Winter bushcrafting and wrestling with hammocks.

images

Two am and I am in a hammock in the middle of God knows where. It is unspeakably cold and my sleeping bag won’t behave. The effort of trying to force the zip to close while staying aboard is taking it out of me. To be honest, I’m exhausted. My pillow and blanket keep slipping to the ground but the tight frame of the hammock makes movement to retrieve them almost impossible. It’s also very claustrophobic. With the sleeping bag zip refusing to move higher than my knees I give in to my fate and hope that sleep arrives before I die of hypothermia. Half an hour later I decide this union cannot last. My bed at home is like a comfy pair of matronly knickers (and boy am I missing it). This hammock is like sleeping on a G-String.

Fumbling for my trainers, I survey the silent campsite.The moon is full, casting its bright light through the trees so that everything looks pure and clean. And yet I am too cold to enjoy the magic. Arms full of bedding, I trip over the para cords across the damp ground towards my friend’s tent. Through the gloom I catch sight of a neighbouring hammock. A few hours ago I was stifling giggles as I’d helped a second friend settle into it. Now the hammock looks sinister, rocking in the stiff breeze like an alien pod waiting to hatch.

Not wanting to wake the others, I softly call out my friend’s name. She sits up instantly and unzips the tent opening. I note, wryly, that she only has on leggings and a short sleeved T.shirt. Still wearing my woolly hat, ski coat and entire winter wardrobe, I settle on the narrow surface of the spare camp bed and close my eyes. After the hammock it feels luxurious being able to stretch out. But I can’t sleep. An hour passes, then another and I am still awake. Cold consumes me. It’s like lying on granite. My feet are blocks of ice. What I need is a layer of insulation under me, I think, suddenly remembering some earlier advice. My roll mat and blanket are still tucked inside the hammock. No use putting it off. I have to go back for them.

We are a group of twelve on this bushcraft weekend. Having arrived the night before in the pitch black, shadowy forms emerging from cars with only head torches for lighting, it is not until we gather for breakfast the next day that I get a proper look at everyone. We are a mixed bunch. The men in the group are clearly experienced campers; they packed light, can pitch a tent in the dark and have all the gear. With the exception of the friend I shared the tent with and who cajoled us into coming, we girls are novices and nervous ones at that. Camping in the Summer is one thing (I haven’t camped since I was ten). Taking part in a bushcraft weekend mid November is an entirely different matter. I’ve ventured far from my comfort zone and am already plotting my escape.

After breakfast (porridge and tea), we sit on damp stools made out of tree stumps and are shown the basic skills of carving. I still haven’t fully warmed up and feel distracted by the rain and biting wind. But then we get to have a go ourselves. All at once I’m using a nifty folding saw to cut through a log (the process of which warms me up) and make a wedge with a knife. This, I think as I reduce my log to a pile of kindling, is fun. Firelighting skills follow. I’d half anticipated the old rubbing two sticks together but it turns out this is the most difficult method. Instead, we are shown a variety of ways to start a flame, including one which impresses me using only wire wool and a V9 battery.

Next, we are taken on a woodland walk. We stop to identify trees and discuss their different uses, medicinal as well as a source for food. Hornbeam, hazel, sycamore, maple, birch, different gelatinous fungi including one called the Jelly ear which apparently the Chinese prize but looks too disgusting to sample, though others do. We learn never to pitch a tent under a beech tree. Widow makers, as they are sometimes referred to, are renowned for dropping limbs.

Despite the dismal weather, we are an upbeat and curious group. There is something quite satisfying about leaving behind the creature comforts we rely on and learning to do them ourselves. It might be about survival but it turns a tedious chore into one of adventure.

Accompanied by the distant sound of the M20, we move deeper into the woods and reach an area of survival shelters. Like curious sculptures, some have been built as wind buffers, others as a more substantial refuge. We start piling on leaves, moss and bark to the roof of one debris hut after someone suggests I sleep in it (my eventful night has been well broadcast).

“You’ll be nice and cosy in that,” they say encouragingly.

Mmmm. I’m not convinced but show willing by trying it out. I get down on my hands and knees, squeezing my 5.9” frame inside the mud cave and immediately decide that while this might work for a hobbit, it’s not for me. Small, dark spaces again. I just don’t like them. I’d feel like I was being entombed.

We spend the rest of the afternoon carving a honey spreader (well, this is a beginners course). This turns out to be the thing I enjoy most and so, it seems, do my friends. It is hard work at first and my knife keeps snagging the wood but there’s nothing like a bit of outdoor carving by a fire to focus and quiet the mind.

As it starts to get dark, we return to camp and shelter in the well equipped wooden yurt. It’s cosy in here. The wood-burning stove keeps the large, heavy kettle ready for a steady demand for tea and we have our camp chairs to sit on. Supper is chili-con-carne and rice which I tuck into with the enthusiasm of someone starved for three days. The rain’s coming down so heavily now that it begins to leak through the roof and I have to keep moving my chair to avoid getting wet. The only light comes from two tiny candles which hardly seem worth the bother. It’s difficult to see your food. We wear our head torches round our necks like jewellery so that we don’t blind one another as we talk. After we have washed up our plates, we resume carving our honey spreaders (curiously addictive) and the conversation flows. People start to head off to bed. It does feels late and I stifle a yawn but when I check my watch I am shocked to see it’s only 8.30pm. I have to be ill to retire that early so I keep one of my friends company as the fire slowly dies to nothing and she breaks a house rule by polishing off a glass of smuggled-in Prosseco.

I make a dash through the rain to the tent. This time I am armed with a hot water bottle and a sleeping bag borrowed from a friend who had to leave early. I can tell, from the way it springs out of its bag like something alive, that this is a far superior model to my own. I brave taking off my coat and settle inside. It feels puffy and luxurious. The zip glides up my body so that I am fully enclosed. I start to warm up. Soon I am hot. Kicking away the hot water-bottle I unravel my arms and hold them out behind my head. I am an inferno. If there was a window, I’d throw it open. Then I start to disrobe. Even my socks come off. Finally, thankfully, I reach an ambient temperature and settle.The rain is hammering against the tent. It is so loud that it sounds like it’s just above my nose. It is hard to imagine being able to sleep through the racket but I do. Like a baby.

For the last day we learn about knife sharpening and more fire lighting options. Then we are set a challenge to light our own fire using the methods we were shown the day before. Like excited children, we head off into different directions to gather wood. Everything is soaked from all the overnight rain so the trick is to pay attention to what is hidden (and therefore protected) and focus first on finding tiny twigs. I opt for the cotton wool smeared with Vaseline option as a fire-lighter. A few strikes of my fire steel and the cotton wool ignites. It’s like magic. Water fizzes out of the end of the twigs like beer froth but amazingly, with gentle coaxing, the fire takes. Soon it is throwing out a powerful heat. It is my Ray Mears moment and I feel a rush of pride.

It is ironic that the sun comes out at the very point we leave. As we set off back across the muddy fields to where our cars are parked, I cast a nostalgic look over the little campsite which has been our home for the weekend knowing I shall never come back. Whatever it was I needed to prove to myself doesn’t need repeating. That said, I have shared a memorable experience with four lovely friends and I’m glad I came. Would I recommend you do the same? Definitely. If you can get past the cold, those sapling trees in the bright moonlight are a sight to behold.

Advertisements

Vexed by Vodafone

images

I am not normally drawn to murderous thoughts but Vodafone possesses a particular kind of incompetence that leaves me shouting at walls. You’d think that getting a phone upgrade would be simple enough. And indeed it starts off well. A friendly Irish salesman takes my call and sorts out new terms we are both happy with.

“You should have your phone in the next 48 hours,” he ends in a sing song voice and fool that I am, I believe him.

Five days pass and no sign of my phone, so I call Vodafone for an explanation. It appears they have no record of my recent upgrade and so I am forced to start the process all over again. With this done and with reassurances that my phone will soon be with me, I sit back and wait. And wait. When I chase Vodafone with yet another call, I am told my particular model is out of stock.

“When are you expecting it back in?” I ask in frustration.

“I have no idea.” The girl’s voice is hard and bored. ‘The system doesn’t give me that information. I see here that your husband took out the original contract so I would need to speak to him about this not you.’

‘He’s at work. In meetings.’

‘I’d still need to speak to him.’

This is exasperating. ‘So what you’re saying is I can renegotiate the terms of my new contract but not be entitled to know when I can take delivery of the phone?” I ask churlishly.

‘As I say, you’ll have to get your husband to call us to discuss anything further.”

So much for customer services. Irritated, I call my husband and recount the situation. He takes forty five minutes out of his busy working day to resolve the problem, speaking to various people in different departments who all tell him conflicting things. By the time he hangs up he’s only half sure he’s got it sorted.

Another week passes and about the most exciting thing to arrive in the post is a £10 Ocado voucher. I make call after call – literally hours of my life dialing Vodafone’s customer service number, but suddenly it is impossible to get through. Press one for this, press two for that, option after option only there’s never one pertinent to me. I start pushing random numbers no longer caring where they take me so long as it’s to a human being. Instead, I get bad music and the same droning, automated voice telling me, for the umpteenth time, ‘Great news. The I-Phone 6 is now available.’ It’s like a form of torture; Groundhog Day replaying over and over without there ever being an outcome. I want more than a wall to lash out at. I want an apology, sympathy, even a bit of groveling. Most of all I want someone to sort out my bloody phone. But there is no option for an unhappy customer. That’s not the kind of call they want to handle.

Finally, after what feels like a life sentence, I get through to a girl who sounds as if she actually cares. If only she wouldn’t say ‘that’s fantastic” after every question I answer.

“So, how long is it you say you’ve been waiting to receiver your phone?”

“A lifetime.”

“That’s fantastic. Thank you.”

To her credit, she takes time to read my notes and agrees they’re a mess which I find oddly reassuring. At least she’s on my side. And while she can’t send me a phone because my model really is out of stock, she does source one in a shop about half an hour’s drive from where I live.

“I can have them send it out tomorrow,” she offers.

I cut her off at the pass. “Let’s avoid any more mishaps. I’ll drive over and pick it up myself.”

Before I set off the next day, I dial the number she has given me. The shop in question is supposed to have called out of courtesy but as I haven’t heard anything I call them. And wouldn’t you know it, I can’t get through. Just their voicemail with a promise of a call back soon. This feels like depressingly familiar territory. I leave four messages, each one increasingly curt, but no one returns my call. I even google the shop to see if there’s another number listed, but I just get the same customer service number I’ve grown to know and hate.

Taking a leap of faith, I drive to the shop. The manager is embroiled with an elderly couple who have clearly never seen a mobile phone before. They keep her occupied for half an hour while I hover, pent up and fidgety waiting my turn. When the couple finally leave, I explain why I’m here, anticipating a “oh, yes, we’ve been expecting you,” kind of reaction. Instead, I get a blank look.

“I don’t know anything about this.”

“But I left four messages for you this morning.” I show the Manager the piece of paper I’d scribbled her number down on as though it proves something.

“We’ve been really busy,” she says without so much of an apology, “and that’s not even my number.”

Oh, for God’s sake. This just goes from bad to worse.

“I can still authorise a new phone for you.”

For a nanosecond my hopes rise. “You have the one I want in stock?”

“No. But even if I did it would need to be delivered to your home address. I can only give you the phone if your husband is here to sign the contract.”

‘He’s in the States,” I say, shrilly, ‘for two weeks!”

‘Then I can arrange to have the phone sent out. You’d have it by the end of the week.’

I regard her with suspicion. “Forgive me, but Vodafone’s track record of promises hasn’t exactly been reliable.”

There are four other customers in the (very small) shop. One is being helped by the only other member of staff. No one looks my way, but I can tell from their careful movements that I have an audience.

“All I can do at this point,’ the manager continues, “is cancel your existing contract and order you another phone.” She regards me coolly. “Would you like me to do that for you?”

She is a wall, implacable against my feelings of frustration and injustice, but because I’m running out of options and because I can’t bear to go home without something to show for my efforts, I allow her to proceed.

Through the shop window I watch a mother trying to control her toddler son. He’s in a rage and because he can’t get his way, his little fists start thumping her. Finally, caving into a stronger force, he goes limp in her arms and wails. I know just how you feel, I think. What a complete waste of time this has been.

The Manager is running through the terms of the contract she’s just put together.

“Hang on,” I stop her mid flow. “How much did you say I’d be paying?” She repeats the amount. I am aghast. “But that’s almost twice what was agreed before.”

‘It will be,” she says, all matter of fact. “I can’t match online offers. I don’t have that facility.”

I’ve had enough. ‘Who is the highest person in the Vodafone chain I can complain to?” I ask at the top of my voice. “I want their details.”

A neighbouring customer takes a precautionary step back as though expecting me to start throwing punches, but from the manager, nothing. No expression of emotion. Not even a flicker.

‘I don’t have access to that information but I can give you the general enquires number.”

Before I do something I’ll regret – and I’m sorely tempted to – I grab my bag, mumbling ‘this is a bloody joke,’ and exit, slamming the door behind me.

I am very calm when I call Vodafone the next day. My mood is almost receptive. I speak to a young man whose accent I can understand and who responds helpfully to both my request for my PAC number and my reasons for no longer wanting to be a customer of Vodafone.

“I’d do the same thing in your situation,” he admits. “I can see this has been a nightmare.” He then surprises me by saying that while there is an £18.50 fee for canceling my account, he has credited it with £20 to avoid there being any cost my end.

Where was this helpful individual when I needed him? Sadly, it’s all come a little bit too late. I’ve moved on and am now signed with EE. There’s only one problem: I now can’t get a signal.

Slip Up

images

I am in a canoe on a French river up to my waist in water. Despite the glum, rumbling sky, the air is mild otherwise I’d be tempted to swim to shore; being wet is one thing but being wet and cold puts me in a very dark place. My husband follows, hampered by a large waterproof container strapped between his knees. The container looks like a giant protein pot avid body builders use but we need it as it’s keeping our shoes and valuables dry. It is incredibly peaceful. I can’t believe we have the river to ourselves. The only sound comes from our paddles pulling through the rippling water. That, and the occasional shriek from our two teenage boys as they try to capsize each other.

We keep to the right of the river, steering clear of rocks that appear above the water’s surface. When we reach our first rapid, we drop, one by one, into the churning slope. Half way down and without warning, our canoes suddenly swivel round so that we travel backwards down the final descent. There is no point in trying to fight it – though of course I do. The pull of the current is too strong and you just have to go with it.

For a while we meander and I think wistfully of the hot sun a break in mid France had promised. Isn’t it meant to be reliably warm this time of year? Then I remind myself that this Summer holiday is about doing things with the boys. That was my wish. To have adventures with them. Not to lounge by a pool.

There is an almighty clatter of thunder and quite suddenly the rain that has threatened all morning descends. I remember the young Frenchman at the rental hut warning of possible thunderstorms and the penny drops – stupide Anglais – why we are alone on the river. In the event of a storm our instructions were to make for the bank and ditch our paddles. But while I don’t relish the thought of being fried (or drowned) on a river, we see no flashes of lighting and so soldier on.

At a blockade of rocks, we have to get out of our canoes and pull them over the other side. I knew in advance to expect this but it never occurred to me that it would give us any kind of trouble. It turns out that holding a paddle (long and awkward) in one hand, yanking up a canoe (heavy) with the other while negotiating a mound of wet rocks is to be our undoing.

Several things happen at once. My eldest son loses hold of his paddle which is immediately swept away. In trying to stop it, his brother tumbles onto his backside. Someone’s canoe slides free. I see it roll leisurely into the river and make a grab for it, but I too slip on the rocks. Arms windmilling backwards, I go down hard. There is a jolt to the side of my head and left wrist and for a moment the pain is all I can think about. Aided by my eldest son, I get gingerly to my feet, worried less about what injuries I may have sustained, but that my glasses, which flew off in the fall, might be broken.

“Your hand, Mum,” my older son says, bringing my attention to a nasty gash on the palm of my left hand. Blood is pouring from it. I watch it drip and blossom on the rocks curiously detached, though I’m aware that my other son has now set off on a rescue mission. Last to climb free from his canoe is my husband. I can tell he’s not feeling well. He opens up the barrel container and finding nothing suitable, offers me a rather grubby sock as a make-shift bandage.

“Best I can do,” he says ruefully. My hand starts to throb. I hear him discussing what our next move is with my son and while they’re talking, another paddle slips free and lands, sharp end, onto my big toe. This is turning into a farce, I think, gritting my teeth as new pain kicks in. I glance out at the river, stretching out in both directions and wonder how I’m going to be able to paddle without the use of one hand; we’ve still a long way to go. Its clear, however, that we can’t stay as we are.

The rain continues to fall. We stand under its fury, bedraggled rats, and hatch a plan. In the end my older son, who is the fittest amongst us, elects to bring back the missing canoe. I go with him leaving my husband to wait for his return.

My younger son has managed to rescue the stray canoe and paddle. But neither boy can work out how to paddle with one hand while towing a canoe with the other. I hold onto a rock and watch them problem solve. Using a T.shirt, they secure the rescued canoe to the back of my older son’s canoe, but it keeps coming free and the boys drift further and further downstream. For a while I follow them, using the crook of my left arm to anchor my paddle, but it becomes patently clear they have travelled too far to make it back to where my husband is waiting. This is hopeless, I think, as the rain continues to rage and the current pulls them further downstream. We need a plan B.

I find a suitable place to leave my canoe and, with difficulty, use my good hand to haul myself up the steep bank. The white sock is now pink and sodden and probably not doing much good, but I keep it pressed to the wound. Barefoot, I start running in the direction from which we have come. I don’t want to be long in case the boys return: my abandoned canoe would confuse them. Perhaps it is being back on dry land but I picture myself as the Bionic Woman moving at an impossible speed with that strange juddering, synthesized sound from the 70s T.V. show playing out in my head. In reality the ground is springy and rough and I am forced into an ungainly side to side skipping to avoid the myriad cow pats and the thistles that catch my feet. I call out my husband’s name, fairly sure I’m on track, but the terrain keeps forcing me wide of where I want to go.

At last I hear my husband respond to my calls. A somewhat forlorn figure emerges from the trees and together we return to my canoe, me leaping on ahead to alert the boys, him following at a more sedate pace, troubled by his soaked shoes and whatever sick bug he’s carrying.

I am relieved to see our eldest son waiting by my canoe, though he appears to have lost his brother. With only two vessels between us, I shuffle onto one canoe with my son while my husband takes mine. I am sure our joint weight will capsize the canoe, but while it rocks precariously, we remain afloat. Further downstream we catch up with my younger son. He’s easy to spot because his canoe is the colour of an American school bus and screams at us through the murky foliage. Like a circus acrobat he is all limbs; one arm raised to a tree branch, the other arm holding onto the wayward canoe, his outstretched feet anchoring two paddles. The look in his eyes says, “What the hell took you so long?”

For the first time in what feels like hours, we are reunited with our canoes. Ordeal over, the mood lightens. Even the weather improves. No longer raining, the boys go back to fooling around. My older son reclines back with his eyes shut like an optimistic sun worshipper and lets his hands trail in the water. When his canoe hits a rock and upends him we all laugh, amused by how many attempts it takes him to get back in.

The young Frenchman from the rental is good natured about having had to wait so long. I give him a vague account of what has happened but don’t go into detail or mention injuries. It seems a bit pointless given that we’d had to sign a liability waiver before starting out. We pose for pictures, help load up the canoes and lifejackets, then climb into the little bus that will take us back to our car.

I don’t yet know it but my cut hand is infected. Tomorrow morning I will wake up to a fever and in twenty four hours the infection will have spread, angry and hot, half way up my arm. I will need stitches and a fortnight of antibiotics and be unable to take part in any further activity for the remainder of the holiday. I will lament this, notably when we visit an adventure park three days later and all I can do is marvel as my boys bungee jump, master a series of obstacle courses high in the trees with my husband and zip wire over a lake. I am itching to join in. Maybe not the bungee jumping. The thought of plunging head first from a hundred foot up fills me with cold horror. In this, at least, my poor infected hand has saved me.

‘Would you do it for a million quid?’ my younger son asks, testing my resolve.

‘Not a chance.’ I am categoric.

‘How about two million?’

I open my mouth to answer and then I close it again because – for a nano second – I actually think about it. Then common sense prevails. Adventure is what I’d wanted on this holiday and one turned out to be enough. As the saying goes, you want to be very careful what you wish for.

Freddie

goldfish-bowl-3226881

It is always dangerous leaving a resourceful thirteen year old to their own devices, especially when the fun fair is in town. I drop my younger son off at our local cricket club to watch the first team play but when I return, two hours later, it is evident that the lure of the fun fair has won out over the match. He is clutching a small container with a goldfish inside and looking shifty.

“Before you say anything,’ he begins quickly, ‘My friend won it. Only his mum wouldn’t let him take it home so he offered it to me.’

‘That was nice of him,’ I say, giving my son a suspicious look. He has been after a gold fish for years.

‘So can we bring him home?”

No is my gut instinct. We’ve had a lamentable track record with Guinea pigs, none of them lasting more than a few weeks and we already have two dogs (well, the little one belongs to my mother but we have her to stay so often she might as well be ours). We don’t need any more pets. But then my son looks at me with those big, brown, beguiling eyes of his and my resolve weakens.

‘What are you going to call him?’ I find myself asking.

He thinks for a moment. ‘Freddie.’

I glance dubiously at the container Freddie’s in. It’s the size of a chocolate Maltesers box.

‘Is he going to be all right in that?’

‘He’ll be fine, Mum. Look, I bought some food.’ My son shows me a tiny cylindrical cardboard pot with what looks like fine sawdust inside. ‘Only cost a pound. The man said it will last a year.’ Mmmm.

Freddie’s new home is on my son’s bedside table. For two days I am traumatized by this little fish banging against the sides of his minuscule container. It’s like me trying to do lengths in the kitchen sink. He’s no sooner turned round than he’s hitting the opposite side ready to turn again.

On day three I can’t take the Maltesers box any more and drive to a nearby pet shop. I discover it does a roaring trade in all things relating to cats, dogs and birds but almost nothing on marine life. After some searching the shop assistant finds, half hidden on a top shelf, a five litre plastic tank. No gismos, just a plastic box which I buy even though the cost of it would get me enough Freddies to fill the London Aquarium.

Transported to his new home, Freddie now looks like he’s attempting the Atlantic crossing and I no longer pass him weighed down with guilt. But for a little fish he produces a lot of waste so the water gets murky very quickly and has to be cleaned every other day. And there’s another issue. Big it may be but the tank does look pretty boring. There’s nothing for Freddie to do or interact with.

Egged on by my son, I go in search of a proper aquatics centre to stock up on accessories. I’m not sure what to expect but as I enter the place I am transformed. Huge tanks lit with a dreamy blue light fill the walls displaying a circus of fish. Wow, I think, delighted by the spectacle. The last time I got this excited about fish, I was snorkeling in Sharm el Sheik. It’s like being at a fashion show, each creature showing off dazzling colours and exotic shapes. My son would love this, I think, wishing he were with me. Trying not to get distracted, I show the assistant a picture of Freddie and explain how we got him. Then comes the sobering news. Freddie is a fresh water fish and will grow to several times his size. Left in his current home (and without filtration), the water will run out of oxygen and he will die.

I think back to the goldfish I had as a child and don’t recall any of them growing particularly big or having a fancy home. Mine would have been your standard fairground bowl, like the one depicted in The Cat in The Hat. But then if I’m honest, I don’t think any of my fish lasted very long. I could just bite the bullet and buy a filtered tank but it turns out I’d also need lighting, a heater, shingle for the floor, thermometer, accessories, plant cover to prevent stress, not to mention the chemicals needed to keep the water healthy. All this for one little goldfish. I can’t help feeling that Freddie who’s only trick is to swim in circles, is beginning to look like a poor investment.

In the end I return home empty handed and convey the news to my son. He takes it better than I’d feared. Thirteen year old boys are stoic like that. Neither of us know how long it will be before the end comes but one morning I wake to find Freddie’s tank very cloudy and Freddie looking subdued. Usually he darts about eagerly looking for food. Now he hovers like an inert submarine. The time has come.

Conscious that Freddie might only have a bit of oxygen left, I wake my son who launches into action. Together we fill a freezer bag with fresh water and scoop Freddie into it. Then, my son sets off at speed towards the pond at the end of our road. Freddie doesn’t know it yet but his tank’s about to get a whole lot bigger.

I know he’s only a fish but as I watch my son disappear, I feel a pang of guilt. After all what fate am I sending him to? Will he manage to adapt to pond life? The man in the shop told me that pond fish (for that is certainly where he came from) can grow up to ten inches, but first there’s the shock of the temperature change to cope with and the threat of larger predators waiting to pounce.

A few days later I drive past the pond. My son is with me chatting away about something he’s seen on T.V. He seems, thankfully, to have escaped the whole fish episode without any emotional scarring. All the same, I keep him distracted as I notice out of the corner of my eye, a newly installed heron taking centre stage on the pond. Uh oh, I think. Let’s just hope Freddie’s keeping a very low profile.

A Model’s Lot

tear_drop_by_alcyon_x-d60zab9 I am in a house in Crouch End sitting on a strange sofa, in strange clothes, a ‘sophisticated housewife’ pretending to sip coffee from an empty cup. Every now and then someone comes over to change a cushion I’m leaning against or fuss with my hair. I gaze into the distance and laugh as though amused by an invisible guest.

It’s odd being back in front of a camera. Aeons ago, I did this for a living. Coming back to modelling after so long reminds me of the bizarre dual existence I once led. Yesterday, I resembled something out of Lord of the Flies, up to my knees in mud and rain as I dug up my vegetable patch. Today, I’m the focus of a fashion shoot.

During a break, I return to the make up artist, Connie, who has set up shop in a corner of the sitting room. Inexplicably, someone has thrown open all the sash windows and no one has thought to close them. It’s freezing. Connie’s suitcase is like a conjurer’s box, full of coloured palettes and brushes, hair products, strange looking pots and metal eyelash curlers. She is very focused on her job, her small hands moving across my face with efficient speed. My eyes, maddeningly, are watering and I keep having to dab at them. They have been irritated for months, due to chronic dryness, but since getting the tiny drains in my eyes plugged, all they do is water. It’s like I’ve got my eyes open at the bottom of a swimming pool; everything is blurry. I worry about spoiling the make up but Connie brushes my concerns away. Waterproof mascara, as I will later discover when I am back home and can’t get the wretched stuff off, does what it says on the packet.

With a final dab of my cheeks, Connie holds a mirror up to show me her handiwork. I study my reflection. Mmmm. My eyes look quite dramatic but I’m not sure about the lipstick which goes by the alarming name ‘toxic mandarin’ or how she has straightened my hair; the rather severe side parting makes me look like a school matron.

I put on a print dress which we shoot in the kitchen. Someone gives me a glass tumbler as a prop and off we go. The photographer, a quiet, slight-framed man sporting a neat mustache is a silent presence behind the lens. This does nothing for my confidence. It should be a collaborate affair. Instead I am forced to rely on instinct, feeling my way into the mood of each pose. What does he want; smily and relaxed or a little haughty? More varied angles? Am I elongating my neck enough? Are my hands fluid and soft? Who knows? It’s like playing one way tennis: the ball just doesn’t come back. I catch a glimpse of myself on the computer screen that has been hooked up to the camera. What I think is conveying soft and dreamy looks a little stern. I jiggle my jaw to release any tension.

When my eyes start to pool, Chloe brings over a tissue. I turn my head in a contemplative pose and gaze out of the window onto the small, patchwork gardens below.

‘Stay like that,’ the photographer says, vocal for the first time, ‘but bring your face a bit more to me.’

I do as I’m asked, edging my head towards the camera and stare at the side of the fridge but that’s the extent of the feedback. Not even an attempt at rapport. All I have to feed off is the rapid clicking noises of the camera.

Once the photographer is satisfied we have the shot, I climb three flights of stairs to the master bedroom and get changed. All the outfits hang from the door frames like strange works of art with the accessories laid out on the bed. The client selects a sleeveless, burnt orange dress which fits me like a glove. The jacket, an aboriginal print in a curious palette of pastel colours, however, is shapeless and at odds with the dress.

‘Doesn’t really work, does it?’ the client says, echoing my thoughts. She’s young and I can tell is new to the job. ‘I don’t want to lose the jacket though.’

I suggest holding the jacket against my hip instead of wearing it, demonstrating what I mean and she stops chewing her bottom lip, nodding her approval. I force my feet into the leopard print shoes which are, along with all the others, too small, throw on some jewelry and together we return downstairs.

The photographer has set up out on the small first floor balcony. It’s like stepping into the arctic. I start to shiver but try to think warm thoughts and force my body to relax, smiling into the lens. It’s frustrating getting so little feedback  but I’m into it now and have to assume that if nothing’s been said, it’s because the photographer and client like what they see.

Back inside, I am given a cup of tea and slowly warm up. It helps that someone’s had the good sense to finally close the windows so the heating’s taking effect. The dining table is littered with various snacks; fudge cake, chocolate biscuits, plastic bottles of water, the usual suspects, but sugar will only give me a temporary boost. I’d rather have the rice salad I brought, unobtainable and keeping cool in the fridge.

The client tells me that one of the owners of the house is going out with the girl who plays Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. This pricks my interest as I am a big fan of the books. It turns out that no one else has read them but they’re all mad about Prince Oberyn, one of the new characters in the latest TV series. I refrain from saying he’s not long for this world.

We move to a first floor bedroom for the next outfit. Half the room is taken up with lighting and camera equipment. There is a metal bed and an electric guitar prominently displayed. I stand next to the grey taffeta curtains and listen to what the client wants from this shot while the stylist uses a bulldog clip to stop the top I’m wearing from gaping at the front, while Connie applies another layer of lipstick. Then we’re off again. I alter my body position with each click of the camera trying not to notice the two disturbing paintings that dominate the white walls ahead. In one, a green devil with multiple mouths is eating naked people from a burning cauldron. The people are screaming.

‘Interesting choice,’ I comment during a break in shooting.

‘I think the owner’s mum painted them,’ the client says evasively.

Which explains why they haven’t been consigned to a local skip. Even so, I’m not sure that in Sansa’s shoes, I could even contemplate sleeping in this room. I’d have nightmares.

Connie curls my hair, then opens a flattish tin of what looks suspiciously like wax. Rubbing her hands vigorously together, she coaxes it into my hair to stop rogue strands from sitting up. I don’t say anything but wax is a bugger to get out. Washing it the normal way won’t work. It leaves the hair heavy and unyielding and frankly, you feeling suicidal. The secret is to apply baby powder before wetting the hair. Still, I have to admit the wavy look is an improvement, as are the pale, nude lips and dark, smoky eyes which I do my best to ruin with my dabbing.

As I take my place on the stairs landing, the photographer voices his approval and brings the camera in close. He makes encouraging sounds for the first time and I widen my eyes, hoping that the sudden pooling doesn’t look like I’m about to cry.

With two outfits remaining, we run out of time. Connie leaves – I know she has a small child to collect – but I agree to stay on. I’ve survived five hours on adrenaline, an extra half hour won’t hurt. And I might get some good pictures out of this. Both stylist and client rush about with added urgency, moving things out of the way while the photographer plays with the light. I make small alterations to my make-up. The wax has made my hair a little stiff so I add water to bring back the shape but I’m not sure it helps. Ironically, we do get the best shots, one with me in a dark green wool dress surveying my reflection in a cheval mirror, then of me lying across the bed, propped up on my elbows in capri pants and a pale blue sweater.

Suddenly, it’s all over. Everyone seems happy with the day, the mood convivial and relaxed now our jobs are complete. I change back into my own clothes, grateful to be wearing comfortable shoes after posing for so long in heels and rescue my lunch from the fridge. The photographer takes my number promising to email me some of the photos, then sets about dismantling the set.

I step out into the chilly afternoon sunshine, shoving on sunglasses to hide my make-up and head, unnoticed, for the tube.

The Saga of the Packed Lunch

Lunch TupperwareMonday: Mozzarella and chicken on brown bread. Home made flapjack, fruit bar, orange slices, greek yoghurt with honey, plum jam sandwich, banana packed into Tupperware container.

Home. 7.30pm

“Where’s your lunchbox?’

‘In my sports bag.’

‘Can you get it so I can wash it up.”

No response.

‘Ideally before I go to bed.’

‘Yup, okay.’

Later, about to go to bed. ‘Any joy with that lunch box?’

‘Think I might have left it at school.’

‘Oh.’

‘Don’t stress. I know where it is.’

‘Not stressing, just relying on you to bring it back tomorrow.’

‘Sure.’

Tuesday: Ham and watercress on brown bread, apple slices, flapjack, peach and apricot yoghurt, 2 blueberry muffins, banana, liquorish bar tucked into spare Tupperware container.

Home. 9.30pm.

‘Any joy in finding your lunch box?’

‘Sorry. Didn’t get a chance to go to lost property. Really busy day.’

‘Can I have the one from today then?’

‘It’s in my bag. I’ll get it later.’

‘We tried that one before. Now is later.’

‘Okay. Okay.’ Breaks from I.Phone. Looks up. Focuses. ‘Mum, I’m a bit busy right now. I’ll bring it through in a bit.’

‘You don’t have it, do you?

‘I may have left it in my classroom.’

‘With the other one?’

‘Possibly.’

Frowning.

‘Don’t worry, Mum. Honestly, I’ll sort it.’

Wednesday: Pasta with chicken, sweetcorn and butter beans. Apple slices, 2 fruit bars, buttered malt loaf, fruit salad, strawberry yoghurt stuffed into plastic carrier bag and tied at neck so contents don’t fall out.

Son’s bedroom. 9.15pm

‘I’ve come for your lunch stuff.’ Room resembles a jumble sale mid flow, the floor hidden by mountain of clothes. Son, texting invisible friends with spectacular speed, appears unaware that someone else is in the room rummaging through bags.

‘What? Oh, Mum can you leave my stuff.’

Ignore instruction and dig out foreign objects.

‘Whose are these?’ Hold up two blue containers and a packet of antibiotics.

Noncommittal shrug. ‘Must have picked my friend’s bag up by mistake. What’s inside the containers?’

Two slices of gleaming chocolate cake. ‘These looks homemade.’

‘Shame to let it go to waste then.’

Leave off-spring in state of chocolate bliss but with list of missing items gathering momentum. Text friend’s mother about the antibiotics and eaten cake.

Thursday: Chicken and rice salad, black grapes, apricot yoghurt, carrot, orange slices, buttered malt loaf, chunky honey sandwich, chocolate bar packed into spare Tupperware found in garage.

Driving to train station. 7.25am.

‘Do you have everything?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sure? You’re not wearing a tie.’

‘In my bag.’

‘Glasses?’

‘Yes.’

‘Money for bus home?’

‘Sorted. Honestly, Mum. Don’t fuss.’

Back home, find packed lunch on hall table. The words neck and wring spring to mind.

Friday: Sod it. Yesterday’s lunch in yesterday’s container.

Home. Late.

Hall floor, jutting out of school bag, spot what appears to be the remains of this morning’s Tupperware container.

‘What happened to this?’ Incredulous. ‘It looks like it’s been put through a crusher.’

‘Ah.’ A pause.

‘Not my fault. I got it out of my bag to eat my lunch while I was waiting for the school bus to arrive and a car reversed over it.’

‘That’s a joke, right?’

Earnest shaking of head. ‘No, it really did. Some idiot in a BMW drove right over it. I didn’t even get to finish my sandwich which was really annoying.’

For once am completely lost for words.

Close Encounters

beware_of_trains

I am waiting in my car at a train station watching the rain and people come and go through the misted windscreen. My eldest son’s tall, pale form emerges, limping slightly and wearing shorts. It is 6 degrees.

‘Do you have any food?’ he asks me, as he climbs into the passenger seat, his bare legs wet and muddy from his run at school. Apart from sleep, hunger is his main preoccupation. ‘And something for my foot. I’ve got a massive blister.’

Like Mary Poppin’s handbag, the car is equipped for all sorts of emergencies. Thus, I magically produce not only food but a change of clothes and a large padded plaster for his foot. Sports kit flies around the car interior as he changes and demolishes three bananas, a yoghurt and a large packet of oatmeal cookies. Mindful of the time, I urge him to hurry but he can’t seem to find the socks I brought him and the ones he’s wearing are fit only for the washing machine. Everything he has staggered home with has been tipped out, transforming the car into a burglary scene. The socks finally emerge and he’s struggling to put them on when our train arrives. We make it but only just, my son adopting the moves of a sandpiper as he hops after me on one leg, clutching his shoes.

We spend the evening in London with my husband, younger son and friends to watch Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The show is thrilling, a mix of humour and poignancy and when it is over and we have said our goodbyes, we head back to the station in high spirits. Our timing is perfect as a train is already waiting on the platform so we jump on and install ourselves near the front. Half an hour later, our mood a little flattened, we still haven’t moved. A tannoy announcement tells us that there has been a casualty on the line and to expect long delays. We exit the train in search of an alternative route but discover that all the trains are in the same predicament. ‘Probably a suicide,’ my younger son says resignedly, ‘They happen a lot on the school commute.’

It’s cold and there’s nowhere to sit so we return to our original train and wait a further forty minutes before learning that the train we need is leaving from another platform. Knowing that the whole world will now be on their way to this platform, my older son sprints ahead to get seats. When we catch up with him he is already sitting on the train. The doors won’t open, however, and I find my access blocked.

‘Please step away from the carriage,’ says a guard with an edge to his voice.  We all shuffle back and watch three hefty men attempt to hook a carriage onto the body of the train.

‘This is a joke,’ a man standing next to me complains. His bald head resembles a peeled egg. ‘I could have been home ninety minutes ago.’

‘Yes, but at least you’re not dead,’ I say, reminding him of why we’re in this situation.

He has the grace to look chagrined. ‘You’re right. It’s only that I’m so friggin’ tired. I’ve got to be back here by 7am tomorrow. Hardly worth going home.’

He has a point. It’s already 12.45am and tomorrow (well, today now) is a school day. The boys are going to be shattered.

The small train, only half a dozen carriages, finally opens its doors and quickly fills. Somehow I have got separated from my husband and younger son but my older son has saved the window seat opposite him which I take. The train jolts into life and pulls away. I notice a man holding a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. He’s staring at me from a few seats away on the other side of the isle. Mid-forties, I’m guessing, with a tall, powerful frame, his good looks are spoiled by a ruddy complexion that suggests a lot of time spent in the pub. My son and I read the freebie papers. Not much to hold my attention. It’s just nice to be out of the cold and finally moving. At the next stop a wave of people join the train and it suddenly feels like rush hour. A very drunk girl falls into the seat next to my son. Her standing friend strokes her hair and tells her that she is going to be okay but the girl appears anything but okay to me. Caked in make-up she looks very drunk and can hardly keep her eyes open. I have a bad feeling about this.

With so many people pressing onto the train I’m only vaguely aware of someone addressing me.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ they say, sliding into the seat next to me, ‘there’s nowhere else to sit.’

It is the man with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag. The same man who, only moments ago, was sitting across the isle. I steal a glance at my son. Has he noticed? The man starts talking to me but my responses are short and I take refuge in my now riveting newspaper. Not having any joy with me, the man tries to engage my son. When he asks what stop we are getting off at, I shoot my son a warning look, but he’s already told him. I’m in the middle of texting my firstborn my concerns when the girl with the heavy make-up starts to heave and before anyone has time to react, she is violently sick. The vomit, which is copious and energetic, hits three of the standing passengers. There are shocked gasps, some in disgust. My son looks appalled. A couple of people ask if the girl is all right and offer help but most try, unsuccessfully, to move away. Her friend, while attentive, mouths an embarrassed sorry in my direction. The smell of sick fills the carriage and overrides all other thoughts. I use my shawl like a doctor’s mask to screen the worst of the smell but its not very effective. The man with the Sainsbury’s bag suggests using my son’s newspaper to cover up the worst of the sick on the floor. It doesn’t do much for the smell but at least we don’t have to look at it.

Several passengers get off at the next stop. My neighbour has given up trying to make conversation with us. All the same my son and I take advantage of the sudden space and move to another carriage where we find my husband and younger son. There are no available seats next to them so we settle nearby, relieved to be breathing normal air. I don’t notice right away that my admirer has followed us down and is leaning against the door, facing me just a few feet away. I avoid eye contact but can feel him staring at me. This is getting a little creepy. I can’t do anything about it; there’s nowhere else to move. I text my son – too far away to talk to discretely and with his back to the man – so that he is aware of the situation.

My husband and younger son get off at the stop before us as this is where they’ve left their car, giving us a wave as they go. I cast a quick look in my stalker’s direction. He knows we’re getting off next. Are we going to have to run for it? We step off the train, bend our heads to the rain which is coming down like needles, and walk quickly to where I’m parked. We are alone, I realise with relief, the train and the man with the Sainsbury’s bag disappearing into the night.

It is nearly 2am when we are all home and I finally fall into bed. I have five hours until I need to be up again. I close my eyes and let my tired limbs grow heavy. Images pass through my mind, of dancing miners and boys in pink tutus, my son hopping on one foot to catch a train, drunken girls with panda eyes, the impassive gaze of my stalker. Close encounters, I think, and sleep.