been getting a little wave from him. It feels good.

And then today, as I type away… the biggest breakthrough yet. Porridge-Loving Pensioner actually mouthed over to me, ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’, holding his teapot aloft.

‘I’m okay,’ I mouthed back. ‘I’ve got a coffee.’ I held up my cup to prove this, and hid back behind my laptop.

Porridge-Loving Pensioner appears to have turned from a miserly Victor Meldrew to a warm-hearted Werther’s Original grandad in a matter of months.

I even saw him offering a small child a sweet the other day.

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I was just getting back to work when there was a bang on the window – and a round, beaming face peered through the glass at me. Oh lordy… it was my portly friend The Italian Wanderer. I’ve known of The Italian Wanderer for a couple of years now but I’ve purposely been keeping a low profile for fear of encouraging him.

The Italian Wanderer is one of the stranger characters out of the motley bunch. He’s in Caffè Nero nearly every night with his Italian brother: a taller, goofier version of himself.

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I think they quite fancy themselves as a pair of extras in Goodfellas. But if I was to cast them in a movie, they’d play two hapless henchman, permanently scratching their heads and bumping into each other in a clownish fashion (if you think of those bungling burglars in Home Alone, you kind of get the picture).

I gave The Italian Wanderer his moniker due to his strange penchant for wandering the streets for hours on end. Come rain or shine, he walks up and down Harrogate Road all evening long (brother nowhere to be seen). This is no exaggeration. Sometimes he takes a break from the roam – and sits at the bus-stop watching the world go by.

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I’m mildly intrigued by his nomadic lifestyle but I haven’t dared to probe beyond a friendly wave for fear of Getting Too Involved.

Getting Too Involved is basically where you go beyond a simple smile and wave and descend into full-blown conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I like a smile and wave with an eccentric on the best of days, but I’m a solitary soul at heart – and the last thing I want to do is start sharing coffees and ruminating on life with these oddities.

Last week, The Italian Wanderer accosted me in Caffè Nero and starting firing a series of probing questions my way, ending with, ‘Is it okay if I say hello to you from now on?’

‘Of course!’ I said, smiling in what I hoped was a friendly but not-too-encouraging manner.

Talking of Getting Too Involved, one person I have Got Very Involved with is widower Peter (documented in My Coffee Shop Friend). He looks scarily like the bad guy ‘Mike’ from Breaking Bad.

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Well, it turns out Peter has a friend: Malcolm – another retiree at large, who keeps coming over to talk to me. I say ‘talk to me’ but he sort of wanders over and mumbles for a while, smiling in a vacant way before wandering off again – sometimes mid-sentence.

I usually hide behind my laptop under the guise of Being Terribly Busy but the other day, I was on the receiving end of a two-pronged attack from Peter and Malcolm, who came and sat with me for an hour regaling me with tales of Leeds’ glorious past. I secretly loved it.

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It transpires that they were both avid body builders back in the day, and trained with none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who joined them in Leeds for a year, living in a small flat in Crossgates (who knew?!), along with local legend Reg Park (former Mr Universe, no less).

Peter and Malcolm love to jest that they’ve managed to pick up a young girl (me!) and sometimes even comment on the length of my skirt!

‘It’s a nice outfit,’ says Peter. ‘Let’s just say, I’m not complaining.’

Malcolm nods along, approvingly.

When I go into Caffè Nero at the weekend with the husband, I’m now getting waves from all corners of the room – mainly from the over 60s.

The Husband is astonished.

‘Don’t you GET INVOLVED!’ he says.

Barking Mad

I went to our local bar Further North for a glass of wine – and found myself sharing a table with a giant dog.

This was no ordinary Fido; it was a gargantuan, slavering brute of a thing that took up a whole space of its own.

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When it opened its mouth to yawn, its jaw was so big, I was nearly swallowed whole.

Perhaps its presence wouldn’t have been quite so odd if it wasn’t a: Friday night and b: the bar wasn’t the size of a shoebox.

My friend Sally-Ann thought this was the most preposterous thing she had ever witnessed.

‘What is that dog even doing here?’ she hissed, sipping on her glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

‘I think it’s actually having a pint!’ I whispered back.

‘He’s only brought it here because it says ‘Dogs Welcome’ on the door,’ mused Sally-Ann.

‘I’m sure my pet hamster would be welcome here too but I’m not going to go home and get him – just because I can!’

The next week, we went for another drink at Further North. This time there were two mutts in residence – a Labrador reclining by the door and another dog of indeterminable breed lying flat-out in the middle of the floor.

The bar only holds about 25 people in total – soon we could be overrun by hounds!

I’m generally quite frightened of dogs, especially if they jump up, lick or bark loudly. I once got bowled over by a neighbour’s dog, aged 3 – and I’ve never quite recovered. My friend’s dog recently licked my bare leg and I had an overwhelming urge to dash home and have a shower.

I still like the idea of having a companion to take for walk. But if I was to ever acquaint myself with a four-legged friend, it would basically have to be lazy, mute, with limited salivation. And if it could refrain from moulting all over my Laura Ashley sofa, that would be a bonus.

The husband would love a dog, after the death of his childhood pooch: Trixie. 20 years on, he can’t talk about Trixie without his eyes misting over. He loved that dog.

My mum, on the other hand, believes that getting a dog is a bad idea because you’ll just be too upset when they die. This is quite a strange theory. But then she has got some peculiar ideas.

But what dog should one get? My friend has a Wire-Haired Fox Terrier and it resembles a giant teddy bear. When you’re having a conversation, it cocks its head to the side as if listening carefully. It also has a fairly aloof personality, which I admire.

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In my eyes, the Wire-Haired Fox Terrier is only usurped by three other breeds: the Bearded Collie; the Old English Sheep Dog and the Cockapoo. Here’s a selection that I’ve encountered recently – including a sad-looking St Bernard.

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The Husband has ruled out all of the above for a variety of reasons; too hairy; too lively; too slobbery; not MANLY enough. He also pointed out the problem with having a dog is that dogs attract other dogs, many of which I’m frightened of.

On reflection, I think we’d have to plump for the humble – but no less loveable – Golden Retriever.

My friend Abi has recently acquired a dog; a Shar-Pei. It’s lovely but very boisterous. It jumps up a lot and licks me voraciously. I’m terrified.

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When I go round to her house, she shouts through the letter box, ‘I’m going to open the door now. The dog’s in training – can you just ignore her.’

‘Don’t worry – I was planning to!’ I cry, before the door swings open, a blur of brown fur and pink tongue rushes to greet me, and I pin myself up against the wall – like a plank – until the commotion is over.

Here is a picture of me attempting to take it for a walk, although I suspect the reverse is true.

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One bonus of having a dog – particularly if you’re single – is that it attracts a lot of attention. Last summer, Abi found herself fending off advances from fellow dog walkers in the park.

We tried to coin a phrase for the newly-discovered phenomenon of dog flirtation but couldn’t. Smokers have ‘smirting’ – but ‘dirting’ and ‘flogging’ just sounded plain seedy.

Abi phoned me the other night.

‘Fancy a drink at Further North?’ she said. ‘I’ve just found out you can take dogs there!’

I had visions of the dog careering around the tiny bar, knocking over wine glasses, and using my leg like a giant lollipop.

‘Absolutely not,’ I said.

My Mother-In-Law… and the Towel Obsession

Rule no 1 of the blog: Never write about the mother-in-law.

Rule no 2: If you are thinking about writing about the mother-in-law, refer to rule no 1.

Rule no 3: If you really are hellbent on writing about the mother-in-law, make it light-hearted and humorous, and on no account mention behaviours that could be deemed obsessive or eccentric…

I think my mother-in-law has developed an obsession with towels.

I’ve been observing her growing abundance of towels for some years now. But it was only on a recent visit to the in-law’s house that the full scale of her towel-hoarding frenzy was revealed.

As I plonked my weekend bag down in the spare room, the mother-in-law said, ‘I’ve left some towels out for you… but if you need any more, there’s plenty in the spare bathroom.’

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This comment in itself was slightly concerning. There were already four towels on the bed – beautifully matched to the decor. Just how many towels did she think we’d get through in two nights?

In the en-suite, there was another pile of colour-coordinated towels neatly stacked.

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Out of curiosity, I headed to the main bathroom to see the state of play. I flung the large cupboard doors open to reveal…

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… many, many more spare towels – in every possible colour you can imagine.

It was a petsetaphobic’s worst nightmare (that’s someone with a deep-seated fear of towels btw).

Glancing around, I spotted even more towels, nestling in neat piles.

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In total, there were 37 spare towels at my disposal.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my mother-in-law collects towels like one might collect stamps or thimbles.

But I’m not sure how you would wean yourself off a fixation with towels. Cut down on the trips to Dunelm Mill? Steer clear of the towel aisle in old Johnny Lewis? Wean oneself off gradually with say the purchase of a large bath sheet, rather than a whole ‘nest’ (incidentally, who ever really wants a ‘nest’ of towels? There’s always at least two towels in there of an indeterminable size – too small to dry one’s body and too big to pass off as a hand towel.)

As far as addictions go, I think my mother-in-law’s love of towels (petsetaphilia?) is pretty harmless.

At my parents’ house, you’re lucky if you get handed a bobbly old towel, which is usually the size of a postage stamp and as stiff as cardboard (owing to the fact that they don’t believe in costly tumble dryers).

So who I am to turn down a fluffy towel or two – or even 37?

My Parents… and the Christmas Wish List

My phone beeps. It’s a text from the parents: ‘Please can you text us your xmas present lists.’

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Every October, my mother requests a christmas present list from me. If I don’t comply, she will keep texting every week until I give in and text back: ‘I don’t know – just get me a book!’. It’s stressful trying to come up with gifts they can buy for me.

The Christmas Present List works both ways. The parents are not keen on receiving random presents for birthdays and Christmases – for fear of ‘unwanted tat’ taking over their home. So, every year, they present family members with a wish list, that usually contains a series of strangely-practical gifts.

This was my mother’s recent Christmas present list:

  • Prestige 24cm frying pan. Argos catologue no. 861/7134
  • Egg Poachers: Lakeland catalogue no. 12116
  • Nivea face cream
  • Hand cream (Body Shop)
  • Slippers (leather)

The funniest part of this long-held family tradition is that once you’ve sourced the items off the present list, wrapped them up and popped them under the Christmas tree, my mother pretends that she has no idea what she’s getting at all.

As the presents are passed to her, she shakes the box with a convincingly quizzical expression, before feigning mock shock when she finally unwraps her egg poachers: ‘Egg poachers?! My goodness – just what I wanted!’

Despite the parents’ detailed present list, there’s still the occasional surprise come Christmas Day. Uncle Stephen (my mother’s brother) went ‘off list’ last Christmas and splashed out on one of the strangest gifts for my mother yet: a blood pressure monitor (him and my mother are a little obsessed with their cholesteral and blood pressure).

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No sooner was it unwrapped, than the whole family were strapping it onto their arms, in a strangely competitive game of ‘My blood pressure’s lower than yours’.

For my birthday in August, I was forced to provide my own present list. In the end, I asked the parents to get me an ‘Jawbone UP band’ (for more details on this device see Curse of the Cankles – my mother is completely bamboozled by its purpose), and from the sister, I requested a new hairdryer.

Being an obsessive control freak, it didn’t want just any old hairdryer. I wanted a Parlux Ionic 3200, which I had decided on after several hours of reading reviews. I even sent my sister the Amazon link to make things as easy as possible.

I suppose that if was feeling truly helpful, I could just have purchased the presents myself, cutting them out of the equation altogether, and then just getting my sister and the parents to give me the cold hard cash.

But that would mean I wouldn’t be able to slowly unwrap each present with a well-practised look of pseudo-intrigue on my face, and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder what on earth this could be…’

My Father… and his ‘Boat’

One of my parents’ greatest pleasures is chugging down Fowey estuary in Cornwall in their ancient dinghy. They bought the dinghy in 1973 whilst ‘courting’ and named it Chrismick (a hybrid of their names).

The original Chrismick was upgraded to Chrismick mark II in the late 80s – and to this day it lives on, travelling down to Cornwall each year, with occasional ventures onto Lake Windermere.

But whatever you do, never call it a dinghy. In my father’s eyes, it’s a boat: his pride and joy. Better still, it fits into the boot of his car. And nothing gives my father greater joy then driving down the M6 to Cornwall knowing that he has a WHOLE BOAT neatly tucked into his trunk.

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Arriving at Cornwall, my father begins the routine of inflating and launching Chrismick – with his trusty foot pump. As children, my sister and I thought this was a great adventure.

As adults, inflating a boat with feeble puffs of air while pumping your foot up and down repeatedly seems a long and tiresome process.

After about an hour of pumping and puffing, Chrismick is finally launched into the water – and we all pile in.

There follows an audible holding of breath while my father yanks the chain on the rusty engine several times, a pause – and then subsequent cheers when it miraculously splutters into life. The trusty Suzuki engine has never let them down yet.

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The maddest part of this saga is that after a day on the river, my father then begins the long-winded process of deflating the dinghy and folding it back into the boot of his car – ready to relive the arduous process the next day. (He doesn’t trust Chrismick to be left on the water overnight).

My dad loves the challenge of studying his tide times and channels. On a good tide day, you can make it several miles in-land to Lerryn (of Wind In The Willows fame) and stop off for a Cornish cream tea.

This is another of my Dad’s triumphs in Chrismick: Venturing Places Where Real Boats Cannot Go.

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My father proudly claims that Chrismick is a six-man dinghy but five adults is about its limit. Even then, it’s a cosy affair, with my father at the helm and the rest of us perched precariously on its sides, ever fearful that the whole thing might just pop and suddenly deflate.

Occasionally, my father shouts ‘bale’ and one of us has to start scooping out water using a baling device that my father fashioned out of an empty milk carton.

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My father has a long-held dream of taking Chrismick out to sea, quashed only by my mother’s annual protests. Apparently they met a sailor in a pub down there in the 80s, who warned them that the coast in these parts is a perilous place – a story which my father still scoffs at.

But judging by the amount of puncture patches adorning on Chrismick’s faded grey sides, I think my mother’s fears are justified.

The place that my father wants to get to is called Lantic Bay – a secluded cove around the cliff of Polruan. To achieve this dream, my father would need to head out to sea, navigating choppy waters that definitely aren’t meant for an ailing dinghy.

He has been Weighing This Up for the last 40 years – more seriously in the last couple of years (egged on by The Foolhardy Husband).

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In a week’s time, we’re heading down to Cornwall for our annual family jolly.

And I fear that 2013 could be the year that my father, Chrismick – and the husband – finally set out to sea.

The Return Of Dirty Harry

True love has yet to strike for my old mucker Harry.

He appears to be back on the market – or in the window of the local hardware store again, at any rate.

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His original criteria requested someone who is good-looking, with personality AND style. This time, he’s lowered his expectations slightly.

But style isn’t something he will compromise on, citing his need for a ‘special friend’ who can ‘put it together for any occasion’!

Just where is Harry planning on taking this elusive – yet stylish, good-looking and charismatic – companion?

I’m tempted to give him a bell.

Zombies in Paris

Parisians are a strange bunch. Not content with eating frogs legs, laughing in the face of the smoking ban and brandishing baguettes where ever they go, it seems that have taken to zombie-like antics of a weekend.

Wandering through Jardin du Luxembourg last Sunday, I spotted one man participating in what appeared to be a slow-motion fight between himself, two planks of wood and an imaginary antagonist.

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It was only when I peered further through the trees that the true extent of this madness was revealed. Scores of crazed-looking Parisians were all doing what appeared to be a slow-motion zombie dance.

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Faces blank, they followed their leader’s every move, swinging their arms and slowly lifting their legs in unison, oblivious to the world around them. In short, they had been zombified.

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It was like something out of a Simon Pegg film. I scanned the park nervously. Were the husband and I the only ‘normal’ ones left?

Some of them even had sticks.
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I later discovered this new-fangled outdoor pursuit is a form of Tai Chi – or Kata – although the husband is still convinced that it was a Karate Kid convention.  No sane person, he claimed, would partake in such lunacy in a public environment.

I think I’ll stick to jogging.

Going The Extra Mile

If I told you that the parents are happy to make a five-mile drive every Saturday simply to draw some cash out (more on that next week), it might come as no surprise that they think nothing of a 120-mile round trip for lunch.

Yes, no distance is too far for the parents to drive.

They would think nothing, either, of making a two-hour detour just to look at a building my father was vaguely interested in, or trek for miles across the Pennines in search of the source of the River Ribble (it’s a small babble of water in the middle of an isolated field in Yorkshire, for anyone remotely interested).

Once, due to my father’s inherent fear of flying, we drove from Preston to France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium – and back.

In a week.

Needless to say, my only lasting memory of that great cultural adventure was playing Top Trumps with my sister in the back of the car, while gazing at great expanses of Europe passing by in a blur.

One particular episode of my parents’ travelling madness occurred on New Year’s Day 2009, when most of the population were nursing hangovers and quite sensibly padding round the house in their PJs.

Not the parents.

Two days prior, the husband and I had foolishly agreed to accompany them (and the omnipresent Uncle Stephen – more on him later) on a relaxing country drive, hopefully stopping for a bite to eat in some quaint gastropub, en route.

What we didn’t know was that we would spend two nausea-inducing hours pretty much off-roading across the Lake District, with no guarantee of a meal at the end of it.

For someone who spends a maddening amount of time pondering over the simplest of tasks, my father turns into a cross between Lewis Hamilton and Dick Dastardly the minute he gets behind the wheel.

So it was with some trepidation, that the husband and I – feeling a little delicate from the previous night’s festivities – gingerly climbed into the back of my father’s Suzuki Swift (competitively priced, excellent fuel consumption AND one of Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite small cars – just ask the parents) before embarking on our New Year’s Day sojourn from hell.

After an hour heading into the Lake District, we began to climb higher into the hills, the rain lashing down and mist swirling around us (sounds dramatic but it really was). It might have been my imagination but the higher we climbed, the faster my father appeared to be driving, narrowly avoiding the occasional bemused sheep, and pulling over once or twice to study his trusty Ordnance Survey map – with all the intensity of a Man On A Mission.

When I tentatively broached the subject of how much further the place my father had in mind might be (resisting the urge to revert back to the child-like whine of ‘are we nearly here yet?’), it was met with a stony silence. One thing the parents will never do in the face of adversity is admit defeat.

Another hour later, my father conceded that he might be slightly lost. After all, he said, he hadnt visited this pub since 1977. For all he knew it might not even exist anymore. Yes, 1977. This, you see, is all part of the adventure.

So, it was a rather weary car load of travellers that eventually pulled up outside the Blacksmiths Inn, which according to my father, dated back to 1577. Quite an impressive history for a pub that appeared to be in the Middle of Nowhere.

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Stomachs rumbling, we dutifully following my father into its oak-panelled bowels  – only to be met with the news that, as it was New Year’s Day, they were fully booked for lunch and there was no chance of getting anything to eat.

My parents and the perpetually-jovial Uncle Stephen seemed completely unfazed by this news (did I mention that they don’t actually believe in booking restaurants, leaving it purely to the jaws of fate), opting to have a drink instead, ‘now that they were here’, and engaging the landlord in a conversation about the pub’s original gas lamps that my father recalled from his last visit 35 years ago.

The husband and I, on the other hand – battling a strange mix of car sickness and gnawing hunger – were rendered almost speechless, collapsing into some hard-backed chairs and closing our eyes in silent despair.

But the day was to take an unexpected twist. Just as we were meekly sipping our coca-colas and contemplating the long drive back, the phone rang. It was a family of six cancelling their booking. Struck down by a sickness bug. The whole lot of them.

‘You’re in,’ cried the landlord triumphantly, throwing down menus in front of us. ‘Kitchen closes in 30 minutes.’

Fed, watered and hardly able to believe our luck, we clambered back into the Suzuki Swift to brace ourselves for the arduous journey back.

It was only when my father paused to linger over his map, that we realised this adventure might not be over.

‘Now, I’m sure there’s an old water mill around here…’