Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Christmas Time is Here II

OK Agnes, you win.

So once again this year, I decided to try and engender some Christmas spirit, and also bond with step-daughters #1 & 2 by taking them Christmas Shopping at the Trafford Centre.

Agnes has nothing but hatred & disdain for these horrible shopping centres. A monument to consumerism, the Trafford Centre is a vast shopping complex on two levels, with a massive eatery in the middle. Fountains fire water jets high into the air, Christmas lights bathe all the shoppers in a happy glow as they elbow their way past each other. A brass band plays Christmas carols to those who walk by, and every single shop has Christmas music playing gently to soothe the souls of those who queue endlessly, to be served by sullen shop assistants who are fed up with Christmas and all the shenanegans of working until 11 every night for the four weeks prior to the two day celebration. (long sentence award here plz)

The bonding began in typical style, with both girls rushing in from school, excited at the prospect of a shopping trip. As we left a relieved Agnes and went to the car, then the antagonism began in earnest.

"I'm sitting in the front."
"No. I'm sitting in the front on the way there. You can sit there on the way back."

Of course, there is no need to annotate which daughter said what to whom, because it's entirely interchangeable. It doesn't matter.

Imagine the scene...
5pm (rush hour)
Heading into central Manchester
Pouring down with rain
Dank, dark and cold night
Radio 1.

I could hardly see anything through the spray of the vehicles on the road. White vans screaming down the outside lane at 90mph with visibility down to a few yards. Terrified drivers sitting in any lane at stupidly low speeds. Lorries throwing up half an ocean in their wake. Brake lights on and off, last second lane-changing, me not overly familiar with the route, and two bored girls.

I'll mention it again, because it is worth mentioning. Such noisy, talentless crap. Endless repetition of the same words "vummanizer... vummanizer... I'm a vummanizer, you're a vummanizer...." It was like those French lessons all so distant now... Je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes... I remarked that her voice sounded like it was coming through a bucket-full of tights.

"She lost her voice," remarked #1 avidly. "She had a drug problem, lost her voice, and now she's making a comeback."

Perhaps she shouldn't have bothered, I thought, as I narrowly avoided being tossed into the side of a lorry by a nutter in a Mercedes who shot past me, only to slam his brakes on and cut across three lanes of rush hour traffic to dive down a slip road.

The radio got turned up, the girls started bouncing in their seats, and I rested my arm against the window and held my head as I continued to dodge the traffic. Christ, I was getting old. Music too loud, can't understand the youth of today... Did I sound familiar?

We hit a traffic jam with only 3 miles to the centre. I moved over into the left hand lane, as I knew I'd be pulling off soon. #1 looked at me with concern and suggested I moved out again to skip the traffic and pull in later, a tactic already being employed by half of Manchester, hence the reason we were stuck in this queue. I glared at the passing traffic and wished them all a thousand painful deaths. #1 tutted and went back to writing her letter in the dark*.

After about ten minutes of not moving, the girls got bored.
"I'm hungry"
"Are we there yet?"
"My back's hurting"
"I need the loo"
"Can I have that cushion for my back?"
"No! I'm using it as a pillow"
"But my back is really hurting!!"
"You can have it on the way back"
"When we get there, can we have something to eat first?"

I like order. The Trafford Centre is like a big long stick. John Lewis (my intended parking place) is at one end of it, and my plan was to walk up to the top on the ground floor, and back along the top, hitting all the shops we needed with military precision. There would be no time for dawdling. I knew what I wanted, and then I was getting out. Already I thought of Agnes, sat back at home, ordering everything online, and enjoying a cigarette without condemnation. Next year, I vowed. Next year.

And now The Plan was in danger of collapse. The food halls are half way up the stick. My mind went awhirl as I tried to figure out how to get to the food halls, feed the girls, do the shopping, and get back to the car without having to double back on myself and waste footsteps. I know, I know. You pity Agnes don't you?

And then, there was just one more worry.... I wanted to buy Agnes something nice. To wear under her clothes you understand. Things that step-daughters most definitely shouldn't see. Cautiously, and with great hindsight-enabled stupidity, I opened my mouth.

"Will you two be OK on your own if... well... you know... if I have to pop off for a bit?"

#1 looked up at me suspiciously. She can be terribly intelligent when the mood takes her. #2 dragged herself from her daydream, pulled her thumb out of her mouth and managed a "hmmm?"

"I need to pop off and get a few bits. Will you be OK in Boots or something?"

I caught a glance out of the corner of my eye of #1 turning this over in her mind. The penny dropped.

"Are you going to Ann Summers?"

I blanched. "Maybe. I'd like to get your mum something nice, and I might want to go into La Senza too (much more upmarket lingerie for the discerning woman)"

"What are you going to get her?" asked #1 innocently, yet veiled with impish maliciousness.

I, as usual when faced with #1's cockiness, momentarily froze. And like all of nature's victims, one second of hesitation is all it takes to prompt the attack.

A giggle came from the back seat. "Is it handcuffs?".
#1 guffawed. "Nah.. they've already got some of them." and then to me "Is it some sexy underwear?"

My face must have gone white, my hands felt slippery on the steering wheel. I wanted to vanish. I wanted to go home. I wanted Agnes to face this, not me.

"I'm thinking about getting her a nice nightie," I replied, surprising myself at the swiftness of my reply as well as the disarmingly un-interesting words. #1 immediately became bored. Thwarted, she returned to her letter, but #2 persisted in the back.

"I can help you choose it you know. I know what she likes!"
"No. It's OK thanks. I'll just bumble around on my own. Besides, I don't want you two in there poking fun at me, I'll be embarrassed enough as it is. It's just not right having you there while I buy night things for your mum."
#1 looked up, a gleam returning to her eye. "We won't poke fun at you. We'll just be there to help."
"Mum had a really nice nightie that she really loved," continued #2 from the back. "It had Eeyore on it."
I could imagine Agnes' face opening an Eeyore nightie. I remained resolute in the face of adversity.
"It's OK. Thank you. I'll be fine."

Eventually the traffic began to move, and five minutes later, we parked up.

After we'd had something to eat, which was an amusing experience whereby #2 went healthy with a Subway and #1 went unhealthy with a MacD's. After finishing her healthy option, #2 asked for a lone chip from #1's pile which was met with a venomous "NO!". I asked #2 if she wanted me to get a portion of chips and she said,  Yes please! Sometimes the smallest things can make one feel good. The look on her face as I returned with the chips was worth the queue and the clueless service. I still refuse to call chips "fries", which utterly confuses most MacDonalds workers. I remember at school once, a group of us went down to MacD's and spent ten minutes going round asking the staff what the time was, counting up the amount of furrowed eyebrows or grunted responses. Quite a shocking revalation that was. Made me study a bit harder for my O'levels... But, I digress...

We hit the shops.

So. Without regailing you with a detailed account of the ensuing fun, here are the high points.

In Shop A:
#2 pointing at an item and saying "oooh. That's nice". 
#1 responding in a voice loud enough for the shop to hear... "What?! Charlie can't afford that! It's X thousand pounds!"

In Shop B:
Me, browsing quietly and struggling to locate the Right Thing: "Can either of you two help me with this?"
#1, ignoring me "come and look at these boots I'm getting for Christmas"
#2, ignoring me "come and look at these shoes I like"
Me, repeating the question, in a sterner manner.
#1 and #2 shrugging their shoulder in unison: "Sorry, nope."

In Shop C:
I locate what I'm looking for, but lose the children. OMFG, I just lost the kids! Crap. I'm dead. For a second, I wonder whether Agnes will greet me with relief if I turn up back at the house without them, then I dismiss the fantasy and settle on the reality that I will, in fact, be dead. As a doornail.
#1 comes flouncing over with something in her hand. "Look at this! Isn't it lovely". #2 isn't far behind.
Stressed now, I come up with a Plan. 
"Look. Here's some money. Why don't you go to Shop D and get your mum something nice. Look for something for her. Yep, For her.
#1 frowns as if this is something she will need to concentrate hard on. She nods, confident of her task, and the pair of them skip out of the store.
The shop assistant smiles gently as I pay for my goods. "They seem lovely girls. Do they get on?" I consider the truth, then realise that I'm holding up the queue, and that no-one ever wants to hear the truth. 
"Yep,"I lie. I nod, smile, pay for my stuff and leave her mumbling about her sister with whom she constantly argues. 
Outside of Shop C, I realise that I cannot see shop D. My fevered brain works overtime. I was sure it was close by. I look up and down the sea of heads. Crap. I lost them again. I look over the balcony. Nope. No sign of shop D. Shop E, however, is next door to C, so I figure that they'll finish in D then come back to C by the time I'm finished in E. Still with me? OK. Re-read from "Yep".

I dash inside, believing like some sort of SETI fanatic, that this shop won't be busy. It's rammed to the gills. I snatch what I want, and rush to the counter. God is smiling on me as the queue all but evaporates and I move to the empty assistant station. He smiles at me.
I clear my throat, fumbling for my mobile phone in my pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes which I rest on the counter. "I don't suppose you know where Shop D is do you?" I enquire.
He merely glares at the cigs and points to the warning on the packet which shows a mouth cancer victim in all its horrible glory. "That's 'orrible, that is." he states. 
I wait. I look into his glassy eyes. There is no sign of movement.
"I said... Do you know where Shop D is please?"
He furrows his brow. Jesus, I think. How hard can this be to figure out? It can't be that far away.
"Sorry mate, dunno. Is this a Christmas present?"
I nod absently. He's asking because he's going to give me a gift receipt. Agnes can take it back if it's wrong, but more pressingly, if I don't find the girls, none of this will matter, because I'll be dead.
"Lucky you." he states, and my mind stops dead. The words don't compute. What the f*ck is he on about? I look up at him and he is sadly picking the price tag off.
"What do you mean?" I enquire patiently.
"No-one's gonna get me nuthin' this year" he replies.

I consider telling him that if he doesn't shut up, he won't need to worry about it because my murder of him will be inconsequential to what happens to me when Agnes finds out that I have LOST HER CHILDREN. Life will be meaningless without testicles.

#1 saunters up to me as I leave the shop. They found Shop D without me, bought what they needed, then came back to find me. Good girls. I should never have doubted them. the panic subsides, but my head throbs.

After this, the visits to shop F,  G and H, things go relatively smoothly. Even the visit to Ann Summers goes without a hitch as the girls are too engrossed in getting their respective boyfriends something nice to notice what I'm up to.

#2 was in the front on the way home*, which meant Rock FM, which was infinitely preferable to that commercial sh*t they play on Radio1. Although, having said that, even this so called "independant" radio station was pretty commercial.

Next year.

* Another story...

Christmas Time is Here!

I am getting excited. Only 15 days to go until Chrimbo (as us Scousers call it) and I have now spent a small fortune of money which I don't really have. Therefore, I will probably have to go cleaning posh people's houses, write a book or prostitute myself to pay off the credit card bill which will land with an almighty thump on 2 January 2009. That day when you feel a hell of a lot better than the day before when your head is pounding with ten elephant ballerinas and somebody has emptied a cannister of CO2 into your guts...You wake up realising that you haven't died. You got through New Year's Day and only had to spend 2.5 hours in the bathroom, which wasn't that bad as they were showing Only Fools & Horses: that episode where Rodney 'hilariously' (and I use that term very, very loosely and if it drips with much more sarcasm, it is liable to wash away...) gets called a plonker for the millionth time by Del Boy, and The Wizard of Oz on the telly. Again.

Then the postman arrives and your world caves in. Ah me...Why do I like this time of year so very much?

Well, I shall let you into a secret. I love giving presents to people. I get much more of a kick out of giving them than receiving them, (Mr P, please don't take this statement too much to heart. Eternity Rings are an exception to this rule...) and I am like a cat on a hot tin roof, desperate for the recipients to play my guessing games as to what they are about to receive (and for that they should be truly thankful...Amen). For example, I have bought Mr P a *******/****/********** for Christmas and I cannot wait to give it to him. So I pester him to play the guessing game with him, promising him that if he does guess it, I won't tell him if he's right or not. He doesn't like this game, and refuses to play for some considerable time until I have made his ears bleed with my incessant nagging.

So, this morning, he wearily acquiesced, I promised faithfully not to give anything away and he asked, Is it anything to do with photography?



 I clapped my hand over my mouth in shock at my utterance, blushed unbearably red at my error and then squawked at myself, loudly, for being completely incapable of keeping a secret. I couldn't believe that my mouth was in Top Gear when my brain was still strolling down a pretty country lane...

Last year, whilst very distracted by a telephone conversation at work, I noticed, vaguely, that my colleagues were whispering amongst themselves. As soon as I put the phone down, one of them asked, Who did you get for Secret Santa, then? I automatically told them and was screeched out of the department for being a 'gob-sh*te' and incapable of holding my water.

This year, I thought I was being slightly more clever in ordering everything on-line and adjusting delivery dates to just before Christmas. So I wouldn't be tempted to hand everything out, you understand? I ordered this digital tablet thingummy for Charles, about which I knew nothing and then fretted. Was this what he wanted? It looked more like a hot-plate for warming pans than something with which you could do whizzy digital photography things. By 10pm, I had showed him the reviews, the tech specs, and groaned because he didn't think he had the USB port it required. 

Two weeks ago, I bought him three photography books. One evening, he was a bit down in the dumps, so I gave them to him to cheer him up.

So that's now four presents of which he has knowledge.

(Aside: I keep smelling blue cheese in here...I wonder what's wrong with my nose?)

He's got to have some surprises for Christmas Day, so yesterday, I returned to eBay, armed with my Flexible Friend and, eyes shut very tightly, heart beating wildly, I hit the 'Buy This Now!' button. I do hate being bossed around by an e-commerce site, but they are bullies and I am a weakling at times...

I also had a winning bid on the most amazing, brand new, Nicole Farhi silk and cashmere jumper for him. Every hour, I checked 'My eBay', just in case, and with only 23 minutes to go until the bid ended, I got up to prepare dinner for my beloved family. And lost the bloody jumper. I was spitting hell, fire and brimstone. They can buy their own chips next time...

Despite what he says, Mr P finds it very difficult to hold his water, too. By 2pm yesterday, two of my presents were in my grubby hands and that was without a single, ingle word of cajoling or nagging. I hadn't even mentioned his shopping trip to him - and 'trip' is the operative word by all accounts, when the girls got to him about going within a five mile radius of Anne Summers. (Actually, as another aside, I have a blog to write about the Anne Summers' catalogue. To say I was lost for words and almost hysterical is NOT an understatement...then again, perhaps Mr P should write this for a change...hint, hint) Not once. I am actually really good like that. I don't root in hiding places, I don't ask what I am getting, I just stay very quiet and wish, with everything crossed, that I am getting an Eternity Ring, with dirty big, square-cut diamonds. If I stay really, really still and don't breathe for about 45 seconds, it might just come true...

So, 15 days to go. Actually, Mr P and I are spending Christmas alone this year. #s 1 and 2 daughters are off to the ex's house for six days. Although he has magnanimously allowed them to come here for a 'few hours' on Christmas Day itself. And I wouldn't mind betting it will be either over the lunchtime, so I have to get cooking as from first light, or when the Christmas Rugby Special is showing over on BBC2 wherein the Barbarians drub the living daylights out of England. As usual...

We will be celebrating Christmas for the girls on New Year's Day. A sort of BOGOF deal (Buy One, Get One Free) for them. So, Mr P has agreed to eat salmon with me on 25th December - no petrified turkeys in this house, this year. And we shall probably open a nice bottle of vin rouge or two, maybe stroll down to the local to walk off the mince pies and enjoy the ambience of the Hanging Gate's two bar electric fire.

I simply cannot wait!!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A Dirty Welsh Weekend

So, off we go to Bodysgallen Hall Hotel for a mucky weekend, since Mr P had finally sold his house, there were a few, spare quid knocking about; #s 1 and 2 were at their father's house and we needed a break from household chores.

Mr P had a mad, final dash at work, meaning that he was unable to help me pack, load up the car, sort out the animals, wash-up or even make himself a cup of tea. It must be a nightmare replying to an email, mustn't it? #1, after a blazing row, wherein I threatened to stunt her growth for evermore, finally acquiesced to minding her sister and taking her to the cinema and so by midday, I was almost ready to leave the house. Bunnies fed? Check. Cat fed? Check. Doors and windows locked? Check. Handcuffs packed? What? What are they in your suitcase for, Mum?

I was sitting on the toilet at the time, reading a book, 'dropping off some timber', as my eldest so quaintly terms it and my brow furrowed in consternation wondering how I was going to get out of this one...

-They're to secure something in the car.
-Are you sure they're not for kinky stuff**?
-Positive. I swear to you. On my life. Really...

Bodysgallen Hall is an enormous country house hotel. Very snooty, very up-market and a bit better than the Holiday Inns I am used to. You even dress for dinner, which appeals to my vanity immensely - there is nothing better, for me, than putting on a slinky frock, 'boofing' up my hair, plastering on the make-up and getting out one of my hundreds of pairs of 6" stilettoes. Unfortunately, Mr P was unable to procure a room for us within the main body of the hall and so we were farmed out to the boondocks to stay in The Engine Room, a converted farm building in the form of a luxury cottage. It was fantastic, but the walk up the hillside to the Hall, in -6 degC temperatures, on ice and shale, in aforesaid 6" heels made the North Face of the Eiger look inviting. It was so bloody cold that over slinky frocks I had to wear a jumper, fleece, scarf, gloves and heavy overcoat. And I was still cold. And the hood from my fleece made me look like some dubious crack dealer.

The hotel is classed as a Spa: it has 'therapy and treatment rooms'; an indoor swimming pool; sauna; steam room; whirlpool and gymnasium. And it was for the gym I headed.

Many years ago, when living in Oman, I was a total gym-head. I couldn't get enough of the place, working out for two hours a day, almost every day, unless the ex took umbrage at the fact that I hadn't fed him fresh grapes for a few days. Since repatriation, I hadn't exercised in any way, shape or form and had become quite comfortably indolent and blasé about toning up or making my heart beat faster than at resting moment. So I packed my Nikes, my Bridget Jones knickers which look like gym shorts but are really my secret weapon, and a few skanky T-shirts to pong up.

I enjoyed it immensely, and I have to admit that the exercise bug has bitten me hard on the backside. I haven't been able to get to a gym since our return and I miss it like my right arm has been chopped off. I may just sneak off to LA Fitness tomorrow while Mr P is messing on his Photoshop, pretending to be busy...

On my third visit, I had arrived long before Mr P, who was only using the pool, and after our reunion in the steam room, and a big fat sweat in there, we were ready to clear off and head back home via TK Maxx, wherein I found the most fantastic pair of dirty designer shoes (at £10.00!), a pair of sunglasses (as mine have recently snapped and now make me look like Long John Silver with only one lens) and a box of crackers for Christmas.

Whilst doing some weight training, I had found a teeny-bopper CD and turned up the volume. It was all stuff that our girls love and force me to listen to on a regular basis. Artists like J-Zed, 50 percentage, know, those very trendy chappies. What happened to regular band names like The Grateful Dead, Ozric Tentacles and Black Lace? Unfortunately, after three songs in, and me pounding away like a mad woman, a sweet old dear limped in wearing her little black leotard, black tights, pumps and a horrified expression at the demonic sounds blurting from the sound system. Being the polite person I am, and always deferring to my elders, I asked her if she wanted to reduce the volume.

She switched channels to Classic FM wherein I then performed tricep dips to Vivaldi's 4 seasons in the 'A-Z of Composers'. I sort of lost my momentum.

Thankfully, her own work-out consisted of ten minutes of bouncing on the trampette and then stretching. She effusively thanked me for my consideration and then buggered off to the pool from where she waved at me before dipping her toe in the water. I cracked on until I saw the glint of Mr P's bald patch rising above the water during his breast stroke. I finished off, changed, and met him in the whirlpool.

After ten minutes of playing with his inflated swimming shorts, squeezing the air out of his herniated groin and cackling loudly, echoing around the building, we decided to remove ourselves and get ready to depart the hotel (boo, hiss!).

I retired to the ladies' and there found my 'Old Dear', stark naked, parading around as though she had the nubile body of a 16-year old. I was frankly quite startled at how the body sags in the late 60s. I averted my eyes as much as possible, but had it confirmed to me that,'Yes, it does go grey down there!'

As I padded around, grabbing my clothes and sorting out my changing room, she kept looking over at me and smiling. So when I emerged, fully dressed, and needing to dry off my hair, I suspected I now had a friend for life and would soon be learning a few things about this lady. Sure enough, she began with how 'utterly marvellous' Bodysgallen is and did I have membership?

-Er no. I am just here for the weekend.
-Ooooh. You're staying here. Well, how simply marvellous. We come here all the time. The food is marvellous (she did like that word) and do you know what I like about it? doesn't come in a bucket?
-The portion sizes. Nice and small. I cannot abide large portion sizes.

This was actually my only bugbear about the grub - portions were tiny. You can't get stuck in to a bit of nosebag if the meal is more about presentation than satiation.

-So where is your nearest Spa Hotel?
-We don't have any near us, really. There's a Spa up the road from where I live but it's not residential.
-It's name?
-Whitley Day Spa...(and I did feel a bit daft telling her this. Whenever we mention it in this house, it is always said with a broad Geordie accent.)
-No. Not heard of that one. My daughter is going to Hawkscross in the new year. Are you familiar with it?

Then she got chatting to me about her exercise plan which 'James' had devised for her. James is a veritable miracle man. He has reversed the stages of osteoporosis in one woman, reduced another man's hypertension and last week, he walked on the water of the swimming pool, chucking loaves and fishes to the visiting Germans. She proceeded to tell me all about her recent hip operation and how much better she now felt...

-I don't believe in operations, you know (why? I've seen them happen on 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Some Plastic Boobs'). No, I always tell people, If you don't need an operation, don't have it done.
Makes sense, I thought. I wouldn't book myself in for a spot of disembowelling if it wasn't necessary. I'd much prefer to visit the charity shops in Northwich and pick up a bargain.

-So, what I always say is, Beware!

Beware? Beware of what? Baddies? Spiders? Loan Sharks? Who? What?

She was obviously batty. I had been trying, for the past ten minutes, to leave and meet Mr P who would, by now, be on his tenth game of telephone Sudoku and wondering what the hell had happened to me. I took my leave and met him as arranged.

-Coo. Sorry. Couldn't get away from the old duck in the changing room. Do you know, she spent £35 to come here to watch eight minutes of fireworks. And I had to work-out to bloody Vivaldi...

-What? What's up?

Mr P was looking a bit green around the gills: The published room rate prices didn't include VAT.

I gulped. A further 17.5% to pay. And the muckiness of our weekend had pretty much extended to me almost slipping flat on my backside into a puddle. Now was not the time to ask for £400 to join LA Fitness in our local town.

-Ooh. Not nice. Are you OK? Do you want me to drive us home?

Mr P grimaced, gritted his teeth and said, with bitterness, Even the food allowance didn't cover the wine we ordered. You were right. (And I bet that hurt more than anything, having to admit that I was right for a change!).

-Ah well, at least we enjoyed it, eh?

-Yes. I think we should think about another break away, this time with the girls.

So we are camping at the bottom of our garden in a few weeks time, when the wood has dried out, we can have a bonfire and I can sling some jacket potatoes into the embers. Quality dining, quality accommodation. It'll even be en suite as I have a toilet in the outhouses and an outside tap. And I am not VAT registered...

**They never got used, honestly. Mr P crocked his back and the idea of tickling him with a feather around his armpits and being unable to fend me off just didn't cut the mustard, so we watched Schindler's List instead...