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>

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.

Party Of One

It’s Saturday night and Leeds city centre is abuzz with happy folk, drinking, eating and shopping.

Somewhere in the middle of this merry revelry is yours truly: dining alone in Nando’s.

It’s a sad old sight. All around me people are chatting animatedly – occasionally casting suspicious/ sympathetic glances in my direction.

How I came to be tucking into a medium-spiced butterfly chicken sans dining partner boils down to two crucial factors:

1. The husband is stuck on a road somewhere in the French Alps. Due to a combination of taxi driver ineptitude, a land slide and a gargantuan boulder blocking the only passable way down the mountain, he has missed his flight home and is currently in an agitated state, attempting to book new flights back from the back of the taxi with limited phone signal and depleting battery power.

2. My addiction to Nando’s (previously blogged about here) is now so great that if I even go one week without sinking my chops into a peri-peri-flavoured meal, I start to get withdrawal symptoms. These can range from nightmares about being attacked by a giant red rooster to swigging peri-peri sauce straight from the kitchen cupboard.

Dining alone, especially on a Saturday night, is a tricky beast to pull off. As I travelled into town, I was already contemplating which of the city’s Nando’s would be best to confidently pull off my Carrie Bradshaw-esque solo dining experience.

Do I go for the quieter Nando’s, discreetly holed away upstairs somewhere? This would reduce the possibility of strange stares from fellow diners, yet almost certainly accentuate my solo-ness.

Or do I go for the bustling Trinity shopping centre where trendy hipsters will be too busy taking selfies to spare me more than a passing glance?

I plumped for the busy Nando’s.

Lo and behold, in front of me in the queue was another lonely diner: a Japanese student who used exaggerated arm movements to communicate that he needed a table for one.

Japanese student sorted, the waitress turned her attention to me.

‘Table for one,’ I said breezily, adopting the air of this-is-all-perfectly-normal.

The waitress studied me for just a fraction too long and for one horrifying moment I thought she was going to pair me up with the Japanese student, which would have been terribly awkward given he only had a rudimentary grasp of the English language.

I was so busy worrying about said scenario it was only when I had been deposited at my table and the waitress had departed, that I realised she had seated me – perversely – in the middle of a huge, empty table for 10!

There might as well have been a giant illuminated arrow pointing down on my head. Tag line: ‘This sad woman is dining alone.’

‘Excuse me,’ I said to another passing waitress. ‘This table is too big for me. There’s only me. It looks, well, a bit strange.’

‘I understand,’ she said, her eyes filled with pity. ‘I’ll get you a smaller table.’

After some conspicuous hovering around while I inwardly chanted, ‘I’m an independent W-O-M-A-N’, a smaller table was finally found for me, sandwiched awkwardly between two couples.

I join the queue to order.

My phone rings. It’s my sister.

‘Where are you?’ she says.

‘In Nando’s,’ I say. ‘About to gleefully stuff my gills with spicy chicken, fries and halloumi cheese.’

‘On your own?!’ she exclaims.

‘Er, yes,’ I say, in a small voice.

I glance back at my temporarily-abandoned table, just in time to see the original waitress obliviously seating another couple there. Nooo!

There’s a long pause on the phone.

‘You seriously need help,’ says my sister.

Creepy Crawlers

I suppose it stands to reason that at 6am in the morning the gym is full of fruit loops. After all, what sane person would tumble out of bed at such an ungodly hour and voluntarily start running on a treadmill or start swimming half a mile?

That’ll be me then.

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For many years now, I have (often wearily) swum 30 lengths of the pool three mornings a week – before a great race against the clock to wash and blow dry my hair, slap some make-up on, grab a coffee  – and be at my desk for 8am. Recently, I’ve upped this madness to five mornings a week, to include two gym workouts too.

In my mind, I see this early morning as a good use of time: Basically, if I wasn’t at the gym, I’d be happily catching a few extra Zs in the comfort of my own bed.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. What kind of lunatic, for example, sets their alarm at 5.30am, drives to the gym and then idly lounges around in the jacuzzi?

Every morning, as I’m feverishly front-crawling in the pool, there’s a least three people just chewing the fat in the jacuzzi/ sauna/ steam room like they’ve got all the time in the world. If you want that kind of relaxation at the crack of dawn, here’s an idea: JUST STAY IN BED.

Most early-morning gym frequenters follow the unwritten rule of going about their workout/ hair dry/ make-up application in comfortable silence. No-one wants to start making small-talk at such an early hour.

No-one that is, except for Mad Scottish Woman.

I’ve mentioned Mad Scottish Woman before. But recently she has begun to loom even larger in my life. She’s in the pool pretty much every morning, clad in a full black wet suit and thrashing around like a huge excitable whale.

When she’s not showering other swimmers with torrents of water from her noisy, showy lengths of butterfly, she’s pacing around the sides, chomping on bananas and sniffing around eagerly for anyone to talk to. If in doubt, do not make eye contact with this woman.

What amazes me the most is that despite this seemingly extensive fitness regime, Mad Scottish Woman is still about the size of a small garden shed.

Only the other morning, as I was feebly lowering myself into the water, Mad Scottish Woman started yelling and beckoning to me with over exaggerated arm movements.

‘Do you want this float?’ she bellowed.

Float? Why would I want her float?

‘No, thank you,’ I said primly. I lowered my goggles in what I hoped was a please-do-not-engage-with-me-any-futher-gesture.

Luckily for me, Mad Scottish Woman was already eyeing up her next victim: a drippy-looking man, who was doing the doggy paddle in the lane next to her. She started gesticulating to him that he was doing his stroke all wrong.

‘Like this,’ she said, as she pounded down the length of the pool, soaking several unsuspecting swimmers in the process.

On her return, she actually started man-handling Mr Doggy Paddle, showing him how to stretch out his arms. He looked nothing short of terrified.

‘This woman is out of control,’ I thought.

Now, I’m not one to usually cast judgement on the trends of exercise attire but recently, I’ve spotted some rather bizarre get-ups in the gym itself.

Exhibit A: Woman on cross-trainer in full padded coat, complete with fur trim.

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Exhibit B: Woman clad in full length dress, attempting to cross train – and, later hitching it up to her knees to grapple with the rowing machine.

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Whatever happened to a good old t-shirt and leggings?

In the coffee queue the other morning, a man quite randomly offered to buy me a coffee.

I found this a little odd.

It was 7.45am. I’d just done 30 lengths, dried my hair in a hurry, and somehow managed to fend off the advances of Mad Scottish Woman. I didn’t have any fight left in me.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’ll just take a medium-sized-one-shot-extra-hot-soy-latte-easy-on-the-foam.’

‘A what?’ he said.