Road Rage

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I’m on my way to London to meet a friend for lunch. Normally, I drive like I’m competing at Brands Hatch – or so my reputation behind the wheel goes – but for once I’m in no hurry. The sky is a calming Hockney blue, blossom bursting out everywhere and a radio podcast about someone brainwashed into joining a religious cult is keeping me engrossed.

At a small cross roads, a biker idles on the opposite side of the road. The rider is barrel-chested and bulked to the hilt in leather. Somehow though, I get the impression that if you were to peel away the heavy layers, something small and insubstantial would emerge.

There is a split second when we both hesitate as to who has the right of way. As I am the only one indicating, I assume he is crossing over and so take the initiative. It is only after I have committed to the left turn, that he pulls out in the same direction. His movements are strangely wobbly. I’m reminded of a toddler pushing off on a bicycle without the safety net of stabilisers.

In the time it has taken me to register this, I have already nipped into a small residential road and then stopped to wait behind a string of parked cars for the oncoming traffic. Instead of driving past, the first approaching car stops alongside me. I check my wing mirror to see what the holdup is.

On the ground is the biker. He doesn’t look injured but he’s struggling to get his bike upright. It’s a heavy looking bike with fat storage containers strapped to each side like saddlebags. All that leather kit he’s wearing isn’t helping matters. The driver of the passing car goes to assist. He’s a middle aged man of average build but he uprights the bike with the ease of someone picking up a child’s scooter. I’m not sure the biker sees the irony of this because he is too busy pointing an accusatory glove in my direction. Even though I haven’t done anything, I go hot inside. It’s that school assembly moment when the head teacher asks the guilty party to fess up to a crime and you feel they are speaking directly to you.

Bike righted, the driver gets back in his car and shoots off up the road, quickly followed by the remaining waiting traffic. Ignoring the biker’s gesticulating, I too make a hasty exit but am immediately pursued by sounds of a loud and insistent horn. I glance in my rear mirror. The biker is signalling in an angry fashion. Don’t get involved, I tell myself. He’s probably a nutter.

This chase continues along the back roads but he doesn’t go away. Like a bad smell, he follows me on to the duel carriageway, his hooting as loud as a siren. I speed up determined to lose him but he does the same. If it’s intimidation he’s after, I’m feeling it.

After carrying on like this for over a mile, he draws up alongside my car, signalling for me to pull over. We are both doing about 50 mph. I think of those American movies where the cop waves you down and bad things happen. I am resolute. I am not going to stop. Why should I? Then Mr Biker Man shoots past me, slips in front of my car, gradually slowing down and forcing me to do the same. I stop.

This is a dual carriageway but he doesn’t seem to care. He dismounts from his bike and walks towards me with a rugged, determined gait. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ a character in the podcast yells, ‘No one’s going anywhere.’

Suddenly I’m sixteen again, walking along a pavement in Athens. A car pulls up alongside me, a large, greasy-looking individual at the wheel. I try to ignore his verbal advances but he keeps pace with me, calling out and making tedious lewd gestures. It’s annoying and I want him to go away. He persists and so I try out one of the new swear words I have recently learned, experimenting with the sound in my mouth. Ma-la-ca, I say, peppering the word with a little contempt. Wanker.

Instantly, the car – a grey Mercedes – mounts the pavement and pulls up in front of me. The driver gets out, surprisingly agile for such a large man and slaps me hard across the face. I am too shocked to respond. He is shouting at me but while I can’t understand his rapid speech, his meaning is clear. People stand by watching and it is this passiveness, this unwillingness to intervene rather than the slap itself, that leaves me feeling humiliated and furious in equal measure.

As Mr Biker Man approaches my car, I tell myself that nothing bad can happen because it is broad daylight. Still, I feel my body tense. Here we go, I think.

I lower the window a third of the way and stare up at the biker. Behind his clear visor he is wearing sunglasses. Now that he’s close up I can see he has to be in his 60s. He launches straight in, his finger pointing at me like a gun.

‘I want your insurance details.’

He has a thin, downturned mouth that conveys meanness. Cars fly past in the outside lane. It is folly to have stopped here. At any moment someone could drive into the back of me.

‘I’m not giving you anything,’ I say.

‘You made me fall off my bike.’

I allow the absurdity of what he has just said to sink in.

‘You fell off it all by yourself.’

‘Because of you!’ he says passionately, going back to the finger pointing. ‘You put me off.’

I look at him thoughtfully, no longer intimidated.

‘I hate to say it but I don’t think you’re very good on that machine. You might want to consider downsizing.’

He looks so shocked you’d think the car had spoken to him not me. His mouth gapes revealing a couple of gold fillings. I think he is going to say something. Instead, he sort of deflates inside his leather kit and walks back to his bike. Does this mean our dispute is over? For a moment I am thrown by what feels like an anticlimax. But only for a moment. I put the car back in gear and drive off.

Three miles along the M25, a motorbike rockets past me in the outside lane. The roar of the engine is astonishing and my adrenaline levels momentarily soar, but it isn’t him.

‘Freedom is the best feeling in the world,’ one of the characters on the podcast says as the story reaches it’s conclusion. ‘I had a damn lucky escape.’

You and me both, I muse.  I look out at the rolling countryside and am calmed by the lush greenness. My stomach reminds me that I haven’t eaten today. Flooring the accelerator, I speed on towards London and lunch.

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A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

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It is 6pm on a warm, late Summer’s evening and I am in a people carrier with four of my friends heading into East London. Food and alcohol circulate the back of the car and there is a lot of giggling brought on by a mixture of excitement and nerves. It feels like we’re on a first school trip, of doing something risky as no one quite knows what we’ve signed up for.

Finding a parking space is a challenge. It means we have to make the rest of the way on foot. While this isn’t quite on the level of Cersei’s walk of shame in Game of Thrones, it is awkward because it is broad daylight and we are all in our nightwear.

We exit the car and a woman wearing a burka with a small child on her hip, watches us from a first floor window. The child appears transfixed as we glide past in a swirl of black and cream silk negligees with bold floral prints and a fair bit of lace. I smile at her to demonstrate we are not from another planet.

As we navigate our way through the heart of London’s multicultural East End, Asian and Bangladeshi men in full length robes stop to give us curious glances. I feel horribly exposed. One of us, wearing a babydoll and holding a teddy bear, is pretending to be pregnant. Another is in full dominatrix get-up and brandishing a whip (no, honestly, don’t ask).

Our destination is an elegant Queen Anne house, its windows screened with crimson blinds. Standing in the open doorway, is a slight man greeting the queuing guests. First impressions of our host could not be less reassuring. He is whippet-thin and despite the humid air, dressed in a heavy black Chinese gown that stops shy of his bony ankles. An enormous, donut-shaped hat dwarfs his pale, impish features.

He chats to each waiting guest as he would an old friend, his voice high and aristocratic. The teddy bear and the whip draw his attention and a light hearted debate about whether the bear infringes the rules ensues. Then he bends his head for the whispered password that buys entry into the house and in we go.

The house, like its owner, is the stuff of fantasy. Imagine stepping on to a Tim Burton set or inside a Victorian Gothic painting and you get the idea. A large figure of Christ wearing red slippers and a top hat, hangs from the ceiling just inside the dark, narrow hallway, a large pompom dangling incongruously from one hand.

We are asked to take off our shoes and offered a choice of slippers by the nightwear police; a trio of pretty young women who hover a little awkwardly. This turns out to be a non negotiable house rule and unfortunate for my dominatrix-clad friend as removing her long boots rather spoils the effect of her outfit.

Those who have rushed straight from work, head to the top floor bedroom to change into the compulsory nighttime attire. We follow, more out of nosiness than necessity, but also to get the measure of our fellow guests. An evening of fairytales for grown-ups sends the imagination into overdrive, so its a relief to discover that everyone else is as normal as us.

We crowd into an over-heated basement kitchen where vodka cocktails in china cups do the rounds. Despite his eccentric Oriental attire, our host has a bit of the Fred Astaire about him. With his bony, nervous energy and clipped decibels, it is easy to imagine him dancing around in top hat and tails. He is a practised flirt; we’ve barely got past hello before he suggests taking me out for supper.

Once the vodka has taken hold, we float back upstairs where our storyteller awaits. The room, which takes up the entire ground floor, is dimly-lit and resembles a Chinese opium den, its muted corners both exotic and with a touch of the macabre. I am one of the lucky ones to find a seat on a black fluffy sofa, but most end up having to sit on the floor.

It is incredibly warm and the close proximity to so many other bodies makes it more so. In the reflection of a large gilt mirror, my newly washed hair has the wilted look of a plant that longs for water. My eye travels along the surfaces, registering three wooden hands cut off mid-arm and standing erect like the arms of eager children in a classroom. In a corner, a white dog strikes a haughty pose in a jaunty tiara, its elegant neck encrusted with jewels. Elsewhere, a red bodice poses as a lamp shade. It’s all a bit bonkers but the perfect setting for make-believe.

Our story teller recounts Little Red Riding Hood. This she does not once but seven times, each version originating from a different country and with increasing menace. I am a child again on my mother’s knee, captivated by both the comic and gory details, conjuring  memories of my fear of being devoured by an animal’s jaws.

During the break, we cluster in a little courtyard garden where people smoke and chat and cool off. Not for the first time, I thank God for my light attire. More vodka cocktails and a further explore of the house which is littered with hats from various decades; it turns out our host is obsessed with them – then we’re back to the storytelling.

My  spot on the sofa has been taken, so I join a friend at the other end of the room. The bench is hard and unyielding and like many things in the house, there for affect rather than comfort, but it is better than being sandwiched on the floor. I lean against a window that I long to open. It is so incredibly hot. I’d be cooler in Malaysia. How can our host bear to wear those long, heavy robes? Then I forget the heat for a bit, as a man with black hair and a guitar replaces our storyteller. He has a good voice, deep and gravelly, his bedroom lyrics making me blush.

Our host, who made himself scarce for the stories, reappears for the raffle which is to be the evening’s finale. As I watch him nominate one of my friends to the slightly humiliating task of kneeling before him and taking tickets from what he refers to as his muff bag, I decide in that moment he is more Fagin than Astaire. Maybe it’s the nervous energy, the slightly self-congratulatory manner he has about him, but there is a false note to his clipped upperclass tones that makes me wary. Scratch the surface, I think, and I’m not sure I’d like what I’d find.

There are no rules to the raffle. Our host makes it up as he goes along. Two friends are grievously over-looked for the best outfit prize as they are streets ahead of everyone else in style. Most entertaining guest – a rather mousy woman hiding behind the door and who I haven’t heard a squeak from all evening – gets a bottle of house vodka. Then comes the final prize for most flirtatious guest. Heavy with irony, no doubt, and to the delight of my friends, I am its recipient and presented with an enormous, pink as you please, papier-maché stag.

The storm that has threatened all evening, finally breaks and we drive home accompanied by spectacular lightening and rain. The stag takes up the whole of the boot, its crimson nose squashed against the back window screen as though longing to be returned from whence it came. It has been a memorable evening, one to dazzle and impress. And yet…

Later, along with the grandiose hats, the pompoms and feathers, glittering baths with lions mouths for taps, I will dream of a tiny severed plaster hand on a dressing table, the electrified hair of a black Medusa bust surrounded by bottles of spirits, of a lone wolf in a top hat prowling the streets for flesh. But right now, my friends still giggling around me, I lean back in my car seat and take deep, grateful breaths of the night’s fresh air.

All of a Flutter

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I am tackling bills at my kitchen table, a regrettable and tedious task which I have been putting off, so when a friend suggests popping over, I quickly agree. Having spent the best part of two hours trying to sort out what I had assumed was a simple matter with British Telecom, I am quickly losing the will to live.

My friend fills the house with his indefatigable energy. Tea in hand, we chat about our respective children, how work is going. He recounts a recent Bear Grylls-like adventure – a common occurrence in his life. Often reckless, they involve throwing himself out of helicopters to ski lethal black runs, or flying to the continent in a microlight. I say microlight but that conjures up an image of an actual aircraft. Having once foolishly agreed to go up in one with him, a more accurate description would be of a lawn mower with wings. This is a man with more lives than Henry the Eight had wives. I don’t count myself so fortunate.

We’ve been talking for about an hour, when a distant tapping sound presents itself. I’d heard it earlier while deep in bills but paid it no head. This time I tune into the sound, trying to work out where it’s coming from.

I peer up at the glass atrium. Perhaps it has started raining? It’s been threatening to all morning. But no, the glass is dry. I soon convince myself that the sound is coming from inside. At this point, my friend joins in the investigation, placing his ear near to the fridge but almost on cue the sound stops. We stand still for a moment listening to silence then get bored of the task and resume chatting. I make more tea, unearth a half eaten cake which has somehow escaped the predatory eyes of teenagers, and have just divided up the remains, when the tapping returns.

‘Listen. Can you hear that?’ I ask, squinting up at the lights: an electrical issue perhaps.

‘It’s definitely coming from this end of the room.

Tantalisingly, the sound comes and goes. We stop talking so we are ready for it and sure enough it starts again. It’s like the noise an I-Pad keyboard makes, a mid tone, rat a tat tat sort of a sound. We are mystified.

Finally, after much investigating, we narrow our search to the cupboard next to the Aga.

‘D’you think something’s in there?’ I ask, tentatively. My friend bends down to open the cupboard door, then almost immediately shuts it again.

‘What?’ I ask, alarmed by the speed in which he does this. He looks suddenly pale. ‘What’s in there?’

‘A bird,’ he says faintly.

I wait for him to add details but from the look on his appalled face, he doesn’t need to.

‘How the hell did it get inside there?’

I am both bemused and unsettled. There is a vent that leads from the Aga to the outside wall via the cupboard but even an insect would struggle to find its way inside it.

And then there is this discovery – life is full of surprises – that my Bear Grylls, outdoor adventuring friend, is about as keen on birds as Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s infamous thriller. He admits as much and though he tries to disguise it, now wears the look of a condemned man.

A plan is formulated. First, we open all the windows as wide as they will go, then prop open both doors. I don’t mind birds – except for the crows that occasionally set up shop outside my bedroom window and drive me to distraction with their incessant cawing – but my friend’s alarm is contagious. As I run upstairs in search of a sheet, my imagination goes into over-drive. I picture one of those Game of Thrones ravens released from its confinement. In my fantasy, it takes on the size of an eagle, flying around my kitchen in a state of panic, blindly banging into walls, pecking at my head with its massive beak and spraying excrement onto all the work surfaces. Make a massive mental note to remove everything in sight before we liberate the beast.

I return to the kitchen brandishing the longest sheet I can find and a towel to mop up with but which I am tempted to tie around my head as protection (memories of a holiday in France when a bat got caught up in my sister’s hair, looms large). As instructed, I hold the sheet wide like a screen. The hope is that this will encourage the bird towards the window.

For a moment we wait in great suspense. Then my friend says,

‘Ready?’ Taking one for the team, his hand hovers nervously over the cupboard handle.

‘Ready,’ I say in a voice that lacks conviction, watching with one eye shut.

He makes two attempts to pull free the door before, suddenly, it is open. Immediately, something darts out through the open window. When it is clear that nothing else is going to follow, we move to the window and look outside. Three feet away, a robin is perched on a low hanging branch, a tiny red blush against a green backdrop. It looks frail but untroubled by its recent confinement. Like a chorister settling into a church pew, it opens its mouth and sings as if announcing its arrival to the world. You have got to be kidding, I think. I turn to my friend who gives me a very sheepish look.

Neither of us say a word.

In the Lap of the Gods

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It’s Sunday, a dull, sluggish day and I feel like being active and outside. I make a start on the weeds which are Triffid-like and so rampant they have the ability to crush your will. Soon, my focus switches to a huge beech tree dominating one area of the garden. Thick, overhanging branches swamp the cricket net, making the area below oppressive and dark. This has been bugging me for some time and I decide the branches must come down. The only problem is they are thirty feet high. We have a ladder long enough to reach but it’s too heavy for me to lift, let alone drag across the garden. My husband, who has been been enjoying the build up to a big rugby match with our boys, comes out to help. He throws the ladder over a shoulder, his evident reluctance at what he sees as my foolhardiness is etched in his face. Several times he tells me that what I’m planning is risky and that I’m not qualified to do this but I have a stubborn nature and he knows it.

With the ladder secured against the main body of the tree, he stands on the bottom rung while I test the stability. It’s a long way up and a few months ago I would have had a vertigo moment. That said, a couple of stints of tree top adventure parks with teenage boys seems to have temporarily cured me of my fear of heights. In fact, I’m reconnecting with the child in me who used to spend many happy hours hiding in trees.

I have two hand saws and a large pair of clippers which I carefully hook onto branches as I climb. I start off with branches that block my path. A neighbouring pine throws out dense, furry arms; it’s a bit like trimming a fur coat. The beech, when I get to it, is easier than I’d anticipated. The first branch is about fourteen centimetres thick but sawing downwards makes my task easy. The branch falls to the ground with a thud. Two more follow and already I can see the difference; a weak sun breaks through the gloom. After the third branch has been felled, I tell my husband that I am fine on my own. He’s not happy, but having already missed the warm up for the game, he hurries back inside. The Black Dog contemplates following him but decides to stay put.

Confidence replaces cautiousness as I warm to my task. I am determined to prove my husband’s misgivings wrong and start to tackle larger branches. The ladder is there for security but I actually feel safer standing on the stout branches, ever mindful of the tree climbing rule number one which is to make sure I always have something to hold onto. The really big branches crack and snap when I’ve only sawed half way but the weight, as they tip earthwards, does the rest of the job for me.

Finally, I reach the main culprit. It’s more like a mini tree than a branch. I look for the narrowest point within comfortable reaching distance, cut a wide V into the arm, then start sawing, stopping every now and then for a break. There’s a surprising amount of sap and the saw keeps getting stuck. My working arm starts to tire but I’m determined to keep going. When the branch finally breaks it’s like I’ve taken down Goliath. I feel victorious and vindicated. Carefully, I descend the ladder. The ground is littered with branches and there’s a lot of clearing up to do. Some branches are too heavy to lift which means sawing them down into manageable sizes. I drag what I can over to the fire, stripping off layers as I go; it is unseasonably warm for the time of year.

I work for a further hour, then think about going back inside. It’s getting dark and too late to burn anything now. Instead, I grab our rickety step ladder and carry it over to a tree with an unnecessary long reaching branch. It’s quite low and won’t take me two minutes I think, smug from my victory with the Beech tree. The step ladder is just tall enough for me to haul myself up. I straddle the branch. My plan is to shuffle forward to a point where the branch is thin enough to saw through. The only problem is that there are no other low branches to hold onto and I quickly realise that shuffling isn’t going to work. I’ll have to sit side-saddle. That presents problems of its own because I have the saw in one hand so I’m not very stable. I haven’t thought this through. Still trying to work it out, I shift my weight sideways to get more purchase and quite suddenly I’m tumbling backwards. I hit the ground with force. Pain runs through my fingers and I am dimly aware that I have caught my head on something. For a moment I am too shocked to think. I lie in a heap, crying more from frustration than pain, and because my pride has been hurt. I’d been doing so well and one moment of carelessness has undermined my good work. The black dog hears my sobs and rushes over to offer licks and a reverently wagging tail. She knows something’s up.

After a while, I get up off the damp ground. Cautiously, I touch the area by my right temple which feels horribly swollen but I can’t think about what I’ve done yet. I slink back to the house now warmly lit up like a Christmas tree and, unnoticed, take refuge in the upstairs bathroom. Bath water running, I brave a look. My right temple has taken the brunt of the fall, the skin swollen and cut and already showing signs of an impressive bruise. I must have caught it on the corner of the saw. Further investigation reveals several marks on my body but my fingers cause me the most angst. Two will blow up like uncooked sausages, giving rise – unfounded as it turns out – to a break.

I lie in the bath, listening to the male shrieks coming from the TV room below feeling quite alone. I tell myself that I am lucky, that it could have been much worse. Even so, I won’t mention what has happened – though my wounds will give me away. What I can’t avoid, though I’m not yet ready to hear it, is the inevitable ‘I told you so’.

Fasten Your Seatbelt

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We are driving to the airport in the dark. It is unpalatably early and, frankly, I should still be unconscious in my bed. Five hours sleep is nothing more than a nap. It leaves me feeling fragmented and a tiny bit grumpy. The rain is tumbling down, just as it has been for days, and there’s a blustery wind. I’ve begun to forget what sunshine looks like. Brittany had better be nice, is all I can say. It’s going to be our home for the next five days.

The airport is swarming with passengers. We join the lengthy queue to check in bags and make such slow progress that even before we’ve reached the halfway point, they’re asking passengers on our flight to make themselves known. My hand shoots up. Like royalty, we’re ushered to the front and check in our bags. My son and I make it through security without any hiccups. My mother, however, sets off several alarms and gets the not-quite-so-Royal patting down treatment. Note to mother, appreciate the racy touch but don’t wear jeans decorated with metal studs when you know you’re going to fly.

Everyones thoughts turn to breakfast; we’ve got just enough time. My son says that he’ll get his own and rushes off to buy, what is a fairly safe bet, everything I disapprove of. I go in search of coffee for my mother who is unable to function without her daily caffeine fix. I’ve no sooner paid than they announce the imminent closure of our flight. One problem, we have lost my teenage son. He’s not at the designated meeting place and he’s not answering his phone. I send several fruitless texts and position myself at the top of an escalator hoping to spot him from a high vantage point. No joy. It’s like trying to find a field mouse in a zoo. Conscious that my mother’s not going to be able go very fast to the gate, I send her on ahead and start haunting the shops. My son finally materialises and with me yelling instructions over my shoulder, we run flat out, passing startled passengers leisurely being carried forward by conveyor belts.

We arrive at the gate hot and bothered and my recent purchase of coffee, croissant and porridge now a sorry mess inside the carrier bag. Having just done the 1500 metres, the stewardess makes us play a game called force your handbag into your already-bursting-at-the-seams holdall. I contemplate taking her on about this ridiculous rule but I can see from her expression that she’s in a bullish mood; not a battle I’m going to win.

The flight is full and with nowhere overhead to put our luggage, we end up cramming it into what little space remains several isles away. We squeeze into our seats near the back of the aircraft and I am just starting to finally relax, when an enormous man with sweat coating his face comes into view. No, I think, averting my eyes as he takes the seat in front of mine. Please don’t. The back of his chair strains towards me like a lid closing over a coffin. He cannot recline it, I think mutinously, or I will suffocate and die.

My mother, who is in an upbeat mood (coffee has that affect on her), investigates what’s in her seat pouch, pulling out the obligatory emergency landing card and various magazines.

‘What’s this?’ she asks.

‘It’s a sick bag, Mum,’ I say, shoving it back into place. ‘You won’t be needing that.’

Having rushed us onto the plane, the entire cabin crew promptly disembark and we are made to wait almost an hour before the replacement crew appear. Outside, it’s all hail and brimstone. The storm has caused a back-log of queuing planes, we are told, which means suffering a further forty-five minute delay. So much for our early start to France. None of this does anything to dent my son’s holiday excitement who chats with my mother and plays games on his phone, his earlier purchases laid out in front of him like a shrine; there is enough sugar to fuel the aircraft but I don’t spoil the mood by mentioning this.

The plane roars into life and suddenly we’re in the sky. From the window, all I can see is smeared rain. The undercarriage is making grumbling noises which make me think of rusty, broken things – did I mention that I don’t like flying? My mother and I laugh uncertainly but there is an unnerving amount of turbulence. The plane feels flimsy and unsafe, like a boat being buffeted at sea. The first signs of a headache starts to nag.

Ten minutes into our flight, a baby begins to wail. It has a piercing pitch. I glance behind me hoping to see someone dealing with the situation. A slight, rather pretty woman whose husband is sitting with their two young boys on the other side of the isle, is doing her best to calm the baby down but the baby’s not having any of it. This baby is a professional wailer. If it was auditioning for an out-of-key production of La Traviata, it would get the part. Nurofen, I think, scrabbling around in my bag.

The trolley makes its way precariously down the isle and my son, who hasn’t had breakfast and blames me for this oversight, orders a bacon roll. The stewardess tells him it will take ten minutes to cook and offers salted crackers while he waits. The large sweating man asks for a diet Coke (who is he kidding). As he reaches for his drink his seat springs forward like a bird released from its cage and for a moment I am awash with oxygen. Then he sits back again. It’s like being entombed.

I try reading to take my mind off the feeling of claustrophobia and the turbulence which won’t let up but my head is getting worse and I’m now starting to feel sick. I put the book away and close my eyes trying not to listen to the wailing baby or the child behind me who for some inexplicable reason has been given an I-pad and playing really loud games.

The seatbelt sign remains on for the entire flight. I take my life in my hands and go to the loo, clutching onto the back of seats and almost ending up in someone’s lap. Snacks and drinks are quickly cleared away and just when I think they have forgotten, my son’s bacon roll appears.

The plane begins its decent. There is a sudden, violent drop and we take a crazy noise dive. Everyone in the cabin cries out in fear and I do something I haven’t done since I was a little girl; I grab my mother’s arm, bracing myself for the worst. Almost immediately, the plane accelerates skyward at great speed as though released from a missile launcher, only for the engine to cut out and suddenly we are plunged earthward again. Its like being on some awful rollercoaster you can’t stop. Up and down, up and down until my head’s fit to burst. Fighting an impulse to be sick, I glance across at my son to see if he’s okay.

It comes as a shock when the plane finally hits the runway. There is a tremendous roar and a slam of the breaks, propelling everyone forward like rag-dolls.

‘My God, the pilot’s overshot the runway,’ my mother remarks, as the breaks squeal and protest in a cacophony of noise.

Head bent, trying not to focus on anything, I press my hands against the seat in front of me. The baby who has definitely secured the leading role in La Traviata is yelling its head off but I feel too awful to be sympathetic.

‘That was the worst landing I have ever experienced,’ my mother says loudly as we miraculously come to a stop.

A groan is the only responsel I can muster. Never again, I think. Don’t let me anywhere near a plane again.

Out of the window, I catch grey sky and sheets of rain. Great, I think. Really great.

My mother is smiling at me sympathetically. ‘Sick bag?’ she asks.

Night Chorus.

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2am.  Am wide awake despite very much not wanting to be. Have tried for three hours to sleep but husband, in state of blissful unconsciousness, has blocked nose and producing spectacular sounds. Strongly suspect that if snoring was an Olympic event, husband would walk away with gold.

2.10am. Hear commotion downstairs and leave bed to investigate. Attempts to keep eyes half closed to retain illusion of sleepy state fail as ground floor is ablaze with lights. Find Older Cherub in kitchen with headphones on and watching Game of Thrones on his I-Pad. Remind Cherub that season 4 of Game of Thrones is not an A level subject and that he needs to be up in five hours for school. Cherub, who has just completed a workout, complains of not having enough to eat. Do not feel that cereal, sports recovery drink, toast, chicken sandwich meant for school packed lunch and remainder of lasagne laid out in from of him, give sufficient grounds for this and decline request to make French toast.

2.20am. The dog, sitting in hopeful anticipation of food scraps, is suddenly all attention and starts barking loudly. Fear this might wake entire neighbourhood so open front door to assess what has brought about this state of excitement. Spot large, mangy fox frozen on lawn by sensor lights. Something unpleasant falls from its mouth and it slopes away in jaunty fashion. Dispatch dog with loud cries of encouragement to see vile animal off and watch dog discharge like a rocket in the opposite direction to the fox.

2.30am. Return to kitchen and Cherub performing elaborate stretching exercises. Cherub lists several things urgently needed for the morning which include printing off homework and washing school trousers as there’s spilt yoghurt on them. Cherub does not wait for response but announces he must get on with things as if he has been kept from important business.

Despite much whistling, dog is not forthcoming, so give up waiting in drafty hall and instruct Cherub to let her in when she reappears. Turn off lights and climb upstairs to bed which is now cold. Am determined to sleep but fear goal compromised by having consumed large quantities of dark chocolate after supper as am neither a coffee or tea drinker, so susceptible to caffeine. Curl up against husband as need for warmth has temporarily superseded need for peace. After five minutes become an inferno of heat and instantly discard husband and duvet.

2.50am. Husband’s snoring has settled into a low frequency, fluttering sound. Make ferocious attempt to take advantage of tranquil stage before Darth Vador decibels return but efforts fail. Lie very still and try to empty mind. Hear dog whining outside and contemplate leaving foolish animal to get on with it. Instead return downstairs and let her in. Cherub’s light is still on. Extract promise that he will be up in time for lift to station no matter what, but leave with heavy scepticism as Cherub’s commitment to lie-ins are legendary.

3.10am. Start to drift off but grow distracted by faint scratching noise. Am instantly alert and sit bolt upright. After some moments, identify sound coming from the ceiling just above my head. Try not to picture large rodent gnawing through electric cables but become fixated on sound and wait in state of extreme agitation. Consider earplugs but fear none exist in house and looking for them would mean turning on lights and ferrying through cupboards. Instead, stand on bed and bang loudly several times on the ceiling with slipper in the hope of frightening mice into submission. Cast uneasy glance over at husband who shifts onto his side, but sleeps on with steadfast resolve.

3.16am. Older Cherub appears in bedroom and asks indignantly what all the noise is about as he is trying to sleep. Request to borrow Apple charger is given short thrift and Older Cherub dispatched to bed with threats of losing I-Pad for life.

5.45am. Summoned from fitful dreams by several electronic devices belonging to husband leaping into life. About to drift off again when husband’s alarm startles us both. Alarm unceremoniously turned off. Wait in anticipation for husband to exit bed in order to resume sleeping but no such action transpires. Attempts to remind husband that alarm has gone off at the time of his choosing fail to have desired affect. Feel both resentful and envious of husband’s ability to sleep on with such dedication and listen begrudgingly to crows making a racket in garden until it is time to get up.

7am. Time to get up. Husband leaps out of bed with undignified enthusiasm and pulls back blind.

“Sleep well?” he asks, turning to look at me with a smile.

“Is that a serious question?” I ask.

Forget the bride. What about the grub?

how-to-make-your-own-cadbury-crispello-wedding-cake-naked-wedding-cake

We are on our way to a wedding. The weather is dreadful, a combination of snow, ice and sleet, so we leave early, foregoing breakfast.  By the time we arrive the snow has been replaced with a biting wind: it’s not a good day to be changing into your finery in an exposed village car park. Needs, however, must.

The church is packed but we manage to squash into a vacant pew near the back. It’s Arctic. Almost as cold as it is outside. Two of my nieces squeeze in next to us, shivering in their pretty but thin dresses. A late arrival tiptoes to a spare seat but he’s about as inconspicuous as Dame Edna Everage. He’s got a warped sense of humour or he’s colour blind. Either way, it takes a big personality to wear a brick-red suit covered in large white clouds.

The music strikes up and the groom, cutting a dashing figure in his army Blues, turns towards the bridesmaids who appear in black dresses and orange shoes, followed by the pretty bride, more conventional in white. We launch straight into a hymn, or rather praise choruses that are new territory for me, so I stand mute and let my attention wander. There are a lot of eye-catching outfits, many unsuitable for the cold weather and one or two, I’ve got to say, that should have been left at home. We’re supposed to be in bright colours and wearing vintage but I have failed on both counts, opting for the forbidden black and several warm layers. Everyone at the front sings with enthusiasm, but the rest of the church is mostly silent. Top tip to future brides and grooms; if you want a rousing congregation, choose hymns that everyone knows.

After what feels like ten minutes, I glance at the service sheet to see what to expect next but it turns out we still have a lot of singing to get through. Someone near the front raises an arm. I crane my neck to see what the excitement is about, but I’m too far back to get a proper look. A second arm goes up. Then the bride adds her own, slowly waving it from side to side. What is going on? The professional singers have their eyes shut, hands in a ‘don’t shoot’ position but far from looking worried, they are in a state of musical rapture. It dawns on me that I am witnessing the church equivalent of a rave. I sneak a peek around me at other members of the congregation who too are swaying.  “Oh, God,” I think, appalled. I catch my son’s eye and have a sudden, irrepressible desire to giggle. This I must not do.

A woman with bright orange hair gets up to take the first reading. She has an Australian twang but I’m too distracted by the hair to follow what she’s saying. Another Aussie, who’s flown over especially for the occasion, brings a light touch to the Address. Then we’re back to the singing again while the register is signed and many more chorusses and waving of arms.

The newly weds exit to the Star Wars theme tune and loud clapping. Everyone else stays in the church for tea. As most of us haven’t eaten a thing all day, there’s bedlam around the laden cake table. I’m momentarily thrilled to discover there’s gluten-free cake but my enthusiasm dissipates after one bite. An elderly lady doesn’t appear to like her cake either as she drops it into someone’s open handbag.

At the reception we stare across the threshold of a cavernous tithe barn and scan the empty room. Embarrassingly, we are the first to arrive but there is nowhere else to ‘hang out’ and we were in need of a warmer location. A waitress appears with a tray of hot Pimms which we pounce on, though there’s no sign of any food. There’s a selfie corner – a nice touch – which my younger son makes a beeline for, taking charge of the Polaroid camera and pegging our images to a large board. Giant Jenga and Connect add to the entertainment by which time the barn has started to fill. I only know family members so am startled by a strange lady wearing thick glasses who bares down on me. I suspect she’s had a head start with the Pimms because she’s not all that steady on her feet.

“How are the girls?” she asks a little sternly. This throws me. As far as I know I have only ever produced boys and say as much. She takes great offense at this and wanders away.

Our table is in front of the main door which means that there’s a constant draft as people come in and out. Aside from a couple of speeches there’s just a lot of milling round. We’re all basically waiting for the food to arrive. My father-in-law, who is facing a long journey home, starts to worry his lift will appear before he’s had anything to eat. I ask a passing member of staff, trying to ignore my rumbling stomach, what time they expect to serve up.

‘A bit later than planned,” she says brightly and gives me an approximate time.

My heart sinks. Another hour to go.

In the loo a blond Australian (they’re everywhere) also has food on her mind.

“I’ve been to three weddings in the last year,” she complains over the noise of the hand dryer, “and they’ve all been the same. The last one kept us waiting five hours. I fell out with the groom over it.”

Now is probably not a good time to mention my inside information about the delayed meal.

By the time we do eat my older son is so hungry he’s become dull-eyed and listless. He demolishes a mounded plate of roast potatoes and then sets about eating most of mine. Beyond the point of hunger, I pick half-heartedly at watery vegetables.

As we leave, we call the friends we’re spending the night with to tell them that we’re on our way. They have cooked us supper and got in a movie to watch.

‘The fire’s lit,’ my friend tells me; she knows all too well my intolerance to cold. I feel my appetite return.

‘What are we having?’ I ask.

‘Toad in the hole followed by Tart Tartin.’

‘We’ll be there in ten minutes,’ I say, suddenly famished again. ‘For God’s sake don’t start without us.’