During this last bit of the house transformation and during the whole debacle with kitchen suppliers, ill-serving glaziers, tardy carpenters, rip-off patio layers, arrogant plumbers et al – I – usually a strong person and not one to dwell on where we were but where we are – have been more or less reduced to a quivering wreck. So much and so heavily have I ground my teeth in my (very sporadic) sleep at night that I brought on toothache – severe toothache – the sort that has you crawling up the wall and wondering why you are still alive – the sort that defies gravity and penetrates the eardrum thus giving you the benefit of its full and mighty impact. It has not been jolly. It continues to not be jolly. It will continue to not be jolly for a few weeks to come. I thank, therefore, my dear friend Mary (with whom I attended Sunday school – yes – we go back that far – though neither of us has retained an odour of piety from those churchy days) – Mary has always been a quietly useful counsellor – and that other thing that enhances friendship more than any other – a listener. She listens non-judgementally. When you say to Mary that you have made a fool of yourself yet again with a dress/man/diet/map – she shows sympathy, understanding, and a hint of being the same kind of klutz herself. Which she is not.
And thus it came to pass that she rang me to see how things here were going, and she rang at one of the darkest times when I had just realised that I was going to spend another two weeks without a kitchen and using the garden standpipe (I have not had a working kitchen for four months) and when the carpenter who owns a large chunk of my money pulled a fast one and changed his start date yet again. Mary let me rattle on about it all – the kitchen, the glass, the woodwork, the slabs, the radiators – and then she said two very apposite things: She said that it was all awful and frustrating and that she sympathised utterly and hoped it would resolve itself soon. And then she added, with a bit of a smile in her voice – but remember Mavis – these are First World Problems.
And of course, dear readers, that is what they are. Problems of the First World. Not to belittle them – they are also the problems of the gracenotes of homemaking in this civilised country if we are lucky enough to afford them. But someone living in the Jungle of Calais would give their eye teeth to have their own garden with running water available, and someone on the a leaking boat in the middle of the Mediterranean wouldn’t give tuppence for a bit of woodwork (couldn’t give tuppence, as they would have given all their money to the people smuggler)… So Mary’s little epitaph to my trials did the job and gave me a little sunburst of clarity. Now when I start to chew the carpet over yet another frustration due to tradesman, I say to myself – It’s a First World Problem. Believe me – it helps. I then feel privileged to be without a high-end hob for a while longer, and if my cupboards take extra time to be made, that’s a privilege, too. It doesn’t stop the frustration – and sometimes the spark of rage – but it does, as soon as I say it to myself – deflate the situation. And that, in the current state of play here, is a continuing and salutary bonus.
A couple of nights ago I took two women friends to a studio party at the enormous and beautiful house opposite – it has a garden that you could scarcely credit would be found in London – rambling, steps up and steps down, narrow little paths, trees, shrubs, lawns, hidden places for sitting, scented roses still – a traditional traveller’s caravan glimmering among the trees – engraved glass and built in range intact – and a view high out to the West – all lit up by chains of light bulbs that gave just enough light. Proper lightbulbs – none of those silly LED thingies – a big, magical garden needs proper lightbulbs – ones that are not too bright.
The paintings were all over the house as well as in the artist’s studio – my favourites were his pictures of the Cars of Havana – those huge ‘fifties Buicks and Cadillacs and Studebakers and Chevrolets – leftovers from the money grabbing casino days of America’s seedy relationship with Battista and still rustily rattling along. They won’t last now that Obama has brought Cuba back into the fold. Money will pump in, new cars will be bought, and these magnificent beasts will be summarily scrapped. You could say they represent the last of Cuba’s socialist independence – the withholding of appeasement to the Capitalist West – no new cars since Castro was in charge. Or you could say they simply represent the desire to own and run a car under any circumstances. One thing is for sure – a lot of garage mechanics will be out of a job once America starts exporting to Cuba again.
The mix of people at the party was wide – from the eccentrically dressed woman in the peculiar hat – who seemed to have stepped straight out of ‘fifties Chelsea – to a beautiful Italian teenager in her thigh boots and fine makeup who was keen to sell fashion – or anything really – through social media. My little group of three slotted into the more ordinary range of folk wandering the garden’s byways with drinks in their hands. The drink – ah yes – the drink – how it flowed. Now, I have looked after and watered this garden in the absence of its owners so I know its pitfalls and perilous bits – but not everyone was shod in the best way for the action. This included the younger of my two companions, a woman of a mere 45 years and who was still in that golden age of wearing high stacked heels with impunity (of if she did have any punity she kept it to herself). My other companion, in her early ‘sixties, was wearing medium heels of a solid nature (very fashionable despite being sensible) and I, same sort of vintage, was in comfortable flats on the basis that when you are wandering in a garden at night in summer very few people are going to see your shoes. And anyway, who cares?
So – yes – the drink flowed – and we flowed with it. I was a teeny bit worried about my 45 year old as we teetered along a narrow path towards the glow of the caravan – given that the wine had flowed and given that the heels were high – when all of a sudden, in something between a rustle and a flump – she disappeared – the only thing left of her being one outstretched arm still clutching its unemptied wine glass – the rest, as Hamlet might say, was silence. It took us a moment to galvanise – and then I found myself saying commandingly to my other friend ‘Well help her up then…’ And we exited our daze of amazement and clutched the outstretched arm and pulled – up it came – followed by its giggling owner – none the worse for wear (in that respect anyway) and with the wine still unspilt. No lesson was learned by the fallen one. We stopped at many a place in the garden to sit and talk and admire – and if the wine waiter walked past he was always importuned by the beaming youngest of our trio. ‘I am enjoying myself so much,’ was her constant and happy mantra. We two oldies had adopted a more cautious approach. Much later, chez moi, and having been required to open another bottle for the 45 year old’s liver to show its mettle – we deposited her into a cab and off she went – still happy, still enjoying herself, still young and carefree in her heels and greeting the bemused cab driver as if he were her best friend in the world.
But the following morning, while I felt that I knew I had been to a party but was fairly unscathed, I received an email message from her of which I am – strangely – proud. In it she said that she had got home and been rather ill – and that morning was still feeling very unpleasantly green. And she ended it by saying that, in future, she would only be going out with women of her own age, finding us oldies too much of a challenge in their capacity for enjoyment. And while I doubt this will be true and I am quite sure she will come out with us again – nevertheless I’ll bask in the glory of being thought to be an undiluted raver for a week or two more.
Meanwhile the party givers were kind enough to say how much they liked my friends and how they hoped we had all enjoyed ourselves and had gone home happy. I could only thank them and reply that we had loved seeing the paintings, particularly those Havana Cars, in such a perfect setting and that yes – we had certainly enjoyed ourselves – very much indeed – and gone home happy – some of us considerably more happy than others.
When I said how much I’d liked the pictures of the Old Cars of Havana – it struck me that we ‘oldies’ that night were like them. Going a bit around the edges and not in our prime – but – with caution and a care we could still do our stuff and rattle along quite successfully without showing too many signs of degeneration on a reasonably even terrain. And we would certainly – going a tad slowly – avoid falling down the potholes. Now, having written that little stretch of a simile out, I must go back to my fireside, my rocking chair, my tartan rug and my knitting – until the next opportunity to adopt the ethos of the ancient car and take myself out for a careful spin. Too much of a challenge, indeed… What a very happy thought.
I have become a wimp.
Last night – after seeing the latest Almodovar – the darkly brilliant julieta which you should not miss – friends and I went to a local restaurant – I sat opposite the two of them – and shortly after we arrived a lone man came and sat at the table behind them – he was facing towards me – a lone man (I reiterate) – rather good looking – considerably younger than me – and about whom I thought nothing.
And then, as our evening progressed I realised that said man was staring through the gap between my friends’ shoulders (if you follow) and staring and staring and staring – at me. No – I was not being wishful – for just once – when our eyes met – he raised his glass – and what, dear friends, did I do? Quickly slid my eyes away from him and kept them firmly on my friends from that moment on. But I was aware that the staring continued.
I began to weave scenarios in my head (while conducting a perfectly lucid conversation with my friends who knew nothing of this, the feminine brain being capable of multitasking when fired up) – and decided that he was a newly dumped or divorced man, or had had a row with his wife or girlfriend – or he was here working and away from home and thought he’d have a bit of fun. I promise you he was far too attractive to be a loner – and very well turned out – yes, all right – I had even noticed his shirt – and he wanted to connect with someone female – even someone older who was female – well – maybe not that much older, or maybe the lighting was dim enough for me to drop ten years – and the viewing platform he had was too good an opportunity to miss.
I was clearly single. Or at any rate, single that night. And I was in his direct sight. He was feeling a bit reckless and pursued the possible connection – I hesitate to call it a flirtation, though probably, thinking about it, it was one – or it would have been if the silly woman sitting opposite and in his direct sight had shown a bit of interest. He left before we did. We were having a fairly intense and funny discussion about something – possibly Almodovar and possibly kitchens (yes, I’m still at the coal face of that latter and it is not going well) and when I looked up – he had gone. Oh, I thought, Oh what a pity. Silly goose (and other, less seemly epithets).
So this morning I’m suffering from mild regret for not taking up the opportunity, but also from a quite serious concern about my confidence. What has happened to me and where has the red-blooded woman who enjoyed men’s company now fled? I never was very good at initiating flirting – and I used to find the ‘eyes meeting and across the gangway’ in the tube slightly embarrassing rather than a turn-on – but crank me up a bit and I can usually enjoy doing all the things that raise an interest and move the other person to a square a bit nearer on the board of romance. But not now, apparently. And I love a bit of a flirt. Or I did.
Ah well – it’s good to be alerted to the fact that I’ve lost the art of encouraging dalliance. It wasn’t so many years ago that I sat having a coffee on the balcony of the Louvre’s cafe (as you do, and not often enough) and a man – this one considerably older than me – made a politely flirtatious gambit which was delightful, and received by me with delight. We had a pleasant afternoon – Frenchmen being charming and – without doubt – the best seducers in the world even if you don’t end up in bed together.
So – what has happened to me and my interest in enjoying a bit of coquetry during the few years in between? I’m really not certain – but sure as eggs is eggs – I mean to find out – and correct it. And what is REALLY annoying about all this is that, were I to put it in a book, you can be sure that the heroine would at least make it to that nearer square on the board – even if she comes a cropper later on. The Cheek heroine is, largely, brave – and if not brave – then she is confident – and if not confident then she is wily. Perhaps I should re-read some of my novels to remind myself how to get back into the mode? And stay there.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it