Saturday, 28 February 2009

Exit stage right, pursued by a bee...

As you can see from the picture on the right we have had visitor number 1 to our embryonic bee garden. It was a big fat bumble bee which very obligingly flew by the willow tree this morning as we were heading out the front door. It stopped and posed like a true celebrity as Andy and I leapt around with our mobile phones taking pictures.
'Look!' I squealed. 'A bee on our bee friendly tree!'
'Yes,' said Andy. He didn't sound that excited but I suppose when you've spent your life living with a bee in your ear, the novelty of bees can wear a bit thin.
'We've provided a bee with its breakfast!' I squealed.
'I'd have preferred a couple of sausages and a fried egg,' said the bee.
'How exciting is that!' I squeal again (you get the idea now that I'm v.excited by this sudden bee activity.)
'Because I've been hibernating all winter and to be honest, a bit of willow pollen is hardly going to fill the gap, is it?' said the bee.
'I need to get the other plants in,' I said to Andy. 'Start building up the borders.'
'So if you're going to be providing a new B & B service for us bees,' said the bee, 'can I suggest you have a look at your menu? Did you notice the cunning word play on the letter 'b', by the way?'
'I'll plant the lavender and foxgloves tomorrow,' I say.
'Sod lavender and foxgloves,' said the bee. 'Listen will you? Crumpets, that's what we want. Or muffins. Something nice and stodgy to fuel us up after the winter. Or toast. Toast is good. But no Marmite.'
'And I'll get the lupin and hollyhock seeds in,' I continue. 'I know it says on the packet not to plant them until April but I can bring on the seedlings in the 'conservatory, now I've cleared the decks and have got some inside growing space.'
'Or black pudding,' said the bee. 'Bees don't like black pudding. And if you're going to do a full English, make sure the bacon isn't too crispy and that you double up on the fried slice.'

I skip off down the path, happy with the bee pictures we've captured.

'Oi!' shouted the bee. 'I haven't finished with you yet. We haven't discussed tog ratings for the duvets or the morning paper service.'

'Did you hear something?' I asked.
'Only the bee in my ear,' said Andy.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Mad, sad and dangerous to grow...

Who'd have thought it, eh? Me getting all flustered and excited about polytunnel brochures. This week I sent away for three (brochures, not polytunnels - crumbs, I almost felt Andy having heart failure reading that one) and have spent the last two evenings poring over the intricacies of 'The World That Is POLYTUNNEL!!' Tum-tum-taaaaaaa!!!! It's all hoops, fixings, foundations and stabilisers, not to mention width and length (but more on that later).

I've compared and contrasted the benefits of Superclear polythene against thermal anti-fog polythene. Or does Superwhite polythene with over-netting have the edge? I've become au fait with exotic sounding extras like the anti-hot spot tape, crop bar, storm stay brace and anchor plate. Then there's timber versus aluminium for your base rails and side vents. Or should we go down the trench root? And what about the overhead irrigation kit? Economy or prestige? We don't have to have an overhead irrigation kit but I rather fancy that on a hot day it might be quite pleasant to lie flat on one's back inside the polytunnel and be irrigated oneself. (Rather than irritated, which is usually the case.) It's all rather thrilling, if a little bit sad and middle-aged.

I have to say the best brochure so far is the one by First Tunnels, whose enclosed order form had a tea-bag attached, so I 'can enjoy a cuppa whilst browsing their goods.' I liked this touch enormously; also, their brochure has a nice 'silky' feel to it and is very, very easy to understand so even if I was an intellectually challenged gibbon, I'd still be able to order a polytunnel avec accoutrements in confidence. However, bearing in mind most of my decisions regarding car purchases have been based purely on their colour- 'that's a nice frosty blue one. It looks like the sky on a sunny day' - I shall be careful not to allow myself to be swayed by silky brochures and freebie tea-bags!

And then, to add to the frenzied polytunnel excitement, the postie delivered a copy of 'The Polytunnel Handbook' that I ordered from Amazon a few days ago. This book also feels silky to the touch because, I think, it 'is printed in the UK on recycled paper using vegetable inks by www.greenbooks.co.uk 'Must be a selling feature - 'stroke me, I'm lovely and natural!' So that's my weekend reading sorted.

Andy and I have decided we've space to fit a tunnel that is roughly 10 feet by 12 feet. I say 'roughly' because our measurements are based on us standing at the relevant section of allotment 87 side by side with our arms outstretched, fingers touching and saying things like, 'Well, I'm 5 foot 6, you're 5 foot 11 so that's 11 foot 5 inches plus an extra 6 inches because I've got arms like an orang-utan, then minus the water-tank when considering the length.' We adopted much the same method when assessing whether the huge semi-circular sofa we purchased last year would actually fit in our living room (only we used string for added accuracy.) It worked then, so it'll work now.

I'm a great believer in saying things like 'Of course it'll fit!' The only time I almost came a cropper was when trying to heave the goose in the oven at Christmas. But that was the butcher's fault because I distinctly remembering ordering a small one and he got me a big one, but it went in on the diagonal so all was well in the end and my goose was cooked. I think Heather may have inherited my optimism about big things fitting into small spaces because when she was 3, she put a whole orange Club biscuit in her mouth sideways. I had to break it in half to get it out again. And then there was the time she put a dice up her nostril 'to see if it would fit.' And it did!

So I'm off to make a cup of tea with my free tea bag and settle down with 'The Polytunnel Handbook.' I hope it all ends 'happily ever after'. I love a good story! And with a leading lady called Polly Tunnel, how can it not?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Up the Garden Path

Checking my biorhythms this morning I discover I am on a fairly even keel emotionally and intellectually (we shan't talk about physically, not after my bang on the head) which is just as well given the up and down nature of today so far.

Firstly, I slept very badly last night. No idea why but it meant I surfaced with a headache and inability to walk in a straight line. This meant I crashed into the willow tree (which was still in residence in the kitchen) and got covered in clouds of yellow pollen which showed up beautifully on my white shirt and pale blue cardi. Andy said, 'I've left a spade in the back garden so you can plant the tree if you like,' which, because I was in a bad mood, I took to meaning 'That tree had better be gone from the kitchen when I get home this evening...or...or...' Trouble is, Andy doesn't do threats so I am at a bit of a loss as to what to write now. My comment is therefore rendered unfair and unnecessary, and I apologise unreservedly m'lud. (Kissy-kissy, mwah, mwah!)

So I went into the garden to start work on 'Plan Bee Garden.' I dug up weeds and grass, and hacked at old shrub roots for three hours. I took clods of grass to the back garden for the hens. 'Thank you,' they said, launching themselves at the greenery with obvious joy.
'You're welcome, 'I said. 'Have a bit of cabbage too.'
'Don't give Mrs Pumphrey cabbage!' yelled Mrs Slocombe. 'It'll make her fart!'
And much hilarity was had by all at the mention of the 'f' word.

I also planted the willow tree and it looks very cute with all its fluffy buds cascading artfully towards the ground. I stopped periodically to quaff water, paracetemol, one of the muffins my Mum gave me yesterday, to put some washing on the line and to stare at people driving up the road whilst using their mobile phones. I thought, I'll put some of the old potting compost that the hens have been rolling about in all winter onto the freshly dug borders. So I went into the greenhouse and scooped up aforesaid compost, now enriched with chicken poo. And I got sidetracked into collecting up the many hundred flowerpots we've accumulated since becoming allotmenteers. And in one of the pots, a big 12 inch one, I found 2 eggs.

Now yesterday, I happened to glance out of the kitchen window and I spied Mrs Poo engaging in what appeared to be flowerpot wrestling. She was inside this pot, flinging herself around like a loon. I thought, look at her. Barking mad. But now it seems this flowerpot has become Mrs Poo's alternative nesting box. I stood it up. I thought, I'll put a stop to that laying-eggs-where-I-like malarkey immediately. And then I went to clean out the Eglu.

As I stood up from giving the roosting bars a good scrub, I found myself eyeball to eyeball with Mrs Poo.
'Put my flowerpot back where it was,' she said. 'I need to lay an egg...NOW!' She meant business.
'I've just cleaned out your Eglu,' I say. 'Give me a second and I'll put some fresh bedding in the nest box.'
'Pah!' said Mrs Poo. 'I'm not sharing with them,' and she cast a glance at the other three who were stuffing down cabbage and parping like the Tihuana Three Trumpet Band. 'I have my own private facility now.'

And no word of a lie, dear followers of Much Malarkey Manor, that chicken STARED at me in a very menacing manner until I capitulated and set her flower pot at its previous jaunty slant on the floor. She got inside immediately and started rolling around inside it like a weeble in beachball. I shrugged my shoulders and set to putting fresh bedding in the Eglu.

As soon as I had completed my task, Mrs Poo raced from the flowerpot in the greenhouse and flung herself into the fresh Eglu Bed. She then proceeded to THROW the bedding around whilst making an appalling racket.
'Is that entirely necessary?' I said, crossly.
'YES!' she yelled. 'I might may my egg HERE! Or I might lay my egg THERE! I haven't decided YET!'

She's still doing it now, racing twixt greenhouse and Eglu, Eglu and greenhouse. I gave up and came indoors. The postman had been. With a copy of Good Food magazine. And a free gift of a jute shopping bag from 'Home Farmer' magazine. And the first rejection for Nearly King Jimbo (although the agent said she enjoyed reading it, it was very entertaining but not quite for her). And a notice from the waterboard saying they are reducing our water bill direct debit by 50%. I think, that makes a change.

So, a bit up and down today. I'm feeling weary so I'm going to have some toast and read a magazine now. And maybe go egg hunting later.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Small, but perfectly formed

Last Saturday afternoon I spent an hour on the website of a company called MoreVeg who sell smaller quantities of seeds for lower prices for those of us who don't want to grow 3,000 carrots in one season. The web site was simple and easy to navigate, the ordering process simple and on Tuesday morning my 18 packet order arrived, postage free, with a little handwritten personal note wishing me kind regards and happy gardening. 'How nice,' I thought, so I sent an e-mail to MoreVeg and thanked them for a friendly, quick and efficient service. I also enquired if they were planning to stock seeds for plum tomatoes as I'm keen to grow some this year as I am appalled that Sainsbugs has more than doubled the price of their tins of plum tomatoes in the last 6 months. Now, I know that plum tomatoes aren't the most expensive item to purchase, but there is a point of principle here which I intend to do something about.

By lunchtime I had received an e-mail back from MoreVeg saying that they did indeed do seeds for plum tomatoes. They were on the website already. The nice lady recommended a variety she had found to be especially good for making sauces. She also asked if I thought the website labelling needed to be clearer as it appeared from my enquiry that it wasn't obvious that plum tomatoes were already on the site. They were keen to improve their service so any feedback would be welcome.

Well, I felt a bit of a numpty because when I checked the site again, there they were, although to be fair to me and my poor banged head, it wasn't wholly obvious they were plum tomato varieties. So I e-mailed MoreVeg back and explained that I had clearly had a mush-for-brains moment but perhaps a big title - 'PLUM TOMATOES'- written in luminous letters with accompanying bells and whistles might help me in the future when I was having trouble with grasping the bleedin' obvious.

It was all very cheerful banter and I shall use http://www.moreveg.co.uk/ in the future as they are a small but perfectly formed, efficient and helpful group of people who care about customer service.

And then, on Monday, I had cause to ring the GoodLife Press in order to renew our subscription to 'The Home Farmer' magazine. This quirky monthly publication is just about to celebrate its first birthday. Andy and I have been devotees since Issue 1. It's the ideal read for people like us who want to do more fending for themselves in life but maybe don't have the luxury of masses of land and/or money. It's got a good on-line community where people can swap ideas and share experiences. It encourages people to try new things and 'have-a-go.' It cares about the values and ethos of self-sufficiency and has been responsible for us starting chicken keeping and sausage making and imminent bee-keeping.

So I called and spoke to a very nice man who sounded unnervingly like Andy's dad. He thanked us for our support over the last year and continued support in renewing our subscription. I thanked him for producing a lovely, if slightly bonkers magazine and told him about the chickens, sausages and bees. We had quite a conversation about bees. And windmills. And the Home Farmer Forum. And once again, it was very pleasant to be able to deal with a small but perfectly formed company who care about good customer service. So have a look at http://www.homefarmer.co.uk/ I am sure you'll be informed and entertained.

And I think it just goes to show that when companies stay small and perfectly formed, the world is a better place. The big boys in the retail and utility sectors should take note. Big isn't always best.

'We've earned another £2 this week from selling our eggs,' says Mrs Miggins. 'That makes a profit of £3 so far this year.'
'Yes,'I say. 'But I don't think you qualify as a multi-national business concern just yet.'
'When we do,' says Miggins, 'I'm going to buy a power dressing business suit in fuschia pink with huge shoulder pads.'
I sigh. 'Mrs Miggins, we've had this discussion before about chickens and their lack of shoulders. Why do you want a suit with shoulder pads?'
'Oh, I shan't keep them in the suit,' says Miggins. 'I shall take them out. I've heard they make wonderful kneeling pads for when one is weeding one's borders.'

I think, shall I tell Mrs M about a chicken's lack of knees? No. If she's willing to weed the borders for us, she can have as many knees as she likes.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The enterprising cake idea

I woke up this morning, which was a relief, because it meant I hadn't died in the night from complications after banging my head in a spectacular fashion yesterday. I zipped into town first thing and got my mum's birthday present. This followed our annual pre-birthday conversation.
'What would you like for your birthday, Mum?'
'Oh, don't bother with me, love. Save your money. A nice card will do.'
'But I'm going to get you a present anyway so you might as well tell me if there is anything you'd like.'
'Oh, I don't know. I'll have a think and let you know.'

Which she never does leaving me to wing it and run the risk of buying her something totally inappropriate. But, having known her for 43 years I'm usually okay provided I steer clear of anything digital, electronic or technical. So socks and jam, basically. I popped into Sainsbugs on the way home and bought packets of sweets with which to decorate her birthday cake. I'm going to do a lot of baking today. The hens laid 25 eggs last week equalling their best ever record. In various bowls around the kitchen I have a glut of 33 eggs (although Auntie Pollie put in an order last night for some - phew!) And, in the paper today, there was an informative item regarding some research that had shown an egg for breakfast can lower blood pressure and as Andy already pops pills for this condition, he can now pop an egg every day too!

So serious baking will be occuring chez moi this afternoon - which brings me to my embryonic plan to start baking and selling cakes to earn a few pounds here and there. I've run the thought by a few people who all think it's a good idea as I've been known to make some pretty lush cakes in my time. And several people have offered ideas about what I should call my tiny cake company. These include 'The Cake Lady', 'A Tart with Heart' (thanks for that - you know who you are!), 'The Bun Fight', 'Rosie May's' (after my Gran) and 'Ginger Nuts' (due to the red hair in my family and my liking for ginger. And nuts).

Andy offered 'Marie Antoinette's' . 'You know, ' he said, 'let them eat cake.' I wasn't wholly convinced. She was guillotined after all, when the French went mad with their Revolution. I'm not sure it bodes well for the capitalist aspect of the business.

I had already thought I'd call the enterprise 'Cake, and Eat It' because I want to have a healthy eating slant to it. An ethos that says 'You can eat one of my cakes without feeling guilty about your health because I use good, natural ingredients, no additives or preservatives,' etc, etc. Cakes with fruit and oats, wholemeal flour and unrefined sugar. Proper butter. Nuts and seeds. Lovely spices. And stuff like that. So after I've made Mum's birthday cake and a cake for Andy's lunchbox for the rest of this week I'm going to sit down and do a bit of planning for 'Cake, and Eat It,' just to see what I come up with. I don't want it to take over my life because I am, after all, a writer and I am bashing away at Novel Number Three in order to try my luck in the adult fiction market.

But the cake idea is a thought that is bubbling around rather pleasantly in my thoughts. A bit like spring is bubbling around outside with lighter mornings and longer evenings, warmer air and green shoots popping up here and there. Neither are ready to burst forth quite yet. But there's definitely something there that will be worth waiting for.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Divine retribution

My but the powers-that-be-from-above are on my case this morning. In my previous post of a couple of hours ago I happened to mention the 'r' word (no, not 'rabbit'; 'revenge'.) I happened to mention how the behaviour of our neighbours at the allotment leave me spiritually challenged with their thoughtless string/ compost bin/trees combo tactics and that my next weapons of choice are likely to be hops, Jerusalem artichokes and a gi-normous sod off polytunnel.

So I complete my blog and think, 'I'll pop out to see the hens. Take 'em some cabbage and some sunflower seeds, see what's down and happenin' in chicken world today.' In order to do this I have to negotiate the pussy-willow tree which I have relocated to the doorway between the kitchen and our so-called 'conservatory'. (Those who have seen our 'conservatory' will understand the lavish use of 'inverted commas'!)

I like having a tree in the kitchen; so do Phoebe and Tybalt. In fact, I've noticed a couple of the longest and most dangliest branches appear to have what look remarkably like cat nibble teeth marks in them. (Tybalt sits staring into space and whistles tunelessly in a 'nothing-to-do-with-me' kind of way.) So I sidle pass the tree with arms of chopped up cabbage and my pot of sunflower seeds and somehow, I manage to snag myself on the tree. In attempting to keep the tree upright and my socks clean, I sidestep the cat's litter tray, stumble against my wellies and fall heavily against the back door, cracking my head on the glass.

Blimey but it makes a racket! 'Ouch!' I say, or words to that effect. I can feel the bump emerging immediately but I cling onto the cabbage and sunflowers seeds and manage to fling them out the door to the hens who have gathered together, fascinated at the spectacle evolving before them. It's like dinner with a floor show thrown in. I cling onto the door jamb feeling dizzy and nauseous.

'What's that on her forehead?' asks Mrs Poo, through a beakful of cabbage. Mrs Miggins lifts her head from pecking at the sunflower seeds just long enough to assess my injury.
'Looks like an egg,' she says, and yes, from my angle, it certainly feels like an egg. Freshly laid. Smooth, solid and hot.
'Blimey, fancy walking around with an egg on your forehead,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'If I had an egg on my forehead, I wouldn't be able to see where I was going.'

She has a point. I'm having trouble focusing. I've yet to attempt the upright position. I stand still and wait for the ground to stop moving. The chickens finish their cabbage and seeds.
'Apple for pudding?' asks Miggins, hopefully. I open my mouth to tell them they might have to forego their apple today but close it immediately when I realise I'm in danger of throwing up.
I get myself back into the kitchen, giving my wellies a kick on the way past. I cling onto the worktop.
'Should I call Andy to come and tend me?' I wonder. 'In case I faint or something.' But I don't want to panic him so I sit at the kitchen table and eat a banana for energy (don't ask me to explain that one - it seemed a reasonable thing to do at the time.) And I say to the-powers-that-be-from-above, 'That was a bit harsh, wasn't it? Making me whack my head just because I happened to have a minor whingy moment about the lottie.'

The-powers-that-be-from-above immediately deny it was anything to do with them. But I know them. I've spent years living with their funny little ways. I can still remember my first experience (I was seven years old and it involved a tube of Smarties belonging to my sister and sharp smack around the back of the leg.) At least it's over though, that bit of karmic retribution. Apart from the swelling. I'm going to have a bit of a lie down in a dark room now. And maybe write a best-selling novel. Or knit tank tops for the tiny pandas that are dancing a can-can on top of the hippo I can see in my living room...

Operation 'Compost Bin'

First light yesterday. Two shadowy figures flit across the allotment, silent as moths, cunning as foxes. A covert operation swings into action to move established compost bins (i.e they were full) to the other end of Plot 87. Operation 'Compost Bin' has been a task-in-the-plotting for a few months now and it all began last year when the new allotment neighbours arrived...

...they turned up one day last spring and immediately installed a length of string to delineate the border between our plot and theirs. They were clearly saying 'This is our gardening space, that is your gardening space. Got it?' I deemed this to be an unnecessarily aggressive act of segregation and immediately began to take umbrage to pretty much everything 'string girl' and her parents did from thereon in. (Before you think I'm being narky, this family upset the allotment committee within a couple of weeks when they built a 25 foot high 'barn' out of old pallets - they were immediately instructed by the aforesaid committee that their storage facility was unsuitable and should be removed immediately. So it's not just me!).

They then proceeded to locate their compost bins not on the end of their allotment(where you're supposed to put them) but up the side and in the middle, right against where our onions were growing, immediately casting the crop into shade and encouraging a massive growth of weeds that I had to keep digging out. It was hard enough staying on top of my own weeds last year, let alone dealing with rogue visitors from someone else's plot. (By now I was not only grumbling but swearing a bit, too.)

They filled their compost bins with household rubbish so we would find old plastic milk bottles and the suchlike strewn across our plot after a light breeze. I soon developed a petty streak and took to weeding right up to, but not a millimetre over, the string border between us and them in order to send the unspoken message that if they wanted to adopt a 'them and us' attitude, then I would keep 'my' border neat and weed free just to show them how rubbish they were at their own weed control.

AND THEN... (I'm trying to stay calm and spiritual at this point, really I am...breath, breath, breath....) ....THEN they take over the plot at the end of ours so we are now surrounded on two sides and they PLANTED A LINE OF FLIPPING TREES AGAINST OUR BORDER!!!!!! AND BUILT A TINY FENCE!!!!!!!

This is NOT appropriate allotment behaviour. You have to be careful with trees. You have to be considerate about things like casting shadows over your neighbour's plot, about potential rubbish hazards, and spreading disease.

But it's too late now. The line has been drawn in the sand/compost/ mulch...

...SO...

...we have relocated our bins against their tiny fence and their row of trees. Our tool storage bin and a new weed compost bin will go in line with the 12 feet high scaffolding poles they have erected presumably for their runner beans. I have researched tall plants on the internet and am very mindful to plant a row of Jerusalem artichokes interspersed with hops up against their bit of string. Revenge is a dish best served with a rampant growth of weeds on the side.

Now this is not good karma for the spirit of the allotment holder. But I'm afraid they have left us no choice. I am of the opinion they are after our plot, too. I reckon they are trying to drive us out by the subtle erection of inappropriate shadow casting structures and allowing their weeds to infiltrate our borders. Andy thinks I'm over-reacting and tells me to calm down. But I have become fiercely protective of our nine rods. And now the bins are relocated, we've got a nice empty space newly available. Big enough for a substantial polytunnel in fact. I've already consulted the allotment site manager about the erection of a substantial polytunnel. He said 'Go ahead.'

And I think we just might.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Red-bee, stead-bee....GO!

It's a sunny day in England, a warmth is in the sky,
The garden's looking raddled, then so again am I.
It's time to plant some flowers, for bees to make their honey,
So this corner of our homestead will be forever sunny.

And so I don my wellies, and head to the back door
I come back in coz I forgot my gloves, and leave mud on the kitchen floor...

Oh stop! For heaven's sake, Denise, give your poor reader a rest will you? You're not a poet and you really should know it.

So anyway, I drag Andy to the garden centre so I can forge ahead with the plans for the bee garden. Yesterday, after attempting to write a tiger story and failing abysmally as I suddenly realised the story I was writing had actually been written before (remember 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea?' I thought it sounded familiar), I immersed myself in gardening books and magazines and planned out the plants for Bee Garden Project 2009. I am thrilled to find that most of the bee-friendly flowers are ones that have been favourites all my life. Good, old-fashioned cottage garden plants like my grandparents grew in their gardens.

We return with ten bags of multi-purpose compost, half a dozen foxgloves, half a dozen lavenders and a five foot high pussy-willow tree which is currently standing in the hall like an ostentatious coat-stand. After looking at other ready-made plants I decided to grow my other choices from seed so I got a packet each of antirrhinum,verbena, penstemon, scabious, poppy, browallia, forget-me-not, aquilegia, aster, cornflower, hollyhock and lupin. I especially like the antirrhinums because they are called 'Chuckles.' I refused to buy the candytuft because I think the garden centre had got their labelling wrong. What they were trying to sell as candytuft wasn't the plant I remembered from my childhood. But I suppose I may have been wrong, I was only six at the time...

All I need to do now is sow the seeds in the green-house and dig up the front garden whilst I'm waiting for them to grow big enough to plant out. Oh yes, and clean out the greenhouse after the chickens have been using it all winter as a shelter/ hen spa.

And then there's the question of the bees themselves. I've read a couple of books and seen a bee-keeping demonstration at our county fair. And I've tracked down an experienced bee-keeper who does individual bee-keeping lessons using his own set of organic hives. But where can I locate a hive without upsetting the neighbours? I spent some time this morning staring out of our landing window at the flat roof of the extension. 'Hmmm,' I thought, 'we could keep a hive out there.' It's sheltered and catches a good dose of sun in the mornings to encourage the little buzzers to get out of bed. I would have to access it via a ladder from the outside as the landing window is too tiny for me to squeeze through. Well, I might be able to squeeze through but I'm not prepared to try and end up getting stuck like Pooh Bear in Rabbit's burrow. (Although the honey analogy would be approriate). And the roof edge has built-up ridges of about 18 inches that I would need to negotiate (and bear in mind this would have to be performed whilst wearing full martian bee outfit and carrying a smoker and several sharp tools). I'm guessing the roof would be strong enough to bear the combined weight of a hive and me. Or a hive and me stamping around in a panic if the bees have a funny moment whilst I'm tending them.

The back garden isn't an option, being hen domain. Having established that Mrs Slocombe has mental health issues I wouldn't put it past her to have a go at eating bees or at least try knocking on the hive door in order to try and sell them Avon products (her latest money-making venture - she's decided she wants to save up for a caravan and she's seen a funky new model from Germany called a Tab that she's taken a shine to).

Maybe I could screen off an area of the front garden? What do you think?The neighbours would never know if I employed low animal cunning and discretion i.e building the hive and screen at two in the morning and saying 'Bees? What bees?'. They wouldn't notice the comings and goings of 10,000 buzzy insects, would they?

Nah...I bet I could get away with it. I'm very tempted to have a try.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Alfie

Leaving the house together this morning, Andy and I are assailed on the driveway by an exuberant boxer dog. He is the size of a small horse and is galloping up the middle of the road until he spies us emerging from our front door. There is a lady in hot pursuit so I hang onto the boxer's collar which is no mean feat given his size and strength and keeness to play 'thrashing about like a fish on a line until I choke.'

'Oooh, thank goodness!' the lady puffs. 'I was afraid he'd run out into the main road. Is it okay if I leave him with you?' It transpires the running lady is not the owner of the boxer. And without really waiting for a response she turns and disappears in a puff of relief at no longer being responsible for this runaway creature. This is the second time in four months we've suddenly found ourselves reluctant guardians of lost dogs. The previous one was a tiny border terrier puppy. We are starting to feel like dog magnets.

'This is very inconvenient,' I think. The dog is wearing a collar and we try to read the attached tag. The dog seems capable of producing much saliva and, excited at being with new people, he immediately covers Andy's coat and shoes with a thick layer of foam. The dog translates our attempts to read his collar as a willingness to get up close and personal in a friendly, 'let's have a doggy romp' kind of way.

'He's called Alfie,' I say. 'ALFIE...SIT!' I command. Hearing his name, Alfie sits on my foot for all of two seconds before leaping up again, almost wrenching my arm from its socket. Andy manages, through a mass of doggy licks and kisses, to get the telephone number from the reverse side of the tag. Whilst he goes inside to call the number, I stand outside on the path with Alfie. 'ALFIE...SIT!' I say, again. And again. And again. To give him his due, he responds to the command but sustains the behaviour for an average of 6.7 seconds each time. It's a bit like teaching a teenage boy Shakespeare.
'So who does Macbeth meet on the Heath?'
'A flasher?'
'No, three witches. And they make three predictions for him. Can you remember what they were?'
'Wossa prediction?'
'Telling someone's fortune.'
'Oh right.'
'So what did the witches tell him?'
'Tell who?'
'Macbeth.'
'Who's Macbeth?'

It's a weary process...

Andy returns. There is no reply from the telephone number. Tybalt and Phoebe are building a barrier against the front door using the kitchen chairs and broomstick. We can't put Alfie in the house.
'And don't you even think of bringing him back here,' shouts Mrs Miggins from the back garden. She is standing on a pyramid created by the other hens and some obliging collared doves from next door and peering over the back gate. 'I'm allergic to dogs. They make me sneeze.'
'I had a Shi-tzu once,' says Mrs Pumphrey from the bottom of the pyramid.
'I don't think we need to hear about your toilet habits, thank you,' says Miggins.

Andy decides the only course of action is to take Alfie to work with him, leaving me to try an d contact the owner during the day. Luckily, we have a people carrier with a spacious open boot. As soon as Andy opens the tailgate, Alfie drags me across the drive. Clearly he knows about cars. In fact, I'm willing to bet his third favourite occupation after running wildly down the centre of a road and slobbering, is travelling in cars. He's in the back like a shot and sits obediently and expectantly as if to say 'Where are we going? Seaside? Paris? Abseiling? Let's go to the seaside.I love the seaside, I do.'

Somehow, we manage to undo Alfie's collar, slip it through a seat belt, and refasten it in an attempt to restrain him during the journey because he looks like the kind of creature who would be quite keen to sit up front and play with the CD controls and gearstick as Andy is driving. And off they go, Andy and Alfie, man and dog, Thelma and Louise.

On returning from my swim I set about the task of contacting Alfie's owner. But there is already a message from Andy. They've found her. She is very grateful and Andy is bringing Alfie back this evening to reunite them as he lives just along the road from us. Apparently, he was very good in the car on the way over to the surgery. Didn't change the radio channel once.

Just a quick extra to tell you about - I spent a very informative hour or two yesterday researching bees and bee-keeping and whilst doing so I found the website of the bumblebee conservation society. It's an excellent site and well worth the visit. You can find it at www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk Have a look. It'll make you go 'aaahhhhh!'

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Bee Friendly Garden and the Mystery of the Extra Egg

Firstly, because I've just been to see the chickens with their daily apple ration (it's good for their teeth) I need to share with you that they appear to have lain 5 eggs between them today. Yes, five. Four hens = five eggs. Not quite sure how that works. When I put them to bed last night at 6 p.m, there were no eggs in the nest box. This morning when I took them tea and crumpets at 6.30 there were two eggs, and now, at lunchtime, to my surprise I've collected three more. So in less than 18 hours they've made 5 eggs!! Looking at the colours of the shells I think Mrs Pumphrey may be today's cor blimey champion chicken. Or possibly Mrs Slocombe. Phew! Or maybe there has been a visit from a stray hen. Or a phantom hen. Perhaps Mrs Bennett has returned and popped out one from beyond the grave. A ghost egg. There's a story in there somewhere....

Anyway, bees and flowers. We've got the hens, we've got the allotment and the next logical step is keeping bees. Andy has persuaded me that the neighbours won't like us any more if we get pigs. The pigs, he says, will have to wait until we get our small holding/farm/field. So it's back to bees.

We had an idea (Plan A) to dig up both front and back gardens chez nous and put down some more veg beds. But the more I think about this idea, the more dubious I feel about the practicalities. For one, all the local cats will think toilet heaven has arrived. And I don't trust the local kids not to hop over the wall and indulge in a spot of mindless vandalism (I wouldn't mind if they pinched a few carrots in order to eat them, but what are the chances of that being their motive??). Plus, the front garden is north-west facing so doesn't get a huge amount of warmth and sunlight. So I'm working on Plan Bee.

Plan Bee is to make a bee friendly garden. This is important because we need bees and bees are struggling at the moment and need all the help they can get. After much lobbying by the bee-keeping community, the Government have at last agreed to increase funding into research into bee diseases but until progress can be made into what caused so many swarms to be wiped out last year, we all need to do what we can to encourage bees into our gardens and ensure they continue to thrive to pollinate our fruit and veg.

So, I'm removing all the old shrubs from the front garden that we inherited from the previous owner and I'm going to replace them with plants that will benefit bees. Pretty plants, plants with glorious scents that make you bury your nose in their petals and take a deep sniff and 'WATCH OUT FOR THE BEE!'

I did make a start on the border last autumn, when a morning of light pruning turned into a whole day of Indiana Jones-type undergrowth decimation. But I need to get to grips with the old rose bushes that are way past their best and the roots of shrubs that, judging by the bit of experimental tugging I tried, have their roots encased in concrete. And I'll leave the magnolia bush that Andy bought me as a gift a couple of years ago(and it is a bush, Andy, NOT a tree. It won't get any bigger than it is. I know you're disappointed about this, but if you want a tree, you have to read the label and buy a tree and not a bush!), and the shrub under which is buried Tybalt's sister, Lilith, who died last year. But everything else is going.

My son, Chris, who works in a garden centre and knows a bit about gardening, popped in to visit this morning. I said, 'How would you go about getting rid of all those rose bushes and shrub roots?' I thought, cunningly, 'If I'm lucky, he'll say, 'It's okay Mum, I'll pop round next week on my week off and dig them out for you.' Unfortunately, taking a subtle hint is not one of his strong points so all I got was a detailed lecture on what chemicals to use and when to use them. Ah well, at least Heather will get a laugh when she reads this and marvels at my naiive optimism!

I'm also wondering if we can squeeze a polytunnel in the back garden. I run the idea by Mrs Miggins.
'Oooh yes,' she says. 'It'd be like having the Eden Project on our doorstep.'
'If you fill it with sand and a paddling pool, it'll be like Saint Tropez,' adds Mrs Slocombe and, as I look at her more closely, it does seem as if she has pecked her feathers into the shape of a chicken bikini.
'I was thinking about using it for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,' I say. 'You won't be allowed in, I'm afraid, not after what you've done to the lawn.'
'In that case, I think it's a very poor idea,' says Miggins. 'How about a jacuzzi instead?'

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Rough waters and yummy cake

It was stormy weather in the swimming pool this morning. There was much splashing and tidal wave making and people flinging themselves around in inconsiderate ways whilst doing extravagant strokes like butterfly. Not me, I hasten to add; I am a calm swimmer of the breast-stroke 'I must, I must, improve my bust' variety and try to make as little splash as possible out of consideration for my fellow pool users. But I ploughed on and only got out when a family of four appeared and the father jumped in and displaced at least 30% of the water.

Back home I had a cup of tea and a bit of a think about how much I like cake. Not only eating cake (although that is a big part of the equation) but actually making cake. On Sunday I spent a very happy morning in the kitchen listening to the radio and making marmalade, cakes and biscuits. In fact, I believe my kitchen achieved an almost zen-like quality as the mixing and mushing developed and evolved and the scents of home baking wafted and filled the house. And I got to thinking, 'I could start a business selling cakes,' or at least run a market stall at the WI or one of the many farmer markets that are springing up hither and thither. I could expand into other areas - for example, I am determined to grow a mass of basil this year and make my own pesto. I could make pies and tarts and flans. Biscuits. And more cake.

The possibility of starting a business is an idea Andy and I have been toying with recently. We've started exploring the notion of bed and breakfast. And catteries. And mobile veterinary services. Having completed my second book for children, I am filling time with odds and sods of writing (I've discovered that it's not quite the season for short stories - I know, would you believe that magazines have a season for submitting short stories??) whilst I decide on my NEXT BIG PROJECT. I have four ideas for the next novel. In fact, a couple of them have already reached the 15,000+ word count. But I'm suffering with indecision at the moment about which to pursue seriously and so my mind has drifted to other thoughts of a creative nature. Namely cake.

So I'm going to research my cake-selling idea.

On another note, you'll be pleased to know that following yesterday's receipt of a bailiff's notice addressed to the wrong people at the wrong address, I received a very apologetic phone call from the bailiff himself, who grovelled a lot and then did some more apologising and said he would be around this evening to collect the offending epistle, if that was all right with me. My goods, chattels and chickens remain intact.

And finally, I must apologise to Andy for eating the last smidgeon of his Valentine chocolate heart yesterday because I thought he didn't want it (I know, I know, a stupid thought indeed!). I feel very contrite. So I'm making him a jam sponge pudding for tea tonight. I hope this is acceptable, darling!?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

This could be interesting...

Whilst I was writing the first blog of today, I heard someone trying to feed something through the letterbox. Don't worry, it wasn't fireworks, or dog poo, or anything like that. Oh no. It was a THREATENING LETTER. From a debt collection agency. No envelope. Open for anyone to read, so I did, like you would. It was addressed to a couple who live about a quarter of a mile down the road from us. It said 'BAILIFF REMOVAL' in BIG RED LETTERS.

Now, I took umbrage to this for many reasons and I shall list them now so that everyone is aware, including the debt collection agency. 1) Andy and I are NOT the people to whom this letter has been addressed 2) our address is NOT the address that is on this threatening letter 3) we DO NOT and HAVE NOT EVER fallen into debt with anyone 4) I am now going to have to stay in tomorrow (when, apparently the bailiffs are going to return to seize goods and chattels) so that no-one tries to misappropriate the chickens.

It appears this agency employs people who cannot read and who post letters into letterboxes that bear no relation to the address they are looking for. I am not surprised judging by the sound of the person on the voice-mail of the mobile number I have just phoned in order to voice my displeasure at this turn of events. It sounded like it belonged to some-one in possession of rogue and suspicious brain cells.

I said 'I am not this person, this is not the address you are looking for. I suggest you return IMMEDIATELY to collect your threatening letter because I am very annoyed by this inconvenience you have foisted upon my up-until-now-calm-and-pleasant day. In fact, I am LIVID. Ignore me at your peril.'

I phoned nearly 2 hours ago. No-one has returned to collect this noxious missive. So what do I do now? I tell you what I'm going to do. I am going to phone again, and I am going to sound even crosser than I did the first time I called. I have stuff to do tomorrow. I have a date with the swimming pool, then I have to go to Sainsbugs as we have run out of cheese and apples. I'm half fancying to go allotmenteering again if this weather is going to hold out. I am certainly not planning to stay in all day so I can tell a couple of burly bailiffs they've got the wrong the people and the wrong address (although I might ask if they can read and/or have a satnav.)

Watch this space...

Mixed blessings - a Day of Dedications

Grasping the opportunity of a rather nice spring morning (i.e it wasn't raining), I decided a spot of allotmenteering was in order, especially as my first early seed potatoes are chitting like fury and will need a prepared bed in a couple of weeks' time and the allotment looks a bit post-winter raddled to say the least. So I popped on my wellies and scruffy allotment coat and marched across town, ignoring the odd looks from people in cars on their way through the rush hour. (Honestly, you'd think they'd never seen a woman in wellies before.)

Four and a half hours later, I am back home and as I can't move because my legs and buttocks have gone into spasm, I have settled in front of the laptop, and in the words of TV's great 'The Fast Show,' today I shall mostly be blogging in the style of mixed blessings and dedications.

To the masses of worms I dug up today -I am sorry I disturbed your underground work, and thank you for aerating the soil so beautifully. May you avoid small boys who might be tempted to carry you around in their pockets in order to frighten small girls with the invitation 'Wanna see my worms?'

To the squirrel whose food store I inadvertently discovered - my sincere apologies for disturbing your nuts, but thank you for that magic moment when I thought I'd managed to grow a whole pile of peanuts without actually planting them

To the old bloke who said 'Nice parsnips,' as I left the allotment -I'll assume it wasn't a double entendre but either way, thanks for the compliment

To the woman who was so engrossed in texting on her mobile phone that she did nothing to prevent her four small children running amok amongst the traffic in the busy car park outside the David Lloyd leisure centre -you can replace your mobile phone, love, but kids need more than a quick battery charge to recover from being squished flat like bugs

To all the young, high-heeled and high-fashion girls who looked down their little snub noses at me as I schlepped home in my mud-clogged wellies looking extremely dishevelled whilst trying to wrestle an armful of parsnips that were wrapped precariously in some old pea-netting because I stupidly forgot to take a bag with me - I LIKE my hair pouffey, okay??

To all the kids on half-term holiday that were hanging around street corners looking bored -why aren't you at home doing your homework/coursework? Your future depends on it

To all the ducks and geese on the river -may all your eggs be fertile

To the rain -thank you for holding off long enough for me to get home dry. I don't think a net of parsnips would have been a wholly successful umbrella but feel free now to rain all you like on my freshly dug allotment

To Phoebe, who I KNOW is loitering around the net of parsnips even though I cannot see her from where I am sitting-DO NOT CHEW THE PARSNIP TOPS! They'll make you throw up and I'm in no mood for clearing up cat vomit

And last, but not least...

To my beautiful, talented, funny and kind daughter, Heather, who was born at 2.55 p.m twenty-one years ago this very day - it's all hereditary, you know. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

Monday, 16 February 2009

The 1950's Housewife

The sun is up, the air is springy and I've spent all morning getting rid of 'stuff ', either as rubbish, or as charity shop donations or for the elusive boot fayre I always promise myself I'll do if I can get over people launching themselves at me and saying 'Ow much, love?' in an aggressive manner. I've also checked the seed potatoes that are chitting in Heather's bedroom and I think maybe we've got too many. Again. I always go a bit wild in my seed potato guestimations. Can you have too many potatoes? Probably not.

I blame my early spring-cleaning frenzy on yesterday when Andy, distraught at having to return to work today and in the absence of having won the lottery/ discovered a wealthy benefactor/ been bequeathed a large sum of money by a rich relative we didn't know we had, decided to watch back-to-back episodes of the first series of 'River Cottage' starring our hero, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It's a bit like me watching back-to-back episodes of 'The Darling Buds of May' and pretending I'm Ma Larkin.

'That's all we need,' said Andy, waving a hand at the TV screen which was showing pictures of Hugh's River Cottage set in rural Dorset next to a river with pigs, chickens and veg in the lush surroundings. 'I know,' I said, because I agree. 'But how are we going to get it?' said Andy. 'I don't know,' I admit, because I don't. I tend to send up requests to the Greater Universe about these things but Andy, being an atheist, doesn't hold with this approach and just wants some-one to recognise our potential as admirable small-holders and give us a big fat wodge of cash because they like us.

Andy disappears upstairs and launches an internet research frenzy, looking at property websites and shouting things like 'We could get a place in the Outer Hebrides quite cheap,' and 'How do you feel about living abroad?' (He knows full well my responses to both these suggestions but I admire his persistence in these matters. I suspect he is trying to catch me out, a bit like when he thought getting me a ballooning experience for my birthday would be a positive way forward to getting me into an airplane. Ha! You'll be lucky, dearest!)

I go out into the kitchen to stare at my lovely batch of marmalade and feel like a good and dutiful wife. I think 'We've got a load of 'stuff '. We don't need this 'stuff.' Tomorrow I am going to have a good clear out of 'stuff.'

And that's just what I've done. I've also given the hen house a good clean and mentioned to the girls that they might like to have a clear out of their 'stuff ', too.

'Why?' asks Miggo, suspiciously.
'Well, in case we find THE place to move to in the country,' I say. 'And we have to sell up and move quickly.'
'We're not going to the Outer Hebrides are we?' asks Mrs Pumphrey. 'Only I don't think I can cope with the snow and rain and a bitter north wind blowing around my harris.' (Mrs Pumphrey's harris, you may remember, is a little pink and bald at the mo due to Mrs Slocombe and her naughty feather stealing habit.)
'No,' I say. 'We are not going anywhere north of Liverpool if I can help it.'
'Or abroad,' says Mrs Poo. 'Unless it's Russia. I wouldn't mind moving to Russia. Is Stalin still in charge?'
'No he isn't,' I say. 'On account of his being dead. And it's as cold in Russia as it is in Scotland.'
'I can't go abroad, ' says Miggins. 'My passport has lapsed.'

I reassure the hens that my urge to get rid of 'stuff ' is merely a precautionary measure. Besides, I've got half a hundred weight of seed potatoes to get in the ground in the next month.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Lady Marmalade

No, I'm not prancing around the kitchen, swinging on a pole in a dance to the famous song 'Lady Marmalade.' Although I haven't vacated the kitchen for more than a minute all this morning. I am making marmalade and am watching it like a hawk as it bubbles away on the stove, filling the house with the scent of bitter orange. This is because last year, I had a MARMALADE DISASTER and am determined not to repeat the disaster this year.

I'd never made marmalade or jam of any kind until a couple of years ago. I remember watching my Gran as she made all her own preserves and, in the year we acquired the allotment and started getting heavily involved with all things Hugh F-W, I decided then it was high time to purchase a preserving pan and follow in my gran's footsteps. (My gran also made her own brawn and I would often find a pig's head lying glassy-eyed on the draining board in her outhouse awaiting whatever attention it required to be magicked into something edible - but panic ye not, Andy. I think I'm along way from playing with pig's heads just yet.)

So I got me a preserving pan and other jam accoutrements and had a go at making marmalade. Simple! I couldn't believe it was so easy. It was very well received by the marmalade eating community in the house (i.e Andy) and I thought, I'll make some more next year. So last year I repeated the process, only this time I was blase about the whole process and wandered off at one point to do heaven knows what instead of paying attention to my creation with my wooden spoon. Andy, upstairs in his study, called out in the nicest possible way (remember I was still teaching at this point and had a tendency towards tetchiness) 'Is the marmalade supposed to be smelling like that?' Of course, it wasn't. It was simultaneously burning and welding itself to the bottom of my preserving pan...

...and three weeks later I was still trying to clean the bottom of the pan and didn't even have a blob of marmalade for my toast to ease the annoyance!

So this year I am here, watching it carefully. I have even gone as far as cutting all the oranges up by hand instead of forcing them through my blender. It's been a labour of love, the making of the marmalade this year. The 2 hour simmer is almost done. I am listening to Radio 4's 'The Food Programme' whilst I wait. They are talking about cheese-making and I'm thinking 'Hmmmm, I could give that a go.' Apparently, the trick is in the temperature and humidity. I wouldn't make blue cheese, though. I am very much of the opinion that you shouldn't eat anything that has mould growing in it and tastes like washing up liquid.

And I'm hoping that the rhubarb at the allotment will be plentiful this year. It will be in its third season and will be well-established and plentiful which is good as I want to try a rhubarb and ginger jam. It's starting to appear above the ground. I could sling a bucket over it and force it, but I don't think any fruit or veg should be forced to do anything it doesn't want to before its time. The last thing I want is narky rhubarb.

And now I must go. The jam jars are ready to go in the oven to be sterilised, the sugar is ready to be added to the oranges teaspoon by teaspoon full for the next stage and my juices have reduced by half. The pan needs my full attention. You're on your own now...

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Great Escape Part Two

Remember I said I phoned Chris (my son) to ask him to shut the hens away for us because we were delayed in Norwich yesterday? Well, I get up this morning to go for my swim. I nip out to release the hens as it is now getting light at 6.45 a.m and they won't last indoors until my return without stamping on each other in their house and getting right narky.

I go swimming - 50 lengths- and slip-slide my way home across the slush and ice ridden pavements. Up the garden path I troop, through the fresh snow. 'Cor,' I think. 'Look at the size of those birdie footprints on the path. Must be one helluva robin around here somewhere.' I put my key in lock and happen to glance to the right where I see...

....three escapee hens under the hedge!

'Run!' shouts Poo. 'She's spotted us!'
'Run where?' shouts Pumphrey, not used to this escaping malarkey.
'No, don't run!' shouts Miggins. 'Stand really still. Blend into the hedge. She'll lose sight of us and then we can nip to Starbucks for a frappe.'

I fling open the front door. 'Andy!' I yell up the stairs to Andy who is still, sensibly, in bed. 'The chickens are out!'
'Damn!' says Miggo. 'She's seen us.'
I can't see Mrs Slocombe. Perhaps she's already on a bus and half way to Canterbury. In a mad moment I wonder if I should check if her passport is missing. Andy appears with his coat. 'Go and put some clothes on!' I yell. (I made this up for artistic effect. He was dressed. No streaking was involved in the rounding up of the escapee hens.) So as Andy corrals the hens with his coat I dive into the hedge which is liberally laced with a big old bramble bush and emerge with Mrs Poo. I rush her to the back garden where the gate is swinging wide open (thank you Chris!) and Mrs Slocombe inside, peering nervously around the side of the house.
'Didn't fancy a great escape then?' I say, more relieved than anything.
'No,' she says. 'I know best where my bread is buttered.'
I return to the front garden where Andy has Miggo and Pumphrey contained in a corner. I roll up my sleeves. Pumphrey's going to be the tricky one. I make a dive for her, catch myself on the brambles but managed to get her, rugby-ball style, under my arm and I emerge from the hedge bleeding but triumphant. I deposit Mrs Pumphrey in the back garden where she repairs to the greenhouse for a deep grooming session to rid herself of the bugs of human contamination.

By now Andy has shooed Miggins towards the back gate which I open and she obligingly runs through. I think she saw how I manhandled the other two and wasn't having any of that malarkey. Hen round up complete!

'We really need to get a small-holding,' says Andy.
'Or I need to show my son how to close a gate,' I say.

I think Mercury must be in retrograde. I can think of no other reason for the events of the last two days.

'Try-the-Patience-of-a-Saint' Thursday

Henceforth, Thursday, 12th February 2009 shall be known as 'Try-the-Patience-of-a-Saint' Thursday. I was toying with the idea of calling it Black Thursday, but I think that may have already been done and I don't want people to think I can't be original, especially as my daughter said to me yesterday 'It's all right for you, you sit at home all day doing nothing.' (And this as we were standing in a bar whilst I paid the not insubstantial deposit for the room hire for her 21st birthday party on Monday night. She was testing a very fine wire, I thought.)

We set off for Norwich at nine thirty a.m. Good plan, you see. Avoid the rush hour traffic, we'll be there by mid-day, we thought. Take Heather out to lunch, buy her a new coat, set off for home about five-ish and be home in time for the last episode of 'Hustle' and a mug of bed-time hot chocolate. Sorted.

Through the Dartford Tunnel and then a smell of burning rubber hit us just before we ground to a halt about 100 yards from a road accident. There were fire engines, ambulances, police and motorway traffic officials roaring up and down the hard shoulder. Then the air ambulance arrived and went three times.

We were stuck for two hours. We played 'where shall we live?' using the road map. We played 'What's the funniest place name in Britain?' again using the road map. Andy was just beginning to think of playing 'Can I wee into a bottle without the lorry behind us noticing,' when we started moving. So we had to stop for a wee break at the next services.

We arrive in Norwich at half past two. It is bitingly cold. 'This is what happens when you travel up north,' I say, as we shiver our way to the coffee shop in which we'd arranged to meet Heather. We sit and wait. We have tea and hot chocolate and a cake between us. Heather arrives eventually and says 'Oh, could you lend me the deposit for the room I've hired for my party. It'll be okay, you'll get it back.' 'Okay' I say. So off we go to this pub and the barmaid tries to call the manager on her mobile to tell him we are here. And we wait. And wait. The barmaid sighs alot and stares at the ceiling and then at the mobile phone and then at the ceiling again. I rest my head on the counter.

The manager finally arrives and tries to blame his tardiness on BT. He shows us the room. He tries to engage me in conversation about cheap alcohol. I haven't the energy to tell him he's talking to completely the wrong, tee-total person. I pay the deposit and whilst Andy goes to mooch around bookshops, I take Heather to buy her a coat. It is getting colder.

We meet Andy back at a restaurant Heather has selected for lunch but is now dinner. She tries to open the door. It won't budge. We all try the door. It still won't budge. It is a quarter past five. The restaurant doesn't open until 6. By now I could eat a paving slab. So we go to good old Bella Italia with the lovely fey waiter who calls us 'guys' and tries to foist a mushroom special on us. But we like him. We have a nice meal. I call Chris to ask him to nip to ours and shut the chickens away as we are running behind time. We leave the restaurant. It is snowing. Heavily. 'How did that happen?' I demand to know. We march swiftly back to the car park, and when we arrive, frozen and covered in snow Heather says 'Oh, if I'd have known that this is where you'd parked we could have taken a quicker route back.' We take Heather home and set off in a blizzard for the drive back to Kent.

It snows, and snows and snows. Lorries whizz past us, throwing snow and slush onto the windscreen and blinding us on roads we can hardly see anyway. I do a lot of ineffectual shouting at thoughtless lorry drivers (Tesco and Sainsbury, hang your heads in shame). I would take down their number plates and report them if I could a) remove my hands from in front of my face and b)see the plates which are all obscured by snow. 'Go to sleep,' says Andy. 'Are you crazy?' I say. 'If I'm going to die, I want to be awake when it happens.' 'You aren't going to die,' says Andy, patting my leg reassuringly. 'Both hands on the wheel,' I squeal, as another lorry shoots past us at 100 miles an hour, oblivious to the blizzard.

And so it continued all the way home. We crawled along, tagging the car in front. The edges of the road disappeared under snow drifts. I wish we had stocked up on biscuits and a shovel before we'd left Norwich. I am convinced we are going to grind to a halt and become stranded somewhere outside Cambridge and that in the morning the police will discover our poor, frozen bodies clinging together for warmth, a strand of uphostery fabric trailing from my lips as I tried to eke sustenance from the car seat.

We get home just after 11. Cold. Traumatised. And Andy has a numb bottom. He pops out to check the hens who are fast asleep but have left us four eggs.

What a day.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Random news items

Here is the news:

Cows -There seems to be a discrepancy in my family about whether to get a cow or not. When we move to Dorset/ Devon I am keen to have a cow. I like butter and I like cheese. I like the way cows look and I like the way they can lick inside their nostrils with their rubbery tongues. But according to Mum, Auntie Pollie says, don't get a cow. Because they need milking twice a day. Which means we'd be tied to our farm/small-holding/field and not have days out/ holidays etc. What makes Auntie P. think we'll be able to afford to have days out and holiday by the time we've purchased our farm/small-holding/ field, is what I want to know? Besides, with my developing agorophobia I'm unlikely to set foot outside the house let alone far enough away from the cow to be unable to reach it for milking. And given the choice between sitting on a sweltering foreign beach or sitting on a squishy sofa with a cheese sandwich made from homemade cheese, I'd prefer the second option any day. Discrepancy solved - we'll get a cow.

Knives - With our old set of knives having reached the point where they can reduce a wholemeal loaf to a pile of breadcrumbs rather than neat slices, and where you have to hack at your Sunday roast rather than glide through it with ease, I procured a new set of Sabatiere blades which, I have been assured, are the Rolls Royce of knives, or at least a nice top-of-the-range Toyota. They look lovely in their block next to the cooker, with their ergonomic handles and their very, very,very sharp and shiny blades. Only I'm too scared to use them because I've had a premonition that I'll lose the tops of my fingers if I do. This stems back to an 'incident' that happened in October 2004 when I thought, on the day we moved house, it would be a good idea to scrape the bottom of the oven with a knife in order to remove the accumulated crud of the previous few years. I scraped, I screamed, I bled all over the kitchen floor, the dining room , up the stairs and bathroom, I swore and bled some more as Andy drove me to the surgery to have stitches and for the doctor to inform me that I'd severed a nerve in my forefinger and I was bloomin' useless for the rest of the day as we moved house with my hand bandaged up like the Pilsbury doughboy wearing extra thick mittens. And to this day, I have a little bump and poor feeling down one side of my finger and it really hurts in cold weather, too. My own stupid fault. But next time, I just KNOW it'll be a whole finger. (My maternal grandfather severed his thumb on a saw bench. My finger is an hereditary accident just waiting to happen.)

Patios - there has been a saga unfolding during my early morning swimming sessions regarding a old bloke and his patio. He swims up and down regaling his lady friend of the latest installment and I earwig as I paddle past. Three weeks ago, the builders 'had been in and lain the base.' Last week they were 'off with the weather.' This morning, they were 'back with the slabs.' This, I gather, has been going on since before Christmas. What I want to know is why do people start these jobs in the middle of winter and then express amazement at the lack of progress? It's like Grand Designs on the telly. 'Neville and Claudia began work on renovating their 15th century monastery in mid-November. A week later, the builders had called off because of the hurricane,' says the dour Kevin McCloud. Well, there's a surprise. Bad weather in the winter? Who'd've thought it? My dad was a builder. He did 'indoor jobs' between October and February. Unless he could persuade one of us kids to go with him to a job where we would be sent into building foundations with a bucket and told to 'bail out.' That didn't happen very often, I can tell you. It's cold and muddy in building foundations. It was also unpaid child labour.

Muscles - I am v.unhappy to discover that since starting my swimming campaign I have gained a pound or three in weight. (No, Andy, it has nothing to do with the fact that Sainsbugs is selling huge bars of Dairy Milk for a quid. Absolutely nothing. So hush!) That wasn't the idea at all. The idea was that swimming would help me to shift the last stubborn twenty pounds I need to lose in order to become 'normal'. (I could always lop off my second head and third leg with the new Sabatiere's I suppose. That might do the trick. How much do a head and leg weigh?) I can only assume I am 'building muscle mass'. (I can now do 50 lengths in half an hour which is 10 more than when I first started so something must be happening.) But this isn't helping the weight loss cause so I'm back to weighing and writing down everything I eat in order to ensure I don't go over my recommended daily calorie intake - just in case it is the chocolate. We walked into town this morning after I'd done my 50 lengths. I NEARLY DIED, I was so hungry.

Ah well, out to dinner this evening with friends. And the weather is warming up. There are bluebells and daffs in the garden, buds on the magnolia and chits on the potatoes and this can only mean one thing - WEEDS AT THE ALLOTMENT! It's time to get digging again. Only a couple more weeks before we can get some seeds in under glass. It takes me half an hour to walk to the allotment. That's an extra hour's exercise, plus what I do when I'm there. And until I can work out how to grow chocolate, or smuggle a cow onto the plot for cheese and butter making purposes, I think I might be on to a weight loss winner!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

TIGER DAY!!

Wellies, cameras and chicken drumsticks at the ready, Andy and I set off for our visit to the Wildlife Heritage Foundation in the back of beyond of the Kent countryside. We rendez-vous with our guide, Leigh, who hurtles like a mad thing down country lanes,through puddles the size of lakes thanks to the 24 hour we've had recently on top of melting snow and, as we pull into a yard, I squeal 'Oooh look! Lions!!' 'Where?' says Andy, completely not seeing the three humungous and well-fed male lions standing in their enclosure less than fifty feet away. It was one of those occasions when you don't see something because you don't expect it to be THAT big and THAT close. Heaven help us if we ever got chased by velociraptors...

Inside a large cabin I am given a welcome pack and asked to sign a safety policy document which basically says 'Do as you're told and you won't be eaten by a tiger.' This I do. Our huge offering of chicken drumsticks is decanted into a plastic bucket, we are fortified 'gainst the bitter wind with a cup of hot chocolate and away we go.

Leigh clearly knows and loves the big cats at the Foundation. She calls them from their enclosures and out they trot, snuffing and huffing and being big and magnificent. Leigh tells us about each animal - their name and character, their breed, who they get on with, what they've been up to recently, in fact everything and more you'd want to know about them including their shoe size and where they like to go on holiday. To be able to feel a tiger's tongue lick your hand as you feed it a drumstick is quite incredible and one huge chap by the name of Tamair was quite happy to lie against the cage and have his back rubbed, before sucking up his drumstick like it was a string of spaghetti. My favourite was Makari - I suppose you could call him the Sylvester Stallone of the tiger world - tall and magnificent but not too many brain cells to knock together. He also had a sight problem which meant you had to waft your chicken around close to his face so he could see it. And then you couldn't be sure he'd know what to do with it. But he was lovely. I am very tempted to make him my adopted tiger. (£50 - a bargain!)

I was also very taken by the snow leopards, Ranschan and Mizi. Mizi might be expecting snow babies but apparently it's difficult to tell until one day a keeper goes into the enclosure and 'ta dah!!' There they are! All that can be said for the moment is that she is acting very 'schmoozy.' (A technical big cat term.)

Here are some interesting things I learnt today. 1) The first litter of a snow leopard consists of male cubs only 2) a cheetah is the only big cat whose claws are non-retractable 3) a cheetah is the only big cat that purrs 4)the Amur leopard is very beautiful but very endangered (less than 40 left in the wild, in the whole of the Earth) and therefore needs saving and 5) Andy was surprisingly nervous about feeding the tigers even though he gets bitten at work on a regular basis by hamsters and such like.

I urge people to go on the Wildlife Heritage Foundation website at www.whf.org.uk and see what goes on. And then get out your wellies and wallets and go for a visit to get up close and personal with these charismatic big cats. It is very well worth it. A great experience.

And now I'm going to try and do my bit to help fund raise. The Amur leopard does not deserve to die out (unlike things like the Labour Party and people who allow their toddler children to weave erratically across my path with dolly pushchairs when I'm shopping in town). I'm going to write a storybook for the Foundation to sell. If they want to. It might turn out to be a load of twaddle. I wouldn't want to damage their cause!! So as I sharpen my pencil and get my writing brain into 'Big Cat Story Book Mode' I'll leave you with a couple of very short films of Tiger Day!


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Monday, 9 February 2009

A moral maze

Today, I faced two dilemmas. One involved taste and a coat and one involved morals and chicken drumsticks. Neither were related although I expect it won't be long before the Tate Modern exhibits a piece of art entitled 'My Coat of Many Drumsticks' consisting of a coat made of, well, chicken drumsticks. (My money's on Damien Hirst.)

First, the coat. It is Heather's 21st birthday next week. I've been asking her for the last 3 weeks what she would like for her birthday. I know that she would really like cold, hard cash, but she knows that I don't approve of this kind of gift for a birthday especially a 21st. She knows that I want to buy an actually pressie and do it up in nice paper with ribbons and stuff and watch her little face light up as she opens it.

So today I am in Bluewater. Andy and I have marched around the whole thing once and he has reassured me that as long as I keep going in a circle I shall ALWAYS end up back at M & S and WILL NOT get lost. Therefore, I feel safe for him to leave me as he goes in search of a Valentine's present (and when I find out for whom I shall punch her lights out.) We arrange to meet in just over an hour for some lunch. I go in search of Heather's birthday present. Then I realise I don't know what I'm looking for so I call her.

'I'm in Bluewater,' I say. 'What would you like for your birthday?' She umms and ahhs a bit and is no help whatsoever. 'Tell you what,' I say, 'have a think and text me.' She agrees this is a plan. Off I go again. Twenty minutes later she sends a text saying 'I don't know. Go with your instincts.'
That was helpful, I think. I text her back saying I'm erring towards jewellery (only because I'm standing outside a jeweller's). She replies that jewellery sounds good. Or maybe a nice handbag or a coat. Go with your instinct, she says.

For heaven's sake, Heather, what kind of suggestion is that??? A wild one, that's what! Do you realise how horribly wrong it could have gone????

I can deal with bags. In the past, if I've bought Heather a bag present, I've gone into Accessorize and chosen one that I wouldn't be seen dead with, safe in the knowledge that she'll love it. But coats? Different kettle of fish altogether.

'Throw me a line,' I text back, in keeping with the fish theme. 'Colour? Size? Length? Fuzzy? Smooth? Hood? Pockets?'

Now because I am her mum and I am alarmed to learn that she 'doesn't have a coat', especially in this weather, my instinct is saying 'Bright orange duffel coat. With hood. Warm and highly visible to protect her from the Norwich traffic and the wind blowing across the cabbage fields.' Ah yes, that's the ticket. A nice snuggly duffel coat, just like Paddington Bear, for my little girl. The text comes back 'Something black/grey NOT bright. Long enough to cover my bum. Rain mac, poss?'

Instinct shminstinct! We travel home coatless but I did manage to purchase half a present. I shan't say what it is because Heather reads this blog (have you played the chicken game yet? My highest score so far is 458!) and I don't want to spoil the surprise. But I think, young lady, you should know the trauma you caused me with your wild 'coat' suggestion.

On the way home we nipped into Sainsbugs to get chicken drumsticks because tomorrow it is TIGER DAY!!! Normally, I buy free-range chicken. I stare at the free-range drumsticks which come in packs with thighs. 'No thighs,' instructs Andy. 'I don't know why, but I've been told SPECIFICALLY NO THIGHS.' 'Probably because a drumstick has got a bit of a handle on it,' I suggest, sagely. 'Puts your fingers an extra 4 inches away from tiger teeth danger.'

So, do I pay a small fortune and buy 4 times as many packets of free-range drumsticks 'n' thighs(and remove the thighs. 'What have we got for dinner tonight, darling?' 'Chicken thighs, darling.' 'Not again, darling', followed by heavy sighs all round). Or do I buy the cheapy value brand, because it is highly unlikely after all, that a tiger is going to worry about the provenance of its raw meat. I look at the Freedom Food labelled stuff as a middle ground. After all, Hugh F-W says it's okay if you can't go all the hog with free-range. Hmmmmm....

Suffice it to say we leave Sainsbugs hanging our heads in shame but yeah, the tigers shall feast well tomorrow.

I go home to light a candle to the god of chickens to atone for my sins. And feed Slocombe, Poo, Miggins and Pumphrey some grapes and lettuce as penance.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Much a Change For the Better

It's been very busy chez nous ce matin. Well, I've been very busy shouting orders from the sidelines and Andy has been very busy following those orders. (Spot the balance of power!) As you can see, we've been re-vamping the blog. We hope you like its new and improved look. Andy is very clever at all this techno-stuff. I merely sit and gaze at it, and him, in awe.

There are pictures of cats and chickens and vegetables and our wedding and my great-great- granny! And a chicken slide show!! And a video of Tybalt dancing to funky music whilst playing with bubbles!!! And sound effects!! And a highly amusing chicken balancing game!!!! We've changed the font, the colours and the layout. And the name...so don't be alarmed at the 'Much Malarkey Manor' title. It's still under the umbrella of Ginnungagaps.

So now we're having a slobby afternoon. We've got a busy week ahead as Andy takes a well-deserved holiday from work. Tomorrow we're going to Bluewater. Andy wanted to know if it was like the Trafford Centre in Manchester. I said, yes, only posher because it's down south. Tuesday is Tiger Day so watch out for exciting piccies of me fending off big cats with raw chicken drumsticks. Wednesday we're helping my mum print off some photos from her digital camera and then we're going to dinner with our friend Jane. And the Thursday we're off to Norwich to see Heather with hopefully a good 21st birthday present that I shall locate at Bluewater tomorrow. Nothing planned for Friday...yet.

And by the way, I have successfully ordered my free book from Puffin Post.

Phoebe will be pleased...

100 TODAY!!!

Gosh! Today is my 100th blog post. Where's my telegram from the Queen? Does she still do telegrams? Or has she been sucked in by technology and now sends congratulatory e-mail-a-grams??

Anyway, I have a confession to make. As I celebrate my 100th blog entry, a whiff of deceit hangs in the air. Can you smell it? It's a bit like cheese-on-toast with a dollop of barbacue sauce, which, on the face of it is really very appealing, thus making the air of deceit quite, quite delicious. And even harder to resist. Who was it that said 'I can resist anything but temptation?' Oscar Wilde? Mae West? Me?? (Tybalt says it was him but he's still on a cat-nip bubble buzz so I don't think he's fully in charge of his reasoning capabilities at the moment.)

The deceit hangs on something I mentioned a while ago concerning my membership of the Puffin Club. And the fact that you have to be aged 16 or under in order to join the Puffin Club. But was I going to let age stand in the way of me revisiting a favourite childhood memory and a beany puffin toy and badge? No, I was not. So I invented a new identity. She is called Phoebe and she was born in 1993. Yes, I know we have a cat called Phoebe. I wasn't feeling very inventive on the name front that day. I panicked, okay? But it gained me membership to the inner sanctum and I am now a Puffineer. Only now it's coming back to bite me on the bum.

You see, I have received an e-mail from the Puffin Club. It said that I hadn't claimed my free book. I had. I claimed my free book a month ago via a postcard attached to the first issue of the Puffin Post Magazine. Clearly the postcard has not arrived on Puffin Island. So my only other option is to claim it on-line. Which means I have to 'activate my membership' as Phoebe aged 15. I try to do this. Puffin Island says, 'You can't use that e-mail address because it's already being used by someone else.' YES I KNOW IT IS! IT'S BEING USED BY ME, THE PERSON WHO PAID FOR THE MEMBERSHIP IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!

You see my dilemma?

Andy says, 'Use one of my e-mail accounts.' One of his e-mail accounts? How many e-mail accounts does he have, for the love of sausages? I have no choice. I want my free book. My free children's book. (It's research okay? I write children's books therefore I need to read children's books in order to stay ahead of the zeitgeist.)

So I get out my 'Phoebe aged 15' file. Yes, I have to keep a file on my alter ego because Puffin Island require information about her/me and I'll/she'll never remember it in her/my brain unless I/she writes it down - you know what teenagers are like. Although I was never like it as a teenager. I don't think. ('I thought I was your alter ego?' says Matilda. 'You are,' I say, 'but you are too old for the purpose of the Puffin Club. Please don't get narky).

So I use one of Andy's e-mail addresses. I add this e-mail address to 'Phoebe aged 15's' details. I activate my membership! And...

...Puffin Island tells me I do not have a free book to claim. Phoebe throws a hissy fit. I tell her to calm down because, look, in the small print it says, 'If you have only just activated your account it may take a while to have the correct information on your Puffin Page. Try again in half an hour. (Or some such twaddle.)

'HALF AN HOUR,' yells Phoebe. 'I CAN'T WAIT HALF AN HOUR. I HAVE TO STRAIGHTEN MY HAIR/ SEND TWENTY THOUSAND TEXTS AND MEET DWAYNE ON THE CORNER.'

'Who is Dwayne?' I ask, sternly.
'No-one,' sulks Phoebe.
'Well, if he's 'no-one', 'I say, doing that scribing-apostrophes-in-the-air-with-my-fingers thing because I know it really annoys her, 'then you can stay here and get my free book for me.' I make a note that Phoebe has an imaginary friend called 'Dwayne.'

'I NEVER WANTED TO JOIN THE STUPID PUFFIN CLUB ANYWAY!' Phoebe yells, stomping up the stairs. 'IT'S FOR SADDOES AND LOSERS!' And she slams her bedroom door.

I'm wondering if she has a point. And then I worry that I might never get my free book.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Pester Power

For Christmas, we bought our cats a new scratching post. Not any old scratching post, oh no! This is the Rolls Royce of scratching posts. Three storeys high, covered in fur fabric with balls attached to elastic and tiny toy mice hiding in holes, it has proved to be a hugh source of entertainment for Phoebs and Tybs. Phoebe has taken possession of the lowest tier. She has arranged one of Andy's old jumpers, nest-like, between the three uprights that support the whole structure and that is where she spends a vast majority of her day sleeping. Tybalt perches on the second tier, casually dangling a paw over the edge so he can poke at Phoebe if he is feeling in a particularly minxy mood. The second tier gives him easy access to the balls-on-elastic-on- a-tree type appendage and sometimes he sits there twanging the balls a la Swingball.

The third tier is in the shape of a giant cat paw and is used occasionally by either cat. It is on a level with the kitchen worktops so provides Phoebe with easy access to the upper levels of the kitchen and saves her having to struggle onto a chair and then wobble precariously for half an hour on the back of said chair whilst she decides if she can make the eight inch leap forward or whether she will plunge to certain death below. Generally, this state of affairs reaches the point where neither Andy or I can bear it any longer and we pick her up and put her back on the floor which brings about much angry tail lashing because she has to start the whole process again. In this mood, she reminds of a Peanuts cartoon I once saw of Charlie Brown picking up a stone and throwing it into the sea. Linus looks at him and says 'It took 10,000 years for that pebble to make it up the beach.'

To go with the scratch post we also got them a giant kipper-sized kipper that is filled with cat-nip. Tybalt goes mental for catnip. He indulges in much kipper wrestling with the cat-nip filled kipper and it's starting to look a bit raddled. It's also absorbed a lot of cat spit as kipper wrestling makes Tybalt produce excessive amounts of saliva. Phoebe prefers a smaller catnip toy in the shape of a pepper. She will carry this around as if it is a kitten, whilst making odd miaowing sounds at the same time which suggests to me she may have some latent ventriloquist talent. She's doing it right now. She looks a right numpty.

So last night, Andy arrived home from work with a big bunch of flowers for me because he said I'd been looking sad for a few days (what a lovely, lovely man I have! And no, he's mine, all mine and you can't have him, so get back!) and a pot of catnip bubbles for the cats. He blows a few bubbles as I am dishing up dinner. Tybalt watches bubbles. Tybalt pats a couple of bubbles. Tybalt leaps into air at bubbles. Tybalt goes cat-nip bubble crazy. Tybalt pesters us incessantly for the rest of the evening. 'Blow me MORE cat-nip bubbles. NOW!' he says. 'MORE, MORE, MORE!!!!' It's like having a toddler in the house again.

And did you know that when cat-nip bubbles land on the floor they make a really loud 'POP!' ?? 'POP DIDDLY POP POP POP!' they go like soapy rice krispies attached to megaphones. I kid you not. They're not the kind of bubbles you'd want to blow if, for example, you were a burglar. Half -way through helping yourself to someone else's property you might see this pot of bubbles and think, 'I'll just blow a couple of bubbles before I make off with my swag.' Well, think again. Because if you did, everyone in the house would be awake in a nano-second, disturbed by the noise the cat-nip bubbles make as they land. No, my moronic low-life, burglar friend. Cat-nip bubbles would be your downfall.

I have to go now. Tybalt is sitting in front of me, his nose five inches from my face. He is staring really hard. He's got that catnip crazy look in his eyes.

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Thursday, 5 February 2009

Minorly exciting news

So I've been bashing away on the editing front this morning, cringing at the piece I'm working on which I started a couple of years ago and have only just decided to re-visit and the postman arrives. There is the familiar thud of another 'Ginnungagaps' manuscript returning home with its tail between its legs. Another rejection letter. That's 11 so far for this book. Should I accept that my first novel is going nowhere on the publishing train? Should I accept that there are hundreds and thousands of other writers out there who are more talented/ luckier/pushier than me and that 'Denise The Published Writer' is a myth and a whim and a pie-in-the-sky never to be eaten fantasy? (What kind of pie? asks Miggins, who is an authority on pies. 'Chicken and asparagus,' I say. 'Don't be ridiculous,' snorts Miggo. 'You can't make a pie from chicken.' 'Don't push your luck,' I say. Rejection brings on such murderous feelings.)

In the same post there was this month's issue of Writing Magazine. And inside, on the competition page was the winning entry for a competition I'd entered about 4 months ago. Sadly, not mine...

BUT...

...on the shortlist of finalists was...

ME!

I made it to the final 10 of a writing competition!!!!

I know, I know. I didn't win. I wasn't even a runner-up. But my name is there, in the magazine. A tiny, weeny, minor victorette.

Suddenly, I want to be a writer again.

Denise the Vet

'What are you doing today?' I ask Andy as he prepares to leave for work this morning. It's Thursday and my man is beginning to flag. He's got two and a half days before his holiday and it looks like they are going to be a very long two and half days.

'Consulting,' he sighs, the sigh denoting his distress at having to meet and converse with various people (mostly bonkers) all day and try to make sense of their explanations of the symptoms of their poorly pets. These generally run along the lines of 'Tyson's thingy is a bit wobbly and when he barks his doo-dah does a funny thing. Oh, and his number two's are, you know, thing.'

Andy is very patient. He keeps his consultation questions simple. 'So,' he'll say. 'By number two's, you mean poo's?' The client will either nod, nod and giggle because the vet just said 'poo', or shake their head and go into a deep explanation about what a number two refers to in their particular household. Andy might then say, 'Has Tyson eaten anything in the last 24 hours?' 'No,' the client will reply. 'Except his dinner last night.' 'So he has eaten something in the last 24 hours,' says Andy, surpressing a sigh. 'No,' says the client. 'Only his dinner.'

Now, I think vets could save themselves a lot of hassle if they re-interpret the meaning of 'consultation.' I suggest this to Andy. 'How about,' I say, 'that when a client arrives for a consultation, you get in quick with the first question? Like 'Do you think I should plant Jerusalem artichokes this year? ' Or 'Does this colour tunic suit me? I can usually wear blue but was wondering if a lighter shade might set off my eyes better.'

Andy looks at me. He's thinking, 'She's going a bit stir crazy in the house on her own with only the cats and chickens to talk to.'

I continue. 'Consultation works both ways, you know. And I reckon you could get away with it, bearing in mind how stressed you are at the moment. Don't worry that a client will go to Reception and say, 'That vet, Andy, asked me about whether I thought British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan. He didn't want to know a thing about Binkie's sore foot,' because Reception know you're a great guy and they'll say 'Oh, that Andy, he's such a wag! He's knows all about Binkie's sore foot. He just wanted to avoid getting involved in any circular and pointless discussions with you. It's part of his diagnostic genius.'

And then there's 'ops'. Not the green things you use to make beer, but 'operations' which is the other thing Andy could spend all day doing. He prefers ops because he doesn't have to talk to clients. Only nurses. And then only to say things like 'Can you push my glasses back up my nose?' or 'WATCH OUT, IT'S A GUSHER!' Andy sometimes consults one of his surgeon manuals the night before he's on 'ops' if he's facing a particularly tricky procedure. And I'll say, 'Tell me the problem. I'll help.' And he'll explain, in words of one syllable, the problem with the animal and I'll offer my own lay-person's diagnosis. I'm usually pretty close, if a little unorthodox. The one I'm most proud of is a 'kill-two-birds-with-one-stone' theory. Not literally, of course. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog. (Mrs Pumphrey was slightly startled when I nipped out a moment or two ago to spray her poor baldy bottom in an attempt to stop Mrs Slocombe plucking at the sparse remains of the bum fluggage that remains.)

This particular theory was developed when Andy worked in Liverpool. He had a 'lethargic dog' and a 'constipated cat' in one night when he was on duty. Of course, to me the solution was simple. 'Put the cat and dog in the same cage together,' I said. 'The dog'll perk up at the sight of the cat and chase it, thereby scaring the constipation out of it, the smell of which will stop the dog in its tracks giving you a window of opportunity to dive in and rescue the cat.'

Andy said he could see where I was coming from but he'd have to check the ethics of the siuation before he put it into practice.

My other theory regarding ops is that if ever a lady cat comes in for a Caesarian, Andy should bring all the kittens home for me. He's not so keen on this theory.

Thinking about alternative veterinary approaches has cheered me up no end. I think I might start writing a manual entitled 'Practical Solutions That You, the Vet, Might Never Have Thought of Before Now.'

Snappy title, eh?