Thursday, 25 November 2010

The girls watch the boys

So there we were, swimming up and down rather leisurely, in an indoor pool all to ourselves and bathed in soft blue light. The Book Club girls on tour, enjoying the hospitality of Darling Loggins who is still living in her rented cottage on a campsite on the coast while her wooden house takes shape on the hill back in The Enchanted Village.

Outside, the skies were clear, sprinkled liberally with sharp constellations: the eyes of Cancer, the horns of Taurus. Up country and down in Cornwall they've had snow. But here in Dorset we had one of those beautiful, cold winter days where the sky is blue and the light seems like it's been imported from Photoshop.

In the sauna, we got fired up and pulled apart the book we'd been reading (Sister), all agreeing we were either irritated, puzzled or underwhelmed. Which was reassuring, because you never really know if people are on the same wavelength as you.

We dined on vegetable curry and pears poached in cider, compared books-we-have-loved (my five all either had child protagonists or lead characters with childlike qualities - Jay Gatsby and William Boot from Scoop - what does that tell you?) and then toddled off home when Mr Loggins came back early from the pub and declared he was off to bed.

Back in The Enchanted Village, the boys are still in the pub, up to their necks in bar billiards. There's Mr Champagne-Charlie dressed in pullover and yellow tie just potting a white, Mr Sheepwash talking about cricket, Nobby Odd-Job keeping score, Mr Putter sulking on the sofa and a new recruit, Ernest, smiling inanely behind a bushy white beard as he tries to take it all in.

And who is taking the lead on rousing the troops out of their snooker slumber? It's Mr Grigg bawling out instructions from the sidelines.

'Oh, hello baby,' he says when I walk in. He's got that stupid 'when-I-say-I've-had-three-pints-of-cider-I-really-mean-seven' look on his face. His beaming grin reminds me of an old friend from primary school who could never tell a lie without his nostrils flaring.

I think of the girls' discussion in the sauna and then look at the boys - we were a scene from a winning film at Cannes and they're Last of the Summer Wine playing doubles.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Thursday, 18 November 2010

We are stardust

Jupiter shines like a beacon in the southern sky. There is an eerie halo around a waxing gibbous moon. This circle of ice crystals disappears as the clouds make way for the moon to throw its ghostly light across fields and hedges.

Bright stars are revealed, studding the heavens like sparkling eyes. Lyra and Cygnus, Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Mythical names in faraway places.

We are tiny. Specks in a massive universe.

The Enchanted Village is still tonight, in mourning for two good souls who are no longer with us. Our wise neighbour, Gandalf, once so active and skilful, who gradually became old and weary and was ready to go. Every time I walk in my kitchen I see him in my mind, fitting my cupboard and plastering a wall when he was eighty years old and running around like a man half his age.

And then the sad, sad passing of our shopkeeper, a woman not much older than me, who died suddenly on holiday. She was far too young to go. A serene, kind person, a hard worker who did not deserve to be taken so soon.

Two more stars join the heavens.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Out in the cold and sent to Coventry

It is cold and frosty in The Enchanted Village. This morning, ribbons of mist lie in the valleys like trails of whipped-up egg white. And tonight, the nymph statue that welcomes visitors to the village ought to be wearing a hat, scarf and gloves.

Up at the community room, Mr Putter is reprimanded for a tuneful burst of Where have all the young men gone. Caruso makes a knife motion across his throat and shouts: 'Cut!'

It is choir practice night and Mr Putter is feeling confident. Mr Grigg, who has only been to one singing session and is still to be convinced he has a decent voice, is away. Night Nurse is scolded again for losing her place, while I forget a dotted note and someone else is blamed for the clashing of voices. Sometimes it is good to be teacher's pet.

'I remember performing at The Albert Hall,' Caruso says, 'I was singing Haydn's Creation. The old dear next to me was singing Handel's Messiah.'

He raps his harmonica and calls for order. We need to be in fine voice for a performance just before Christmas when our Enchanted Village voices will join Ding Dong Daddy and his friends for a special concert. It is incredible how ideas casually tossed around the pub turn into full-blown events. It's how we work.

Meanwhile, we have a special appearance at the old folk's home to worry about. As if we are in detention, the top team of six stay behind to practise The Coventry Carol. It is so beautifully moving it makes my cheekbones ache.

After my cold last week, I struggle to reach the top notes and to sustain the melody right to the end. And when I get home, alone, the necklace Camilla gave me a year ago because I kept saying how much I liked it threatens to engulf me, like the poisoned dress in Medea.

Where is Mr Grigg when I need him?

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Sunday, 14 November 2010

We will remember them

A peal rings out from the church bells. Their song is echoed by a ghostly refrain, perfectly matched. The half-muffled bells call to each other as if from two sides of a valley, a yawning chasm or from green hills far away.

It is Remembrance Sunday, the day when we remember those who gave their lives for their country in times of conflict.

In The Enchanted Village, it has been grey all day before darkness descends.

In our ancient church, the elders line up in dark coats, with poppies on lapels, and prepare themselves for this sombre ceremony.  They sing hymns of remembrance, reflect in silent prayers and listen as the names of village men from two world wars are read out, chanted like a litany of lost souls.

Up in the bellringing chamber, a bugle player waits, patiently, for his moment. For The Last Post and Reveille.

On my wall, a picture of my ANZAC grandfather and his best friend, both in uniform and smiling at the camera as they pose in the photographer's studio just before setting off for Gallipoli and France. The best friend lies in a French cemetery, his name one of thousands on the war memorial in Canberra. In Mr Grigg's family, his mother's brother lost forever to the German battleship The Scharnhorst.

The bugle player steps up to the rail, the congregation turning as his notes reverberate around the cold, stone walls.

Come to the cookhouse door, boys, come to the cookhouse door. Wherever you are.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Duelling songsters

A cow gives a high pitched bellow in the dark and the haunting sound echoes across the valley. The long note is similar to that of the hunting horn played by the landlady last Friday night. But it is more forlorn, like a cow on market day that missed the chance of saying goodbye to its calf.

It is cold in The Enchanted Village. There is ice on the inside of car windows and the smell of woodsmoke is thick in the evening air. The street lights spread a false smile in the village centre, while the outskirts are dark, frosty and wintry.

Wrapped up in the cosy Grigg hovel, I am cheered by a surprise visitor, a Sheepwashlet on my doorstep with two eggs, one still warm. Just what the doctor ordered.

Smelling of Vick's vapour rub and with a chest that hurts when I breathe in, my spirits lift when I think back to Caruso's singing class last night. Accompanied by Mr Grigg - for one night only - I am greeted almost with applause by the rest of the choir, who are sitting in a horseshoe facing the master as we walk in. Mr Grigg is placed next to Mr Putter, who is pleased to have a male companion, if only for the evening.

When it comes to distributing solos in 'Oh, No John, No John, No John, No', Caruso gives me two lines, the Parson's Daughter gets one and a bashful Mrs Bancroft refuses to sing at all. Night Nurse is scolded for talking in class and we are again reminded of the importance of the dotted note.

'I will not tell you again,' Caruso says.

As the solos are awarded, Mr Putter is on edge. For weeks he has been turning up to these singing sessions, come rain or shine. He is a dog about to be given a bedtime treat. He peers over his spectacles, song sheet in hand. But Caruso passes him by. There is nothing for poor old Putter. No, a verse is awarded to a late arrival at the ball, an incomer.

Mr Grigg.

There is hostility in Mr Putter's eyes.

Why should the devil have all the best tunes?

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Monday, 8 November 2010

Sing along with the common people

The winds roared through the night, as the window were lashed with heavy rain. This morning there are puddles everywhere. A thick, brown gilet of sycamore and beech leaves lines the windscreen and bonnet of a parked car, keeping the vehicle warm until it awakes.

The weather held out for bonfire night and the skies around The Enchanted Village were a riot of colour as Mr Grigg set off rockets with names like 'Explorer' and 'Goliath'. As well as our own village do, the posh people up the road pitched in, with fireworks even bigger and better than we commoners could afford.

Over the hill, the sky lit up from north to south, from east to west, with flashes of light accompanied by loud booms. For one night only, World War Three had been declared.

And in the pub and several pints of cider later, Mr Putter led a small table in a singsong, starting with Donald Where’s Yer Troosers. Mr Grigg lowered the tone, with a cheeky rendition of Adge Cutler and The Wurzels' Twice Daily: 'Her ups and slips and zummat rips and I went there twice daily...'

And then the landlady, normally so quiet and demure, got down the hunting horns. We hadn’t seen anything like this since Dudley’s wake back in the summer.

We found ourselves being conducted in ten verses of Roll Me Over in the Clover, rapidly followed by me leading Dinah, Dinah Show Us Yer Leg.

Even the usually ladylike Mrs Bancroft was chuckling and joining in while the fragrant Mrs Putter managed to get a very good tune out of one of the horns, although not half as good as the landlady, who must surely have been a whipper-in in a previous life.

The saving grace was that our singing master, Caruso, wasn’t in the pub that night. He would have been worried about more than just our intonation. The words might have vexed him slightly too.

Roll me over in the clover indeed.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Sopranos

A tattered St George’s flag ripples on top of the church. It is early morning and a regiment of rooks descends on the stays of the flagpole, sinister, like something from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The pink-tinged clouds signal the arrival of Homer’s rosy fingered dawn and The Enchanted Village awakes, twinkling lights coming on up and along the valley to a theme of The Planet Suite on my iPod.

Autumn has well and truly arrived. At Halloween, candelit pumpkins grin in the windows while children dressed as vampires, skeletons and ghosts tour the village in packs, pouncing on sweets thrown from the doorways like pigeons after crumbs.

At Mr and Mrs Champagne-Charlie’s, a bumper parcel arrives, stashed with fireworks. These are the ones Mr Grigg and his pals will be setting off on Friday evening to celebrate Bonfire Night. The crowds will be thronging the square, queuing up for burgers and hot dogs, going ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ in all the right places when Nobby Odd-Job and Mr Sheepwash light the blue touchpaper and Mr Grigg and I will stand well back as the rockets zoom up over the village green and land far away rather than on the church roof and blocking the guttering like they did last year. Or the previous year, when all the rocket tails ended up spiked neatly in individual graves.

A ginger wig blows by like tumbleweed as I make my way up to the old people’s complex for our weekly singing session. Caruso is in fine form, splitting us up into basses, altos and sopranos to sing Good King Wenceslas in rounds.

We are just getting up a good head of steam when he raps his baton and stops us mid-flow. Our voices are a derailed train, tumbling into the sidings. He shouts, wildly.

‘I’m only going to say this once. Don’t miss out that dotted note.’

Our sniggers stifled, he starts us up again. We're in fine form, steaming and a rolling through crisp and even snow and gathering winter fu-el. And then the train hits the buffers.

‘Sopranos [that’s me], you’re dropping the pitch!’

We look down at our sheet music, not daring to even take a glance at each other. I sneak a peep, like you might sometimes do in church to see if other people are really praying. Mr and Mrs Putter are going cross-eyed, the Parson’s Daughter is suppressing a giggle and Mamma Mia is looking very perplexed. Night Nurse looks defiant and Mrs Regal Bird has the face of an angel.

And then, at the end, Caruso anounces the line-up for his dream team for a singsong at the village's old people’s home in December.

And I’m in it.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie x

Batten down those hatches, it's recycling day

It's blowing a hooley out there.  The wind is lashing against the windows and the dogs are play fighting in front of the Aga before...