Saturday, 13 October 2018

Is it wrong to fancy your workmen?

Imagine a scene from a 1970's British sitcom... a middle-aged woman, wearing only a skimpy black negligee, opens the front door to a young muscle-bound plumber and says something like, “Oh hello there, are you here to check my pipes?” The plumber chuckles naughtily as she grabs him and pulls him into the house.

Now picture the reality of me opening the front door to my plumber in 2018. It is early in the morning, very early, I still have pillow creases on my face and my hair is stunningly tied up in an old scrunchie on top of my head. I am clad in leggings and a giant mishapen sweatshirt, so when I say croakily, “Oh hello there, are you here to check my pipes?” it really doesn't have the same effect as the above.

The only similarity with these two scenarios is that my plumber is young and sexy. Frustratingly, so are all my tradesmen. They turn up at my door and just before I open it, I pray they will be ugly and fat with beer bellies and repellant hairy bum cracks on display, but no, my carpet guy, my builder, my decorator, my electrician and my carpenter are all unfairly blessed with good looks, are in their 30's, in good shape and utterly charming. It's frankly very annoying. It's annoying because I am at the age where it would be hilarious to think that someone 20 years younger than I, would find me in the least bit attractive but even so – and maybe because it's safe knowing that I'm old enough to be their mother – they do flirt outrageously and my God, it is fun! It's also the closest I've got to any male attention in over 2 years so I'm making the most of it, getting as many quotations and visits as I can without making my neighbour's curtains twitch.

But I'm also aware of how it can look. Years ago, when I was about 25, I was sitting in a bar with a friend watching two very drunk middle aged woman flirt outrageously with their young Italian waiter. The waiter was egging them on, giving them shots, pulling them up to dance, sitting on their laps and it was really funny but I also felt so embarrassed for them and I remember saying to my friend, “Don't ever let me be that woman!” And yet here I am, probably the same age as those women and I'm getting my kicks from mild innuendos and double entendres with my tradesmen but I haven't even got the excuse of being inebriated. Shoot me now!

If anyone had been a fly on the wall in my sitting room a few weeks ago, as my carpet guy showed me samples, they would have been aghast. He was sitting next to me with a pile of carpet samples on his lap. “Feel this one,” he said, indicating for me to rub the surface of the carpet. “Nordic Berber, soft yet hard-wearing, nice against the skin isn't it?” “Hmmm,” I replied dreamily. “All my clients love this,” he said, “So if you want it, tell me now”. This continued for about half an hour. He would put new samples on his lap, I would reach over and run my hand across the surface and make comments like, “Ooh yes that's nice,” or “No, too rough!” It was only when I made us a cup of tea and we both leaned back on the sofa, letting out deep contented sighs, that I completely got the giggles. So did he.

My plumber arrived the following day and as soon as we got upstairs, he ordered me to get in the shower and pretend to wash my hair to see how much room I needed. He then asked me to lie in the bath to make sure it was long enough, and then told me to sit on the loo to make sure my knees didn't hit the radiator. He was quite brusque and commanding and I must say, I'm not sure I've ever been in a situation where a man barked orders at me and I just did as I was told!! I quite enjoyed it. I asked him if he spoke to everyone like that and he replied, "Only women that pay me for my services!" and winked. Gosh.

My electrician then came by to see about fitting ceiling lights in the bathroom. He asked me me what I got up to in my bathroom in the evenings? When I frowned, turned a deep shade of red and asked what he meant, he said, "Well do you want to be fully lit up when it gets dark or would you rather the bathroom be a place to unwind with candles and a glass of wine?" Crikey, that's a bit personal I thought but he explained it was all to do with how many down-lights I needed and what intensity of bulb would work, so I guess it wasn't that probing after all. But then he added, "Well at least now I know what you get up to in the evenings!"

My carpenter is also great for saucy one-liners and any man with that many tools can always make something sound rude but he is also an actor so his delivery and timing are brilliant. In fact, we had an improv innuendo battle one day, seeing how many we could fit into a normal conversation whilst keeping a straight face. It's amazing how long we kept it up (excuse the pun) but with so many carpentry references such as: wood, erection, hammering, nailing, butt, cupping and screwing (to name a few), we managed a good 20 minutes. In the end, his partner got so annoyed with us he excused himself for a cigarette!

My decorator and handyman is the odd one out here. He is in his fifties and has become quite a good friend over the last year... doing everything from hanging blinds, building beds, plastering walls, fixing shelves, digging holes, everything I couldn't do when my hands were so badly in flare. He and I still flirt outrageously but it's become a sort of game, which of us can ask the most embarrassing question. We have talked a lot about dating and relationships in the past as we are both single, and I found myself telling him much more than I probably should have because when I bumped into him in the bank queue the other day, he gave me a huge hug and loudly asked, "So have you got lucky yet Juliet?" with a big grin and a nudge to the ribs! As the other customers turned to look at me, I realised I would never be able to set foot in Natwest again.

I have always liked to flirt as long as it is harmless and doesn't make the other person feel uncomfortable, and in a world where my life is surrounded by 95% women, it makes a refreshing change. But as all my my house renovations are likely to be finished by Christmas, I wonder where I will now get my kicks? There will be no more flirting and saucy chat, no more lovely men coming to my house, no more testosterone!! God... does that mean I have to get a real boyfriend?


Friday, 17 August 2018

How to celebrate your 50th birthday

There are no hard and fast rules about celebrating a 50th birthday but usually, encouraged by friends and family, you must mark it with at least one party. Marking a new decade gets people excited, as if that single second at 23:59 and 59 seconds which takes you from your 40's to your 50's will be a eureka moment. It wasn't. I slept through until 9am and woke up feeling exactly the same.

A few months before my birthday I thought I might have a little lunch party or a drink with friends but as the big day approached I decided I would milk it for all it was worth. My "significant" birthday would be celebrated with as many get-togethers as possible. I did get a few medical letters, encouraging me to have a breast scan and a cervical smear now that I was half a century... that was nice... but apart from that I felt healthier and fitter than I had in a long time so thought that at least was worth a glass of champagne or two.

I began by inviting my 3 oldest girlfriends down to Somerset. I have known 2 of them since I was 17, and the third since I was 26. On my bedside table I have a photo of the four of us on my 30th and 40th birthdays respectively. Smiling, slightly squiffy and very happy. My 30th birthday I shared with my fiancé at the time, who was also my twin (same age, same year of birth... no wonder we split!) and we had a big dinner party in a gorgeous restaurant in Holland Park. It was followed up with another celebration at the Sanderson Hotel and in the photo, the four of us girls are dressed all in black, lounging on a designer sofa with one friend lying across our laps, pouting and trying to look cool. For my 40th birthday I had a big party in a pub in Balham and in that photo, my three friends and I are standing in a row with our arms around each other, in flowery summer dresses, one friend having just given birth to twins, another heavily pregnant with her first child. We are tanned and glowing and this time, only three of us are alcoholically merry.

The girls came down the weekend before my actual birthday, to spend the Saturday and Sunday with me. One of my friends offered to cook dinner for us all as a birthday present, and so delivered her Ocado food order to my house the night before so that she didn't have to carry it all on the train and could arrive at my place and prep dinner before we headed out for the afternoon. The first slight hiccup was that two my friends had traveled down from Waterloo on the train and managed to consume 2 bottles of Prosecco on the way. I'm not saying they were inebriated but when I picked them up from the station they were very merry and very loud and had befriended a good looking man on the way down, who I suddenly thought might be joining us the way they were linked arms with him as they exited the station, giggling. My other friend had arrived on a different train and so once I had them all in the car we headed home. The previous Prosecco consumption made the prepping of dinner slightly less efficient, accompanied by the fact that two of us had terrible arthritis in our fingers and hands so couldn't chop the vegetables. But we persevered and once everything was prepped and the slow-cooked lamb was in the oven we headed out to a beautiful country house hotel nearby. Not only were they showing the World Cup football on big screens outside (which was terribly exciting because England hadn't been knocked out yet) but it was a gloriously sunny day and perfect for lazing around in the garden.

We arrived at the hotel and I quickly told the girls the rules of the house. Not my rules I hasten to add, but the hotel rules. #1 Turn the volume off on your phone so you don't disturb people with pings and dings, and #2 Do not take any photos where other guests may be in the background. This is simply because they do have a few celebrities around and you're not allowed to take photos of them, even by accident, in case you put them on social media. Fair enough. Everyone abides by these rules except my one friend apparently, who loudly exclaimed, "I'm 51 years old... my whole life people have been telling me what to do and I'm certainly not going to bloody well be told what to do now!" Oh blimey! After a few angry huffs and puffs from her and a stern 2-minute silent treatment from me, she relented. We found a lovely table in the garden and the girls ordered Prosecco (possibly the most expensive bottle on the planet I have to admit). Bear in mind that as I was driving, I wasn't quaffing the booze as readily as the others and had a more sober view of the following drama!

As we toasted our friendship, we all commented on how beautiful the champagne glasses were... old fashioned cut-glass crystal coupes rather than flutes, and my "I hate rules" friend announced that she might even slip a few of these glasses into her bag! We all laughed nervously and I said that she better not because this wasn't the sort of place to do do that, and I would never be allowed back if the staff found out. After an hour or so and the football came to an end, we decided to leave and go to a gorgeous pub in the next village, an old coaching inn with cobbled terraces, a beer garden and much cheaper drinks. As we sat down at a table in the walled courtyard I lowered my bag to the floor and noticed one of the champagne glasses in my friend's bag. I couldn't believe it. Oh God I thought, I will never be able to show my face at the hotel again. Worse, I might be arrested and have to skulk around Frome as word spread of this scandalous behaviour, but as it has now been 3 weeks and no one has tapped me on the shoulder, I'm presuming the crime wasn't witnessed. Karma is also a beautiful thing because when we got back to my house, my kleptomaniac friend took the glass out of her bag and dramatically banged it on the table with a "Ta-dah", where it promptly snapped in two!!!

The four of us carried on into the night, with a divine Ottolenghi-inspired dinner, lots of bubbles and a gorgeous birthday cake. It was a balmy evening, I had the garden lit up with strings of retro light-bulbs and candles, bees and butterflies hovered, and it was just wonderful to be with my girls, where no subject is off limits, teasing is enforced, and secrets are kept. The volume of voices and music may have been a little loud for my quiet street but I had warned the neighbours and so we were left in peace. We slept like logs and then walked into town for a long brunch, before I took them all back to the station and sadly waved farewell. I hope it's not another 10 years before we all get together again.

The day of my actual birthday, Friday 13th July, I had the day off and invited four new Somerset friends and my wonderfully eccentric Aunt to lunch at a local restaurant, 5 minutes walk from my house. The bistro is at the top of the most bustling street in Frome, Catherine Hill, a long steep cobbled lane, lined with artisan craft shops, vintage clothes boutiques, gift shops and café's, and so every few minutes one of us would see someone we knew and wave out of the window. Cars slowed and beep beeped and friends of my friends stopped at the table to say hi. I love this about Frome... a constant stream of friendly faces. In the evening I had a few drinks at my house and the next day my sister had a garden party for me at her house.

My sister, brother-in-law and nephews have lived in Frome for about 16 years and have a gorgeous detached house the opposite side of town to me, with a big garden and lots of outdoor seating, so it was perfect to have my family, my best friend and godparents down for the day. It was a scorching day and we pretty much ate and drank for 5 hours, catching up on news and gossip and generally having a lovely time. Then me and my bestie went to the pub and came back to mine for drinks. We had brunch the next day and had another lazy day in the sun. Somerset is the perfect backdrop to lazy sunny days... rolling green hills, fields of wild flowers, lots of wonderful pubs, plenty of friends with gardens and a laid back attitude to life, where nothing is really rushed – an annoying trait when you're waiting for workmen to show up but great for everything else.

The following week I had two more lunches with friends and was genuinely spoilt rotten. The other good thing was that I asked everyone for donations to my garden rather than gifts so have managed to plant all my flower beds, buy a beautiful outdoor rabbit painting, purchase a few big pots and still have money left over for a fire pit, a vintage outdoor mirror as well as a bit of furniture. Lovely. I still have a belated birthday party planned for September, which will double-up as a house-warming, so that's another thing to look forward to. My house is also officially open for guests to stay so please come and visit... my only rule is no stealing!


Monday, 9 July 2018

Last week of my 40's.

I am in the last few days of my 40's and from what I have heard, read and witnessed, many people begin to reflect on how their life has turned out as they are about to turn 50. It raises a lot of questions; Have I spent the last 30 years in the right job? Am I with the right partner? Do I like where I live? Have I traveled enough? Have I loved enough? Am I happy? It seems to trigger something that can propel some into making rather drastic life changes.

I think it is quite natural to look in the mirror when you reach middle age (for 50 is becoming middle age for more and more of our healthier ageing population) and look in horror at the expanding map of lines on your face, notice more and more grey hairs, pinch bigger rolls of flesh around your expanding waistline and realise that much of your wardrobe simply isn't suitable anymore. You begin to rub aching joints and make noises of effort when you get up from a chair. You realise you could do more exercise and eat better, you could change careers and seek out more adventures... that maybe this is the last chance to really change things for the better.

You only have to google "My life changed at 50" to see just how many thousands of people have done just that. It could simply be a new hobby, a new car or a new haircut, but others out there have done way more drastic things at 50. A growing number of people on the internet vow to become fitter at 50, and sign up for marathons and triathlons, get personal trainers and take up yoga. Others decide to go on adventures of a lifetime and take year-long sabbaticals and travel to far flung places that would normally never be on their radar. Millions decide to volunteer or become more involved in their communities, realising it's time to give something back after half a decade. For many of my friends, their own children have now reached an age where they have either left home, are at university, or are very much independent beings that no longer need their parents as much, and with that comes the question of what their spare time can be filled with. Other friends who had children in their forties realise how bloody knackered they are!!

For me, of course, many of these questions I have tackled already or been forced to face by early on-set illnesses. At 21, I had life-saving surgery when a tumour was discovered in my throat. By my late 30's I knew I wasn't able to have children so I was already in a position where my life would be different from most of my peers. I had time on my hands that others wouldn't have so I knew I should make the most of it. Major surgeries on both my knees forced me to leave London and make considerable changes to how I was living and how much I could work. And being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis last year made me slow things down even more and really take a good look at my life and what made me happy.

So turning 50 is not worrying me at all because the last 2 years have already been the toughest of my life so far. The titanium knee implants meant I could no longer do the sports I enjoyed... playing tennis, skiing, or doing any yoga poses that involved kneeling or twisting. I even had to teach myself how to swim again as breaststroke (the only stroke I have done for the last 30 years) was strictly forbidden by my orthopaedic surgeon, who calls the frog-like kick the "devil's stroke"! And just when things seemed to begetting back to normal, and my knee recovery was almost complete, I was diagnosed with RA. The RA floored me completely and left me physically unable to do so many of the other things I enjoyed. I couldn't use my hands for 4 months and I was knocked down by a chronic fatigue I didn't think possible. And all this whilst being in a new Somerset town with very few friends, no place to live and unable to work.

Turning 50 is a bloody breeze compared to all that. I have no regrets at all and nothing that I would really want to change. Of course, I would rather have not gone through all the pain and obstacles but I think that I have come out the other side of it ok, possibly stronger because of it. I am now on the right drugs and have such great physio that I can work 2-3 days a week again. My hands are feeling quite strong so I can type and write again, and I am starting to discover this wonderful town that I have moved to. My house is at a point of renovation where I can invite friends to stay (even if there is no upstairs floor or shower in the bathroom), my garden is all planted and I have bees and butterflies and friendly robins and blackbirds eyeing my daily progress. But the most important thing about turning 50 is that I have no list of things I wish I'd done.

Twenty or so years ago, when I was still living in America, I had to make the decision to return to England to pursue my acting career or remain in the States and carry on doing freelance design. To pursue acting was risky having just spent 3 years at a very prestigious and expensive art college, and I would be throwing that all away (and my parent's tuition money to boot) to pursue a dream! I remember being at a party, thrown by my Uncle and Aunt, and I began asking their friends if they had any regrets or if they wish they'd taken a different path in their lives if the opportunity had arisen. Had they chosen the safest path? Many said yes. I decided I didn't want to regret not having tried. I also knew that even if I did fail, I would still have a career in design so I had nothing to lose. Long story short, I went for the dream but I didn't get in to the drama school I really wanted, I couldn't get enough acting work doing small plays and the occasional advert, so I had to do freelance design work to survive. But I tried.

I told myself every single morning for years, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day. I wasn't sensible like many of my friends who had full time jobs, pensions and property (probably to the angst of my lovely parents). I didn't settle down and have a family not because I didn't want to but purely because I didn't meet the right man. And probably because of that I have led a very different life to most of my friends. I now think that having that major surgery at such a young age maybe did trigger something in me, push me to a way of living and thinking that life really is too short to put off things til later because anything might happen. I have traveled the world and done some amazing things and if I had waited until now, I doubt very much I would have been able to do them.

So to all my friends who are turning 50, have no regrets and don't put off those dreams. We are old enough to know what we want, and young enough to make them happen. xx

Monday, 12 February 2018

A week of firsts.

It's been a good week. And when I have a good week, these days, it's often worth writing about. I have, after 6 months of agonising Rhuematic pain in my hands and wrists, finally been able to use them to some degree, to be productive, to get things done. So it has been a week of firsts.

I have been able to paint my kitchen cupboards (yawningly slowly with my left hand mostly) a pale blue grey, or Paris Grey as the colour is called. I'm not sure what it looks like in Paris but in my kitchen it looks rather lovely, certainly better than the 1980's magnolia that was there before! In fact, the magnolia cupboards weren't the worst design fail in my cottage. The previous owners last decorated in 1981 (bravely admitting that on my second viewing) and was a hotch-potch of hideousness... in the sitting room, one wall was a light pink terracotta, the opposite wall peach, and the two end walls pale yellow. The ceiling was white, the floor was covered with a dusky pink threadbare carpet and the curtains were navy blue. In the kitchen, magnolia loomed large, from the cupboards to the walls, with faux brick linoleum on the floor and wall tiles in a confused palette of dark brown, beige and tan. The hallway was bright yellow and the downstairs bathroom a sky blue with pale avocado sink and loo. Luckily, I was able to see through this nausea-inducing decor and imagine what it could be.

The first thing I did was to knock down the wall between the sitting room and the kitchen, which opened up the space and allowed the gorgeous morning and midday light to flood both rooms. The carpet and linoleum were replaced with oak wood floors throughout, I got a lovely decorator to come in and whitewash the whole of the downstairs, replace the skirting boards and paint the tan mdf doors. The boiler was moved upstairs and suddenly, after 2 months of chaos, the downstairs resembled something quite beautiful. White wooden blinds hang in the front window and gorgeous vintage curtains of soft blue and oatmeal are in the kitchen. This week, I finished the cupboards and I have finally been able to unpack some boxes and start living in the space.

I used my oven for the first time this week and cooked myself a fried egg on toast. That may sound rather disappointing for a first meal but you cannot imagine how vile microwave-cooked eggs are, so it was divine. I had my washing machine delivered and washed my clothes for the first time rather than taking them to the local laundrette which is a complete pain the arse, not only because you always lose sock and knickers in the dryer but almost always end up with someone else's pants as a bonus! I have a fridge for the first time too, having used an old ice box outside for the last 3 months to store everything... fine in the winter when everything is cold enough, not so pleasant when it's pouring with rain and everything in the ice box gets waterlogged. I painted the kitchen tiles myself and for the first time, I have been able to unpack and display all my kitchen things, from toaster and kettle to vintage cake tins and cook books. For the first time, my cottage is beginning to look like a home.

Being a home for the first time also means that I want friends and family to come and see it. My parents and sister all came round for tea last week and were able to all sit in the sitting room, in relative comfort, while we chatted. I was able to have my first dinner party a few days ago. It was only three of us, not a grand affair, but I cooked a chicken casserole and some fluffy baked potatoes, we had chilled prosecco from the fridge and we sat on chairs, like normal people, around the kitchen table for supper. It was divine and it was the first time I felt truly settled.

Now that downstairs is almost finished, I look at upstairs in horror. Upstairs has soooo many more problems than downstairs. Rotten windows, bare chipboard floors, massive holes in the walls, a mouldy bathroom with no shower, dodgy stairs and a loo that sometimes regurgitates its belongings up the bowl!!! I need to make a sign saying "Please be modest with your 3 P's", warning people not to put too much pee, poo or paper down the loo. It's terrifying. I am sleeping on a mattress on the floor even though I have a new bed leaning against the bedroom wall because it seems redundant to construct the bed when I will have to deconstruct it again when the floors are done. I can't unpack anything either because I will simply have to pack up again when the painting starts and that seems ridiculous.

But my week of firsts has been very very rewarding and it still continues. I have gardeners here today for the first time, cutting back my first ever wisteria, a job that needed professionals as it had been left for 15 years to grow wild and resembles an intricate 8 foot high web of 5 inch thick branches that span the length of the cottage and the 20 feet of wall beyond. There is beautiful old stone behind it apparently, which I can't wait to see. Later, the gardener Sophie has promised to show me how to prune the roses, another first for me. And later still, I will be going to my first ever Owl life-drawing class. Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds but that's Frome for you, a town I'm discovering is full of the wild and wonderful, the beautiful and the bizarre!

I am turning 50 this year, and as exhausting and challenging as the last 2 years have been, mentally and physically, I also know that I might never have had the chance to do certain things the way I have, had I not been ill. It's forced me to slow down and appreciate things. It has shown me that a little can mean much more than a lot, and that the smallest act of kindness from a friend, new or old, can mean the world. I am never too old to do things for the first time and I hope to have a lot more firsts for years to come.



Tuesday, 9 January 2018

My home... the money pit.

Yes it's official, my new cottage is a money pit. I was aware of many of the problems when I had my survey done. They were duly pointed out to the (then) owner of the property and the price was reduced accordingly. However, no one ever prepares you for the hidden problems. The ones that show their faces only when you have already spent a fortune fixing a previous problem. I call this the chain of crappy events, if you will.

When I first moved into the property at the beginning of November, the first thing my plumber suggested was that I buy a Carbon Monoxide Alarm so I wouldn't, "Pop my clogs the first night!". He had basically condemned the current 30 year old boiler and unless I wanted to, "Freeze my tits off," with the heating off, then it was a good idea to monitor the toxic fumes it was emitting. Great. Instead of just buying a replacement boiler, I decided to spend a bit more money, free up the space on my kitchen wall where the old boiler was sticking out like a sore ugly bulbous thumb, and move it upstairs and into the cupboard where the old water tank had been. Before they could move the boiler, the electrician was summoned to check the wiring in the bathroom cupboard to make sure it would work, and there he discovered that the electric shower and lights were arcing and smoking every time they were turned on. All the wiring was burnt out in the cavity wall and up into the attic, a blackened mess of melted plastic, wires and wood. He was amazed it hadn't started a fire! Upon further investigation, he explained that the whole house was a bit "dodgy" and basically cut off my supply until he could return! So what started as a simple process of moving the boiler, resulted in a complete re-wiring of the kitchen, hall, bathroom and upstairs cupboard, the shower was thrown into the tip and now I have a gigantic hole through the bathroom wall and in the ceiling. And no shower. Hurrah.

What the plumber also failed to mention was that he'd re-directed the external gas pipe from the kitchen up to the bathroom, so where I had been excited to get a gas cooker re-connected, I now have to have an electric one. He's also, very kindly, left the gas pipe in the kitchen as an annoying reminder of what could have been, sitting there, completely useless, giving me the V-sign, and I now have to find someone to cut it off the wall! The plumber has also left a bloody great hole in the kitchen wall through to the external wall, where the boiler was, and has only filled it with a few bricks and some rough cement, so "I don't get the rain coming in" which means I now have to get a builder to re-plaster the wall. 

And this is where my builder enters the scene. His name is Tim. I can mention his name because I doubt very much I will be sending him this blog, nor will he see it on Facebook as he will never be a Facebook friend! I really like Tim but he seems to bring calamity with him. I first contacted him when I discovered he was the same builder who'd put up a partition wall in the house about 15 years ago, and thought he'd be the perfect person to take it down again. He was very obliging, removed the wall in half a day and only charged me a £100 cash. As he seemed to be the perfect man to do all the other jobs I needed, I hired him on the spot. We agreed he would work for cash and fit my jobs in when he could. That meant turning up willy nilly after he'd finished his normal days work... he even arrived on a Saturday morning at 8am once, which I was slightly less pleased about, as were my neighbours!! 

The first thing Tim did for me was to remove all my skirting boards. I needed this done because I had arranged for beautiful, achingly expensive, oak wood floors to be laid throughout the downstairs. The reason I needed achingly expensive wood floors laid was because I had asked the previous owners to remove all the carpets. I had requested the removal of the carpets because there were signs of carpet moths, and as anyone that's had carpet moths knows, once you've got them, it is very hard to get rid of them. But I was quite happy because I naively thought that even though the cottage was built in the early 80's, there might be some lovely old floorboards lurking underneath which I could buff up or paint. Of course there weren't!! Downstairs were concrete floors and upstairs were chipboard. So my new plan was to put oak flooring in downstairs and replace the carpets (with anti-moth ones) upstairs. If you haven't had oak wood floors installed in your home then you might be surprised to learn how costly they are. Let's just say that I could have bought a secondhand car and gone on holiday for 2 weeks to the Caribbean with that sort of money. 

Tim began removing the skirting boards and it was only when I heard him say, "Oops" a few times that I thought I should have a look. The skirting board was coming off fine but it was also taking half the wall with it. He casually remarked, "Bloody hell, it's like sandstone!" which wasn't helpful. He also said it wouldn't be a problem because he would just fill the holes and re-plaster after the wood floor was laid. If that sounds a bit backwards, it is. The floor should always be the last thing to do when you're renovating so it doesn't get damaged, but I had no choice. The wood floor guys could only fit me in to their hectic schedule because of a cancellation, otherwise I would have had to wait until March! And I couldn't bear another 3 months of concrete floors because it was kicking up horrible dust and was freezing cold to walk on, so needs must. Just as Tim was leaving he looked back at the floor and said, "Hmm, that's weird." Oh no. He had noticed that where the partition wall had been removed – between the kitchen and the living room – the floor seemed to rise up in the middle. He laid his spirit level down and saw that indeed, the floor was not level. You can't lay a wood floor on to uneven flooring so the next day Tim retuned with a jack hammer and a mate of his, and they began digging up the floor in order to re-level it with compound. The noise was so horrific that my neighbour from 3 houses away came round to complain!

With the skirting removed and the concrete floor now level, the wood floor guy came to do his part. Three days later it was finished and looked stunning. Beautiful wide planks of oak with a matte oil finish. Of course, even though I was over the moon with it, paranoia kicked in whenever someone came to visit. Could I ask complete strangers to take their shoes off? Amazingly, I didn't even have to ask... every builder, decorator and carpenter immediately removed their boots and wandered around in their socks. But after about a week, I noticed a strange creaking in the middle of the kitchen floor and one plank in particular seemed to see-saw from one end to the other. I filmed it and sent it to the floor guys. They didn't seem too worried and said, "Oh that's fine, it happens sometimes, we'll come back and fix it in 3 weeks." Three weeks!!! But I knew they were busy, I said it was fine, and spent the next 3 weeks tiptoeing around the area in case I made it worse. They did come back and they did fix it, so the next thing was to put the skirting boards back on. Of course, because of the hold-up fixing the floor, everyone else in the renovation chain was now put back and I had to wait until after Christmas for work to progress again. 

In the meantime, I launched myself into the January sales and managed to buy a washing machine, cooker, extractor fan and fridge/freezer for under £900, saving myself £350... bargain! Or so I thought. Stupidly, I had to forgotten to take the additional height of the 3cm wood floor into consideration when ordering my washing machine, and realised, with horror, that it would no longer fit under the countertop. Oh God. My builder suggested cutting out a section of wood floor and sitting the washing machine into the hole, which sounded awful. The carpenter suggested raising the height of the kitchen counter by 3cm because I was, "tall for a woman" and it, "might stop you getting back ache when cooking and washing up!" Thanks for that Mr. Carpenter. I am now waiting for the washing machine to be delivered this week and hoping for a miracle. Perhaps the manufacturers measured it wrong and it will fit just fine, if not, then my savings of £350 will be spent on raising my counter tops! And I can't even plug my cooker or fridge in until the other work has been done!

As I am writing this, my builder Tim is downstairs and re-attaching the skirting boards. He is also filling the holes in the wall created by him pulling off the original skirting boards and the plumber removing the boiler. Tim is a good builder but with a short attention span. His love of tea breaks, fag breaks and talking means he frequently forgets what he is doing and it's then my job to go round the house at the end of the day and point out where a nail is missing or a hole hasn't been filled. On careful observation I have noticed that he simply cannot talk and work at the same time. I have always known men to be a little rubbish at multi-tasking but Tim takes it to a whole new level. Even if I ask him if he wants a cup of tea, he has to lay down his tools, scratch his head, and then give me an answer. He cannot just say, "yes please" and keep working. Thank God he charges by the job and not by the hour otherwise I'd be broke.

Tim also loves to tell stories, usually about other workmen or local residents, so is a proper little village gossip. He's a natural performer with a wonderful lilting Somerset accent, a deep tobacco-tinged voice and the ability to keep his audience (me) on the edge on my seat! But as soon as he starts talking I know he won't be able to keep working so I sigh, take a seat and listen. He tells me about things he's witnessed on building sites and in client's homes, from botched jobs to dead bodies to affairs, but the best story (today) was about a Curry's delivery driver he knows. Not the best story to tell me when I'm actually waiting for a Curry's delivery, but it's a good one. According to Tim, it is common practice amongst delivery drivers to damage items themselves, so they don't have to deliver them... especially late in the day. He told me of a guy he knew who was supposed to deliver a big American-style fridge to a large house in the middle of the countryside. It was dark and rainy Friday afternoon. The driver was tired and knew it would take at least another hour to get to the address which meant he wouldn't get to the pub until late, so he tipped the fridge off the back of the lorry, rang the depot telling them the fridge was damaged and that he would have to deliver a replacement the following week, then reloaded the fridge on to his lorry and went to the pub!!

I love Tim and his storytelling but I also can't wait for him, nor all the other workmen, to leave. I'm so sick of cleaning and dusting and generally living in a building site. I have never made so many cups of tea in my life nor bought so many packets of biscuits. I am fed up of putting the toilet seat down and always being cheerful when they show up at all hours of the day. I adore male company but my God they are irritating! I have been camped out in one room upstairs for 2 months, sleeping on a mattress with everything I own still in boxes... and the list of things to do for some strange reason, keeps getting longer not shorter. With very little money left, I might have to try Crowdfunding because I have no idea how I'm going to pay for all this: Decorating the house, carpeting the upstairs, buying new interior doors, replacing the front door, buying new blinds and curtains, putting up shelves, buying a bed, installing a shower, re-tiling the bathroom, replacing 3 velux windows, mending the porch and fitting a downstairs loo. And that's just the inside, don't get me started on the garden! 

I love love love my new home and everyone keeps telling me to be patient, that it will be worth it in the end... but what is a home unless you can have your loved ones round for dinner, to hang out or to stay the night? I'm hoping that by Spring I can at least have a few friends round for a meal, so please form an orderly queue, and maybe bring a paintbrush and some cash with you.


Friday, 22 December 2017

2017 in numbers

My year...
4 months living at my parent's house, plus the whole previous year of course (thanks M & D)
12 visits to Airbnb's
4 nights in Premier Inns
7 months living at my friend Katie's cottage (eek, thanks Katie)
4 mice caught while living in Katie's cottage
9 months house-hunting in Somerset
19 properties viewed and rejected
2 visits to new cottage before putting in an offer
9 weeks from initial offer to moving in
6 weeks living in my new cottage in Frome (hurrah)
4 other terraced cottages in my row
1 converted mill on my road
4 big Georgian houses on my road
1 bigger Georgian manor house on my road (with swimming pool to boot... hello neighbours!)
2 Dachshunds, 1 Schnauzer and a King Charles Spaniel living on my road
7 visits from neighbours since moving in
3 weeks waiting for internet to be connected (BT... what a surprise!)
2 days having my electrics re-wired
2 days having my plumbing sorted out and new boiler installed
1 week waiting for plumber to come back and fix strange noises coming from new pipes
3 days having my oak wood floor laid
3 weeks waiting for oak wood floor man to come back and fix oak wood floor
8 visits from builder
1 wall removed
1 visit from decorator (eye-watering quote only)
3 visits from carpet fitter (sample books only)
1 visit from landscape gardener (to talk about fences)
2 hours carpenter spent fixing rickety stairs
2 more visits from carpenter (to discuss my designs for shelving and other odd jobs)
30 minutes carpenter took to explain he was now unavailable to do the work for me
2 hours spent sulking after visit from carpenter
9 different white vans parked outside my cottage (on different occasion I hasten to add)
50 cups of tea made for workmen (at least)
8 packets of biscuits consumed by workmen (at least)
13 boxes, 2 suitcases and 5 bin bags left to unpack
1 week spent in Wales, writing my book, on my own
2 weeks spent in Thailand, on holiday, with girlfriends
5 birthday parties attended
8 drinks parties attended
5 BBQ parties attended
7 dinner parties attended
23 new friends made
12 visits to the theatre (3 in London, 4 in Bristol, 3 in Bath, 2 open-air in Somerset)
38 visits to pubs and restaurants
21 films watched at Babington House (blimey)
1 drive-in film watched at Babington House
11 creative workshops attended at Babington House
8 people (at least) who have got bored of me talking about Babington House
23 books read
14 blogs written
3 trips to the seaside
5 months ill with Rheumatoid Arthritis (hideous)
3 months not working because of Rheumatoid Arthritis (even more hideous)
5 visits to Rheumatologist
3 visits to Occupational Therapist
7 visits to Physiotherapist
12 visits to GP
3 visits to knee surgeon in London
14 blood tests taken
1 visit to Dentist
7 visits to Acupuncturist
12 visits to Pilates rehab
1 foam roller class attended
3 meditation classes attended
101 consecutive days spent doing at least 20 minutes meditation
24 pills taken daily (holy moly!)
3 hair cuts (not enough)
2 manicures
3 massages
12 Congratulations on your new home cards received
18 Christmas cards received
1 Nativity play attended
2 Carol services attended
17 presents wrapped
107 minutes spent writing this blog
12 words and 1 letter to say: Have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year, love Jules x



Monday, 11 December 2017

Home.

The last 9 months of house hunting has taken its toll on me mentally and physically. I began looking at properties armed with a huge checklist, great expectations and oodles of enthusiasm but as the months passed and I saw nothing I liked or could afford, I grew weary. My priority list got shorter, my patience dwindled and I began to dread looking at property websites. The butterflies in my stomach stopped fluttering when I answered the phone to estate agents and I began to ignore the "For Sale" signs as I drove around Frome. I was down in the dumps.

So, when I first viewed the property I have now bought, a cottage that was way above my price range and didn't have many of the things on my checklist but was, very importantly, in one of the most beautiful areas of Frome, I didn't hold out much hope. But as soon as I walked through the door it felt good. It had prospects. It was hideously decorated, had terrible light and was in need of a lot of TLC but I knew I could make it beautiful. So I made a ridiculous offer, £20,000 under the asking price and crossed my fingers. My position helped... I had nothing to sell, all my stuff was in storage, I was renting a room at a friend's house, I had a large cash deposit and I had a pre-approved mortgage, so I could potentially move really fast. And that's exactly what the sellers wanted. After a nerve racking 24 hours wait, they said yes.



It took only 10 weeks from my initial offer to me moving in on November 10th, an incredibly short period of time that surprised even the estate agents. My brilliant solicitor discovered a number of shortcuts, from paying Mendip Council a private fee to speed up paperwork (£30), to getting cancelled appointments for surveys and buttering up my mortgage provider, so I was moving in before I had time to catch my breath. By then, of course, I had been living with this damn Rheumatoid Arthritis for 3 months and was finding everything very difficult. Having no energy and in pain all the time makes a somewhat stressful period even more so and the hardest thing for me was relinquishing control and asking for help!!

My sister and I were brought up to be resourceful, practical and independent women... my parents wouldn't let us leave home until we were capable of at least changing a tyre, unblocking a loo, re-wiring a plug, painting a wall, building a fire, reading a map and working out our finances so I have always managed to do things on my own and have not had to rely on anyone to help with day-to-day things. 49 years later and I am physically unable to do anything that requires lifting, carrying, hammering or screwing, so I had to get friends, family and removal men to move me in and shift things around the house, I've had to get builders in to knock down walls and rip up flooring and I will have to get decorators in to help me paint the house. It's terribly frustrating because I'd usually be doing all that stuff myself and now I have to stand around and watch someone else do it. Arghhh. I never knew I was such a control freak!

Thank goodness I have had recommendations for all the amazing workmen I am using and they have been brilliant. One friend who lives four houses away has pretty much imparted her whole tradesman database to me, from tree surgeons to wood floor specialists. Thank you Lizzie! Frome is a small market town with a large community spirit and many passersby have stuck their heads round my open front door or peered through my window to: A, have a good nose or B, offer opinions, suggestions or impart local knowledge. After the first few days, I had already met almost all of the neighbours on my road and have been round for coffee to a fair few. 

My small stone-fronted cottage is at the end of a row of 5, halfway down a narrow lane flanked by dry-stone walls. Although it was only built in the early 80's, which is certainly not very old for this part of town, its clever design means it blends in well with the surrounding Georgian houses and converted wool mills. Location is everything too, and being in a conservation area means nothing hideous can be built and no additions or alterations made without strict consent. It is a beautiful spot... I overlook several grand Grade II listed houses so my views aren't bad, and it's a quiet too, most of the time, which as my family and friends well know, is high on my list of priorities. The only times it's not that quiet is first thing in the morning when kids are going to school and dogs are having their first walk of the day, and in the afternoon when kids are being picked up. As my road is a cut through for foot traffic it can get a little boisterous. At the back, the gardens are mostly walled which is very pretty to look at but which can also amplify noise upwards and outwards, so again, at times it sounds like a distant barking dog is actually in my garden but I can't say I wasn't warned... many months ago I was told that if I didn't like children or dogs, then I shouldn't move to Frome! Fair enough.

After 4 weeks, I am still camped out in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. I haven't been able to unpack because there is still a fair amount of dust and chaos. There is still dust and chaos because the floor was bare cement until last week and had to be levelled, a wall had to be knocked down and a boiler had to be removed. I can't unpack more than immediate necessities because I have to decorate and that means trying to keep everything covered and only moving it from room to room as one gets finished. I need to re-plaster some walls and ceilings, put in a new downstairs loo and sink, put in a new upstairs loo and sink, re-tile the bathroom, install a shower, replace 3 windows and 3 doors, and then decorate. And only when I have decorated can I lastly, but not leastly, lay new carpets on the stairs and upstairs. Phew. 

Of course I need furniture too. All that remains from my London flat is my mattress, a chest of drawers, a sofa and a bookcase. I also need a cooker, a fridge and a washing machine and this would all be fine and do-able if I had the money to pay for it all, but again, due to this buggery Rheumatoid Arthritis, I haven't been able to work, therefore I haven't been able to earn money and so I can't pay for anything but the immediate and the crucial. I considered heat and a floor to be essentials so the rest is on hold. Even my amazing builder agreed to work cheaper for cash but he can only squeeze me in between his other more important and better paid jobs. So I sit and look around me and have an every-growing list of things I could and should do, but when I attempt to do them, get beaten back by the pain. Or I work through the pain and then can't move the following day. Neither is a good option.

But I will get there. My cottage will be finished eventually and my doctors will find a drug that works. I am forever hopeful and I suppose that's all that matters. It goes without saying that once I do have both these things figured out, I will then be able to invite my friends and family to stay. I miss having people in my home, laughing, chatting, eating and drinking, because that's what keeps me sane. I love entertaining and I love hosting so not being able to that right now is frustrating. But keep your diaries free for Spring 2018... hopefully by then my body will be fixed and my home will be open.



Monday, 16 October 2017

Beds, bugs and Bruno.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, last week I found myself with nowhere to stay. For the last few months I have been living with a friend in her gorgeous cottage in Somerset but as her boyfriend was coming to stay, we agreed I would vacate the premises for the week while he was here. I had arranged to visit friends and family in Yorkshire and Cumbria but at the last minute I had to stay in the area rather than head up north, and suddenly realised I was a bit stuck.

I am quite used to scrabbling around trying to find places to stay while I've been house-hunting. Over the last year I have stayed in practically every Airbnb, B&B and Pub in Bristol, Bath and Frome. Some have been more expensive than others because they've been conveniently positioned to wherever I've been working, others have just been cheap. But I have never had to find somewhere with only a few hours notice that would be ok to stay in when ill. My RA has been particularly hard to deal with because of the chronic fatigue, nausea and pain... it leaves me utterly incapable of doing anything for more than a few hours and I have spent much of the last 8 weeks in bed. My lovely cousin had offered me a bed but her household had come down with flu and because my medication lowers my immune system, that was out of the question. So it was a tricky one. I could hardly ring up some of my newer friends in the area and ask to stay when I would have immediately turned up at their house, said hello, and then needed to sleep. Not the most social of things to do. I also needed to be close to Frome because of some appointments so it narrowed my search somewhat. After some panic googling, I found a place near Shepton Mallet, a town I have subsequently learnt is referred to as 'Shit and Smell it' by locals as it is often said to be one of Britain's worst places to live. No wonder the pub I found had rooms available.

For £35 a night I was offered a double room with ensuite bathroom and breakfast was included. Now I have never stayed anywhere that cheap that wasn't utterly horrific. It didn't disappoint. The pub itself was next to one of the areas busiest roads and in order for the guests not to be kept awake by the constant stream of traffic, the windows were painted shut. It made no difference, in fact, because there was also the constant hum of the kitchen extractor fan just below the bedroom window, extracting, by the smell of it, old cooking oil. I also found myself being jolted out of bed every 5 minutes by a loud hollow bang that reverberated around the room and made the bed shake. I discovered what was making this loud bang when I bravely entered the main bar downstairs, a few hours later.

There was only one man working in the pub, who seemed to be responsible for not only manning the front desk but also serving drinks, taking food orders, and probably cooking the food itself. I use the term 'food' loosely. The extensive menu (4 pages, large bold type) consisted of things that had once been frozen and would now be fried... Chicken and Chips, Fish and Chips, Chicken nuggets and Chips, Fishcake and Chips, Deep fried Camembert, Deep fried Prawns... you get the idea. In fact, the only thing on the menu that wasn't going to be engorged in boiling vegetable oil was Sausage and Mash, so that's what I ordered, careful to request that my sausages be cremated (I didn't want to risk food poisoning on top of everything else!). Were there any vegetables I asked? The man frowned and said, "Well it comes with mash". O-kay. What worried me was the speed in which my meal arrived. Yes, I was the only one in the pub, but still, to cook sausages from scratch in under a minute was a bit of a concern. Maybe they too had been fried. The sausages did not taste like any kind of meat I'd ever had before and the mash, well it took me back to my school days... watery, cold, lumpy and drowned in lukewarm gloop that I guessed was gravy. It was utterly revolting but at the eye-waterning price of £10.95, I felt obliged to at least have a few bites. I could hardly complain and send it back because it really wasn't that kind of place. It would have been replaced with something equally horrific anyway!

I did discover from the receptionist/barman/cook what the banging noise was, however. "Oh, your room is above the men's toilet," he said. "It's the door banging every time someone goes in for a pee". Oh how lovely. "But it bangs every few minutes," I said, "and there doesn't seem to be anyone else here but you and I." "There's everyone in the kitchen," he replied, gesturing to the door with his thumb. Everyone in the kitchen. Surely everyone implies quite a few people. What on earth were they doing in there? Certainly not preparing gastronomic delights for everyone in the pub!

My night was not spent sleeping. I had become used to the traffic noise and once everyone in the kitchen had left for the night, the banging loo door also stopped but what kept me awake were two things; The stifling heat and the motion sensor light outside. The heating was kept on high throughout the night and as anyone knows from staying in a cheap hotel, the sheets were also cheap, which meant polyester, which meant sweaty. I couldn't open the windows so lay there suffocating. Then there was the incredibly bright motion sensor floodlight that was triggered every few minutes and invaded the room like a spaceship, glowing menacingly through the very insubstantial paper-thin curtains. It meant that there were either creepy Shepton Mallet low-lives walking around, about to break in and attack me, or there were wild animals! Listen, I was ill and sleep deprived so my imagination was slightly overactive. The lights also attracted a myriad of giant moths and insects which hit the window with such ferocity, I thought they would break the glass.

Safe to say, I felt and looked much worse in the morning than when I had arrived, but I was hungry, needed to force down a bit of breakfast so I could take all my medications, and only then could I try and sleep again. Breakfast was served between 7am and 8am, an incomprehensible time slot that definitely did not appear to be designed for the average tourist or holiday maker. And guess what... that's exactly what was not in the breakfast room (I say breakfast room... it was in fact the same room I'd eaten in the night before). Four of the tables were occupied with pairs of big burly men in workwear. I don't mean that in any derogatory manner, it's just a fact. Overalls, boiler suits and jeans, covered in an array of paint, plaster, earth and god knows what else. They all stared at me as I staggered over to a vacant table... not in an appreciative "Ooh it's a woman," type of way, more of a "Jesus, what has the cat dragged in!" kind of way. I was not looking my best. Matted hair scrunched into a topknot, dark circles under my bloodshot eyes and a deathly pallor that normally would have put the average person off their hearty breakfast, but not these chaps. A cursory glance and they went back to shovelling great forkfuls of baked beans, fried eggs and sausages (probably mine from the night before) into their mouths! But where had they all come from? They certainly weren't here the night before... or maybe they were, and had been the ones triggering the light through the night. I didn't really care to be honest, I just needed food. There was only one thing on offer, a Full English, which didn't surprise me because it's fried after all. I managed a few mouthfuls of molten lava-hot beans and a few bites of burnt cold toast before the queasiness took over and I departed as quickly as I'd arrived. I headed for my room, collapsed on the bed and amazingly managed to sleep for the rest of the day. And then, even more amazingly, I slept through the night.

It's a fantastic feeling to wake up and feel better. Well, not better better, but I had managed to sleep on and off for more than 18 hours and the never-ending fatigue had suddenly lifted slightly. But I knew I couldn't do it for another night, not with the prospect of banging door, the bright light, the heat and disgusting food, so I decided to go upmarket (upmarket meaning anywhere but here) and booked myself into a Travelodge. Basic, clean, quiet. The only slightly off-putting thing when I checked in were the two ambulances parked outside the front entrance. I asked the receptionist what was going on and she just pulled a sad face. Oh God. She handed me a key, then took it back, pulled another face and scratched her head. "I'll put you on the top floor, right at the end of the corridor so you won't hear anything." Oh God. I walked to the room trying not to imagine what on earth was going on elsewhere in the hotel, and just to be on the safe side, dug out some old fluff-covered earplugs, drew the curtains and fell asleep. I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything, and I didn't feel anything.

I left the next morning feeling a little more revived but halfway to Frome, realised I had left my hot water bottle in the bed. Now I don't care about the rubber hot water bottle itself, it is the hot water bottle cover that I care about. It is a very old, very shabby-looking, brown, furry, hot water bottle cover that all my friends know about because it has traveled with me for the last 20 years. His name is Bruno and he is a dog. Even boyfriends have had to fight Bruno for space in my bed, sometimes a little bewildered when a foot meets fur instead of skin. Bruno is there all year round you see, through spring, summer, autumn and winter and I don't care who knows it. But now I had left him behind and wasn't going to be back in the area for a few days. My Mother urged me to call the Travelodge and get them to keep him safe for me. I felt a little idiotic but I rang and spoke to the same receptionist who had checked me in the previous day. "Yessss, we found it," she said laughing, "But the cleaner had quite a fright when she stripped the bed. She didn't know what it was." "Yes, that's happened to me before," I said, remembering similar scenarios. "But then again," I added, "You must have had weirder things left behind." "Oh my God yes," she said, "But we don't talk about those!" I laughed and then remembered the ambulances. "Was everything ok with whoever was ill by the way? The ambulances?" There was a slight pause, and then she said, "What ambulances?" I guess they don't talk about those either!


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Hidden Illnesses

Over the years I have had a lot of different illnesses and operations, and I've noticed that people react very differently to ones that are obvious or visible, like a knee replacement or a bug that might leave you pale and sickly-looking, and those that are invisible, such as depression or something affecting your insides. The hidden illnesses may not leave physical scars or change the way you look but they can be far more debilitating and have more of an impact on both your daily and future life.

I have many physical scars from surgeries but I also have the physical memories of get well cards, letter and emails. The hidden illnesses certainly don't get the same level of attention and I think it's mainly because they aren't obvious and therefore probably not talked about as much. Unless you walk around with a sign most people are oblivious.

I was diagnosed with severe autoimmune disease 8 weeks ago, a hard-core, life-sapping illness, often referred to as Rheumatoid Arthritis. It is not, as many people think, quite the same things as having a few swollen joints after eating spicy food, or having a crooked finger or toe. When it is severe, it is a chronic and progressive disease that causes inflammation throughout the whole body. Yes, it affects the joints and is incredibly painful but the reason it can be so debilitating is that your own body's immune system starts attacking itself. A normal immune system attacks outside invaders in the body but due to a bizarre re-wiring, the immune systems of people with RA fight themselves, which is a bit silly, and a bit crap.

A few months ago I woke up with a shooting pain in my right hand and wrist. It was very swollen and hot to the touch and I couldn't move it without screaming in pain. I thought back to what I'd done the previous day and realised I had attempted a bizarre new manoeuvre in my Pilates class and hung upside down on a trapeze for several minutes, alternately gripping the bar with my hands or feet... I thought maybe I had ruptured some tendons. I took myself off to A&E, they took an x-ray and agreed that as nothing was fractured, then it must be torn tendons. On with a soft cast, and 2 weeks later, a visit to my GP. My GP was puzzled. She didn't think it was tendons. In fact, she didn't think it was anything that I'd done physically and immediately sent me off for blood tests. A few days later she rang and told me to come and see her. I made an appointment and she very slowly explained what the blood tests had revealed. Acute Rheumatoid Arthritis. I, like many people, thought that Rheumatoid Arthritis was a few painful joints and I simply shrugged it off, thinking it would get better in a while.

I remember my father suffering from RA around the same age when we lived in America, and he had been treated, very successfully, with gold injections! I had never talked to him about it at great length because I had been away at University and by the time I was back, his symptoms had almost disappeared. He never spoke of the initial diagnosis and how it had affected him. My mother never spoke of the months spent helping my father get dressed because the pain was so awful. My sister never told me how shocked she had been, seeing my father bent and crooked and walking with a stick, aged 50. I was oblivious to it all, until now.

Unfortunately, the gold injections my father had are not the most common form of treatment used nowadays (as you can imagine) but as Rheumatoid Arthritis has no cure, it is one of the most heavily funded and researched illnesses. As a result, there are many ways for it to be treated with different drug therapies. You are never actually cured of the disease but most people do go through stages of remission and can have years where the disease lies dormant. The first 3-6 months are the worst I am told. The Rheumatoid specialist I saw a week after my initial diagnosis was very clear about that. Be prepared because it spreads through the body like an out-of-control wildfire, getting much worse before it gets better. It swells your joints and heats your body and feels like flu most of the time. A dull ache in the bones, an ever-present roaring headache, nausea and dizziness and a chronic fatigue I never thought possible. Without doubt, I have never felt so ill in my life. But it is hidden in my body, and apart from the lumps on my wrists, the puffy hands and knees, a bit of a limp and the red flush from the steroids, I look fine. Tired but fine. Rosy cheeked but fine. And because I look fine, most people think I'm fine.

I haven't been able to work for 4 weeks now. My doctor said I should stop working for 3 months but as a self-employed designer that is simply impossible. If I don't work, I don't get paid. If I don't get paid for a period of time, then my whole life falls apart. Initially, I thought I could strap up my hands like a boxer and carry on as normal but this illness has caught me by surprise. The exhaustion is overwhelming. By the time I have showered and dressed (very slowly using my left hand only), I feel as if I haven't slept for a week. Many mornings, I have barely been able to get out of bed as the pain soars through my body. Some days I can't move my fingers and other days I can't move my hands and some days I spend the morning with my head in the toilet bowl. My wrists are in soft casts much of the time, so I don't accidentally bend them and cause torturous lighting bolts to shoot up my arms and down my fingers. I have an additional complication and that is Sjogren's disease, an irritating infliction which causes extreme dry mouth and dry eyes. I hate it, and hate that if I don't constantly chew gum or suck a sweet or have a litre of water at my side, my mouth feels like a desert and my eyes itch and burn.

The pills are a work in progress too. I have no idea at this point whether the numerous medications are causing ill effects or it is the disease itself. The side effects, from what is essentially a low dose of chemotherapy, are horrendous... mostly nausea but with the added fun of vertigo and ringing ears, something that I can only associate with clubbing in London! It's impossible to try and describe how all this feels to someone that has no experience of it, and I hate myself when I text friends and moan about how shit I feel. Poor me poor me is one of the traits I despise but if someone asks me how I feel, I can't lie about it. The worst things is having to try and do anything for myself when my left hand is the only functioning one. And I am not left handed. I can no longer clean my teeth, brush my hair, pull up my jeans, do up buttons or make food with my right hand. I cannot grip you see. So imagine how long things take. I end up with toothpaste by my ear, my hair in knots and my shirts skewiff. It's ridiculous. And apart from people who have damaged their wrists, fingers or hands in the past, the only people that can relate to this are other RA sufferers.

I was advised to join an RA community online by my rheumatologist. Not only are there thousand of people that have gone through, or are going through the same thing but they can offer support, suggestions and advice that you might not get elsewhere. My family have been amazing which goes without saying and I truly cannot thank my mother and father enough for their hospitality and the offer of a bed and love whenever necessary. But the timing is shite. I am in a new chapter of my life, working for new clients and meeting new friends in Somerset and it really isn't the easiest of things to explain. I have had to cancel bookings and nights out, weekends away and dinner parties. I meet new people and wince when they shake my hand. I go to the cinema and can barely keep my eyes open. I try to go swimming and can't swim... treading water for half and hour like an idiot because I can't use my hands. I do get peculiar looks I must say. Some friends have been amazing, always there, always asking, always offering and always there at the end of the phone. Some have gone beyond... offering beds, bringing round food and books and cards. And others have problems of their own, their own health to look after, their own pain, their own suffering, and we trade paragraphs of support and  love via our phones.

Let's just hope things start to improve. It has been 8 weeks so far and the latest blood tests aren't so good. Worse inflammation, worse pain, worse. I have been at my parents house for a few days each week, and know I can relax here without worrying too much. I'm not asking for sympathy or even empathy, I'm simply asking for understanding.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Humming

I surprised myself by humming this morning. I literally stopped in my tracks when I heard the slightly tuneless noise being expelled from my lips and thought, how interesting, I can't remember the last time that happened.

I equate mindless humming or singing in the morning with being happy. I was so surprised by it happening to me because for the last few years I have woken most mornings in pain and the first thing that enters my head is how many pills I have to swallow. The next thoughts are where I'm working, how far I have to drive, or the endless quest to find a home.

So, why was I suddenly humming? My circumstances haven't changed but there is something I've been doing for the last 2 weeks, upon waking, that seems to have completely altered my early morning mood. Meditation. Ok, I know what you are thinking... another person banging on about finding inner peace, omm-ing their way through life without a care in the world but I swear to God, it's the only thing I can put my altered mood down to.

I've tried meditation before without much success. When I was in Sri Lanka in 2004, I sat for an hour every afternoon with a local Buddhist monk from the village. I desperately tried to sit still, to stop my mind from wandering, and every single day I would get utterly bored and frustrated after about 10 minutes. I would get distracted by anything invading my senses... a dog barking in the distance, the shouts of the fishermen, the smell of cooking, wind blowing my hair in the wrong direction, even an ant crawling across my toe. I remember twitching my toe to get rid of it and it just kept crawling higher up my foot. I opened one eye to spot it and kill it, only to find the monk staring calmly at me, sightly shaking his head. I squeezed my eyes shut again and let the pesky ant continue its journey until I could bear it no longer and shot my leg out, shaking my trouser leg with a squeal. The monk did nothing. He sat there is such a state of focused bliss that I wondered what it would take to make him react. How did he do it, hour after hour?

A few years later I went to a meditation class in London. A group of about a dozen of us sat cross-legged facing a statue of Buddha, with some lit candles and an incense stick burning. I was fine for the first 5 minutes, focusing on my breathing and feeling quite calm. Then I got annoyed by the smell of the incense... it was too strong. The background music of chimes was increasingly irritating and the woman next to me was breathing so loudly it sounded as if she was gong into labour. No this wasn't going to work. My mind was too restless, I had too many things to think about, and once again I gave up.

In recent years, mindfulness has taken over from meditation as the thing to do. But it really is a clever re-brand of an ancient practise. The only difference really is that mindfulness can be practised anywhere at any time. It is simply being aware, being in the moment. You can practise mindfulness drinking a cup of tea, for instance. Instead of having a couple of sips whilst thinking about what you have to do next or what plans you have for the following day, simply focus on drinking the tea... the smell of the tea, the taste of each mouthful, the sensation of the warm liquid in your mouth, of swallowing the tea. Many people have moments of mindfulness when they taste something utterly delicious and have that Mmmm moment when all your senses are heightened by the taste. It sounds ridiculous but that is what mindfulness is about. Taking a minute to just be in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of meditation therefore. Meditation being the ultimate practise of being able to calm the mind, slow the breathing and concentrate.

So I began trying to be more mindful, to focus on the things I was doing, rather than letting my mind race all the time. Going for a walk and not talking, eating and really tasting the food, slowing everything down. And then I was told about an app for the phone that did guided meditations. You didn't have to sit for an hour in total silence, you could listen and be guided into different forms of meditation to help you keep focused, which I have to say, sounded a bit more like it.

So for the last 2 weeks I have been listening to a different guided meditation each day, for at least 20 minutes, as soon as I wake up. I do not leap out of bed and thrown myself into a lotus position on the floor, I simply rest my phone on my chest and lay perfectly still. The app is called Insight Timer and is a global community of experts with over 12,000 meditations. I do have my favourites already because there is nothing more annoying and distracting than a voice suddenly telling you what to do if they have a horrible speaking voice. So that is number one for me. A lovely calm voice. Secondly, I like ones that focus on breathing. As soon as you slow your breathing down, the effect on your stress levels is overwhelming. I also like visualisation ones although some I've listened to end up making me laugh. There was one I tried a few days ago, where you imagine yourself on a white sandy beach, waves lapping at your feet. That was fine, nice slow breathing to the sound of waves. But then suddenly she told me to get into a boat and float over to a deserted island, to get out of the boat, find a path and walk through a rainforest. In the rainforest was a clearing with a pool of deep water. She told me to take my clothes off and get into the pool of water. And then I started giggling. Of course my brain could not ignore the questions that came into my head... were there sharks in the water? How did the boat know how to get to the island? What if it missed the island on a weird current and floated out to sea instead? Who else was on the island and could they now all see me naked?

So, you see, not every single one does the trick of calming and focusing but I'm very much enjoying experimenting. The latest one, that I did this morning, involved me picturing bright balls of light, zooming and spinning around my body. That was quite nice. I actually felt a tingling sensation for at least half an hour afterwards... but that might have been my new medication instead!!