Thursday 26 February 2009


Ever started something and then thought, puck – wish I hadn’t done that?
I’m having that feeling all over the place since I started stripping off the wallpaper. It had to come off – all thick vinyl which was one clear reason for, oh, at least half of the damp problem.
‘I’d leave the lining paper on though,’ opined the builder. ‘It’s probably holding up the walls.’ Ho, ho, ho. What an amusing cove.
Trouble is, said lining paper was a bit tatty and snaggly and torn in places. Surely it would be far easier just to take off the lot?
I asked on Purplecoo about stripping machines.
‘Don’t bother,’ said Edward. Then added, ‘Wouldn’t take off the lining paper anyway. It’s probably….’
Holding up the walls. Yeah, right. Heard that one before.

It was a slack day. My deadlines were suitably far off and I had absolutely no inclination to do anything like as energetic as trying to rewrite the novel (for the nth time). So I thought I’d try just a corner. Dampened it down. Wandered off and lay on the bed, reading Bleeding Heart Square, waiting for the obligatory twenty minutes it’s supposed to soak. Gave up after five and went and dug at it with a scraper. Hurrah – a huge bit satisfying bit came flying off. It was lovely – I’d forgotten how much I love picking and peeling. One of my great sadnesses is that I no longer dare get sunburned – the sheer joy of peeling off bits of curly skin. I try to do it to Adrian (who stupidly still gets burned occasionally) but the misery-guts gets all antsy about it and pushes me off, saying I’m a skin vampire.
Anyhow, before I knew it, about six feet of lining paper was off the wall and in the bin liner. Then I hit problems. A lovely large bit swung off the wall and, yup, took several layers of plaster with it.

I knew the house was in a rotten state but I didn’t realise it was actually, well, rotten. I didn’t realise walls could move, sway, undulate, wobble. It’s like having Quatermass or the contents of his pit living behind your wallpaper.
Adrian was horrified. ‘Stop it,’ he said as I sliced into a juicy bit above James’ bed and showered the poor boy (who was in it at the time) in a snowstorm of 1970s plaster. But I can’t. I’m obsessed. I’ve done the bathroom, rampaged through the guest room, got halfway through the loo before getting bored and leaving it as it is really really tough (and I’ve done the bits you can reach while sitting on the pan). I’ve nearly done the upstairs corridor and am going great guns in James’ room.
James looked a bit worried. ‘I don’t think you should be doing that, Mum.’
‘It’s going to look bloody awful,’ said Adrian, holding up one finger to forestall my next sentence. ‘And don’t even THINK about saying that once the electrician has been we can decorate it.’
Ah. He knows me too well. ‘Once the electrician’s been’ has been my constant refrain for the last three or four months. Said electrician has gone AWOL following a holiday in Thailand (yes, the recession is obviously an unknown concept for electricians) and hasn’t replied to our increasingly desperate messages. There are rumours of nervous breakdowns, of marital disharmony but one can’t help but take it personally. Safe to say, the electrician isn’t coming any time soon and so we’re going to have to live with the results of my stripping mania. I had an idea.
‘People would spend a fortune getting a finish like that,’ I said, with a sweeping arm gesture at the mottled pink, white, grey and mould coloured wall I’d just liberated from its grey and brown floral paper. They looked unconvinced.
‘People where, Mum?’ asked James.
‘Er, people in….er, London….’ I said, and then picked up confidence. ‘An absolute fortune. In fact, you’re really lucky to have a wall like that. We shouldn’t paper it – it would be a crime. This wall could appear in World of Interiors…..’ Pause. ‘Well, maybe Living etc.
‘But we don’t live in London and I want blue walls and James Bond strip lighting.’
I know I should stop. I should call a halt before the madness descends down the stairs and into the rest of the house. Before the whole house maybe gives up the ghost and quietly collapses into a heap of rubble. But it’s like some awful compulsion. Hell, I even find myself eyeing up the brand-new paper in the breakfast room.
The problem is that stripping walls (even when they have a propensity to come tumbling down while you’re doing it) is a mindless, delightfully physical task. There is a goal in sight and one can move towards it (either in niggly irritating little scrapes or broad sweeps of sogginess). When it’s done, it’s done. It’s hugely satisfying and curiously soothing – unlike the rest of my life. So, for the time being, I’ll carry on stripping, regardless of the carnage.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Are we poor?

‘Mum, are we poor?’
I fight my immediate urge which is to stare wild-eyed and shout in a loud despairing way, ‘Yes, of course we’re poor – absolutely on our uppers; outrageously, revoltingly, disgustingly poor’. Instead I pause. Possibly too long.
‘Mum? Did you hear me? Are we poor?’
‘Er, why do you ask?’ (Always deflect a tricky question by asking another question).
‘Well, it’s only that Henry said we were poor.’

Did he indeed? Having always held Henry high in my estimation (lovely manners, helps clear up, polite, always comes armed with a nice line in ‘thank you for having me’ gifts) his crown is now slipping wildly. Nasty little tyke, horrible child. No matter that he is clearly stating the obvious. After all, what child wouldn’t look around the Bonkers House in all its faded, damp-ridden desperation and not think ‘hard up verging on insolvent’? The parents have all given up asking the hopeful little question, ‘Building work finished yet?’ because the answer is patently no, mainly because all work ceased several months back. But then, nobody likes to be reminded of the truth, do they?
‘Er. No. Not really. No.’ Shakes head. Gets a grip. ‘Not at all. Well. It’s all relative, isn’t it? Obviously we’re not Poor poor – we have a house, enough food, clothes. In fact we’re really very lucky.’
James is not looking impressed.
‘But equally obviously we’re not rich. Certainly not Rich rich.’
‘As in we don’t have a huge swimming pool or a deer park.’
It really doesn’t help that James goes to the kind of school where children do indeed have huge swimming pools and tennis courts and, yes, even deer parks.
When James went to the village school you couldn't tell which of the mothers owned several thousand acres of moorland and a vast pile and which lived in a council house (they all dressed the same and the landrovers were equally beaten up). The 'deep' countryside is a huge leveller I think - people just got on with it. But his present school has a townie/suburban intake as well as 'real' countryside and also a lot of 'trophy' landowners and I am occasionally appalled at some of the oneupmanship behaviour.

The other week I overheard two fathers at the school gate having the most hilariously revolting conversation, obviously sizing each other up and doing the 'I've got more than you' thing. It seemed they only knew one another vaguely as they had to ascertain where each lived before launching into something like this.....

'Had much ice up your way?'

'Well, not too bad up at the house. The stables were pretty bad.' (ie, we have stables).

'Yes, ours too.' (so do we). 'Frozen pipe in the large barn too though the cottages seem OK.' (and we've got a big barn and cottages.)

'Yup, ours smashed and flooded while we were in Antigua.' (see, we were away somewhere hot and smart).

'Bad luck. But, yeah, don't have that problem in our place in Grand Bahama.' (I go to hot smart places too and I own a house there.)

'True, true (he he). Mind you, doesn't seem to happen at the place in Chamonix.' (OK, so I haven't got a house in Antigua but we do have our own ski chalet.)

'Pity the poor puggers who have to go out to work though.' (I don't)

'Yeah. Had to cancel my trip to New York - two miles of icy driveway? Just wasn't worth the risk.' (I go to important places and I've got a pucking long drive).....

'You want to get someone to do that for you..' (haven't you got staff?)

This was evaded (to my intense satisfaction) and then followed a long debate about the various bits of smart techology they had before their children finally emerged and shut them up. I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t get their willies out to compare size.
Anyhow, all this flurried through my head before I realised James was still waiting patiently. Er, where were we? Oh yes, deer parks.
‘But, hey, who wants a deer park when you’ve got the moor on your doorstep eh? We can see deer any day of the week….’

It clearly wasn't working so I fell back on that favourite old chestnut, ‘be grateful for what we’ve got’ and its sister platitude ‘we’ve got each other.’
James rolls his eyes.

But truly, we are lucky. In this consumer society, it’s all too easy to slip into that daft game of one-upmanship, that idea that life would be tickety-boo if only we had a better job, a smarter house, a new fancy car or HD/plasma/blu-ray/whatever TV. Try telling that to the poor souls in Australia who lost the lot. One chap stood out in that disaster. Piecing through the soot and ashes that was his home, he stood up, smiled and said something along the lines of, ‘It isn’t the end of the world. We’re all alive. We can rebuild.’ Of course they can. We are so spoiled, we forget that human life is very fragile and at any moment we are just a heartbeat away from death. That may sound dramatic but it’s true. This last year has been a shocker for funerals – not just the old who, you could argue, have Had Their Time but also the young. One moment riding along a lane; the next lying in the morgue. It’s gloomy and it’s depressing but it does ram home the thought that, truly, you can’t take it with you. Who gives a flying puck if you’ve got the perfect car, the pristine lawn, the latest gadget? In this mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world we should be darn well grateful to be alive, to have people we love and who love us. That should be enough. So, I re-evaluate my reply to James.

‘Actually, dear child, we are pretty darn rich. Rich as Croesus. Just slathered in riches.’
I then swallow him in a huge, all-enveloping hug and as he wriggles to get out, add quietly…

‘Er, you couldn’t lend me a fiver, could you?’

PS - apologies to purplecooers who may have a sense of deja vu on some of this post. I'm trying to haul myself back into blogging so a half-written post was a blessing.