Friday, 28 November 2008

Toilet humour

The new girl is settling in at last. But the council offices still feel like the Death Star. I expect to see Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader having a fight over the central staircase at any minute. I keep having these visions of black-suited corporate types turning into stormtroopers.
Two things made me smile:
One, a male colleague went to the loo and saw a chap rather ungainly drying the crotch of his trousers with the hand drier. A quick explanation apparently followed, but the suspicion is perhaps this is how this man gets his kicks.
Two, an illicit mobile phone conversation going on in the loo cubicle next to me. The lady was trying to be all lovey-dovey. And then I pulled the flush and her secret location was revealed.
Toilet humour, you can't beat it.
Meanwhile, back in the rural idyll, the Aga has gone out again - blown out by the wind - and Mr Grigg has been asked to read a lesson at the carol service. He is highly honoured, although I got in first last year. It all went well until I reached the point where I had to say 'I am a virgin'. I could see several of my neighbours doubled up with laughter in the pews and then I promptly lost my place.
The house is cold but the sky is bright and a weekend with friends, a ball and Christmas shopping beckons.
That's about it
Love Maddie x

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Curiouser and curiouser

Last night, the hall was heaving as villagers left their warm homes on a chilly night to take part in the annual quiz. There were about 90 people there and I am pleased to say our team members excelled themselves and came second. I was personally very proud to have remembered that Malawi was once Nyassaland. I don't think I spelled it right, but there were no extra points for spelling, which was good news.

The winners were a team who should have been called the Smart Arses. A serious lot from the next village, they won it two years ago. But we had been led to believe they would never be back as a protest against the quality of the wine dished out as prizes. But came they did, bold as brass, and they disputed several answers (they were actually correct on one but the adjudicator wasn't having any of it) and when presented with their bottles, very swiftly took them out of the bags to examine the labels. We should have mugged them really on the way out.

We managed to make the food stretch to feed the assembled throng by adding more water to the sausage and bean casserole. The preserving pan became like the magic porridge pot. Very delicious but I swear there were times this morning when the village was about two inches off the ground through all that collective wind released as people went to get the Mail on Sunday.
After the quiz, Mr Grigg and our friend Nobby decided to loiter around Mr St John's house, as he was entertaining a lesbian couple to dinner. Mr Grigg and Nobby came back and reported they couldn't see much through the small window which was fairly high up. But they could see dinner was over and Mr St John and his guests were playing Scrabble. What a disappointment. I think Mr Grigg hoped it would be naked Twister at the very least.

However, not content with peering in from Mr St John's rear windows once, they returned with a broom stick on which perched a scarecrow's paper mache head wearing a panama hat. We all have scarecrows of various states in our garages (this could be the twin village to the one in the Wicker Man, believe me) and this one was pretty scary. After breaking through the security lights of Mr St John and his neighbour, Mr Grigg and Nobby gave a puppet show of sorts with the scarecrow and the window before being spotted by one of the lesbians who shrieked out in horror and then invited them in for a nightcap

Whether the scarecrow on the broomstick was spotted by anyone else, I'm not sure.

That's about it,
Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

There ain't nobody here but us chickens

A looming tax bill has prompted me to sell my soul to the local council. Yesterday, I started working for the council three days a week, temporarily you understand, and I feel like a battery hen. I always wondered why the caged bird sings and it's probably out of frustration. My own singing is taking the form of cursing loudly every time the word 'engagement' jumps out at me from a document on a computer screen, or, even worse, when I hear it spoken with a straight face. At the moment, I am the new girl but I am beginning to understand why every person with whom I attempt to 'engage' in the kitchen or lavatory is either leaving or has just joined.
I do so miss my rural idyll. Simple things like taking the dogs out in the morning light rather than stumbling around fields as I fall over leads before the sun comes up. Chatting to my neighbours, hearing a robin warbling in the tree and making endless cups of tea and reorganising the laundry basket as I put off my next work-related task.
For three days a week, after donning my Marks & Spencer office 'uniform' of black, easy care trousers and a sensible sweater (with a brightly coloured top peeking out just to show I am a quiet rebel), I will get in my car and head for the office, some 40 minutes away. I will listen inanely to Radio 2, flick over to more serious stuff on Radio 4 and then get fed up with the line of questioning and mealy-mouthed responses. I will try Radio Local because the jingles always make me laugh. And then I will venture into Radio 1 territory but will get out quick in case I have a crash and the paramedics wonder who the hell this 47-year-old thinks she is, listening to such rubbish. At least I am wearing clean and matching underwear.
Once I get to my destination, I will be unable to find anywhere to park and will drive around and around until I am almost back home. Well, not quite, but it will feel like it. I will finally find a space outside someone's house, clip clop into town in the most ridiculous boots I have never worn, forge ahead across the crossings and walk into the office. Along the cold corridors, other battery hens will be heading for their bunkers, doors closing as they reach their daily sanctuary, emerging like Pavlov's dogs every time the tea trolley bell rings.
I will open the door but no-one will look up. I will instantly feel guilty for arriving 10 minutes after 8.30, even though I am a freelance and do not have to clock in. I will begin some incoherent ramble about being stuck behind a tractor and babble on for ages trying to justify myself before I will realise no-one is taking the slightest bit of notice. I will take off my invisibility cloak, put it on the back of my chair and log in.
How I long for the days of Russell's crow, cockadoodledooing across the valley. Cluck cluck!
That's about it
Love Maddie x

Monday, 17 November 2008

Silence of the Lambs

As Russell's crow goes cockadoodle-doo across the valley, trying to outdo the one belonging to the Lady with the Bright Red Hair, we are still no nearer to unmasking the bacon thief. Gypsy Rose has not been seen for a while now, and suspicion falls on anyone looking slightly bigger than they did when they last went in the shop. The village is obsessed with eating and food so the thief could be anyone.
Next to Russell's crow's pen, where he struts around with his hen and chick friends, is a field full of lambs. These are new ones, we have not got to know them very well, unlike the orphan lambs we grew to love in the summer. We loved them so much that when they were slaughtered, they were cut up and distributed to various freezers in the village. Our neighbour, who lives on her own, shared half a lamb with her townie friends up the road. For weeks these people ran their freezers down, emptying them of things that lurked in the corners without labels. Hoorah, the lamb was coming and it was coming their way. When the lamb was finally dispatched and delivered, our neighbour and her friends waited with bated breath. Their disappointment was palpable, even on this side of the road, and we were away on holiday at the time. Suddenly, half a half of lamb was actually not very much at all. As they fought over the best bits, a few chops here, half a pound of mince and a shoulder, the townie neighbour asked why, if they had half a lamb between them didn't they have two legs? Weren't lambs usually of the four-legged variety, or was this the famous three-legged Dorset lamb which hides out with unicorns and dragons? Our neighbour turned to them and said, 'you haven't lived in the countryside very long, have you?' It took her some time to explain that the leg and the shoulder were actually it, as far as their half was concerned. After sorting out their booty, there was a knock on the door from the person who had delivered it. 'Just to let you know, that was Sooty. Enjoy!'.
Similarly, when I tracked my half of lamb down to a freezer somewhere in the village - after being taken in while we were on holiday - I had not needed to take my car after all. It didn't need to go in the boot, I could have carried it in a jiffy bag. Baa! Maybe this is why it was necessary for the bacon thief to take the bacon in the first place, to supplement the meagre portions yielded up by these sad little lambs. However, quantity is not everything, it's the quality that counts. And they were very tasty indeed.
Pheasants are also on the menu now it is the shooting season. Every other Saturday, we go to a small farm shoot where the birds that are shot are taken home and eaten, unlike at the obscene large shoots where the surplus of birds is buried in holes while the ridiculously dressed guns go home in their posh cars, running over the odd beater or two. As well as a brace of rather nice pheasants, this weekend I also managed to find an unusual Esso oil bottle, with Art Deco-style stepping on the neck and 1950s lettering on the label. I can't eat it but it will look pretty on the sideboard.
That's about it,
Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Saving our bacon

As the sun beats down on this soggy corner of England, the skies looking more Greece than Dorset, the news breaks that we have a thief in our midst. The village shop is always busy, at certain times of the day, located as it is on a square where four roads meet. This is the world from my window, the world I look out on and walk through every day. But this is something I did not see. No-one saw it happen - it just did. One minute the chill cabinet was full of bacon, the next minute, nothing. There were just two customers in the shop at the time: a respectable elderly lady who has lived here all her life apart from her formative years in a hamlet she still hankers after and an old gypsy woman, with carrier bags on her feet and a very large coat over her shoulders. The bacon, it is true, was on special offer. But Buy One Get One Free does not usually mean Steal One Get One Free. Suspicion has naturally fallen on Gypsy Rose Lee, which may appear rather judgmental but, hey, that's life. What people cannot believe is that she actually went to the counter and paid for half a dozen eggs and two tomatoes and then walked out with £70 worth of bacon concealed on her person.
The shop is a key facility in this village. You need a personal fortune the size of Somerset to do all your shopping there on a regular basis but it is very convenient for milk and newspapers and a very good source of information. We are lucky here in that we still have a shop, a brilliant primary school, a village hall, church and a post office, if only someone would step forward and run it. Luckily, ours was not on the official closure list but our hardworking postmistress shut up shop at the end of last year and there is no-one to run it. With postage rates and regulations so complicated now, I frequently have to drive six miles to take my parcels to be weighed and stamped.
But one thing this village does have is wide range of active people who help keep the place alive. Too many communities around us are dead during the week while the second home owners fanny around in London. For some reason, our village has remained a bit of a secret from most of these types, even though we are twixt coast and mainline train station. Long may it stay that way. One local farmer says the village now is what it was like when he was growing up, after going through a phase in the 70s and 80s where retired people moved in with plans of changing it as soon as they got here. He feels the latest batch of people who have moved in - some from not that far away - are the type to get on with others, knuckle down and help out, come up with new ideas where necessary but, most of all, do not TAKE OVER. It's all about respect for a place and its soul. It was here long before we were and long after, no doubt, so we owe a debt of gratitude for just being here.
Meanwhile, as the sun beats down all afternoon and the shadows lengthen in the square, the hunt for the bacon thief continues. Although I can't help thinking the trail has long gone cold.
That's about it
Love Maddie X

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Light up the sky with Handel's fireworks

On a wet autumn day, Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks plays on my stereo. Which is appropriate really, as we have just celebrated Bonfire Night a few days late with the village fireworks. The composer is the right choice but it really ought to be Handel's Water Music, as the rain it raineth, and raineth all the night.
We should have known; the forecasters and village soothsayers were all saying the same, as they waved printouts from the BBC website. Beware the rain. But we live in such a strange place, the weather can be completely different from locations just a few miles away. When the sun is shining on the coast just down the road, up here we're in fog land. However, despite the forecast we decided to go for it because of our wise old neighbour next door. In our house, he is known as Gandalf because we are convinced he is a wizard. He does not come and go out of his front door any more, like the little man and woman who lived in the weather house on my grandparents' wall, but we trust his hunches. Gandalf said we had a 50 per cent chance of rain. He felt the rain would pass us by. My father too, who is also pretty old and wise, said we would be all right, but he does live half an hour away.
So all afternoon, the village men prepared the ground for the fireworks while the women stirred over the souple as it hubbled and bubbled. The clouds were moving swiftly over the green by about 5pm. Things were looking good. Not long after the barbecue was sizzling away for a 5.30 start, the first few flecks of rain fell out of the sky like grains of fine salt from a salt pot. The salt sooned turned to large crystals as the rain fell in sheets on the gazebo which nearly took off in the wind and almost put out the barbecue. Amazingly, the punters turned up, almost in droves. Meanwhile, the police arrived, which was very nice of them - the community bobby and his community police support officer - and the wild children of the green suddenly became very well behaved. Minutes before Mr Grigg and I were due to go up the hill to set off the rockets , the CPSO asked if we had 'facilities'. Someone said yes, the village hall was open, as they thought the police were checking everything was all in order. The hall wasn't open and it transpired the officer had been caught short and needed to relieve himself. We gave him the keys to our house just across the way but forgot to tell him the seat on the loo would not stay up on its own. As the minutes ticked by, the start of the fireworks was delayed while we waited for the officer to complete his task, which took rather a long time. By then, word had got out to all those on the green who were now aware of the ablutions going on - and by whom - in our house. We rather hoped the officer was having a number two otherwise his appendage might have become trapped as the loo seat snapped shut. Someone commented it was just as well that when the officer came on duty he and his colleagues weren't about to go on a major shout. Can you imagine it? 'Sorry Sarge, I know Bin Laden is holed up in a fishing boat in West Bay but can you give me five minutes?'
After a while, the officer, who looked much thinner and relieved since his visit to our lavatory, emerged from the house, much to the delight of the crowd who were getting drenched as they waited for the fireworks to start. Some 20 minutes later, they were still waiting because although the fireworks had been covered up, the rain had soaked through the tarpaulin and made the fuses damp. Meanwhile, Mr Grigg and I were in the field above the church, scrabbling around with matches to light the 30 high powered rockets that were in piles in the back of the Landrover. As a spark from a match flew off at an angle, I had visions of the Freelander exploding and taking us with it. We were meant to be in touch with our fellow firework starters on the green through a walkie talkie system. But it was a waste of time because I kept pressing the wrong button and all I could hear was a high pitched whistling noise and then strains of Yankee Doodle Dandy. So we launched our rockets anyway, while the people lighting the fireworks on the green struggled to get anything skywards. By the end of the evening, some £200 worth of fireworks had failed to ignite, and the men debated whether to take the fireworks apart and adapt them for next year. What is it with men and gunpowder? Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the live fireworks were submerged in a large water trough to disarm them.
After that, there was nothing else for it other than to decamp, very soggily, into the pub for a warming brandy and wet flagstones.
Today, the clear up began, the ends of rockets like spears distributed randomly in graves all over the churchyard. A sombre note now, as we prepare for the Remembrance Day service, the bells half muffled in readiness for the service. Mr Grigg is half deaf after going up in the bell tower and in the process of putting the muffles on just when the clock struck noon. This is music to his ears because he now really has an excuse for not listening to me.
That's about it
Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A bridge too far

The traffic trundles, albeit slowly, past my window now that the road is open. For the past six weeks or so, it has been pretty quiet here, as workmen have been busy creating a new culvert at the bottom of the street. The work involved digging up the tarmac to the stream underneath and pedestrians have had to walk around the edge on a specially-created path and bridge. The traffic, meanwhile, has had to take a diversion. And that has not pleased everyone.
The village has been divided - literally and metaphorically. There are those at the posh, leafy end, where residents have drives and can sing at least two verses of Dallas before reaching their front doors. And there are those, like me, whose houses and cottages are all higgledy-piggledy, cheek by jowl sort of places, where when we put the washing out, our neighbours can just about make out our hip size from the labels on the underwear.
Up this end, so to speak, the road closure has been bliss. Children have been gaily cycling in the middle of the road, safe in the knowledge they aren't going to be clipped by a passing car. Dogs have been enjoying being on extended leads, their owners knowing they are not going to be run over by the boy racer in the BMW with the distinctive number plate. We have even had our own village event. Where some communities open up their beautiful gardens to the public for charity, we have opened our garages, back yards and porches for ourselves, stalls lined along the street for people to rummage and hand over their hard-earned cash.
It was a Sunday and the street was thronged with punters. We had dealers first thing. You can always tell them - they arrive early, look disinterested and pick up a few items and then casually make you a ridiculously low offer for something you know is of value. But do you care? No, because you want rid of the thing anyway. One stallholder had the good sense to buy low energy bulbs in a special deal at Morrisons and then sell them for twice the price. Ha! And I think a dealer bought some of them too.
So the road closure has given us, at this end of the village, a new feeling of community. Banding together and having, in effect, our own car boot sale without having to take it anywhere.
But the closure has not been welcomed on the other side of the culvert, where vehicles have had to make a long detour or else chance their lives in muddy and narrow lanes in Volvo saloons and little hatchbacks and, heaven forbid, reverse for a tractor. They have not been happy and say the workmen have been working only a six-hour day. So when a protest was organised for the local paper, it looked like it would be well supported. However, there were about four or six residents for the photo shoot next to the gaping hole in the road. And when the sign on the diversion changed, taking the date when the road would be open even further back into the future, there were mutinous mutterings of withdrawing council tax. When the final date was announced, one couple was seen at the culvert, the woman dangling a pink pig with wings on a string over the trickling waters below and the man taking her photograph.
Meanwhile, the workmen have been keeping their heads down, terrified of more tutting and verbal abuse from people who live nearby but cannot get through and have to walk to the shop to get their Daily Mail. So those of us pleased about the road closure have been making a point of being especially pleasant to the workmen. One of my friends, a slip of a thing who works from home and lives right next to the culvert, rang up the council to thank them. The official on the other end, not used to praise, was aghast and taken completely off guard. But my friend is no fool. Despite being the wrong side of the culvert (now there's a phrase to conjure with) and putting up with the continual noise of a pump and drills, she only had to smile and the workmen would down tools and help her carry things to and from her house and car.
So now the road is open again and all is forgotten but not forgiven. Maybe we 'up this end' should consider giving our garage sale profits to the residents who have been so inconvenienced. Or maybe not.
That's about it,
Love Maddie X

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Maddie's back!

Maddie's back! After narrowly avoiding clinching a book deal and a column in one of the weekend supplements, The World from my Window re-emerges as a regular look at life from England's rural underbelly.

It is November 1 - All Souls Day - and in about an hour's time I have to lock up the church. I really need to check it first for tramps sleeping under pews before I turn the key. I'd best take a torch with me. It is very dark down here.

There has been a rush on pumpkins at the local nursery for a Halloween competition in the village hall. The gardens and allotments society, in an attempt to get more people interested, put on the event for its AGM last night. We are not members but a friend is, and to show our support for him, we turned up with our pumpkin lantern to add to the table of entries at the back. My Lidl pumpkin, carved on Wednesday, had become quite soft and its once wide open mouth and crooked teeth had shut after the top lip sank into its chin.

The committee, combined aged 926, was dressed in pointy hats and wizard cloaks as we settled down to listen to our guest speaker (and pumpkin judge) talk about dowsing and healing. The surreal picture of elderly, normally upstanding, Christian members of the community, sitting in rows in the hall dressed as witches, was quite unsettling. It reminded me of a Harry Potter convention. And when the guest speaker started talking to her dowsing rods and stroking her crystals, it dawned on the committee she was actually a white witch. Quite appropriate really, given the date, but none of them had realised this at the time of booking.

Meanwhile, the pumpkins at the back were getting hotter and the smell of burning became too strong to politely ignore. As the speaker got the energy flowing through her dowsing rods, my earring flew off and two pumpkins suddenly burst into flames. The smoke detectors, however, failed to pick this up, having been boxed in with cereal packets earlier in the week for a function that had involved smoke bombs and explosions on the stage. Don't ask, it's best not to.

Fortunately, the speaker found a ready supply of water (her rods took her to the kitchen sink) and gave the offending pumpkins a good soaking. That wiped the cheerful grins off their faces.
Drama over, we tucked in to a hearty supper and then realised we were the only ones drinking alcohol. Flyers had been sent around the village, inviting thempeople to bring their own liquid refreshment and glasses. We took this to mean red wine, but everyone else had brought fruit juice or cordial and some had brought nothing at all. We felt like alcoholics at a temperance meeting. Somehow, we were persuaded to stay for the AGM ('it won't last long,' our friend said, 'only a couple of hours'. We thought he was joking). Half an hour later, and stalemate having been reached on whether the society should remove the word 'allotments' from its title after a schism in the ranks ('they don't want anything to do with us' was the widely-held view, and I wondered why), we sloped off to the pub.

The red wine in our pub is the kind you wouldn't take to someone's for supper even if you disliked them. This is not the landlords' fault, more the brewery which doesn't give mine hosts a choice. A large glass and a small glass of dreadful red wine later, the bar had thinned out to about eight of us . Larry the landlord put on a Sound of Music CD given to him by the local bus driver who had got it free with the Daily Mail. As the strains of Climb Every Mountain permeated the pub, the assembled throng began to sing. In particularly fine voice was Hawkeye, a 60-year-old steel erector whose Dorset drawl is like a Westcountry version of John Wayne. It struck me that it would be a good idea to have different versions of The Sound of Music, such as the True Grit one. These fanciful thoughts soon disappeared, however, as the introduction to Do-re-mi tinkled in. Without thinking, I was seven again and in the primary school social, but this time in the lead role. I was Maria and suddenly, finger pointing, directed the people at the bar into their roles like seven restless children. Some of them were reluctant, it's true, and Mr St John's 'S0, a needle pulling thread' was a bit weak' but Hawkeye's 'La, a note to follow So' was positively breathtaking. It was one of the best bits of improvised singing I have seen and heard in the pub for ages.

Now we were on a high, the landlord took this as his cue for a bit of Larry-oke. As the opening bars of Dancing Queen broke through and four women (including me, I regret to say) took to the mics and became Meryl Streep et al for the evening. Unlike my pumpkin, I do not know when to shut my mouth.

That's about it,
Maddie x

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