Dinner over (roast chicken, roast potatoes, purple broccoli spears from OldEngland & NewEngland’s garden; Elisabeth‘s delicious rhubarb crumble, dark and sweet and unctuous; a good bottle of Montagny; the most recent Stereolab album), we settle down in front of the second episode of the BBC’s new Trollope adaptation, He Knew He Was Right – in which Anna Massey’s magnificent “maiden aunt” character truly comes into her own. You can’t beat a decently constructed bonnet or two on a Sunday night – to say nothing of the chignons, which were incomparable.
Never mind the pollen count; this “hay fever” is starting to feel more like a full-on viral infection. An early, but restless night follows: sleep is fitful, dreams are of the relentlessly frustrating kind (I have a particularly tough time trying to find my seat at a Madonna concert), and my body feels about twice its normal weight. By the time the alarm goes off at 7:30, I feel like an inert lump of aching phlegm. Despite the urgency of the hour, it still takes me ten minutes to get out of bed.
Indeed, we are both slow this morning, not managing to get away until 8:45 (our cut-off time for leaving the cottage is usually 8:30). I still feel dreadful. During the course of the drive back to Nottingham, I cancel today’s dental appointment, and call in sick to work. Today wasn’t going to be especially busy, anyway.
Back in Nottingham, K goes upstairs to work while I flop on the living room sofa with the newspaper and a bunch of music DVDs. The Cesaria Evora concert from April 2001 turns out to be the best choice, its easy, rolling bonhomie somehow chiming in well with my physical and mental fogginess, and lifting my spirits accordingly. A bunch of us will be going to see her in Leicester next month; she may not be the most obviously charismatic of performers, but her band sound fantastic and my anticipation steps up a notch.
K’s business partner S turns up mid-morning; they stay upstairs talking until around 13:30, after which K nips out for sandwiches. We have lunch while watching a recent BBC4 documentary about the competition to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Although the six shortlisted artworks are uniformly dismal, the show’s sharp, irreverent presenter is consistently entertaining, with a perceptive, direct manner, bordering on faux-naivete, which frequently wrong-foots his more smug, self-important interviewees. It also acts as a pleasing counterfoil to the irritatingly uniform (indeed, newly conventional) faux-naivete of many of the shortlisted artists; how bored I have become of their Being There style of monosyllabic vapidity.
As the afternoon wears on, malaise sets in; I’m tired of music, tired of reading, tired of telly, and start flicking disconsolately through the channels. A variant on Changing Rooms entitled Sixty Minute Makeover amuses for a while; at least it makes no mental demands, and the sight of other people stressing up under ludicrous deadlines is oddly relaxing, even if it has all been staged for the cameras. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby fail to deliver – some “screwball” comedies date better than others – and before too long I have bottomed out, surfing backwards and forwards through the music channels. The new Faithless single (Mass Destruction) is a trite disappointment, which tries too hard to be topical and merely ends up spouting easy platitudes; to think that six years ago, they were my favourite band. The awfulness of the current Number One, Eamon’s F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back) is surpassed only by the “answer record”, Frankee’s F.U.R.B. – F U Right Back. The aural equivalent of Trisha, marketed mainly at sniggering pubescents (“tee-hee, they said f**k“), these two records threaten to bring out the latent Daily Mail reader in me (has popular culture come to this?).
I reach for the Off button, heave myself off the sofa, and shuffle off to prune the geraniums in the conservatory before my mother gets here. A highly organised woman with an efficiently well-regulated lifestyle, my mother’s exacting standards can sometimes feel a little intimidating, her visits requiring all the preparation of a tour of inspection by a member of the royal family. Like the royals, she would never actually be so rude as to actually pass comment on our domestic shortcomings; her manners are never anything less than impeccable. However, the slight flicker in the corner of her eyes, and the slight downward twitching of her mouth, would tell us all we needed to know. To give us only a day’s notice of her arrival is most unlike her. This evening, she is simply going to have to take us as she finds us.
Of course, I know full well that this is a form of cosmic payback for the perfect weekend which has just passed. As the heavens open outside, I heave a heavy sigh and soothe myself with happy images of budding tulips in the PDMG. Be brave, my little angels! We’ll be back amongst you tomorrow evening!
Back in the garden with The Observer, my concentration repeatedly lapses, as I find myself gazing in wonder at the tulips. “Have you ever seen plants look so happy?” asks K skittishly; grubby and blackened, he has spent the past hour or so polishing his black Alfa Spider with T-Cut, and generally smartening it up for sale. Having an open-top weekend run-around has been fun at times, but now we have the garden and the cottage is furnished, we find ourselves spending much less time in the car than before. The clearest argument for sale is the car’s mileage: just 4300 miles in three years. Besides, we could do with the extra space in the garage. The Alfa is now sitting outside on the lane, looking gleaming, immaculate, and box-fresh. K admits to experiencing a mild twinge of regret, but it is a mild twinge only.
K puts on the Omara Portuondo CD (we’re seeing her at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday), and fixes us lunch: ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, with plenty of black pepper and some mayonnaise. He is unsure about the addition of the mayonnaise, and wonders whether it might have been a flavour too far; my reply is that it adds a pleasing degree of moisture and creaminess. Beer for him; a pineapple, mango & lime smoothie for me.
Slam has rung about the sofa & footstool which he is buying off us; we arrange for him to come over to Nottingham on Friday to pick it up. NewEngland rings next; there are dozens of vintage tractors parked outside the village pub, and we should come and take a look.
We stroll down to OldEngland and NewEngland’s place, and from there to the pub. All around the pub, around forty vintage tractors are parked up, while their owners have lunch inside. Starting out from Hartington this morning, they have been touring the local villages in convoy – Wetton, Ilam, Alstonefield – and will be returning to Hartington after lunch. The tractors look magnificent; K calls them “Thomas the Tank Engine” tractors, and they certainly do look as if they have emerged from the pages of a 1940s children’s story book. A good half of them are phone-box red, or of a reddish orange hue, with David Brown and Nuffield as easily the most popular manufacturers. As a former seller of Britains toy tractors myself (at Hamleys toy store on Regent Street, 24 years ago), I cast an interested eye over the details. Much smaller than today’s models, almost none have cabs attached; instead, the drivers straddle the central chassis, often placing their feet into metal stirrups.
As the convoy begins to set off, so the four of us, drinks in hand, scamper down to the village green for the best view of the procession. It is a spectacular sight, as the vehicles slowly snake past us, on towards the Spar shop, and out of the village on their way back up to the Buxton road. Who says nothing ever happens in villages?
We sit for a while longer on a low wall by the duck pond, finishing our drinks as we watch the ducks squabble, preen and mate. A passing rambler asks us the time; none of us are wearing watches and none are carrying mobiles, but OldEngland says that judging by the sun in the sky, it must be about twenty past three. The rambler looks mildly astonished, as we in turn feel like complete yokels, clearly having no need of such new-fangled instruments as time-pieces.
Down to the village shop, to return last night’s video (Lantana – serious, well-acted and worthy, but a bit lacking in action; K fell asleep, and I struggled to keep awake). We also pick up various ingredients for this evening’s rhubarb crumble. Sorting through a drawer yesterday, I had come across Elisabeth‘s hand-written recipe for “the best rhubarb crumble ever”, which she had inserted into our Xmas card. A couple of hours later, and without knowing anything about the recipe, OldEngland and NewEngland had then spontaneously offered us some of the rhubarb from the bottom of their garden; clearly, the time was right.
Returning to the cottage, we excitedly discover that another tulip had opened – the first of its particular batch. The long, slender, pointed bulb – originally a deep mauve on the outside – reveal unexpected bright reds and yellows within, sending us into another ecstatic swoon.
As K weeds, I apply wax polish to the statue, buffing it up and leaving it looking darker and shinier. As my duster reaches up the crack of her backside, K passes by with a cheeky holler: “Ooh, kind SIR!” The tits buff up nicely, too. Such uncommon intimacy with the female form, and in such a public place besides! Performing the same task six months earlier, K had felt decidedly self-conscious about this; I, on the other hand, feel positively brazen in my shamelessness.
A call from my Mother, who will be in Nottingham this week on a residential study course, staying in a hotel on the edge of the city. We arrange for her to come and stay tomorrow night, as it will be our only opportunity to meet.
As the Phoenix album (Alphabetical) and the new Prince album (Musicology) play, K makes the crumble as I tap into the laptop on the kitchen table, sneezing explosively every few minutes – the tree pollen is reported to be high today, and I have been steadily suffering as the day has progressed. Hay fever normally passes me by, so today’s levels must be exceptional. It is the only slight blight on what has otherwise been an idyllic day. Sometimes, I bloody love my life.
Up at 9:30, to a glorious morning: sunshine, warmth and birdsong. Today’s outfit: brown & yellow striped button-down Etro shirt (bought in Milan airport last December), Yohji Yamamoto belt (Pollyanna in Barnsley, the December before that), Diesel jeans (Boston, Spring 2001), stripey Paul Smith socks, slippers.
(Never you mind what pants I’m wearing; BdJ this ain’t.)
While K walks down to the village shop, I load up a tray and take it out to the PDMG; this will be our first al fresco breakfast of the year. The kitchen still whiffs a bit of chip fat from the night before, so I open all the windows on both floors, letting the freshness and the birdsong waft in.
· Preliminary Yakult (for those all-important “friendly bacteria”)
· Glass of Tropicana Sanguinello 100% Pure Squeezed Red Orange Juice (blood red; full, concentrated flavour)
· Cod liver oil capsule (for supple joints)
· Boiled egg
· Half a slice of buttered brown wholemeal toast, spread very thinly with Gentleman’s Relish (a habit picked up from my late maternal grandfather; the saltiness of the anchovy paste marries well with the taste of the egg)
· Half a slice of toast, spread with Tiptree Medium Cut Marmalade (our favourite, by some distance)
· The other half slice of toast is intended for Blue Witch‘s marvellous home-grown honey, but I have no more room; as breakfast time is the only time of day where I have next to no appetite, it would be unwise to force the issue.
· Two cups of Twinings English Breakfast tea.
· Cream-coloured Wedgewood “Queensware” crockery; slight seconds, bought dirt cheap from the factory shop when we moved into the cottage.
· The Observer’s Music Monthly magazine, which leaves me feeling rather more favourably disposed to the prospect of The Streets’ new album, despite the disappointment of the one-dimensional Fit But You Know It.
As breakfast is being prepared, K receives a text from Mark, one of the other interviewees in yesterday’s “gay marriage” piece in the Nottingham Evening Post:
If money is an issue we will go halves on the turtle doves with you! x
I suggest a reply:
And maybe we can negotiate a bulk discount on the white suits?
After breakfast, we move up to the bench at the top of the garden; sheltered in a corner by the wattle hurdles and the lilac tree, it’s a real sun trap, and noticeably hotter than the breakfast table. Some more of the deep red tulips have opened up overnight; it has been our first attempt at planting bulbs, so we are endlessly fascinated by the developing results. Some of the other tulips have been gradually opening themselves wider during breakfast, as the sunlight hits them; we are particularly pleased with the pale lilac bulbs which open right out to reveal a custard yellow inside. We have brought the digicam over to get some snaps, but the re-chargeable batteries have run down, and it is objecting to Duracells. No matter; we’ll be back on Tuesday evening, when things should be looking even better. This is the first weekend when the garden has truly come back into its own; plants are shooting up all over the place, and – aside from the odd misplanted bulb (the bulging geraniums already engulfing some of the tulips, for example) – everything is looking great.
Halfway up the wattle hurdles, K spots three snails, and quickly seizes them. We cannot understand why the snails seem so fond of climbing so high, away from anything which they might fancy eating. I speculate that they might be scoping out the landscape below, like birds of prey, ready to swoop and snatch. We laugh.
K chucks two of the snails into the middle of the road, but sets another one upside down on a stone slab in front of him. He wants to see whether the snail is able to flip itself back over again, or whether it will be left helplessly stuck, marooned on the slab until the birds find it and peck it to bits. I comment with amusement on the slightly ghoulish relish with which he is approaching the experiment. Two or three minutes later, the snail heroically flips itself back upright – at which point K snatches it up and hurls it out into the street to join the others. At this point, I actually feel genuine pangs of sympathy for the snail.
Down below, a car passes by; K waves cheerily at the driver, as is his wont. (He also does this while walking down the village street. A cheery wave here, and a cheery wave there. I have started calling him Noddy.) As it disappears, he wanders down and peers over the wall, playing up to his role of Evil Experimental Scientist. “Oh good; one of the snails has already been crushed.” I duly feign horror.
A soak in the bath; I have used Molton Brown’s Rejuvenating Arctic Birch for the foam, and am soaping myself down with their Vitalising Vitamin AB+C. As I stand up and apply the buff-puff to my bits, I can see, through the open skylight, two figures walking on the far hill, about half a mile away. If they had binoculars trained this way, they would be able to spy on me soaping my nether regions. Undeterred, I soap them some more, somewhat tickled by the exhibitionistic possibilities.
Amongst the numerous contradictions that have helped shape me into the fascinatingly complex individual that I am today, (and God, this ironic self-aggrandisement is going to have to stop some time soon, lest the wind should change direction and leave me stuck that way) my attitude to social cliques is a prime example. Rationally speaking, I retain a strong dislike for cliques: the insularity, the exclusivity, the unhealthily inward focus. Nevertheless, I am also the sort of person who has always been naturally drawn towards them, and into them. For there are aspects of cliquedom which attract as well as repel: the security, the dependability, the easy, instant support network – and, if I am honest, their essentially self-referential nature. I like the “insider knowledge” that membership of a clique confers – and I love the knowing, sharp banter which flows from that. Mine is a sense of humour which thrives on the delicious naughtiness of the in-joke; I delight in operating just within the boundaries of what constitutes good-natured teasing, safe in the knowledge that offence will not be caused.
Thus it is that over the years, I have found myself right at the heart of many a social clique. In my first year at University, our clique of maybe a dozen or so in residence hall was so flagrantly close-knit that we referred to ourselves quite openly as “The Clique”, and were happy to be known as such by everyone else. I’ve been in school cliques, office cliques, gay cliques (of various hues), neighbourhood cliques, clubbing cliques, pub cliques, house-share cliques… the lot. And for a while, they’re usually great places to be.
Until – inevitably – they start to disintegrate. A key member of the clique moves away – or changes job – or meets a new partner with a different set of friends, who doesn’t quite “fit in”. Or maybe they just bore of the repetition, and so start to move in wider circles. The pub changes hands; the club shuts down; the department is re-organised. Or, worse still, a feud breaks out between two or more of the clique members. Sides are drawn. Allies are recruited. This person and that person can no longer stand to be in the same room together. Suddenly, the illusion of permanence – that we will always be together, friends forever – is cracked, revealing the underlying, uncomfortable truth: that these arrangements are always temporary.
The ground is pulled from under your feet. You had come to rely on these people. Their constant presence had saved you from having to make conscious decisions about who you saw, where you went, and what you talked about. You feel uneasy, insecure – and, if you’re not careful – resentful, wounded, jealous, spiteful. The open banter freezes into covert bitchiness. The aggrieved muttering and finger-pointing begins. It’s all his fault, or her fault, or their fault. We thought you cared. You’ve spoilt everything. You were a false friend; you strung us along, and we never realised.
In these situations, closeness can turn to distance in an instant. Too late, you discover that with some people, it’s all or nothing. From gossipy huddles three times a week down the pub, to strained smiles and awkward small talk three times a year; in the street, in the supermarket, at someone else’s summer barbecue. It hurts. You can’t quite understand how everything changed so rapidly. You replay events and conversations over and over again in your mind, trying to find an answer, wondering what you did wrong.
Shows like Friends perpetuate a myth; the myth of the permanently inseparable gang. Yes, individual friendships can and do last – for years, for decades – but without need of the supporting structure of a clique to keep them alive.
These days, I retain a careful wariness of cliques. I will happily hover at the edges – picking up some of the banter, joining in some of the activities – but I will stop well short of total immersion. And yes, that applies online as much as offline. What’s more; I have discovered that I actively like the independence that this brings. More choices, more variety, more control. More interest. More scope.
“Darling! You’re looking as fabulous as ever tonight! Mwah! Mwah! Big hug! Now tell me all the latest gossip!” Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t be seduced by the illusion, however glittering and flattering it may be.