Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ripping out Cupboards

Andy arrives home from work.

'I read your blog at work today,' he says.

I thought, blimey, he must have been very bored.

'Do you really want to redecorate your writing room?' he continues. I sense a feeling of trepidation in his voice.
'I wouldn't mind,' I say. 'It's the only room in the house we haven't touched since we've been here, and as it looks like we are staying put for the time being, we might as well spruce it up.'

Andy holds his breath. He knows what's coming next. The 'Cupboard Issue.'

'And I would really like to rip out the old cupboards and replace them with some nice shelving,' I say. In hindsight I think I shouldn't have used the word 'ripped' quite so enthusiastically.

Andy is looking a bit pale. 'Hmmmm,' he says. I can tell via the subtle nuances of his body language and tone of voice he is already resistant to this idea.

You see, when we moved in, the room that is now my writing room was a bedroom. And as such it has, running the length of one wall, a double set of built-in wardrobes, and another single cupboard that's a bit like an airing cupboard but without the facility to air anything i.e immersion tankless. The single cupboard contains three shelves at the top and a chest of drawers at the bottom.

This arrangment worked well all the while it was Chris's bedroom (although he never really got the idea of using the hanging rails properly, preferring to spread his clothing over the carpet. Ease of access, I suppose, or an extra layer of insulation. Or just to irritate his mother who'd just spent an hour or more doing the ironing.) Anyway, when Chris moved out, and I turned the room into a work space pour moi, the cupboard arrangement became inappropriate to my needs (I think that's the correct term these days to describe something that is pointless and therefore useless.)

I ended up shoving an old Ikea storage unit that belonged to Andy's batchelor days inside the wardrobe, and balancing things in it and on it (i.e my masses of books and other assorted tat) as best I could. It hasn't been 100% successful. Also, the doors, which were clearly done 'on the cheap' are becoming harder and harder to open and even more difficult to close. There's a lot of shoving and banging required to get door to meet door frame. The cats are very good at using the extra time it takes me to open and close the doors in order to disappear inside the cupboards and if I don't notice, they get trapped inside and I don't notice until they start trying to excavate their way out via means of their sharp and pointy little claws.

'It'd be fun,' I say, 'taking the cupboards out. You could use your sledgehammer. And when we've made a right Royal mess of the job, we can call Guy the Builder in to sort it all out.'

'Hmmmmm,' says Andy, again.

Anyway, I'm leaving the idea of cupboard ripping to settle for a while. I know when to stand back and bide my time. I mean, I've even resisted the urge to look at new carpets. How good am I??

In the meantime, I've reinstated my subscription to 'Country Living' magazine, in order to keep a grip on our country living dream, (having recently been 'specially selected for a one-off two year £1.85-an-issue-deal-with-free-2010-diary - an offer too good to miss really - and it's nice to know I am soooooo special!!). It's been a disappointment for Andy and myself that we didn't get that cottage with the massive garden that we found way back in the summer, but as friends and family have consoled us, it's because something better will come along in the future.

We hope so.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Restless One

I'm feeling a bit restless at the moment. Probably because I'm waiting to start a new job, which always makes one feel a bit antsy. And probably because I'd revved myself up for moving house and now, because we aren't (thanks to the magical disappearing faffers), I have a lot of 'change of space' energy nagging to go somewhere. And possibly because I watched the first episode of 'The Day of the Triffids' last night, which, I felt, turned into a poor pastiche of 'Survivors' and took far too many liberties with the original book.

So yesterday I spent a fair amount of time mooching around the house thinking, what can I do to this place to make it feel like we HAVE moved house, even though we haven't. Re-decorating is the obvious starting point. And I do like a bit of painting and wall-papering. And having converted my writing room temporarily into a dining room over Christmas, I'm rather inclined to start in there. Maybe turn it into the main living room and move my study space into the current living room, well, it's bigger, my writing room, so makes sense to shift things in there, especially as Andy has gone a bit 'Wii Fit Plus-tastic' at the moment and needs extra flailing space in front of the telly.

The carpet is the same one that was here when we moved in 5 years ago. Could do with changing 1) because it's getting a bit flat, and 2) it's a horrid peachy colour that I've never really liked. The walls have never been decorated to our tastes. I think it was because they are a neutral, inoffensive colour, and as the room doesn't see much traffic the walls have stayed at that stage where you look at them periodically and think, shall I repaint them? Nah, they'll do for a while longer.

'We can do it for you, guv,' says Mrs Miggins. 'We're good at decorating. Mrs Pumphrey has got a diploma in interior design.'

I think back to the time when the hens decorated the dining hall in the Manor a la Rococco style. They did a good job, I seem to remember, even though Pumphrey got stuck to the pasting table at one point.

'Okay,' I say. 'Come in and give me a few ideas. And please do not start calling me 'guv.'
'Okay dokey, matey,' says Mrs Miggins. 'I'll call the team. Put the kettle on, we'll be back in a mo for a cup of brew.'

I ought to explain at this point that Mrs Miggins tends to lapse into the 'Mockney cockney' vernacular at this time of year, due to eating too many pies, watching non-stop Mary Poppins repeats on ITV2, and re-starting her laying after her moult, which must be a bit of a cor blimey moment for any hen after they've had a couple of months off egg-laying duty.

The hens gather in my writing room. Mrs Miggins has a pencil tucked behind her ear, Mrs Pumphrey is wearing an over-sized Biba smock and Mrs Slocombe is wrestling with a retractable tape measure that is refusing to retract.

'What's your vision for this room?' says Mrs Pumphrey.
'I don't know, really,' I say. 'Something a bit less bland, I suppose. A bit more, well, striking.'

Mrs Miggins sucks in her breath. She leads me gently by the elbow to the window.

'Don't tell Pumphrey you want 'striking',' she warns. 'Striking is only one step short of flamboyant on her paint chart. You've got to be specific, or she'll go crazy with artistic intent.'
'Right,' I say.

'When you say 'striking,' says Mrs Pumphrey, taking a notebook from her smock pocket, 'do you mean 'flamboyant striking' or 'silence-inducing striking?'
'How do you mean, 'silence-inducing striking?' I say.
'Well,' says Mrs Pumphrey. 'You know when you see a piece of art, or architecture for example and you are struck dumb by its appearance?'
'Are we talking esoteric beauty dumb or Tate Modern dumb?' I say.
'Tate Modern,' says Mrs Pumphrey.
'In that case, I'm after flamboyant striking,' I say.
'Good-o,' says Mrs Pumphrey.

There is a crash behind us as Mrs Slocombe trips over her tape measure and into the piano.
'Is that staying in here?' asks Mrs Miggins.
'The piano?' I say. 'Yes, it is.'
'Only it doesn't work,' says Mrs Miggins, and she lifts the lid and plays a few dud notes of 'The Entertainer' just to prove her point.
'It just needs tuning,' I say. 'I'm getting it done because my resolution for 2010 is to learn to play the piano properly.'
'With both hands, you mean,' says Mrs Miggins.
'With both hands,' I say.
'I can play piano,' says Mrs Slocombe, who has struggled free from the tape measure and thrown it in a ball in the corner of the room.
'Really?' I say. 'Is there no end to the talents of my chickens?'
'I hope not,' says Mrs Miggins. 'Or you'll have sod all to write about next year.'

At this point, Mrs Pumphrey lets out a short squeal, and collapses in a heap onto the sofa.
'Good grief!' I say. 'Is she all right?'
'She's having a creative genius epiphany,' says Mrs Miggins. 'She'll need tea and biscuits when she comes to,' she adds, pointedly. 'Muffins, if you've got them.'

We stand, holding our breath, watching Mrs Pumphrey, who is glazed of eye and swaying like Tango Pete on an off-day with his choreography.
'What's she muttering about?' I ask.

Mrs Miggins presses her ear to Mrs Pumphrey's beak.

'She's talking about magenta and Persian rugs and authentic 18th century brocade,' she says. 'I think we'd better leave her to it and come back later.'

And so we creep from the room as Mrs Pumphrey begins to sketch frantically in her notepad.

'I only wanted a new carpet, and something a bit more cheerful on the walls,' I say. 'Powder blue egg-shell, maybe, with a feature wall of flowery wallpaper.'
'Well, why didn't you say so before she got started?' says Mrs Miggins. She does a bit of tutting and sucks in some more breath. 'Oh, you've opened the flood gates now, you numpty. If you reject Pumphrey's ideas, she'll be devastated, you know. DEVASTATED.'

I fill the kettle with water. And sigh. I'm sure it will be okay in the end. Things usually are. But why am I feeling more fidgety than before??

Monday, 28 December 2009

What do I do with this?

At Christmas, Andy usually brings home something from work that has been donated as a 'thank-you for taking care of my pet' gesture by a grateful client. So generally I don't bother buying things like extra sweets and biscuits for the festive season because I can be pretty certain Andy will bring one or more of these items home with him from work on Christmas Eve.

And this is what he brought home with him this year.

It's a Pandoro di Verona cake, one of those bready-type things much favoured by our continental cousins. This one is particularly Italian or 'Italienischer Kucken' 'Gateau de Noel', 'Kerstkake', 'Pastel Tipico Italiano' or 'Especialidade Italiana' if you want to eat it in another language. (I could do Greek but it would involve me faffing with the language settings on the blog to get the appropriate alphabet and we all know that will end in tears.)

This thing is about a foot tall and weighs a kilo. It's a substantial cake. It has been lurking in the kitchen for the last few days. Every time we mention it, Pandora comes running, because of the subtle pronunciations they share in their names. We have taken to differentiating them thus as 'Pandora the Kitten' and 'Pandoro the Cake.' Luckily, the cake does not come running when we call for Pandora. However, the use-by date of the cake is June 2010, so Lord knows what preservatives there are therein. And also, I think that something cakey with a shelf-life that long must be so packed with additives it's bound to develop its own life-form at some point.

Anyhow, what to do with the Pandoro? I bought a panettone last year which was delicious toasted and spread with butter, a bit like a tea-cake. I've given the Pandoro a poke (for purely scientific purposes, I hasten to add) and it seems slightly heavier and more spongy in consistency. I am thinking 'trifle'. I am thinking 'gateau.' I am thinking, 'these trousers are already feeling a lot tighter than they did a month ago; do I really need to be eating a kilo of foreign, preservative-packed cake?'

The nutrition values are printed in tiny, tiny writing on the base of the packet. Apparently, 100g of this cake = 409 calories. Which means this whole cake is 4090 calories worth, more once you've added the large packet of 'zucchero di decorazione' supplied with it prior to serving. We are talking about a good two days worth of food here in one enormous bun!

I am now thinking 'New Year's Eve' party, where the pandoro would make a magnificent centrepiece and I could get rid of it in one fell swoop.

Of course, it may taste foul, which would save me a huge amount of hassle and angst.

Suggestions on a postcard, please, to Much Malarkey Manor, Groaning-Under-the Strain, England.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A Much Malarkey Christmas

I fully intended to post a story on Christmas Eve as a present to all who visit the Manor. But events overtook me and the story still languishes in the ether. However, once I can prise Andy away from Wii Fit Plus, I'll get him to add it to the blog for me, so if you're caught in the weird atmosphere between Christmas and New Year with a half hour to spend, you can have something to read.

So what of Christmas 2009? Well, it was good! I set off at 7.30 am on Christmas Eve to collect the goose from the butcher. This year, I placed my order on-line, and paid for it back in November. I got 10% off if I collected it in-store. I also to got choose the size of the goose.

Or so I thought.

Last year I ordered a 5 kg bird in store. When I went to collect and pay for it, I was delivered a 6.5kg bird and had to pay more for it than I bargained for. I thought I'd scupper the butcher this year by ordering a 4.5 kg goose and paying for it upfront.

'I've come to collect my goose,' I said to the butcher. Off he trundled to his cold store. He returned hefting a box that looked way too big for a 4.5 kg goose. Well, that would be because the goose with my name on it was 7 kg!
'I've already paid for it,' I said, thinking there was no way I was forking out an extra £25 for something considerably bigger than I had ordered.
'I know,' said the butcher. 'Give me your bag and I'll pack it for you.'

Well, a big goose for a smaller price (don't forget my 10% discount!) was bonus news. Perhaps it was the Universe trying to offer some recompense for the extortionate cost of the HIP we'd just forked out for, now the house is no longer on the market. However, I had to get said goose home and then I had to get it in the oven. It was a tight squeeze last year when the bird was half a kilo smaller.

Christmas Eve was spent trying to keep my Mum upright after she'd had a half a glass of red wine on an empty stomach. We played board games after dinner and I have to say that by this point she proved a pretty useless partner for Pictionary. 

Christmas Day. I looked at the goose, and the available roasting tin assortment, and the size of my oven. Have I ever mentioned I loathe my oven with a passion? It was purchased in a panic when we moved here 5 years ago and realised we needed a gas stove, as the available connections for the electric oven we had already were non-existent. Since then, Oven and I have regarded each other with mutual dislike, even more so since the inner door shattered in my hands a few weeks ago.

Anyhow, this goose needed cooking.

'I can go and get the hacksaw,' said Andy, a tad too eagerly I thought.
'No,' I said. 'I'll get it in there somehow.' I felt that as this creature had sacrificed its life for our Christmas lunch, then the least it deserved was to stay in one piece.

So I prepared it, made stuffing, sent up a prayer to the God of Desperate Cooks, levered it into the largest roasting tin I had, and put it in the oven. I closed the door. One goose leg strained against the glass. The neck end balanced precariously over the gas flames at the back.

'Oh well,' I thought. 'As long as I remember to rotate during the next 3 and a half hours, it should be okay.'

And it was! I am very impressed with goose. Far superior, in my mind, to turkey. It looks far more 'Christmassy'. Far more 'real'. If that makes sense.

Lunch lasted 2 hours.  We punctuated it with a couple of games of bingo, courtsey of the bingo crackers, and a game of 'Spot the Intros 1980s' as Andy finds it hilarious I am so good at this game. He is convinced I spent the '80s glued to Radio 1.

And then an evening in front of the telly. Doctor Who was good in that I got to sigh over David Tennant for an hour, and not so good in that its plot was totally incomprehensible, to a non-Doctor Whoeey, at least. Strictly Come Dancing was fab and made me want to learn to dance again. I had a break when the Royle Family was on to do the washing up and have a shower. I do not like the Royle Family, not one jot I do not. Never got the joke, I'm afraid, of watching a fat hairy Northerner living in an armchair belching and bottom burping whilst everyone around him improves their posture by slumping, but it made for a useful interlude to get practical things done.

And now, here we are, in that odd time between Christmas and waiting for 2010. A reflective time for me. A Wii Fit Plus time for Andy. A 'stuffed up with horrendous cold' time for Heather. And Mrs Miggins has started laying again, bless her.

More reflections to come in the next few days. I hope your Christmas was happy, and peaceful, and full of laughter and opportunity, and that your goose (or turkey, or vegetarian option) fitted perfectly in the oven, even if you had to put the boot of gentle persuasion behind it just to make sure.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tybalt the Famous

Tybalt is a modest cat. He is laid back, he is kind, he is friendly once he knows you, and polite if he doesn't. He is tall and handsome, and this morning he pinned Pandora down and gave her ears a jolly good clean.

And now he is FAMOUS!

You may remember back in June that the artist who painted a portrait of Tybalt and his dear departed sister Lily, contacted us to ask if we were agreeable to their images being made into a jigsaw puzzle. Well, of course, we agreed. We're not proud, we'll snatch at any chance of fame, vicarious or otherwise. The portrait man said a jigsaw puzzle company had shown interest in the painting, but couldn't guarantee they would actually use it as a jigsaw. It was all very much a 'project in progress.'

There was a bit of faffing as I had to take the original portrait to a photo studio to be scanned, and then it winged (wanged, wung?) its way to Ireland and then back to England, to a company called The Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company Ltd. And nothing more was heard.

Until Saturday, when Andy got an e-mail from the artist saying he was sending us our complementary jigsaw puzzle!!

And yesterday it arrived!!

It's a very good quality product, which is excellent as Tybalt  is very discerning and wouldn't want to be involved with, or endorse any old tat. It is 'a finely cut wooden jigsaw' featuring 'whimsy pieces' made 'using wood from forests managed on a sustainable yield basis.' And it's 'Made in England', and the pieces are presented in a nice cotton bag inside a high quality box. We are thrilled! Because this is just the kind of product that fits in with the morals and ethics of Much Malarkey Manor. (Can a jigsaw puzzle have morals and ethics? Well, this one does!)

The whimsy pieces are tiny cats!

'Why isn't there a jigsaw with me on it?' asks Pandora.
'Well, because you weren't around when this portrait was painted,' I say. 'Give me back that piece now; you'll make it all soggy licking it like that.'
'What do you mean, I wasn't around,' says Pandora.
'You weren't born,' I say, wondering if now is a good time to discuss eggs and sperm and the miracle of birth.
'But I've been around for YEARS,' says Pandora.
'No, you haven't,' I say. 'And put that other piece of puzzle back, too.'
'I have too,' says Pandora. 'Look, it says so, in Andy's 'Sky At Night' magazine.' And she opens the pages to reveal an article about something called the Twilight Pandora.
'That's not about you,' I say. 'That's to do with stars and the universe.'
'I AM the universe,' says Pandora, importantly, before skidding on the magazine and falling off the table.

I pick her up and wait until she's finished doing that cat lick thing that cats do to show their humans that they meant to do something stupid like fall off a table.

'The Twilight Pandora is the Pandora who wrecks stuff in the kitchen overnight,' says Pandora. 'Like eating flowers and plants and emptying the tea-towel drawer.'
'Oh,' I say. 'I see.'
'And Twilight Pandora is gazzillions of years old and should be on a jigsaw puzzle.'
'Right,' I say.
'You don't believe me, do you?' says Pandora.
'Not wholly,' I say. 'But as it's Christmas and it's going to be difficult for you to accept that Tybalt is famous on a puzzle and you aren't, I'm prepared to meet you half way and call you Twilight Pandora.'

And here are a couple of pictures of the finished product. We're saving it to make tomorrow, when the aged aunts, grannies, and my children and baby bug grand-daughter come for Christmas Eve party-do. Exciting stuff are parties here at the Manor!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Digging' the chickin'

'I'm getting a bit fed up standing under this tree with frozen feet,' says Mrs Miggins, as I battle my way into the South Wing grounds of Cluckinghen Palace for the fourth day to dig the girls out. It is gone 7 a.m, it is dark, it is freezing, and chicken keeping is becoming a bit of a challenging rescue mission each morning.

'Well,' I say, 'you can always try moving about a bit. The snow is gradually melting.'
'Is that what it is?' says Mrs Slocombe, appearing from the pod, dragging a pile of straw behind her. 'I thought it was marshmallow.'

I forget that this is the first decent blob of snow that Mrs Slocombe and Mrs Pumphrey have ever seen. There was a bit of a blob back in February, but nothing like we've had since Friday.

'No, it's snow,' I say. I put out fresh food - layers pellets, lettuce and apple, change their water bowl which manages to freeze over several times during the day, and fill up their pod with fresh straw. 'And will you leave the straw inside the pod please? You are making a right Royal mess by dragging it around like that.'
'But it keeps our toesies warm,' said Mrs Slocombe, kicking the straw around a bit. 'And it also gives us something to do when we're stranded under the tree.'
'You aren't stranded,' I say, 'you can always venture forth a little further than the three foot you've managed over the weekend. Being stranded means not being able to move at all. You're just being lazy. And I've been trying to clear the snow so you can spread out a bit. Trouble is, where do you put it? There's just so much of the stuff.'

'I could tell you where to put it...' begins Mrs Miggins. Snow, it seems, has done nothing to improve her humour.
'That won't be necessary, ' I say, leaning on my shovel for a breather. 'Where's Mrs Pumphrey, by the way?'

'That's a good question,' says Mrs Miggins. 'She was up early this morning, said she was going ski-ing in the North Wing. She said she liked the look of the marshmallow slope.'
'And?' I say, peering towards the North Wing, where the snow was like pizza - deep pan, crisp and even.
'And we can't find her,' says Mrs Miggins. 'I've tried her pager, I've tried yodelling, but she appears to have vanished.'
'Mobile phone?' I say.
'In the pod, on charge,' says Mrs Miggins. 'It's because she's white, you see. She's blending in with the current surroundings.'
'She's camel flahajed,' says Mrs Slocombe, who has now finished flinging straw around. 'Are you sure this isn't marshmallow?'
'Positive,' I say.
'I suppose that explains why it wasn't holding its form over the fire on the toasting fork last night,' sighs Mrs Slocombe. 

'I suppose,' I say, 'that I'm going to have to organise a search party for her.'
'No need,' says Mrs Miggins. 'Tango Pete's already out with his four-wheel drive and his Saint Bernard called Bernard. He'll find Mrs Pumphrey, don't you fret.'

I'm not fretting. Being a chicken keeper in the snow has been very testing on the nerves. Locating a white chicken wearing skis in a snow drift would be the pinnacle of testiness.

I carry on with snow removal duties, Mrs Miggins carries on grumping about cold feet and Mrs Slocombe starts to build a snow cock, now she knows the snow is snow and not marshmallow, which isn't reknowned for its modelling capabilities.

The roar of an engine and the bark of a dog called Bernard interrupts our various activities.

'Did you find her?' I say, as Tango Pete alights from his 4 x 4.
'No,' says Tango Pete. 'Not a sight, not a sound, not a cluck, not a squawk. (I would like to say at this point that the 'squawk' is very difficult to remember how to spell. It gets me every time.)
'Oh,' I say. 'That's very disturbing. Now what do we do?'

We stand in the snow, me and Mrs Miggins, Mrs Slocombe and Tango Pete. Our friend and colleague is missing. This is a calamity. An eerie silence descends. My heart is starting to beat in a panicky sort of way and I'm feeling guilty for feeling narky about the difficulty of my chicken keeping duties these last few days.

And then...


We jump out of our skin and feathers.

'GOT YOU!!' crows Mrs Pumphrey, which is rather alarming. You know the saying - 'A whistling woman and crowing hen is neither good for God nor men.'

'WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?' yells Mrs Miggins. 'WE'VE BEEN WORRIED SICK ABOUT YOU. WELL, ME AND BETTY HAVE; SHE DOESN'T CARE.' And she points an accusing wing in my direction (which is half way up the tree, given the fright I've just endured.)

'I've been here all along,' laughs Mrs Pumphrey.
'Camel flahajed in the snow!' says Mrs Slocombe, who joins in the laughter, because she likes a practical joke.

Anyway, we all have a swig of brandy from Bernard's barrel, even me and I can't stand the stuff, and then we troop into the Manor to toast some proper marshmallows, which is a much drier activity than trying to toast lumps of snow.

Snow - it was the best of times and the worst of times. Or is that another tale altogether??

Sunday, 20 December 2009


So Friday morning we woke to snow. A heavy blanket had descended - flumph - overnight. Everywhere was white and pristine. We were saying things like 'Awww, pretty!' and 'If only it had waited another week and we'd have a white Christmas.' (Like snow keeps an appointment diary - ha!)

By eight a.m, Andy and I were tromping down to the park to do 'stuff in the snow.' Discovery number one was that it is very difficult walking across a park that is covered in 6 inches of snow. As our calves and thighs began to feel the burn, we extended a sympathetic thought to all those Arctic explorers who tromp for hour upon hour upon the frozen wastes. Although, personally, I think anyone who actually chooses to occupy their life in such a way is a snow shoe short of the full ski-gear.

Activities in the park included:
1) running through virgin snow as much as possible, leaving tracks to show we were there first
2) Andy making a snow angel
3) Andy kneeling in the snow to make it look like we were actually thigh deep in the stuff
4) rolling a couple of massive snow balls with which to make a GIANT snow cat
5) photographing wildlife - robins, squirrels, ducks 'n' geese, golden labradors
6) photographing wintery scenes of the trees, lake, fields of the park

(We have many photos; I am going to ask Andy to make a slide show to put on the blog, but he's wrapping my Christmas presents at the moment, and it seems like a mammoth job so I don't want to disturb him just yet.)

Back home, our thoughts turned from funny snow japes to the tricksy problem of getting to London for the Sandi Toksvig/ Ronnie Corbett show we'd booked tickets to see that night. Travel reports said roads out of the town were blocked left, right and centre. Trains were suspended.  What to do? Advice from police was to avoid travelling if possible.

Well, by lunchtime, Southeastern rail network was running a service. Or so they said. So Andy and I wrapped up warm and spent nearly an hour walking to the train station over icy pavements, through muddy slush and piles of snow.

At the almost deserted station, a rail worker took one look at us and said, 'I wouldn't bother if I were you. Even if you get to London, the chances of you getting home this evening are virtually zilch.'
'But the website says you are running a service,' we said, weakly and pathetically.

He looked at us like we were poor, simple fools.

We trudged home, through the ice, slush and snow, feeling despondent, cold, wet, and irritated.

But then HURRAH for the South Bank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall! I thought, I'll call and see if they have a policy for people unable to attend shows due to bad weather conditions. Well, you've got to try, haven't you? Especially when you are on a budget.
And the very nice young man  I spoke to said he would send us a voucher for the value of our wasted tickets (£70), to use at the venue any time in the next year! Bless him!

And Saturday morning, we started all over again. Would we get to Canterbury for the pantomime in the afternoon? With temperatures of  minus 4 overnight, any snow that had started to melt had refrozen. News on local radio was saying that the M20 was closed for 'Operation Stack' because Eurotunnel had frozen, trapping people inside all night. Kent was becoming gridlocked; never mind the 'Garden of England', more like the car park.

Part of the pantomime party - Chris and Leane- arrived on foot as Andy and I were digging the car from the drive. We were going to try travelling. We were going to leave early and hope we could get to Canterbury, find a parking space and be entertained in a giant circus tent by Ade Edmonsen being Captain Hook. The panto was due to start at 2.30 p.m - we set off at 10 a.m.

With me at the driving helm, we skidded out of town on icy roads. I felt entitled to drive like an old granny, because in less than three months I shall be an old granny! We made it onto the hill that leads out of town and up to the motorway. The countryside looked stunning, now bathed in sunshine from clear, blue skies. Up the hill, the snow became less and less. Onto the motorway, the snow became a mere icing sugar sprinkle. Into Canterbury - snow? What snow??

Isn't it weird that in the space of 25 miles one can travel from treacherous snow and ice, to an ordinary winter's day?

Anyway, we had a good day, Andy, me and the kids. Of course, arriving 3 and a half hours early (because the journey took us no longer really than it normally does), we had plenty of time for a bit of extra Christmas shopping, a mooch around the Christmas market to admire the enormous German sausages, and a spot of lunch. The pantomime was entertaining, we got home in time for the Strictly Come Dancing Final and Chris and Ola (our favourites) won!! Hurrah!!

We decided to have an Indian takeaway for dinner. It took Andy and Chris over an hour to travel the 5 minutes back into town, locate a takeaway that was open, skid around the car park and get back home. So the home town is still icy and jammed.

More snow over night. It still looks pretty in the park. Temperatures still in the minuses.  Thank goodness for central heating. Roads still awful. Thank goodness for furry walking boots and a well-padded derriere.

And perhaps we'll have a white Christmas after all.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

One Marble Down, How Many To Go?

Yesterday, whilst preparing tea and toast for breakfast, I put a teabag in the toaster. My Auntie Pollie was thrilled when I told her; she said it's always reassuring when someone much younger than her shows signs of losing their marbles, too.

Which brought me to wondering, how many marbles does one actually have, and once one starts losing them, what is the average drop-off rate? How long can I expect to maintain my sanity.

'It depends,' says Gonzo. He is sitting atop the Christmas tree, respendent in his new frock glory.
'On what?' I say.
'Well, species, maturity, holes in your marble bag, your base line for assessing insanity,' he continues.
'Do carry on,' I say. After all, I've nothing better to do for an hour or so, than listen to the wise philospohy of a Muppet in a fairy get-up.
'For instance,' says Gonzo, ' is there any incidence of insanity in your family?'
I lie back on the couch and clasp my fingers together. 'Well, my maternal grandmother thought there was a man who lived behind the chimney pots on the house across the road from hers,' I say.
'Was this the grandmother who was partial to sherry?' asks Gonzo.
'Yes,' I say.

'Then she wasn't mad,' says Gonzo. 'Just pickled.'
'And my Dad's brother went a bit funny with a full moon,' I say.
'Oh, I do that,' says Gonzo, airily. 'It's the pull of the water distorting the brain cells. Nothing to worry about there, and certainly not a sign of insanity.'
'Whew!' I say, because being a Scorpio and a water sign, I've often had my concerns re: a full moon.'

Gonzo pauses for a while and uses his wand to clear some wax from his ear. (I'm so sorry - I've no idea why I wrote that; it was gross, as they say in America, and I apologise. I think it's because I'm allowing myself some freedom from my inner censor at the moment.)

'I think you're at a relatively low risk from mental decline, ' Gonzo continues. 'And besides, from my observations of you, your activities appear quite, quite normal.'
'Good,' I say. It's always nice to be told one is within the bounds of normal human behaviour.
'Although I did think you were losing the plot slightly when you tried to make me look like Ann Boleyn,' says Gonzo.
'Oh, here we go,' I say. 'I knew you'd bring this up. It was just a few seed pearls, that's all. I thought they would add a bit of class to your outfit.'
'Tinsel is the only way to go at Christmas,' says Gonzo.
'Don't you think there is such a thing as too much tinsel?' I say.
'No,' says Gnozo, 'and please make an effort to spell my name correctly.'

The problem occured, you see, when I decided to re-style Gonzo's fairy outfit. I thought he was too glittery. I thought sophistication should be the order of the day for the MMM Xmas Atmos '09. I was thinking maribou feather, I was thinking purple chiffon ribbon, I was thinking Dita von Teese.

Gonzo, however, was thinking explosion in a tinsel factory.

'But a maribou feather bolero is classy,' I said, once I'd wrestled him from his knitted tank top 'n' tinsel combo he'd worn for the last 3 Christmases.
'I want my tinsel back,' he said. We had a bit of a fight, which I won because I am big and human and he is a small stuffed Muppet. But I did concede to tinsel cuffs. You see, I'm not totally unbending to the wishes of others.

The second area of tinsel attire that needed addressing was his halo.
'I'm going to make you a crown instead,' I said. 'I think passing you off as an angel with a halo is pushing it. don't you?'

And this is where the seed pearls came into play. And yes, okay, once I'd faffed about with jeweller's wire and double sided tape and these bloomin' pearls that pinged and zipped everywhere, the tinsel option was looking very appealing. But I'm dogmatic, aren't I? Once I decide to do something my way, there is no negotiation, because I KNOW BEST!!

'I look like Ann Boleyn,' said Gonzo, peering at himself in the mirror.
'You do not,' I said. 'Ann Boleyn was a pale English rose. You are blue.'
'What if Henry tries to chop off my head,' said Gonzo. 'He's a very jealous king, you know.'
'He's been dead for more than 400 years,' I said.
'And chopper happy, too,' said Gonzo, who was looking quite pale now. 'Chop, chop, chop; hack, slash, hack. My life could be in danger because of this seed pearl crown. Henry might see it as a gift from a secret admirer.'
'Stop it,' I said.
'Heeeellllpppppppp meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,' screeched Gonzo.

So I eventually capitulated and made him a tinsel crown.

Here's a picture. You be the judge.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Much Malarkey Manor Guide to Putting Up Christmas Decorations

Christmas Decorating Your Manor

You will need:
Two boxes of decorations accumulated over 25 years or however long it has been since you started 'doing your own Christmas.'
A Christmas tree - real
A Christmas tree - artificial
Several sets of lights, working or otherwise
Hammer and nails
A step ladder
An icy drive/pathway
A kitten
A chocolate snowman like the one left on your pillow this morning by your hubbie before he set off for Cheshire on a course

1) Decide to surprise hubbie by putting up decorations whilst he is away on his course, (something yukky to do with cats and their urinary tracts) so he will return to a veritable winter wonderland surprise of twinkly lights, tinsel, bells and trees

2) Sit on sofa and untangle many sets of lights. You will have needed to prepare carefully for this activity  last Christmas by forgetting your plan to wind light sets carefully around bits of cardboard to prevent them tangling and getting so fed up with Christmas mess that you grab the lights and shovel them back into box willy-nilly, giving them 11 and a half months to tangle themselves. Start untangling process by jiggling in a random fashion. This will not work, but optimists have to try, just in case it does.

3) First set of lights untangled will fail to work. Bin these immediately to prevent you repeating the process next year. Pick up next set and untangle. At around set 4 or 5, you will get fed up with bl***y lights. It is perfectly okay at this point to find a displacement activity like cleaning out chickens, or making a cuppa and listening to Jeremy Vine on the radio.

4) Give remaining lights to daughter to sort out. She's had more sleep than you and besides, she needs to earn her keep some how.

5) Go into garden to retrieve real tree. Defrost tree holder that hubbie left in garden, that then became filled with water from all the rain we've been treated to, then froze into a solid lump last night when we had the first really big frost of the year. Bash tree holder repeatedly on patio to attract chicken interest. Give chickens a lettuce to stop them staring at you like you're mad.

6) Wrestle tree indoors. Forget that pine sap brings you out in a rash, and wear a short sleeved cardi for this activity. Get fed up of trying to wedge tree in holder so it doesn't wobble and fall over. Get distracted into going outside to front of house and putting up twinkly icicle lights.

7) Balance step ladder on very icy pathway, climb step ladder, start bashing random nails into weatherboard. You won't know what you're doing, really, but it looks and sounds good, so is bound to work. Stop and talk to neighbour across the road. Move step ladder, bang in more nails. Hook up lights as you go. Think, 'these had better bloomin' well work; perhaps I should have tested them first.' Talk to man who has come to take away the 'For Sale' board from your front garden, about the appalling state of the housing market and how some buyers really muck you about. Bang in more nails. Wobble on step-ladder a bit. Talk to next door neighbour about how nice it is to see sunshine and heavy frost instead of rain. Finish hanging lights. Step back and feel a bit smug, especially when you switch them on and they look a bit fab.

8) Go back indoors. Remove shoe cupboard from front hall in order to replace with artificial tree. Hoover and dust space left by shoe cupboard. Struggle to get storage case containing tree from the loft without falling through the hatch and breaking a limb or three. Open case. Remove a billion branches. Think, 'where's the stand?' Return to loft. Move entire contents of loft from one side to other in search of artificial tree stand, all the while muttering 'it should be in the case with the rest of the tree. Why isn't it in the case with the rest of the tree?' Find stray Christmas tree bauble by standing on it in bare feet. Fail to find tree stand. Descend from loft. Remove entire contents from cupboard under the stairs in case stand got put there last year for some odd reason. Get narky. Place tree back in case, and daughter in loft ready to receive the case when you push it back up ladder through hatch on your shoulders. Know that when hubbie returns from course he will produce the missing stand in three seconds flat. Put shoe stand back in hall.

9) Move table with telly on it further into room. Put telly on smaller table in corner of room. Place real tree on top of first table and ram hard against wall so it doesn't fall over. Put lights on tree. Remove kitten from tree. Place tinsel on tree. Remove kitten from tree. Place bead strings on tree. Remove kitten from tree. Hang selection of jingle bells on tree. Remove jingle bell from kitten's mouth. Remove kitten from tree. Retrieve various bells from around the house where they have been stolen and strategically hidden by kitten in jolly kitten Christmas japes.

10) By now, any thought of tasteful decoration will be far from your mind. Free expression is called for now. Fling tinsel, lights, wreathes etc around in loose fashion to achieve the 'relaxed' look.

11) Remove kitten from tree. Remove bell from kitten's mouth.

12) Switch on all lights. Sit on sofa. Eat chocolate snowman. Think, 'Isn't Christmas great?!'

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ladies Things

Those of you of a gentlemanly persuasion may want to avert your gaze now, as today I shall mostly be talking about 'ladies things.'

Oh blimey girls, are you at the hot flush age yet?? I am. A tad early maybe, but mid-forty menopause is the order of the day in my family, and actually I'm not that sad, because certain parts of my anatomy have been surplus to requirements for ages now, having completed my family over 20 years ago, and to be honest I could do without the faff. In the last couple of years, certain changes have been occurring, and the summer before last I went to my GP to get a blood test to find out just how empty the hormone bank was becoming.

'You're too young for all that,' said Dr Chuckles, when I told him the reason for my rare visit. (Dr Chuckles isn't his real name, but a close approximation of the pronunciation of his true surname which, although he is English, sounds Polish in origin. Far too many consonants, not enough vowels please Carole.)
'But I'll test you for your cholesterol level, and whilst I'm in the vein, syphon off another vial full to check your hormone levels.'

A week later I called the surgery for the results.
'Your cholesterol level is fine,' said the Receptionist, 'especially as it was a non-fasting sample.'
'Good,' I said, because even if it wasn't, I'm not giving up butter for anyone. 'What about my hormone test?'
'Inconclusive,' she said.
'What's that supposed to mean?' I said.
'Well,' said the Receptionist, who clearly ought to be a doctor because she seemed to know a lot about these things, 'some are up, some are down, so you might be menopausal, but then again, you might not.'
'Great,' I said. 'That's really helpful.'
'Doctor would like you to collect a prescription for iron tablets,' she added. 'Because you might be a little bit borderline partially anaemic.'

At this point I was overcome with vagueness - the test results, not personally. I thought, I'm not taking iron tablets, they send my bowels to sleep. I'll eat an extra pork chop a week or something instead.

But this last few months, the hot flushes have been increasing. I wake in the middle of the night roasting at 200 degrees C, fling off the duvet, steam for a while, and then get overcome with freezing cold. And two days ago, when I was perusing the chocolate moulds in Lakelands, I thought someone had set fire to my trousers, because I suddenly got very hot, very quickly from the knees up. Either that or I had a close call of the spontaneous combustion kind.

Also, I've been experiencing irrational mood swings. Now, I know I can be irrational, only I prefer to call it 'abstract' because I am an writer and artiste, but occasionally, and for no apparent reason, like I've banged my foot on a door post, or got a Pandora kitten claw stuck in my hand, I'll feel a deep sense of impending doom and burst into tears. Luckily, this hasn't happened in public, as I don't want to making an exhibition of myself, but it's been a weird experience nonetheless. I thought it could be related to all the rejection slips I've been getting or maybe worries about money. But it could be dwindling hormones, flinging me back into stroppy teenage mode. Not that I remember being a stroppy teenage - well, it wasn't allowed back in my day.

So I purchased a book about the menopause just to investigate the growing number of symptoms I've been experiencing and prepare myself for what was to come. Ye Gods, that was the wrong thing to do. I think I could be dead within a fortnight, or at least confined to a wheelchair and dribbling into my porridge.

HRT, aches, pains, bone thinning, fat padding, dry bits, saggy bits, mental breakdown, things clogging up, things breaking down - no wonder women of a certain age have been classed as bonkers for so many years, if this is what we have to look forward to.

So I've decided not to play by the book. I shall carry on like I always do and pretend it's happening to someone else and I am but a mere by-stander laughing cynically at one of Mother Nature's less successful jokes. Focus on the new teaching job, the arrival of my grand-daughter and the dream of a publishing contract and a house in the country with a bit of ground for chickens, geese, veg and maybe a pig or a goat or two.

It's a pity no-one has worked out how to harness the heat from a hot flush, though. Is flushing eco-friendly? I am, after all, producing my own heat without the aid of fossil fuels.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Gonzo's New Frock

Well, I've done it. I've actually turned Andy's fabulous Christmas pictures, featuring chickens in famous carols, into Christmas cards. It wasn't so much a creative process, more the adding of Christmas tat in the form of some red and silver sparkly ribbon, some silver snow flakes and a silver star. But it was all very traumatic.

I spent what seemed like hours in a craft shop, mooching around trying to be decisive about how the cards were going to look. It was a miracle I finally decided on a colour theme and stuck to it, despite my predeliction for all things rainbow-like. Up and down the aisles I paced. My biggest hurdle was that there was too much choice. Also, I'd been up in the loft that morning to retrieve the Christmas decorations and decided that Gonzo, our Christmas tree fairy, needed a new frock as the one he's currently wearing is four years old now and looking rather faded and tatty. So I needed to get fabric for that, too.

Gonzo, as you may know if you are an ardent Muppet fan, is blue. Therefore, dressing him in pink is out of the question. I had already decided that I'd stick to white and silver, which always looks nice with blue. But I'd also decided to divest Gonzo of his current trousers and knitted tank top which he was currently wearing 'neath his fairy outfit. They were causing some unsightly bulges, I thought. We were aiming for a more sleek look this year.

Of course, all fairy frocks have skirts made from netting so they stick out all perky, like a tutu. All I wanted was a scrap of white netting. Every colour under the sun was presented to me, but not white. Could I get away with a pale lilac, I thought? Would it make him look 'too cold?' Am I really wasting some of my life standing in a shop agonising over how to make a new dress for a Muppet who sits on top of our Christmas tree every year?

Eventually, after much burrowing in the fabric section where I was glared at by a shop assistant for ruffling her display, I discovered some white tu-tu netting. Phew! Crisis averted. I teamed the netting with some white felt with a silver star motif, and some white maribou feather trim.

Back home, I tried to wrestle Gonzo from his tank top, which was very reluctant to be pulled over his nose. It was, as they say in fashion terms, a snug fit. The trousers proved to be more problematic, as they were actually sewn into Gonzo around his tummy area, so I had to manage a very tricky operation whereby I cut away the tiny stitches holding the trousers on and his tummy together at the same time as resewing his tummy together again to stop all the beans bursting from his innards. I never realised beans were the staple diet of a Muppet, but I guess it explains Gonzo's ability to propel himself across vast spaces, often without the use of a cannon.

Once Gonzo was nude, save for his shoes which weren't coming off for anyone, I set about making his new frock. I was a little surprised to discover that under his trousers, he was going commando, so I made a long underskirt to cover his nether regions. I toyed with making Muppet pants, but sometimes there ARE more important things to do with one's time.

Skirt completed, I tried various arrangements of maribou feather around his top half, ably assisted by Pandora who thinks playing with a giant furry worm is great larks. I settled on a Playtex bra 'Cross Your Heart' effect, with trailing train. Very nice.

And now all I need to do is make him a new set of wings, wand and halo and he is fit to go.

The cards are ready to be posted. I just hope they don't disintegrate in the post.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Suddenly, I Can't Move For Work

You know how it is. You struggle on as a penniless writer, heating your garrett with a couple of candles and slipping an extra thermal vest 'neath your frilly shirt until you decide that perhaps the four book deal is going to be a little longer in forthcoming than you originally anticipated, so you apply for, and get a new teaching job to ease the financial ruin, and then three more job offers come along straight after.

Or perhaps you don't. But that's what's happened to me.

Back in June I applied to go on a tutor register set up by my local education authority. One to one tutoring of students either during or after school, a very nice hourly rate, thank you very much, leaving me a substantial amount of time to 'Carry On Writing' (ooo-err, Missus). July, nothing happened. August, nothing happened. September, nothing happened. October, nothing happened, so I applied for a teaching job and got it. And then, in the last 4 weeks, now I am going back to work full-time, I have had 3 schools contact me asking if I am available for tutoring.


And also, so successful has been the Adult Ed course I've run for the last eleven weeks, I may well be asked to repeat it in January.

So what, pray tell, is the Universe trying to tell me? That I am a better teacher than I am a writer and if I want to pay off the mortgage more quickly and buy my Nissan Figaro I need to work like stink in proper paid employment and stop writing weirdo abstract prose about chickens? That I am still far too impatient in my nature and if I had waited just another couple of weeks instead of panicking myself back into full-time teaching, I could have a couple of nice part-time tutoring jobs by now and still be a part-time writer?

Or that I can still fit it all in because the more one does, the more one can do? If you get what I mean.

Blowed if I know the answer to this one. And now the house sale has fallen through and we've decided to stay put for the time being, it does feel a little as though I've travelled full circle and ended up back at the starting point of a year and a half ago.

But what I do know is that I still want to be a published writer one day; that I enjoy teaching; that I still want a house in the countryside with a plot of land for chickens and geese and veg growing.

How will it all happen? Indeed, will it all happen? I don't know. But what I have learned is that it's never wise to second guess the Universe, and just be happy to go along for the ride!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Idiot cats/Intelligent cats?

Which are best, dogs or cats? According to today's Daily Rant (I am down to one copy of the Daily Rant per week now, on a Thursday, so my detox programme is going really well!), dogs win by a teent, tiny margin.

Now, I've been a mum to both dogs and cats during my life, so I feel well qualified to comment on the whole dog/cat who's da best issue. I've also mumsied bunnies, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, stick insects, a canary called Brian, a pony, chinchillas, and of course, chickens. But they are not the issue here. What has been addressed in this study is which makes the best pet - a dog or a cat?

The catagories tested were things like traits and skills, bonding, popularity, problem solving, training, usefulness and, would you believe it, eco-friendliness. What the report fails to address are the most important, and to my mind more pertinenet issues regarding poop, demands for food and entertainment from their human companions and anti-social habits like begging for food and opening the fridge and helping themselves to the last bit of trifle.

Cats, according to the report, win on skill, popularity, purring (because dogs can't???), sense of sight, smell and hearing, and eco-friendliness. Apparently, they are not as good as dogs at bonding, ability to understand words, problem solving, ease of training and usefulness.

Well, I beg to differ. And I shall use Phoebe Fat Cat, Tybalt the Tall and Pandora Trumpet Trousers to state my case, m'lud.

All three of our cats are VERY bonded. The number of times I nearly tread on Pandora in a day, for example, because she is always trailing around the house behind me. And if I go out, she tells me off when I come home for leaving her behind. And in the evening, all three know when Andy is due home and will congregate in the hallway about 10 minutes before he arrives, to greet him on his arrival. When my Mum visits, Phoebe will appear for granny hugs and sleep on her lap for the entire visit. And Tybalt is King of Bed Rolling in the morning.

Tybalt also knows which of the tins in the cupboard contain tuna and not, for example, something boring like kidney beans or tomatoes. He is very close to being able to use a tin opener.

Pandora plays fetch. She has also solved the problem of maintaining her centre-of-attention-let's-all-focus-on-Pandora-because-she's-best issues by sitting on top of the telly and threatening to jump onto either the mantlepiece or Terwilliger the fern and wrecking either and/or both in order to make one of us get up and play with her. And Pandora is extremely useful for dusting behind the fridge, as I have mentioned in previous posts.

So personally I think cats are best. The two dogs I've mummied have both required walking, pooper-scooping, brushing, bathing, paw-wiping, rescuing from canals and feeding enormous amounts of food. And whilst I loved them both dearly, my prefered pet is a cat.

Except when they get fixated with bags. Like this...

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Advent Lunchbox

Last year, I thought it would be fun to put a little pressie in Andy's lunchbox for every day he had to work during advent. Andy loves Christmas, and I think he'd secretly like to spend the whole of December at home watching Christmas films, eating sausage rolls and cavorting in the snow making a snowman. Or a rainman, as is the case in Kent these last few weeks. But no Dustin Hoffman. (Stop it Denise, NOW, before you go off at a tangent you are likely to regret.)

So of course, this year, I wanted to repeat the exercise, because it bought much enjoyment last year. And actually, it is quite difficult to track down little interesting gifts that aren't wildly expensive. I've spent a considerable amount of time roaming and faffing around the home town seeking out little advent pressie gems. Not as much faffing as our so called house buyers have been doing, though. In fact, they have faffed so much they have faffed themselves off the planet, and we have removed the house from the market and are staying put. But that's another story for when I'm feeling less fragile about the whole debacle and start believing in God again.

Anyway, so far I have managed to place a little gift in Andy's lunch box every day of work in Advent this year, but this morning I was running out of loot, so had to go on another recce around town. But I've discovered that by going on mini-excursions, shops rotate their stock very quickly, and where you think you may have exhausted one outlet for ideas, if you go back three or four days later, you'll find something new has popped up. The only exception, I find, is BHS, but I'm boycotting them at the mo as I'm getting fed up with being asked if I want a BHS credit card every time I shop there, and then getting the shop assistant cold shoulder when I say 'No thank you.'

So today I picked up three more exciting doo-dahs - well, two exciting doo-dahs and one not so exciting doo-dah, but it's the thought that counts, isn't it?

And Christmas Eve calls for something more extravagant and personal, and I am working on this gift at home. Last year I wrote Andy a special Christmas Story called 'Nearly King Jimbo's Christmas Pudding,' which was well received, especially for someone who doesn't like Christmas pudding. This year, I am working on a gift of a similar ilk and whilst I don't want to spoil the surprise for Andy, it may well have something to do with chickens.

For various reasons, I came to dislike Christmas as I grew older. But since I met Andy, he has ignited in me the excitement for Christmas that I experienced as a child.

And for that special gift, I thank him with all my heart!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Pumpkin Palaver

The chickens eyed me with new suspicion this morning when I presented them with a pumpkin.

'What's this?' asked Mrs Miggins, standing well back in case of explosions.
'It's a pumpkin,' I said, placing the halved squash on the chicken sushi bar (you know, the paving slab where I sacrifice snails in the spring for the girls, to save the pain of them trying to bash them death themselves. My one shot is more humane than their 57, I think.)'I thought you might like it for a change.'
'What on earth gave you that idea?' said Miggins.
'It's orange,' said Mrs Slocombe. 'Shouldn't it be an orange then?'
'Or perhaps it's orange squash,' suggested Mrs Pumphrey.
'I hadn't thought of that,' said Mrs Slocombe. 'We can't have orange squash, it's bad for our teeth.'
'Hens don't have teeth,' I said.
'Wanna bet?' said Mrs Slocombe, baring a magnificent set of pearly whites. 'I inherited them from my great-great-great Dane. He was a dog, you know. On my father's side.'

'Look,' I said. 'It's just that I've read a few chicken blogs and it seems that other chicken keepers have given their chickens a pumpkin to play with and they've quite liked it, that's all.'
'Oh, you want us to play with it?' said Mrs Miggins. 'You should have said.'
'When I say 'play', I mean eat,' I said.
'We could attach handles to it and use it for a space hopper,' said Mrs Pumphrey.
'I could draw a face on it,' added Mrs Slocombe.
'It won't bounce,' I said.
'Won't it?' said Mrs Pumphrey, looking a little comb-fallen.
'We'll that's no good, is it?' said Mrs Miggins. 'Bringing us a space hopper that won't bounce. What kind of chicken enrichment programme are you running here anyway?'

To be honest, I'm not sure. I mean, I try my best. Andy and I have been chicken keepers for more than a year and a half now. Twenty months to be exact, and we like to think we know a fair bit about the craft now, because it is a craft, chicken-keeping. At least, chicken are crafty.

'I'll leave it here and you can do what you like with it,' I said, because sometimes giving up and backing down is the only way with hens. As I returned to the Manor, all three hens appeared to have lost immediate interest in the pumpkin sacrifice and had gone to excavate the compost bin, which is their current favourite project.

But later, as I passed the South Wing of Cluckinghen Palace to visit the greenhouse to reassure myself that it is indeed the Christmas tree ensconced there within, and not, as I keep thinking, a giant hedgehog, I heard the hens chattering about things like pumpkin pie, pumpkin meringue, pumpkin curry, pumpkin and nut bread and other such squashy delicacies.

Sounds like they're planning on eating the pumpkin after all.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Christmas trees and beer barrels

Yesterday, Andy and I got things done. Oh yes, indeedy, we had a most productive morning. Andy dropped me at Sainsbugs to get the weekly shopping whilst he went in search of a pressure barrel for his Christmas beer venture. The Christmas beer is fermenting nicely, with a big frothy head of something or other developing atop it. It is also making the downstairs bathroom smell like a brewery, but I am assured this will be a temporary measure. I rather think that coming from a long line of hop-growers and publicans as I do, with a great-great-great Grandfather who invented Pimms, that I should be more amenable to the brewing and alcohol industry but I'm not. It all smells yuk to me and tastes even more yuk. I am clearly the token tee-totaller in the family. Well, someone had to be.

Still, Andy located his barrel. There is a sticker on the front which reads thus:'During secondary fermentation in the barrel, production of CO2 is unpredictable. This product must not be stored where damage to furnishing or property could occur. Do not store in airing cupboards, lofts, next to radiators, in direct heat or anywhere that extremes of temperatures are likely. Check the tap is screwed tight into the barrel before filling. HAPPY DRINKING!'

I'm still not liking the sound of this pressure barrel malarkey. Especially the 'unpredictable' bit.

'The trouble is,' said Andy, 'that the instructions pretty much preclude most of the storage locations in both the house and the garden.'
'Indeed,' I said. 'It'd best stay in the bath then.'
'And we can always repaint the bathroom should any explosions occur,' said Andy.
'We can,' I said.

Back home, we dropped off the shopping and the barrel, then went straight back out to buy a Christmas tree. We tried somewhere new this year for our Christmas tree hunt, which involved travelling down a country lane which got progressively narrower and wetter until we were driving through what amounted to a narrow stream of watery mud and meeting many four-wheel drive monsters coming the other way.

But the place we found had a gazillion trees from which to choose, along with a nice little gift shop where I found a couple of cute Christmas plates and a proper tapered advent candle so I don't have to keep hacking bits off my current pillar advent candle every evening so the edges can keep up with the wick which is fast disappearing down the centre of the wax.

We faffed around choosing a tree until my arms started to react to the tree sap and go itchy and blotchy. Then we took the tree home, put it in the greenhouse to keep dry, and then it was back out to visit our friend, Jane, who had a chest of drawers to donate to Chris and Leane. We collected the furniture,which just about went in the back of the car, took it over to Chris and Leane's, dropped it off and came home.

And it was barely lunch-time! What dynamism!

Today, we have attempted to make Christmas cards. I have failed abysmally to come up with an appropriate chicken poem for the inside (partly because hens go 'cluck' which can lead to all sorts of rhyming inappropriateness), and Andy has been swearing at his printer a lot which is failing to play ball with his instructions and keeps turning his beautiful drawings into weird modern art daubs which no doubt would go down a bomb at the Tate Modern, but would flummox the receivers of our Christmas greetings.

But we shall strive on, because that's what we do at the Manor. We never give up. Sometimes we should, but we don't. We're stubborn like that.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Brewin' and Freezin'

There are 40 pints of Christmas beer now brewing in their barrel in the downstairs bathroom. As Andy said when he inspected it this morning, 'It looks like one massive pint of Guinness.'

The making of the beer occurred last night and I have to say that the intial brewing stage smelled very pleasant and very Christmassy indeed. I think it was due to the copious use of cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, raisins, black treacle and oranges, and the fact the fermentation progress hadn't started. Anyway, Andy battled on for about an hour in the kitchen accompanied by various bangs and crashes and a certain amount of steam. My assistance was requested only once, when the contents of the preserving pan in which the aforesaid ingredients were being boiled needed straining into the fermentation bucket.

'What happens next?' I said To Andy.
'The brew has to be left for 4 to 6 days to ferment,' said Andy.
'Forty six days?' I said. 'That's never going to be ready in time for Christmas. More like Valentine's Day.'
'I said, four to six days,' said Andy. (Well, I had to get a pun in somewhere, didn't I?)
'Oh,' I said.'And then what?'
'Then it gets put into the pressure barrel,' said Andy.

I'm not liking the sound of a pressure barrel. Sounds too much like pressure cooker. My gran had a pressure cooker which, because she was fearless, she used a lot. But as a child, this piece of equipment used to scare me rigid and visions of my grandparent's house being sent skywards by an exploding pressure cooker frequented my dreams.

'A pressure barrel?' I said. 'Are you sure?'
'Oh yes,' said Andy. 'Definitely a pressure barrel.'

Note to self - line bathroom walls with super-strength and thoroughly absorbent kitchen roll. For I remember what happened with the elderflower champagne experiment earlier this year. You can still see the stains.

My part in the Christmas preparations is, as you can imagine, the gathering and preparation of food. I thought, I'd better defrost the freezer before I go shopping for goodies of the frozen ilk. I don't have a regular timetable for freezer defrostation; it generally happens when I can't slide out the ice cube tray with ease. And since that occurred somewhere back in July, a defrost is well overdue.

In order to defrost the freezer, I have to pull it out from its station 'neath the kitchen worktop to reach the plug and switch it off. As soon as the freezer is removed, this is the cue for the cats, i.e Phoebe the Fat, Tybalt the Tall and Pandora the Downright Nosey, to dive into the space left and get stuck under the kitchen cabinets. They then refuse to come out, and when they eventually do, they are covered in all kinds of under kitchen cabinet detritus which they then proceed to spread around the house.

So this morning I shooed them from the kitchen into the hallway, where they proceeded to sit with their noses pressed against the glass panels, and trying to form a kitty pyramid to reach the handle. Tybalt is actually very good at opening doors by swinging wildly on handles, so I had to work fast.

Freezer out, freezer switched off, freezer pushed back half way to prevent kitty intrusion of dark recesses of kitchen cabinets. Ha! Human overcomes cat!

'What's going on?' shouts Pandora, racing back into the kitchen. She investigates freezer baskets, ice cube trays and tries to get behind the semi-stuck out freezer.
'She's defrosting the freezer,' said Tybalt, who climbed on top of semi-stuck out freezer, then tried to get behind semi-stuck out freezer.

Phoebe remains silent, but immediately tries to get behind semi-stuck out freezer. Pandora diverts her attention from the freezer baskets and gets into freezer. Tybalt and Phoebe join her. I remove cats from freezer and replace with bowl of freshly boiled water to get the defrosting process underway. The freezer is more bunged up than I realised, and given it is a very cold day, this defrosting lark could be a long process.

Cats try to climb back in freezer with bowl of hot water. I remove cats. Cats climb on top of freezer and dangle over the edge, poking at drips that are starting to form as melting gets underway. Cats bat my hand as I scrape away with windscreen scraper meant for cars not freezers. I read somewhere you are supposed to use a spatula to scrape ice from freezers. I tried this method once. It was rubbish. Don't bother.

Cats vacate freezer zone briefly when I start using hair dryer to generate a bit of extra heat before realising the combo of a hairdryer in close proximity to a bowl of hot water is probably an unwise idea. Cats return and start patting water that is collecting in water collection receptacle placed on kitchen floor in front of freezer. Much malarkey ensues as cats continue to help defrost freezer.

But they soon get bored. Phoebe is now sleeping in the first sun we've had for what seems like months, Tybalt is sitting proprietorially on what is known as 'Tybalt's Step' by the telephone and Pandora is I don't know where but it's almost time for elevenses, and as soon as I open the biscuit tin, she'll appear because she is turning into a biscuit pest.

So not only are we Christmas tree shopping this weekend, we are also on the look out for a pressure barrel and food for the freezer.

Christmas Sausage making tonight. Hurrah!!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

My Family and Other Christmases

My family is revving up for Christmas. I know this because Heather is in the kitchen making Christmas biscuits in the shapes of angels, snowmen, holly leaves, bells, Daleks etc, and I have just returned from a yomp into town (in yet MORE rain) at the behest of Andy who requires ingredients for making Christmas sausages and Christmas beer. (Cinnamon sticks, raisins, glucose -1kg, pork shoulder -1kg, eye cream, oops, no, that's for me because I've noticed a couple of creases that won't go away in the morning and although I'm going to be a granny in 3 months' time, I'm not intending to look like one.)

Ah, Christmas beer. Now, in the eight years Andy and I have been together I have only once seen him drink a pint of beer and that was at a wedding reception after he'd been on the wine for most of the evening and if you gave him a pint of puddle water, he probably would have drunk that too. It was odd seeing him drink a pint of beer. He's not a pint-of-beer-in-yer-hand man at all, not in my eyes. But he's decided, on the advice of 'The Home Farmer Magazine for Dreamers and Realists', that Christmas beer is going to be an essential part of Much Malarkey Manor Christmas '09.

The kit that arrived in the post yesterday will make 40 pints of beer. 40 pints?!!?? Please bear in mind that I am teetotal and cannot help Andy out in the consumption of this 40 pints. Besides, my plan for this Christmas involves much fruit cake, a trifle made with jaffa cakes and maltesers, and a variety of novelty cheeses (with biscuits). So Andy's going to be on his own vis a vis the consumption of the 40 pints. Unless Chris helps him. But then Chris is starting a fitness kick because he has decided he is going to apply to join the police force and as yet is unable to run the required distance in the required time in order, presumably, to be able to catch crooks or dash from police car to dough-nut shop whilst waiting at a red traffic light. He isn't far off the mark, but has decided to take up running to improve his bleep test. Apparently.

More sausage kit arrived yesterday, too. After the debacle of the ninety feet of beef intestine from the previous sausage making escapade that proved incompatible with the sausage machine nozzle so languished in the fridge until I crept it into the bin, we have reverted to dried collagen skins, which do fit the nozzle and fold up into nice dry parcels that nestle neatly into a drawer. So we are all ready to make Christmas sausage. I don't know how a Christmas sausage differs from a day-to-day sausage (Holly? Cranberries? Frosty the Snowman?), but I'm sure it'll be interesting finding out.

And it's always fun to write a blog about sausages!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The First Day of Christmas

I'm not actually sure when the first day of Christmas is supposed to be. Is it the 12days before Christmas, leading up to all the poultry, and leaping, dancing, musical people landing on your true love's doormat on 25th December, or is it the 12 days starting with Christmas Day, in which case surely you'd want a turkey in a pear tree (or in the case of here at the Manor, a goose), so you'd have something for dinner? I mean, a partridge isn't going to go very far, is it? And I'm talking a cooked one here, because a raw one in its live and natural state can shift at quite a speed when it wants to, so I've heard.

Anyway, I digress. The reason I ask this, is because I want to know if it ties in with Advent calendars and Advent Candles. Chez nous, we have a candle. When I was growing up, we had a calendar, a proper nativity scene, not one of these chocolate concoctions with the Simpsons spread all over it. No, a proper nativity scene. 24 door. Which, shared between me, my brother and my sister, meant we got to open 8 doors each, and my sister always got to open the big double door in the centre which narked me, even though it was always a star.

But when I grew up and my waistline began to outstrip my height in proportion, I went for the candle option come 1st December. Besides, I like candlelight. It's one of the most magical and symbolic essences in the world. And seeing the candle shrink as we head towards Christmas adds to the atmosphere.

Usually, I purchase our Advent candle from a local garden centre. It is about a foot tall and tapered. You have to keep a close eye on it the first three or four nights because it burns through the numbers quite quickly, but once you get to the 9th or 10th, the burning down to next number can take a good couple of hours.

However, this year I found a pillar candle from a different merchandise outlet (why use a short, snappy word like 'shop' when you can use an irritatingly longer phrase, just to make yourself sound more educated?). And yesterday evening, Heather lit this fat pillar candle to burn it down to number 2.

Three hours later, and that pillar candle was going nowhere. It had just about managed to burn a tiny puddle in its centre. It appears to be one of the most durable Advent candles in the history of whenever.

Today, we set light to the candle at lunchtime, just to give it a head start. And now the candle has burnt a little tunnel down its centre, which means I have to blow it out, and excavate the edge to bring it in line with the hole in the middle. The sides are still the same height they ever were, numero intacta. I tried to encourage the sides to 'collapse', by using a matchstick whilst the candle was still alight and the wax theoretically soft and pliable, but no way was it going to play that game. Solid as a rock, the outside of that candle. Solid and unmoving.

I never have this trouble with my usual tapered candle. Which just goes to show that it is sometimes better to stick with what works well rather than change it for something you think could be better.

And of course, this year is Pandora Kitten's first Christmas! Already she has tried to set fire to herself on the Advent candle and she also helped me on Monday when I did present wrapping. (Mostly by sitting on the wrapping paper, and chasing scissors as they cut.) But it's the interaction with the Christmas tree we are most looking forward to. Kittens and Christmas trees are always a bit of a laugh. In fact, climbing Christmas trees is something they never really grow out of until they get old and fat like Phoebe and scaling a lap is difficult enough, let alone climbing a tree. Tybalt still skits up the tree even though he is nearly 7, which is practically middle aged i.e the cat equivalent of me.

I know what will happen. We'll bring the tree inside, and decorate it and within twenty minutes Pandora will be up the top with Gonzo the Fairy, or removing decorations and leaving them at strategic places around the house, or just flinging herself at it in a wild and destructive fashion and thus implementing many bouts of redecoration.

So far, the first day of Christmas has gone well. Pressies are all bought and wrapped, the goose has been ordered and the candle is being recalcitrant. Tickets have been booked to go and see Sandi Toksvig and Ronnie Corbett at the Royal Festival Hall the week before Christmas, and tickets have also been booked to take the children (aged 23, 21 and 19) to see the pantomime with Adrian Edmonsen as Captain Hook (aarrrrrrrrrrrrh!). Heather is revving herself up to make Christmas biscuits, sausage rolls and mince pies, and I'm scheduled to defrost the freezer on Friday.

Christmas tree shopping this weekend, I think. And card making, too.